NRCS eyes $20M for embattled dam as public demands answers — @WyoFile #LittleSnakeRiver #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A member of the public poses a question during a public meeting in Saratoga Jan. 12, 2023 regarding the proposed West Fork Dam and reservoir. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Angus M. Thuermer Jr. and  Dustin Bleizeffer):

The U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service will likely request some $20 million for the West Fork Dam on the Colorado border, a potential new funding source for the contested project

The federal Natural Resources Conservation Service will likely request funding “in the over-$20-million range” to help finance a controversial dam proposed for the Little Snake River drainage, a federal official said last week.

The revelation emerged from a long-awaited series of public meetings in Craig, Colorado, Baggs and Saratoga during which project critics and proponents interrogated state and federal agency representatives and argued the merits of the West Fork Dam initiative. 

Estimated in 2017 to cost $80 million, the 260-foot-high concrete structure and accompanying 130-acre reservoir in Carbon County near the confluence of Battle and Haggarty Creeks has become the latest skirmish line in the West’s interminable water wars.

Water developers and many in the local agricultural community hail the public work as a critical tool for mitigating the effects of deepening drought and a boon for wildlife, recreation and the local economy. Opponents describe it as an expensive boondoggle poised to benefit a small number of irrigators — many of whom aren’t even in Wyoming — while shifting negative environmental impacts downstream.  

Following years of quiet agency maneuvering, legislative negotiating and campaigning from both sides, a framework for the potential deal has taken shape. It involves a state-federal land swap, complex “public benefit” calculations, a streamlined environmental review, majority funding from the state of Wyoming, minority contributions from water-users and now, apparently, a potentially skid-greasing influx of federal dollars. 

The NRCS’s funding interest was “some new info,” according to a participant at one of last week’s public meetings.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service will request funding if it and other agencies approve construction, said Shawn Follum, state conservation engineer with the NRCS in Casper. 

Funds aren’t guaranteed, he said; “We can’t commit Congress’ dollars in the future.” But the money could qualify as the required contribution from the Pothook Water Conservancy District of about two dozen irrigators in Colorado, according to discussions at the public meetings.

Wyoming may still face challenges funding the dam if federal officials approve it. In an unprecedented move in 2018, state legislators cut some $35 million from a water-construction bill and required lawmaker approval for any new funds for the West Fork Dam.

In an era of infrastructure and stimulus funding, however, more federal money might be available. “The reality is there are a variety of places where to find this … funding,” rancher Pat O’Toole, a project proponent and former state lawmaker, said.

Funding, however, is only one of many variables that need to be solved for if the complex public works proposal is to come to fruition. The terms of a land swap and parallel environmental review are also top of mind for stakeholders, as is an evaluation of who actually stands to benefit from the undertaking.  

‘Somewhat befuddled’

Held over three evenings, the meetings drew about 150 people to hear how the NRCS and Medicine Bow National Forest might authorize the proposed dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek.

In what’s being called a “parallel process” The Medicine-Bow will decide whether to exchange land to enable the 130-acre reservoir that would hold 10,000 acre-feet, mostly for late-season irrigation. About 44 irrigators have expressed interest in buying the water, according to discussion at the meetings.

Pat O’Toole, who ranches in the Baggs area, was among participants at the Saratoga public meeting on the West Fork Dam on Jan. 12, 2023. Approximately 150 persons attended three sessions — also held in Baggs and Craig, Colorado — explaining how the Medicine Bow National Forest and U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service will decide whether to authorize a 264-foot concrete structure. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Participants called the bifurcated approvals confusing and criticized the process that, according to Wyoming officials, is designed to skirt more lengthy federal environmental reviews.

“A lot of questions are coming from people who deal with this [National Environmental Policy Act] process a lot and they’re somewhat befuddled,” said Jeb Steward an Encampment resident, former state representative and a former member of the Wyoming Water Development Commission who has worked as a water rights consultant in the area.

Meeting participant Soren Jespersen said officials had created a “very confusing process, and it’s difficult … for the public to know when and how to weigh in.”

Cindy McKee, a rancher who irrigates from a stream above the proposed dam, and grazes cattle on state land that’s offered in the swap, echoed those concerns. “We’ve been very disappointed in the lack of communication from the state, as singularly affected as we are both by the land trade and by the proposed water project,” she said. “We were never notified that our [grazing] lease was up for consideration for the land trade. Fourteen years ago when the dam was conceived, we didn’t know about it for two years.

“It’s been difficult, quite honestly, to find information,” McKee said. “Documents are usually released very shortly before an opportunity to public comment. It’s been frustrating and discouraging.”

Comments and public interest

Federal and state officials stressed that comments about the review’s scopeshould be made in writing to the NRCS by Feb. 13. Only persons and organizations that comment can later object to any decision.

An NRCS draft environmental impact statement is expected in September with a final version released in April 2024 and adoption scheduled for that May.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

One change could save Oak Creek ‘millions’ at Sheriff Reservoir; Earthquake potential reveals new risk — Steamboat Pilot & Today

Photo credit: Medicine Bow National Forest

Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Dylan Anderson):

Oak Creek could save “millions” off the projected $14 million price tag for fixes at Sheriff Reservoir after updated engineering on the project showed the town’s water source needs a much smaller spillway than originally thought. While the town previously believed the new spillway needed to be 300 feet wide, the updated work shows it only needs to be about 60 feet wide, according Steve Jamieson, an engineer with W. W. Wheeler that has been consulting for the town on the project. That is still twice the size of the existing spillway…

The recent work resulted from a Comprehensive Dam Safety Evaluation, which looked at ways the dam could fail during normal loading, flood loading and earthquake loading. The highest risk found was due to a gate failure, something that Jamieson said isn’t surprising as the town works to replace the original head gate on the nearly 70-year-old dam. Oak Creek has gone through a bid process for this work twice, but each effort failed to find a contractor the town could afford. A gate failure wouldn’t lead to loss of life, the analysis showed, but it would compromise the town’s water source, making the impact significant. The new risk identified is called a “liquefaction failure,” and it is related of the area’s seismic activity. While noticeable earthquakes are not common in Routt County, they are not unheard of. Since 2000, Routt County has seen approximately two-dozen earthquakes, with the largest being a 3.5 magnitude event about 10 miles northwest of Oak Creek in 2011, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Plans for 264-foot dam above #LittleSnakeRiver spur conflict — WyoFile #YampaRiver #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The upper reaches of Haggarty Creek on the Medicine Bow National Forest. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Angus M. Thuermer):

Above the Colorado-Wyoming border, the Sierra Madre Mountain snowpack holds water that ranchers say flows downstream too fast. Some question whether a proposed 10,000-acre-foot reservoir is pork or progress.

As officials this week outline plans for a 264-foot-high concrete dam proposed for a wooded canyon in the Medicine Bow National Forest, irrigators and critics remain divided over the project’s benefits and impacts. The two sides disagree whether the estimated $80-million structure and accompanying 130-acre reservoir are pork or progress, boon or bane.

Federal officials begin receiving public comments on the proposed dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek in Carbon County as ranchers and environmentalists disagree over whether 450,000 cubic yards of concrete should plug a forested gorge and whether federal and state agencies are conducting environmental examinations appropriately. In what one official admitted is a complex process with parallel reviews, two federal agencies will make key findings to resolve the project’s fate.

The federal Natural Resource Conservation Service will examine dam construction and alternatives in an environmental impact statement. Meantime, the U.S. Forest Service will launch a separate “feasibility study” to decide whether it should take part in an estimated 6,282-acre land exchange facilitating construction of the dam. The study will determine whether trading the federal dam site to Wyomining “is in the best interest of the American public,” Medicine Bow spokesman Aaron Voos said.

Proponents want the dam and reservoir to yield 6,500 acre-feet of late-season irrigation for between 67-100 irrigators in Wyoming and Colorado. The 10,000 acre-foot impoundment would hold 1,500 acre-feet as a minimum bypass flow for fish and wildlife. The state would pay for most of the estimated $80 million cost, a figure calculated in 2017.

“We would like to have a project here because it’s good for our valley,” said Pat O’Toole, a former state representative who ranches along the Little Snake River. “The public interest is clearly that the storage project [aids] biodiversity” and boosts food production while creating “a really healthy landscape.”

[…]

The land exchange is an end-run around environmental reviews, he said, an assertion dam supporters and review agencies reject. [Gary] Wockner is worried that Medicine Bow officials won’t apply the same scrutiny to the land exchange that they would to the construction of a dam on National Forest property, he said. Building on federal land would require a more extensive review, he said, echoing dam backers’ own public statements.

Medicine Bow spokesman Voos rejected the assertion his agency is shirking its responsibilities. It is speculation to assert what level of review a proposal to build the dam on federal property would require, he said.

Wyoming agrees the process is sound. “It wouldn’t limit the environmental review at all,” Jason Crowder, deputy director of the Office of State Lands and Investments, told WyoFile.

In addition to its public-interest swap determination, the Medicine Bow is participating in a separate environmental impact review and statement — conducted by the Natural Resources Conservation Service — that will consider environmental and social impacts of dam and reservoir construction and operation. All that “satisfies the environmental review requirements for the land exchange,” Voos said.

Dwindling basin flows

At the upper reaches of the Colorado River Basin, where dwindling flows put seven Western states and Mexico at odds over historic and future use, the project comes at an uneasy time. It will test Wyoming’s willingness to impound and use what it believes river laws allow, despite an arid landscape of dwindling Colorado River flows, oversubscribed demands, climate change and growth.

Federal regulations state that a land exchange can take place only if the public interest “will be well served.”

One benefit to the Medicine Bow could be acquiring 640 acres of state-owned school-trust sections inside the national forest. “Quite a few of them are either in or adjacent to [a] wilderness area or roadless areas,” said Jonathan Bowler, watermaster for the Savery-Little Snake River Water Conservancy District.

Little Snake River agricultural lands along the Colorado-Wyoming border. Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

“The public could potentially see an expansion of roadless and wilderness in those areas,” he said.

The reservoir itself would flood land within about a half mile of the boundary of the Medicine Bow’s 31,057-acre Huston Park Wilderness Area, according to maps.

Bowler outlined other ways existing irrigation aids the environment; the dam would expand those benefits.

“You’ve got hundreds of ranchers pretty much doing the work of beavers to build riparian areas and habitat,” he said. Such irrigation-induced wetlands today cover more than 7,000 acres in the area, he said.

Birds and water at Bosque de Apache New Mexico November 9, 2022. Photo credit: Abby Burk

Irrigation aids amphibians and species like sandhill cranes that migrate to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, he said. “Our irrigation actually directly benefits that mating grounds down there that’s quite a tourist attraction.” Elk and other wildlife benefit from the open private land, he said.

Irrigation “basically fills up the soil … the largest reservoir that we have,” he said. When that moisture starts coming back out to the river, “that means that our rivers are higher [in] flow [in] late summer, early fall than historically they were.”

Wyoming calculates those returning flows — about 45% of what’s diverted onto fields — as water that can be used for irrigation again and counted as a benefit, according to a Water Development Office study.

“That late-season irrigation especially can help cool down river temperatures, which helps to provide for those big game populations as well as fish and other wildlife,” Bowler said.

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

The dam also could benefit Colorado River cutthroat trout because it would be an upstream barrier to competitors, helping fisheries managers enlarge a sanctuary for the species in and above the reservoir.

Said O’Toole, “this is may be as conservation-minded a place I know of in the western United States.”

Environmental review

…Wyoming wants 1,700 acres of Forest Service land for the dam and would analyze the value of between 2,024 and 4,400 acres of Wyoming school-trust land inside the Medicine Bow for the trade. Public announcements differ over the state acreage to be considered for trade.

The valley in which the West Fork dam and reservoir would be constructed. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

State and federal officials agree a land swap would make approval of the 130-acre reservoir easier. Wyoming’s exchange request states that a land swap “would eliminate the need for a USFS special use permit.”

Federal land ownership of the dam site “adds millions of dollars to that [permitting] process,” Harry LaBonde, former director of the WWDO told lawmakers in 2018. “Dealing with the Forest Service … very much complicates the NEPA process,” he said, and an exchange “very much streamlines” potential development.

Dam proponents “were running into a bit of a roadblock with Forest Service on Forest-Service-managed land,” OSLI Deputy Director Crowder told the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners in 2021.

The Medicine Bow told Wyoming officials that building on federal, not state, land “would not be the best approach just due to all the regulations that would come along with a [required] special use permit,” Voos said in an interview. “And so I think that [land swap] has been our suggestion.”

The value of exchanged parcels can be balanced by adjusting the acreage or paying for a difference, according to Wyoming’s proposal.

Any increase in federal acreage — the state offered 4,400 acres for analysis and potential trade for 1,700 acres of Medicine Bow land — could run afoul of Carbon County’s Natural Resource Management Plan. That plan supports valuable exchanges but also calls for “no net loss of private or state lands in exchange for federal lands.”

Gov. Mark Gordon, too, “is not supportive of the federal government expanding their [sic] estate in Wyoming,” Gordon’s spokesman Michael Pearlman told WyoFile when the governor protested the 35,670-acre conservation purchase of the private Marton Ranch along the North Platte River last year.

Of the 1,700 acres of Medicine Bow property Wyoming would acquire, the state wants 1,336 acres for the dam and reservoir itself and another 426 acres covering parts of Haggarty Creek and the Belvidere Ditch, site of a water spatamong area irrigators.

Owning all the property would “provide for the efficient operation of the reservoir and surrounding lands,” the state said in its land-swap proposal.

The state would lease the newly acquired land to the Water Development Commission, which would eventually transfer ownership to Carbon County or some other entity, according to plans. That final owner would be responsible for compensating the school trust — whose land the state would trade away.

A mining company that owns land at the reservoir site also would be involved with the project. American Milling LP of Cahokia, Illinois owns about 124 acres inside the national forest at the proposed site of the reservoir. The Carbon County assessor lists the market value of the property, site of mineral claims, at $40,675. Wyoming would presumably have to acquire that property too, or somehow arrange for it to be flooded.

WyoFile did not receive a response to a certified letter sent to the company seeking comment on Wyoming’s plans to inundate the private land.

Equal values

The Forest Service must show that values and public objectives of the state parcels “equal or exceed” those that would be swapped, regulations state. Medicine Bow land that would become the dam site must “not substantially conflict with established management objectives on adjacent Federal lands,” the Forest Service said.

Medicine Bow officials last week couldn’t immediately outline those objectives.

