#Maybell Project Restores Hope for Irrigators and Endangered Fish — The Nature Conservancy #YampaRiver #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From the Nature Conservancy:

As our climate changes, rising temperatures and drought conditions have intensified across the Colorado River Basin. This overstretched river system is also seeing rapid growth in the population that relies on it. Overuse has impacted agricultural water availability, native fish and many birds and plants that rely on streamside habitat and the river itself.

Problems like these can seem daunting from a bird’s eye view. Solutions must come from within the communities themselves—and through many innovative, thoughtful collaborations along the way.

That’s where the Maybell diversion comes in. Located on the lower Yampa River, a tributary to the Colorado River, the Maybell diversion provides water for 18 agricultural producers in northwest Colorado. The diversion structure, built in 1896, channels water through a broken, antiquated headgate into the Maybell Ditch, an 18-mile canal that flows roughly in line with the river and irrigates hay pasture and ranchlands.

MAYBELL DIVERSION Located on the lower Yampa River, a tributary to the Colorado River, the Maybell diversion provides water for 18 agricultural producers in northwest Colorado. © The Nature Conservancy

The Maybell Diversion

The Maybell reach of the Yampa is home to abundant wildlife, including four endangered fish species, whose free movement depends on healthy river flows. While boaters enjoy paddling through Juniper Canyon, the reach of river with the Maybell diversion is known for hazardous conditions at high and low flows. Landslides and large boulders block the river, creating challenges for inexperienced boaters. Drought conditions exacerbate low flows and create awkward conditions for passage of boats and fish alike.

“Maybell is the largest diversion on the Yampa and it was a high priority for the community to address the need for infrastructure improvements,” explains Diana Lane, director of Colorado’s Sustainable Food and Water program at TNC.

In partnership with the Maybell Irrigation District, The Nature Conservancy is working to rehabilitate the diversion and modernize the headgate, ensuring that the diversion provides water to the users who need it. At the same time, TNC is coordinating with the recreation community to ensure safe passage of watercraft through the new diversion. As a result of this project, we hope that the Yampa will see increased ecological connectivity and resilience to climate change and that the irrigators will have improved control of their irrigation system.

Upgrading the Ditch, Headgate and Diversion

The three parts of the project—lining the ditch, replacing the headgate and rehabilitating the diversion—will improve efficiency, water flow and habitat for native fish. Ditch lining, completed in November of 2020, repaired a section that was previously unstable, erosive and leaky.

The next two steps occur together. Replacing the headgate with a new, remotely operated one will allow more flexibility for adjusting flows based on irrigators’ needs and local flow conditions. For example, when supplemental water is released from Elkhead Reservoir upstream for the benefit of endangered fish, the new headgate can be adjusted to ensure the water stays in the critical habitat reach. At the same time, diversion rehabilitation will repair the damage that’s been done by historic erosion and improve passage for boats and fish.

“This is an exemplary multi-benefit project with agricultural, environmental and recreational elements that were brought to our attention by the community,” notes Jennifer Wellman, TNC’s project manager. “Working directly with the water users, we have an opportunity to rectify the diversion while paying attention to what the river needs. Drought conditions highlight that everyone benefits from flows in the river.”

Through our partnership with the Maybell Irrigation District, these projects create a better future for the diversion. Partnerships like these are crucial to cementing a better future for the Yampa River.

This project is supported by strong local partnerships with Friends of the Yampa, the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable, Moffat County and the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. Funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART program and potential grants from other agencies help support the multi-benefit project overall. The mosaic of public and private funds contribute to much-needed improvements to the Yampa River that mesh with community-driven solutions to drought and river protection. By modernizing the Maybell diversion and ditch operations, the Yampa River will see improved flows and function for years to come.

RAZORBACK SUCKER The Maybell ditch is home to four endangered fish species [the Humpback chub (Gila cypha), Bonytail (Gila elegans), Colorado pikeminnow (Ptychocheilus lucius), and the Razorback sucker (Xyrauchen texanus)] © Linda Whitham/TNC

One Piece of a Larger Puzzle

The success of this project is tied to the larger story of the Colorado River Basin. As rivers throughout the basin are being stretched to a breaking point, the 30 native fish species that are found nowhere else in the world face an increasingly uncertain future. These waters also feed habitat that supports an amazing array of the West’s wildlife.

While one ditch in northwest Colorado may seem like a drop in the bucket, its story provides hope for the whole system. Bringing together agricultural, recreational and environmental interests is necessary if we hope to see positive change for this river system.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the curve. I think if we all work together, we can come to a solution. If we don’t do that, then the next generation might not have the water they need,” says Camblin, of the Maybell Irrigation District.

As work continues on the Maybell Ditch, it represents a win for agriculture, recreation and the environment that the economy relies on, and for the fish that have called this river home for thousands of years.

The gaging station in the Yampa River near Maybell has documented declined flows in the last century that have led to a state proposal to designate the river as over-appropriated. The designation, if approved, will affect permits for some new wells in the basin.
CREDIT: ALLEN BEST/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From the Community Agriculture Alliance (Andy Baur) via The Craig Daily Press:

The Yampa River Fund steering committee recently awarded $200,000 to six projects during its 2021 grant cycle. As designed, the YRF funded projects that enhance river flows, restore riparian and instream habitat, and improve infrastructure for a healthier river. One of the projects, permitting for the Maybell Diversion Restoration Project, is an excellent example of how the YRF supports multibenefit projects that help water users while benefiting river health and recreation as well. When completed, the Maybell Diversion Project will result in significant positive impact to the Maybell agricultural community, endangered and native fish habitat, and recreation interests. What makes the Maybell project a great fit for the YRF is it stands to create a positive impact in all river users, the economy and the environment for decades to come.

The project is moving forward through a partnership between The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Maybell Irrigation District (MID). The goal is to reconstruct the historic Maybell diversion and modernize the headgates in the lower Yampa River. TNC, MID, Friends of the Yampa and other partners are committed to increasing water users’ control of irrigation water while improving aquatic habitat by removing impediments to flow as well as facilitating boat and fish passage at the Maybell diversion. Safer and reliable water infrastructure will bring increased economic benefits to the communities in the lower Yampa basin. In addition, this project supports recovery of four endangered fish while meeting agricultural irrigation needs and increasing ecological connectivity, water security and resilience to climate change.

Located in the designated critical habitat reach of the Yampa, downstream of Juniper Canyon, the MID currently withdraws water through two broken and antiquated headgates into the Maybell Ditch. Built in 1896, the ditch is approximately 18 miles long and is one of the largest diverters on the Yampa River. Though the diversion infrastructure historically served the users well, it is impacted by critically low flows during times of drought and water scarcity.

Stakeholders and community members view the project as critical to remedying chronic low-flow and obstacles to boat and fish passage in the lower Yampa. The project received funding in 2019 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable to finalize engineering designs, specifications and permitting for construction to begin in 2022. TNC and partners are in the process of fundraising and working with the Maybell community to schedule construction and develop a path forward.

You can learn more about the Maybell Diversion Project at http://Nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/colorado/stories-in-colorado/maybell-water-diversion-project. In addition, you can learn more about the Yampa River Fund and other funded projects at http://YampaRiverFund.org.

Yampa Valley State of the River, May 19, 2021 #YampaRiver #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Yampa River. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith

Click here to register:

Join the Colorado River District and the Community Agriculture Alliance for the Yampa Valley State of the River to learn more about current issues in the Yampa River Basin, from the Flattops to Dinosaur.

Understand more about your river, your water, the potential for a call on the river this summer and what the proposed over appropriation designation on the Yampa means for your water use. In presentations and discussions at the meeting, speakers will also give information about funding for Yampa River Basin water projects and updates on our water supply as we enter another summer of drought. Attendees will also hear about plans to manage the watershed and keep water flowing in the Yampa in hot, dry years.

If you cannot attend the webinar live, register to receive a recording of the webinar in your email inbox to watch later.  

Agenda:

Welcome – Colorado River District and Community Agriculture Alliance

Colorado River District’s Partnership Project Funding Program – Colorado River District Director of Strategic Partnerships Amy Moyer

Water Supply Updates and Drought in the Yampa River Basin – Colorado Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger

Integrated Watershed Planning – Yampa IWMP Chair Doug Monger

Updates from the Division of Water Resources – Division 6 Engineer Erin Light

What does the over appropriation mean for water users? – Colorado River District Senior Water Resources Engineer Hunter Causey

Keeping Water in the River in Dry Years – Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller and the Colorado Water Trust

May 19, 2021 06:00 PM

#Runoff news: Yampa Valley creeks and rivers on the rise; prepare for high water — #SteamboatSprings Pilot & Today

From the Streamboat Pilot & Today:

While peak flows can vary, the Yampa River generally peaks in late May to early June, while Butcherknife Creek, Burgess Creek, Spring Creek, Soda Creek and Walton Creek can peak significantly earlier in the year. This past week, the Yampa River increased to nearly 700 cfs.

The Streets Division will supply sand and sandbags for residential properties that need them on a case-by-case basis. Sandbags will need to be filled and placed by the homeowner. Contact the Streets Division at 970-879-1807 during normal office hours or dispatch at 970-879-1144 after hours to request this service. Commercial properties and residential neighborhoods with frequent needs must acquire their own sandbags. Those experiencing a flooding emergency should call 911.

Rainy start to May not yet enough to stem #YampaRiver Valley’s #water concerns — The #SteamBoatSprings Pilot & Today #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Dylan Anderson):

Steamboat Springs has been seeing some much needed rain to start the month of May, which is historically the wettest month of the year for the Yampa Valley.

The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, which is a collection of volunteers that submit data to the Colorado Climate Center, have observed about 0.3 inches of rain in Steamboat since Sunday…

Despite recent rain, however, water experts say it’s not enough.

“There hasn’t been a tremendous amount of rain, and it is pretty standard for us to get some spring rain, so I don’t think it is going to overcome the deficit that we were already in,” said Erin Light, Division 6 engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

Light placed water restrictions on the river last year and in 2018, but it is still too early to know if that will be needed this year. She said they are working with the Colorado River District to find ways to avoid a call, potentially releasing water from Elkhead Reservoir.

If a call is avoided, Light said it would likely be because of this collaboration. Still, reservoir releases don’t necessarily fix the problem.

“It doesn’t eliminate the fact that there may be no more stream flow left in the river,” Light said. “It is very possible that we are going to get to a point where our natural stream flow runoff has gone to nothing, and the only thing we are seeing in the river is reservoir water at certain locations.”

This is what happened at the end of summer 2020 and in 2018 to trigger the call.

Light said she is mainly looking at stream flows particularly farther down the river. She focuses on the gauges near Maybell and Deerlodge Park that are both in Moffat County, downstream from many irrigators that pull from the Yampa River west of Steamboat.

“You can only put so many straws in the river before you start to run out of water,” Light said, adding that both of the gauges have hit record lows in recent weeks…

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, both gauges showed flows were only about 20% as strong as they were this time last year. When looking at three-month outlooks, it suggests this summer will be both hotter and drier than normal, Light said.

Steamboat typically receives about 2.5 inches of rain in May, according to the 30-year average from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

New dust-on-snow monitoring technology coming to #SteamboatSprings lab, expanding a growing #snowpack data network — @AspenJournalism #runoff #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From Aspen Journalism (Natalie Keltner-McNeil):

Phenomenon drives earlier, more-intense spring runoff

The first automated dust-on-snow monitoring technology in the mountains of Northwest Colorado is expected to be installed this fall to study the impact of dust from arid landscapes on downwind mountain ecosystems in the state and in Utah.

McKenzie Skiles, who is a hydrologist and a University of Utah assistant professor, will use close to $10,000 from a National Science Foundation grant to purchase four pyranometers, which measure solar radiation landing on, and reflected by, snow.

These instruments will be placed on a data tower at Storm Peak Lab, a research station above Steamboat Springs that studies the properties of clouds, as well as natural and pollution-sourced particles in the atmosphere. The lab sits at 10,500 feet near the peak of Mount Werner at the top of Steamboat Resort in the Yampa River basin. Starting next winter, live information will be transmitted to MesoWest, a data platform at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

This station will be the latest added to a growing network of dust-on-snow monitoring towers across the state and Utah. Such stations offer key insights to researchers studying how dust impacts the timing and intensity of snowpack melt, Skiles said.

“My goal is to have a network of dust-on-snow observation sites that spans a latitudinal gradient in the Rockies and headwaters of the Colorado River,” Skiles said.

The Atwater study plot in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, pictured in January, began transmitting data in 2019 and is operated by the Snow Hydro Lab at the University of Utah.
CREDIT: COURTESY PHOTO BY MCKENZIE SKILES

Five towers spread around Colorado and Utah currently take in data on the solar energy absorbed and reflected by the snow. Dust particles darken the snow’s surface then absorb more energy than clean snow does. Such a process changes light frequencies recorded by the pyranometers. Researchers take this frequency data and run it through models to quantify how much surface dust heats snow and speeds snowmelt.

Of the currently operating stations, one is near Crested Butte; one sits on Grand Mesa above Grand Junction; two are near Silverton; and one is in the Wasatch Mountains near Alta, Utah. The sites are run, respectively, by Irwin Mountain Guides; by the U.S. Geological Survey and a collaborative user group; by the nonprofit Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies; and by University of Utah researchers.

Stations were first established in the Senator Beck Basin, near Silverton in the San Juan Mountains, which is the Colorado range most immediately downwind from the deserts of the Colorado Plateau and receives the first dust — and the most dust. In analyzing data from the two radiation towers there, Skiles and colleagues revealed that dust on snow shortened the cover by 21 to 51 days and caused a faster, more-intense peak-snowmelt outflow. In a 2017 study that also analyzed data from Senator Beck Basin, Skiles showed that it was dust, not temperature, that influenced how fast snowpack melted and flowed into rivers downstream.

The Steamboat station will fill a gap in the locations of radiation towers, Skiles said.

“We know that a lot of dust comes from the southern Colorado Plateau and impacts the southern Colorado Rockies, but we don’t understand dust impacts as well in the northern Colorado Rockies,” she said.

Since there isn’t a data station in the northwest portion of the state, “The only way to know if there’s dust there is to go and dig a snow pit,” said Jeff Derry, executive director of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies.

CSAS runs the Colorado Dust on Snow program, or CODOS, which includes the two radiation towers in Senator Beck Basin.

University of Colorado hydrology students dig a snow pit in front of Storm Peak Lab in March 2013. The lab hosts research groups and students from around the world to study atmospheric and snow science.
CREDIT: COURTESY PHOTO BY GANNET HALLAR

Three times a year, usually in mid-March, April and May, CSAS staffers tour Colorado, digging snow pits at mountain locations to assess dust conditions statewide. Since dust events continue into May, this year’s conditions are currently hard to quantify, Derry said.

So far, this spring has been dustier than 2020; five dust events have hit the Senator Beck Basin as of April 14, compared with the three total dust events last year. As in years past, Senator Beck Basin has experienced more dust events than have the sites to the northeast, according to Derry in the latest CODOS update. Yet, a recent April storm distributed dust on all sites in the state.

Unlike the past few years, Rabbit Ears Pass — the CODOS sampling site closest to Steamboat Springs and located northwest of Bear Mountain along U.S. Highway 40 — has received at least as much dust as the Senator Beck Basin has, according to the CODOS update. As of the April 12 to 14 CODOS tour, two dust layers of moderate severity are present on the pass. That amount probably came from storms in the Uintah basin, in the Four Corners region and in Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert, Derry said.

These dust layers will warm the snow and have an impact on snowmelt timing this runoff season, Derry said. In order to quantify that effect, radiation data from dust-on-snow study plots, like the one planned for Storm Peak, is needed.

Dust in arid landscapes — often disturbed by human activity — travels in wind currents during storms and is deposited on downwind mountains, Skiles said. The number of dust events and mass of dust carried in storms vary from year to year depending on wind speed, the intensity of drought and the frequency of human activities that disturb surface soils, said Janice Brahney, an assistant professor at Utah State University who studies nationwide dust composition and deposition patterns.

For instance, Senator Beck Basin experienced a peak in dust events from 2009 through 2014 and a decline in recent years. This decline is probably due to storms and winds that are not strong enough to carry and deposit dust into Colorado mountains, Brahney said.

“My sense is that a lot of the storms that are occurring in the southern United States are still occurring — they’re just not always reaching Colorado,” she said.

Dust covering snow near the Grand Mesa study plot on April 26, 2014. The Grand Mesa study plot was the third to be added to the network of dust on snow monitoring stations, and began transmitting solar radiation data in 2010.
CREDIT: COURTESY PHOTO BY THE CENTER FOR SNOW AND AVALANCHE STUDIES

Dust data will provide future insights for Steamboat water policy and management.

Skiles’ lab isn’t the only entity interested in the Storm Peak Lab dust-on-snow data. Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for the city of Steamboat Springs, anticipates using the data in the city’s next water-supply master plan.

“We update our water supply master plan at least every 10 years,” Romero-Heaney said. “So, even if it’s another eight years of data that’s needed before we can see measurable trends, by the time we update our models, we’ll be able to integrate that data.”

The most current plan, released in 2019, includes forecasts for Steamboat Springs’ water supply 50 years into the future. The plan — factoring in historic streamflow data and stressors to water supply such as climate change, wildfire and population growth — concluded that the city will meet its demands through 2070.

“One thing we’re fortunate in is that we have a relatively small community for a relatively large snowy water basin,” Romero-Heaney said.

Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District supplies the city with its water, derived primarily from Fish Creek and Long Lake reservoirs, said District General Manager Frank Alfone. In the summer months, the district also treats water from the Yampa River to meet irrigation demands, he said.

In order to predict Fish Creek and Long Lake reservoir levels, Alfone relies on data from the Buffalo Pass snowpack station, which is run by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and on monthly water-supply forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

Alfone says dust on snow and the city’s water supply have “an impact now and more so in the future,” Alfone said.

Indeed, dust levels are expected to rise throughout the West. A 2013 study revealed that since 1994, dust deposition has increased in the region, with the majority of dust lifting from deserts in the Southwest and West, along with regions in the Great Plains and Columbia River Basin. This increase, according to the study, is probably due to heightened human disturbance of dry soils, which includes off-road-vehicle use, gas drilling, grazing and agriculture.

Increasing dust accelerates snowpack entrance into rivers, Skiles said. This earlier runoff lengthens the period when water can evaporate from rivers and lower streamflow, impacting water supply in the warmer months, according to her study,

“What we’re finding is that runoff is happening earlier and earlier each year, and that has real implications for us come August and September, particularly if we get very little rain throughout the summer season,” Romero-Heaney said.

Data from the widening dust-on-snow-monitoring network will aid water-resource managers and researchers in predicting how dust will shape future snowpack across Colorado.

“Dust does play a really significant role in hydrology. And that’s really important in the Western states, where we rely on the mountain snowpack not just for our own drinking water, but for our own functioning ecosystem,” said Brahney, lead author of the 2013 dust study.

“We anticipate some challenges for the whole basin, although we will still be able to reliably supply our customers with drinking water,” Romero-Heaney said.

