Native Excavating installed 2,265 linear feet of 24-inch sewer pipe and eight manholes this year alone. Excluding lateral connections, about 71% of the main sewer line is complete and the crews are about one week ahead of schedule. Crews will install service connections into the new sewer main while abandoning the existing main, then they’ll test and inspect the new manhole connections and sewer main. Then, the private irrigation systems that were impacted by the construction will be repaired or replaced, such as the systems at City Market Fuel and The Village at Steamboat…
Elsewhere, starting this past week, culverts in four areas of town are being rehabilitated as part of a separate project seeking to upgrade critical water infrastructure.
The Maybell Ditch is the largest diversion on the Yampa River and irrigates about 2,500 acres of grass and alfalfa in northwest Colorado. But the remote and antiquated headgate, along with a hazardous diversion structure and 18 miles of nearly flat canal, create problems for irrigators, boaters and endangered fish alike.
Now the Maybell Irrigation District and The Nature Conservancy are working together on an ambitious project to rehabilitate and modernize the historic structure with the goal of improving conditions for all the water users on this stretch of river. So far, TNC has secured about $3.5 million in funds for the project, which it hopes can begin next summer.
The Yampa River flows from the Flat Tops Wilderness, through the city of Steamboat Springs, then turns west and eventually joins with the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. Along the way it turns the semi-arid landscape of Routt and Moffat counties into a ribbon of green, irrigated meadows.
In recent years the Yampa has started experiencing issues that have long been a part of other river basins like over-appropriation, calls and water shortages.
“That reach has seen declines in water levels over time with drought and long-term climate impacts,” said Jennifer Wellman, TNC project manager. “(The Maybell Ditch project) was one of those that rose to the surface where we could hopefully work with the water users to have a greater impact in that basin … . That whole reach is really special, and it warrants more water if it’s available, especially during the low flow periods.”
Challenges for irrigators, boaters, fish
Maybell Irrigation District manager Mike Camblin said historically some ranchers couldn’t get their full amount of water unless the ditch, which was constructed in the 1890s, was running full blast.
“We had one field where if the ditch wasn’t full, they couldn’t get it wet because there wasn’t enough elevation to it,” he said. “It was too flat.”
That meant more water was being sent through the ditch as “push water” to make sure flows make it to dry fields. It also meant more water was flowing back into the Yampa River at the end of the approximately 18-mile-long ditch, known as tailwater. If there’s too much tailwater, that can mean a ditch is taking more out of the river than it is able to use, a no-no according to the state Division of Water Resources.
A first round of improvements to the ditch added a liner to reduce seepage and check structures, which slow the flow of water. Those measures only partially addressed the issues.
The project that is now being proposed is much more extensive and involves reconstructing the diversion and modernizing the headgate, which controls the flow of water from the river into the ditch. By fixing a grade control structure — essentially arranging boulders in mid-stream that push up the water in the river upstream of the headgate — it creates more elevation to allow gravity to move water into the ditch, which should reduce the need to push water. It will also smooth out a passage for both fish and boats.
The twin, circular, century-old headgates are rusted and hard to operate.
“There’s no way those things are easy to adjust,” said Erin Light, Division 6 engineer at the state Division of Water Resources. “Quite frankly, if the water commissioner had to adjust it, I don’t think he or she could. We would have to rely on (the irrigation district) to do that, which is not preferred.”
The remote location of the headgate — a three-mile round trip hike down the rugged Juniper Canyon off an already-remote dirt road — is a challenge for the district. When all the headgates on the ditch are opening and closing according to the differing schedules and water needs of the irrigators, it can be hard to coordinate the manual operation of the main headgate. The new headgate will be automated and controlled remotely.
“That’s a four- or five-hour deal by the time you drive up there, walk up there, adjust it and drive home,” Camblin said. “The automation on that will be huge. As far as management, it will be our biggest tool.”
But construction won’t be easy. Heavy equipment can’t make it down to the river along the ditch and will have to access the diversion using newly constructed roads on Bureau of Land Management land. The BLM considers the ditch a cultural resource and project proponents will have to be careful to avoid impacts to it.
Western Colorado Area Manager for JUB Engineers Luke Gingerich explained the complexities of the project on a site visit in July.
“They are going to have to create a couple miles of nice road to get in,” Gingerich said. “It will be a large disturbance and we’ve got to come back and make sure we return this as close as we can to the condition it was in before.”
According to Camblin, it was the federal Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program that first pushed the district to take a look at where it could manage its water better. That stretch of river is designated critical habitat for species of endangered fish. Water is released out of the upstream Elkhead Reservoir for the fish, and the new automated headgate will allow the Maybell Ditch to more easily let that water flow past it, to get to where it’s needed.
Boon for boaters
The diversion reconstruction project will also be a boon for boaters. River advocacy nonprofit Friends of the Yampa said in a letter of support for the project that the Maybell Diversion is the most significant barrier for safe, passable recreation along a 200-mile stretch of the Yampa River. Boaters often have to get out to portage the rapid formed by the diversion structure. The new diversion will create a boat passage, connecting two sections of boatable river.
At July’s site visit, recreation and education coordinator for Friends of the Yampa Kent Vertrees said he’s grateful for the collaboration between the agriculture, recreation and environmental water users.
“As a recreation person, I’ve said all along we get the dregs of all the other water users,” Vertrees said. “We rely on agriculture more than anyone to make sure there’s water in the river. It’s really great, our partnerships in northwest Colorado.”
But that partnership was a bit of a hard sell at first, Camblin said. Some Maybell Ditch irrigators were skeptical about a project spearheaded by an environmental group. Tensions can sometimes run high between irrigators, who take water out of rivers, and environmental groups, who want to leave water in rivers. Camblin said the district held several meetings between irrigators and TNC to assure water users their water rights or how they manage their ranch wouldn’t be threatened.
“One of our goals we talked about when we started this was, we wanted to show people the agriculture community can work with groups they don’t normally work with,” Camblin said. “We are hoping other ag communities say, ‘Hey, you know what? Some of this stuff is possible. I might have to reach across the table to make it work but this will be a beneficial project to so many people.’”
The headgate and diversion reconstruction could come with a hefty price tag and TNC is still fundraising for what could end up costing more than originally thought due to supply chain interruptions and inflation. The project has secured almost $3.5 million so far, nearly $2 million of which comes from a Bureau of Reclamation WaterSMART grant. The Colorado Water Conservation Board has contributed about $1 million so far; the Colorado River Water Conservation District will give $500,000; $40,000 will come from the Yampa River Fund and the irrigation district is also contributing money and in-kind resources. However, the total final price tag remains unknown and is likely to be higher than what’s already been secured. Wellman said some of the additional funding needed will also come from the National Resources Conservation Service.
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story appeared in the Sept. 11 edition of The Aspen Times.
Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Dylan Anderson). Here’s an excerpt:
U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, says it will be “months, not years” before billions of dollars meant for water infrastructure, forest health and drought mitigation will start to have an impact in places like the Yampa Valley. In a speech at Colorado Water Congress in Steamboat Springs on Tuesday, Aug. 23, Bennet touted money for water in the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed at the end of last year, as well as drought-focused dollars in the Inflation Reduction Act signed by President Joe Biden last week…Democrats have heralded the Inflation Reduction Act as the biggest investment ever to address climate change.
“The No. 1 reason the Colorado River is providing less water every year is climate change,” Bennet said. “Between the voluntary (Yampa River) closures and the threat of mandatory closures, Steamboat’s economy faces a stark new reality. The same is true for Colorado’s $46 billion outdoor recreation sector and our $47 billion agriculture sector.”
Bennet said he believes many of these cuts need to come from the lower end of the basin, which includes Arizona, California and Nevada…The money in the Inflation Reduction Act is specifically meant to purchase or save water to be left in the river and prop up the nation’s largest reservoirs.
Craig has been awarded a $3.3 million Economic Development Administration Assistance to Coal Communities Grant for construction of the Yampa River Corridor Project. The corridor project is the result of a multi-year planning process with local agencies designed to stabilize and diversify the economy in Craig and Moffat County after the closure of the coal mines and power plant. The city and county collaborated to secure this federal funding for the project, which will upgrade the city’s water intake infrastructure, as well as add new visitor amenities along the river.
The EDA funding will support approximately 70% of the project costs, which were estimated at $4.6 million this year. Yampa River Corridor Project Manager Melanie Kilpatrick said that match partners have committed to the remainder of the project funding, and the only variable could be inflation, which has affected other projects over the years.
The corridor project encompasses several improvements to Loudy Simpson Park, including a new concrete boat ramp, access road and parking area, as well as improving the existing diversion dam site with a whitewater park, access road, parking area and park amenities. According to a statement from Kilpatrick, the project fits into Craig’s master plan for parks, recreation, open space and trails. It also fits within the Moffat County Vision 2025 Transition Plan, which outlines proactive strategies to help the community transition from a coal-centered economy.
The goal of the EDA funding is to support economic resilience by diversifying the region’s economic base. The idea is that having an outdoor recreational amenity so close to town will attract more visitors to spend time in town, creating a ripple effect in the local economy. While visitors bring in tourism dollars, the employees who serve those tourists then spend money on other goods and services in town. There have been studies in other communities where similar projects have taken place to measure the economic impact of whitewater parks.
A 2006 study in Durango estimated that whitewater recreation created 33 jobs for $1 million in annual sales from tourist dollars.
In 2009, the University of Idaho estimated that a whitewater park in Cascade, Idaho, generated $8.2 million annually from this ripple effect.
A whitewater park in Truckee, Nevada, reported economic benefits ranged from $1.9 million to $4.1 million annually.
Good Vibes River Gear and the Craig RV Park, local employers whose businesses would directly benefit from growth in river tourism, have committed to adding over 30 new full-time employees. And it’s estimated that the project will create approximately 129 new jobs in both direct and adjacent industries…
Craig’s current city water intake diversion dam is a 200-foot wide and 10-feet high barrier made of concrete and rip rap boulders. Kilpatrick said in a statement that the existing diversion is in disrepair and needs to be updated. In its current condition, the diversion can also be a hazard for boaters, and it blocks passage for numerous fish species, several of which are federally listed endangered species. Replacing the current diversion dam with a natural channel design will allow the city to continue to draw its allotted water from the river and will improve boater safety and year-round fish passage.
“This sustains the city’s water supply in a fiscally responsible way. That’s hugely important to us,” Kilpatrick said. “We get improved fish passage, and healthier aquatic and riparian habitat. We get better access to the river. And we get the economic development associated with whitewater recreation.”
Near the end of July, flows into Stagecoach Reservoir from the Yampa River dropped below 40 cubic feet per second for a few days. That threshold is important because it helps, in part, determine how much water flows out of the reservoir and continues downstream to Steamboat Springs. If the flow coming in is more than 40 cfs, then at least 40 cfs is usually discharged at the bottom of Stagecoach Dam. If the inflow drops below 40 cfs, the outflow generally would as well, leaving less water for critical fish habitat below the dam and in the river in general.
The long-term deal is one of the first in the state and was made possible by a 2020 state law allowing such agreements. Before, groups like the Water Trust and Upper Yampa district needed to rehash out a contract each year…
But this year has been different. While the snowpack wasn’t impressive, spring precipitation slowed melting, and there was still snow in the basin until June 23, according to the Natural Resources Conservation service. Monsoon rains have further buoyed the river, with Steamboat measuring more than 10 inches of rain from May to July. While not necessarily a good roll, this year doesn’t seem like a bad one.
“I think it is on the low side of average,” said Emily Lowell, the district engineer for the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District. “Runoff was pretty average, and I think monsoonal rains this summer have made it sustain that average.”
But even in a close-to-average year, releases from the reservoir are still needed, though not to the same extent. Since the first releases at the end of July, inflows and outflows have both stayed above 40 cfs and more of the trust’s water hasn’t been needed.
The Yampa Valley has seen above average rainfall for the second straight month, with June seeing just shy of 3 inches of precipitation compared to the 1.6-inch average. While this year is trending better than the past handful, Van De Carr said talk of a closure [of the river] could swiftly surface…
The Yampa River below Stagecoach closed to fishing in early June because of low flows, which dropped to just 10 cfs flowing out on June 14. On Sunday afternoon, about 51 cfs was flowing into the reservoir and about 41 cfs out, according to data from the U.S Geological Survey…
Colorado’s largest electrical utility has halved its coal generation since 2005 and will achieve effectively zero by 2030. Surely this investment ranks as among the biggest, most important of the last century
A cliché seems like a terrible way to begin a story that strives for deeper analysis of this milestone in Colorado history, but I’m not clever enough to come up with my own simile or metaphor, so here goes:
Colorado’s reinvention of its energy system is like trying to rebuild an airplane in mid-air. Plans by Xcel Energy, by far the state’s largest utility, to revamp its electrical generation constitute the most compelling exhibit.
Colorado has been flying a plane using technology and infrastructure from the 1970-1990s. The rebuilding has been underway for awhile now, particularly since 2016, after prices of wind, in particular, had plummeted, and utilities satisfied themselves that they could integrate renewables without endangering reliability.
Now comes the giant stride. This coupled with new transmission could yield investment of up to $10 billion.
I’d suggest that Colorado has had few singular rivals in the last 100 years in terms of investment in public and quasi-public infrastructure. The splurge of roadbuilding unleashed by the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 certainly surpasses this. I’d single out the Colorado-Big Thompson water diversion project of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Arguably construction of DIA, too. Buy me a beer, and we can chew through this at length.
But by whatever yardstick you choose, this is – and you knew I had to say this – a Big Pivot. This represents Colorado’s most muscular turn yet from centralized power generation from fossil fuel sources to more dispersed renewables.
The landscape of eastern Colorado can be expected to look substantially different by the end of 2025. The plans — approved conceptually in a series of meetings during recent weeks by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission —will yield thousands and thousands of new wind turbines during the next few years scattered across eastern Colorado, likely massive amounts of solar, and game-changing amounts of storage. I can’t cite precise numbers, because they are yet to be worked out.
More clear is the transmission needed for this farm-to-market delivery of renewable energy: up to 650 miles of high-strung wires looping around eastern Colorado in a project called Power Pathway. Also possible is a 90-mile extension from a substation north of Lamar to the Springfield area.
Driving this hurried, gold rush-type of development in Colorado’s wind-rich regions is the state’s determination to dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions from electrical generation during this decade. It aims to do this even as it displaces use of fossil fuels in transportation and for space and water heating in buildings.
A hard deadline is imposed by the expiration of federal tax credits for wind and solar at the end of 2025.
An Xcel representative, Amanda King, had testified to the importance of completing the first two Power Pathway transmission segments sooner rather than later. The PUC commissioners cited that testimony in their June 2 decision approving the transmission lines:
“The company asserts that by having these segments in-service by the end of 2025, wind and solar developers will be able to interconnect resources prior to the expiration of the production tax credit and step-down of the investment tax credit, which would represent cost savings of approximately $300 million per (gigawatt) of interconnected wind capacity and $100 million per (gigawatt) of interconnected solar capacity, in net present value, to customers,” the decision said.
“It’s a pretty amazing amount of infrastructure that needs to go into the ground in a really short time,” says one individual, a stakeholder in the PUC process, speaking on condition of confidentiality.