A WWDO study, however, listed the benefits of a new dam, saying it would generate $73.7 million in public benefits. Reservoir releases would be coordinated with those from the High Savery Dam.

A fish barrier on Haggarty Creek provides an upstream sanctuary for Colorado River cutthroat trout. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Critics have questioned the accounting of benefits, including rosy projections for recreational revenue and the acreage that would benefit from irrigation.

The cost/benefit ratio allows the state to reduce the required contributions from irrigation districts from the typical 33% to 8% of construction costs.

Wyoming, however, has seen costs for dam construction increase dramatically in recent years, potentially upsetting the cost/benefit ratio. The environmental review will update those figures, Jason Mead, interim director of the WWDO, wrote in an email.

Construction would require an estimated 450,000 cubic yards of concrete, according to an application to appropriate water filed with the state engineer in 2014. The Forest Service public-interest determination and separate NRCS environmental impact statement seek to examine the construction plan through two separate reviews.

A 70-step process 

The parallel review process is complex, Voos said. The Medicine Bow is engaged with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a larger analysis of the dam’s environmental and social impact. Other state and federal agencies also are involved.

The separate Forest Service public-interest decision is entwined in that process, both to be explained at public meetings in the region on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

The public-interest determination, “that’s kind of a parallel process to the land exchange,” Voos said. “We are piggybacking in essence, on those public meetings,” to get comments on the swap.

“We have a full, almost … 70-step process that we have to go through for the land exchange,” Voos said. Reservoir construction on National Forest System lands “is not commonplace,” the Medicine Bow said in a statement.

After determining the public-interest benefit, “we proceed or don’t proceed with the rest of the land exchange process,” Voos said. The Forest Service is “not for or against the project.”

[…]

Interested parties can read a legal notice published by the NRCS or weigh in online, by post or hand-delivery. The comments go to the NRCS, which will forward relevant land-swap ones to the Forest Service, Voos said. Meetingsoutlining the scope of the analysis and potential alternatives will be held Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in Craig, Colorado, and Baggs and Saratoga respectively.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

Feds set deadline (February 13, 2023) for West Fork Dam comments — @WyoFile #LitteSnakeRiver #YampaRiver #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Water developers want to construct a 264-foot high dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek south of Rawlins. This artist’s conception shows in a Google Earth rendition what the reservoir would look like. (Wyoming Water Development Office)

Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Angus M. Thuermer Jr.):

Federal authorities have set a Feb. 13 deadline for comments on a proposal to build a 264-foot-high concrete dam in the Medicine Bow National Forest in Carbon County.

The proposed West Fork Dam and reservoir would impound 6,500 acre-feet of irrigation storage in the Little Snake River Valley and parts of Colorado. Another 1,500 acre-feet would maintain a “minimum bypass flow” into Battle Creek and the Little Snake, Yampa, Green and Colorado Rivers downstream.

Officials announced the deadline in the Federal Register on Dec. 28 where they said they would accept written comments for 45 days. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has scheduled three public meetings Jan. 10-12 in communities in the impacted region.

The meetings are not designed as forums at which officials will accept public comment, Aaron Voos, a spokesman for the Medicine Bow said. Officials will use them to explain plans for construction of the proposed West Fork Dam and reservoir and the parallel Forest Service examination of a land exchange that would enable the project. 

Why it matters

The dam would cost some $80 million, according to a 2017 estimate, and the state would pay $73.6 million of that, original plans state. The dam and reservoir would generate an estimated $73.3 million in public benefits such as recreation and fishing, according to developers. Those benefits allow the state to reduce the amount irrigators would have to contribute, according to documents outlining the plan.

The proposal to impound more water in the Colorado River Basin and extract it from waterways for “increased pasture and hay production” comes at a time when seven Western states and Mexico are at odds over who can use what water in the overtaxed system. Even though officials are struggling to maintain water levels in Lake Powell, Wyoming believes it has the right to construct the reservoir and use flows from the basin’s network of waterways.

 Who said what:

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will prepare an environmental impact statement analyzing six alternatives, including no-action and an option that would use “alternate means such as … water conservation projects and habitat improvement projects” to achieve watershed-plan goals.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

#Wyoming seeks 6,282-acre land swap for new #ColoradoRiver Basin dam — WyoFile #LittleSnakeRiver #YampaRiver #GreenRiver #COriver #aridification

This map depicts the properties to be exchanged. (Office of State Lands and Investments)

Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Angus M. Thuermer Jr.):

Wyoming moved to expedite the construction of a 280-foot-high concrete dam in the Medicine Bow National Forest last month by proposing a 6,282-acre land exchange.

The state wants 1,762 acres of federal property for a dam and reservoir on the West Fork of Battle Creek in the Sierra Madre Mountains, according to a Nov. 30 letter and map from Jenifer Scoggin, the director of Wyoming’s Office of State Lands and Investments. In exchange, Wyoming would transfer ownership of up to 4,520 acres of state school trust lands to the federal government. That school trust land lies inside the boundaries of the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest.

The Medicine-Bow announced the application in a press release setting three public meetings that will be held on the evenings of Jan. 10, 11 and 12 in Craig, Colorado, Baggs and Saratoga respectively. The dam would be built on a tributary of the Little Snake River that flows into the Yampa, Green and Colorado Rivers.

“Conveying this parcel out of Federal ownership would eliminate the need for a USFS special use permit for the reservoir as well as provide for efficient management of the reservoir and surrounding lands,” states the 19-page notice of intent and proposal, which Scoggin sent to Brush Creek/Hayden District Ranger Jason Armbruster in Saratoga. Wyoming needs the federal property to construct the reservoir and meet “fiduciary obligations to produce income to support public schools and other state institutions,” the letter reads.

WyoFile obtained a copy of Scoggin’s letter, the proposal and map Tuesday from deputy director Jason Crowder.

The state Board of Land Commissioners last summer conceptually approved investigating a land exchange that would have covered some 24,000 acres. That approval allowed state officials to offer a smaller exchange in an effort to accelerate the West Fork Dam and reservoir project, Crowder said.

Smaller would be faster

“[T]he reality of getting something like that [larger exchange] done isn’t all that hot,” Crowder said. The Forest Service would have to examine a larger exchange through the National Environmental Policy Act process, which would take considerably longer than what’s being proposed, he said.

“Something that large isn’t anything that could get done in a timely fashion,” Crowder said. “It’s probable that a larger exchange … wouldn’t be feasible or successful in the near term.”

Instead, an exchange “that was more narrowly focused [on the land] needed for the reservoir construction and implementation would be OK,” he said.

Instead of writing an environmental impact statement that’s common for major proposals under NEPA, the Forest Service will instead conduct a “feasibility analysis/study,” Medicine Bow officials said in a statement. “The resulting product is referred to as a Public Interest Determination,” that would approve or reject the exchange, the Forest Service news release states.

The Forest Service study will focus on the future use and management of the lands and the effect of the exchange on the lands that adjoin them, the Medicine Bow release said.

Estimated in 2017 to cost $80 million, the proposed West Fork Reservoir would serve 67 to 100 irrigators. A 130-acre reservoir would hold 10,000 acre feet of water primarily for irrigation. The project is sponsored by: Savery-Little Snake Conservancy District and Pothook Conservancy in Colorado, the Forest Service said.

The proposed reservoir would impound and divert water from the troubled Colorado River Basin where residents in seven states and Mexico are at odds over how to use dwindling flows.

“It is important to note that the Forest Service has not yet determined if this is a feasible exchange, nor has the agency agreed to initiate it,” the Medicine Bow statement reads.

The Jan. 10 meeting in Craig will be from 5-7 p.m. at Colorado Northwest Community College. A virtual option will be available through the Forest Service website.

The meeting Jan. 11 in Baggs will be held from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the Valley Community Center. The Saratoga meeting the following day will be from 5:30-7:30 at the Platte Valley Community Center.Land exchange proposal details will be available the week of the public meetings on the Forest’s project website, the Medicine Bow announcement stated.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

Landowners advised to register unpermitted wells, ground water ponds by December 31, 2022 — Steamboat Pilot & Today #YampaRiver

Click the link to read the guest column from the Colorado Division of Water Resources on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website:

The Colorado Division of Water Resources staff in Steamboat Springs reminds landowners with existing unpermitted wells, and ponds fed by ground water, to file permits for those water structures by Dec. 31 to be evaluated without the well impacts treated as injurious, or harmful to water rights.

The state water engineer designated the middle Yampa River basin from west Steamboat Springs to the confluence with the Little Snake River west of Maybell, including all of its tributaries, as over-appropriated on March 1. Through the end of 2022, owners of existing unpermitted wells in that area can obtain a well permit without negative impacts if the well owner can demonstrate the well and its uses existed prior to March 1. The wells may include but are not limited to pond wells or other structures that expose groundwater to the atmosphere.

Water resources officials estimate hundreds of unpermitted wells exist in that area. A map of over-appropriated areas is available online at dwr.colorado.gov/division-offices/division-6-office, and click on the link “Report Designating Yampa River as Over-Appropriated.”

For applications for existing unpermitted wells filed on or after Jan. 1, Division of Water Resources staff will consider the injurious impacts from those existing wells when evaluating applications, which may result in a permit issued that considerably limits the use of water from the well. For questions, call the state’s well information desk at 303-866-3587. Permitting information is available online at Dwr.colorado.gov/services/well-permitting.

Credit: Chas Chamberlin via Water Education Colorado

What’s happening in the clouds to make Steamboat’s Champagne Powder? — Steamboat Pilot & Today

Photo via Snowflakes Bentley (Wilson A. Bentley)

Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Dylan Anderson). Here’s an excerpt:

But what actually happened up in the clouds to drop this snow that many claim to be so special? Gannet Hallar, director of Storm Peak Laboratory at the top of Mount Werner and a professor with the University of Utah, said it starts with the snowflakes.

“If you have the perfect snowflake, which we tend to call a stellar dendrite, it has a lot of air and not so much water in its formation,” Hallar explained. “What allows for those types of snowflakes to form is both the temperature and the amount of water in the air as the snowflake forms within the cloud itself.” Snow often starts as dust, which then forms ice. As the ice builds outward, its shape is based on the amount of water and the temperature. Hallar said warmer temperatures allow for higher water content, while colder temperatures often bring lighter, drier snow.,,

This graphic created by Kenneth G. Libbrecht, a professor at the California Institute of Technology, shows the relationship between moisture and temperature when snowflakes are formed. Kenneth G. Libbrecht/California Institute of Technology

Local meteorologist Mike Weissbluth said this relationship can be seen by looking at data from Storm Peak Lab from this week. At about 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 12, as the storm front moved in, the temperature started dropping…Weissbluth said those low temperatures, combined with the right amount of moisture, put Steamboat in the center of the dendritic growth zone, which allowed the flakes to quickly pile up a fresh blanket of low density snow. The snow’s density is lower because the bigger the dendrites, the looser the snow packs and the more air is mixed in. While snow elsewhere can have a 15% water content, the powder in Steamboat tends to be closer to 7%, Hallar said. Another key factor in Steamboat’s snow is the geographic location, right next to a large wall that is the Park Mountains. Hallar said this process of wringing moisture out of the clouds as they rise is called orographic lift, and puts Steamboat in prime powder position.

#WhiteRiver call ‘significant’ for #water users — @AspenJournalism #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Taylor Draw Dam on the White River in northwest Colorado forms Kenney Reservoir. The dam has a hydropower facility tied to a 1966 water right for 620 cfs. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

A water conservancy district has put a call on the White River, an action that has the potential to alter the system for other water users.

On Dec. 1, the Rangely-based Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District placed a call for its water right of 620 cubic feet per second at the Taylor Draw Dam hydroelectric plant, which the district owns and operates. It is only the second-ever call on the White River. A call occurs when a water rights holder isn’t getting the full amount of water to which they are entitled and upstream water users are shut off or “curtailed” so that the downstream user can get their full amount.

“I think maybe it’s a little strong to say it’s going to be life-changing, but it’s going to be significant, especially if we start seeing a call year-round,” said Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 6 Engineer Erin Light. “I think it could really change the regime that everyone in that basin is accustomed to. I think there’s not much question that the basin would become overappropriated.”

DWR designated the nearby Yampa River basin as overappropriated earlier this year, which means that there’s more water on paper than real water in the system at certain times of year and new well users will have to get a water-replacement plan, known as an augmentation plan.

Under Colorado water law, older water rights get first use of the river. In this case, water users junior to the district’s 1966 water right are being shut off. This time of year, that mostly means some industrial users and those who pull water from the river to water their livestock but who don’t have a water right for that specific use, Light said.

Under Colorado water law, watering livestock from ditches during irrigation season is included under an irrigation water right. But in the winter, when fields are not being irrigated, ranchers need a separate decree specifically for livestock watering if they want to continue using their ditches to water the animals.

The Rangely-based Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District has placed a call on the White River for its 620-cfs water right at the hydropower plant. Division of Water Resources staff have shut off water to some upstream users who water their livestock with ditches in the winter. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Reduced hydropower revenues

According to a news release from the district, the ongoing drought has significantly reduced seasonal inflows into Kenney Reservoir, which has reduced power production at the dam. According to the district, electricity production has been reduced by 35%, which has reduced the district’s revenues.

District General Manager Alden Vanden Brink said in an email that the district’s full water right was not being met several months out of the year and that the call will remain on until the full water right or capacity of the turbine is met. The district also has a 1982 water right for 125 cfs.

The news release said the district is sensitive to the hardships that the call may have on other water users and is working to create a White River augmentation plan, with a backup water supply for junior users.

Light said her office has curtailed about 10 ditches and two industrial water users since the call came Dec. 1, but assuming the call will be on whenever the river flows at less than 620 cfs, there will be more water rights and water usage curtailed in the summer and fall. During the irrigation season, there will be about 500 ditches and pumps that water commissioners will have to visit to see how much water they are using and whether they are using it legally, she said.

The U.S. Geological Survey stream gauge on the White River above Rangely is currently ice-affected and not giving a reading, but Light said she is certain that the 620-cfs water right at the dam is still not being met, even with curtailing upstream junior users. The river is probably running at about 300 cfs going into Kenney Reservoir, she said. Stream gauge data over the last half dozen years show that outside of seasonal peak flows, the White River near Rangely normally runs below 620 cfs.