This story ran in the Steamboat Pilot & Today on April 23.

#SteamboatSprings City Council begins exploring #stormwater utility fee — Steamboat Pilot & Today

City of Steamboat Springs. Photo credit: American Rivers

From the Steamboat Pilot & Today (Alison Berg):

As the city’s infrastructure grows older and federal and state governments increase their standards for environment and watershed health, the city’s general fund has faced a significant strain in trying to keep up, Steamboat Water Resourced Manager Kelly Romero-Heaney and Steamboat Public Works Director Jon Snyder told council members Tuesday…

The idea is still under consideration, but if council chose to move forward, Steamboat residents would pay a small fee that would go toward protecting water quality. While an exact amount has not been decided yet, Romero-Heaney said the fee would be less than what residents currently pay for water and sewer bills. Aspen and Silverthorne recently enacted a storm water utility fee, and Romero-Heaney said the city would likely look to those communities for guidance.

Tuesday was the first time council members discussed such a move, and their first step would be to hire a consultant to study whether or not the idea is feasible in Steamboat…

City staff estimated the consultant would cost between $50,000 and $100,000, which could either be included in the 2022 budget proposal, or if the council would like to move sooner, could be added as a supplemental ordinance to the 2021 budget…

Council members tabled the discussion until their July work session.

Work to boost #SteamboatSprings #water supply redundancy continues — Steamboat Pilot & Today

Yampa River. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Suzie Romig):

City of Steamboat Springs officials know the municipality’s primary fresh water supply is increasingly at risk from potential wildfire danger in the Fish Creek watershed, so work will continue this summer to boost water supply redundancy.

The city along with Mount Werner Water District are proceeding with construction of enhanced and expanded “infiltration galleries,” or shallow wells that are filled by ground water near the Yampa River, to increase the volume of secondary water supply intake. Water collected through the Yampa well field, which is located near where Walton Creek meets the Yampa River, is piped to the nearby Yampa Water Treatment Plant

Frank Alfone, water district general manager, said the district’s work should be complete by Dec. 1 for a third shallow well and new raw water transmission line located about a quarter mile south of the district’s two existing wells. The additional well will push intake capacity for 2022 from 1.8 million gallons per day to 2.8 million.

The Yampa Water Treatment Plant, built in 1972, has about half the capacity of the primary Fish Creek Filtration Plant. The Yampa plant was updated in 2018 to be able to process more gallons per day and is used primarily to process water for the outdoor watering season from June through September, Alfone said.

Kelly Romero-Heaney, city water resources manager, said the city will open up bids in 2022 for construction of four additional Yampa River shallow wells to increase the overall intake capacity in the location to 3.5 million gallons per day, which would be available by 2023.

The secondary water intake improvements are part of the city’s updated Water Supply Master Plan, completed in 2019, and a key component of the overall supply plan is the updated Water Conservation Plan approved in May, Romero-Heaney said. The goal of the 10-year Water Conservation Plan is to reduce the amount of water used per household by 10%…

[Romero-Heaney] said the city accomplished six key water conservation measures in 2020. Steamboat Springs City Council and the district adopted regulations that permanently limit outdoor watering to between 6 p.m. and 10 a.m. three days per week based on the last digit of a street address. The city replaced 619 feet of aging and possibly leaking water lines, fixed five water main breaks and replaced irrigated sod in front of City Hall with a low water use demonstration garden.

The city updated the water distribution infrastructure master plan to prioritize water line replacements to mitigate leaks and water loss…

Screenshot from the linked Steamboat Pilot & Today article April 7, 2021.

The updated conservation plan, posted on the city’s Water Conservation webpage, notes the city is actively engaged in meeting a variety of challenges to ensure a reliable water supply. Those challenges include drought, wildfire, need for more water treatment capacity, uncertainty of Colorado River Compact call, aging infrastructure, low flows in Fish Creek, growth in the west Steamboat Springs area and the uncertainty of climate change that has increased the statewide annual average temperatures by 2.5 degrees through the past 50 years…

The plan looks to preserve the health of Fish Creek and the Yampa River and protect drinking water supplies while reducing the use of chemicals and the energy intensive carbon footprint of treating fresh water and waste water. The plan also factors in the water requirements of the estimated 400,000 to 500,000 visitors to the city each year.

Steamboat’s primary source of treated water comes from snowmelt from the 22-square-mile Fish Creek watershed. Those supplies are stored in Fish Creek and Long Lake reservoirs and treated at the Fish Creek Filtration Plant.

Questions about the water conservation plan can be emailed to kromeroheaney@steamboatsprings.net.

Dry soil last fall, low snow this winter adds stress to the #YampaRiver Valley #water supply — #SteamboatSprings Pilot & Today #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Colorado Drought Monitor March 23, 2021.

From Steamboat Pilot & Today (Dylan Anderson):

One of the wetter spots in Colorado, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, is east over the mountains from Steamboat Springs in Larimer County.

Much of that county is in the lowest level of drought, called “abnormally dry,” thanks in part to historic snowfalls on the Front Range earlier this month. If Larimer County is dry, the trek west to Routt County — through part of the state that saw several record wildfires in 2020 — might test which drought-related adjectives apply.

The drought monitor goes with “extreme” and “exceptional” to describe drought conditions in Routt County. Most of the Western Slope is looking at a similar situation, with the western third of Colorado being shades of ruby red and maroon on the latest map released by drought officials last Thursday.

After having a call put on it for the second time in three years in 2020, state water officials are now considering whether the Yampa River has enough water to fulfill rights held by people downstream of Steamboat Springs. What is most concerning to officials isn’t just the low amount of snow seen this winter, but also how dry the ground was before it started falling.

Yampa, White, and Little Snake River basins snowpack March 29, 2021 via the NRCS.

In the Yampa and White River Basins in Northwest Colorado, the snowpack is about 87% of average in terms of snow water equivalent, according to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, but there isn’t much snow forecasted for the next few weeks, and the average peak in the snowpack generally comes around April 10…

Rain is key at maintaining soil moisture, Romero-Heaney said. Because the soil was so dry last fall, she anticipates a lot of the melting snow will be soaked up and water runoff will be lower than normal.

This means stream flows will be lower, likely requiring release of water from Stagecoach Reservoir to support the health of the Yampa River later in the season. Romero-Heaney said more often then not, since 2013, they have needed to release water into the Yampa.

If enough of that spring and summer rain does not come, Romero-Heaney said the valley could see a summer much like the last, and “we start to run out of water for all the uses in the basin.”

Municipal customers running out of water is not a concern at this point. Whether there will be enough water for all the agricultural uses in the basin while also keeping the river healthy is in question though, Romero-Heaney said…

Despite lower snow totals, Andy Rossi, general manager at the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, said he anticipates they will be able to fill Stagecoach Reservoir this year. That said, Rossi is not expecting to be able to fill Yamcolo Reservoir, which is primarily used for agriculture…

In repeated dry years, it can be increasingly hard to fully recover a reservoir until that streak ends, and there is a wetter year. In these dry years, potentially this summer, it can become difficult to meet the need of all the agricultural water diversions, Rossi said.

How a warming #climate has crimped flows in #Colorado’s #YampaRiver — The Mountain Town News #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridifcation

Yampa River. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

In 2018, Erin Light did something that had never before been done on the Yampa River downstream from Steamboat Springs. She placed a call.

As district water engineer, Light was responsible for administering Colorado’s complex matrix of water rights. Rights are ranked by date and volume, from earliest decreed and hence most senior to most recent and hence junior. A senior water-rights holder on the Yampa River at Lily Park, near the entrance to Dinosaur National Monument, had called to say he was not getting the water decreed to that property for irrigation of the hay meadows.

The call she placed that summer lasted 21 days, causing the most junior of users upstream to cease diversions until that senior right was met. Then came another hot and dry summer in 2020, and she placed another call, this one lasting 9 days. It was a paradigm shift for the Yampa, a river that through the 20th century always had had enough water for anybody who wanted to dip a straw into it.

If foreign to the Yampa River, such calls have long been commonplace on Colorado rivers. The premise is water scarcity, the idea that there just isn’t enough water for all who want it, at least all the time.

Colorado’s hierarchy of seniors and juniors, older and younger, is commonly traced to the development of irrigation agriculture in the Poudre Valley between Fort Collins and Greeley. The Greeley irrigators were first, but then came new irrigators upstream near Fort Collins. In a drought year, their new diversions had an effect on what was available downstream. Within a decade, soon after Colorado became a state, the first calls were placed on that river.

The Yampa River near the entrance to Dinosaur National Monument in the summer of 2018, the first year a call was administered on the Yampa River downstream from Steamboat Springs. Photo/Erin Light

It took little time for scarcity to be understood on all of Colorado’s rivers east of the Continental Divide. Scarcity was slower to be understood on the Western Slope, where there was more water and, even in the days of feverish gold- and silver-mining, fewer people. Yet over the decades, the Colorado and other rivers came to be fully appropriated.

The Yampa, though, stood alone among major rivers in Colorado in its relative plentitude. It routinely delivered water to all who wanted it. Even its reservoirs, modest in size, came relatively late in the 20th century, to help moderate flows.

The Yampa’s relative isolation played a role in this. It’s two mountain ranges distant from the Front Range, two significant fences to hop for Front Range cities and Great Plains farmers.

Climate also played a role. You can’t grow corn in the Yampa Valley with any reliability. You can grow hay, but the geography makes even that problematic.

Now that climate is shifting. Not enough to grow corn but enough to cause the Yampa to be marginally less robust and, as the 21st century has shown in 2018 and 2020, but also in other years before that, unable to deliver.

This has led to Light recommending that the Yampa be designated as “over-appropriated.” It’s a legal phrase that suggests something more odious than is actually the case. It sounds like the theater has been oversold and some people will be escorted from their seats to stand outside.

Over-appropriated doesn’t mean that. It does have implications for those wanting to drill large-capacity wells along the river. They must show the ability to deliver augmentation water, which is commonly purchased from an upstream reservoir. Most of Colorado’s rivers long ago were designated as over-appropriated.

In my reporting for a story commissioned by Aspen Journalism, which can be seen here and has more of the detail of interest to a local audience, I talked several times with Light. She chose her words carefully. She didn’t talk about climate change, only the direct evidence, the water years of 2018 and 2020. But there were other bad years, too, including 2012 and also 2002.

A gaging station in the Yampa River near Maybell has documented 1.5 million acre-feet a century ago to 1.1 million acre-feet now, with one recent year showing only 500,000 acre-feet. Photo/Allen Best

Light wasn’t the district engineer in 2002, and only recently did the downstream irrigator near Dinosaur explain why he hadn’t demanded his water that summer and fall. He just didn’t have the heart to cause so much pain upstream in that year of scorching temperatures, forest fires, and meager winter snows eviscerated by spring winds.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence from Light were these statistics, drawn from the U.S. Geological Survey gaging station at Maybell, located along the Yampa River (and Highway 40), between Craig and Dinosaur National Monument. A century ago, the gauging station recorded an average annual 1.5 million acre-feet. That has declined to 1.1 million in the 21st century. And, of course, some years are worse, including one year in the last decade of 500,000 acre-feet.

At a recent meeting of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, a representative of Boulder County mentioned drought caused by climate change in support of regulations to control methane emissions. One of the AQCC commissioners, Randy Ahrens, of Broomfield, wanted to know why, if the ski areas could talk about what wonderful record-breaking snows we had, we could still be in drought.

In that question I think I heard some skepticism, perhaps a wondering whether enviros were just a little too chicken-littlish. It was a legitimate question, though.

This roof in Craig in early March 2020 was testament to an above-average winter. Three months later, the snow-water equivalent had swooped from 116% of median to 69% of median. Photo/Allen Best

I saw the answer during my three trips to the Yampa Valley in 2020. In early March I visited Steamboat and then Craig, seeing evidence of a big snow year, reminiscent of the winter and spring I had spent there in 1979. I got skilled that winter at chaining up my Ford Pinto in the dark during a snowstorm while crossing Rabbit Ears Pass.

But those heavy snows I saw in March 2020 soon disappeared in a warm, dry spring.

Kelly Romero-Heaney, the water resources manager for Steamboat Springs, laid it out for me. The snow-water equivalent—a measure of the snowpack—showed 116% of median on March 1. It was down to 69% by June 1.

Then came summer, hot and dry, a record in both categories during August against 130 years of measurements.

That heat and lack of precipitation, Romero-Heaney told me, drove a measure called the SPEI, or Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index. “The combination

of heat and lack of precipitation drove an SPEI figure that far exceeded drought years, such as 2002, 2012, and 2018,” she said.

Last August, when I returned again to explore the Little Snake River, it felt like an oven. Stopping for a sandwich in Steamboat on the return to the Front Range, it felt Denver hot. That afternoon I continued eastward across Cameron Pass then drove past Long Draw Reservoir and toward the headwaters of the Colorado River. A week later, it was afire.

That Cameron Peak Fire was still in advancing in early October when we returned to Craig a third time. It was a smoky time there—and everywhere.

On that October trip I drove up the Elk River northwest of Steamboat Springs to see Jay Fetcher. His ranch a few miles from Steamboat Lake had been his parents’ ranch when they arrived from Philadelphia in 1949 and he was a toddler. His parents had kept a record through their years of when the last snow disappeared from the meadow. His father died just a few years ago, a legend in Steamboat and beyond, partly because he was a co-founder of the ski area, but also because of his work in water.

Jay has continued the work of his parents, charting the withering of the winter snowpack. And the chart he gave me showed a clear progression toward earlier springs, particularly during the 21st century. There’ still great variability, but now more so. The “snow off meadow” date arrives an average one day earlier every five years. That means longer summers.

Jay Fetcher at his ranch along the Elk River northwest of Steamboat Springs in the hay meadow where he, and before that, his parents have carefully tracked the last disappearance of snowbanks each spring. Photo/Allen Best

The story here is that last year was emblematic of what has been happening in the Yampa River. There’s no longer enough water for everybody who wants it all the time. It’s not because of additional new diversions, although there are some. But that does not tell the story. The longer, hotter summers may cause ranchers to divert more water to irrigate. That could be part of the story.

The largest story is of the warming weather, the shifting climate.

Light has submitted her proposal for over-appropriation to her boss, Kevin Rein, the state water engineer. In an interview, he had also chosen his words about climate change carefully. Approving this, he said, would not be a prediction of a climate to come, only a recognition that the hydrological balance has shifted.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2019 of the #coriver big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck

Fair enough. But there’s the weight of evidence, almost crushing, that climate change has started playing a heavy hand in the Colorado River. There are the studies by Udall, et al, that point to the “hot drought” as the story, with roughly half the recorded declines due to temperature and not precipitation. There are, of course, the enduring images of the bathtub ring at Lake Mead. And there are the models that predict much more warmth is yet to come.

Climate change is not just the future. It’s here, it’s now. And from all available evidence, the climate scientists were too conservative in their predictions.

This was published in the March 18, 2020, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine. For a free subscription, go to http://BigPivots.com.

Grant advances stalled plans for 280-foot-high dam on the #LittleSnakeRiver — WyoFile.com #ColoradoRiver #COriver #GreenRiver #YampaRiver #aridification

Little Snake River watershed S. of Rawlins, Wyoming via the Wyoming Water Development Office.

From WyoFile.com (Angus M. Thuermer Jr.):

Wyoming’s efforts to build a 280-foot-high dam above the Little Snake River near the border of Colorado are “picking … back up,” after backers received a $1.2 million federal grant, the director of the Wyoming Water Development Commission said last week.

The funds, to be matched by Wyoming, will help consultants prepare federal environmental reviews. Planned for the West Fork of Battle Creek in Carbon County, the estimated $82 million dam and 10,000-acre-foot reservoir would be constructed in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest.

The Little Snake River as it passes under Wyoming Highway 70 near Dixon. Photo credit: Wikimedia

The dam on the tributary of the Little Snake River would serve 67 to 100 irrigators by providing late-season water. Irrigators are unable to finance the project, so 91% of the costs would be borne by Wyoming, a formula backers say is justified because the structure would produce $73.7 million in public benefits.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service in 2019 approved a $1.25 million grant to the Savery-Little Snake River Water Conservancy District and the neighboring Colorado Pothook Water Conservancy District to boost the project, according to federal records. The grant requires a matching contribution.

“It became a little bit dormant for a while,” Water Development Office Director Brandon Gebhart told members of the state water commission Thursday as he described the project. The grant will help consultants decide whether to pursue a land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service or try to construct and operate the facility through permits.

Previously rebuffed

The project faced scrutiny and criticism in the Legislature in 2018 when backers sought $40 million in construction funds. Lawmakers appropriated only $4.7 million, requiring none of the money be spent until two conditions were met.

One was securing “additional funding commitments from project beneficiaries in both Wyoming and Colorado on a pro-rata basis.” The second string the legislature attached required legislative approval before any of the 2018 appropriation be spent…

In addition to the $4.7 million 2018 appropriation, the West Fork account had some $6 million already appropriated in 2013, for a total of $10.9 million. The earlier appropriation did not include requirements for cost sharing with Colorado or for further legislative approval…

Lawmakers became wary of the dam project because of its cost, its location and the small number of Wyoming irrigators it would serve. Critics said it would only irrigate an additional 2,000 acres or so…

A Feb. 24 memo to commission members described Wyoming’s historic engagement with Colorado officials but with a contemporary revision. “All entities expressed support for additional storage in the Little Snake/Yampa River drainages and support for the West Fork project,” the memo reads.

But that statement mischaracterizes Colorado’s position, said Cody Perry, vice president of Friends of the Yampa. The Little Snake River flows along the Wyoming/Colorado border and into the Yampa, a tributary of the Green River.

Wyoming tried to get the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable to endorse the project in 2018. But that group would not sign a proposed letter backing the dam and reservoir.

Instead, the Roundtable said it would need to see the dam proposal “in a final format, after [National Environmental Policy Act analysis] has been completed.”

“The [Roundtable] membership would like to be clear that this is not support of the reservoir itself, only the process of the exploration…” the Colorado group’s letter stated.

Three members of the Colorado roundtable said the group’s position has not changed since 2018…

The Water Development Commission last week extended a planning contract for the project through the end of 2022. It had been set to expire June 30, 2021.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

@DWR_CO Seeks Public Input on Designating #YampaRiver as “Over-appropriated”

The second-ever call on the Yampa River ended September 6, 2020. Here it flows near the diversion from the Hayden Generating Station on Aug. 3. Photo credit: Allen Best/Aspen Journalism

Here’s the release from the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Chris Arend):

The Colorado Division of Water Resources announced the commencement of a public comment process today on a proposed plan to designate the main stem of the Yampa River in Northwest Colorado as “over-appropriated.” An over-appropriated stream system is one in which at some or all times of the year, the water supplies of a stream system are insufficient to satisfy all the decreed water rights within that system.

Colorado water law is driven by a system of “prior-appropriation” or a first in time, first in right water right system. The system is designed for Colorado’s semi-arid climate to fairly and efficiently distribute the state’s limited water supply for the beneficial use of Coloradans. If a river system, such as the Yampa River, at times has insufficient supply to provide water to all decreed uses, then additional measures to protect those decree uses are necessary.