Because of that exigency, a written decision is likely in July, no later than August. Appeals by Xcel or other stakeholders could delay the actual green light, but not for long.
For some, this represents a triumph of arguments going back almost two decades.
“It helps unleash the innovation we need to build the 21st century electrical system,” said Leslie Glustrom, who wears various hats but was speaking as a representative of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society the day I talked with her.
She uses the metaphor of inheritance vs. income. In this case, fossil fuels are the inheritance. In the future we must live off the income of renewables.
“If you were lucky enough to have a big inheritance you could buy three houses and five condos,” she said. Living off income poses a major challenge, she says, especially if you haven’t acquired the skills you need.
“We can do it,” she adds, “especially if we are better at matching our demands to the times when we have an abundance of wind and solar.”
Risk is inherent in this process of transition. But risk cuts both ways, as pointed out by Gwen Farnsworth, senior policy advisor for Western Resource Advocates. The PUC deliberations are focused on how to evaluate those risks of relying upon fossil fuel generation in terms of system reliability and climate change. The commission, she says, is “pushing Xcel so that its future resources are cleaner, more flexible and more reliable.”
With this triumph also comes anxiety. The three commissioners used the word “uncertainty” maybe a dozen times when they deliberated during a long afternoon on June 10.
“We are making decisions about billions of dollars of investments under conditions that may have unprecedented uncertainty,” said Eric Blank, the chair, while mentioning climate change, inflationary pressures, rising labor costs, and supply chain disruptions.
Renewables won’t be the steal they were in 2018. Demand has grown. This is the gold rush. California alone wants to add 8,000 megawatts of renewable generation.
Closely related is the growing concern about “resource adequacy” mentioned by Commissioner Megan Gilman and also Commissioner John Gavan. Can Xcel keep the air conditioners on during a really, really hot day—or, as in February 2021, on a very cold day?
After, I talked with Jeffrey Ackermann, the chair of the PUC for four years prior to Blank, to get his big-picture assessment of what this represents.
“I think everyone – regulators and utilities, but stakeholders, too – are eager to move forward while also realizing that you can’t get it mostly right. It has to be 100% right.”
Ackermann was referring to the greater complexity of the electrical grid being assembled with its more diverse resources and greater interplay between utilities and consumers. The stakes have also elevated.
Overlay that onto the burgeoning Western markets that are still taking shape, which provokes new questions about resource adequacy and reserve margins. What if the interconnected utilities from Montana to New Mexico get struck by a heat wave at the same time?
In the PUC handling of this complex case, Ackermann commends his successor, Blank.
“I like how this chairman has sequenced the conversation,” he said. “It affirms the complexity of this and also the uncertainty. At the same time it doesn’t shy away from realizing that some tough decisions need to be made now if you want to achieve 2030 goals and beyond. It’s a tough balance.”
Ron Lehr, who chaired the PUC beginning in 1983, concedes the complexity, acknowledges the uncertainty – although pointing out that in 1983, interest rates stood at 18%. (I can confirm; I was suffocating that year, paying 21% interest on my loan for a purchase of a trailer in Granby).
Colorado’s planning process, says Lehr, deserves credit. For outsiders, it’s maddeningly complex and anything but transparent. Even those deeply engaged in the process sometimes get frustrated with the filing system at the PUC. Joe “Schmo,” public citizen? Fuggedaboutit.
Despite these shortcomings, Lehr argues the process itself has been very effective and has improved over time. It creates a forum for diverse voices to exchange ideas.
That process yields some crackpot ideas, he said, “but you weed through them. Then you can diversify your thinking and create a lower-risk template that can attract investment from the private sector.”
Colorado’s process, he added, has drawn national attention for yielding lots of bids for electrical generation — and lower prices.
“The more inclusive and integrated our planning and the more far-sighted the planning, the better we can handle the uncertainty,” he told me.
The story about moving on from coal is the easy story here, but Lehr thinks a side story – about the impacts of Winter Storm Uri on natural gas prices in Colorado — will move the needle past natural gas, too.
“Gas is a bankrupt long-term strategy. You don’t have it when you need it.”
Back to the metaphor of rebuilding the airplane in mid-flight. It was given to me by Mike Kruger, the chief executive of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association, and in a far more colorful way than I’ve articulated here.
We wouldn’t be remodeling this plane in flight if it wasn’t necessary, he says. Yes, uncertainties exist, and likely new uncertainties will become apparent. But the status quo of centralized fossil fuel generation isn’t working.
“We have to try something.”
Despite its cumbersome aspect, he believes Colorado’s legal structure and the stakeholders – Xcel but also the business, consumer, environmental, government, and other groups – have enough flexibility to respond rapidly if necessary.
“If in two and a half years we find we missed the mark on something, I would be surprised if the industry and the environmental and labor groups and Xcel would not be able to figure how to correct it quickly.”
That brings up Colorado’s newest coal plant, not quite a dozen years old, and also its largest, at 750 megawatts: Comanche 3.
(Some refuse to call it by that name in the belief that it besmirches tribal people. I couldn’t help note that almost invariably in the PUC discussions it was referred to as unit 3 or Pueblo unit 3.” Maybe Leslie Glustrom’s rants on this are being heard).
When the plant was formally approved in 2005, Colorado’s first major wind farm, Colorado Green, located near Lamar, had just begun producing electricity. It was the future, not coal, but most utilities had not yet gotten that memo. Tri-State was about to start spending $100 million on a humongous coal plant downstream along the Arkansas River in Kansas—a decision from which it has not fully recovered. And, of course, Comanche 3 cost upwards of $1 billion in today’s dollars. Xcel still had humongous debt, a central issue in how soon it is retired.
Coal’s rapid fall from favor and competitiveness is told in these numbers. The fuel produced 66% of Xcel’s electricity for Colorado retail and wholesale customers in 2005. Last year It had fallen by more than half, to 32%. It should be close to zero by 2030. (Xcel may still buy some power from the market that will come from coal plants).
As Noah Long of the Natural Resources Defense Council pointed out in a May 25 posting, this electric resource plan being approved could put Xcel on track to achieve approximately 90% carbon emissions’ reductions as compared to 2005 when Comanche closes, no later than New Year’s Eve of 2030.
Actually, the plant will likely close before then, perhaps long before.
Operations of Comanche will be determined, in part, by a new filter, the social cost of carbon, as specified by new Colorado laws in the last several years.
Another element of the plan being approved by the PUC will create a performance-incentive mechanism (PIM, in the acronym-heavy soup of PUC discussions) to give Xcel financial incentives to steer the plant with decarbonization goals in mind.
The PUC commissioners are going beyond the settlement agreement submitted to them in May by Xcel and the various stakeholder groups. At the suggestion of Blank, the commissioners plan to adopt an additional review governing operations and management that is to be tripped if another major investment is needed to continue operations of the plant.
At issue is how much money will be poured into propping up what one person close to these proceedings described as a “dog.” The analogy is to a car. At what point do you just walk away from it?
“Five years down the road we may have another turbine-bearing outage, and it just isn’t worth it,” said Commissioner Gavan, alluding to the cause of the most recent outage that has had “Pueblo unit 3” off-line for most of 2022 (it’s back in operation now). It was also off-line for most of 2020.
It seemingly has been cursed with problems since it began operations in the summer of 2010. The latest evidence was the deaths of two men in a slide of coal outside the plant on June 5. Their bodies were found under about 60 feet of coal.
A sharper definition of the closing should come into view during a “Just Transition” proceeding that begins in 2024. That proceeding will consider another round of new generation, presumably renewables, likely with a preference for those that can be added to property tax rolls in Pueblo County, to compensate for the loss of property tax there as the coal plants get retired.
In all this, the PUC has much balancing to do. Xcel is ultimately responsible for reliability of electricity, the PUC in protecting the interests of ratepayers. At least in theory – and I believe in practice – both have an interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while Xcel has the additional motivation of delivering profits to investors.
This gets into a complex area of cost-recovery. As Glustrom points out, “these are not insignificant numbers.” The Colorado Renewable Energy Society documented undepreciated assets of the Hayden coal units of somewhere around $70 million, the Pawnee plant at Brush of $170 million, Comanche 3 even more.
Glustrom has long argued that state regulators allow Xcel and its investors unreasonably large returns on their investments. The authorized rate of return is 9.3%. If the utility’s decisions are risk free, then the return on equity should be below 5%, she says. Most everybody else is inclined to be more generous to Xcel than Glustrom.
What almost certainly will come into play is a concept called securitization. It’s fundamentally a way for an investor-owned utility to shuffle its debt into lower-interest long-term bonds. This will be part of the process going forward and, once again, could alter the retirement date of Comanche 3.
This area of cost recovery, almost certainly will be controversial – and might trigger an appeal by Xcel.
Three of the many additional elements of this deserve mention.
One is the idea advanced by Blank to give Xcel some leeway to begin planning and incurring expenses for gas-fired generation, but also wind, solar, and storage – with the expectation that the company will be able to recoup costs short of actual commissioning construction of the assets. It’s called “pre-construction development assets.”
This provision reflects the concern about the uncertainties and fluidities that Blank talked about in the June 10 meeting. This gives the company some rope to move forward but only so far.
Status of water
Another new element never seen before in Colorado – and perhaps no other state, either – is a provision that Xcel must report the status of its water rights associated with its retiring coal plants. Think particularly of Hayden, although Xcel has an interest in the coal plants at Craig, too. And then there is Comanche 3.
At first glance, this seems like a strange requirement. After all, Colorado state government already has a Division of Water Resources. Why does the PUC need to poke its nose into water?
That was essentially Xcel’s argument. The PUC commissioners, though, hesitated not at all in embracing this requirement
The idea had been advanced by Western Resource Advocates. WRA’s Ellen Howard Kutzer explains the expansive view here: Water is an essential component of the coal-fired steam plants built by the monopoly to create a public good, the production of electricity. As the coal plants go, the PUC should have some purview over the disposition of those assets. And Xcel has the staff that can provide the essential information in a way that is understandable to PUC staff.
True, the state water agency gets the same information. But the water world gets weirdly wonky at times. So, Xcel’s water staff can translate it for non-water-wonks. It won’t be a major imposition.
But why does this information matter?
Xcel likely has not decided, and certainly has not disclosed, what it will do at Hayden. It has talked about molten salt but has not dismissed the possibility for green hydrogen or other technologies that may – or may not – be ready for prime time. They can involve water.
The way Western Resource Advocates sees the water, it should be considered as part of the just transition process for Yampa Valley communities. The water that is kept there will most benefit the local communities.
The fear here is of water export, particularly to the Front Range. I dove deeply into this in late 2019 and early 2020 on behalf of Aspen Journalism. Geography matters entirely here. Exporting the water would require pumping it over two mountain ranges. That’s a big lift. That said, money has surfaced recently to reanimate the even bigger stretch of exporting water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to the Front Range, so who knows.
Just how much water is involved in water for the coal plants? I forget the precise volumes, but they are not as much as you might think, but neither were they insignificant. Importantly, they have relatively high seniority.
WRA’s position, Howard Kutzer said, is that it’s not right to leave the utility to do with the water entirely what it pleases.
“They used these public resources to create a public good, so ultimately — not now, but in the future — the PUC should be able to say whether transferring those water rights is in the public interest.”
Level playing field for storage
Finally, the PUC affirmed their support for the treatment of storage proposed by Colorado Solar and Storage.
“Storage will be a critical path to getting the grid of the future that we want,” said Gilman at the June 10 meeting of the commissioners in endorsing the recommendation of the trade group.
The critical issues here are of the value assigned to storage and the role of private operators in providing that storage as opposed to company-owned storage. The limitations of storage are well known. Lithium-ion batteries currently can store reserves for about four hours. Because of that, Xcel Energy wanted to assign a lower value, but others wanted a higher value. This outcome favors higher value and hence greater incentive for private developers to propose projects.
Other elements of this plan being approved could deserve mention. An entire story could be written through the lens of Pueblo County (and maybe I will—later).
Or through the lens of Akron, or Cope or Walsh, places on the eastern plains near which these new transmission lines will be draped, along with wind turbines. I hear diverse voices. Some resent the coming wind turbines, an intrusion into rural life to benefit city residents. Others – more commonly those who will directly benefit from lease payments – welcome the development of wind and solar resources.
This won’t solve all the problems of eastern Colorado, where mechanization has left farmers arguably more prosperous but it’s the main street of towns ever more anemic. Many, like Yuma County, had larger populations 100 years ago than they do today. Several times in recent years, I’ve had young people from eastern Colorado say to me, “I just wish Kit Carson had two or three restaurants,” or “It would be nice if Lamar was just a bit bigger.”
This won’t make that happen, but it will at least slow some of the erosion.
What’s next in this transition? So many things are up in the air. Rules are being drawn up governing the minimized use of natural gas in buildings (and boy, is that stuff tedious).
Then there will be the question of demand-side management and energy efficiency. Xcel is expected to submit its plans for that and for beneficial electrification of buildings on July 1. Expect a lot of push and pull here, as there has been over Comanche 3. The environmental community believes Xcel has vastly under-estimated what it can do in terms of reducing demand and shaping demand to better correspond with this vast fleet of renewables soon to take shape on Colorado’s High Plains.
There’s good cause for high-five’s, but there will be little time to dawdle.
The Pankey family’s resilience was put to a test when a wildfire burned nearly half of their ranch in 2018. Among the devastating impacts of the fire was livestock and wildlife could no longer drink from ponds because they were covered in ashes.
Keith and Shelley Pankey raise beef cattle with their sons, Kevin and Justin and their families, in Moffat and Routt counties. They have a history of doing right by their land. Following the fire, they cleaned the ponds and aerially reseeded native grasses on 900 acres in the fire’s path. It’s not the first time investing in conservation practices has paid off for this family and the landscape they share with livestock and wildlife.
Keith’s great grandfather homesteaded an area of high desert known as Great Divide. The Pankeys are still able to graze cattle in the drought-prone region from spring through fall thanks to improved water distribution and rotational grazing systems.
They replaced windmill-powered wells with solar pumps. New water storage tanks and nearly three miles of natural flow pipelines were also added. By expanding the number of watering stations (from six to 12) the Pankeys increased their ability to properly graze cattle while creating wildlife habitat across the ranch.
Precipitation, range conditions, and animal performance all impact how the Pankeys plan pasture rotations and stocking rates. They analyze pasture rotations to determine which areas benefit from early, middle or late season grazing. They’ve also found that some areas benefit from longer or shorter periods of grazing, while others benefit from being grazed twice in the same season.
When cattle widely disburse themselves, the Pankeys find that grass recovers at a faster rate, and taller grass is left behind when the cattle are rotated to another pasture. The ranch’s wildlife populations have greatly increased thanks to rotational grazing and the improved water system. By working with neighbors to control noxious weeds, desirable grasses have become dominant across the ranch.
Pankey Ranch borders Colorado’s largest Greater sage-grouse lek, a breeding ground for this declining species. The Pankeys hosted Colorado State University students to study grasses, insects, and Greater sage-grouse habitat in the Great Divide range. Their study was helpful in determining which conservation practices to adopt. The Pankeys fenced off a large area around a natural spring to provide cover. They also equipped water storage tanks with overflows that provide water and prolonged green vegetation to encourage production of insects that grouse chicks consume.