Ducks swim on Kenney Reservoir, which sits near Rangely, in late October 2020. Kenney Reservoir, five miles east of Rangely, in October 2020. The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District owns and operates the reservoir.. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Wake-up call

The White River flows from the Flat Tops west through Meeker and Rangely to its confluence with the Green River in Utah. This sparsely populated basin has seen little regulatory oversight from the state, and water users could generally take as much water as they needed. But that is changing. For the past few years, Division 6 staffers have been pushing water users to install measuring devices on their ditches and canals.

“In Division 6, our basin that has the most number of structures by far without measuring devices is the White River,” Light said. “Unfortunately, probably at the onset of this call in the summer, we will be shutting people off without measuring devices.”

Will Myers is an engineer and rancher on the Williams Fork, a tributary of the Yampa River, and he also serves as the agriculture representative on the Yampa/White/Green Basin Roundtable. Getting a water court decree for stock watering is the best way for agricultural producers to protect their practices, he said, especially in an area not used to strict administration by state officials because there has historically been enough water to go around.

“Any time you have something like this happen, it’s kind of a wake-up call for those in the ag community,” Myers said. “Just because you’ve always done something doesn’t mean you’re not susceptible to an actual legit administrative call.”

Ongoing drought and the impacts of a warming climate are at least partially fueling a trend in never-before-seen calls in parts of western Colorado. In 2018, the Yampa River saw its first-ever call, and the Crystal River saw its first-ever senior irrigation call.

“If that’s indeed true — that we are going to continue to see a drying climate — we are going to continue to see senior water rights not being met,” Light said. “I think that’s become clearly evident in the last four years.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.

White River Basin. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69281367

Stillwater Reservoir west of #Yampa in need of expensive repairs — Steamboat Pilot & Today #YampaRiver #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Stillwater Reservoir was drained in August 2021 for inspections to determine upgrades needed to the aging infrastructure. Colorado Division of Water Resources/Courtesy photo

Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today websire (Suzie Romig). Here’s an excerpt:

When the 75-foot dam for Stillwater Reservoir was built in 1939 by the Civilian Conservation Corps for the former Yampa Reservoirs Public Irrigation District, it was well constructed to meet engineering standards at the time. But by today’s standards, the dam’s abutments would be addressed differently, said Dana Miller, dam safety engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources in Steamboat Springs. As a result, the aging dam infrastructure needs expensive upgrades to bring the structure up to current safety standards, Miller said. Since it was constructed, the dam at approximately 10,300 feet elevation has experienced consistent seepage issues where the sides of the dam abut the hillsides. If not addressed, the seepage could eventually lead to a failure of the dam, Miller explained. Although the seepage has been worked on through the years with minimal results, lasting improvements could cost millions, according to the owner Bear River Reservoir Co. The reservoir water is owned by 18 agricultural shareholders and the town of Yampa, and those southern Routt County hay growers have been affected financially due to lower water storage allowances, plus years of drought.

The Stillwater Reservoir was placed on a fill restriction by the state in June 2019 and currently is limited to approximately 80% capacity, which the water storage level may reach during wetter years. The structure is classified as a high-hazard dam, which is not based on its condition but because “loss of life and significant damage is expected downstream if the dam were to fail,” Miller explained. The 129-acre reservoir, which is also known for the trailhead to popular Devil’s Causeway hike, was drained to a small dead pool in August 2021 for inspections of the upstream side of the reservoir outlet gates. The reservoir was drained again in October for work on the hydraulic operating system, said Andi Schaffner, secretary for Bear River Reservoir Co.  Yampa resident Schaffner said the owners of the private, nonprofit reservoir company have contributed more than $100,000 to help with dam issues in the past 11 years, and total upgrades to the hydraulics are predicted to cost $300,000.

Community Agriculture Alliance: The Colorado Water Plan — Steamboat Pilot & Today #COWaterPlan

The eight major river basins, plus the Denver metro area, are shown on this map from the South Platte River Basin Roundtable. Each basin has its own roundtable, made up of volunteers, to address local water issues. Credit: Colorado Water Conservation Board

Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Patrick Stanko). Here’s an excerpt

You cannot look at the news today and not see a story on the Colorado River and its low flows and levels of the two major reservoirs in the United States…The goal of the nine Colorado roundtables is to drive solutions from the bottom up for this and the other eight compact demands Colorado is facing. To find out more about all of Colorado Interstate Water Compacts, please visit WaterEducationColorado.org/publications-and-radio/citizen-guides/citizens-guide-to-colorados-interstate-compacts/

Your local roundtable is the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable (YWG BRT), which brings together 36 local water users and stakeholders to drive local solutions up to the state and federal levels. These stakeholders represent water providers, municipalities and industrial, recreational, environmental and agricultural communities. They work together to collaboratively find solutions to water supply gaps using a committee structure. The Big River committee reviews the issues facing the Colorado River and how it would affect the Yampa, White and Green Rivers and provides the full YWG BRT with positions and white papers. The Grants Committee reviews Colorado State grant requests for projects that could help reduce the water supply gaps within the basin. This funding has helped projects like the Maybell Canal, the city of Craig White Water Park, the White River Algae study, Walker Ditch Headgate, the Crosho Simon Dam outlet replacement and other projects. Please refer to the YWB BRT website at YampaWhiteGreen.com

The YWG BRT drives this bottom-up collaboration to the state level through the Basin Implementation Plan and the Inter-basin Compact Committee (IBCC). The Basin Implementation Plan (BIP) was released by the YWG BRT back in 2015 and updated in 2021. The BIP has the eight goals of the YWG BRT to reduce the water supply gaps in the basin. Also included in this plan are the activities to meet those goals, the changing challenges in the basin, and a list of projects that if implemented could reduce the supply gaps the basin is facing…

All this local collaboration has led to the update to the Colorado Water Plan, which is scheduled to be released on Jan. 24. The Colorado Water Plan has four action areas — vibrant communities, thriving watersheds, resilient planning and robust agriculture. CWCB also in the plan has identified 50 CWCB partner actions that can help support the water plan and 50 agency actions that CWCB and collaborating agencies will take to support local projects, conservation and wise-water development.

Colorado Water Plan 2023 update cover. Click the image to go to the CWCB website for the update.

#Water managers add, improve temperature gauges in #YampaRiver — Steamboat Pilot & Today

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

Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Suzie Romig). Here’s an excerpt:

The recent trends of 75-plus degrees for high summer water temperature are about 10 to 15 degrees warmer than most stream fish prefer, said Billy Atkinson, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The Fifth Street gauge is an expensive station that includes temperature monitoring. It is also one key to deciding about timing and amounts for upstream water reservoir releases and recreational river closures. Thirty other temperature gauges of varying quality and permanence exist on the Yampa River from above Stagecoach Reservoir to Deerlodge Park in Dinosaur National Monument, according to Julie Baxter, Steamboat Springs water resources manager…

The city and partners such as Friends of the Yampa, Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and U.S. Geological Survey have recently or are installing new temperature monitoring locations in the river based on the gaps and priorities identified in the recently completed Yampa Integrated Water Management Plan. More and improved temperature monitoring will help water managers make better decisions long term. Some of the city’s past temperature loggers have been lost from washing downstream during disturbances, Baxter said, and she supervised a small committee and consultant to move forward on a recommendation from management plan. The plan was released in September and is available online at YampaWhiteGreen.com/iwmp

The conservancy district added temperature measurement to the USGS gauge above Stagecoach Reservoir. Friends of the Yampa installed temperature loggers in several tributaries and downstream of the hot springs. The city contracted with an engineering firm to install more permanent, continuous, real-time temperature monitoring above and below the Wastewater Treatment facility. After the temperature gauges are added or improved, the goal is to post as much real-time temperature information as possible on the forthcoming Yampa River Dashboard, which is another of the 20 management plan‘s recommendations. The conservation district along with the Colorado Water Trust and nonprofit Friends of the Yampa are working to establish the online dashboard by late 2023. The dashboard would provide stakeholders a one-stop location for information related to water management such as snowpack, current climate conditions, temperatures and soil moisture.

Municipal water among most vulnerable in #ColoradoRiver crisis — WyoFile #LittleSnakeRiver #GreenRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Lincoln Highway in Cheyenne, Feb. 16, 2013. (Kent Kanouse/FlickrCC)

Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Dustin Bleizeffer):

When Cheyenne’s municipal water board approved a deal in October to supply up to 14,500 acre-feet of water over 15 years for a proposed gold mine west of town, attorneys insisted on inserting a clause in the contract. It retained the right to cut water deliveries if the city itself has to curtail its water use due to the Colorado River crisis.

“The majority of our water comes from the Colorado River [basin] and if that call [requiring upstream users to cut consumption] comes in, we’re in big trouble,” Cheyenne Mayor Patrick Collins said.

About 70% of the city’s municipal water supply originates 150 miles west in the Little Snake River drainage, a part of the Colorado River Basin. A complex “trans-basin” system of pumps, tunnels and pipelines transports the water under the Continental Divide in the Medicine Bow Routt National Forest to the city. 

Cheyenne’s legal claims to the Colorado River Basin water were appropriated from 1954 to 1982 — making it a relatively new user in the system. If there is a curtailment, it would be applied to the newest or most “junior” appropriations, then work back in time to the 1922 Colorado River Compact. That means, depending on how far back in time a curtailment extends, 70% of the city’s water supply could be shut off — an action that could come as soon as 2028 if hydrological conditions keep trending for the worse, according to the Wyoming State Engineer’s office.

This map depicts Cheyenne’s municipal water supply system, which funnels in water from the Little Snake River Basin. (Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities)

“If we lose 100% of our Colorado River Compact water, we’re upside down,” Collins said, adding that about 80,000 people rely on the city’s municipal water system. “We wouldn’t have enough water to meet our current needs.”

For now, Cheyenne, Baggs, Rock Springs, Green River, Pinedale and a handful of other towns that depend on water from the Little Snake and Green River basins in Wyoming are assessing where they stand in the pecking order of appropriated water rights in the event of a curtailment. Although municipalities make up a small percentage of Wyoming water users under the Colorado River Compact and associated laws, their legal claims to the water are among the most vulnerable.

First in time, first in right

If the Upper Colorado River Basin Commission issues a curtailment for Wyoming, it would not necessarily force all water users subject to the compact to close their spigots completely.

There’s no curtailment priority in terms of use — whether it’s irrigation for cattle and alfalfa fields, water consumed for cooling at the Jim Bridger coal-fired power plant or water piped to homes for domestic use. Instead, a curtailment would be applied based on the first-in-time, first-in-right water appropriations doctrine: Those who gained their water appropriation latest in time would be the first ordered to shut off their water.

For example, if the state had to curtail 100,000 acre-feet of water — approximately one-sixth of its annual Colorado River Basin consumptive water use — the state engineer would begin with the newest appropriations and work back in time until the 100,000 acre-feet of consumptive water use curtailment was met.

Shauna Gray and her dog, Lula Mae, paddle at Rob Roy Reservoir July 31, 2022. The reservoir is part of a trans-basin water system that supplies water to Cheyenne. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

If, let’s say, that required turning off all Colorado River Basin water appropriations back to 1970, that would choke off all water appropriated since then — whether for industrial, municipal or agricultural use. The cities of Rock Springs and Green River, which share a municipal water system that serves some 39,000 residents, would lose access to 75% of their Green River water appropriation. The towns would still be allowed to tap the 4,343-acre-feet-per-year appropriation they secured in 1928 and the 2,895-acre-feet-per-year appropriation that predates the 1922 compact. The rest — 75% — was appropriated in 1971 and after.

This type of variable vulnerability applies to many Colorado River Basin water users with appropriated rights that were obtained at different times. The exact order for how a curtailment would be applied is well documented and under continual review, according to the state engineer’s office.

Small straw, big vulnerability

Agriculture accounts for 83.7% of Wyoming’s consumptive use of water in the Colorado River system, according to the SEO. Municipal water use accounts for about 2.8% — or 3.3% if you include rural domestic water use. Industry — trona facilities, coal power plants, oil and natural gas processing — make up most of the remaining 13%.

Approximately 70% of agricultural irrigation water rights in Wyoming were appropriated before 1922. Those pre-1922 appropriations are not subject to the Colorado River Compact and cannot be shut off under a curtailment. The pre-1922 protection applies to all Colorado River Basin water users.

A majority of Colorado River Basin water appropriations held by Wyoming municipal water authorities, however, are post-1922. That means some 125,000 urban Wyoming residents and businesses are vulnerable to a curtailment.

Given the curtailment clause in Cheyenne’s water contract, gold mine developer Gold King Corp. is shopping around to secure alternative water resources, according to Mayor Collins. The city of Cheyenne — as well as Green River, Rock Springs and others — are doing the same.

“There is the possibility that we would not be able to collect any water from the Little Snake System if [a] curtailment call goes below 1954,” Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities Administrator Brad Brooks told WyoFile. “We are looking for additional water to mitigate this possibility and planning for the worst case that our Little Snake water will not be available.”

Green River and Rock Springs are in the same boat. Their joint municipal water system collects 100% of its water from the Green River and its tributaries to serve some 39,000 residents in and around the two cities. Only 10% of their Colorado River Basin water appropriations pre-date the 1922 compact.

Green River. (Google Earth)

Although the cities don’t rely on the full volume of their legal claims to Colorado River Basin water, the time to plan for supplemental water sources is now; 2028, the year Wyoming might first see a curtailment, isn’t far away, Green River/Rock Springs Joint Powers Board General Manager Bryan Seppie said.

“Understand, [a curtailment] probably isn’t a one-year event,” Seppie told WyoFile, adding that much depends on what Mother Nature has in store. “We’ve got to secure other water resources to serve as replacement water if [a curtailment] were to happen. Conservation is a tool, but with these types of curtailments, conservation is not going to get you out of it.”

Backup water

Part of the Gold King deal provides Cheyenne’s Board of Public Utilities approximately $5 million in fees that would help cover the cost to expand Cheyenne’s groundwater capacity. The city’s water board is also seeking up to $10.5 million in grants from the Wyoming Water Development Commission for its Borie wellfield expansion project. The expansion would add approximately 3,300 acre-feet of water per year to the city’s water portfolio, according to the board. 

That would boost Cheyenne’s non-Colorado River Compact water source portfolio to 9,900 acre-feet per year. But the city would still be in trouble in the event of a curtailment because its average annual use is about 14,000 acre-feet.

“We are actively pursuing possibilities” for additional water resources, Brooks of the city’s BOPU said.