“The Yampa River is an incredibly important resource for Northwest Coloradans. It sustains our communities, farms, ranches, wildlife, outdoor recreation and power supplies,” said Erin Light, Division Engineer, Water Division 6, Colorado Division of Water Resources. “However, the combination of continued diversions by senior water rights and recent appropriations, along with recent climatic conditions, such as sustained drought, indicates a strong potential that the mainstem of the Yampa River meets the criteria of being “over-appropriated” and requires more careful administration to ensure senior water right holders are able to properly use their legal water rights. We want to make sure our water users and community are knowledgeable on this change in the river and are educated on the potential changes that may occur as water is developed in the Yampa River valley.”

The effect of this designation is the requirement that new well permits in the affected area will require an evaluation of their potential to cause injury to surface water rights and in many cases will need to secure a replacement supply of water to mitigate the impacts of their pumping through an “augmentation plan” before being issued a well permit by the Division of Water Resources.

“We understand this new well permitting process will be a change for water users and those looking to develop water in Yampa Valley,” Light added. “I want to assure community members that my office and our Division is here to assist you in these new measures as we all work towards equitably managing our scarce but critical water resources.”

Following the formal notice of this recommendation, which involves notifying members of the Division 6 Substitute Water Supply Plans (SWSP) Notification List and additional community input, the State Engineer and Director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, Kevin Rein, will work with Erin Light to determine next steps, which may include additional public outreach. Rein will not make a final determination on the proposed “over-appropriated” designation until he is satisfied that the water users fully understand the effect of the designation.

Having a river system designated as “over-appropriated” is not a new concept in Colorado. In fact, only a small minority of river systems in Colorado are not considered to be over-appropriated. The South Platte, Rio Grande, and Arkansas River systems with their heavy agricultural and municipal and industrial water users have long been considered “over-appropriated.”

To submit comments on or any questions about the proposed plan please contact Erin Light, Division Engineer, Water Division 6, at erin.light@state.co.us or 970-879-0272 Ext. 3.

A copy of the proposed plan can be found here on the Division of Water Resources website.

#Colorado proposes a new paradigm for #YampaRiver — @AspenJournalism #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

An angler in the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs in early March 2020. Designating part of the Yampa River as over-appropriated would require some water users with wells to have an augmentation plan.
CREDIT: ALLEN BEST/ASPEN JOURNALISM

From Aspen Journalism (Allen Best):

Colorado water officials are considering whether to designate the increasingly stressed Yampa River from Steamboat Springs downstream to near its entrance into Dinosaur National Monument as over-appropriated.

If approved by the state water engineer, the designation would require augmentation plans for larger-volume wells along the river from Steamboat to Lilly Park, where the Little Snake River flows into the Yampa.

Augmentation plans document how the water used will be replaced to satisfy senior water rights. Such water is typically delivered from upstream reservoirs, both large and small.

The proposal comes amid growing evidence that the Yampa River can no longer deliver water to all users all the time as they wish. There have been two “calls” on the river in the past three years, limiting diversions of users with later — or junior — diversion decrees until those of older or more senior decrees are satisfied.

The changed hydrology of the river can best be understood at the gauging station along U.S. Highway 40 near Maybell. There, according to Division 6 Engineer Erin Light, annual flows a century ago of 1.5 million acre-feet annually have declined to 1.1 million acre-feet annually. The gauge during one year in the past decade recorded only 500,000 acre-feet.

Light is proposing the over-appropriation designation. When the comment period will begin and how long it will extend has not been determined.

“An existing water right is not going to be injured by this over-appropriation designation,” Light said on a video conference meeting Monday evening with more than 100 viewers. “They would be protected.”

Colorado law considers all groundwater to be tributary to the stream system unless proven otherwise. As Light recently explained to the Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable, when a stream system is over-appropriated, drawing water from a well can deplete the stream during times when the water in the stream is insufficient to satisfy all decreed water rights.

The Yampa River famously long had sufficient flows such that it lacked the close supervision of many of the state’s rivers, including all of those on the east slope.

“If you look at the South Platte, the Rio Grande and the Arkansas, these are basins where the surface water was over-appropriated 100-plus years ago,” said Kevin Rein, the state engineer. He will be making the decision whether to approve Light’s recommendation.

Only a few of Colorado’s rivers, mostly on the flanks of the San Juan Mountains, remain free of restrictions that require augmentation plans for wells along rivers as are now proposed for the Yampa.

Regulation of large-capacity wells began in Colorado during the 1960s. The laws were adopted in response to conflicts in the South Platte River Valley between farmers diverting water directly from the river and those drilling wells. State legislators clarified the legal rights of each. The key breakthrough was acceptance that groundwater was, in many cases, part of the same water system as the surface flows.

In the Yampa River valley, this designation would primarily impact new residential wells located on lots less than 35 acres and wells used for purposes other than domestic uses.

Permits for new wells located on lots of less than 35 acres in existing subdivisions may be issued for in-house use. If the well serves additional purposes, such as for livestock watering or a pond that intercepts groundwater on a lot less than 35 acres, then an augmentation plan must be in place before a well permit will be issued.

Well permits may be issued for as many as three single-family dwellings, irrigation of as much as 1 acre of lawn and garden, and for watering of domestic animals, on lots greater than 35 acres.

Based on her experience after designations of the Elk River and the Yampa River upstream of Steamboat Springs in the past decade, Light expects to see no major impacts.

“I have just not seen a tremendous impact on people because of this designation,” she said.

Stagecoach Reservoir, near Oak Creek, has several thousand acre-feet of its 36,000 acre-feet of storage capacity available for augmentation. YamColo, a smaller reservoir located on the Bear River, upstream from Yampa, has lesser quantities available. Both are administered by the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, whose boundary goes to but does not include Craig.

How much augmentation water will be needed from upstream reservoirs will depend upon the use, explained Holly Kirkpatrick, external affairs manager for the district. Does the well provide for livestock water, for example, and if so how many animals?

The conservancy district has enough water in the two reservoirs, especially Stagecoach, to provide for all needs, at least in the near term.

“Individual augmentation plans are of very small magnitude,” said Andy Rossi, general manager. “We might be talking about less than one acre-foot up to three acre-feet” (annually), he said of augmentation plans for new wells.

Traditional agriculture water users would normally seek storage rights in the reservoirs for larger volumes.

The gaging station in the Yampa River near Maybell has documented declined flows in the last century that have led to a state proposal to designate the river as over-appropriated. The designation, if approved, will affect permits for some new wells in the basin.
CREDIT: ALLEN BEST/ASPEN JOURNALISM

New paradigm

It will still be possible to file for new water rights in the Yampa subject to Colorado’s first-in-time, first-in-right pecking order. But the proposal signals a new paradigm for the full Yampa River Basin.

“It should be a clear indicator to those individuals establishing a new appropriation that water may not be available all of the time every year to meet their water needs,” Light said.

One of the key water rights in determining water use upstream are those at Lilly Park.

Twice in the past three years those rights have triggered “calls” on the Yampa River upstream, causing Light, as the water engineer, to require more junior users upstream to end their diversions. That same call could have been made in 2002, but the owner of the water rights at Lilly Park recently confided to Light that he didn’t want to cause the problems upstream in that notoriously dry year.

Enlargement of Elkhead Reservoir, near Hayden, has also allowed more water to be delivered downstream, forestalling the need for the designation of over-appropriation.

The Yampa River upstream of Steamboat Springs and many of its tributaries were previously designated as over-appropriated after a water decree for a recreational in-channel diversion for the kayak park in Steamboat Springs was granted in 2006.

For Steamboat Springs, one consequence was the need to create an augmentation plan for the wells along the Yampa River supplying its water treatment plant. The water from Stagecoach will be needed only if the river downstream is on call, meaning that Steamboat’s water diversions must be curtailed to meet needs of senior users.

Will the over-appropriation designation downstream of Steamboat impact the city’s water supplies?

“No, not that I’m aware of,” said Kelley Romero-Heaney, the city’s water resources manager.

The designation of over-appropriation “just means there’s more accountability” to ensure that new diversions don’t injure existing water users and water-right holders, Romero-Heaney said.

The state also designated the Elk River, north of Steamboat, as over-appropriated Jan. 1, 2011, just a few months after the first call. Water is available from Steamboat Lake for augmentation.

Small reservoirs have also been constructed to deliver augmentation water in the Elk River basin. Small augmentation reservoirs may be needed for new development downstream from Craig, such as for new rural subdivisions.

Light, in recommending the over-appropriation designation, identified no single trigger.

There were the two calls, critical low-flows in other years, and the increasing importance of juggling reservoir releases. She said the most important signal of a new era came in 2018, when the first call was placed on the river.

“I think you could make a good case of climate change and different ecological conditions,” said Rossi. Snowfall remains highly variable, but runoff has consistently arrived earlier followed by more intense heat and, perhaps, a later arrival of winter.

Soil moisture may also be a factor. If soils are dry going into winter, they’ll soak up more of the runoff.

“Start the season with dry soils, and that is the first bucket that needs to be filled when the snow starts melting,” Becky Bolinger, the assistant state climatologist for Colorado, explained last week in The Washington Post.

These changes were evident in 2020. Winter snows were healthy and the snow water equivalent, or the amount of water in the snow once it has melted, was 116% of median. Then came spring, early and warm. By June, the snow-water equivalent of the remaining snowpack had dropped to 69%.

Then came summer, hot and mostly absent rain. August broke records for both the hottest and driest summer month on the 130-year record. This combination of heat and lack of precipitation actually made 2020 worse than the other notorious drought years of recent memory: 2002, 2012 and 2018, according to Romero-Heaney

Designation of over-appropriation, however, would not forecast the climate in the Yampa Valley, cautioned Rein.

“It just recognizes what has been happening recently,” he said.

Climate change has started playing a significant role in declining river flows and falling reservoir levels in the Colorado River basin. These declines have led to concerns in Colorado during the last 20 years that requirements of the compact governing the Colorado River and its tributaries in the seven basin states could force curtailment of water use within Colorado.

From his perspective in Denver, Rein sees the proposed designation on the Yampa being neutral. All groundwater is already considered tributary to the river and hence should have no additional impact on compact compliance matters.

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with the Steamboat Pilot & Today and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the March 10 edition of the Steamboat Pilot & Today.

Toxic algae blooms in reservoirs near Steamboat detected thanks to new state protocol — @AspenJournalism

Steamboat Lake, shown here in late August, was closed for two weeks last summer after toxins were detected above harmful levels. Toxic, blue-green algae blooms have been found in Routt County reservoirs each of the past two summers. Photo credit: Juli Arington/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Natalie Keltner-McNeil):

Since state officials began a more focused monitoring effort six years ago to detect toxic algae blooms in Colorado’s lakes and reservoirs, testing has documented harmful levels of such toxins three times on the Western Slope.

Two of those toxic blooms occurred in Routt County reservoirs — first at Stagecoach Reservoir in 2019 and then at Steamboat Lake last summer, which was the first year that state park managers were required to regularly test for toxic algae. Results showing bacteria above state thresholds caused a two-week swimming closure at the popular state park.

Since 2014, toxic algae has been discovered in nine Front Range lakes or reservoirs, while the only other Western Slope bloom was found in 2018 at Fruitgrowers Reservoir in Delta County.

More research is needed to determine the causes of these recent blooms. But an increase in testing due to more stringent Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) toxic algae monitoring protocol, a history of ranching around and on reservoir land, and climate change are probably contributing to the increase in recorded toxic blooms on the Western Slope.

Steamboat Lake State Park manager Julie Arington said the updated CPW monitoring and testing guidelines influenced the discovery of the toxic bloom last summer. The new guidelines, which were updated going into the season, require park managers to regularly test for toxins May through September, according to CPW officials.

“It may have been there before (this year), but we just didn’t notice it. We hadn’t been testing for it,” Arington said. But in mid-August, when water temperatures were at their warmest, toxin levels were found to be above the recently-established thresholds and park managers shut down the lake to swimming for two weeks, until winds and cooler temperatures slowed the blooms down.

Blue-green algae that populate lakes in and of themselves are not harmful and form the basis of the riparian food web. Under certain conditions, however, the algae multiply rapidly, form blooms and produce toxins.

Nutrients and warming cause these blooms, said Jill Baron, a research ecologist and senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “Period.”

Toxic algae feed off phosphorus and nitrogen, nutrients sourced from fertilizers, vehicle emissions, sewage, soil, animal excrement and plant material. If ingested in levels above state health standards, the toxins cause sickness, liver and brain damage when ingested during recreational lake activity or when drinking contaminated water.

Construction of Stagecoach Reservoir takes place in 1988. The U.S. Geological Survey has been collecting data on algae compositions in Stagecoach Reservoir and in the greater Yampa River watershed. Some suspect that the land’s ranching history, which loaded nutrients onto what would become the bottom of the reservoir, may be a factor. Photo credit: Bill Fetcher via Aspen Journalism

Tracing Steamboat and Stagecoach nutrients

Steamboat and Stagecoach reservoirs sit in the greater Yampa basin to the north and south, respectively, of Steamboat Springs. Steamboat Lake, which holds 23,064 acre-feet of water, is portioned off a creek that feeds into the Elk River, a tributary of the Yampa. Stagecoach, which holds 36,439 acre-feet of water, is a dammed section of the Yampa River.

Nutrients deposited at the bottom of both reservoirs from decades of ranching probably contribute to the blue-green algae blooms. By the early 1880s, settlers were ranching in the Yampa Valley, including the lands that would become Stagecoach and Steamboat reservoirs, said Katie Adams, curator for the Tread of Pioneers museum.

The future site of Steamboat Lake is shown here in 1949. The barn pictured was owned by the Wheeler family, one of several families who ranched the land before it was bought by brothers John and Stanton Fetcher. John Fetcher proposed the construction of Steamboat Lake, which was built in 1967 and funded by the operators of Hayden power station and the Colorado Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. Photo via Bill Fetcher and Aspen Journalism

Steamboat Lake was constructed in 1967 with funds from the operators of Hayden Station power plant and the Colorado Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. It became a state park in 1972.

The former ranch lands where Stagecoach is today were bought in 1971 by the Woodmoor Corporation, which planned to build a residential and recreational community with ski areas and golf courses, but the company went bankrupt in 1974. The site was later bought and developed by the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and power companies, which funded the reservoir’s construction in 1988. So, for decades leading up to the post-war era, cattle excrement was enriching the reservoir lands with nitrogen and phosphorus — nutrients that fuel the growth of blue-green algae.

Those involved in planning and constructing Stagecoach Reservoir were told algae blooms were a likelihood, said Stagecoach State Park manager Craig Preston.

“Even when they were going through the (construction) processes, they were told there would likely be algae situations, because of the nutrients in the soil,” Preston said.

Baron agrees that nutrients at the bottom of both lakes probably contribute to the blooms.

“They basically took a meadow and turned it into a lake. So, all that vegetation and organic matter on the bottom of that meadow is slowly decomposing and putting its nutrients into the lake itself,” Baron said.

Researchers are focusing on the region to determine which specific sources of nitrogen and phosphorus prompt harmful algal growth. The USGS has been collecting data on algae compositions in Stagecoach Reservoir and in the greater Yampa River watershed and will analyze possible sources of blue-green algae as part of the report, USGS hydrologist Cory Williams said. The results of the study will be published in February or March, according to Williams.

Toxic-algae blooms appeared in Steamboat Lake last summer. The lake shut down for two weeks after harmful levels of a toxin produced by the blue-green algae were found in the water. As climate change continues, toxic blooms and summer shutdowns of lakes are predicted to become more common. Photo credit: Julie Arington/Aspen Journalism

Origins and evolution of state protocol and monitoring

CPW began drafting toxic-algae protocol the summer of 2014, after a local agency found microcystin — a toxin commonly produced by blue-green algae — in Denver’s Cherry Creek Reservoir, said CPW Water Quality Coordinator Mindi May.

“At the time, we didn’t know what the numbers meant. So, we started looking around for state or federal thresholds, and there just weren’t any,” May said.

That same summer, a toxic bloom in Lake Erie contaminated the drinking water of 400,000 residents, forcing officials in Toledo, Ohio, to cut off water for three days. After these two events, May asked Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment staff to develop toxic-algae thresholds for drinking water and recreation, and traveled to state parks in 2015 to encourage staff to test for — and monitor — toxic algae during summer months.

CDPHE developed protocol and thresholds for toxic algae in 2016, based on Environmental Protection Agency standards created in 2014. The thresholds dictate the maximum amount of toxins that lakes can contain, including 8 micrograms per liter for microcystin and saxitoxin, and 15 micrograms per liter for anatoxin and cylindrospermopsin. If lakes cross this threshold, state park managers must post danger signs and close the lake to activities involving bodily contact with the water until tests show that toxins fall below harmful levels, May said.

In 2018, the CDPHE developed a database to compile monitoring and testing efforts in Colorado reservoirs and track the occurrence of toxic-algae blooms since 2014. Data from park managers’ toxin tests are included, along with data collected by CDPHE officials and other local and federal agencies, said MaryAnn Nason, CDPHE’s communications and special projects unit manager.

“We really learned a lot in those early years, and we have a lot more resources now to monitor and test for toxins,” May said of CPW’s and CDPHE’s efforts.

The Yampa River winds through hay meadows in the Yampa Valley in 1987, prior to construction of the dam that formed Stagecoach Reservoir. Photo credit: Bill Fetcher via Aspen Journalism

Western lakes lack data but will feel burn of climate change

CDPHE data shows an increase in toxic blooms from 2014 to 2020 and hints that these blooms are spreading west. Last summer recorded seven toxic blooms, compared with four in 2019 and one in 2018. Yet, increases could also be due to increased monitoring and testing over the years and due to the new 2020 protocol. For instance, 52 lakes were monitored for toxic algae in 2014, compared with 73 last summer.

More data is needed to determine how climate change and nutrients will interact to produce toxic blooms, and determine the impacts this will have on drinking water and summer recreation for high country and Western Slope lakes.

It is likely that climate change will spur more toxic blooms in the West. In a 2017 study of 27 Rocky Mountain lakes, researchers project that climate change will cause average annual lake-surface temperatures to increase 41% by 2080, with dramatically warmer water in the summer and 5.9 fewer ice-free days with each passing decade.

Warmer lakes create a widened window for toxic algae to bloom. A separate national study, also from 2017, predicts that rising air temperatures and the resultant warmer waters will increase toxic-bloom occurrence from an average of seven days per year in U.S reservoirs now to 16-23 days in 2050 and 18-39 days in 2090.

Long-term solutions for current and future blooms include placing limits on greenhouse gas, as well as nitrogen and phosphorus emissions, Baron said. Short-term solutions include waiting for blue-green algae to stop producing toxins and keeping visitors out of the water while they do, said May.

As frosty temperatures inhibit algal growth, Steamboat and Stagecoach park managers get a break from thinking about the turquoise-tinted toxins. In May, they’ll start the second season of following the parks’ new protocol, May said.