The Pankeys are involved with a large-scale conservation effort led by Trout Unlimited to stabilize Elk Head Creek’s riparian corridor. They have installed rock toe and erosion control mats, and reseeded stream banks to prevent erosion. Hundreds of willow trees have been planted in corridors to preserve wetlands and fish habitat. Less erosion in the creek means cleaner water downstream in the Elk Head Reservoir and Yampa River. This family’s leadership in raising awareness of the creek’s impaired health, and commitment to on-the-ground conservation practices, is inspiring other landowners to follow suit.
The Pankeys also provide public hunting opportunities on their land. In 2011, they obtained a conservation easement on their Routt County property through the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust to ensure future agricultural uses on the land. As a longtime volunteer with the Moffat County Fair, Keith shares his land ethic and conservation practices with youth, neighbors and the general public.
Click the link to read “Pankey Ranch’s conservation efforts earn attention from Colorado Cattlemen’s Association” on the Craig Press website (Amber Delay). Here’s an excerpt:
According to the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, the Leopold Award was created in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold to recognize farmers, ranchers and forestland owners who inspire others with their voluntary conservation efforts on private, working lands…
The Pankeys will be presented with the award June 13 at the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association Convention in Colorado Springs…
To mention a few who have contributed in addition to Trout Unlimited were: The National Resources Conservation Services, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the City of Craig, The Yampa-White-Green-Basin Roundtable and The Lower Colorado River Habitat Partnership Program.
The amount of water in the snowpack blanketing the Yampa River Basin started declining on Friday, March 25, potentially marking the earliest peak since 2017…Erin Light, engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, has put the river under administration three of the last four years. At the Colorado River District’s State of the Yampa River event last week, she said 2022, so far, is tracking in line with other dry years over the last two decades.
This year’s snowpack is rivaling that of 2002 and 2012 — two of the driest years during the current 22-year drought that is the worst ever recorded, Light said…Snowpack is important, but precipitation in the spring and late summer is also a key metric, and it seems harder to come by…
The Yampa is one of most free flowing rivers in Colorado. Of the five main reservoirs feeding into the Yampa, Light estimated that at least two and maybe three of them won’t fill up this year. Stillwater Reservoir is the farthest upstream and was sitting at about 310 acre-feet when it was last measured in October. Light said there was water released last year for both agricultural purposes and for work on the dam. Farther downstream, Yamcolo Reservoir was about 45% full, and Stagecoach reservoir was 75% full as of late last week. Two reservoirs in the basin — Fish Creek Reservoir on Buffalo Pass, where Steamboat Springs gets much of its water, and Elkhead Reservoir near the Routt and Moffat county line — are both likely to fill, Light said.
A story of transition and renewal in the rural west, Craig, America shares the many perspectives that encompass a community upheld by coal but looks towards a future without it. It brings to life the unique story of Craig, Colorado, and how its people, economy, and community are both resilient and adaptive.
Craig, Colorado is a small town in Northwest Colorado, about 40 miles west of Steamboat Springs. While Craig lies in the high mountain plains above the meandering Yampa River, it is a case study as a town, and region, that is in transition. Craig has traditionally been a town defined by the extraction of fossil fuels and ranching. There are multiple coal mines, and energy generating stations (power plants) in the area. Under pressure from environmental groups and government agencies state-wide and nationally, the owners of Craig Station voted unanimously to close all three units of Craig Station, one of Colorado’s largest coal-fired power plants, by 2030. The decision to close the plant will send waves of change across the city of Craig and surrounding Moffat Country for decades to come, costing the region hundreds of high-paying jobs, removing an estimated 60% of the town’s tax revenue, and forcing a reckoning with its future.
Fortunately, Craig sits in a region of abundant beauty, and accessible opportunities for outdoor recreation, hunting and fishing, rafting, hiking and mountain biking and other pursuits or plentiful. As the recreation economy grows, Craig is in an ideal position to make that transition as well. As Jennifer Holloway, the new Executive Director of the Craig Chamber of Commerce puts it, “Craig is a community with a lot of opportunities, and in a unique moment to seize them.” As the town reckons with the closure of the plant and surrounding mines, a growing coalition of leaders and community advocates are working to save their town and move from a extraction based economy to one focused in recreation, tourism, and that centers the health and well being of our planet and its inhabitants.
This situation in Craig is one in which we are currently seeing across the United States. As renewable sources of energy continue to grow in demand and the profitability of coal continues to plummet in tandem with its role in climate change, small towns and cities that depend on these industries are questioning their future. The story of Craig can be a moment of hope for many regions across the country, and potentially a guidepost for how they can embrace the natural beauty of their regions, rather than think of them only for extraction and consumption.
The Routt County Conservation District (RCCD) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are looking at the basin from a watershed health perspective and developing programs to improve and protect the private lands that catch the precipitation in much of the basin.
The foundation of a healthy watershed is healthy soils. Not only do soils allow vegetation to grow, but they can act as a sponge that absorbs and stores precipitation. They provide the nutrients that allow life to flourish. At its base, soil is a combination of sand, silt and clay, but it’s much more than that. A single teaspoon of soil can contain billions of living organisms that make up an entire ecosystem. When this ecosystem is thriving, it provides the glues that hold the soil particles in place as water rushes through them, it cycles nutrients that would otherwise be unavailable for plant growth and it helps to build organic matter in the soil. Keeping a healthy soil ecosystem can help increase plant productivity, increase drought resilience and decrease the need for additional inputs.
NRCS has developed five principles that can be followed to maintain and develop healthy soils.
The first is to minimize soil disturbance. Plowing the soil not only destroys the habitat that these microorganisms have created, but it negates all of the benefits that they provide.
The second is to keep the soil covered with plant residue. Residue increases infiltration and decreases erosion.
The third is to maximize plant diversity. Just like any ecosystem, soil ecosystems benefit from diversity, and diversity above ground means diversity below ground.
The fourth principle is to maintain a continuous growing root in the soil. We are limited by a short growing season, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t keep a live root in the soil year-round.
The fifth and final principle is to integrate livestock into the growing system. Livestock play a critical role in nutrient distribution and residue cycling.
A good first step to improving soil health on your property is to get a soil test that will give you a baseline to better understand where nutrients are limited or in abundance. The Routt County Conservation District has a grant program available that can pay for a soil test on fields that have the ability and intention of implementing management changes that could improve soil health.
Lyn Halliday is the Board President of the Routt County Conservation District, and the Upper Yampa River Watershed coordinator. Clinton Whitten is the resource team lead with the National Resource Conservation Service. For more about the Community Agriculture Alliance, go to CommunityAgAlliance.org.
The community-based collaborative Yampa River Fund is accepting applications through April 4 for $195,000 in funds available for conservation and restoration activities that positively impact Yampa River basin flows and support natural resource-based livelihoods including agriculture and recreation.
Eligible applicants include state and local government entities, public districts, irrigation entities, mutual ditch companies, homeowner associations and nonprofit organizations. The grant guidelines and application are posted at YampaRiverFund.org/grants. Technical support is available for applicants to help develop grant proposals.
The Yampa River Fund, which launched in September 2019, is dedicated to identifying and funding activities that protect the water supply, aquatic habitat and multi-beneficial opportunities provided by the Yampa River. The fund was created through a partnership of 21 public, private and nonprofit entities representing the Yampa River basin. Total grants for $200,000 from the endowment fund were awarded to six projects in 2021 stretching along the Yampa River from Maybell to Craig and Steamboat Springs to Oak Creek. In 2020, five projects were awarded a total $200,000.
Northern Colorado rancher Jay Fetcher looked out over the snowy fields of his family’s sprawling ranch 20 miles north of Steamboat Springs.
Cows grazed on hay on a bright, frigid February morning in the tiny settlement of Clark. Fetcher has been ranching the 1,400 acres of hay meadows and pastures in view of the Mountain Zirkel Wilderness for most of his life.
Fetcher’s late father, John, was a legend in the Steamboat area, who moved there to ranch in 1949. A founder of the Steamboat Ski Resort, he was also on the board of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and a director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
“He was crazy passionate about water,” Fetcher said.
One of his legacies was putting the family ranch under a conservation easement, meaning the land would never be developed.
“If we chose to develop it, we could put 70 homesites, but now, it will stay open space forever,” Fetcher said. “It feels good knowing there won’t be golf courses out here.”
The land also has ample water rights. The ranch is flood-irrigated by a system of ditches that pull water from Sand Creek, McPhee Creek, Cottonwood Creek and the Elk River. But Fetcher is facing a complicated situation regarding one of the smaller, more junior rights in the portfolio that state officials believe has been “abandoned.”
Abandonment is the official term for one of Colorado’s best-known water adages and concepts: “use it or lose it.” Every 10 years, engineers and water commissioners from the Colorado Division of Water Resources review every water right — through diversion records and site visits — to see whether it has been used at some point in the previous decade. If they don’t see evidence of use, they could place the water right on the abandonment list and a water court could make it official.
Abandonment means the right to use the water is essentially canceled and ceases to exist. The water right goes back to the stream where another user can file an application to claim it and put it to beneficial use.
Fetcher’s water right that is in jeopardy is 2.5 cubic feet per second from the Hoover Jacques Ditch that dates to 1972. This ditch pulls water from the Elk River and flood-irrigates a pasture. In a letter to Fetcher, officials from the Colorado Division of Water Resources say that aerial imagery and their data suggest that the land has not been irrigated in quite some time.
Fetcher admits that it has been challenging to get water from the diversion point to the pasture five miles away through an unlined ditch, and the 40-acre pasture that it irrigates doesn’t produce much hay anyway. Fetcher often couldn’t take his full amount because the water just wasn’t available, but he hesitated to place a call because it didn’t seem worth it, he said.
Water users who aren’t receiving their total share can place what’s known as a call, which forces upstream junior users to cut back so the senior water right can get its full amount. Older water rights get first use of the river.
“It was really hard to get water through all our neighbors to actually use it,” he said. “By the time water gets there, it’s a trickle. And we just didn’t have time to run up there and irrigate a little bit of pasture.”
The Fetcher property has eight different ditches, and a huge amount of work is necessary to maintain them, he said.
“We want to make sure we don’t fall on the abandonment list with these other ditches,” he said. “We try to limit the labor on the ranch to make it profitable, so how does someone taking care of 800 cows have time to run around and make all of them work?”
Click the link to read the article on Big Pivots (Allen Best):
A bill proposing study of nuclear energy in Colorado was killed in an obscure legislative committee last week by the majority Democrats.
This debate isn’t over, though, nor will it be until we’ve learned how to store our bounty of renewable energy for weeks or even months.
We have made huge strides since voters in 2004 mandated Colorado’s largest utilities achieve 10% of their generation from renewables by 2015. Xcel Energy now expects to achieve 86% penetration of renewables by 2030. Nearly all other utilities, large and small, expect to be close behind, or like the Glenwood Springs-based Holy Cross Energy, further ahead.
Sharing of renewables across broad, multi-state areas will be imperative. Smaller, incremental approaches will help. For example, new programs will help us run our dishwashers and charge our electric cars when renewable energy is most abundant.
This gets utilities to maybe 90% emissions-free electricity without imperiling reliability or jacking up costs. It’s that last 10% that perplexes.
Possible paths include molten-salt storage. Xcel Energy considers this an option at Hayden, in northwestern Colorado, when it closes those coal units by 2028. Tri-State, operator of the three coal units at Craig, has indicated an openness to all options, including green hydrogen, which is made from renewable electricity and water in a still-expensive process. Some hope for improved batteries.
Another answer may be pumped-storage hydro, as Xcel has been thinking about in Unaweep Canyon, in western Colorado. Others have similar hydro thoughts for the Yampa Valley.
State Sen. Bob Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale, represents Craig and Hayden. An electrical engineer by training, Rankin had a career in technology, including a stint managing the aerospace division of Ford Motors. He pitched nuclear energy last week to members of the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee as necessary for Colorado to meet its decarbonization goals.
That a Republican representing coal country accepts that coal is not coming back is itself noteworthy. In Wyoming, many have not.
The second major component of the bill was the most telling. Rankin initially wanted Colorado’s economic development agency to commission the $500,000 study (pared to $250,000 before the vote). The Colorado Energy Office, the more obvious choice, was too strictly focused on wind and solar, he said.
That’s not entirely accurate. Wind and solar have been major successes, but just weeks before, the energy office released a study about the legal framework Colorado needs for carbon capture and storage. Carbon capture would allow continued burning of natural gas—a possible way to get to 100%—or, for that matter, burning of coal.
Rankin was absolutely on target in describing nuclear power as being a way to make use of existing infrastructure, both the coal plant sites at Hayden and Craig and transmission. Nuclear could also produce jobs and tax base for those communities. Just as 100% emissions-free energy (at an affordable price) remains elusive, so do the answers for Craig’s economy once the coal plants close. For the same reasons, commissioners in Pueblo County last summer quietly began pushing the idea of nuclear energy.
Cost is the conversational crux of nuclear. The technology has a history of high costs for construction. A new generation of small, modular reactors, if done in many places, may be more economical. One such reactor backed financially by Bill Gates is proposed for a Wyoming coal town, but it’s years from breaking ground. It may be the future—but it’s a big gamble.
Climate change is an even larger, more costly gamble. That’s one reason nuclear power does not fall neatly along a Republican/Democratic divide. One person who testified in support of Rankin’s bill identified himself as a card-carrying Democratic activist.
Democrats were unpersuaded, even after Rankin moved the study to the energy office. He never explained exactly what answers this study would have delivered that couldn’t be found elsewhere. The bill seemed more intent on making a political statement than delivering useful information. But then Democratic legislative leaders had made a statement themselves by not assigning the bill to the energy committee.
Had the bill advanced, we would have heard from State Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat and a key architect of Colorado’s energy transition. Growing up in a Kansas farm town, Hansen became enamored of nuclear energy. Even as he earned a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering, though, he pivoted his studies to economics, capping it with a Ph.D. The economics of nuclear energy, he told me last June, is why he believes the technology won’t be a major answer to the climate emergency.
Until we get to 100% renewables, though, it’s likely to be on the table.
Click the link to read the article on The Craig Press (Eliza Noe). Here’s an excerpt:
As industries across the Western Slope continue to watch snow and water levels as the days until summer close in, the Colorado River District hosted water experts Tuesday to discuss what certain data points mean and how they reflect the current state of Colorado’s water levels…
Before Monday, snow in 2022 had been sparse for the northwest corner of the state. According to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the White and Yampa River Basin is currently at 86% of the median snowpack level since 1991. To get this median, the NRCS takes all of the snow patterns over the past 30 years and finds the middle of all of the peaks and snowpack levels. This median is often used as a standard to measure how dry a year is…
This winter, snow water equivalent (SWE) levels for the White-Yampa Basin are currently at 13.4 inches as of Tuesday (the latest available data). SWE is a commonly used measurement used by hydrologists and water managers to gauge the amount of liquid water contained within the snowpack. In other words, it is the amount of water that will be released from the snowpack when it melts.