Anglers try their luck on the Green River at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge on Sept. 27, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Expanding groundwater capacity, however, isn’t an affordable option for Rock Springs and Green River, according to Seppie. Instead, the cities are looking to those in the state with pre-1922 appropriations to share some water.

The federal System Conservation Program pays water users to curb consumption. Congress recently re-appropriated funding for the program, while the Inflation Reduction Act includes some $4 billion for efforts to modernize Colorado River Basin infrastructure and water management practices. Another $8.3 billion from the bipartisan Infrastructure law is available to address water and drought challenges throughout the U.S.

The SCP is an attractive option, Seppie said, for both ag irrigators and municipalities. Ag irrigators who volunteer for the program can use payments to upgrade their irrigation systems to waste less water.

“It’s a voluntary thing. It’s preemptive, and it’s benefiting the entire system,” Seppie said. “We haven’t gotten to a point where we’re having those discussions [with city officials]. But we have somewhat of a timeframe; 2028 is not all that far off.”

#OakCreek to bid out Sheriff Reservoir fixes again, now with Routt County, state support — Steamboat Pilot & Today #YampaRiver

Photo credit: Medicine Bow National Forest

Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Dylan Anderson). Here’s an excerpt:

Routt County approved more support to complete upgrades at Sheriff Reservoir on Tuesday, Nov. 8, this time for installation of a new head gate at Oak Creek’s nearly 70-year-old water source. The $80,000 from the county will be used with an equal amount of town funding to get a matching grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. If the grant is awarded as officials expect, the state and local funding would total $380,000…

Sheriff Reservoir has two problems. First, the original head gate is 68 years old, and both town officials and state water managers worry it could fail if it is not replaced. Installing a new gate is what the latest county funding would be used to support. The town has put installation of a new head gate out to bid twice, but each effort produced bids that far exceeded initial engineering estimates for the cost of the work and the available funding. That estimate was $187,000, but the lowest bid the town received was $405,000. The town has purchased the new head gate equipment already with the help of DOLA and the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Study to defend #GreenRiver, #LittleSnakeRiver #water would cost at least $500K: Lawmakers will seek money to determine #ColoradoRiver Basin water losses from #Wyoming irrigation canals in hopes of staving off reductions — @WyoFile #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Angus M. Thuermer Jr.):

Lawmakers will seek $500,000 to study water lost from canals in the Green and Little Snake River basins to ensure Wyoming is accurately credited for conservation when it chooses or is forced to close irrigation systems in the troubled Colorado River Basin.

The study could help Wyoming limit reductions in water diversion as seven Western states and Mexico wrangle with an over-allocated and dwindling supply in the drainage. Members of the Legislature’s Joint Select Water Committee voted to draft a measure to seek the money from the general fund when the legislative session commences early next year.

“I could see [a conveyance loss study] very easily reaching $500,000,” Jason Mead, interim director of the Wyoming Water Development Office told lawmakers Wednesday. State Engineer Brandon Gebhart said his “mind was right at $500,000 for this,” but that “it could be a lot more.

“I do think that this is a really good start,” he said.

One hundred years after the signing of the Colorado River Compact, water managers cannot accurately measure what’s used and have not agreed on how to resolve conflicting views on rights to use what water there is.

The amount of incidental seepage and phreatophytic losses — canal-side, plant-used water — associated with irrigation is an “area of agriculture data collection that need[s] to be updated and verified,” the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation states in its 2022 Upper Colorado River Basin Consumptive Uses and Losses report.

The proposed Wyoming study could help the state claim that when it shuts off water to a field of crops, it is saving that crop’s consumption plus what’s lost in the conveyance system of canals and ditches that carry the flow from river to field.

By showing it saves more, Wyoming would cut off fewer users in a “curtailment” situation where water managers require conservation. The data could also better inform the purchase of temporary water rights transfers from one user to another.

“Understanding what that conveyance loss is,” Gebhart said, “could benefit the water users in our state.”

80% loss?

Conveyance loss is significant in Wyoming’s Green River Basin, one lawmaker told the committee.

“We know in Sublette County that we have some canals that are over 20 miles long that go through a glacial till and alluvium that, anecdotally we’ve heard, they lose up to 80%,” Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) told the committee. Irrigators estimated losses in a survey conducted by the Water Development Office, but none has reported losses as high as 80%; the statewide average is 24%.

A cowboy herds cattle home from the range in the Green River drainage in Sublette County. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

A contractor would lay out the groundwork for the study starting next spring, identifying perhaps eight sites and 50 miles of canals in the Green and Little Snake River drainages that could be monitored. Investigators would install water-pressure sensors in canals to record water-level fluctuations through a season.

Once in place, consultants would measure and record flows and pressures in the 2024 irrigation season. Mead of the WWDO described how the survey would work.

Investigators would be “going out there four or five, six times to actually get measurements on the canal at four or five or six different spots down, say, a 15-mile section,” he said.

The results would show, for example, the difference in canal seepage at the beginning of an irrigation season when the ground is drier compared to seepage in mid-summer when the canal has been flowing and “things are wetted up and primed,” Mead said.

Engineer Gebhart distinguished between two categories of conveyance losses — consumptive loss and seepage — and whether Wyoming could claim credit for staunching either.

Consumptive loss is the amount consumed by ditch-side plants and trees, the amount lost to evaporation, plus that which leaks into an aquifer “that does not return back to the [Colorado River] system,” he said.

Gebhart defined the second category — seepage loss — as leakage that returns to the system. “It may be delayed, but it does return back to a stream,” he said.

As Wyoming calculates what’s consumptively used — and what it can save if that consumptive use is taken off-line — it might not be credited for reducing some associated seepage.

“Seepage [that] returns to the system … that is not considered a consumptive use,” Gebhart said. “I would say a majority of ditch loss is lost to seepage.”

Results from the study would be ready in late 2024 or in 2025, according to a scenario painted by Mead.

Wyoming buffer

Wyoming doesn’t expect to face curtailment — when it might be forced to shut down users — until 2028, if drought continues. Wyoming and its sister states in the Upper Division or upper basin — Colorado, Utah and New Mexico — would face mandatory cuts if the Lee Ferry gauging station just below Lake Powell shows a flow of less than 75 million acre-feet in the previous 10 years.

Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, “[t]he States of the Upper Division will not cause the flow of the river at Lee Ferry to be depleted” below that level. The upper basin encompasses about 45% of the drainage area but produces 92% of the runoff.

Colorado River laws apportion Wyoming rights to 14% of the upper basin’s water, officials say. They believe upper basin states are not yet at the critical “75/10” metric where reductions are necessary.

“We’re currently about 85 million acre-feet,” Gebhart said, referring to the previous 10 years. “So we’ve got a little buffer.”

“We’ve blown through the hydrology, we’ve used most of the storage in the Colorado River Basin,” Hicks said. “And now … the director of the Bureau of Reclamation, [is] looking for somewhere between 2 [million] and 4 million acre-feet of reductions in the Colorado.”

The original estimate was 15 million acre-feet were in the system annually, but that water, “it doesn’t exist,” Hicks said. In the last decade, it’s averaged 12 million acre-feet or less, he said. One water administrator in Colorado has said experts tell water managers to plan for 9 million acre-feet a year as a worst-case scenario.

Municipalities and industry — usually holding inferior, junior water rights and so the first to face curtailment — could be looking for water. In Wyoming, agriculture holds 80% of the water rights, Hicks said, and could be approached to sell through a temporary-transfer system or some other arrangement.

“That’s the water bank that you’re looking at,” Hicks said of agriculture.

“At some point in time, we’re gonna have to recognize that there’s not 15 million acre-feet to be divided up,” he said. “That’s really the issue. This is why all the states are lawyering up.”

Wyoming is preparing for negotiations, measurements, debates and possibly fights over water rights. In the last year, the state has added a Colorado-River staffer to the state engineer’s office and also the attorney general’s office, Hicks told the committee.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck. Credit: Brad Udall via Twitter

Community Agriculture Alliance: What is the Yampa Integrated #Water Management Plan? — Steamboat Pilot & Today #YampaRiver #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Boaters float the Yampa River. According to the updated state Water Plan, summer recreation flow needs may not be met in the future due to lower peak flows, fueled by climate change. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the guest column on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Michelle Meyer and Lindsey Marlow). Here’s an excerpt:

The Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable led the development of an Integrated Water Management Plan for the Yampa River in 2019. The process combined 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. While that sounds technical and even slightly boring … keep reading! Working to sustain, protect and care for the Yampa River impacts us all.  The IWMP is a community effort, led by people who live and work in the Yampa Valley, and care about the river and its future. This is not a political issue, but a stakeholder-driven plan with a shared passion for the river as common ground. The IWMP seeks to identify and spur projects and strategies that benefit water users, the environment and recreational users. These multi-benefit efforts cannot be accomplished by one entity alone but require collaboration among water users and landowners, nonprofit organizations and local governments. The project’s work included stakeholder input via surveys and interviews conducted in 2020. Our team collected ideas from a variety of stakeholders to identify priority reaches for improved river health and recreation, as well as ideas to better meet water users’ needs. A technical team worked to assess current river conditions. Inventories of water use, river flows, riverside land condition, fishery health and water quality have helped to characterize current conditions and identify knowledge gaps. 

The final piece of the IWMP has been to prioritize issues and develop consensus on action plans. The true success is in the collaborative partnerships and relationships developed through countless hours of meetings. The Yampa IWMP final report can be found at YampaWhiteGreen.com/iwmp.  Multi-benefit projects include a focus that recognizes agriculture, recreation, environment, municipal and industrial water needs as equally important. Some recommendations to highlight include a basin wide temperature monitoring program that will help inform and identify opportunities for improved river health.

Coordinated efforts in developing a Yampa River Data Dashboard and River Scorecard will not only bring scientific work and data together for informed management decisions but will allow the community to understand the state of the Yampa River over time. Several IWMP recommendations specifically call out support and coordination for agriculture water users to address common challenges and opportunities to sustain a balanced river.

As climate change raises stakes on water management decisions, soil moisture monitor fills gap in the data: #Climate station installed near Stagecoach Reservoir is first of 25 planned for the Yampa Valley — Steamboat Pilot & Today

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

Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Dylan Anderson). Here’s an excerpt:

Soil moisture is the measurement many researchers believe is missing, and a new climate measurement station perched on private land just southwest of Stagecoach Reservoir hopes to help fill the data gap.

“It is another variable that we’re understanding is more and more important,” said Madison Muxworthy, soil moisture, water and snow program coordinator for the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council…

The station — paid for by the Upper Yampa District and installed in partnership with the sustainability council and the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes — includes a soil moisture monitor that takes measurements at six different depths down to 40 inches. It’s the first of a network of 25 similar stations planned for the Yampa Valley. Rossi said the station will be an important tool when making decisions that have shrinking margins for error amid climate change…The station was installed in the middle of September, and Muxworthy said it generally takes about three months for everything to settle. It will likely take another decade to have enough soil moisture data to have a good understanding of that soil-runoff relationship, she added. But the station is taking measurements every two minutes and updating data every hour. Soil moisture measurements are taken at 2, 4, 6, 8, 20 and 40 inches, which shows how deep moisture from precipitation is soaking into the ground.

Extended rainfall benefits fishing in #YampaRiver — Steamboat Pilot & Today #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Tom Skulski). Here’s an excerpt:

While the Yampa River has not closed quite as much this year as it did last year, local fishermen lost out on most of July and August and a chunk of September in 2022…

“There’s three criteria that would determine a closure or trigger a closure,” [Johnny] Spillane said. “One is water temperature, another is water flow meaning (cubic feet per second) and the third criteria is dissolved oxygen in the river. If any of those three criteria are not being met, that will trigger a closure and that seems to be fairly common in the last five, six or seven years.”

As far as the rain’s effect on fish behavior, Spillane says it is complicated but mostly acts as a good thing for the fish and therefore a good thing for those fishing.

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

#YampaRiver Rendezvous recap — Steamboat Pilot & Today #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Coyote Gulch on the Yampa River Core Trail August 24, 2022.

Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Suzie Romig). Here’s an excerpt:

…after years of drought conditions in Colorado, any lingering optimism for a return to previous patterns of rain showers most afternoons in the High Country is not a realistic outlook. Water managers now need to use the most conservative, lower water flow predictions to manage shrinking water resources effectively, said Andy Rossi, general manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District…

The annual volume of water in the Yampa River Basin was 1.5 million-acre-feet in the early 1900s but now is 1.12 million-acre-feet, Rossi noted. Rossi compared the two consecutive years from 2011 and 2012 as one example of water projection difficulties. During the wetter 2011 at the Fifth Street river gauging station in downtown Steamboat, the flow on June 7 was 4,780 cubic feet per second compared to 305 CFS on the same date in 2012. Last week, at the same gauging station, the natural river flow contributed only half of the flow because approximately 50% of the flow was from storage releases from Stagecoach Reservoir, he said…

Although precipitation levels in the Yampa River Basin historically include highly variable ups and downs, data shows an “incredibly sharp recent decrease in precipitation” that led to five of the lowest water inflows into Stagecoach Reservoir during the past 10 years, Rossi said. From 2010 to 2021, the annual precipitation in Routt County dropped by 5.26 inches, he said…

Community members were urged to learn more about local water issues and to review the final version of the Yampa Integrated Water Management Plan that was released earlier this month available online at the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable website at YampaWhiteGreen.com

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

End in sight for city’s sewer interceptor project, culvert rehab begins — #SteamboatSprings Pilot & Today

City of Steamboat Springs. Photo credit: American Rivers

Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Springs Pilot & Today website (Spencer Powell). Here’s an excerpt:

Native Excavating installed 2,265 linear feet of 24-inch sewer pipe and eight manholes this year alone. Excluding lateral connections, about 71% of the main sewer line is complete and the crews are about one week ahead of schedule. Crews will install service connections into the new sewer main while abandoning the existing main, then they’ll test and inspect the new manhole connections and sewer main.  Then, the private irrigation systems that were impacted by the construction will be repaired or replaced, such as the systems at City Market Fuel and The Village at Steamboat…

Elsewhere, starting this past week, culverts in four areas of town are being rehabilitated as part of a separate project seeking to upgrade critical water infrastructure. 

#Maybell project addresses problems for irrigators, boaters, fish — @AspenJournalism

The Maybell Ditch headgate in the lower left pulls water from the Yampa River for irrigation. A major reconstruction project will fix the diversion structure to create better passage for fish and boats. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

The Maybell Ditch is the largest diversion on the Yampa River and irrigates about 2,500 acres of grass and alfalfa in northwest Colorado. But the remote and antiquated headgate, along with a hazardous diversion structure and 18 miles of nearly flat canal, create problems for irrigators, boaters and endangered fish alike.