Regarding last summer’s toxic bloom, Steamboat Lake State Park’s Arington said, “I think this won’t be the last year that we see it.”

This story ran in the Steamboat Pilot & Today on Dec. 31.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

Community Agriculture Alliance: The mighty #YampaRiver, our valley’s livelihood #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Scott Hummer, water commissioner for District 58 in the Yampa River basin, checks out a recently installed Parshall flume on an irrigation ditch. Hummer said most water users in the Yampa are complying with a state order issued nearly a year ago that requires measuring devices. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Here’s a guest column that’s running in the Steamboat Pilot & Today (Gena Hinkemeyer):

Did you know that Colorado’s Water Plan calls for 80% of locally 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 is one of nine grassroots water policy roundtables throughout Colorado working to develop locally driven collaborative solutions to water supply challenges. The roundtable’s Integrated Water Management Plan will combine community input with science and engineering assessments to identify actions that protect existing and future water uses and support healthy river ecosystems in the face of growing populations, changing land uses and climate uncertainty.

So where do we begin with the IWMP process? Why not start with the biggest users of water here in the basin, our agricultural stakeholders. Stakeholders have been clear that agricultural infrastructure is in need of improvement, but there is limited documentation about specific needs. Stakeholder engagement is the most important factor to successful IWMPs. That’s where I come into play.

As a segment coordinator for the project, I am reaching out to our agricultural users to listen and learn from them about their use of water and riverside lands, plus their management concerns and opportunities they may see for improvements. I wasn’t really sure what my job would entail. I had visions of field work and lots of interaction with ranchers. Our work was delayed by COVID-19 restrictions, but we were able to roll with the punches and conduct our interviews over the phone.

Virus or not, ranchers still had to irrigate their fields, so we found a way to continue our work. As it turns out, I learned more about irrigation and the effects irrigation has on our community than I ever thought possible. From the headgates of the Yampa all the way down to the confluence of the Green River, our team chose 50 water diversion structures for assessment.

What does a diversion assessment entail, you might ask? A technical team, J-U-B Engineering out of Grand Junction, conducted site visits on the 50 river structures. The site visit included a field inspection of the river headgate, ditch conditions, inventory and assessment of control structures, measurement devices and level of functionality, overall structural integrity and diversion functionality, along with the ability of the structure to divert a wide range of flows.

The results of the diversion assessment will benefit irrigators by providing a technical evaluation of their structure, including suggestions of ways to improve or modify the structure, if needed. The roundtable will use the information along with a combination of other studies regarding river health and recreation to select future priorities and action planning.

As the work of the IWMP continues, the assessments will also support regional decision making regarding multi-benefit projects — those that overlap agriculture, environment and recreation. Working on the IWMP has opened my eyes to how important agriculture and water are to this community. It’s our livelihood and our heritage.

For more information on the IWMP project, visit yampawhitegreen.com/iwmp.

Gena Hinkemeyer is segment coordinator for the Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable Integrated Water Management Plan.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

#SteamboatSprings: City, Botanic Park partner to help mountain whitefish spawn in Fish Creek — Steamboat Pilot & Today

this 16 inch long Mountain whitefish (Prosopium williamsoni) was caught and released in the McKenzie River near the town of Blue River, Oregon on September 1, 2007. By Woostermike at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by OhanaUnited., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5099696

From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Shelby Reardon):

As a Yampa River Botanic Park team member, [Jeff] Morehead removes the diversion dam on Fish Creek under U.S. Highway 40 every year. The water flows through two arches under the road, and the dam keeps the water level high enough in one of them so water diverts to the Yampa River Botanic Park.

Each fall after Halloween, the park closes and Morehead removes the dam. This year, as requested by Steamboat Springs Water Resources Manager Kelly Romero-Heaney and Public Works City Engineer Ben Beall, Morehead removed the structure a bit earlier. Additionally, he created a wing dam of rock and fabric to divert the water through one arch instead of two, deepening the flow of water.

“I was just happy to help,” said Morehead. “You could tell the fish were going right past me while I was doing it. I was like, ‘Holy crap, this is absolutely working.’”

Without the diversion, waterflow through both arches isn’t deep enough to allow the fish to swim and jump through the box culvert steps. The middle arch has one large step of about 18 inches, according to Morehead, which would be nearly impossible for the fish to leap over.

“It’s staircased in a way that the drops are like 18 inches and there’s a long flat that approaches the staircase, so the whitefish can’t really swim and get a jump over that 18 inches.”

There used to be a third arch, but as of summer 2019, a sidewalk underpass filled the far right arch. That left the far left arch as the only viable option for fish to get upstream.

With more water flowing through the arch, it allowed whitefish to swim upstream and spawn in the waters of Fish Creek. Development and low water levels have made it harder to access their main spawning tributary for the fish living in the headwaters of the Yampa. The whitefish spawn, or lay their eggs, in early to mid-October. The eggs will hatch in the spring before the waters reach their peak flow.

As seen in a video taken and edited by Morehead, the whitefish seem to have utilized the access point to Fish Creek.

Whitefish populations in the Yampa River Basin have been dwindling for years, so, as part of the Yampa River Health Assessment and Streamflow Management Plan adopted in 2018, the city of Steamboat Springs vowed to “promote native fish populations from further decline and promote range expansion where possible.” The Fish Creek diversion is just one way the city is working to accomplish that task.

The mountain whitefish isn’t endangered, but its numbers are falling in the Yampa River Basin, where it’s one of two native salmonids in the area, the other being cutthroat trout. The species is also found in Colorado in the White River Basin. They live in the Northwest in cool waters of high elevation streams, rivers and lakes, particularly in Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

While they are thriving in other areas of the country, including the White River Basin, they are struggling in the Yampa River Basin as noted in samples taken from the river every few years, most recently conducted by Billy Atkinson, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

A huge reason for their decline is the non-native northern pike. Pike are predacious fish and feed on the whitefish. There have been efforts to control the pike population in the area, which is another goal of the Yampa River Health Assessment and Streamflow Management Plan.

Mountain whitefish are doing well in the White River, where there are no northern pike to prey on the native fish. There are other ecological factors that can be attributed to the whitefish’s success in the White River basin, but no pike is the biggest difference between that system and that of the Yampa River.

Predation is just one issue plaguing the whitefish.

The whitefish, which can grow up to 2 feet, loves cold water in high elevations. A 20-year drought in Colorado has brought on some particularly rough water years, though, lowering the flow in rivers across the state.

The Yampa River was extremely low this year, closing to usage Sept. 2 when the streamflow dropped below 85 cubic feet per second. Shallower water is warmed by the sun far easier than deeper water, causing stress to fish that prefer cooler temperatures.

Thankfully, there are already efforts in place to improve this on two fronts. The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District releases water from Stagecoach Reservoir to improve river flow and prevent the loss of fish habitat when the water line lowers.

Additionally, the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council and Retree have been planting young trees on the banks of the Yampa in designated spots. When they grow, the trees will provide shade to the river, helping maintain lower temperatures.

This year, with water levels so low, the end of summer river closure extended into the fall to put less stress on the entire Yampa River ecological system. With low flow, fish, such as the mountain whitefish, concentrate in small pools due to limited resources.

Water released from Elkhead Reservoir lifts call on Yampa River — @AspenJournalism #YampaRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The second-ever call on the Yampa River was lifted on Sept. 3. The river is shown here as it flows through Hayden on August 3, 2020. Photo credit: Allen Best/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Allen Best):

The second-ever call on the Yampa River was lifted [August 3, 2020] morning after a trio of water providers announced the release of up to 1,500 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to support irrigators in the Yampa River Valley and endangered fish.

The latest call was placed on the Yampa River on Aug. 25. The first call was in the late summer of 2018, also after an uncommonly hot, dry summer. The release of the water has ended the immediate need for water administration, allowing irrigators who had been legally prevented from taking water to resume diversions.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association has begun releasing 500 acre-feet of its water, and the Colorado River District is releasing another 750 acre-feet of water that it controls from the reservoir near Hayden.

A third organization, the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust, will use money from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to support the upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program’s contract for additional water in Elkhead in 2020. The Colorado Water Trust also has raised private funds to support a potential release of 250 acre-feet of water to provide in-channel flows for endangered fish species in the Yampa.

Water will continue to be released from Elkhead Reservoir, as necessary, through September. Rain, snow and cloud cover could suppress demand.

The second-ever call on the Yampa River ended Wednesday. Here it flows near the diversion from the Hayden Generating Station on Aug. 3. Photo credit: Allen Best/Aspen Journalism

Irrigators, fish feeling the heat

A statement from the River District and Tri-State emphasized the intention of helping irrigators.

“Agriculture producers in the western U.S. currently are being hit with the triple threat of drought, low prices and pandemic restrictions, so anything we can do to ease the burden of farmers and ranchers in the Yampa Valley is something we are willing and honored to do,” said Duane Highley, CEO at Tri-State, the operator of coal-fired power plants near Craig.

Andy Mueller, the general manager of the River District, echoed that theme.

“We hope these actions help alleviate the depth and severity of ranchers being curtailed and allow some of them to turn their pumps back on to grow more forage before winter,” he said.

“It was a crazy hot and dry summer,” said Andy Schultheiss, the executive director of the Colorado Water Trust. “There was just nothing left in the river — or, at least, very, very little.”

Schultheiss said the trust was interested in preserving habitat for fish and other species in the river, including fish in the lower reaches of the Yampa that are on the endangered species list. In August, the organization also contracted to release 500 acre-feet of water from the Stagecoach Reservoir, near Oak Creek, to ensure flows through Steamboat Springs.

Impact of the releases was reflected Thursday afternoon at stream gauges maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey. The river above the confluence of Elkhead Creek was running 102 cubic feet per second. Bolstered by the reservoir releases, however, it was running 125 cfs downstream at Maybell. It was 95 cfs at Deer Lodge, located 115 river miles downstream from Elkhead Reservoir at the entrance to Dinosaur National Monument, below several agricultural diversions.

A warming climate of recent decades and the weather of the past year probably both played a role in 2020’s second-ever Yampa call.

“August likely will end in the top 10 hottest and driest on record in the Yampa basin,” state climatologist Russ Schumacher said during an Aug. 25 webinar. “You see warmer-than-average temperatures everywhere except a couple of pockets in North Park.”

Many areas were 4 to 6 degrees above average, and some pockets were even hotter. Fall and winter temperatures are more variable, which summer’s are much less so, said Schumacher. “Having 5 or 6 to 8 degrees above average in summer is quite remarkable,” he said.

The River District’s Mueller nodded to this broader context.

“As drought and low flows promise to persist, today’s cooperative actions could help us learn and plan for an uncertain water future,” he said.

This recently installed Parshall flume in the Yampa River basin replaced the old, rusty device in the background. Division 6 engineer Erin Light is granting extensions to water users who work with her office to meet a requirement for measuring devices. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Heather Sackett

Regulation is new reality

What sets the Yampa River apart from other rivers in Colorado is its storied tradition: a river without administration. The contrast may be most stark with the South Platte, which drains the heavily populated towns and cities and still abundant farms on the northern Front Range. There, it’s barely an exaggeration to say that every drop is measured, ensuring that diverters are taking only as much water as to which they have rights.

The Yampa has typically met the needs of all diverters, including those of irrigators, who are responsible for nearly all the water consumed in the Yampa River basin on an annual basis. Diverters were on an honor system to take no more than their allocated share of water.

Putting a call on a river requires the sorting out of water rights under Colorado’s first-in-time, first-in-right hierarchy. Those with mostly older — and, therefore, senior rights — have first dibs but only to the amount they are allocated.

The call placed on the river Aug. 25 was triggered by agriculture users lower on the river, at Lilly Park near Dinosaur National Monument. They were failing to get the river’s native flows to which they were entitled within their priority of 1963.

To honor the seniority of those water rights, Erin Light, the division engineer, initiated a call on the river to ensure that the more senior right would get delivery of the water.

Those affected were all water users upstream, even to the headwaters, with junior or more recent allocations. Junior water users are cut off to the amount necessary to satisfy the call, which could be partially or completely, as per the needs of the downstream user with the senior but unsatisfied allocation.

Light last year announced that all water diverters must install headgates and measuring devices, to allow withdrawals to be controlled and measured. Some have done so, others have been given extensions and some others have failed to comply, she said. Those without headgates and measuring devices — even if they have a more senior water right — risk being cut off entirely when a call occurs.

This push to measure diversions began at least a decade ago, after Light arrived in the Yampa Valley. One of those she persuaded was Jay Fetcher, who ranches along the Elk River, northwest of Steamboat Springs. He remembers some grumbling. The informal method had always worked. Now he’s glad he can prove he’s taking his allocated water — and no more.

“Once we changed, we realized that it was a real plus,” Fetcher said. “We knew what we were doing with our water, and we could justify (our diversions), not only to ourselves, but to Erin and the state.”

Jim Pokrandt, the director of community affairs for the River District, echoed that sentiment.

“It’s in everybody’s best interest,” Pokrandt said, “to foster a solution that recognizes the reality, that doesn’t put agriculture out of business, while we are on the pathway to better water administration.”

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with Steamboat Pilot & Today and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Sept. 7 edition of Steamboat Pilot & Today.

As pressure to regulate #YampaRiver continues, locals raise cash to aid compliance effort — @WaterEdCO #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #GreenRiver

Scott Hummer, water commissioner for District 58 in the Yampa River basin, checks out a recently installed Parshall flume on an irrigation ditch. Hummer said most water users in the Yampa are complying with a state order issued nearly a year ago that requires measuring devices. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

From the Fresh Water News (Jerd Smith):

Nearly one year after the state ordered Yampa River water users to begin measuring their diversions from the iconic river, local community groups have raised more than $200,000 to help cash-strapped ranchers and others install the devices needed to comply with the law.

According to Erin LIght, the top water regulator in the region, roughly 60 percent of diversion structures, about 1,760 in total, remain out of compliance in what is known as Colorado’s Water Division 6, which includes the Yampa, North Platte, White and Green river basins.

Under state law, water users who do not measure their diversions can be subject to prosecution and have access to their water rights suspended, something the state has threatened to do but has not yet implemented.

Local groups, including the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and the Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable, have stepped up to help, creating a $200,000 grant fund to ensure those who are trying to comply can afford to do so.

“Everyone is interested in getting the best infrastructure we can into the river,” said Holly Kirkpatrick, who is overseeing the grant program for the conservancy district. “A lot of different organizations are working very hard on this.”

The Yampa River Fund, spearheaded by The Nature Conservancy, also plans to step in with funding should the need arise.

“I envision that there will be a request for funding,” said fund manager Andy Baur, “and we are here to help.”

This remote region in the northwest corner of the state for decades has had so much water that regulators rarely had to step in to ensure the rivers’ supplies were being properly distributed in accordance with state water law, something it does routinely in Colorado’s other major river basins. But as water shortages loom in the state, the Yampa is coming under increasing scrutiny.

“People need to understand that if we find ourselves in another administrative situation [where the Yampa runs dry as it did in 2018], people need to know they will be shut off,” said Light, who oversees the region for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.

The picture is much different than even 20 years ago, when Yampa Valley ranchers and other water users with water rights were often able to divert as much as they wanted whenever they wanted because the river had huge flows and relatively few demands.

Light, who oversees the Yampa and North Platte basins, as well as the Green and White river sub-basins, said the White River region has the most work to do to comply with the state’s order, with 83 percent, or 596, of its diversion structures taking water that is not being measured.

On the Yampa River, 50 percent of diversion structures, or 900, remain unmeasured, Light said. In the North Platte, 34 percent, or 190, lack measuring devices, while in the Green 74, or 69 percent, of devices remain unmeasured, Light said.

Because the White and Green sub-basins are so remote, and installing measuring devices can cost thousands of dollars, Light said she is giving water users there another year to comply with the order.

At the same time, she said she has granted more than 100 extensions to water users who are trying to comply to give them more time to find funds and get the work done.

Light said she is hopeful ranchers and others will begin to understand that measuring is no longer optional, and that those who begin recording their water use will have new opportunities as the entire Colorado River system, to which the Yampa, White and Green rivers are tributary, moves into a water-short future.

Under at least one scenario now being studied, a large, statewide conservation program called demand management would pay ranchers and others to voluntarily forego their water diversions for a period of time. Options to receive payment for suspending use would only be available to those who have diversion records that demonstrate how much water they’ve historically used.

“If someday we have an opportunity to [temporarily] dry up lands under a demand management program, their [actual water] use will be greatly in question because they have not measured their water. As demands get higher in the Colorado River, it’s going to behoove them to measure,” Light said.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

The #YampaRiver is under Administration for the 2nd time in its history #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Irrigated pasture at Mantle Ranch along the Yampa River. Ranchers in the Yampa River basin are grappling with the enforcement of state regulations that require them to monitor their water use. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From email from the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Erin Light via Scott Hummer):

Right in step with the unprecedented year of 2020, the Yampa River is going on call for the second time in three years. And once again, the structures located at the bottom of the system do not have enough natural flow to meet their diversion demands.

We, the Division of Water Resources, are currently protecting reservoir water released from Elkhead Creek Reservoir for the protection of the endangered fish species. The amount of reservoir water currently being released for the Endangered Fish Recovery Program is 75 cfs. This in turn requires that there is 61 cfs at the Yampa River at Deerlodge Park gage station. The flow this morning is hovering around 50 cfs which means reservoir water is being diverted by water users upstream.

The entire Yampa River system is under administration for several reasons, the most obvious of which is that if the reservoir water was not in the system the structures at the bottom of the system would have no water and we would be instituting what one might consider a standard or more typical call that would encompass the entire Yampa River and its tributaries. Additionally, the water users on the mainstem of the Yampa River between Elkhead Creek and its confluence with the Green River should not have to bear the brunt of the entire Yampa River being short of water simply because their structure is located within the Critical Habitat Reach (the protected reach for the Endangered Fish).

Actions have already been put in place to institute the call and as of 12:00 PM today, the Yampa River and all of its tributaries are considered under administration. The Calling Priority right (or most junior water right that may divert at this time) is located at the Craig Station Power Plant with an administration number of 37149.00000 (this water right has an adjudication date 9/1/1960 and an appropriation date of 9/17/1951). This Calling Priority may change as the call progresses. In order to follow the call you may visit the following website:
https://dwr.state.co.us/Tools/AdministrativeCalls/Active?submitButton=Submit&SelectedWaterDivisionId=6

If you have a water right junior to the above listed priority and you are diverting water, please cease your diversions unless your diversion can operate under a decreed augmentation plan or substitute water supply plan approved by the State Engineer. Also, if you are the owner of a pond, you are required to bypass all out of priority inflows.

If you have any questions or concerns please feel free to contact me or your water commissioner.

Erin Light, P.E.
Division Engineer, Water Division 6

Community Agriculture Alliance: What is Reg 85? — Steamboat Pilot & Today

From Steamboat Pilot & Today (Greg Peterson):

In 2012, the state of Colorado passed Regulation 85, or Reg 85, which dealt with point source and nonpoint source water contaminants. Point sources, like wastewater treatment plants, were hit with strict measures for managing pollutants. Nonpoint sources, like parks, golf courses and agriculture, were not.