The SWE median for that same date is 15.5 inches, and this year is slightly behind last winter’s levels, which was at 14.4 inches. The median peak of these levels (meaning the highest amount of SWE levels before they dip) usually happens around April 8. During the most recent drought, this peak has happened earlier in the year, and it sometimes does not reach that average peak, either. In 2021, the peak of snowpack happened during the last week of March, topping at 18 inches. The median peak is 23.1 inches…
“One thing to keep in mind is that the percentage of normal numbers based on the SNOTEL network and snow course measurements are used for runoff prediction,” [Jeffrey] Deems said. “They are not a SWE volume measure. And so they’re used in a statistical forecasting method by the NRCS to project April through July runoff.”
Across the entire western part of the United States, the trend of a multi-decadal drought is continuing. Gov. Jared Polis visited Craig last summer to speak with local ranchers about the drought’s impact on the Yampa Valley. Currently, agriculture workers in different facets of the industry are looking to see if 2022 might provide some relief.
Here’s the memorandum from the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Kevin Rein):
On March 17, 2021, Erin Light submitted a letter request to me on the subject of Designation of the Yampa River as Over-Appropriated (“Report”). The Report contains climate, hydrologic, and administrative call information to support a description of the Yampa River and its tributaries upstream of its confluence with the Little Snake River as over- appropriated and requests that I make a formal determination that the Division of Water Resources (“DWR”) designate that reach of the river and its tributaries as over-appropriated and treat them accordingly for the purposes of administration. For the purposes of the DWR’s administration and well permitting decisions, a stream is considered over-appropriated when “at some or all times of the year, the water supplies of said stream system are insufficient to satisfy all the decreed water rights within that system”1 (“Over-Appropriated”). The Report is comprehensive and shows that the Yampa River upstream of the confluence with the Little Snake River is Over-Appropriated. The Report is available for review at this link.
Based on my review of the Report, I have determined that, effective March 1, 2022, the reach of the Yampa River upstream of the confluence with the Little Snake River, including all of its tributaries, as more clearly shown on Attachment A (“Affected Area”), is Over-Appropriated. My determination (”Designation”) recognizes the climate, hydrologic, and administrative call conditions that are now present on the Yampa River for the Affected Area. The Designation does not impact the legal ability to appropriate water from the Yampa River nor does it change administration of surface water rights on the Yampa River.
The purpose of the Designation is to provide the formal basis for DWR to consider the injurious impacts of wells during DWR’s evaluation of new applications for well permits.
Evaluation of Well Permit Applications
For applications for new well permits or permits to expand the use of existing wells.
Beginning March 1, 2022, DWR staff will treat the Affected Area as Over-Appropriated for the purpose of evaluating applications, filed on or after March 1, 2022, for new well permits or permits to expand the use of existing wells.
For applications to permit existing wells, where the well and its uses existed prior to March 1, 2022.
To allow a reasonable period of time for the owners of existing wells to obtain a well permit, for wells where the well owner can demonstrate that the well and its uses existed prior to this Designation date of March 1, 2022, DWR will accept applications to permit those existing wells and evaluate the applications without treating their impacts as injurious through December 31, 2022. Such wells may include but are not limited to pond wells or other structures that expose groundwater to the atmosphere. For applications for such existing wells filed on or after January 1, 2023, DWR staff will consider the injurious impacts from those existing wells for the purpose of evaluating the applications.
For these two categories of well permit applications, effective on the dates shown above, DWR staff will presume that the well will materially injure the vested water rights of others and the well permit application must be denied unless the well qualifies for a statutory presumption of no injury or other provision in statute, alone or in combination with State Engineer Policy and/or Guideline, or the well permit applicant has obtained a plan for augmentation decreed by the water court or a substitute water supply plan approved by the State Engineer.
FromColorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):
A growing demand for a shrinking water supply in northwest Colorado has led state water officials to officially declare most of the Yampa River as over-appropriated. The designation is a formal recognition there’s no longer enough water for everyone who wants it. That triggers changes in how the state will grant permits for new wells in the area.
Smaller sections of the upper Yampa and some of its tributaries have already been deemed over-appropriated, including the upper Yampa River when increased development in Steamboat Springs put more demand on the river. But as climate change and extended periods of drought continue to dry up the West, state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources Kevin Rein said it was necessary to expand the designation to the lower part of the river, too.
The declaration will change how permits for groundwater wells are approved but doesn’t affect how the water that flows on the surface of the Yampa River and its tributaries is managed and used, Rein said…
Augmentation plans are obtained through water court, a process Rein said can be difficult for individuals to navigate. Rein said the Great Northern Water Conservancy District plans to create a blanket augmentation plan that water users could sign up for, like the Upper Yampa River Conservancy District has done in recent years.
The decline in the Yampa River’s flows has also prompted the state to now require water users in the area to measure how much water they use, as decades of climate change-fueled drought have diminished supplies on the Western Slope.
It was a miserable start to runoff season in the Yampa River Basin owing to ongoing low precipitation and a snowpack that melted out early or sublimated as it will sometimes do. In late July 2021 Coyote Gulch sat down with Scott Hummer the Division of Water Resources boots on the ground in the Upper Yampa River Basin at the inlet to Stagecoach Reservoir. I wanted to get an understanding of what is was like for a water commissioner to administer the streams under his purview in the horrible dry times. Below are his written answers to a couple of questions and then some quotes from our couple of hours together.
Coyote Gulch: What memories stand out since the start of water year 2021?
Scott Hummer: Absolutely no runoff whatsoever! Placing calls on streams that had never been on call previously, ever! A quote from one on my water users…”My family has been here for 135 years, and there has never been a year like this ever”…”and we have written records”!
CG: Who do you have conversations with regularly?
SH: Erin Light daily. Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District staff, daily. For nearly a month I talked daily, with a former colleague and predecessor water commissioner, as he holds the senior right per the Hunt Creek system that was under Call for the first time ever as a “system” with five tributaries in play to meet senior rights at the bottom of the system as two senior rights from the Yampa River that were potentially impaired per actual streamflow available early in the season. Contact as needed with water users on drainages never under Call in order to explain matters and ensure proper administration and compliance.
CG: What memories stand out from prior years prowling Colorado River Headwaters streams?
SH: None, in my 26 year career with DWR there are no years that can compare to 2021, in my opinion.
All across Colorado the snowpack map didn’t look so bad on April 1, 2021, but snowmelt did not make it to the streams in some watersheds, particularly the Colorado River Basin.
This was due to the dry soils and early snowmelt from drought conditions. Note the peaks in the hydrograph showing precipitation.
Back to Scott:
“As we are sitting here on the 22nd of July, the look of the Upper Yampa valley above Stagecoach is a different hue than it was 30 days ago. We’ve been the beneficiary locally of what I would call monsoonal moisture, more traditional summer time monsoonal moisture. Really the first moisture that we’ve seen in months in any significance. I’m not saying that the storms have been significant it’s that they’ve been a little bit consistent. The green here is nice to see but kind of gives the false illusion that we are in a place with our water supply that we’re actually not.”
“#1 [runoff] hit me right between the eyes. Absolutely no runoff whatsoever, none. That is just the most shocking thing for myself and the longtime locals. I mean multi-generational ranching families are experiencing that, they never have, they never even contemplated that they would, that they could.”
“Placing calls on streams that have never been on call previously, ever. Understanding the severity of the situation by listening to my water users and one quote that really caught my ear here recently per a meeting we had some local water users and the CWCB in regards to some instream flow issues. The question was posed to the water user, ‘What are you seeing this year?’ And his reply was, quote, ‘My family has been here for a 135 years and there has never been a year like this, ever.'”
“For example, in a normal year, instead of the 20 cfs passing by us over to our left, it would be closer to a 100 cfs so I have a ditch that’s about 2.5 miles up the river from where we’re sitting right now, has a water right for 5.4 cfs. I was there yesterday and it was only pulling about a little over a foot and a half but there was plenty of water in the river. But they lost some of the pressure at their check dam on the river so they need to get back in the river to re-construct their check to keep water moving and pressured up on their headgate. That has been an issue throughout the season on every drainage that we have. Some of the photos that I sent to you early in the season where the river was pretty much being swept like at the Stafford Ditch or the Oakton Ditch. For the last 30 days it was a different picture, there was much more water there, but we’re now starting to trim back to where we were back in late May going back into mid-May and I’m afraid that by, in a month, in another 30 days…I’m not optimistic about what the flow regimes will be like. I think we’ll continue to see streamflows drop back to levels that we saw previously in the season and maybe lower. Especially on the side tribs.”
“If you went back to CO-131 and you drive up the river towards Yampa keep your view on the east side of the valley from basically Oak Creek to Toponas. On the east side of the valley here none, and I literally mean none, of the tributaries that came off the east side of the valley up high on the west facing slopes, none of those streams had any water in them on the first of May. I mean, so little that it was a trickle. It wasn’t enough to fill…there’s a number of small reservoirs on the east side of the valley that came nowhere near to filling, no where near being even a quarter full. And there are meadows that would usually be irrigated from runoff off the streams on the east side of the valley that never saw water this year. And, if you drove back to the south and looked up high you would see those dry meadows, they stick out like a sore thumb.”
“[There was a diverter] whose headgate was leaking and the measuring device was non-functional and you know they may not have [that maintenance on the schedule] prior to the start of the season, we were simply in a position that, based on never having to administer that system before had to have every device functioning properly. Luckily that particular user got right on it, fixed the headgate, fixed the device, and I was able turn his water back on to him in a fairly timely manner. But I think that a lot of folks, if they haven’t, are going to be paying more attention to the necessity of measurement.”
“One of the biggest concerns to my local ag users, stock producers, is going to be the availability of stock water as we move into the late summer and the fall. We have people all over S. Routt County, and when I say S. Routt County, that includes the portion of the county that is outside my jurisdiction that is actually in Water Division 5, the headwaters of the Colorado River. We have had people down around McCoy hauling stockwater since May and I’ve noticed more water tanks running up and down highway 131, between Oak Creek and Yampa hauling water as well.”
“Not only for stock but also for domestic potable purposes. Some folks still have hand-dug wells for example. And because of a lack of tailwater and runoff some of those hand-dug wells have actually gone dry at some of the older ranch homes. I know for a fact that there are at least two older ranch homes that have traditionally been served by springs and the springs have gone dry. And they’re looking perhaps at replacing their springs with a well and cost of doing that, of course.”
“The other concern for stock growers in this area right now and throughout the summer irrigation season is the lack of pasture. Lots of stock growers are pasturing animals on meadows that they normally would have irrigated to grow hay on all summer long. They have cows out on meadows that normally you wouldn’t see them on this time of year.”
“So when you came from Oak Creek for example, the old depot, the red depot, down there…You can actually park right there and get cell service. It’s spotty around here, yeah.”
Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Trust (Dana Dallavalle) and the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District (Holly Kirkpatrick):
Steamboat Springs, Co., (November 18, 2021) – On Wednesday November 17th, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District (UYWCD) board of directors approved a 10-year contract with the Colorado Water Trust (Water Trust) for the purchase of stored water in Stagecoach Reservoir. The water supply contract, deemed for environmental, instream and recreational use, is the first long-term contract that extends beyond temporary one-year contracts between UYWCD and the Water Trust in years past.
Since 2012, the Water Trust has purchased and released 14,500 acre-feet of water into the Yampa River from Stagecoach Reservoir. Water Trust releases help maintain healthy streamflow and water temperature from Stagecoach Reservoir downstream through the City of Steamboat Springs during hot and dry summer months.
Historically, UYWCD and the Water Trust have worked together to negotiate contract terms as needed on an annual basis using state legislation that allowed for environmental water releases to be loaned for instream flow use in 3 out every 10 years.
In 2020, Colorado House Bill 20-1157 was passed, allowing for the establishment of amended rules governing the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s (CWCB) Instream Flow and Natural Lake Level Program, previously governed by the 3 in 10 rule. Effective March 17, 2021, the amended rules provide potential for increased flow rates and expand the temporary loan of water rights for instream flow use from 3 years to 5 years out of every 10 in addition to potential loan renewals for up to three 10-year periods.
Renewable loans through the program could allow environmental releases to bolster flows in the Yampa River for up to 15 out of 30 years if needed.
For the past year, UYWCD and the Water Trust have been working towards a longer-term contract that could help support the Yampa River during low flows and utilize the new state legislation. The new 10-year contract ensures 100 acre-feet of water in the general supply pool of Stagecoach Reservoir will be allocated to the Water Trust each year if supply is available. The contract also allows for the Water Trust to purchase additional water from two other contract pools in Stagecoach Reservoir at various volumes as needed. Payment for water contracted outside of the general supply pool will only be collected if the water is released.
“As drought conditions and water scarcity continue to challenge our basin, having this 10-year contract in place will help minimize some of the recurring challenges we typically face each year when we revisit temporary contracts without constraining UYWCD water supplies or Water Trust funds. Developing longer- term solutions frees up time and money for all our partners to be even more innovative in their collaboration to keep the river flowing,” said Andy Rossi, General Manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District.
UYWCD and the Water Trust will be one of the first in the state to utilize the newly amended statute and rules when they present the 10-year contract as part of their joint application to the CWCB program, which is anticipated to take place in January of 2022. Following completion of the CWCB application review, UYWCD and the Water Trust hope to secure a loan of water rights for instream flow use by spring of 2022, making the first 10-year contract effective through 2032.
“UYWCD and the Water Trust have forged something new here. It’s a big step forward for the Yampa River Project and collaborative water management in general. We can now focus our efforts on the new instream flow loan application, and if we are successful, to expanding the Project’s benefits downstream of the instream flow reach where it can benefit even more of the river and all those who rely upon it,” commented Alyson Meyer Gould, Staff Attorney for the Water Trust.
The success of the Yampa River Project involves many partners and dedicated donors including: The Yampa River Fund, Yampa Valley Community Foundation, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, and individual donors as well as key project partners: The City of Steamboat Springs; Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District; Catamount Development, Inc.; Catamount Metropolitan District; Colorado Parks and Wildlife; Colorado Water Conservation Board; and the Colorado Division of Water Resources. Without these generous donations and the collaborative work of numerous local and statewide entities, water releases to support the health of the Yampa River would not be possible.
When water runs low in the late summer, many small creeks and streams dry up as water is diverted for irrigation, leaving pools scattered around each bend of the channel.
Ranchers and other water users have a right to this diverted water, part of a system that dates back more than 100 years. Until the early ’70s, leaving any amount of water in these creeks was considered a waste.
“There was no beneficial use recognized to keep water in the channel,” said Rob Viehl, a water resources specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Colorado passed a law in 1973 that said the streams had a right to some of the water too by establishing the Instream Flow Program. Nearly 50 years later, the board is considering new rights for two creeks in Routt County, adding to a network of more than 1,700 flow rights decreed across the state.
Deep Creek, which runs from the southwest side of Hahns Peak down into Steamboat Lake, and a stretch of Watson Creek, which is on public and private land west of Yampa, are being considered for the new instream flow rights.
These rights are a little different than traditional water rights because they span between two points on a stream, rather than a point where water is diverted. Between these points, the river is entitled to a certain amount of flow.