Now the Maybell Irrigation District and The Nature Conservancy are working together on an ambitious project to rehabilitate and modernize the historic structure with the goal of improving conditions for all the water users on this stretch of river. So far, TNC has secured about $3.5 million in funds for the project, which it hopes can begin next summer.

Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

The Yampa River flows from the Flat Tops Wilderness, through the city of Steamboat Springs, then turns west and eventually joins with the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. Along the way it turns the semi-arid landscape of Routt and Moffat counties into a ribbon of green, irrigated meadows.

In recent years the Yampa has started experiencing issues that have long been a part of other river basins like over-appropriation, calls and water shortages.

“That reach has seen declines in water levels over time with drought and long-term climate impacts,” said Jennifer Wellman, TNC project manager. “(The Maybell Ditch project) was one of those that rose to the surface where we could hopefully work with the water users to have a greater impact in that basin … . That whole reach is really special, and it warrants more water if it’s available, especially during the low flow periods.”

This map shows the 18 miles of the Maybell Ditch, which irrigates land with water from the Yampa River. The Nature Conservancy is planning an overhaul and modernization of the headgate and diversion structure.

Challenges for irrigators, boaters, fish

Maybell Irrigation District manager Mike Camblin said historically some ranchers couldn’t get their full amount of water unless the ditch, which was constructed in the 1890s, was running full blast.

“We had one field where if the ditch wasn’t full, they couldn’t get it wet because there wasn’t enough elevation to it,” he said. “It was too flat.”

That meant more water was being sent through the ditch as “push water” to make sure flows make it to dry fields. It also meant more water was flowing back into the Yampa River at the end of the approximately 18-mile-long ditch, known as tailwater. If there’s too much tailwater, that can mean a ditch is taking more out of the river than it is able to use, a no-no according to the state Division of Water Resources.

A first round of improvements to the ditch added a liner to reduce seepage and check structures, which slow the flow of water. Those measures only partially addressed the issues.

The project that is now being proposed is much more extensive and involves reconstructing the diversion and modernizing the headgate, which controls the flow of water from the river into the ditch. By fixing a grade control structure — essentially arranging boulders in mid-stream that push up the water in the river upstream of the headgate — it creates more elevation to allow gravity to move water into the ditch, which should reduce the need to push water. It will also smooth out a passage for both fish and boats.

The twin, circular headgates of the Maybell Ditch are rusted, antiquated and must be open and closed manually. A modernization project includes plans to make it possible to operate the headgate remotely.CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Remote location

The twin, circular, century-old headgates are rusted and hard to operate.

“There’s no way those things are easy to adjust,” said Erin Light, Division 6 engineer at the state Division of Water Resources. “Quite frankly, if the water commissioner had to adjust it, I don’t think he or she could. We would have to rely on (the irrigation district) to do that, which is not preferred.”

The remote location of the headgate — a three-mile round trip hike down the rugged Juniper Canyon off an already-remote dirt road — is a challenge for the district. When all the headgates on the ditch are opening and closing according to the differing schedules and water needs of the irrigators, it can be hard to coordinate the manual operation of the main headgate. The new headgate will be automated and controlled remotely.

“That’s a four- or five-hour deal by the time you drive up there, walk up there, adjust it and drive home,” Camblin said. “The automation on that will be huge. As far as management, it will be our biggest tool.”

But construction won’t be easy. Heavy equipment can’t make it down to the river along the ditch and will have to access the diversion using newly constructed roads on Bureau of Land Management land. The BLM considers the ditch a cultural resource and project proponents will have to be careful to avoid impacts to it.

Western Colorado Area Manager for JUB Engineers Luke Gingerich explained the complexities of the project on a site visit in July.

“They are going to have to create a couple miles of nice road to get in,” Gingerich said. “It will be a large disturbance and we’ve got to come back and make sure we return this as close as we can to the condition it was in before.”

According to Camblin, it was the federal Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program that first pushed the district to take a look at where it could manage its water better. That stretch of river is designated critical habitat for species of endangered fish. Water is released out of the upstream Elkhead Reservoir for the fish, and the new automated headgate will allow the Maybell Ditch to more easily let that water flow past it, to get to where it’s needed.

The Maybell Ditch diversion, located in Juniper Canyon in northwest Colorado, takes water from the Yampa River to irrigate hay fields. The Nature Conservancy is fundraising for a project that would overhaul and modernize the diversion structure and headgate.CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Boon for boaters

The diversion reconstruction project will also be a boon for boaters. River advocacy nonprofit Friends of the Yampa said in a letter of support for the project that the Maybell Diversion is the most significant barrier for safe, passable recreation along a 200-mile stretch of the Yampa River. Boaters often have to get out to portage the rapid formed by the diversion structure. The new diversion will create a boat passage, connecting two sections of boatable river.

At July’s site visit, recreation and education coordinator for Friends of the Yampa Kent Vertrees said he’s grateful for the collaboration between the agriculture, recreation and environmental water users.

“As a recreation person, I’ve said all along we get the dregs of all the other water users,” Vertrees said. “We rely on agriculture more than anyone to make sure there’s water in the river. It’s really great, our partnerships in northwest Colorado.”

But that partnership was a bit of a hard sell at first, Camblin said. Some Maybell Ditch irrigators were skeptical about a project spearheaded by an environmental group. Tensions can sometimes run high between irrigators, who take water out of rivers, and environmental groups, who want to leave water in rivers. Camblin said the district held several meetings between irrigators and TNC to assure water users their water rights or how they manage their ranch wouldn’t be threatened.

“One of our goals we talked about when we started this was, we wanted to show people the agriculture community can work with groups they don’t normally work with,” Camblin said. “We are hoping other ag communities say, ‘Hey, you know what? Some of this stuff is possible. I might have to reach across the table to make it work but this will be a beneficial project to so many people.’”

The headgate and diversion reconstruction could come with a hefty price tag and TNC is still fundraising for what could end up costing more than originally thought due to supply chain interruptions and inflation. The project has secured almost $3.5 million so far, nearly $2 million of which comes from a Bureau of Reclamation WaterSMART grant. The Colorado Water Conservation Board has contributed about $1 million so far; the Colorado River Water Conservation District will give $500,000; $40,000 will come from the Yampa River Fund and the irrigation district is also contributing money and in-kind resources. However, the total final price tag remains unknown and is likely to be higher than what’s already been secured. Wellman said some of the additional funding needed will also come from the National Resources Conservation Service.

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story appeared in the Sept. 11 edition of The Aspen Times.

Inflation Reduction Act includes $4B for #ColoradoRiver — Steamboat Pilot & Today #COriver #aridification

The Yamcolo Reservoir was conceived by ranchers of the Upper Yampa River Basin and the Toponas Basin in the early 1960’s to alleviate frequent shortages of crucial irrigation water. Photo credit: The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District

Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Dylan Anderson). Here’s an excerpt:

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, says it will be “months, not years” before billions of dollars meant for water infrastructure, forest health and drought mitigation will start to have an impact in places like the Yampa Valley. In a speech at Colorado Water Congress in Steamboat Springs on Tuesday, Aug. 23, Bennet touted money for water in the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed at the end of last year, as well as drought-focused dollars in the Inflation Reduction Act signed by President Joe Biden last week…Democrats have heralded the Inflation Reduction Act as the biggest investment ever to address climate change.

“The No. 1 reason the Colorado River is providing less water every year is climate change,” Bennet said. “Between the voluntary (Yampa River) closures and the threat of mandatory closures, Steamboat’s economy faces a stark new reality. The same is true for Colorado’s $46 billion outdoor recreation sector and our $47 billion agriculture sector.”

[…]

Bennet said he believes many of these cuts need to come from the lower end of the basin, which includes Arizona, California and Nevada…The money in the Inflation Reduction Act is specifically meant to purchase or save water to be left in the river and prop up the nation’s largest reservoirs.

#Whitewater park receives $3.3 million Economic Development Administration Assistance to #Coal Communities Grant — The #Craig Daily Press #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround


The Yampa River Corridor Project is set to break ground in early fall 2022. Credit: Riverwise Engineering: https://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/20805850/yampa-river-corridor-project-engineering-report-sgm.pdf

Click the link to read the article on the Craig Daily Press website (Amber Delay). Here’s an excerpt:

Craig has been awarded a $3.3 million Economic Development Administration Assistance to Coal Communities Grant for construction of the Yampa River Corridor Project. The corridor project is the result of a multi-year planning process with local agencies designed to stabilize and diversify the economy in Craig and Moffat County after the closure of the coal mines and power plant. The city and county collaborated to secure this federal funding for the project, which will upgrade the city’s water intake infrastructure, as well as add new visitor amenities along the river.

The EDA funding will support approximately 70% of the project costs, which were estimated at $4.6 million this year. Yampa River Corridor Project Manager Melanie Kilpatrick said that match partners have committed to the remainder of the project funding, and the only variable could be inflation, which has affected other projects over the years.

Loudy-Simpson Park improvements. Credit: Riverwise Engineering

The corridor project encompasses several improvements to Loudy Simpson Park, including a new concrete boat ramp, access road and parking area, as well as improving the existing diversion dam site with a whitewater park, access road, parking area and park amenities. According to a statement from Kilpatrick, the project fits into Craig’s master plan for parks, recreation, open space and trails. It also fits within the Moffat County Vision 2025 Transition Plan, which outlines proactive strategies to help the community transition from a coal-centered economy.

The goal of the EDA funding is to support economic resilience by diversifying the region’s economic base. The idea is that having an outdoor recreational amenity so close to town will attract more visitors to spend time in town, creating a ripple effect in the local economy. While visitors bring in tourism dollars, the employees who serve those tourists then spend money on other goods and services in town. There have been studies in other communities where similar projects have taken place to measure the economic impact of whitewater parks.

  • A 2006 study in Durango estimated that whitewater recreation created 33 jobs for $1 million in annual sales from tourist dollars.
  • In 2009, the University of Idaho estimated that a whitewater park in Cascade, Idaho, generated $8.2 million annually from this ripple effect.
  • A whitewater park in Truckee, Nevada, reported economic benefits ranged from $1.9 million to $4.1 million annually.
  • Good Vibes River Gear and the Craig RV Park, local employers whose businesses would directly benefit from growth in river tourism, have committed to adding over 30 new full-time employees. And it’s estimated that the project will create approximately 129 new jobs in both direct and adjacent industries…

    Credit: Riverwise engineering

    Craig’s current city water intake diversion dam is a 200-foot wide and 10-feet high barrier made of concrete and rip rap boulders. Kilpatrick said in a statement that the existing diversion is in disrepair and needs to be updated. In its current condition, the diversion can also be a hazard for boaters, and it blocks passage for numerous fish species, several of which are federally listed endangered species. Replacing the current diversion dam with a natural channel design will allow the city to continue to draw its allotted water from the river and will improve boater safety and year-round fish passage.

    “This sustains the city’s water supply in a fiscally responsible way. That’s hugely important to us,” Kilpatrick said. “We get improved fish passage, and healthier aquatic and riparian habitat. We get better access to the river. And we get the economic development associated with whitewater recreation.”

    Releases from Stagecoach to #YampaRiver become more important as climate warms #Colorado: Water Trust has released more than 600 million gallons into the waterway since 2012 — Steamboat Pilot & Today #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Stagecoarch Reservoir outflow June 23, 2019. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

    Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Dylan Anderson). Here’s an excerpt:

    Near the end of July, flows into Stagecoach Reservoir from the Yampa River dropped below 40 cubic feet per second for a few days. That threshold is important because it helps, in part, determine how much water flows out of the reservoir and continues downstream to Steamboat Springs. If the flow coming in is more than 40 cfs, then at least 40 cfs is usually discharged at the bottom of Stagecoach Dam. If the inflow drops below 40 cfs, the outflow generally would as well, leaving less water for critical fish habitat below the dam and in the river in general.

    But on July 21, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District released reservoir water to bolster the river’s outflow — part of a 10-year deal for water releases with the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust meant to protect the health of the river…

    The long-term deal is one of the first in the state and was made possible by a 2020 state law allowing such agreements. Before, groups like the Water Trust and Upper Yampa district needed to rehash out a contract each year…

    But this year has been different. While the snowpack wasn’t impressive, spring precipitation slowed melting, and there was still snow in the basin until June 23, according to the Natural Resources Conservation service. Monsoon rains have further buoyed the river, with Steamboat measuring more than 10 inches of rain from May to July. While not necessarily a good roll, this year doesn’t seem like a bad one.

    “I think it is on the low side of average,” said Emily Lowell, the district engineer for the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District. “Runoff was pretty average, and I think monsoonal rains this summer have made it sustain that average.”

    But even in a close-to-average year, releases from the reservoir are still needed, though not to the same extent. Since the first releases at the end of July, inflows and outflows have both stayed above 40 cfs and more of the trust’s water hasn’t been needed.

    Afternoon storms buoying #YampaRiver tubing after short 2021 season — Steamboat Pilot & Today #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Dylan Anderson). Here’s an excerpt:

    The Yampa Valley has seen above average rainfall for the second straight month, with June seeing just shy of 3 inches of precipitation compared to the 1.6-inch average. While this year is trending better than the past handful, Van De Carr said talk of a closure [of the river] could swiftly surface…

    The Yampa River below Stagecoach closed to fishing in early June because of low flows, which dropped to just 10 cfs flowing out on June 14. On Sunday afternoon, about 51 cfs was flowing into the reservoir and about 41 cfs out, according to data from the U.S Geological Survey…

    A huge pivot for Xcel and #Colorado — @BigPivots #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

    Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

    Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

    Colorado’s largest electrical utility has halved its coal generation since 2005 and will achieve effectively zero by 2030. Surely this investment ranks as among the biggest, most important of the last century

    A cliché seems like a terrible way to begin a story that strives for deeper analysis of this milestone in Colorado history, but I’m not clever enough to come up with my own simile or metaphor, so here goes:

    Colorado’s reinvention of its energy system is like trying to rebuild an airplane in mid-air. Plans by Xcel Energy, by far the state’s largest utility, to revamp its electrical generation constitute the most compelling exhibit.