However, Reg 85 began a 10-year period where the agricultural community is encouraged to do voluntary measures for managing nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Agricultural organizations like the Colorado Livestock Association and Colorado Corn Growers Association were involved in those early discussions and pushed back against the assumption that agriculture is the main contributor of nutrients to streams and rivers in Colorado.

In 2022, the Water Quality Control Commission will determine if the agricultural community needs regulations or if we will continue voluntary measures. The first hearing on Reg 85 is in October, and it is an opportunity for the agricultural community to tell their story and keep Colorado as a voluntary state.

The main issue is not the voluntary measures. Farms and ranches throughout the state have been changing and adapting their practices constantly. Many practices, which have been implemented to simply keep a farm or ranch efficient or profitable, have also improved the management of nitrogen and phosphorus. Colorado producers will continue to invest and adopt practices that manage nutrients and are compatible with their operations.

The issue is telling this story to those outside of the agricultural community, and there are multiple opportunities to do just that.

A team with Colorado State University is conducting multiple edge-of-field studies to show the benefit of specific operations and practices on nutrient management. These studies provide us with valuable data to show the positive benefit of practices on the majority of farms and ranches today.

Additionally, these studies can help the landowner have a better understanding of their own application rates of nitrogen and phosphorus and how well those are being used by the crop.

There is also work being done to demonstrate past improvements through programs like EQIP — Environmental Quality Incentives Program —administered by Natural Resources Conservation Services. Every year, millions of dollars in federal and private funding are spent on Colorado farms and ranches that have had positive impacts on managing nitrogen and phosphorus. These studies can show us how much work has been done throughout the state in reducing loads of nitrogen and phosphorus because of new agricultural practices.

If there is a project that will benefit your farm or ranch and have a positive water quality impact, there is a lot of funding out there. We want to focus that money on projects that are compatible with farms and ranches, making them even better.

If you are interested in participating in any of these opportunities, want to know more about Reg 85 or are interested in project funding, please contact Greg Peterson at the Colorado Ag Water Alliance at coagwater@gmail.com or 720-244-4629.

Greg Peterson is the executive director of the Colorado Ag Water Alliance.

The essential nutrients needed for lucrative agricultural production, nitrogen and phosphorus, have been linked to adverse water quality in streams and rivers. Edge of field water quality monitoring of best management practices (BMP’s), like vegetated filter strips, helps the agricultural industry quantify potential water quality benefits and impacts of BMP’s. Photo credit: Colorado State University

Routt County dips into Stagecoach Reservoir to boost #YampaRiver amid hot, dry conditions — Steamboat Pilot & Today #ColoradoRiver #GreenRiver #COriver #aridification

From the Steamboat Pilot & Today (Derek Maiolo):

The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District has started releasing water from Stagecoach Reservoir to boost flows into the city of Steamboat Springs’ waste water treatment plant.

The release of 350 acre-feet of water also has the aim of keeping water temperatures cooler to protect the health of the ecosystem and to meet local supply needs, according to a news release from the district. This comes as rivers across Colorado are experiencing varying degrees of drought…

The district also initiated its annual drawdown of Stagecoach Reservoir, during which managers will gradually release an additional 1,000 acre-feet of water through Sept. 30.

All of this means higher flows on the local river. As of Tuesday, the Yampa River was flowing at about 160 cubic feet per second at the U.S. Geological Survey’s stream gauge at the Fifth Street Bridge, up from 90 cfs on Aug. 11…

Thanks to a grant from the Yampa River Fund, the Colorado Water Trust will lease an additional 500 acre-feet of water from the Conservation District, which is intended to improve river health and enhance flows during the hot, dry weeks ahead, according to the news release. The Water Trust can purchase additional water if necessary, up to 4,000 acre-feet for the rest of the year…

This marks the seventh year in the past decade that the Water Trust leased water from Stagecoach River to maintain healthy flows and water temperatures. The organization uses forecast models and historical data to gauge how much water to release during any given year.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

State officials say #YampaRiver water users are complying with measuring requirement — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #WhiteRiver

Scott Hummer, water commissioner for District 58 in the Yampa River basin, checks out a recently installed Parshall flume on an irrigation ditch. Hummer said most water users in the Yampa are complying with a state order issued nearly a year ago that requires measuring devices. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

State regulators in the Yampa River basin say most water users are now willingly complying with an order to measure how much water they are taking — an order once greeted with suspicion and reluctance. But challenges to compliance remain, including the cost of installing equipment.

Last fall, the Colorado Division of Water Resources ordered nearly 500 water users in the Yampa River basin to install measuring devices to record their water use. Nearly a year later, most of those water users are embracing the requirement, according to water commissioner Scott Hummer.

“I am fully confident that over 90% of the people who have orders pending have either complied, are in the process of complying or have asked for an extension,” Hummer said. “So we are getting the cooperation and buy-in that we are requesting from our water users. They are understanding why we are doing it, at least in my area.”

Hummer is the water commissioner for Water District 58, which spans 400 square miles and includes all the water rights above Stagecoach Reservoir. He oversees between 350 and 400 diversion structures.

Measuring water use is the norm in other river basins, especially where demand outpaces supply. But the tightening of regulations is new to the Yampa River basin, and the order was initially met with resistance from some ranchers.

John Raftopoulos, whose family ranches along the Little Snake River, a tributary of the Yampa in Moffat County, said he thinks most irrigators are complying. His cattle ranch has about 15 measuring devices, and he has to install a few more to be completely compliant.

“I know (the state) has to use them. There’s no other way they can control the water; they’ve got to have the measuring device,” Raftopoulos said. “You just got to bite the bullet and install them.”

State law requires water users to maintain measuring devices on their canals and ditches, but this rule was not enforced in Division 6 — consisting of the Yampa, White, Green and North Platte river basins — because historically there was plenty of water to go around in the sparsely populated northwest corner of the state. Long seen as the last frontier of the free river, there has been little regulatory oversight from the state when it came to irrigators using as much water as they needed. But that changed in 2018 with the first-ever call on the river.

A call is prompted when streamflows are low and a senior water rights holder isn’t receiving their full amount. They ask the state to place a call, which means upstream junior water rights holders must stop or reduce diversions to ensure that the senior water right gets its full amount.

Although the order for a measuring device comes with a deadline and the threat of fines, Division 6 engineer Erin Light has been lenient with water users and willing to give them extra time to get into compliance. The process to request an extension is simple: A water user can simply email Light.

“If a water user is working with our office, we are not going to go shut their headgate off,” she said. “We are going to work with them.”

Light doesn’t have an exact count on how many water users have complied so far — water commissioners are working in the field this summer and haven’t had time to enter the most current information into the division’s database yet — but as of January, the Yampa had 49% compliance.

“I am not hearing anything (from water commissioners) about concerns of noncompliance. If there were problems, they would let me know,” Light said. “I have a fair amount of confidence that things are going well in all my areas as to compliance.”

This recently installed Parshall flume in the Yampa River basin replaced the old, rusty device in the background. Division 6 engineer Erin Light is granting extensions to water users who work with her office to meet a requirement for measuring devices. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Heather Sackett

Financial burden

Still, some worry that the cost of installing the devices — which in most cases are Parshall flumes — is too big a financial burden for some water users. The devices, which channel diverted water and measure the flow below the headgate, can cost thousands of dollars, which adds up for water users who need to install multiple devices.

The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable have teamed up in recent months to create a $200,000 grant program to help water users with infrastructure-improvement expenses. According to Holly Kirkpatrick, the communications manager for the conservancy district, water users so far have completed about $3,500 worth of work. That money will be reimbursed through the grant program.

“We expect to see a huge influx of applications as the season comes to an end,” she said.

In March, Light issued notices to water users in the other Division 6 river basins — White and Green — but decided to delay sending orders after talking with some who had concerns over the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a June letter to Light, signed by four water conservancy districts — White River, Rio Blanco, Yellow Jacket and Douglas Creek — representatives said they would be interested in seeking opportunities for financial assistance for their water users. Under the best-case scenario, it would take until spring to secure grant money and begin installing devices, the letter said.

“This year is a tough year to try and ask people to do anything above and beyond what they already have to do,” said Callie Hendrickson, executive director of the White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts. “I know (Light is) willing to give extensions, but right now, our folks don’t need that additional financial or emotional stress.”

Scott Hummer, water commissioner for District 58 in the Yampa River basin, points out how snowmelt flows from high elevation down to the valley where the water is used for irrigation. Hummer said most water users in the Yampa are complying with a state order issued nearly a year ago that requires measuring devices. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Colorado River Compact influence

Some water users have questioned why, after years of not enforcing requirements for measuring devices in Division 6, the state is now doing so. One answer is that more and better data about water use is becoming increasingly necessary as drought and climate change reduce streamflows, create water shortages and threaten Colorado’s ability to meet its Colorado River Compact obligations.

Division 6 has traditionally enjoyed abundant water and few demands, but as state regulators saw with the 2018 call, that dynamic is no longer guaranteed every year. As the threat of a compact call and the possibility of a state demand-management program grow, state officials say the need to measure water use grows, too.

A major unknown is what would happen in the event of a compact call. 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.

State engineer Kevin Rein said that without knowing how much water is being used, it’s a blind guess as to which junior water users would have to cut back.

“We could see the (cubic feet per second) amount that the water right is decreed for, but we don’t know how much is really being diverted and we don’t know how much is really being consumed, so we don’t know what effect it’s going to have on meeting our compact obligations,” Rein told Aspen Journalism last week.

It’s a similar scenario with a potential demand-management program. At the heart of such a program is a reduction in water use in an attempt to send as much as 500,000 additional acre-feet of water downstream to Lake Powell to help the upper basin meet its compact obligations. Agricultural water users could get paid to take part in the temporary, voluntary program to fallow fields and leave more water in the river.

But before they could participate in a demand-management program, the state needs to know how much water that an irrigator has been using.

“The first thing we need is diversion records,” Rein said. “If there’s no measuring device, no record of diversions and somebody wants to participate, they are simply not going to have the data to demonstrate their consumptive use.”

Since nearly everyone is making progress, Hummer said he doubts that enforcement will reach a point where he has to fine someone for not measuring their water use. Still, the transition is a tough one for an area not accustomed to state government oversight of their ditches.

“We are just dealing with difficult circumstances within the whole Colorado River basin system that dictates change, and folks don’t like change, especially in rural areas,” Hummer said. “But it’s here and it’s not going away. The demand for measurement will become more stringent in the future, not less.”

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times, along with other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Aug. 15 edition of the Steamboat Pilot & Today and the Aug. 17 edition of The Aspen Times.

#YampaRiver Cleanup recap

The Yampa River Core Trail runs right through downtown Steamboat. Photo credit City of Steamboat Springs.

From Steamboat Today (Derek Maiolo):

Seven-hundred-twenty-eight cigarette butts. Seven-hundred-nineteen pieces of plastic. Two-hundred-forty-five shards of broken glass.

Those were among the most common items collected during the 2020 Yampa River Cleanup on Saturday. The annual event had to make some changes this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it still managed to galvanize a local task force to remove harmful debris from the treasured river that flows through the heart of Steamboat Springs.

To keep people safe, Friends of the Yampa and the city of Steamboat collaborated to turn the cleanup into a virtual event. Volunteers registered online, signing up as a household or small group to tackle a specific section of the river. Organizers handed out trash bags, gloves and face coverings.

With 82 volunteers, participation was about on par with previous years, according to Emily Hines, the city’s marketing and special events coordinator who helped to organize the cleanup. Additional volunteers cleaned sections of the river in Hayden and Craig.

A group of 20 people collected 420 pounds of trash from three sections of the Yampa River near Craig, according to Robert Schenck with Northwest Colorado Parrotheads.

The inventory of litter represents just a fraction of what people collected. While not weighed, the trash from Steamboat almost filled an entire dumpster, Hines said.

Volunteers at all locations noted picking up less litter than in previous years. Friends of the Yampa President Kent Vertrees attributes the cleaner conditions to individual endeavors prior to the weekend cleanup. Backdoor Sports in downtown Steamboat organized its own effort a couple of weeks ago, and people in search of volunteer hours have approached Vertrees to conduct their own river cleanup projects.

He also believes people are getting better about picking up after themselves while on the river…

Other interesting items collected during the cleanup include a rusty chair from a restaurant, a vehicle battery and a pregnancy test.

New manager takes reins of Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District #YampaRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridifiction

The Yampa River Core Trail runs right through downtown Steamboat. Photo credit City of Steamboat Springs.

From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Derek Maiolo):

Andy Rossi now manages the conservation district following more than a decadelong tenure with the group. The change comes after the retirement of former manager Kevin McBride, who managed the district since 2009.

Rossi joined the group that same year as its district engineer. His knowledge of the district’s facilities and operations near the headwaters of the Yampa River, namely Yamcolo and Stagecoach reservoirs, was a major factor in the board’s decision to promote him, according to a news release. Before that, he worked at multiple consulting firms specializing in water resources…

Rossi also will oversee the implementation of the district’s new strategic plan. Among the plan’s goals include developing long-term financial sustainability, protecting local water from out-of-district transfers and improving watershed management.

With regards to that last goal, Rossi noted a need to utilize new technology and scientific-based studies for water management. For example, one of the panelists at a recent Yampa Basin Rendezvous discussion, snowpack researcher Dr. Jeffrey Deems, described his work with the Airborne Snow Observatory.

The observatory uses specialized aircraft equipped with sensors to collect data on snowmelt across entire regions of mountains and their waterways. The data has helped communities to better manage their water supplies.

According to Deems, the Kings River Water Association in California was able to avoid a flood declaration in 2019, which led to savings of $100 million, by basing its dam release policy on forecasts from the Airborne Snow Observatory instead of traditional measurements.

Rossi said he would like to incorporate some of the observatory’s data next year on a trial basis, which also would help the researchers receive feedback on the new technology…

These efforts have the overarching goal of preserving the health of the Yampa River for the people, plants and creatures that depend upon it. Rossi described the river as the most important natural resource in the area.

“It is the natural resource that defines this valley,” he said.

To that end, Rossi aims to maintain the district’s existing facilities, such as the dam at Stagecoach Reservoir, which not only helps to meet water demands for a growing community but also generates hydroelectric power.

The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District formed in 1966 following the passage of the Water Conservancy Act of the state of Colorado. Its mission has been conserving, developing and stabilizing supplies of water for irrigation, power generation, manufacturing and other uses.

Stagecoach Reservoir. Photo credit Upper Yampa River Water Conservancy District.

Keep the water flowing: Funding available to help ranchers pay for required measuring infrastructure — Steamboat Today #YampaRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Irrigated pasture at Mantle Ranch along the Yampa River. Ranchers in the Yampa River basin are grappling with the enforcement of state regulations that require them to monitor their water use. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Steamboat Today (Derek Maiolo):

Funding is available to Routt County ranchers and farmers to install water-measuring infrastructure to better gauge how much water they are diverting…

The [Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District] has about $200,000 worth of funding to help farmers and ranchers afford the measuring devices thanks to a $100,000 match from the Yampa-White-Green Roundtable, according to Holly Kirkpatrick, communications manager for the conservancy district.

Her office will reimburse 50% of costs associated with the devices, Kirkpatrick said, up to $5,000. The district is taking application through 2021.

“We are seeing a huge uptick in interest for grant funds with people completing their projects,” Kirkpatrick said. “Folks are really interested in how they go about this process and getting projects completed before the end of year.”

For more information on the measuring devices and available funding, contact Kirkpatrick at hkirkpatrick@upperyampawater.com.

Yampa Valley “State of the River” July 29, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:

Topic: Yampa Valley State of the River

Description:

Whether it’s for clean water from your kitchen tap, water for hay or livestock or flows to paddle or play on, we all rely on the Yampa River and its tributaries.

Learn about current Yampa Basin water issues, ongoing drought and challenges facing West Slope water users at the virtual Yampa Valley State of the River meeting hosted by the Colorado River District, the Community Agriculture Alliance and the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable.

If you’re busy for the live event, register to receive a recording of the webinar by email to watch later.

Agenda:

• Protecting West Slope Water in Times of Uncertainty – Jim Pokrandt, Director of Community Affairs at the Colorado River District
• Snowpack and Runoff updates in the Yampa River Basin – Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District
• Recreation in the Yampa River Basin – Lindsey Marlow, Program Manager at Friends of the Yampa and Josh Veenstra, owner of Good Vibes River Gear
• How you can participate in Yampa River planning and the Integrated Water Management Plan – Marsha Daughenbaugh, Rocking C Bar Ranch and Nicole Seltzer, Science & Policy Manager at River Network
• Conversation with the Division Engineer – Erin Light, Division 6 Engineer at the Colorado Division of Water Resources and Jackie Brown, Natural Resource Policy Advisor, Tri-State Generation and Transmission

Time: Jul 29, 2020 06:30 PM in Mountain Time (US and Canada)

Community Agriculture Alliance: River planning

An irrigated hayfield along the lower Yampa River. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From the Friends of the Yampa (Eugene Buchanan) via Steamboat Pilot & Today:

The key to river planning is collaboration, and the Yampa River Basin is doing just that. There are water users everywhere — agriculture diverting water to grow food and raise animals, municipalities securing drinking water and treating wastewater, ski resorts making snow, power plants producing steam to create power, recreationists fishing and paddling, and wildlife using it as sustenance and a home. With all of these various purposes, how do we manage water use?

The key is planning and working together. There is an understanding among river users that, without this collaboration, there is a risk that one of these stakeholder groups might not receive the water they need.

To that end, there exist such entities as Friends of the Yampa, the Yampa-White-Green River Basin Round Table and Yampa River Integrated Water Management Plan to help all these water use stakeholders.

According to its website, “The Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable is leading the development of an Integrated Water Management Plan (IWMP). The process will combine community input with science and engineering assessments to identify actions to protect existing and future water uses and support healthy river ecosystems in the face of growing populations, changing land uses and climate uncertainty.”

“The Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable and the Integrated Water Management Plan are great examples of collaboration,” said Friends of the Yampa President and Basin Round Table Recreation at-large member Kent Vertrees. “A lot has been accomplished in a short time because of this. People look to our basin here in the Yampa Valley as a great example of how to work together to ensure water for our future.”

Another entity helping the cause is the newly formed Yampa River Fund, whose goal is “to establish a sustainable, voluntary funding source for the Yampa River in order to: enhance water security for communities, agriculture, the economy and the natural environment in the Yampa Valley; support a healthy, flowing river and enhance critical low flows through water leases from reservoirs; and maintain or improve river function through a holistic approach to restoration of riparian and/or in-channel habitat.”

The fund’s first funding cycle of grants was announced in May, awarding a total of $200,000 to various projects. The projects include riparian habitat restoration in Steamboat Springs and in the Lower Elkhead Creek; recreational access improvements in Moffat County; water releases out of Stagecoach Reservoir facilitated by Colorado Water Trust; and stream improvements in Oak Creek.