The riffles section of a creek will dry up first because it is the shallowest. But it also holds a lot of biological significance for fish and other aquatic species, Viehl said. The Instream Flow Program is meant to consider the uses of water with the benefits there are to leaving it in the creek…
But the program also provides certainty to current rights holders that any of these flow rights would still be administered within the larger system, Viehl said. For the proposed rights on Deep and Watson creeks, Viehl said they would be for 2022, meaning rights established for it are not affected.
That means there is no guarantee that these rights will be able to keep water in the channel year-round, Viehl said.
The rights take about three years to establish and requires another entity to approach the water board with a recommendation. Colorado Parks and Wildlife is the more likely recommending agency, but Viehl said the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies make recommendations, as well…
Deep Creek has a fishery of cutthroat and rainbow trout, riparian plants like willow and alder, and flows down into Steamboat Lake. The proposed right would ensure that there are 2.5 cfs of water flowing from May 1 to July 1, with a lesser amount later in the summer and winter.
Watson Creek’s fishery is different, with longnose and whitehead suckers rather than trout. It also has insects like mayflies and caddisflies, and several riparian grasses. The proposed flow rate would be 1.9 cfs from April 1 to June 21, but there would be no rate through July and early August.
FromThe Colorado Springs Gazette (Carol McKinley and Marianne Goodland):
The Colorado Water Trust is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, with two decades of efforts to restore flows in Colorado rivers. But the trust’s next 20 years will likely face greater challenges of climate change and population growth that are already taking a toll on the state’s waterways.
The trust’s main focus is to improve instream flows, the flows and water levels in a stream or river.
Back in 1973, the Colorado General Assembly recognized the need for a statewide instream flow program. The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) was given the authority to acquire water rights, or lease them, for instream flow purposes. Instream flow water rights, one of the beneficial uses under Colorado’s water rights law, are the exclusive authority of the CWCB.
While the original purpose of the legislation was to “protect the natural environment,” the instream flow program has expanded to address “water requirements for declining, sensitive, and threatened and endangered species, and protection of macroinvertebrate populations and rare riparian vegetation assemblages,” according to the CWCB.
Since 1973, the CWCB has appropriated instream flow rights for 1,700 stream segments covering more than 9,700 miles of stream.
But the instream flow program got off to a slow start, and drought was becoming an increasing problem in Colorado. One of the first big droughts was in the winter of 1976-77, which “sent shock waves through Colorado’s economy and state government.”
There was a gap. The CWCB had the authority over junior water rights for instream flows, but nothing in place to acquire senior water rights.
Those junior rights are useful very high up in the mountains where there aren’t a lot of other rights, said Andy Schultheiss, the trust’s executive director. Senior water rights, on the other hand, are more secure, but the state needed an outside group to scout opportunities for the state to buy or lease those senior water rights.
In 2000, water engineers, water lawyers and conservationists began discussions on how to bolster the instream flow program, and that led to the formation of the trust in 2001.
Like most new water programs in Colorado, the trust faced suspicion from water rights holders early on, especially farmers and ranchers. According to the Colorado Water Exchange, 80% of the state’s water goes toward irrigation, and that’s mostly for agriculture.
“It took us eight or nine years to develop our first project,” Schultheiss said. “There’s a lot of reluctance to try anything new.”
That first major project came in 2009, when Pitkin County and the CWCB signed an agreement, brokered by the trust, to allow the county to lend water for the instream flow program.
Since then, the trust has directed 13.5 million gallons of water through 588 miles of Colorado waterways.
The approach today works like this: The Trust goes to a rancher and says, “How about you stop irrigating, say Aug. 1, and we compensate you for the days you’re missing, and we give the rest of your water to the state to lease it to use in an instream flow reach?” That’s a classic kind of trust project, Schultheiss said.
In an apparently groundbreaking permanent water sharing agreement in 2014, said to be the first in the West, the trust purchased a portion of the water rights on the McKinley Ditch to restore flows to a three-mile segment of the Little Cimarron River, a tributary of the Gunnison River. In spring and summer, the water is available for agricultural irrigation. Late summer and fall, the water heads down the Little Cimarron…
The trust has been trying to improve instream flows on the Yampa since the 2012 drought, according to Schultheiss. In some years, the water they buy from Stagecoach Reservoir represents a third or more of the water in the river, he said.
Back in 2012, the trust recognized that there was water sitting in Stagecoach with very few customers.
“And we said, ‘Why not? Why can’t we just buy water and release water from Stagecoach? There’s an in-stream flow reach just below the dam, and then there’s the city farther down.’”
By 2021, the releases from Stagecoach have been institutionalized, according to Schultheiss. Thanks to the Yampa River Fund, a collaboration between the Steamboat Springs and the Nature Conservancy, and with a $4.5 million endowment to pay for it, the river got a record-breaking 2,000 acre-feet of water from Stagecoach. In a year with severe drought in northwestern Colorado, it was enough to keep the water temperatures down and avoid fish kills and other environmental damage…
“We are a market-based organization. … Our whole reason for being is that we participate in the market on behalf of the environment, and we need money to be able to do that.” — Andy Schultheiss
Here’s the release from the Colorado River Water Conservation District (Marielle Cowdin and Lindsay DeFrates):
Nearly one year since voters approved ballot measure 7A, the subsequent Community Funding Partnership has awarded nearly $3 million in grant funding to 23 multi-benefit West Slope water projects. The Colorado River District Board of Directors greenlighted $780,000 for four larger applications at the recent Fourth Quarterly Board Meeting in addition to two smaller grants approved by River District staff. Additionally, the District Board of Directors approved a new policy statement prioritizing multi-purpose, multi-benefit water projects.
“These six projects represent collaboration between stakeholders across multiple user groups,” said Amy Moyer, Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Colorado River District. “When agricultural producers, environmental non-profits, recreationalists, and local communities join together, the outcome is beneficial for everyone in the watershed.”
The Community Funding Partnership supports multi-benefit projects, Moyer stated, with a goal of geographical equity within the District’s fifteen-county region.
“Our first year of grant funding represents communities across the West Slope. The Colorado River District is proud to provide integral support for projects in every river basin and nearly every county we serve.”
Steward Mesa Ditch Diversion Improvement Project $200,000 awarded, Delta County
The Stewart Mesa Ditch is the second largest agricultural water provider in the North Fork Valley, serving 243 users and supplying water to farms, ranches, and orchards on the South side of the valley. Identified as a priority project via the recent Stream Management Plan, this project will modify and improve the diversion structure and headgate of the ditch. The existing diversion is antiquated and problematic for water users served by the ditch, for recreational users of the river, and for fish, including native fish species. Through this upgrade, the project will protect the ditch from flooding, improve controls, reduce erosion, eliminate safety hazards for boaters, and improve the habitat and population resiliency for fish populations.
Yampa River Forest Restoration Project $150,000 awarded, Routt County
Over a three-year period, the Yampa River Forest Restoration Project aims to restore mid and upper canopy tree cover to reaches of the Upper Yampa River to help reduce summer water temperatures. As identified in the 2018 Stream Management plan, the project offers an innovative, natural infrastructure approach to protecting West Slope water supplies in the face of rising temperatures. The expected outcomes from the project are six acres of new riparian plantings, and 1.5 miles of river with increased shading in reaches where summer temperatures exceed state standards.
Crystal River Restoration at Riverfront Park $100,000 awarded, Garfield County
The Crystal River Restoration Project will restore and enhance a one-half mile, 18-acre reach of the Crystal River as it flows through the Town of Carbondale and improve the efficiency of the town-owned Weaver Ditch headgate and diversion. The project will implement river restoration improvements and water diversion modifications that will result in long term, self-sustaining river channel stability, fish habitat and spawning areas, low flow connectivity, enhanced species diversity and ecosystem resiliency, and create opportunities for recreation including angler access points.
Wolf Creek Reservoir Project Permitting $330,000 awarded, Rio Blanco and Moffat Counties
Since 2013, the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District has conducted planning work to design a water storage project within the White River basin. A 2014 conditional water right for a 66,720 acre-foot reservoir was awarded to the project in January 2021 for the following beneficial uses: municipal, augmentation, mitigation of environmental impacts, hydroelectric power generation, recreation, piscatorial, and wildlife habitat. River District funding is intended to support an inclusive, collaborative permitting process supported by data and responsive to public feedback.
Lower Yampa Augmentation Needs Study $30,350 awarded, Moffat County
The project will fund a Lower Yampa Augmentation Study to investigate anticipated needs for an augmentation plan in parts of the Lower Yampa Basin. This study seeks to quantify augmentation needs, divide the study area into regions that have a common downstream call and potential augmentation source, evaluate the ability to provide augmentation water from Elkhead Reservoir, and, if necessary, present high-level information regarding augmentation sources, outside of Elkhead Reservoir.
Canyon Creek Fish Passage Project $44,114 awarded, Garfield County
This project improves fish passage and productive fish habitat in Canyon Creek by installing concrete baffles and hemispheres within a previously impassable set of concrete box culverts under Interstate 70. This project supports healthy spawning habitat in area affected by recent wildfires and supports new fish passage research to encourage future, nearby projects.
The White and Yampa rivers traditionally supply a comfortable amount of water compared with other waterways across the state, according to Jeff Lukas, a Lafayette climate consultant and former water scientist with the University of Colorado Boulder. But that’s not as much the case recently.
“The whole Colorado River system is on the wrong side of the knife’s edge in the first part of the 21st century,” Lukas said.
Over the last two decades, the Yampa’s average flow decreased by about 6% from its 20th-century average, Lukas said. And the White’s average flow decreased by about 19%.
So officials with Colorado’s Division of Water Resources want to better track who’s taking water from the rivers — and its tributaries — and how much. Better tracking there would bring the division’s northwest region into line with the rest of the state, where that type of data collection is already more common.
Division officials are hosting stakeholder meetings in the region to develop rules by which water usage will be measured and hope to have the process finished by the end of next year, state Engineer Kevin Rein said. And as more data flows in, the state can better allocate water to those legally allowed to take it, an increasingly precise task as droughts continue to plague the Western Slope.
And in the bigger, and unprecedented, picture, if Colorado is called to work with upper- and lower-basin states because not enough water is passing southwest through the Colorado River, it will need that concrete data in hand, Rein said.
“We just need to know where it’s going,” Brain Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, said. “Every drop counts when it comes to water.”
The process underway in northwest Colorado is part of an increasing nationwide trend to better track water use as droughts become more common, Fuchs said…
One key indicator that water is tighter in northwest Colorado is that senior water rights holders along the Yampa River are more frequently calling state engineers to shut off supply for junior rights holders until their thirst is quenched, according to Erin Light, water division engineer for the region.
The first ever call like that on the Yampa came in 2018, Light said. Another followed in 2020 and then another this year, both of which only ended after Colorado River conservation officials agreed to release water from the Elkhead Reservoir, northeast of Craig.
Water shortages and calls like those can spell trouble not only for those in Colorado but also millions more downstream.
Water from the Yampa and White rivers flows into the [Green River then the] Colorado River and ultimately into Lake Powell, making up to a fifth of the reservoir’s water supply each year, Lukas said.
The reservoir, which sank to its lowest level on record this year, supplies water to about 35 million people, irrigates millions of acres of cropland and generates billions of kilowatt-hours of electricity annually.
While calls from senior water rights holders come each year — even in non-drought years — along the Arkansas, Rio Grande and South Platte rivers, Rein said “it’s a new thing to the Yampa.”
Not only are those rivers drying due to climate change but more water is allocated from them than the rivers actually have to offer. And now the historically water-abundant Yampa, which is also over-allocated, appears to be joining those ranks, Light said…
Accounting for water
As Colorado’s rivers dry up, like the Ogallala Aquifer on the eastern plains…for example, governments across the country are working to take better inventory of their water supply, Fuchs said. When those water shortages arise, people start to ask where the water went and who took it.
“All of a sudden these questions are starting to be asked and (governments) can’t really put those cards on the table because they don’t have them,” Fuchs said.
The same logic applies when states strike deals with each other over rivers that cross their borders, Fuchs added. The states not only want to make sure they’re following the agreements but also that they’re keeping as much water as possible.
Colorado’s northwest region represents a gap in the state’s inventory.
As of April, only about 54% of the structures used by water rights holders in Light’s region, which covers Craig and Steamboat Springs, have devices to measure their water usage.
For comparison, about 95% of the structures in the Roaring Fork and Crystal river basins to the southeast have measuring devices, [Aspen Journalism] reported.
In late 2019, Light ordered hundreds of water users in the Yampa River basin to install measuring devices and then in March 2020 she issued formal notices for others along the White and Green rivers to follow suit, the Summit Daily reported. And Light’s office is now holding stakeholder meetings this month across the region as they look to cement consistent rules for what kinds of devices can be used, how they should be maintained and how they measure water use.
Rein said he hopes that the rule-making process could be finished by the end of next year, but he doesn’t want to rush it.
The city of Steamboat Springs is exploring a way to help it stay in compliance with state regulations and also cool down chronically high temperatures in an impaired stretch of the Yampa River.
A program called water-quality trading could allow the city to meet the requirements of its wastewater-treatment facility’s discharge permit from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment by cooling other areas of the river by planting trees.
The Yampa River flows through downtown Steamboat, where several parks and the Core Trail have been built along its banks. The river, a vital and cherished amenity for the Steamboat community, is popular with tubers and anglers. According to a 2017 survey of citizens, 75% of respondents ranked the management and health of the Yampa as essential or very important.
But low flows and high temperatures, made worse in recent years by climate change, have impacted the public’s ability to use one of their favorite amenities. In July, the city closed the river to commercial use because of high temperatures — over 75 degrees. The city also recommended a voluntary closure for noncommercial users of the river.
The entire 57-mile segment of the Yampa from above the confluence with Oak Creek to above the confluence with Elkhead Creek often has temperatures that are too high during the summer months, and in 2016 the segment was designated as impaired for temperature under the Clean Water Act. For July, August, September and November, stream temperatures exceed state standards for a cold-water fishery.
Because the river is classified as impaired, city officials expect that when CDPHE issues a future discharge permit for the city’s wastewater-treatment plant, it will include more-stringent water temperature standards. The wastewater-treatment plant may not be able to meet these standards unless it cools the effluent before releasing it back into the river. The city’s current discharge permit expires at the end of the year.
According to CDPHE Marketing and Communications Specialist Eric Garcia, Steamboat’s next permit will likely not have temperature limits, but will have temperature monitoring requirements. The soonest the city would have temperature limits for the wastewater treatment plan is Jan. 1, 2027.
“These monitoring requirements are included so that we have a full understanding of the temperature issues in the Yampa River and at the plant before we set any temperature limits,” Garcia said in an email.
FromThe Steamboat Pilot & Today (Gene Hinkemeyer):
Did you know the Colorado Department of Natural Resources calls for 80% of prioritized rivers to be covered by a stream management plan by 2030? Yes, that includes our Yampa River Basin.
The Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable — YWG BRT — is one of nine grassroots water policy roundtables throughout Colorado working to develop locally driven, collaborative solutions to water supply challenges. The YWG BRT has been working on an integrated water management plan for the past several years.