    Colorado has been flying a plane using technology and infrastructure from the 1970-1990s. The rebuilding has been underway for awhile now, particularly since 2016, after prices of wind, in particular, had plummeted, and utilities satisfied themselves that they could integrate renewables without endangering reliability.

    Now comes the giant stride. This coupled with new transmission could yield investment of up to $10 billion.

    I’d suggest that Colorado has had few singular rivals in the last 100 years in terms of investment in public and quasi-public infrastructure. The splurge of roadbuilding unleashed by the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 certainly surpasses this. I’d single out the Colorado-Big Thompson water diversion project of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Arguably construction of DIA, too. Buy me a beer, and we can chew through this at length.

    But by whatever yardstick you choose, this is – and you knew I had to say this – a Big Pivot. This represents Colorado’s most muscular turn yet from centralized power generation from fossil fuel sources to more dispersed renewables.

    Click the image to go to Xcel’s project page and the interactive map.

    The landscape of eastern Colorado can be expected to look substantially different by the end of 2025. The plans — approved conceptually in a series of meetings during recent weeks by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission —will yield thousands and thousands of new wind turbines during the next few years scattered across eastern Colorado, likely massive amounts of solar, and game-changing amounts of storage. I can’t cite precise numbers, because they are yet to be worked out.

    More clear is the transmission needed for this farm-to-market delivery of renewable energy: up to 650 miles of high-strung wires looping around eastern Colorado in a project called Power Pathway. Also possible is a 90-mile extension from a substation north of Lamar to the Springfield area.

    Driving this hurried, gold rush-type of development in Colorado’s wind-rich regions is the state’s determination to dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions from electrical generation during this decade. It aims to do this even as it displaces use of fossil fuels in transportation and for space and water heating in buildings.

    A hard deadline is imposed by the expiration of federal tax credits for wind and solar at the end of 2025.

    An Xcel representative, Amanda King, had testified to the importance of completing the first two Power Pathway transmission segments sooner rather than later. The PUC commissioners cited that testimony in their June 2 decision approving the transmission lines:

    “The company asserts that by having these segments in-service by the end of 2025, wind and solar developers will be able to interconnect resources prior to the expiration of the production tax credit and step-down of the investment tax credit, which would represent cost savings of approximately $300 million per (gigawatt) of interconnected wind capacity and $100 million per (gigawatt) of interconnected solar capacity, in net present value, to customers,” the decision said.

    “It’s a pretty amazing amount of infrastructure that needs to go into the ground in a really short time,” says one individual, a stakeholder in the PUC process, speaking on condition of confidentiality.

    Because of that exigency, a written decision is likely in July, no later than August. Appeals by Xcel or other stakeholders could delay the actual green light, but not for long.

    For some, this represents a triumph of arguments going back almost two decades.

    “It helps unleash the innovation we need to build the 21st century electrical system,” said Leslie Glustrom, who wears various hats but was speaking as a representative of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society the day I talked with her.

    She uses the metaphor of inheritance vs. income. In this case, fossil fuels are the inheritance. In the future we must live off the income of renewables.

    “If you were lucky enough to have a big inheritance you could buy three houses and five condos,” she said. Living off income poses a major challenge, she says, especially if you haven’t acquired the skills you need.

    “We can do it,” she adds, “especially if we are better at matching our demands to the times when we have an abundance of wind and solar.”

    Risk is inherent in this process of transition. But risk cuts both ways, as pointed out by Gwen Farnsworth, senior policy advisor for Western Resource Advocates. The PUC deliberations are focused on how to evaluate those risks of relying upon fossil fuel generation in terms of system reliability and climate change. The commission, she says, is “pushing Xcel so that its future resources are cleaner, more flexible and more reliable.”

    With this triumph also comes anxiety. The three commissioners used the word “uncertainty” maybe a dozen times when they deliberated during a long afternoon on June 10.

    Eric Blank. Photo via Big Pivots

    “We are making decisions about billions of dollars of investments under conditions that may have unprecedented uncertainty,” said Eric Blank, the chair, while mentioning climate change, inflationary pressures, rising labor costs, and supply chain disruptions.

    Renewables won’t be the steal they were in 2018. Demand has grown. This is the gold rush. California alone wants to add 8,000 megawatts of renewable generation.

    Closely related is the growing concern about “resource adequacy” mentioned by Commissioner Megan Gilman and also Commissioner John Gavan. Can Xcel keep the air conditioners on during a really, really hot day—or, as in February 2021, on a very cold day?

    After, I talked with Jeffrey Ackermann, the chair of the PUC for four years prior to Blank, to get his big-picture assessment of what this represents.

    “I think everyone – regulators and utilities, but stakeholders, too – are eager to move forward while also realizing that you can’t get it mostly right. It has to be 100% right.”

    Ackermann was referring to the greater complexity of the electrical grid being assembled with its more diverse resources and greater interplay between utilities and consumers. The stakes have also elevated.

    Jeffrey Ackermann. Photo via Big Pivots

    Overlay that onto the burgeoning Western markets that are still taking shape, which provokes new questions about resource adequacy and reserve margins. What if the interconnected utilities from Montana to New Mexico get struck by a heat wave at the same time?

    In the PUC handling of this complex case, Ackermann commends his successor, Blank.

    “I like how this chairman has sequenced the conversation,” he said. “It affirms the complexity of this and also the uncertainty. At the same time it doesn’t shy away from realizing that some tough decisions need to be made now if you want to achieve 2030 goals and beyond. It’s a tough balance.”

    Ron Lehr, who chaired the PUC beginning in 1983, concedes the complexity, acknowledges the uncertainty – although pointing out that in 1983, interest rates stood at 18%. (I can confirm; I was suffocating that year, paying 21% interest on my loan for a purchase of a trailer in Granby).

    Colorado’s planning process, says Lehr, deserves credit. For outsiders, it’s maddeningly complex and anything but transparent. Even those deeply engaged in the process sometimes get frustrated with the filing system at the PUC. Joe “Schmo,” public citizen? Fuggedaboutit.

    Despite these shortcomings, Lehr argues the process itself has been very effective and has improved over time. It creates a forum for diverse voices to exchange ideas.

    That process yields some crackpot ideas, he said, “but you weed through them. Then you can diversify your thinking and create a lower-risk template that can attract investment from the private sector.”

    Colorado’s process, he added, has drawn national attention for yielding lots of bids for electrical generation — and lower prices.

    “The more inclusive and integrated our planning and the more far-sighted the planning, the better we can handle the uncertainty,” he told me.

    The story about moving on from coal is the easy story here, but Lehr thinks a side story – about the impacts of Winter Storm Uri on natural gas prices in Colorado — will move the needle past natural gas, too.

    “Gas is a bankrupt long-term strategy. You don’t have it when you need it.”

    Back to the metaphor of rebuilding the airplane in mid-flight. It was given to me by Mike Kruger, the chief executive of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association, and in a far more colorful way than I’ve articulated here.

    We wouldn’t be remodeling this plane in flight if it wasn’t necessary, he says. Yes, uncertainties exist, and likely new uncertainties will become apparent. But the status quo of centralized fossil fuel generation isn’t working.

    “We have to try something.”

    Despite its cumbersome aspect, he believes Colorado’s legal structure and the stakeholders – Xcel but also the business, consumer, environmental, government, and other groups – have enough flexibility to respond rapidly if necessary.

    “If in two and a half years we find we missed the mark on something, I would be surprised if the industry and the environmental and labor groups and Xcel would not be able to figure how to correct it quickly.”

    Segments of wind turbine towers at the former Vestas (now CS Wind) factory in Pueblo with the smokestacks of Comanche Generating Station in the background, unit 3 on the left. Photo/Allen Best

    That brings up Colorado’s newest coal plant, not quite a dozen years old, and also its largest, at 750 megawatts: Comanche 3.

    (Some refuse to call it by that name in the belief that it besmirches tribal people. I couldn’t help note that almost invariably in the PUC discussions it was referred to as unit 3 or Pueblo unit 3.” Maybe Leslie Glustrom’s rants on this are being heard).

    When the plant was formally approved in 2005, Colorado’s first major wind farm, Colorado Green, located near Lamar, had just begun producing electricity. It was the future, not coal, but most utilities had not yet gotten that memo. Tri-State was about to start spending $100 million on a humongous coal plant downstream along the Arkansas River in Kansas—a decision from which it has not fully recovered. And, of course, Comanche 3 cost upwards of $1 billion in today’s dollars. Xcel still had humongous debt, a central issue in how soon it is retired.

    Coal’s rapid fall from favor and competitiveness is told in these numbers. The fuel produced 66% of Xcel’s electricity for Colorado retail and wholesale customers in 2005. Last year It had fallen by more than half, to 32%. It should be close to zero by 2030. (Xcel may still buy some power from the market that will come from coal plants).

    As Noah Long of the Natural Resources Defense Council pointed out in a May 25 posting, this electric resource plan being approved could put Xcel on track to achieve approximately 90% carbon emissions’ reductions as compared to 2005 when Comanche closes, no later than New Year’s Eve of 2030.

    Actually, the plant will likely close before then, perhaps long before.

    Operations of Comanche will be determined, in part, by a new filter, the social cost of carbon, as specified by new Colorado laws in the last several years.

    Another element of the plan being approved by the PUC will create a performance-incentive mechanism (PIM, in the acronym-heavy soup of PUC discussions) to give Xcel financial incentives to steer the plant with decarbonization goals in mind.

    The PUC commissioners are going beyond the settlement agreement submitted to them in May by Xcel and the various stakeholder groups. At the suggestion of Blank, the commissioners plan to adopt an additional review governing operations and management that is to be tripped if another major investment is needed to continue operations of the plant.

    At issue is how much money will be poured into propping up what one person close to these proceedings described as a “dog.” The analogy is to a car. At what point do you just walk away from it?

    “Five years down the road we may have another turbine-bearing outage, and it just isn’t worth it,” said Commissioner Gavan, alluding to the cause of the most recent outage that has had “Pueblo unit 3” off-line for most of 2022 (it’s back in operation now). It was also off-line for most of 2020.

    It seemingly has been cursed with problems since it began operations in the summer of 2010. The latest evidence was the deaths of two men in a slide of coal outside the plant on June 5. Their bodies were found under about 60 feet of coal.

    A sharper definition of the closing should come into view during a “Just Transition” proceeding that begins in 2024. That proceeding will consider another round of new generation, presumably renewables, likely with a preference for those that can be added to property tax rolls in Pueblo County, to compensate for the loss of property tax there as the coal plants get retired.

    The Pawnee Power Plant near Brush is to be converted to natural gas, but with retirement of some components of the coal-burning operation. Photo/Allen Best

    In all this, the PUC has much balancing to do. Xcel is ultimately responsible for reliability of electricity, the PUC in protecting the interests of ratepayers. At least in theory – and I believe in practice – both have an interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while Xcel has the additional motivation of delivering profits to investors.

    This gets into a complex area of cost-recovery. As Glustrom points out, “these are not insignificant numbers.” The Colorado Renewable Energy Society documented undepreciated assets of the Hayden coal units of somewhere around $70 million, the Pawnee plant at Brush of $170 million, Comanche 3 even more.

    Glustrom has long argued that state regulators allow Xcel and its investors unreasonably large returns on their investments. The authorized rate of return is 9.3%. If the utility’s decisions are risk free, then the return on equity should be below 5%, she says. Most everybody else is inclined to be more generous to Xcel than Glustrom.

    What almost certainly will come into play is a concept called securitization. It’s fundamentally a way for an investor-owned utility to shuffle its debt into lower-interest long-term bonds. This will be part of the process going forward and, once again, could alter the retirement date of Comanche 3.

    This area of cost recovery, almost certainly will be controversial – and might trigger an appeal by Xcel.

    Three of the many additional elements of this deserve mention.

    Pre-construction development

    One is the idea advanced by Blank to give Xcel some leeway to begin planning and incurring expenses for gas-fired generation, but also wind, solar, and storage – with the expectation that the company will be able to recoup costs short of actual commissioning construction of the assets. It’s called “pre-construction development assets.”

    This provision reflects the concern about the uncertainties and fluidities that Blank talked about in the June 10 meeting. This gives the company some rope to move forward but only so far.

    Yampa River. Photo credit: Yampa River
    Integrated Water Management Plan website

    Status of water

    Another new element never seen before in Colorado – and perhaps no other state, either – is a provision that Xcel must report the status of its water rights associated with its retiring coal plants. Think particularly of Hayden, although Xcel has an interest in the coal plants at Craig, too. And then there is Comanche 3.

    At first glance, this seems like a strange requirement. After all, Colorado state government already has a Division of Water Resources. Why does the PUC need to poke its nose into water?

    That was essentially Xcel’s argument. The PUC commissioners, though, hesitated not at all in embracing this requirement

    The idea had been advanced by Western Resource Advocates. WRA’s Ellen Howard Kutzer explains the expansive view here: Water is an essential component of the coal-fired steam plants built by the monopoly to create a public good, the production of electricity. As the coal plants go, the PUC should have some purview over the disposition of those assets. And Xcel has the staff that can provide the essential information in a way that is understandable to PUC staff.

    True, the state water agency gets the same information. But the water world gets weirdly wonky at times. So, Xcel’s water staff can translate it for non-water-wonks. It won’t be a major imposition.

    Five coal-burning units at Craig and Hayden now require water, but by 2030 those uses of Yampa River water will crease. Future uses remain unclear. 2020 photo/Allen Best

    But why does this information matter?

    Xcel likely has not decided, and certainly has not disclosed, what it will do at Hayden. It has talked about molten salt but has not dismissed the possibility for green hydrogen or other technologies that may – or may not – be ready for prime time. They can involve water.

    The way Western Resource Advocates sees the water, it should be considered as part of the just transition process for Yampa Valley communities. The water that is kept there will most benefit the local communities.

    The fear here is of water export, particularly to the Front Range. I dove deeply into this in late 2019 and early 2020 on behalf of Aspen Journalism. Geography matters entirely here. Exporting the water would require pumping it over two mountain ranges. That’s a big lift. That said, money has surfaced recently to reanimate the even bigger stretch of exporting water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to the Front Range, so who knows.

    Just how much water is involved in water for the coal plants? I forget the precise volumes, but they are not as much as you might think, but neither were they insignificant. Importantly, they have relatively high seniority.

    WRA’s position, Howard Kutzer said, is that it’s not right to leave the utility to do with the water entirely what it pleases.

    “They used these public resources to create a public good, so ultimately — not now, but in the future — the PUC should be able to say whether transferring those water rights is in the public interest.”