Of special importance this year is the fund’s funding mechanisms to absorb some of the basin’s variability as well as its environmental and recreational vitality. While 2019 was heralded as a banner water year, we currently stand at 30% of average discharge to the river, meaning the use of water leases could come in especially handy this year. And stakeholders working together will be more important than ever.

Eugene Buchanan is a board member of the Friends of the Yampa and local author. Lindsey Marlow is the program manager for Friends of the Yampa.

#YampaRiver Fund Awards First Round of Grants

The Yampa River Core Trail runs right through downtown Steamboat. Photo credit City of Steamboat Springs.

Here’s the release from the Yampa River Fund (Andy Baur):

The Yampa River Fund has awarded its first-ever round of grant funding to five applicants, allocating $200,000 in available funding. On April 29, the Yampa River Fund Steering Committee met to review grant applications and make its decisions. Seven applications were received by the March 24 deadline and $273,000 was requested of the Fund. “We were very pleased to see project applications from throughout the Yampa Basin for a variety of project types,” said Andy Baur, Yampa River Fund manager. “After several years of work with so many groups and entities, it is really exciting to see the first Yampa River Fund grants going out to projects as the program was intended.”

The projects funded in this round of awards are:

1. Stagecoach Reservoir Environmental Release Project, $45,000. Applicant: Colorado Water Trust. This project will provide funding for vital flow releases from Stagecoach Reservoir if flows fall below critical levels in 2020.

2. Irrigation Project for Yampa River Forest Restoration, $30,358. Applicant: Yampa Valley Sustainability Council. This project provides funds for critical irrigation infrastructure to support Yampa River forest restoration efforts.

3. Oak Creek Restoration & Greenway Design, $44,821. Applicant: Town of Oak Creek. Funding will be used to provide key planning and design services for the Oak Creek restoration efforts.

4. Lower Elkhead Creek Restoration Project, Phase 1, $35,000. Applicant: Trout Unlimited. Funds will be used to bolster stream restoration and stabilization efforts below Elkhead Reservoir.

5. Loudy Simpson Improvements Projects, $44,821. Applicant: Moffat County. Moffat County will put funds towards building a redesigned boat ramp and bank stabilization at a popular Yampa River access site.

Kelly Romero-Heaney, Chair of the Yampa River Fund Board and Steering Committee, touts these first Yampa River Fund grants as critical to advancing these projects especially in a time of economic uncertainty associated with the COVD-19 crisis. “We recognize that there are many critical funding and support needs in our communities right now. The Yampa River Fund grants will support this river that adds so much to our economy and way of life which is so important as we cope with the uncertainties and stress related to Covid-19. We hope these funds will provide a bit of good news for the community and applicants along with their key benefits to the Yampa,” she said.

The Yampa River Fund was launched in September 2019 to provide a sustainable, voluntary funding source for the Yampa River in order to enhance water security and support a healthy, flowing river by enhancing critical low flows, and maintaining or improving river function through a holistic approach to restoration of habitat.

The Yampa River Fund is governed by a 21-member founding Board representing local governments, community and statewide NGO’s, business, water providers and irrigations districts.

Sunset over the Yampa River Valley August 25, 2016.

From the Steamboat Pilot & Today (Derek Maiolo):

The Yampa River Fund has awarded its first-ever round of grants to five projects aimed at protecting and improving its namesake river and tributaries in Routt and Moffat counties.

A total of $200,000 went to local organizations, using money that members of the endowment have been raising over the past year…

A $45,000 grant went to the Colorado Water Trust to provide funding for water releases from Stagecoach Reservoir if flows fall below critical levels this summer and fall. As Baur explained, the money would be used only if necessary. If flows remain at healthy levels, the money can be earmarked for next year…

This first round of grants is particularly important considering the economic stress under the COVID-19 pandemic, Baur said. As he put it, the need to protect and enhance the health of local waterways does not shut down like the businesses and services affected by the crisis. If anything, the current situation emphasizes the importance of the Yampa River, Baur argued.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

Tri-State doesn’t feel a ‘sense of urgency’ in deciding water rights — The Craig Press

Ice breaks up on the Yampa River as Spring invites warmer temperatures. Should the water that the nearby Hayden and Craig power plants use be allowed to stay in the river once the plants cease to operate, native and endangered fish species in the river would have a higher chance of survival. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

From The Craig Press (Dan England):

Tri-State Generation and Transmission doesn’t feel a sense of urgency in deciding what will happen to its water rights after 2030, when the plant closes. But it does feel everyone else’s.

“Tri-State and our members are acutely aware of the importance of water to communities,” the company said in a January statement, “as a key element of future economic drivers.”

…Tri-State uses 16,000 acre-feet of water a year…Residents are concerned about it being pumped over to serve the Front Range based on the Western Slopes past water history, and others hope that it’s reserved for local agriculture or even for turning Dinosaur Monument into a national park.

Tri-State had a meeting with those community leaders to start the process of figuring out who may get those water rights and was planning more when the virus hit, meaning things are on hold for now. But that is OK, Stutz said, as he’s reminded officials, repeatedly, that the plant has quite a bit of time to reach a decision.

That’s a decade, if you’re counting, and even after the plant closes, it will need the water to complete reclamation, which should last until early 2030 and maybe longer, Stutz said. That was the tone of the first meeting, said Moffat County Commissioner Ray Beck, one of the more heavily involved local officials in Tri-State affairs, as well as one of its biggest supporters…

As with any discussion about water, it’s complicated, as Tri-State’s water rights are junior, meaning others have rights that take priority, and are for industrial purposes and therefore cannot be automatically transferred to another user, Beck said. Tri-State acknowledges that, stating that there’s more than one owner of the station as well as those other water rights to consider.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia. Ranchers and farmers in the valley have largely ignored Division Engineer Erin Light’s order to install measuring devices as of December, 2019.

Bear River administration May 24, 2020 — Scott Hummer

Bear River at Hernage and Kolbe Ditch May 23, 2020. Photo credit: Scott Hummer/DWR

From email from Scott Hummer at the Colorado Division of Water Resources:

Bear River Water Users,

Effective at 9:00 am, tomorrow, May 24, 2020: The Bear River will go on Call and under Administration.

The Swing Right (most junior right partially in priority) will be Yamcolo Reservoir, Admin #41329.00000…the dry up point is the Nickell Ditch.
All current diversions “junior” to Admin #41329.00000…Must be curtailed.

Water will be released from Yamcolo tomorrow morning in order to meet the demand by Senior rights at the bottom end of the system.

There is currently not a need for any water users Senior to Yamcolo Reservoir to place an order for the delivery of contracted/stored water.
The Call situation will be subject to change dependent upon a variety of circumstances, I’ll keep you posted as to any changes in a timely manner.

UYWCD is currently planning to calibrate the new measuring equipment in the Five Pine Ditch on Tuesday the 26th…and there may be some fluctuation in river flows during the task.

Please contact me with any further questions or comments.

Respectfully,
Scott

#Runoff/#Snowpack news: Average streamflow expected for the #YampaRiver

Bear River at CR7 near Yampa / 3:30 PM, May 16, 2019 / Flow Rate = 0.52 CFS. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

From Steamboat Today (Holly Kirkpatrick and Andy Rossi):

For water managers, the onset of spring is signaled by the reactivation of stream gages.

That’s right, the day field technicians awaken the extensive network of flow data collection instruments from their winter hibernation is highly anticipated in the water world. But what does that mean for the non-water nerds who are simply enjoying warmer temperatures? The short answer is a lot, particularly if you enjoy water activities.

Stream gages, operated by the state of Colorado and U.S. Geological Survey, give water managers, agricultural producers, recreationists and emergency managers valuable information needed to coordinate the use of our most valuable natural resource, water. Before stream gages are activated and spring runoff begins, water managers monitor snowpack to forecast river flows.

Snow Telemetry (SNOTEL) is an extensive system of instrumentation extending from the U.S.-Canada border to the southern reaches of Arizona and New Mexico that tracks snowpack data which determines the amount of water that will end up in our rivers, streams, and lakes when temperatures rise.

The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District incorporates snowpack data and runoff forecasts for the Yampa River to manage the timing of filling Stagecoach and Yamcolo reservoirs, which can be a delicate balance. The forecast products used by Conservancy District are updated on a regular basis by incorporating new snowpack and climate data as it becomes available.

In addition to all this data, real-world observations can be used to improve the usefulness of the forecast products developed by public agencies. Real-world observations made by a robust monitoring network of citizen scientists provide valuable information. Citizen scientists are those who have a close relationship with rivers and streams, including agricultural producers, outdoor enthusiasts and water facilities operators.

Now for the good news, forecasts suggest a healthy average runoff for the Yampa River system and thus far, this year’s early spring runoff in observed streamflow levels has reinforced those forecasts. So round up your boat gear and get ready to enjoy some warmer days. Spring has finally sprung in the Yampa Valley.

And, if your spring is signaled by the end of calving season and the beginning of irrigation season, don’t forget about Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District’s grant program funding diversion infrastructure improvements. Call Holly Kirkpatrick at 970-439-1081 or visit upperyampawater.com/projects/grants for more information.

Holly Kirkpatrick is the communications and marketing manager and Andy Rossi is the district engineer with Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District.

From The North Forty Times:

Play It Safe Tips

  • Wear a life vest
  • Use proper flotation devices
  • Wear shoes
  • Wear a helmet
  • Don’t tie anything to yourself or to your tube/raft/kayak
  • Safe to Go?

  • Know the weather and water conditions
  • Poudre River water is melted snow – it is always cold!
  • Avoid logs, branches, rocks and debris
  • Know Where You Are

  • Take a map
  • Plan your take-out location before you get in the river
  • Float Sober, Float Safe

  • Alcohol and drugs impair judgment
  • Be Courteous

  • Pack it in; pack it out
  • Share the river
  • What if you flip?

  • Do not stand in the river – avoid foot entrapment
  • Float on your back with feet pointing down river and toes out of the water
  • Use your arms to paddle to shore
  • Craig: Chloramine conversion process scheduled to begin May 11, 2020 — The Craig Daily Press

    Craig. Jeffrey Beall / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

    From The Craig Daily Press (Joshua Carney):

    Following a number of delays, the monochloramine conversion process within the city’s water department is scheduled to officially start on Monday, May 11 at 10 a.m.

    According to a press release from the City of Craig Water & Wastewater Department Director Mark Sollenberger, the city’s water department has resolved a number of issues and is ready to get the project, previously scheduled to start on March 31, underway.

    “After numerous weeks of working on the primary disinfection portion of the treatment plant upgrade, our engineers, staff, and contractors have finally resolved many of the issues preventing the original March 3 start date for the chloramine conversion process,” Sollenberger said in the press release. “Be assured that we are now ready to proceed and that the entire conversion process of the water plant, and roughly 80 miles of water distribution system, will still take approximately 3 weeks to be fully completed.”

    Sollenberger added that the city will continue to flush fire hydrants in the distribution system throughout the entire conversion process to help move chloraminated water around the entire water system and support normal system maintenance.

    “The public should please note that fire hydrant flushing can cause discolored water or pressure fluctuations at your home. If you encounter these problems, they should clear up quickly if you run your water faucets throughout the house for a short period of time. We apologize for this inconvenience,” Sollenberger said.

    The controversial monochloramine project to add monochloramines to the current use of chlorine for water disinfection has the city’s water department monitoring water quality now, and moving forward, Sollenberger added.

    “Please be assured that throughout the chloramine conversion process, and long afterwards, the City Water Department staff will be monitoring the water quality in the water distribution system to make sure it always remains safe and is of the highest quality we can deliver to our customers,” Sollenberger said.

    #Runoff news: Much of the #ArkansasRiver above Lake Pueblo is currently runnable

    Browns Canyon via BrownsCanyon.org

    From The Mountain Mail (Cody Olivas):

    Nearly the entire [Arkansas River], from Granite all the way to the Pueblo Whitewater Park, is flowing at or above 700 cubic feet per second, the level of flow that Colorado Parks and Wildlife maintains for boating from July 1 to Aug. 15 with its voluntary flow management program.

    The river was flowing at 696 cfs Wednesday from Granite to Buena Vista. From Buena Vista to Rincon it was flowing at 1,080 cfs, then at 911 cfs to Cañon City and 665 CFS at Pueblo’s water park.

    “It seems runoff typically begins between May 1 and May 15,” Rob White, Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area park manager, said. “It started a little early this year.”

    He said he thinks the whole river is currently runnable, and signs are pointing to a good season.

    “It appears like it’s going to be a pretty good whitewater season in terms of water,” White said. He said it will depend on how hot it gets as well as how much rain falls, but he noted that with the upper basin’s SNOTEL sites currently above 100 percent, water levels could be above average this season.

    From Steamboat Today (Derek Maiolo):

    On Monday, the flow of the Yampa River had risen to more than 2,000 cubic feet per second, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey. The flow has decreased slightly since then, due mainly to fluctuations in snow melt and temperature.

    Portions of the Yampa River Core Trail have been closed due to high water, according to Craig Robinson, parks open space and trail manager for Steamboat Springs Parks and Recreation. Signs have been posted in those areas directing people to detours. Most of the trail closures are on underpasses, Robinson said…

    The Yampa River likely will continue to rise and flow at faster rates in the coming weeks, according to Tom Martindale, streets supervisor for the city of Steamboat Springs. The river usually peaks in late May or early June, he said. This comes after snowpack reaches its peak in the higher elevations and warmer temperatures send the melted snow downstream.

    The smaller tributaries that feed into the Yampa River likely have reached or neared their peak levels, Martindale added. He regularly surveys Butcherknife Creek and Soda Creek, checking also for any debris, such as trees, that could dam the waterways and lead to flooding. So far, he has not seen any major issues…

    The city currently is offering sand and sandbags for residents who want to fortify their homes against flooding. As of Tuesday, the city had set up two collection sites: one at Missouri Avenue and North Park Road, the other at Short and James streets. A third site at Eighth Street and Crawford Avenue will be established this week, Martindale said.

    Uncompahgre River Valley looking south

    From The Montrose Press (Katharhynn Heidelberg):

    Although snow was nearly average through December, it fell to below average for January and February in the Gunnison Basin, then bounced back close to average in March and hit between 90 to 95 percent of average in April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Aspinall Unit.

    Moderate drought conditions persist throughout the basin.

    As of last week, snow conditions in the basin sat just below average, with runoff forecast for the rivers 70 to 80 percent of average. The forecast puts the unit in the “moderately dry” year hydrologic category and if that holds, it will call for a one-day peak flow of 7,017 cubic feet per second in the lower Gunnison, as measured at the Whitewater gauge, according to written information from BuRec.

    There are no half-bankfull or peak flow duration targets under this type of hydrologic year.

    Flows on the Gunnison through the Black Canyon are projected to peak at nearly 4,000 cubic feet per second. After peak, the flows will likely drop to between 500 and 900 cfs and the baseflow targets at the Whitewater gauge, consistent with moderately dry years, are to be between 890 and 1,050 cfs (summer).

    Blue Mesa Reservoir was sitting at 515,000 acre-feet and is forecast to hit a maximum content of 730,000 acre-feet by late June, or about 11 feet below what would be a full reservoir, per BuRec.

    The reservoir would then slowly decrease to its winter target level of 580,000 acre feet. Black Canyon flows are projected to drop to 400 cfs by early fall, according to BuRec’s report…

    Overall precipitation has been “well below normal” since the start of the water year and moderate drought conditions are predicted in most of the basin. The start of the month could bring below normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures — it is expected to be both warmer and drier…

    “The snowpack is disappointing, there’s no doubt about that,” Anderson said. The UVWUA experienced an April “hole” this year, when less snow and colder weather in the high country meant there was not enough water to feed the project and the association had to dip into its storage at Ridgway and Taylor Park reservoirs.

    However, the UVWUA had full accounts there going into April.

    “Currently, we’re not using any storage and that’s a good thing. We still have plenty to make the irrigation season,” Anderson said.

    We Are Rivers episode 24: Understanding #Colorado’s instream flow program — @AmericanRivers

    From American Rivers (Fay Hartman):

    Tune into the 24th episode of our podcast: We Are Rivers. Learn all about Colorado’s instream flow program, and the significance it has on surrounding rivers and communities.

    The Yampa River Core Trail runs right through downtown Steamboat. Photo credit City of Steamboat Springs.

    Join us for Episode 24 of We Are Rivers, as we de-wonk Colorado’s instream flow program, a critical tool to protect and enhance river flows across the state of Colorado.

    Rivers form the lifelines of Colorado’s economy and lifestyle. On both sides of the Continental Divide, rivers provide world class fishing, paddling and fantastic scenic canyons. Not only do rivers provide engaging recreation opportunities, they also provide most of Colorado’s clean, safe, reliable drinking water, support our thriving agricultural communities, and substantially contribute to Colorado’s culture, heritage, and economy.

    Recognizing the importance of rivers and the fact that the state needed to correlate the demands humans place on rivers with the reasonable preservation of the natural environment, Colorado established its Instream Flow Program in 1973. This program allows the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to hold instream flow water rights – a legal mechanism to keep water in a specific reach of a river – to preserve or improve the natural environment of a stream or lake. The CWCB is responsible for the appropriation, acquisition, protection and monitoring of instream flow water rights.

    The CWCB is the only entity in the state that can hold an instream flow water right, however many different entities including cities, agriculture, recreation and the environment benefit from instream flow water rights. In this episode of We Are Rivers, we explore the benefits of the program and discuss the important partnerships and collaborations that occur between different water users.

    Take for example the City of Steamboat Springs. The 2002 and 2012 droughts significantly reduced flows in the Yampa River, impacting all water users. In 2002, the river experienced some of its lowest flows on record. River sports shops closed their doors, there was a voluntary ban on angling, and farmers and ranchers had less water. The river and the community suffered. Flash forward to 2012, and the community faced similar drought conditions. But partners got creative, and used the instream flow program to bolster flows in the Yampa River, preventing history from repeating itself. This partnership included the CWCB, Colorado Water Trust, and Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District. Together, they temporarily leased water from Stagecoach Reservoir, improving flows in the Yampa through the City of Steamboat. The short-term leases from Stagecoach Reservoir were vital to the health of the Yampa River and its surrounding communities, and were used not only in 2012, but also 2013 and 2017. This is just one example of how a diverse set of partners came together and utilized the instream flow program for many benefits.

    The instream flow program underwent an exciting expansion earlier this year that will provide more opportunities for communities to benefit from collaborative instream flow solutions. After a multi-year stakeholder effort, the Colorado Legislature passed a bill to expand Colorado’s existing instream flow loan program – HB20-1157. The law expands protection of rivers without threatening or hindering existing water rights. It authorizes a targeted expansion of the loan program that makes the program more useful to water right owners and benefits Colorado’s rivers and streams. Specifically, it adjusts the amount of time a user can exercise a renewable loan from 3 years out of 10, to 5 years out of 10 years and it allows water right owners to renew participation in the program for up to two additional 10-year periods, for a total of 30 years. This is a huge opportunity for rivers and communities: take, for example, the benefit this provides to the Yampa River. The partners working together to secure the 3 in 10 instream flow loan on the Yampa through the city of Steamboat Springs now have two additional years in this 10-year period where water can be leased under the expanded program. Future climate conditions make frequent droughts more likely, and the opportunity to curb impacts during those back-to-back drought years is another important and timely benefit of the expanded ISF program.