The overall goal of the integrated water management plan is to use science, data and community input to build a healthy, productive water future in the Yampa basin for all water users. A committee of volunteers selected by and reporting to the YWG BRT coordinates the project.
Over the past two years, the integrated water management plan has focused on four geographic segments in the basin: upper, middle and lower main stem of the Yampa and the Elk River. Stakeholder interviews were conducted of agricultural, environmental/recreational and municipal/industrial water stakeholders in the basin. Interviews were conducted to learn about stakeholder’s operation and diversion infrastructure, water and riparian land management related concerns and opportunities for improvement.
Diversion assessments were also conducted to identify, evaluate and recommend multibenefit projects. The diversion infrastructure assessment report, which can be found at http://YampaWhiteGreen.com, represents the findings of the structures assessed. The primary goal of the diversion assessments was to gain an understanding of infrastructure used for diversions and to identify locations where infrastructure improvements could provide multiple benefits to the river and water users. These assessments evaluate opportunities that could benefit the structure owner(s), fish passage, recreational boating and overall river health.
So, what do we do with all this information? The integrated water management plan volunteer committee organized three focus areas around key topics to learn more and help identify projects for future work: ag infrastructure; riparian habitat/wetland/natural bank stability; and flows/shortages. A few projects are already in the works, with other projects to begin later this year.
The ag infrastructure work group has identified an initial set of agricultural diversion infrastructure projects that the integrated water management plan hopes to support and fund starting in 2022. Using data collected from interviews, the riparian focused work group has identified landowners with concerns related to erosion, bank stability and riparian habitat. Follow up interviews over the next few months are planned to better characterize their concerns and learn more about potential solutions.
Additional work has been completed, including a remote assessment that provided geomorphic, hydrological and ecological context for the integrated water management plan planning effort. This broad characterization applies remote sensing and GIS-based tools and techniques to assess moderate-resolution data sets across watershed and planning segment scales to identify and map trends and characteristics in physical and biological functions within the basin. Field assessments are underway to ground truth and verify the remote assessment findings.
A fluvial hazard mapping project is also in progress to delineate areas vulnerable to sediment and debris impacts spurred by rainfall or rapid snowmelt. As a final product, these maps can be used to inform land use planning, stream interventions and to identify and prioritize the conservation or restoration of natural geomorphic floodplains, wetlands and river corridors within the basin.
The integrated water management plan volunteer committee has been busy and continues to work hard on community driven plans for the Yampa Basin. We can only be successful with input and ideas from all stakeholders. If you would like to learn more, please visit our website, http://YampaWhiteGreen.com/iwmp.
Gena Hinkemeyer is segment coordinator of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable.
Colorado’s water forecast, already strained by back-to-back drought years, is unlikely to brighten this fall and winter, as forecasts indicate more dry weather lies ahead.
Water planners use something known as the water year to track and predict snow and rain, as well as winds and soil conditions. It begins Oct. 1, leading into the period of critical mountain snows and the spring runoff they generate, and estimations of what it will yield help farmers, cities and others determine how much H20 they will have to work with.
But water year 2022 is getting off to another dusty, dry start.
“The seasonal outlook is not pointing in a favorable direction,” said Peter Goble, a climate specialist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center. “We’re a lot better off than we were a year ago. Having blue skies as opposed to smoke is a big improvement, but we are going into water year 2022 on shaky footing.”
Goble was referring to Colorado’s disastrous fire season during last year’s drought, when the state saw three of the largest wildfires in its history erupt in late summer and early fall.
Last week, at a meeting of the state’s Water Availability Task Force, forecasters said Colorado was likely to experience another La Niña this coming year, a weather pattern that can bring healthy moisture to the Northern Rockies but which often leaves the southwestern portion of the state dry. Because 2020 saw the same La Niña develop, this year’s may bring less moisture.
In the broader Colorado River Basin, water storage levels continue to drop, with total storage at lakes Powell and Mead down to a combined 39% full, below last year’s already low 49% full mark, according to an update released Sept. 22 by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The Colorado River Basin is made up of seven states. Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico comprise the Upper Basin, while Arizona, California and Nevada comprise the lower basin.
In July, Reclamation began a series of emergency water releases from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs in the Upper Basin to help bolster Lake Powell and protect its hydropower generating stations. But conditions there continue to deteriorate.
Lake Powell could see just 44% of average inflows starting in October. Without a snowy winter and spring, hydropower generation at Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam could come to a halt as early as July 2022, according to Reclamation.
“The latest outlook for Lake Powell is troubling,” said Wayne Pullan, director of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin Region.
Weather experts are also deeply worried about a phenomenon that continues to grow in intensity: the arrival of healthy snows that evaporate or seep into parched soils, never reaching streams in the volumes they once did.
Karl Wetlaufer, who is assistant snow survey supervisor at the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said water planners have long relied on a solid connection between snow and subsequent water supplies, where healthy snowpacks were reflected in healthy streamflows.
But with Colorado and other Western states mired in a 20-year drought, where soils get drier and drier each year, streamflow forecasts are becoming less predictable.
“Snowpack [last winter] was not terrible, but with those dry soils and a warm and dry summer we really saw dramatically decreased streamflows,” said Wetlaufer, who is a member of the state’s Water Availability Task Force.
In Northwest Colorado’s Yampa River Basin, snowpack peaked at 90% of average last winter, but streamflows this spring and summer reached only 30% of average.
“As long as I can remember, this is the most dramatic example of the multi-decadal drought’s impact. We are really going to have to start paying closer attention to these dry soils,” Wetlaufer said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
As coal mining fades, a diverse coalition of Moffat County residents and leaders is planning for the next chapter with a focus on protecting resources while managing recreation and tourism.
How can northwest Colorado entice and manage visitors, protect natural landscapes like the Green River’s stunning Gates of Lodore and prop up an economy girding for the looming departure of coal mining?
“As our coal leaves, what do we have left?” asks Jennifer Holloway, the executive director of the chamber of commerce in the town of Craig, where she grew up. “We have an amazing experience that can change lives. How can we share that, but also protect it?”
Three years ago, Moffat County “had some challenges with our identity,” Holloway says, describing how her father, when she was little, walked away from the family farm to work in the better-paying coal mines. “Not everyone had a coal job, but we focused on coal and neglected other things.”
Those other things — like tourism, agriculture and outdoor recreation — are no longer being neglected. It’s been a year since Tri-State Generation and Transmission and Xcel Energy announced they would be closing their coal-fired electrical plants and nearby coal mines starting in 2028. The closures will cost northwest Colorado as many as 800 jobs.
A community-based transition plan focuses on growing the region’s tourism and recreational amenities while protecting agricultural heritage and natural resources. The communities of Moffat County, downstream from the bustling resort of Steamboat Springs, are essentially a blank slate. They are taking cues from other Western Slope communities, hoping to glean lessons on what works and what does not. And the wheels are turning.
“Our community is on the cusp of doing great things, transformational things,” Holloway says.
Craig has applied for a $1.8 million federal grant for the roughly $2.7 million Yampa River Corridor Project, which hopes to revamp boat ramps and add a whitewater park as part of an effort to bolster the region’s appeal with river runners and paddlers. An additional phase of the plan would build a trail connecting Craig to the Yampa River…
First in line for state’s new rural assistance program
Nathan Fey, the head of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office has joined the Office of Economic Development and International Trade in recruiting students from the University of Colorado to map recreational assets in Moffat County as well as business infrastructure.
That case study will inform a larger project that will include local residents in shaping how northwest Colorado is presented to both visitors and outdoor recreation businesses. That larger project is part of Colorado’s new Rural Technical Assistance Program, or RTAP, which offers rural communities technical education that deploys online tools to help community leaders identify needs and build a plan for future growth. The second phase of the rural program involves technical assistance for planning and finally the state will help the community implement its strategic plan.
Moffat County is among the first communities to go through the new Rural Technical Assistance Program.
Say, for example, a snowmobile business or manufacturer approaches the state with an idea about relocating to Colorado. Fey can suggest Craig and Moffat County, offering maps of snow trail systems where the company can test designs as well as insights into supply chain management, broadband and commercial space. And residents in the community would already have expressed interest in welcoming that kind of business.
As he gazes up at massive sandstone cliffs above the Green River near its confluence with the Yampa River, [Andrew Grossman] riffs on what a shifting valuation for tourism economies might look like. Is it attracting wealthier visitors who leave more money in the community? But what if those high-rollers arrive on a private jet and emit that much more carbon than a less affluent visitor? One thing that is going away: the former yardstick for measuring success that was based solely on numbers of visitors.
“Maybe it’s time we apply a triple bottom line that considers resident sentiments, carbon footprints and economic benefit?” Grossmann says. “We have to reshift our value proposition.”
With lower, warmer water levels in the Yampa River during this extreme drought year, town of Hayden employees are carefully watching operations at the water plant this summer to continue to alleviate taste or odor issues for the town’s 1,100 water taps…
[Bryan] Richards said the usual time of heightened summer concern for low water levels and thus increased algae is lasting longer this year, starting about one month earlier than usual in early July rather than the normal early August. Water levels have dropped at the intake on the Yampa River at the water plant north of town, and water temperatures at the intake have increased by 3 to 5 degrees above normal, rising as high as 75 degrees. Lower, slower, warmer water leads to more algae production…
Fortunately, major improvements to the Hayden water treatment plant during the past three years are working to help mitigate the algae increases, said Town Manager Mathew Mendisco. He said the town spent a total of $2.3 million in water system and plant upgrades with half of the funding coming from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and other funding from a citizen-approved bond measure. The plant was first built in 1978…
Town of Hayden water users have been under outdoor water restrictions this summer that mimic city of Steamboat Springs restrictions and resulted in a 3% decrease in overall water use compared to the past three years, even though the watering season started earlier this dry year, Richards said. Hayden water users will need to continue water conservation efforts when the town’s 1 million gallon water tank on hospital hill goes offline for a planned refurbishment starting with the tank drained by the end of August through project completion Oct. 20, Richards said.
Mendisco said the town secured $989,000 in low-interest financing to upgrade the tank through a state revolving loan fund managed by the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority. The town qualified for a 1.5% interest rate based on its status as a “disadvantaged community” dealing with the impacts of the transition from coal.
The town has a 500,000-gallon water tank near Yampa Valley Regional Airport, so officials do not anticipate impacts to water customers when the larger water tank is off line.
The Colorado River District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) is releasing up to 677 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to provide relief to farmers and ranchers in the Yampa Valley impacted by severe drought conditions…
Various agencies and water groups have worked to keep restrictions or “calls” off of the Yampa River for junior water rights holders, but if the drought persists as it has in recent weeks, there is potential that a call may be inevitable. The last call was placed on July 29, the third call in the river’s history, though it was later rescinded on Aug. 2.
Marielle Cowdin, director of public relations at the Colorado River District, said that the release was made possible by the Yampa River Flow Pilot Project, which received $50,000 in funding.
“We have been managers at Elkhead Reservoir of certain pools of water that exist there,” Cowdin said. “So when the call came on the Yampa, earlier this month, we worked in partnership with the Department of Water Resources and their division engineers to release some water to take the call off the Yampa — at least for a temporary time — so that junior water users would not have their water rights curtailed for that short amount of time.”
Because of potential calls in the future, the River District has a financial partnership with the CWCB to provide supplemental water for agricultural producers in the Yampa River Basin. The agreement with CWCB will allow the River District to provide water to local agricultural stakeholders on a first-come, first-serve basis in 2021, specifically for crop and livestock production.
Cowdin also said that because it is only August, the Yampa region still has weeks of potentially hot and dry weather, which could lead to another call. She added that the Colorado River District worked with the state of Colorado and the CWCB to provide contracts with local ranchers and farmers to access the 677 acre-feet of water.
A low snowpack, absent monsoon rains, dry soils, record-high temperatures and thirsty crops made 2020 the third-driest year on record in Colorado, and, according to the Colorado Climate Center, it was the first time since 2012 that 100 percent of the state was in drought for some portion of the year.
A repeat of similar conditions in 2021 is making Colorado’s continuing drought across broad swaths of the state’s Western Slope even more devastating.
“At any given time you can find drought somewhere in our state,” said Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger during a state Drought Task Force tour in Northern Colorado last week. “This may not be the worst drought we’ve ever had, but what makes this year particularly bad is that it follows on the tail of two other droughts [in 2019 and 2020]. We don’t have enough time [between droughts] to recover from the previous drought before we’re in the next one.”
Nowhere is that more clear than in the seven-state Colorado River Basin, where Monday the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation declared the drought situation so extreme that for the first time in history Arizona and Nevada will see their annual water supplies drawn from Lake Mead dramatically reduced.
Closer to home in Colorado, west of the Continental Divide, the state has experienced 50 consecutive weeks of category D4 drought, the most extreme drought condition, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Whether the fall and winter will bring any relief isn’t clear yet.
“I’m not particularly optimistic, unfortunately, about the coming winter,” said Peter Goble, a climatologist with the Colorado Climate Center in Ft. Collins. Goble said La Niña conditions will return for the fall and winter, bringing the potential for more moisture in the north and western parts of the state, but there is little indication that the Four Corners region will get any benefit. In addition, because 2022 is shaping up to be a second La Niña year, “events tend to be warmer and dryer,” he said.
Bolinger described the Colorado River Basin as being at a breaking point and the current drought affecting Colorado, Utah and Arizona as “the final straw that might break the camel’s back.” Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the downstream catchalls, have dropped to historic low levels. The lakes will never be 100 percent full again, said Bolinger, “unless we have 10 amazing winters in a row. The amount of water we have isn’t enough to meet expected demands so in the next 5-10 years we’re going to have to rethink how all of these states are supposed to equally share the water.”
Ranchers across Western Colorado are witnessing water shortages never seen before.
Cattle and sheep are being sold off early. There hasn’t been enough water to grow enough hay. Normally full stock ponds are dry. Grasses are dying. Weeds and grasshoppers are rampant.
“In 40 years this is the first time we’ve had to haul water to our cattle,” said Chad Green, owner of the Little Bear Ranch in the Yampa River Basin. “Usually our irrigation water runs until July 1. This year it was shut off on May 29. We harvested our wheat crop for hay. The past two years have been bad. But this year,” Green paused, “this year is horrible.”
But it’s not just farmers who are suffering. Those who rely on the state’s iconic rivers for recreation are also seeing the devastation this multi-year drought cycle has imposed.
“This river is critical to our community’s health,” said Kara Stoller, CEO of the Steamboat Springs Chamber. Like other mountain communities, Steamboat is home to an array of outdoor gear companies and tubing and rafting companies. And the ski resort relies on the river for snowmaking.
This summer the river has been closed to recreation on multiple occasions to relieve stress on the fish population.
“Our water resources are our lifeblood,” said Stoller.
Bolinger doesn’t feel the “doom and gloom on a state level” that she feels for the entire Colorado River Basin. “But when people talk about drought, they talk about the new normal. We haven’t gotten to the new normal yet. We’re on the climate change train and things are still changing. Where we land will ultimately dictate what things look like.”
To Marsha Daughenbaugh, a 4th generation rancher near Steamboat Springs, the relentless dry spells are about much more than the condition of the local ranching economy.
“This is just one ranch, one county, one region, one state, but really, this is the story of the whole West,” Daughenbaugh said.