    Level playing field for storage

    Finally, the PUC affirmed their support for the treatment of storage proposed by Colorado Solar and Storage.

    “Storage will be a critical path to getting the grid of the future that we want,” said Gilman at the June 10 meeting of the commissioners in endorsing the recommendation of the trade group.

    The critical issues here are of the value assigned to storage and the role of private operators in providing that storage as opposed to company-owned storage. The limitations of storage are well known. Lithium-ion batteries currently can store reserves for about four hours. Because of that, Xcel Energy wanted to assign a lower value, but others wanted a higher value. This outcome favors higher value and hence greater incentive for private developers to propose projects.

    Fred and Kay Lynn Hefley arranged to have a wind turbine erected on their farm near Walsh, in southeastern Colorado, to record the wind speeds and durations. 2021 photo/Allen Best

    Other elements of this plan being approved could deserve mention. An entire story could be written through the lens of Pueblo County (and maybe I will—later).

    Or through the lens of Akron, or Cope or Walsh, places on the eastern plains near which these new transmission lines will be draped, along with wind turbines. I hear diverse voices. Some resent the coming wind turbines, an intrusion into rural life to benefit city residents. Others – more commonly those who will directly benefit from lease payments – welcome the development of wind and solar resources.

    This won’t solve all the problems of eastern Colorado, where mechanization has left farmers arguably more prosperous but it’s the main street of towns ever more anemic. Many, like Yuma County, had larger populations 100 years ago than they do today. Several times in recent years, I’ve had young people from eastern Colorado say to me, “I just wish Kit Carson had two or three restaurants,” or “It would be nice if Lamar was just a bit bigger.”

    This won’t make that happen, but it will at least slow some of the erosion.

    What’s next in this transition? So many things are up in the air. Rules are being drawn up governing the minimized use of natural gas in buildings (and boy, is that stuff tedious).

    Then there will be the question of demand-side management and energy efficiency. Xcel is expected to submit its plans for that and for beneficial electrification of buildings on July 1. Expect a lot of push and pull here, as there has been over Comanche 3. The environmental community believes Xcel has vastly under-estimated what it can do in terms of reducing demand and shaping demand to better correspond with this vast fleet of renewables soon to take shape on Colorado’s High Plains.

    There’s good cause for high-five’s, but there will be little time to dawdle.

    The family-owned Pankey Ranch in Moffat and Routt counties has been honored with the 2022 Leopold Conservation Award

    Front row (left to right): Ryan, Adyson, Shelley, and Jack Pankey. Back row: Justin, Shea, Keith, Kevin, and Sarah Pankey. Photo credit: Sand Country Foundation

    Click the link to read the release on the Sand County Foundation website:

    The Pankey family’s resilience was put to a test when a wildfire burned nearly half of their ranch in 2018. Among the devastating impacts of the fire was livestock and wildlife could no longer drink from ponds because they were covered in ashes.

    Keith and Shelley Pankey raise beef cattle with their sons, Kevin and Justin and their families, in Moffat and Routt counties. They have a history of doing right by their land. Following the fire, they cleaned the ponds and aerially reseeded native grasses on 900 acres in the fire’s path. It’s not the first time investing in conservation practices has paid off for this family and the landscape they share with livestock and wildlife.

    Keith’s great grandfather homesteaded an area of high desert known as Great Divide. The Pankeys are still able to graze cattle in the drought-prone region from spring through fall thanks to improved water distribution and rotational grazing systems.

    They replaced windmill-powered wells with solar pumps. New water storage tanks and nearly three miles of natural flow pipelines were also added. By expanding the number of watering stations (from six to 12) the Pankeys increased their ability to properly graze cattle while creating wildlife habitat across the ranch.

    Precipitation, range conditions, and animal performance all impact how the Pankeys plan pasture rotations and stocking rates. They analyze pasture rotations to determine which areas benefit from early, middle or late season grazing. They’ve also found that some areas benefit from longer or shorter periods of grazing, while others benefit from being grazed twice in the same season.

    When cattle widely disburse themselves, the Pankeys find that grass recovers at a faster rate, and taller grass is left behind when the cattle are rotated to another pasture. The ranch’s wildlife populations have greatly increased thanks to rotational grazing and the improved water system. By working with neighbors to control noxious weeds, desirable grasses have become dominant across the ranch.

    Pankey Ranch borders Colorado’s largest Greater sage-grouse lek, a breeding ground for this declining species. The Pankeys hosted Colorado State University students to study grasses, insects, and Greater sage-grouse habitat in the Great Divide range. Their study was helpful in determining which conservation practices to adopt. The Pankeys fenced off a large area around a natural spring to provide cover. They also equipped water storage tanks with overflows that provide water and prolonged green vegetation to encourage production of insects that grouse chicks consume.

    The Pankeys are involved with a large-scale conservation effort led by Trout Unlimited to stabilize Elk Head Creek’s riparian corridor. They have installed rock toe and erosion control mats, and reseeded stream banks to prevent erosion. Hundreds of willow trees have been planted in corridors to preserve wetlands and fish habitat. Less erosion in the creek means cleaner water downstream in the Elk Head Reservoir and Yampa River. This family’s leadership in raising awareness of the creek’s impaired health, and commitment to on-the-ground conservation practices, is inspiring other landowners to follow suit.

    The Pankeys also provide public hunting opportunities on their land. In 2011, they obtained a conservation easement on their Routt County property through the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust to ensure future agricultural uses on the land. As a longtime volunteer with the Moffat County Fair, Keith shares his land ethic and conservation practices with youth, neighbors and the general public.

    Click the link to read “Pankey Ranch’s conservation efforts earn attention from Colorado Cattlemen’s Association” on the Craig Press website (Amber Delay). Here’s an excerpt:

    According to the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, the Leopold Award was created in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold to recognize farmers, ranchers and forestland owners who inspire others with their voluntary conservation efforts on private, working lands…

    The Pankeys will be presented with the award June 13 at the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association Convention in Colorado Springs…

    To mention a few who have contributed in addition to Trout Unlimited were: The National Resources Conservation Services, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the City of Craig, The Yampa-White-Green-Basin Roundtable and The Lower Colorado River Habitat Partnership Program.

    State of #YampaRiver: Current low #snowpack is similar to other dry years; rain will be key: Amount of water in the Yampa Valley’s snowpack may have already peaked — The #Craig Press #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Colorado snowpack sub-basin filled map March 29, 2022 via the NRCS.

    Click the link to read the article on the Craig Press website (Dylan Anderson):

    The amount of water in the snowpack blanketing the Yampa River Basin started declining on Friday, March 25, potentially marking the earliest peak since 2017…Erin Light, engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, has put the river under administration three of the last four years. At the Colorado River District’s State of the Yampa River event last week, she said 2022, so far, is tracking in line with other dry years over the last two decades.

    This year’s snowpack is rivaling that of 2002 and 2012 — two of the driest years during the current 22-year drought that is the worst ever recorded, Light said…Snowpack is important, but precipitation in the spring and late summer is also a key metric, and it seems harder to come by…

    The Yampa is one of most free flowing rivers in Colorado. Of the five main reservoirs feeding into the Yampa, Light estimated that at least two and maybe three of them won’t fill up this year. Stillwater Reservoir is the farthest upstream and was sitting at about 310 acre-feet when it was last measured in October. Light said there was water released last year for both agricultural purposes and for work on the dam. Farther downstream, Yamcolo Reservoir was about 45% full, and Stagecoach reservoir was 75% full as of late last week. Two reservoirs in the basin — Fish Creek Reservoir on Buffalo Pass, where Steamboat Springs gets much of its water, and Elkhead Reservoir near the Routt and Moffat county line — are both likely to fill, Light said.

    Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map March 29, 2022 via the NRCS.

    Film: Craig, America — @AmericanRivers #YampaRiver #ActOnClimate

    Learn more about the Yampa River at https://www.americanrivers.org/river/…
    Read about one person’s first trip down the Yampa – https://www.americanrivers.org/2016/0…
    Support American Rivers and our work across the country – https://act.americanrivers.org/page/2…

    A story of transition and renewal in the rural west, Craig, America shares the many perspectives that encompass a community upheld by coal but looks towards a future without it. It brings to life the unique story of Craig, Colorado, and how its people, economy, and community are both resilient and adaptive.

    Craig, Colorado is a small town in Northwest Colorado, about 40 miles west of Steamboat Springs. While Craig lies in the high mountain plains above the meandering Yampa River, it is a case study as a town, and region, that is in transition. Craig has traditionally been a town defined by the extraction of fossil fuels and ranching. There are multiple coal mines, and energy generating stations (power plants) in the area. Under pressure from environmental groups and government agencies state-wide and nationally, the owners of Craig Station voted unanimously to close all three units of Craig Station, one of Colorado’s largest coal-fired power plants, by 2030. The decision to close the plant will send waves of change across the city of Craig and surrounding Moffat Country for decades to come, costing the region hundreds of high-paying jobs, removing an estimated 60% of the town’s tax revenue, and forcing a reckoning with its future.

    Fortunately, Craig sits in a region of abundant beauty, and accessible opportunities for outdoor recreation, hunting and fishing, rafting, hiking and mountain biking and other pursuits or plentiful. As the recreation economy grows, Craig is in an ideal position to make that transition as well. As Jennifer Holloway, the new Executive Director of the Craig Chamber of Commerce puts it, “Craig is a community with a lot of opportunities, and in a unique moment to seize them.” As the town reckons with the closure of the plant and surrounding mines, a growing coalition of leaders and community advocates are working to save their town and move from a extraction based economy to one focused in recreation, tourism, and that centers the health and well being of our planet and its inhabitants.

    This situation in Craig is one in which we are currently seeing across the United States. As renewable sources of energy continue to grow in demand and the profitability of coal continues to plummet in tandem with its role in climate change, small towns and cities that depend on these industries are questioning their future. The story of Craig can be a moment of hope for many regions across the country, and potentially a guidepost for how they can embrace the natural beauty of their regions, rather than think of them only for extraction and consumption.

    Community Agriculture Alliance: Five principles to boost soil health in Routt County — Steamboat Pilot & Today

    Yampa River. Photo credit: Yampa River
    Integrated Water Management Plan website

    Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Clinton Whitten and Lyn Halliday). Here’s an excerpt:

    The Routt County Conservation District (RCCD) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are looking at the basin from a watershed health perspective and developing programs to improve and protect the private lands that catch the precipitation in much of the basin.

    The foundation of a healthy watershed is healthy soils. Not only do soils allow vegetation to grow, but they can act as a sponge that absorbs and stores precipitation. They provide the nutrients that allow life to flourish. At its base, soil is a combination of sand, silt and clay, but it’s much more than that. A single teaspoon of soil can contain billions of living organisms that make up an entire ecosystem. When this ecosystem is thriving, it provides the glues that hold the soil particles in place as water rushes through them, it cycles nutrients that would otherwise be unavailable for plant growth and it helps to build organic matter in the soil. Keeping a healthy soil ecosystem can help increase plant productivity, increase drought resilience and decrease the need for additional inputs.

    NRCS has developed five principles that can be followed to maintain and develop healthy soils.

    The first is to minimize soil disturbance. Plowing the soil not only destroys the habitat that these microorganisms have created, but it negates all of the benefits that they provide.

    Crop residue November 4, 2021. Photo credit: Joel Schneekloth

    The second is to keep the soil covered with plant residue. Residue increases infiltration and decreases erosion.

    The third is to maximize plant diversity. Just like any ecosystem, soil ecosystems benefit from diversity, and diversity above ground means diversity below ground.

    The fourth principle is to maintain a continuous growing root in the soil. We are limited by a short growing season, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t keep a live root in the soil year-round.

    The fifth and final principle is to integrate livestock into the growing system. Livestock play a critical role in nutrient distribution and residue cycling.

    A good first step to improving soil health on your property is to get a soil test that will give you a baseline to better understand where nutrients are limited or in abundance. The Routt County Conservation District has a grant program available that can pay for a soil test on fields that have the ability and intention of implementing management changes that could improve soil health.

    For more information, visit http://RouttCountyCD.com/. For more information on practices that can help improve the health of your soil contact NRCS at Clinton.Whitten@usda.gov.

    Lyn Halliday is the Board President of the Routt County Conservation District, and the Upper Yampa River Watershed coordinator. Clinton Whitten is the resource team lead with the National Resource Conservation Service. For more about the Community Agriculture Alliance, go to CommunityAgAlliance.org.

    #YampaRiver Fund grant requests due April 4, 2022 — Steamboat Pilot & Today

    Yampa River. Photo credit: Yampa River
    Integrated Water Management Plan website

    Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Suzie Romig). Here’s an excerpt:

    The community-based collaborative Yampa River Fund is accepting applications through April 4 for $195,000 in funds available for conservation and restoration activities that positively impact Yampa River basin flows and support natural resource-based livelihoods including agriculture and recreation.

    Eligible applicants include state and local government entities, public districts, irrigation entities, mutual ditch companies, homeowner associations and nonprofit organizations. The grant guidelines and application are posted at YampaRiverFund.org/grants. Technical support is available for applicants to help develop grant proposals.

    The Yampa River Fund, which launched in September 2019, is dedicated to identifying and funding activities that protect the water supply, aquatic habitat and multi-beneficial opportunities provided by the Yampa River. The fund was created through a partnership of 21 public, private and nonprofit entities representing the Yampa River basin. Total grants for $200,000 from the endowment fund were awarded to six projects in 2021 stretching along the Yampa River from Maybell to Craig and Steamboat Springs to Oak Creek. In 2020, five projects were awarded a total $200,000.

    Rancher grapples with abandonment listing: 10-year state process asks: What is the value of water that is not being used — @AspenJournalism

    The Fetcher Ranch in northwest Colorado was started by John Fetcher in 1949. His son, Jay, says his dad was passionate about water issues. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

    Northern Colorado rancher Jay Fetcher looked out over the snowy fields of his family’s sprawling ranch 20 miles north of Steamboat Springs.

    Cows grazed on hay on a bright, frigid February morning in the tiny settlement of Clark. Fetcher has been ranching the 1,400 acres of hay meadows and pastures in view of the Mountain Zirkel Wilderness for most of his life.

    Fetcher’s late father, John, was a legend in the Steamboat area, who moved there to ranch in 1949. A founder of the Steamboat Ski Resort, he was also on the board of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and a director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

    “He was crazy passionate about water,” Fetcher said.