    The complexity of Colorado Water Law is a lot to digest, and the instream flow program is no exception. We hope you join us for Episode 24 to break down the specifics of the instream flow program and what it means for rivers and communities.

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia. Ranchers and farmers in the valley have largely ignored Division Engineer Erin Light’s order to install measuring devices as of December, 2019.

    Water from retired coal plants could help endangered fish in the #YampaRiver — @AspenJournalism

    Ice breaks up on the Yampa River as Spring invites warmer temperatures. Should the water that the nearby Hayden and Craig power plants use be allowed to stay in the river once the plants cease to operate, native and endangered fish species in the river would have a higher chance of survival. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Allen Best):

    Endangered species of fish in the Yampa River may benefit as coal-fired power stations close in the next 10 to 15 years.

    Water demand in the Yampa River valley has been flat, and only modest population growth is expected in coming decades. Unless new industries emerge, the water will probably be allowed to flow downstream.

    And that will be of value in recovering populations of fish species.

    The Yampa River downstream from Craig has been designated as critical habitat for four species of fish listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act: Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, bonytail and humpback chub.

    The Yampa River can fall to very low levels, especially during late summer in drought years, but the water now consumed by power plants at Craig and Hayden could possibly help augment those flows.

    The power plants at Craig and Hayden together use about 10% of the water in the Yampa River basin. Municipalities, including Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Craig, use about 10%, and irrigation accounts for 80% of the use, which is common on Western Slope rivers.

    Tri-State Generation and Transmission, the dominant owner of the 1,283-megawatt Craig Station, located just outside of Craig and not far from the Yampa River, will close the first unit in 2025 and unit 3 by the end of 2030.

    The retirement date for unit 2 isn’t entirely clear. Tri-State has said 2030, but former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who convened stakeholder discussions last year that led to the shutdown plan, told a congressional committee in late February that unit 2 will be closed by 2026. Tri-State spokesman Mark Stutz said the wholesale provider’s partners still need to agree on a retirement date.

    Thermoelectric power generation plants in Moffat County, which includes the Craig plants, used 17,500 acre-feet of water in 2008, according to a 2014 study. Routt County used 2,700 acre-feet.

    Xcel Energy, the dominant owner of 441-megawatt Hayden Station, will make its plans more clear in early 2021 when it submits its electric resource plan to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission as it is required to do every four years, said Xcel spokeswoman Michelle Aguayo.

    Nobody knows for sure yet how the water will be used once those plants close and remediation is completed. But Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, expects the water will be allowed to flow downstream. He points out that demand in the Yampa Valley has been flat.

    “What will happen with that water being used? Probably nothing,” Kuhn said.

    And that could help the endangered fish, which are struggling to survive in a river depleted by humans.

    “We have a hard time meeting our flow recommendations, particularly in dry years,” said Tom Chart, program director for the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.

    “As water becomes more available through the closure of those power plants, we could improve performance in meeting our flow recommendations, and that would certainly benefit the aquatic environment and the endangered fish,” he said.

    Tri-State, however, has not divulged plans for future use of water from Craig Station. Tri-State spokesman Stutzsays Tri-State will continue to use the associated water during the decommissioning of its power plants and mines.

    Steamboat-based water attorney Tom Sharp sees the water from the power plants mattering most in low-water years, such as 2002, 2012 and 2018.

    And in the pinch time of August and early fall, Sharp said, the water from the coal plants could make a difference for endangered fish if the water is left in the river or held in storage for release during low-flow times.

    Doug Monger, director of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, shows the abandoned meander of the Yampa River that flows through his ranch, Monger Cattle Company, outside of Hayden, Colo. Monger said he isn’t too concerned about Front Range water diversions in the grand scheme of things. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

    Front Range ‘water grab’?
    Diversions by Front Range cities remains a worry by many in Craig, but experts see no cause for fear of a “water grab” by Front Range cities.

    “I don’t want to see these water rights sold to the highest bidder on the Front Range,” a woman told the Just Transition workshop in Craig on March 4, provoking sustained applause from many among the more than 200 people in attendance. The state’s Just Transition advisory committee was created by and tasked by the state legislature in House Bill 19-1314 with creating reports, first this July and then December, about how to best assist coal-dependent communities as mines and plants close.

    Not to worry, say experts. Geographic barriers between the Yampa Valley and the Front Range that have precluded diversions over the past century remain.

    Also, experts point out that rights associated with the power plants are relatively “junior,” in the lexicon of Colorado’s first-in-time, first-in-right doctrine of prior appropriation. The oldest right, from 1967, belongs to the Hayden plant. More valuable by far are water rights that predate the Colorado River Compact of 1922.

    “If Front Range entities were inclined to a water grab, they would be looking for something a little more useful, and pre-compact rights are on the ranches,” said John McClow, a water attorney in Gunnison and an alternate commissioner from Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Water Commission.

    The compact governs allocations by Colorado and the other six states in the basin, and pre-compact rights will be most valuable in avoiding a compact curtailment, should the Colorado River enter even more extended and deeper drought.

    Hayden rancher Doug Monger, a member of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable and director of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, similarly downplays worries about Front Range diversions.

    “I don’t think it will be as much of a threat in the bigger scheme of things,” he said.

    Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Steamboat Pilot & Today and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers in the upper Colorado River basin. This story ran in the April 7 online edition of The Steamboat Pilot & Today.

    We are rivers episode 24: understanding #Colorado’s instream flow program — @AmericanRivers

    City of Steamboat Springs. Photo credit: American Rivers

    From American Rivers (Fay Hartman):

    Tune into the 24th episode of our podcast: We Are Rivers. Learn all about Colorado’s instream flow program, and the significance it has on surrounding rivers and communities.

    Join us for Episode 24 of We Are Rivers, as we de-wonk Colorado’s instream flow program, a critical tool to protect and enhance river flows across the state of Colorado.

    Rivers form the lifelines of Colorado’s economy and lifestyle. On both sides of the Continental Divide, rivers provide world class fishing, paddling and fantastic scenic canyons. Not only do rivers provide engaging recreation opportunities, they also provide most of Colorado’s clean, safe, reliable drinking water, support our thriving agricultural communities, and substantially contribute to Colorado’s culture, heritage, and economy.

    Recognizing the importance of rivers and the fact that the state needed to correlate the demands humans place on rivers with the reasonable preservation of the natural environment, Colorado established its Instream Flow Program in 1973. This program allows the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to hold instream flow water rights – a legal mechanism to keep water in a specific reach of a river – to preserve or improve the natural environment of a stream or lake. The CWCB is responsible for the appropriation, acquisition, protection and monitoring of instream flow water rights.

    The CWCB is the only entity in the state that can hold an instream flow water right, however many different entities including cities, agriculture, recreation and the environment benefit from instream flow water rights. In this episode of We Are Rivers, we explore the benefits of the program and discuss the important partnerships and collaborations that occur between different water users.

    Take for example the City of Steamboat Springs. The 2002 and 2012 droughts significantly reduced flows in the Yampa River, impacting all water users. In 2002, the river experienced some of its lowest flows on record. River sports shops closed their doors, there was a voluntary ban on angling, and farmers and ranchers had less water. The river and the community suffered. Flash forward to 2012, and the community faced similar drought conditions. But partners got creative, and used the instream flow program to bolster flows in the Yampa River, preventing history from repeating itself. This partnership included the CWCB, Colorado Water Trust, and Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District. Together, they temporarily leased water from Stagecoach Reservoir, improving flows in the Yampa through the City of Steamboat. The short-term leases from Stagecoach Reservoir were vital to the health of the Yampa River and its surrounding communities, and were used not only in 2012, but also 2013 and 2017. This is just one example of how a diverse set of partners came together and utilized the instream flow program for many benefits.

    The instream flow program underwent an exciting expansion earlier this year that will provide more opportunities for communities to benefit from collaborative instream flow solutions. After a multi-year stakeholder effort, the Colorado Legislature passed a bill to expand Colorado’s existing instream flow loan program – HB20-1157. The law expands protection of rivers without threatening or hindering existing water rights. It authorizes a targeted expansion of the loan program that makes the program more useful to water right owners and benefits Colorado’s rivers and streams. Specifically, it adjusts the amount of time a user can exercise a renewable loan from 3 years out of 10, to 5 years out of 10 years and it allows water right owners to renew participation in the program for up to two additional 10-year periods, for a total of 30 years. This is a huge opportunity for rivers and communities: take, for example, the benefit this provides to the Yampa River. The partners working together to secure the 3 in 10 instream flow loan on the Yampa through the city of Steamboat Springs now have two additional years in this 10-year period where water can be leased under the expanded program. Future climate conditions make frequent droughts more likely, and the opportunity to curb impacts during those back-to-back drought years is another important and timely benefit of the expanded ISF program.

    The complexity of Colorado Water Law is a lot to digest, and the instream flow program is no exception. We hope you join us for Episode 24 to break down the specifics of the instream flow program and what it means for rivers and communities. Take a listen today!

    #YampaRiver at @USGS gage, above Stagecoach Reservoir, March 31, 2020 — Scott Hummer #runoff

    Yampa River at USGS gage, above Stagecoach Reservoir March 31, 2020. Photo credit: Scott Hummer.

    From email from Scott Hummer:

    Note the attached, taken yesterday afternoon…
    River is beginning to open up, calves are starting to hit the ground and irrigation season will soon be upon s in the high country!

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia. Ranchers and farmers in the valley have largely ignored Division Engineer Erin Light’s order to install measuring devices as of December, 2019.

    2020 #COleg: New law strengthens historical agricultural water uses — @AspenJournalism [#HB20-1159]

    A small pool of water along the Walker Ditch is kept free of ice and snow all winter long in order to provide water for cattle on the Monger Ranch near Hayden. A bill recently passed the Colorado legislature that allows ranchers’ historical stock watering rights to stay first in line, ahead of instream flow rights for the environment. Lauren Blair/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Lauren Blair):

    A bill that cleared the Colorado legislature with bipartisan support March 4 seeks to resolve an eight-year debate over how ranchers and other water users can maintain their historical water use when dry conditions trigger cutbacks to protect streamflows.

    HB20-1159 [State Engineer Confirm Existing Use Instream Flow], which passed the House with a unanimous 63-0 vote and the Senate with a 31-1 vote, authorizes state water officials to confirm historical usages, such as water used for livestock, whether or not it’s held in an official water right. This allows ranchers’ uses to stay first in line for water ahead of the stream protections, known as instream-flow rights.

    “It’s really a belt-and-suspenders clarification of existing authority,” said Zane Kessler, director of government relations for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which drafted the language for the bill. “I think it’s a good example of when we sit down and pore over these issues, it’s not hard to come up with a fix that protects West Slope water users and provides the state engineer the authority he needs to continue administering them.”

    Instream-flow rights, which are held exclusively by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, exist for the sole purpose of preserving the natural environment of streams and lakes “to a reasonable degree.” Most of these date to the 1970s and are junior to most agricultural-water rights under Colorado’s prior appropriation system of “first in time, first in right.” To date, instream-flow rights protect roughly 9,700 miles of stream in Colorado.

    Mud and manure line an access point for cattle to drink from a ditch on Doug Monger’s ranch near Hayden as winter nears its end. A bill recently passed the Colorado legislature that will protect ranchers’ historical uses without requiring them to go to water court. Photo credit: Lauren Blair/Aspen Journlism

    Historical uses

    The debate over historical uses has turned on whether a water user must go to water court to make their pre-existing use official in a decree.

    A 2012 drought brought the question to a head when state officials cut off water users on the Elk River in northwestern Colorado in favor of instream-flow rights. Although many ranchers in the area have water rights for irrigation that are senior to the 1977 instream-flow rights and have historically used that water also for their cattle, the state Division of Water Resources determined that livestock watering wasn’t implicit in irrigation rights.

    Those without specific rights for stockwatering were left high and dry once the summer irrigation season was deemed over, even though they had used the water for livestock for generations.

    “My grandparents bought this piece of land in 1946,” said Krista Monger, a cattle rancher on the Elk River. “We have the records to show we’ve been using (our water) for livestock.”

    Stockwatering and irrigation often go hand in hand. During the irrigation season, if a rancher’s livestock drink from the ditches used to irrigate their fields, the use is considered incidental to irrigation. But once the growing season is over and a rancher keeps the water flowing through the ditch for the exclusive purpose of watering their livestock, the use is not covered under irrigation-water rights.

    The amount of water typically used for exclusive stockwatering is a fraction of what is used for irrigating, around 80% to 90% less. Some ranchers also use stock ponds, which require a water-storage right.

    More than 90,000 irrigation-water rights are held across the state, of which 29,000 specifically name both irrigation and livestock uses. That means the new law could potentially apply to 61,000 water rights, although not all of these are held by ranchers raising livestock. An additional nearly 32,000 water rights are held exclusively for livestock purposes but not irrigation.

    The Monger family holds both irrigation- and livestock-water rights to grow hay and to water their 300 cattle. Her family’s rights and diligent record-keeping meant their ditches kept flowing while their neighbors’ ditches were shut down in 2012, highlighting the need for better record-keeping among the region’s irrigators.

    But the incident prompted a statewide debate over the meaning of Colorado statute C.R.S. 37-92-102(3)(b), which states that instream-flow rights are subject to pre-existing uses of water, “whether or not previously confirmed by court order or decree.”

    The state Department of Natural Resources, home to both the Division of Water Resources and CWCB, argued that when the instream-flow protections were created, lawmakers intended for water users to make their existing use official in a decree. The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and the Colorado River Water Conservation District argued that the statute clearly precludes the need for a court decree and sought to protect ranchers’ historical usage without requiring them to go to water court.

    “The statute says… prior uses would be honored. But they’re saying the statute doesn’t say what the statute says,” said Mike Hogue, former president of the cattlemen’s group.

    After years of negotiations, stakeholders agreed on a simple piece of legislation to clarify the state water engineer’s authority “to confirm a claim of an existing use (if it) has not been previously confirmed by court order or decree,” according to the bill summary. The bill had bipartisan sponsorship from Reps. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, and Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, and Sens. Don Coram, R-Montrose, and Kerry Donovan, D-Vail.

    “I do think this is very helpful legislation,” said State Engineer Kevin Rein, who is with the Division of Water Resources. “We had what I’d call an honest disagreement about what the statute meant. My position is if they change the law and give me a place to hang my hat on, that solves the problem.”

    Ditch water trickles back under the cover of snow and ice from a watering hole for cattle on the Monger ranch near Hayden. New legislation prevents ranchers’ water for stock from being shut off by an instream flow right for the environment. Photo credit: Lauren Blair/Aspen Journalism

    Wakeup call

    However, what the legislation doesn’t resolve — and what is perhaps a bigger Pandora’s box opened by the 2012 incident — is the decision that state water officials made that irrigation rights do not include stockwatering rights. In practice, irrigators around the state, many of whom hold water rights dating to the late 1800s and early 1900s, have used irrigation- or agricultural-water rights not to just irrigate their hayfields, but also to water their livestock.

    The new distinction means that ranchers with irrigation rights must apply for livestock water rights if they want to protect their usage into the future. Although the new legislation protects a rancher’s stockwatering use from being shut off specifically by an instream-flow right , their stockwater use could still be cut off if another water user makes a call on the river to fulfill a formal water right.

    “We all thought that was part of our ag water rights,” said Doug Monger, a Routt County commissioner and a cattle rancher on the Yampa River in northwest Colorado, and also uncle to Krista Monger. “It’s a wakeup call for all of us.”

    Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Craig Daily Press, Steamboat Pilot and Today and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story ran in the March 16 edition of the Craig Press.

    Craig is slated to switch to chloramines for system disinfection in March 2020

    The water treatment process

    From The Craig Daily Press (Joshua Carney):

    Presenting to City Council Feb. 11, SGM Water Engineer Rick Huggins told councilors that the project has gone as expected locally, after the city’s recent water quality plans were set into motion when the Colorado Department of Public Health increased disinfectant residual requirements for water systems, which Craig couldn’t meet in 2016.

    Previously, Craig was using free chlorine to keep its water clean, but due to the failure to meet state requirements, the City of Craig had to act.

    According to Huggins, after months of studies and workshops, council members decided a few key upgrades along with treating the city’s water system with monochloramine was the most cost-effective solution to keep the water safe. The project was expected to cost $5.2 million, requiring the city to increase rates to help finance the entire project.

    According to Huggins, SGM expects the project to cost $3.128 million in the end, which is below the $3.375 million the company estimated costs would be at the start of the project.

    The city announced to residents in their latest water bill that the monochloramine changeover will be implemented sometime in March…

    Huggins did add that the project has run into scheduling issues that has pushed the project back 4-6 weeks, but he said that SGM anticipates that they’ll have Craig’s water treatment system compliant with state regulations by April 1.

    As Western #Coal Plants Close, What Happens To Their #Water? — KUNC

    The coal-fired Tri-State Generation and Transmission plant in Craig provides much of the power used in Western Colorado, including in Aspen and Pitkin County. Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office has a plan to move the state’s electric grid to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

    Coal-fired power plants are closing, or being given firm deadlines for closure, across the country. In the Western states that make up the overallocated and drought-plagued Colorado River, these facilities use a significant amount of the region’s scarce water supplies.

    With closure dates looming, communities are starting the contentious debate about how this newly freed up water should be put to use.

    That conversation is just beginning in the northwest Colorado city of Craig, home to nearly 9,000 residents and hundreds of coal industry workers. In January, TriState Generation and Transmission announced it will fully close Craig Station by 2030. The same goes for the nearby Colowyo coal mine.

    The news comes on the heels of several high profile closures or closure announcements in Wyoming , New Mexico and Arizona . Each has a coal plant that taps into the Colorado River or its tributaries…

    Craig’s economy is intimately tied to the coal plant. But as the conversation about the announcement continued, other nagging questions came up, [Jennifer Holloway] said. Like what’s going to happen to the plant’s sizable water portfolio? It uses more than 10 times more water than all of Craig’s residents. Like what’s going to happen to the plant’s sizable water portfolio? It uses more than 10 times more water than all of Craig’s residents.

    In the arid West, water, and access to it, is intertwined with local economies. Where water goes — to a coal plant, a residential tap, or down a river channel — says something about a community’s present and future economy, and its values…

    Holloway wants to see Craig make a transition plenty of other Western communities have attempted over the last century, from an extractive economic base to a recreation-based one. She’s quick to name drop the region’s new slogan — “Colorado’s Great Northwest” — and list the various draws, like Dinosaur National Monument, the nearby Steamboat ski resort and the relatively free-flowing Yampa River.

    “One idea that I fully support is switching Dinosaur National Monument into a national park,” she said. “And hopefully TriState would partner with that effort and maybe use some of that water as we legislated that park to guarantee that we had the water moving west.”