Dean Krakel is a photographer and writer based in Almont, Colo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With lower, warmer water levels in the Yampa River during this extreme drought year, town of Hayden employees are carefully watching operations at the water plant this summer to continue to alleviate taste or odor issues for the town’s 1,100 water taps.
“We are always concerned, but we are paying close attention this year due to the abnormal conditions we’ve been experiencing,” said Bryan Richards, Hayden public works director. “We are trying to be very cognizant of the potential water quality problems that may occur in the river. This is a tremendous drought year, and we want to make sure we don’t miss anything.”
Richards said the usual time of heightened summer concern for low water levels and thus increased algae is lasting longer this year, starting about one month earlier than usual in early July rather than the normal early August. Water levels have dropped at the intake on the Yampa River at the water plant north of town, and water temperatures at the intake have increased by 3 to 5 degrees above normal, rising as high as 75 degrees. Lower, slower, warmer water leads to more algae production…
Fortunately, major improvements to the Hayden water treatment plant during the past three years are working to help mitigate the algae increases, said Town Manager Mathew Mendisco. He said the town spent a total of $2.3 million in water system and plant upgrades with half of the funding coming from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and other funding from a citizen-approved bond measure. The plant was first built in 1978…
Town of Hayden water users have been under outdoor water restrictions this summer that mimic city of Steamboat Springs restrictions and resulted in a 3% decrease in overall water use compared to the past three years, even though the watering season started earlier this dry year, Richards said. Hayden water users will need to continue water conservation efforts when the town’s 1 million gallon water tank on hospital hill goes offline for a planned refurbishment starting with the tank drained by the end of August through project completion Oct. 20, Richards said.
Mendisco said the town secured $989,000 in low-interest financing to upgrade the tank through a state revolving loan fund managed by the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority. The town qualified for a 1.5% interest rate based on its status as a “disadvantaged community” dealing with the impacts of the transition from coal.
The town has a 500,000-gallon water tank near Yampa Valley Regional Airport, so officials do not anticipate impacts to water customers when the larger water tank is off line…
Mendisco said town officials are working with water engineering firm Leonard Rice Engineers in Glenwood Springs to make a decision on whether the town will take the historic step to call the water reserves it owns in Yamcolo and Stagecoach reservoirs in South Routt County. The town has 500 acre-feet of combined water reserves in the two reservoirs that are managed through Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District.
Mendisco said the decision will be made by Monday depending on rain received before then.
More than 50 people ranging from legislative aides to state department heads participated in an on-the-ground opportunity to learn about the extreme drought in Northwest Colorado during this week’s Drought Impacts Tour in the Yampa and White River Basins.
On two warm, hazy days, state and local leaders conversed during bumpy bus rides and educational stops at ranches, lakes and the Yampa River in Routt and Moffat counties. During the tour, participants and educators discussed many aspects of drought impacts such as agricultural livelihood, recreation, tourism, wildlife, water, wildfires and forest management.
“I have been learning way more than I ever expected on this drought tour. Hearing directly from ranchers and the things that they are experiencing is truly eye-opening and wonderful,” said Becky Bolinger, Ph.D., assistant state climatologist who works at the Colorado State University Colorado Climate Center. “We do know that the climate is warming, and with that warming climate, we are experiencing more frequent droughts, more severe droughts. These are things that all Coloradans are going to have to deal with.”
Bolinger said a key point people need to realize is how to make the connection between climate science information and residents’ own changes in work practices, especially in agricultural and tourism businesses. Bolinger said the facts of the shifting climate need to translate into changes in business practices and seasonal offerings in order to prepare for a warmer, drier future in Colorado.
“Knowing that they are already prepared by improving their management practices and other things to mitigate the impacts but also to adapt, hopefully it’s not always going to be this doom and gloom situation when we are talking about climate change,” Bolinger said.
The atmospheric scientist said Coloradans should focus on “always working on actionable solutions and getting through this together.”
The tour was organized by the Colorado Drought Task Force, which includes directors of multiple state departments such as natural resources and agriculture. The task force operated in past times of drought and was activated again by the governor in 2020. Task force information listed online (http://cwcb.colorado.gov/drought) notes that water year 2020 concluded as the 12th warmest water year on record in Colorado since 1895 and the third driest water year on record, trailing only 2002 (driest) and 2018 (second driest)…
Gov. Jared Polis joined for part of the tour on Wednesday in Moffat County including a picnic at Loudy-Simpson Park south of Craig…
One message from the tour is that drought-related financial assistance and grant opportunities are broad and plentiful at this time. Leonard encouraged agencies, nonprofits and agricultural producers to review funding options found at http://cwcb.colorado.gov/drought-assistance.
For example, the Colorado Department of Agriculture is promoting new stimulus funding available as of July 1, including $2.5 million to expand market opportunities for funding for Colorado Proud producers, $5 million to expand agricultural efficiency and soil health initiatives, $30 million for agricultural revolving loan and grant programs including for individual farmers and ranchers, and more than $1.8 million for agriculture drought resiliency activities that promote the state’s ability to anticipate, prepare for, mitigate, adapt to or respond to drought.
The CWCB Agricultural Emergency Drought Response Program has a $1 million fund available on a rolling basis that provides immediate aid for emergency augmentation water during drought years in the form of loans or grants.
Utilities with goals of producing 100 percent renewable energy in Colorado must figure out how to reliably deliver electricity when relying upon resources, primarily wind and sunshine, that aren’t always reliable.
The answer may lie in water, and some of that water may come from Colorado’s Yampa River.
Colorado’s two largest electrical utilities, Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation and Transmission, are talking about the potential for green hydrogen and other possible storage technologies associated with their existing coal-fired power plants, at Hayden and Craig, in the Yampa Valley. Both plants are scheduled to shut down, with Hayden slated to close by 2028 and Craig by 2030.
Duane Highley, the chief executive of Tri-State, told member cooperatives in a meeting Aug. 4 that Tri-State and the State of Colorado have partnered in a proposed Craig Energy Research Station.
Hydrogen has been described as the missing link in the transition away from fossil fuels. It can be produced in several ways. Green hydrogen, the subject of the proposal at Craig, is made from water using electrolysis. The oxygen separated from the H2O can be vented, leaving the hydrogen, a fluid that can be stored in tanks or, as is in a demonstration project in Utah, in salt caverns. The hydrogen can then be tapped later as a fuel source to produce electricity or, for that matter, put into pipelines for distribution to fueling stations.
How much water will be required to produce green hydrogen isn’t clear. But the Yampa Valley’s existing coal-fired plants have strong water portfolios that could be used to create green hydrogen or another storage technology called molten salt. The latter is the leading candidate at the Hayden plant, co-owned by Xcel Energy and its partners.
Craig Generating Station in 2021 is projected to use 7,394 acre-feet of water, according to a Tri-State filing with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. By 2029, the last year of coal generation at Craig, Tri-State projects water use will decline to 4,270 acre-feet.
Xcel Energy also has water rights associated with its somewhat smaller two-unit Hayden Generating Station.
When Tri-State first announced last year its plans to close its coal units, some hoped the utility would allow the water to continue downstream, aiding fish and habitat in the Yampa Valley. The Yampa, arguably Colorado’s least trammeled river, since 2018 has been plagued by drought. In early August, water managers placed a call on the middle section of the Yampa River for only the third time ever.
Western Resource Advocates, which works in both energy and water, has supported the green hydrogen proposal. But there’s also hope that a water dividend will still be realized in this transition, resulting in more water available for the Yampa, which is a major tributary to the Colorado River.
“If we do it right, we have the chance to equitably share the impacts and solutions to climate change all across Colorado and the West, with benefits for communities, economies and the environment,” says Bart Miller, director of the Healthy Rivers Program for Western Resource Advocates.
Green hydrogen, similar to wind and solar in the past, has a cost hurdle that research at Craig, if it happens, will seek to dismantle. The federal government’s Energy Earthshots Initiative announced in June hopes to drive the costs down 80% by the end of the decade. That is the program in which Tri-State hopes to participate.
Tri-State’s Highley suggested at the meeting last Thursday that the Craig site should swim to the top of the proposals, because it is an existing industrial site, and the Craig and Hayden units also have high-voltage transmission lines. This is crucial. Those lines dispatch electricity to the Front Range and other markets but they can also be used to import electricity from the giant wind farms being erected on Colorado’s Eastern Plains as well as solar collectors on rooftops and in backyards.
In addition, Craig and Hayden have workforces that, at least in theory, could be transitioned to work in energy storage projects.
Western Resource Advocates, in a June 30 letter to the Department of Energy, made note of that consideration. “A green, zero-carbon hydrogen project at Craig Station is an opportunity to demonstrate how the clean energy transition can also be a just transition for fossil fuel-producing communities,” said the letter signed by Erin Overturf, the Clean Energy Program director.
Several state agencies will likely play a role, said Dominique Gomez, deputy director of the Colorado Energy Office, including the Office of Just Transition that was established in 2019 and the Office of Economic Development and International Trade.
At Craig, the vision is “to provide researchers access to the key resources necessary to perform their research, including water, transmission and site space,” Tri-State spokesman Mark Stutz said in an e-mail. “As the initial step, Tri-State and the state plan to engage a group of stakeholders to facilitate the development of the center.”
The Department of Energy has not indicated when it expects to announce the finalists or grant funding.
At Hayden, where the coal units are scheduled to close in 2028, Xcel Energy says it is in the early stages of studying potential for molten salt, the leading energy storage technology at this time, but also green hydrogen.
Water use will depend upon the size of the projects, said Xcel representative Michelle Aguayo in a statement. “It’s important to remember the amount of water used in power generation in Colorado is relatively small, representing 0.3% of water diversion in the state.”
Xcel already participates in a hydrogen pilot project in Minnesota, its home state for operations, and has proposed natural gas plants in North Dakota and Minnesota that are to be designed to use hydrogen technology when it becomes viable and cost-effective.
“As we’ve said before, we’re focused on identifying and exploring technologies that will allow us to bring our customers carbon-free energy by 2050, technologies that are not available or cost effective today,” she said.
Long-time Colorado journalist Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, an e-magazine that covers the energy and other transitions in Colorado. He can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
From email from the Colorado Water Conservation Board:
The Colorado River District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) announced a partnership to release up to 677 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to provide relief to farmers and ranchers in the Yampa Valley impacted by severe drought conditions.
Governor Polis announced this partnership during the Northwest Drought Tour – a two-day event that brought state officials and decision makers through Steamboat Springs and Craig to see first-hand impacts of drought on agriculture and other industries, and to find collaborative solutions and resources for the region.
The Yampa River Basin is one of many in Western Colorado suffering the effects of increasing temperatures, decreasing precipitation, and soil aridity, adding pressure to an already limited water supply.
“I am proud that the Colorado River District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board are doing their part by releasing 677 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to local farmers and ranchers free of charge. Northwest Colorado continues to face exceptional drought conditions, with hot temperatures, dry soils, and reduced runoff, which impacts farmers and ranchers,” said Governor Polis. “Partnerships like this one showcase how collaboration and working together can help find local solutions. My administration will continue to work with local and federal entities to assist Coloradans as we navigate this systemic drought’s impact on our agricultural economy and local communities.”
The Colorado River District recently coordinated with the Division of Water Resources in an effort to postpone restrictions or a “call” on the Yampa River with releases from the District’s 2021 Yampa River Flow Pilot Project at Elkhead Reservoir. However, with water flows in the basin remaining low and water demands consistent, there is still the potential for future restrictions or “calls” in the Yampa River Basin.
In advance of this forecast, the River District initiated a financial partnership with the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to provide supplemental water for agricultural producers in the Yampa River Basin.
“We are attempting to free up all available resources through innovative partnerships in the face of this ongoing drought,” said Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller. “This hotter, drier climate is hitting the small family farms and ranches along the Yampa River hard. We’re taking quick action to protect our constituents and the communities relying on these farmers and ranchers across the basin and the state.”
The agreement with CWCB will allow the River District to provide water to local agricultural stakeholders on a first-come, first-serve basis in Irrigation Year 2021, specifically for crop and/or livestock production. Through the CWCB, the state will provide the financial support necessary to pay for the stored water in Elkhead Reservoir for late season use by ranchers and farmers who depend on the Yampa River for irrigation and watering their livestock.
“As we continue to see compounded drought years that impact all Coloradans, including our agricultural producers, it is critical that we work together on collaborative solutions to meeting our future water needs,” said CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell. “We are proud to support the Colorado River District in their efforts to provide additional water to the Yampa Valley farmers and ranchers in need.”
Available water through the Elkhead Reservoir release is limited, however, and therefore is available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Those interested in applying should contact the Colorado River District’s Director of Asset Management, Hunter Causey, at email@example.com.
Here’s the release from the Colorado River District (Marielle Cowdin and Lindsay DeFrates):
Hotter temperatures and the long-running drought have dried soils and reduced runoff across the Western Slope, but certain river basins have taken harder hits. Last Thursday, July 29, the Colorado Division of Water Resources placed a call on the Yampa River, restricting water use for junior water rights holders.
“This is only the third time the Yampa has ever been on call,” said Hunter Causey, Director of Asset Management and Chief Engineer at the Colorado River District. “The previous call was last year, but this year’s is almost a month earlier, which highlights what an extraordinary drought we are in.”
The following weekend’s monsoonal rains, however, brought some relief and added opportunity; the call was taken off the Yampa at 11 a.m. on Monday, August 2. Working cooperatively with engineers at the Division of Water Resources, the Colorado River District will help to keep the call off the river to aid downstream farmers and ranchers with releases from Elkhead Reservoir. The 1,500 acre-feet designated for this effort will serve to postpone another call but is unlikely to do so indefinitely.
The Elkhead releases are part of the 2021 Yampa River Flow Pilot Project, a collaborative effort to better understand the need for additional water supplies in the Yampa River Basin for historical water users while enhancing river flows for endangered fish and recreational users. The Pilot Project was funded earlier this year by the River District’s Community Funding Partnership, a result of the voter-approved 7A ballot question last November.
“This demonstrates the positive and immediate impacts of the River District’s Community Funding Partnership, the funding program made possible by 7A,” said Amy Moyer, Director of Strategic Partnerships at the River District. “We worked quickly with multiple partners to secure these releases. This is how we are navigating extraordinary times and connecting with all our water users.”
Alongside these Pilot Project releases, a study is currently underway in partnership with Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association and Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District. The Yampa Storage Modelling project is exploring options to more fully utilize water releases from reservoirs in the Yampa Basin to benefit agricultural water users.
Additionally, the Colorado River District is currently working on additional efforts to provide relief for farmers and ranchers at the end of the summer season.
“These partnerships highlight the importance of cooperative efforts to keep water flowing as we face an uncertain future regarding water supply,” said River District General Manager Andy Mueller. “The Colorado River District will continue to be an active voice for West Slope water users and the health of our rivers.”
Powered by a $2 million endowment, the Yampa River Fund is building a more resilient waterway.