    The Yampa River, in Dinosaur National Monument. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    Without local input into what happens to Craig Station’s water rights, Holloway worries it could hurt the Yampa, which is the coal plant’s current water source. Colorado has a long history of transmountain diversion, where water from the wetter Western Slope is diverted eastward to the populous Front Range.

    “That’s the biggest fear, is they’re going to go into the headwaters of the Yampa, make a pipeline going over to the eastern slope,” Holloway said.

    So far TriState hasn’t tipped its hand on what it plans to do with the water. Duane Highley, TriState’s CEO, said at a news conference shortly after Craig Station’s closure announcement that his company is already fielding calls from interested buyers, but didn’t elaborate as to who has inquired.

    “When you look at a typical coal facility it uses an enormous amount of water,” Highley said, “and the fact that that will be liberated and available for other reuse will be significant.”

    […]

    Craig Station uses on average 16,000 acre-feet of water each year… A 2019 Bureau of Reclamation report showed thermal electric power generation in the Upper Colorado River basin accounted for 144,000 acre-feet, or about 3% of all water consumed in the watershed in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah and parts of northern Arizona…

    “As a legal matter, the owners of the water rights, at least in Colorado, could do something else with them. As a practical matter, there’s not much else they can do with them,” said Eric Kuhn, former head of the Colorado River District and author of Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River.

    TriState has limited options with the water rights, Kuhn said. The energy provider could sell them to a local municipality, though communities along the Yampa River, like Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Craig, likely wouldn’t be able to use that much water all at once. TriState could offer them to local farmers, though most of the easily irrigable land has already been irrigated for a long time. They could turn them into in-stream flows. Or they could sell them to a user outside the Yampa basin, like a Front Range city. Any project proposed to pump the plant’s freed up water more 200 miles eastward would face significant political pushback and a multi-billion dollar price tag, Kuhn said.

    According to Kuhn, these coal closures also have implications for broader Colorado River management. The recently signed Drought Contingency Plans task water leaders in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico to begin exploring a conceptual program called demand management, where in a shortage, water users would be paid to use less. Coal plants using less water would alleviate the situation.

    “What it’s going to do is take the pressure off of these states to come up with demand management scenarios, because where does that water go? It’ll flow to Lake Powell,” Kuhn said.

    #YampaRiver Fund opens 1st grant cycle; applications due March 24 — Steamboat Pilot & Today #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #GreenRiver

    Niche ag, along the Yampa River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Derek Maiolo):

    An endowment fund to protect the Yampa River opened applications for its first grant cycle Tuesday, Feb. 11.

    The Yampa River Fund, launched in September 2019, plans to award approximately $100,000 to $200,000 in grants during this cycle, according to its manager Andy Bauer. Applications will be accepted through March 24.

    A partnership of 21 public, private and nonprofit entities representing the entire Yampa River Basin collaborated to create the board that governs the Yampa River Fund. Its mission, according to Bauer, is to fund projects to improve river health, protect the water supply and boost river flow in dry years.

    This comes amid concerns over the health of the Yampa River, the supply of which is vital to local agriculture and a key component to recreation from rafting in the summer to snowmaking in the winter.

    Kelly Romero-Heaney, Steamboat Springs water resource manager and chair of the Yampa River Fund board, cited three primary issues the fund aims to address: warming waters, the proliferation of northern pike and the deterioration of riparian forests.

    Recent measurements have shown river temperatures are reaching dangerous levels. Romero-Heaney cited the 2018 Yampa River Health Assessment and Streamflow Management Plan, which found that summer water temperatures were surpassing healthy levels by about 5 degrees. Such temperatures kill off cold-water fish species, namely trout.

    Non-native northern pike, which are aggressive predators, have decimated native species. Wildlife agencies like Colorado Parks and Wildlife encourage the fishing of pike through contests and the implementation of pike removal projects to limit their numbers.

    Asked about the deterioration of riparian forests along the Yampa River, Romero-Heaney pointed to the last century of land management as a major factor. The number of cottonwoods has seen a particular decline, which decreases the amount of shade over the water and contributes to further warming.

    Despite these issues, the Yampa River is healthier than many waterways in the country. The river remains largely free-flowing, unlike many rivers controlled with extensive dams. It is the largest, unregulated tributary remaining in the Colorado River system, according to the National Park Service. It also has been protected from extensive development along its banks, Romero-Heaney said…

    As manager of the fund, Bauer listed three types of projects that will be prioritized during the grant cycle. Those include projects to sustain healthy flows, restore riparian habitats and improve infrastructure along the river, such as diversion structure and irrigation systems.

    Eligible applicants include state and local government entities, public districts and irrigation entities, mutual ditch companies, homeowners associations and nonprofits, according to a news release from the Yampa River Fund. Bauer encourages private landowners to partner with these entities to secure funding.

    Grant applications are available at http://yampariverfund.org/grants.

    #SnowpackNews: #YampaRiver Basin off to a good start

    Yampa and White Basin High/Low graph January 17, 2020 via the NRCS.

    From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Bryce Martin):

    The current snowpack of the Yampa and White River Basin, which encompasses Routt County, is currently 18% above average, according to data from the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

    “My observations have been that this is tracking pretty similar to the 2019 snow year,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, Steamboat Springs city water resources manager. Last year’s snowpack was mostly well above average in Routt County, though not quite record setting, she explained…

    A snow telemetry site maintained by the Conservation Service on Rabbit Ears, at an elevation of 9,400 feet, recorded a snow depth of 37 inches, according to Jan. 1 measurements. That site typically reaches peak April 28 then melts off. As of Saturday, Jan. 18, there are 13.3 inches of snow water equivalent, a measure that considers the amount of water contained in the snowpack.

    At the Bear River telemetry site, at 9,080 feet elevation south of the town of Yampa in the Flat Tops area, the snow depth was recorded at 22 inches, with 5.1 inches of snow water equivalent.

    Snow depth at the Tower telemetry site, which is at 10,500 feet elevation on Buffalo Pass, was 56 inches as of Jan. 1, with 24.5 inches of snow water equivalent.

    So far this season, Steamboat Resort has received 196 inches of total snowfall. That’s more than the 152 inches recorded to this date last year and 109 in 2018, which was a tough season for snowpack.

    Midmountain snow depth at Steamboat Resort stands at 49 inches as of Saturday, with 66 inches on the upper mountain and 50 inches at the base, according to the website onthesnow.com, which records snow data for ski resorts.

    From The Denver Post (Chris Bianchi):

    After a lightning-fast start to the winter season that saw more than 2 feet of snowfall by the end of November, Denver’s only had one day of measurable snow since Nov. 29. Since Nov. 30, Denver has only received 2.8 inches of snow at the city’s official weather observation site at Denver International Airport.

    At the city’s more centrally-located Stapleton Airport climate site, only 2.5 inches of snow have fallen there since Nov. 30. Additionally, all of that snow came on only one day: Dec. 28. That means since the end of November, Denver’s seen only one total day of measurable snowfall at both of its primary observation locations…

    As mentioned earlier in January, though, this type of mid-winter pattern can change in Denver. Typically, late winter and spring are Denver’s busiest snow months of the year, although busier falls like this past one aren’t particularly unusual.

    Community Agriculture Alliance: NRCS and #conservation on private lands — Steamboat Today

    Bear River at CR7 near Yampa / 3:30 PM, May 16, 2019 / Flow Rate = 0.52 CFS. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

    Here’s a guest column from Clinton Whitten (NRCS) that’s running on Steamboat Today:

    The Natural Resources Conservation Service is an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture that provides free technical assistance, or advice, to land owners and managers regarding resource concerns on their property. The main mission of the NRCS is to help address natural resource issues on private lands through voluntary conservation activities.

    We can help landowners conserve and restore water, air, forests, rangelands and other natural resources. The services we provide range from providing a simple soils report of your property to developing a full conservation plan for an agricultural operation. These services are free, private and voluntary.

    Every county in the U.S. has resource concerns that are unique to the climate and land uses of the area. The following is a list of the common resource concerns in Routt County that NRCS currently encounters. This list is not comprehensive, but it covers the issues that we address the most.

  • Irrigation improvements help increase water use efficiency. In Routt County, this primarily involves improving infrastructure to increase control of flood irrigation water.
  • Grazing management plans help ensure the sustainability of livestock operations and the ecosystems they are utilizing. This can include assistance with infrastructure that would help to facilitate a grazing plan, such as cross fences and watering facilities.
  • Wildlife habitat management plans help improve the habitat of a variety of species on private lands.
  • Forest management plans help improve the health of private lands forest ecosystems. Implementation of management practices, such as thinning, planting, mastication, etc., have the goal of creating a more sustainable forest.
  • Seeding recommendations for the restoration of rangeland, pastureland and disturbed areas to reestablish native grasses which benefits soils and overall ecosystem health.
    Stream and riparian restoration improve both water quality and fish and wildlife habitat.
  • Many of these resource concerns are best addressed using the expertise of a range of organizations and agencies. That is why the NRCS works to develop partnerships with many different local groups.

    We are currently working with the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District to develop a grant program that will better assist local irrigators to upgrade their head gates and install measuring devices. Forest management plans and projects are developed in coordination with the Colorado State Forest Service.

    The Steamboat NRCS office currently has two partner biologists from Trout Unlimited and Bird Conservancy of the Rockies who assist with the development of conservation plans. By partnering with different entities the NRCS is able to leverage more funds and provide better technical expertise to the private land owners and managers of Routt County.

    If you think you have a resource issue on your property and would like technical assistance, contact the NRCS office at 970-879-3225.

    Clinton Whitten is the resource team lead with the National Resource Conservation Service.

    Northwest #Colorado ranchers grapple with state requirements to measure, record water use — @AspenJournalism

    Irrigated pasture at Mantle Ranch along the Yampa River. Ranchers in the Yampa River basin are grappling with the enforcement of state regulations that require them to monitor their water use. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Lauren Blair):

    Irrigators in Northwest Colorado are facing a sea change in how they use their water, and many ranchers are greeting such a shift with reluctance and suspicion.

    The final frontier of the free river, irrigators in the Yampa River region have long used what they need when the water is flowing with little regulatory oversight. Water commissioners have been encouraging better record keeping in recent years, but a first-ever call on the system during the 2018 drought led state officials to begin enforcing requirements to measure and record water use.

    State law requires all irrigators to maintain measuring devices on their canals and ditches. Kevin Rein, state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, said such devices are widely used in other river basins throughout Colorado, where bigger populations and more demand for water have already led to stricter regulation of the resource. The Yampa River Basin is the last region to get into compliance, Rein said.

    “The basin went under call for the first time in 2018,” he said. “I would not call that a driving force; I would call that affirmation of why it’s been important … to do this for so many years.”

    Nearly 500 Yampa River Basin water users were ordered this fall to install a device by Nov. 30, although irrigators don’t need to comply until spring 2020, when irrigation water begins to run. Those without devices won’t be allowed to use their water and could be fined $500 daily if they do.

    The new enforcement is being met begrudgingly by irrigators, many of whom are third- and fourth-generation ranchers and whose families have never measured and recorded water use in more than 100 years.

    “Ever since the 1880s, there has never been a call on the Yampa River,” said Craig cattle rancher Dave Seely. “If there wasn’t any water, (ranchers) accepted the fact, so it’s unusual that suddenly we have all this coming down on us now.”

    A call on the river occurs when someone with senior water rights isn’t receiving their full allotted amount, and the state places a “call” for users with junior rights to send more water downstream or stop diverting altogether. The move triggers administration of the river by state water commissioners, who make site visits to monitor how much water is flowing through each ditch.

    A hayfield in the Elk River Basin, a tributary of the Yampa River. A first-ever call on the Yampa River in 2018 is leading state officials to enforce regulations about measuring water. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    Government oversight

    An air of the Wild West still lingers in this sparsely populated corner of the state, where many ranchers would rather accept a shortfall than invite the government into their affairs by making a call for their water.

    “They just took it on the chin and dry farmed,” Seely said.

    State officials have seen this resistance to change before and accept it as a matter of course.

    “It’s a rough, rocky road at first, but after a while, I think a lot of people will be glad they have a device there,” said Erin Light, Division 6 engineer with the Division of Water Resources.

    Light and her colleagues reminded irrigators at the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable meeting in November that keeping accurate records helps protect their water right, since rights are considered abandoned if not used, although the state rarely enforces this.

    “Your water right has a value, a value to water your livestock or your crops, but it also has a dollar value for your heirs,” Scott Hummer, a Division 6 water commissioner, said at the meeting. “The only way they have to sell the water or get a price for the water is if the engineers know how much water is consumed by your crop.”

    But many irrigators feel mistrustful of state government having more oversight of their water and are worried that outside entities may have designs on the region’s largely unallocated resource. Climate change has led to hotter, drier conditions over the past 20 years, and growing populations have increased the demand for water — both in the Colorado River Basin and along the Front Range.

    “It just raises the question of what’s the drive behind it,” said third-generation Yampa cattle rancher Philip Rossi. “It’s hard to have an opinion when you don’t fully understand the long game.

    “They’re trying to put a monetary value on water,” Rossi said. “Are they trying to get a better understanding of exactly how much water there is … so they can put a value on it if they want to sell it? Are we helping ourselves, are we hurting ourselves, are we helping them? There’s so many of us that are not interested in selling our water.”

    Other ranchers are concerned that increased oversight could mean new restrictions even when water is plentiful. Many are in the habit of using as much water on their fields as they need, regardless of their decreed right.

    “When the water’s high, we want to get it across our fields quickly, so we take more water than (our allotted right),” said John Raftopoulos, a third-generation cattle rancher in western Moffat County. “The fear is that, even with high water, they’re going to cut you down to the maximum you can take … that they’ll regulate you to the strict letter of the law.”

    An irrigated hayfield along the lower Yampa River. If irrigators don’t install measuring devices on their diversions by the spring irrigation season, they could be fined $500 a day. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    No waste

    Rein said users could continue using more than their allotted right when the river is a free river — in other words, not under a call — as long as they are not wasting it.

    “There’s a statutory term called waste; you can’t divert more water than you can beneficially use,” Rein said.

    He also said keeping accurate records would only protect the water user as demand increases statewide and across the West.

    Measuring devices cost from $800 to $1,500, so installation can get expensive for the many ranchers who have more than one ditch. Rossi has three more devices to install. Raftopoulos has about five others, for a total of 15 on ditches irrigating roughly 2,500 acres of grass hay and alfalfa.

    Light estimated 100 irrigation structures had requested extensions — which she is granting in many cases until either July 31 or Oct. 31 — but she won’t have an accurate count on how many ditches are in compliance with the orders until May or June.

    “It’s something that was going to happen sooner or later because of water shortages. That’s the system, that’s the law,” Raftopoulos said. “It’s a burden right now, it’s expensive and it’s going to put more government in our ditches. There’s going to be more people watching what comes out.”

    Aspen Journalism collaborates with the Steamboat Pilot and Today, the Craig Press and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. This story appeared in the Dec. 27 edition of the Steamboat Pilot and Today.

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

    Anger and disappointment as #YampaRiver ranchers ordered to measure water — @WaterEdCO

    A lovely curve on the Bear River, which is really the headwaters of the Yampa River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

    Steamboat Springs: Hundreds of ranchers in the scenic Yampa Valley have ignored a state request to begin measuring the water they use, putting them on a collision course with regulators that will land many of them in court this summer if they don’t relent.

    Division Engineer Erin Light, the top water chief in the region, said roughly 70 percent of irrigators in this remote part of northwestern Colorado have not installed measuring devices, meaning that millions of gallons of water are being consumed without oversight, something that is routine on other river systems.

    “I sent out a notice in March saying, ‘I’m going to issue an order if you don’t install them now,’” she said. “It was a friendly gesture.”

    No one responded.

    “We have not been impressed with the response,” Light said.

    On Sept. 30, she issued a formal order to 550 ranchers, which, if ignored, could result in fines of up to $500 a day and court action.

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia. Ranchers and farmers in the valley have largely ignored Division Engineer Erin Light’s order to install measuring devices as of December, 2019.

    The deadline to respond this time was Nov. 30. Few did so, Light said.

    Under the terms of the order, ranchers who don’t install measuring flumes or other devices to track diversion rates from the river into their irrigation systems will be cut off if they try to irrigate in the spring. They will also likely face prosecution, Light said.

    “We’ll be working with the attorney general’s office to begin court proceedings,” she said.

    The issue reflects an end to a gentleman’s agreement that dates back to the late 1800s, a consensus that said these tough, resourceful ranchers could manage their own water, that the state did not need to issue a direct order, and that the hay meadows, and cattle and sheep operations, could continue diverting their irrigation water as they always had.

    And that’s largely because of the Yampa River’s amazing flows. Unlike almost any other place in Colorado and the West, water here was once so abundant that there was almost always plenty to go around. Measurements weren’t needed, and the state rarely had to step in to resolve disputes among water users, allowing Mother Nature free rein.

    But chronic drought, climate change, and population demands have begun eroding the Yampa’s once bountiful supplies. For the first time ever, in the desperately dry summer of 2018, Light was forced to step in, cutting off some irrigators because more senior water rights holders weren’t getting their legal share of water. That sent a shock across the valley but triggered little action.

    These days the Yampa River has the distinction of being the only one of Colorado’s eight major river basins that remains largely unmeasured and unregulated.

    But Light said the issue has become too critical, and water too scarce, to allow that to continue.

    Mike Camblin, whose family has been ranching here for more than 100 years, said he will comply with the order. But he and many of his colleagues feel the state has been too heavy handed in its approach.

    “What I don’t like about the order is that it’s forcing people to install those or they are going to get fined $500 a day to run water even if it’s a free river,” he said. The term free river means that there is enough water in the stream to satisfy all water rights, and under normal circumstances people can divert as much of the excess as they want.

    Not anymore.

    “I’m very disappointed,” said Dave Seely, a long-time rancher who has 11 different irrigation ditches that span Moffat and Routt counties.

    Many of his ditches already have measuring devices, but the order means he will have to install at least five new ones at a total cost of more than $10,000, he estimates.

    Light is aware of the anger in the ranching community and said she understands the financial burden the order will place on many irrigators.

    “I’ve been trying to encourage my water users to understand that there is a value to them in measuring how much water they divert. Water is often a rancher’s most valuable asset. But many don’t want to hear that,” she said.

    Seely plans to comply with the order so that he can divert in the spring. But there is a lingering resentment and sense of loss for an era that is ending.

    “Historically there was never a call on the river, but now there is,” Seely said. “Now we’re under the jurisdiction of the state engineer forever.”

    Hay fields in the upper Yampa River valley, northwest Colorado. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

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

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

    From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

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

    Among the study’s key findings:

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

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

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

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

    Palisade peach orchard

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

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

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

    Scare tactics

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

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

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

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

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

    West meets east

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Blue Mesa Reservoir

    Saving more water?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    With insurance, or without?

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

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

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

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

    Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

    This graphic shows the transmountain diversions in Colorado.