…folks whose lives are tied to one of the [Colorado River Basin’s] tributaries in northwestern Colorado aren’t standing by idly. In September 2019, more than 20 regional partners from throughout the Yampa River Valley, including recreation-focused businesses, farmers, nonprofits, and municipalities, joined forces to create the Yampa River Fund. Powered by a nearly $4 million endowment, the fund is doing what individual actors cannot: financing environmental restoration projects, agricultural infrastructure improvements, and releases from nearby reservoirs to ensure farmers, recreationists, and wildlife all have enough water to thrive.
None of this will reverse climate change, but the healthier the Yampa is, the better it will be at weathering a hotter, drier world. This understanding is what brought so many diverse—and sometimes seemingly contradictory—interests together. “We focus on creating win-win-win solutions,” says Nancy Smith, Colorado River Program conservation director at the Nature Conservancy, one of the fund’s founding entities. Smith emphasizes that third “win” because consensus is key: “The working group that created the fund took the time to build trust with one another so that everyone in that valley who depends on the river felt like they had a place at the table.”
Using the proceeds from its endowment, the fund has awarded $400,000 in grants over the past two years. Here’s how it breaks down.
Grant Recipient: Moffat County
Moffat County used a grant to bolster the riverbank at Loudy Simpson Park, which was eroding, in part, due to the growing number of people using the steep shoreline to access the river. A new boat ramp built to handle the crowds will limit future erosion (and open six additional miles of river to boaters by creating a new downstream takeout), and an ADA-compliant ramp helps wheelchair users easily access the water.
Grant Recipients: Trout Unlimited and the Yampa Valley Stream Improvement Charitable Trust
The fund has awarded three grants to rehabilitate sections of the Yampa and its tributaries. The work includes improving fish habitat and riparian zones (the border between the water and the land) and stabilizing shorelines to stop the tributaries from carving away at productive farmland.
Grant Recipient: Colorado Water Trust
To combat rising water temperatures and decreasing water levels—both of which harm wildlife, including four species of endangered fish—the fund pays for strategic releases of cold water from nearby reservoirs. The releases also increase water security for local farmers and help keep the river open for recreationists, who pump tourism dollars into the region.
Grant Recipient: The Nature Conservancy
This outlay pays for the permits needed to rebuild the125-year-old Maybell Ditch headgate, which diverts water from the Yampa into an irrigation canal. The new headgate will be more efficient, meaning more water for farmers and wildlife, and safer for boaters, who often avoid this section of river, in part because of the dangerous hydraulics created by the structure’s weir dam. The new, fish-friendly design will also ease passage for endangered species, like the razorback sucker.
Grant Recipient: The city of Craig
Craig received a grant to help pay for a whitewater park to diversify its tourism economy. A new diversion dam will also sustain the city’s water supply and allow fish to move up and down the river to spawn, feed, and escape to deeper water when river levels drop.
Grant Recipient: Yampa Valley Sustainability Council
Volunteers with the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council’s ReTree program have been planting cottonwoods, alders, and willows along the Yampa for more than a decade. In 2020, the council used a grant to procure an irrigation system to increase the saplings’ survival rates, and this year it received another disbursement to cover 2022’s expenses, such as site preparation. One of the main goals is to create more shade to help mitigate rising water temperatures.
Greenway Master Plan
Grant Recipient: The town of Oak Creek
Oak Creek obtained funds to aid the design of a new greenway along a portion of its neglected namesake waterway. Construction will improve access and include rehabbing the creek’s banks, vegetation, and wildlife habitat. A healthy riparian zone can help regulate water levels by soaking up runoff and slowly releasing it into the creek.
Flows in the Yampa River dropped to near 40 cubic feet per second on Sunday afternoon — just a quarter of the amount of water flowing the same day last year.
The water’s temperature eclipsed 80 degrees last Thursday and has often been well over 75 degrees in the past week — the temperature that closed the river to recreation earlier this month.
But at 8:45 a.m. Monday morning [July 26, 2021], the outlet valve at Stagecoach Reservoir was opened a little bit further and 20 cfs more of water was flowing into the river.
This will bring the outward flow from Stagecoach up to about 40 cfs with the goal of boosting water levels and decreasing temperature in the Yampa as it flows through Steamboat Springs.
“I think (the strategic releases) are very effective at protecting the health of the river,” said Andy Rossi, general manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, which owns and operates Stagecoach.
The releases hope to buoy flows in the Yampa and protect its aquatic species, as Northwest Colorado is entrenched in the worst level of drought recorded by the U.S. Drought Monitor and several stretches of the river have been closed to recreation, including one of the most popular stretches to fish in the state…
While the release will help increase flows and sustain the health of the river, Rossi said it likely wouldn’t have enough of an effect on its own to open the river back up for commercial outfitters and anglers.
The release was purchased by the Colorado Water Trust, which finalized a contract to purchase 1,000 acre-feet of water with an option for another 1,000 acre-feet with the conservancy district earlier this month.
This amounts to 40 acre-feet of additional water released into the river each day, with the first 1,000 acre-feet lasting until about the third week in August, Rossi said. The district and trust will meet weekly about the releases, and Rossi said he expected to know when and how much of the other 1,000 acre-feet of water would be released before then.
When that 2,000 acre-feet of water has been used up, the city of Steamboat Springs plans to coordinate with community partners to release additional water and maintain the health of the river.
The water trust raised over $100,000 to support releases this year from both Stagecoach and Elkhead Reservoir further downstream. More than 90% of that money came from the Yampa River Fund, which is a collaboration with more than 20 community partners, including outdoor recreation businesses, the city of Steamboat, the Yampa Valley Community Foundation and Routt and Moffatt counties, among others…
The trust opted to release the water now because of how hot the water in the river got last week and how low flows had dwindled. It will likely take at least a day to see the impacts of the release, as it will take time for the water to flow from Stagecoach, which includes going through Lake Catamount.
The trust has spent nearly a half-million dollars since 2012 on 12,000 acre-feet of water releases from Stagecoach. The first 1,000 acre-feet of water from the most recent release will cost $45,560.
This water will be shepherded by the Division of Water Resources locally, ensuring that another water user does not remove the release from the river until at least the Steamboat wastewater treatment plant to the west of town.
The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District has already released about 1,600 acre-feet of water this year for environmental purposes when water was only coming into the reservoir at a trickle…
Starting Aug. 1, the reservoir is required to release at least 20 cfs to satisfy permits for hydropower production, though it has been releasing about that much for most of the year.
The release requires navigating some legal hoops, as the current laws were not designed for purchases of water that are meant to stay in the river. This requires the trust to partner with an entity like Steamboat, which is justifying the release as water temperature mitigation.
At the moment, Frank Alfone, manager of the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District, thinks he supplies Steamboat Springs with some of the best water in Colorado.
The popular ski town relies on Fish Creek for about 93 percent of its normal supply. The postcard Rocky Mountain stream starts as snowmelt before collecting into a narrow canyon, where hikers flock to watch it roar over a 280-foot waterfall.
The water is placid and clear by the time it arrives at the district’s main treatment plant above the city, but Alfone expects that will change sometime soon. After months of drought, Colorado’s two largest active wildfires are burning near Steamboat Springs.
If a future blaze hits the Fish Creek watershed, the charred landscape could erode anytime it rains, possibly turning the city’s primary water source into a turbid soup of ash and debris. The sediment could fill reservoirs, trigger algal blooms or poison water quality with heavy metals…
The Mount Werner Water District and the City of Steamboat Springs are trying to get ahead of similar challenges. Their joint wildfire protection plan, published in 2019, details projects to guard against wildfire in Fish Creek and protect water resources if necessary. It’s the sort of effort experts say other communities should undertake, especially since forests supply 80 percent of U.S. water resources…
Preventing a fire until you can’t
A map helped kickstart Steamboat Springs’ planning effort.
The Colorado State Forest Service updates a detailed look at fire risk across the state every five years. Kelly Romero-Heaney, who managed water resources for Steamboat Springs until earlier this year before leaving for the state, said it was impossible to miss Fish Creek as an area of concern.
“It lit up bright red on the map,” Romero-Heaney said.
The 26-square-mile drainage basin looks like a misshapen funnel from above. Two high-elevation reservoirs collect snowmelt and channel water into tributaries that feed Fish Creek. A narrow canyon carries the water until it reaches Steamboat Springs and meets the Yampa River.
The protection plan, funded with a $50,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, modeled the most likely ignition sources for a fire within the watershed. It quickly zeroed in on the Sanctuary Neighborhood, a high-end development north of downtown Steamboat. If a fire started there, it could quickly rocket up the canyon and affect larger parts of the watershed.
The finding helped spur residents to take action…
Carolina Manriquez, a forester with the Colorado State Forest Service in Steamboat Springs who advised the fire protection plan, said those preventative efforts only go so far in areas strained by drought and growing numbers of residents.
“The bottom line is there’s not a lot we can do to minimize the fire risk,” Manriquez said…
Always have a backup
Alfone said fire risk is one reason the Mount Werner Water District developed a backup supply.
In 2018, Mount Werner expanded a second water treatment plant fed by wells along the Yampa River. If the district ever lost access to Fish Creek, he said it would likely have to restrict outdoor water use but could continue to supply indoor water from the auxiliary plant.
The City of Steamboat Springs also owns additional water rights along the Elk River. In the long-term, he said the city could develop the resource into an additional backup…
Over the next two decades, Alfone said the water district also hopes to upgrade its primary treatment plant along Fish Creek to handle water tainted by wildfire runoff. A new intake could help filter out ash and debris and a redesigned filtration system might also improve taste and toxin issues after the smoke clears from the water basin. Each project is outlined in the fire protection plan.
Alfone said the district would likely pay for the improvements through loans, water customer rate hikes or trying to win federal grants.
He is optimistic about the last option. President Biden recently doubled the size of a Federal Emergency Management Agency program to help communities prepare for extreme weather events. The water district likely qualifies after Routt County included the project in its overall disaster-planning efforts.
State officials are preparing for a future with less water by developing rules and guidance for water users to measure how much they are taking from streams.
State Engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources Kevin Rein is planning a rule-making process on measurement devices that includes stakeholder input. Although state engineers in each water division have the authority to enforce the requirement of measurement devices, Rein said drafting more formal rules through an administrative rule-making process, instead of an ad hoc push like in the Yampa River basin, would affirm that authority. Rules would also include specific technical guidance on the best types of flumes, weirs and meters to use for different types of diversions.
“The idea about rule-making is that we would have consistent guidance across the basin, developed through a formal process,” Rein said. “One thing I’ve found is that when you have stakeholder involvement in the development, then you have stakeholder buy-in during the implementation.”
Yampa/White/Green river basin
Division 6 Engineer Erin Light is still taking a lenient stance with water users in the White and Green river basins while the measurement rules are developed. In fall 2019, Light ordered nearly 500 water users in the Yampa River basin to install measuring devices to record their water use and initially received some push-back from agricultural water users unaccustomed to measuring their diversions.
In March 2020, Light issued notices to water users in the White and Green, but decided to delay sending formal orders after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the economy. Orders are still on pause while Rein’s office develops the measurement rules, which would apply across the Western Slope.
“It made more sense to wait for the measurement rules to at least get started, maybe not necessarily get completed, but allow Kevin to get out and start doing the stakeholder meetings and encourage these structures to be installed without orders,” Light said.
Compliance is gradually increasing across the basin, but at a slower pace than Light would like. In January 2020, 49% of diversions in the Yampa River basin did not have a measuring device; as of April 2021, 42% were still without one. White River basin compliance has improved from 83% without a measuring device to 68% over the same time period; water users in the Green have gone from 69% to 49%. As a whole, Division 6 has gone from 55% of diversions without measuring devices to 46%.
“I would have hoped that we would have had more compliance at this point,” Light said. “I look at those numbers and think we still have some work in front of us and how are we going to accomplish our goal, which is to assure that all of these structures that we maintain records on have operable headgates and measuring devices.”
In some basins on the Western Slope, nearly all diversions already have measuring devices. For example, in the Roaring Fork and Crystal river basins, about 95% of the structures have devices, according to Colorado Department of Natural Resources Communications Director Chris Arend. That’s because there has traditionally been more demand and competition for water in these basins, he said.
Water shortages drive measurement push
The push for Western Slope diverters to measure their water use comes down to impending water shortages. Division 6, in sparsely populated northwest Colorado, has traditionally enjoyed abundant water and few demands, but as climate change tightens its grip on the West, there is less water to go around. Calls by senior water users have gone from unheard of to increasingly common in just the last few years.
“We definitely have systems on call that have never been on call,” Light said of current conditions in the Yampa.
A call occurs when a senior water rights holder is not getting their full amount they are entitled to. They place a call with state engineers, who shut off more junior water rights users so the senior user can get their full amount. Under Colorado’s prior appropriation system, the oldest water rights have first use of the river.
“If you don’t have a measuring device during a call, we are shutting you off, period,” Light said.
As the threat of a Colorado River Compact call and the possibility of a state demand-management program grow, state officials say the need to measure water use grows, too.
A compact call could occur if the upper-basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the lower basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — as required by the 1922 compact. Colorado water managers desperately want to avoid this scenario, in part because it could trigger mandatory cutbacks for water users.
If a compact call were to play out, measuring devices would be crucial, because as Rein says, you can’t administer what you can’t measure.
“We need to better measure what has been diverted, so having measurement rules and therefore measuring devices in place will be critical to prepare for and implement compact administration, should it happen,” he said.
The state is also currently exploring a potential demand management program, which would temporarily pay irrigators to not irrigate and leave more water in the river. The goal would be to boost water levels in Lake Powell and avoid a compact call. But in order to participate in the voluntary program, feasibility of which is still being evaluated, irrigators need to first measure their water diversions.
“We would have to know how much they were using in the years before, before we can give them credit for not using it,” Rein said.
Low interest in grant funding
One of the reasons Light originally paused enforcing the measurement device requirement in the White River basin was to give conservancy districts time to secure grant money to help irrigators pay for the potentially expensive infrastructure. But there was not much interest from water users in getting grant money, according to Callie Hendrickson, executive director of the White River & Douglas Creek Conservation Districts.
“We did not proceed with (securing grants),” she said. “We didn’t hear from very many people that they were seeking funding.”
The story was similar on the Yampa. The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District had a $200,000 pot of money — half of it state grant money and half from the district — to reimburse water users for installing measuring devices. Irrigators can get 50% of their costs covered, up to $5,000 through the first tier of the grant program. According to Public Information and External Affairs Manager Holly Kirkpatrick, despite a very simple application process, the program has doled out just under $40,000 so far for about 20 projects.
“I had certainly hoped to have more interest in the first year of the program,” she said.
As Rein plans for webinars and meetings with water users later this summer and fall, the situation in the Colorado River basin grows more dire. The Bureau of Reclamation this week began emergency releases from Upper Basin reservoirs to prop up levels in Lake Powell to try to maintain the ability to produce hydroelectric power at Glen Canyon Dam.
“I recognize the value in having measurement rules as soon as possible because, yes, they would be extremely helpful if we need to take measures toward compact administration,” Rein said. “Having more data sooner rather than later is important.”
Governor Jared Polis today signed an Executive Order memorializing a verbal disaster declaration from June 23, 2021, for the Muddy Slide Fire in Routt County. The Executive Order enables State agencies to coordinate for fire suppression, response, consequence management, and recovery efforts.