    One of his legacies was putting the family ranch under a conservation easement, meaning the land would never be developed.

    “If we chose to develop it, we could put 70 homesites, but now, it will stay open space forever,” Fetcher said. “It feels good knowing there won’t be golf courses out here.”

    The land also has ample water rights. The ranch is flood-irrigated by a system of ditches that pull water from Sand Creek, McPhee Creek, Cottonwood Creek and the Elk River. But Fetcher is facing a complicated situation regarding one of the smaller, more junior rights in the portfolio that state officials believe has been “abandoned.”

    Abandonment is the official term for one of Colorado’s best-known water adages and concepts: “use it or lose it.” Every 10 years, engineers and water commissioners from the Colorado Division of Water Resources review every water right — through diversion records and site visits — to see whether it has been used at some point in the previous decade. If they don’t see evidence of use, they could place the water right on the abandonment list and a water court could make it official.

    Abandonment means the right to use the water is essentially canceled and ceases to exist. The water right goes back to the stream where another user can file an application to claim it and put it to beneficial use.

    Fetcher’s water right that is in jeopardy is 2.5 cubic feet per second from the Hoover Jacques Ditch that dates to 1972. This ditch pulls water from the Elk River and flood-irrigates a pasture. In a letter to Fetcher, officials from the Colorado Division of Water Resources say that aerial imagery and their data suggest that the land has not been irrigated in quite some time.

    Fetcher admits that it has been challenging to get water from the diversion point to the pasture five miles away through an unlined ditch, and the 40-acre pasture that it irrigates doesn’t produce much hay anyway. Fetcher often couldn’t take his full amount because the water just wasn’t available, but he hesitated to place a call because it didn’t seem worth it, he said.

    Water users who aren’t receiving their total share can place what’s known as a call, which forces upstream junior users to cut back so the senior water right can get its full amount. Older water rights get first use of the river.

    “It was really hard to get water through all our neighbors to actually use it,” he said. “By the time water gets there, it’s a trickle. And we just didn’t have time to run up there and irrigate a little bit of pasture.”

    The Fetcher property has eight different ditches, and a huge amount of work is necessary to maintain them, he said.

    “We want to make sure we don’t fall on the abandonment list with these other ditches,” he said. “We try to limit the labor on the ranch to make it profitable, so how does someone taking care of 800 cows have time to run around and make all of them work?”

    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

    2022 #COleg: #Nuclear bill failed, but the conversation will continue — @BigPivots #ActOnClimate

    Colorado State Capitol. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

    Click the link to read the article on Big Pivots (Allen Best):

    A bill proposing study of nuclear energy in Colorado was killed in an obscure legislative committee last week by the majority Democrats.

    This debate isn’t over, though, nor will it be until we’ve learned how to store our bounty of renewable energy for weeks or even months.

    We have made huge strides since voters in 2004 mandated Colorado’s largest utilities achieve 10% of their generation from renewables by 2015. Xcel Energy now expects to achieve 86% penetration of renewables by 2030. Nearly all other utilities, large and small, expect to be close behind, or like the Glenwood Springs-based Holy Cross Energy, further ahead.

    Sharing of renewables across broad, multi-state areas will be imperative. Smaller, incremental approaches will help. For example, new programs will help us run our dishwashers and charge our electric cars when renewable energy is most abundant.

    This gets utilities to maybe 90% emissions-free electricity without imperiling reliability or jacking up costs. It’s that last 10% that perplexes.

    Possible paths include molten-salt storage. Xcel Energy considers this an option at Hayden, in northwestern Colorado, when it closes those coal units by 2028. Tri-State, operator of the three coal units at Craig, has indicated an openness to all options, including green hydrogen, which is made from renewable electricity and water in a still-expensive process. Some hope for improved batteries.

    Divide West Unaweep Canyon. Photo credit: Atlas Obscura

    Another answer may be pumped-storage hydro, as Xcel has been thinking about in Unaweep Canyon, in western Colorado. Others have similar hydro thoughts for the Yampa Valley.

    State Sen. Bob Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale, represents Craig and Hayden. An electrical engineer by training, Rankin had a career in technology, including a stint managing the aerospace division of Ford Motors. He pitched nuclear energy last week to members of the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee as necessary for Colorado to meet its decarbonization goals.

    That a Republican representing coal country accepts that coal is not coming back is itself noteworthy. In Wyoming, many have not.
    The second major component of the bill was the most telling. Rankin initially wanted Colorado’s economic development agency to commission the $500,000 study (pared to $250,000 before the vote). The Colorado Energy Office, the more obvious choice, was too strictly focused on wind and solar, he said.

    That’s not entirely accurate. Wind and solar have been major successes, but just weeks before, the energy office released a study about the legal framework Colorado needs for carbon capture and storage. Carbon capture would allow continued burning of natural gas—a possible way to get to 100%—or, for that matter, burning of coal.

    Rankin was absolutely on target in describing nuclear power as being a way to make use of existing infrastructure, both the coal plant sites at Hayden and Craig and transmission. Nuclear could also produce jobs and tax base for those communities. Just as 100% emissions-free energy (at an affordable price) remains elusive, so do the answers for Craig’s economy once the coal plants close. For the same reasons, commissioners in Pueblo County last summer quietly began pushing the idea of nuclear energy.

    Cost is the conversational crux of nuclear. The technology has a history of high costs for construction. A new generation of small, modular reactors, if done in many places, may be more economical. One such reactor backed financially by Bill Gates is proposed for a Wyoming coal town, but it’s years from breaking ground. It may be the future—but it’s a big gamble.

    Atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa Observatory August 7, 2021.

    Climate change is an even larger, more costly gamble. That’s one reason nuclear power does not fall neatly along a Republican/Democratic divide. One person who testified in support of Rankin’s bill identified himself as a card-carrying Democratic activist.

    Democrats were unpersuaded, even after Rankin moved the study to the energy office. He never explained exactly what answers this study would have delivered that couldn’t be found elsewhere. The bill seemed more intent on making a political statement than delivering useful information. But then Democratic legislative leaders had made a statement themselves by not assigning the bill to the energy committee.

    Had the bill advanced, we would have heard from State Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat and a key architect of Colorado’s energy transition. Growing up in a Kansas farm town, Hansen became enamored of nuclear energy. Even as he earned a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering, though, he pivoted his studies to economics, capping it with a Ph.D. The economics of nuclear energy, he told me last June, is why he believes the technology won’t be a major answer to the climate emergency.

    Until we get to 100% renewables, though, it’s likely to be on the table.

    #YampaRiver basin experts see winter #drought indicators continue — The #Craig Press #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Click the link to read the article on The Craig Press (Eliza Noe). Here’s an excerpt:

    As industries across the Western Slope continue to watch snow and water levels as the days until summer close in, the Colorado River District hosted water experts Tuesday to discuss what certain data points mean and how they reflect the current state of Colorado’s water levels…

    Before Monday, snow in 2022 had been sparse for the northwest corner of the state. According to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the White and Yampa River Basin is currently at 86% of the median snowpack level since 1991. To get this median, the NRCS takes all of the snow patterns over the past 30 years and finds the middle of all of the peaks and snowpack levels. This median is often used as a standard to measure how dry a year is…

    This winter, snow water equivalent (SWE) levels for the White-Yampa Basin are currently at 13.4 inches as of Tuesday (the latest available data). SWE is a commonly used measurement used by hydrologists and water managers to gauge the amount of liquid water contained within the snowpack. In other words, it is the amount of water that will be released from the snowpack when it melts.

    The SWE median for that same date is 15.5 inches, and this year is slightly behind last winter’s levels, which was at 14.4 inches. The median peak of these levels (meaning the highest amount of SWE levels before they dip) usually happens around April 8. During the most recent drought, this peak has happened earlier in the year, and it sometimes does not reach that average peak, either. In 2021, the peak of snowpack happened during the last week of March, topping at 18 inches. The median peak is 23.1 inches…

    “One thing to keep in mind is that the percentage of normal numbers based on the SNOTEL network and snow course measurements are used for runoff prediction,” [Jeffrey] Deems said. “They are not a SWE volume measure. And so they’re used in a statistical forecasting method by the NRCS to project April through July runoff.”

    A stock pond that is normally full of water stands dry because of drought on the Little Bear Ranch near Steamboat Springs, Colo., on Aug. 11, 2021. Due to low snowpack, warming temperatures and dry soil during the past two years, followed by the same in 2021, Northwest Colorado is in a severe drought. Credit: Dean Krakel, special to Fresh Water News.

    […]

    Across the entire western part of the United States, the trend of a multi-decadal drought is continuing. Gov. Jared Polis visited Craig last summer to speak with local ranchers about the drought’s impact on the Yampa Valley. Currently, agriculture workers in different facets of the industry are looking to see if 2022 might provide some relief.

    West Drought Monitor map February 22, 2022.

    The #YampaRiver is ‘over-appropriated’: There isn’t enough water for everyone who wants it — #Colorado Public Radio #GreenRiver #COriver #aridification #ActOnClimate

    Yampa River. Photo credit: Yampa River
    Integrated Water Management Plan website

    Here’s the memorandum from the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Kevin Rein):

    Background

    On March 17, 2021, Erin Light submitted a letter request to me on the subject of Designation of the Yampa River as Over-Appropriated (“Report”). The Report contains climate, hydrologic, and administrative call information to support a description of the Yampa River and its tributaries upstream of its confluence with the Little Snake River as over- appropriated and requests that I make a formal determination that the Division of Water Resources (“DWR”) designate that reach of the river and its tributaries as over-appropriated and treat them accordingly for the purposes of administration. For the purposes of the DWR’s administration and well permitting decisions, a stream is considered over-appropriated when “at some or all times of the year, the water supplies of said stream system are insufficient to satisfy all the decreed water rights within that system”1 (“Over-Appropriated”). The Report is comprehensive and shows that the Yampa River upstream of the confluence with the Little Snake River is Over-Appropriated. The Report is available for review at this link.

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

    Designation

    Based on my review of the Report, I have determined that, effective March 1, 2022, the reach of the Yampa River upstream of the confluence with the Little Snake River, including all of its tributaries, as more clearly shown on Attachment A (“Affected Area”), is Over-Appropriated. My determination (”Designation”) recognizes the climate, hydrologic, and administrative call conditions that are now present on the Yampa River for the Affected Area. The Designation does not impact the legal ability to appropriate water from the Yampa River nor does it change administration of surface water rights on the Yampa River.

    The purpose of the Designation is to provide the formal basis for DWR to consider the injurious impacts of wells during DWR’s evaluation of new applications for well permits.

    Evaluation of Well Permit Applications

    For applications for new well permits or permits to expand the use of existing wells.

    Beginning March 1, 2022, DWR staff will treat the Affected Area as Over-Appropriated for the purpose of evaluating applications, filed on or after March 1, 2022, for new well permits or permits to expand the use of existing wells.

    For applications to permit existing wells, where the well and its uses existed prior to March 1, 2022.

    To allow a reasonable period of time for the owners of existing wells to obtain a well permit, for wells where the well owner can demonstrate that the well and its uses existed prior to this Designation date of March 1, 2022, DWR will accept applications to permit those existing wells and evaluate the applications without treating their impacts as injurious through December 31, 2022. Such wells may include but are not limited to pond wells or other structures that expose groundwater to the atmosphere. For applications for such existing wells filed on or after January 1, 2023, DWR staff will consider the injurious impacts from those existing wells for the purpose of evaluating the applications.

    For these two categories of well permit applications, effective on the dates shown above, DWR staff will presume that the well will materially injure the vested water rights of others and the well permit application must be denied unless the well qualifies for a statutory presumption of no injury or other provision in statute, alone or in combination with State Engineer Policy and/or Guideline, or the well permit applicant has obtained a plan for augmentation decreed by the water court or a substitute water supply plan approved by the State Engineer.

    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

    From Colorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):

    A growing demand for a shrinking water supply in northwest Colorado has led state water officials to officially declare most of the Yampa River as over-appropriated. The designation is a formal recognition there’s no longer enough water for everyone who wants it. That triggers changes in how the state will grant permits for new wells in the area.

    Smaller sections of the upper Yampa and some of its tributaries have already been deemed over-appropriated, including the upper Yampa River when increased development in Steamboat Springs put more demand on the river. But as climate change and extended periods of drought continue to dry up the West, state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources Kevin Rein said it was necessary to expand the designation to the lower part of the river, too.

    A map of the new and existing areas along the Yampa River considered as over-appropriated. Courtesy of the Colorado Division of Water Resources

    The declaration will change how permits for groundwater wells are approved but doesn’t affect how the water that flows on the surface of the Yampa River and its tributaries is managed and used, Rein said…

    Augmentation plans are obtained through water court, a process Rein said can be difficult for individuals to navigate. Rein said the Great Northern Water Conservancy District plans to create a blanket augmentation plan that water users could sign up for, like the Upper Yampa River Conservancy District has done in recent years.

    The decline in the Yampa River’s flows has also prompted the state to now require water users in the area to measure how much water they use, as decades of climate change-fueled drought have diminished supplies on the Western Slope.

    Water year 2021 in review: The start to water year 2021 in the #YampaRiver Basin. Interview with Scott Hummer. #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Scott Hummer at the inlet to Stagecoach Reservoir July 22, 2021.

    It was a miserable start to runoff season in the Yampa River Basin owing to ongoing low precipitation and a snowpack that melted out early or sublimated as it will sometimes do. In late July 2021 Coyote Gulch sat down with Scott Hummer the Division of Water Resources boots on the ground in the Upper Yampa River Basin at the inlet to Stagecoach Reservoir. I wanted to get an understanding of what is was like for a water commissioner to administer the streams under his purview in the horrible dry times. Below are his written answers to a couple of questions and then some quotes from our couple of hours together.

    Coyote Gulch: What memories stand out since the start of water year 2021?

    Scott Hummer: Absolutely no runoff whatsoever! Placing calls on streams that had never been on call previously, ever! A quote from one on my water users…”My family has been here for 135 years, and there has never been a year like this ever”…”and we have written records”!

    CG: Who do you have conversations with regularly?

    SH: Erin Light daily. Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District staff, daily. For nearly a month I talked daily, with a former colleague and predecessor water commissioner, as he holds the senior right per the Hunt Creek system that was under Call for the first time ever as a “system” with five tributaries in play to meet senior rights at the bottom of the system as two senior rights from the Yampa River that were potentially impaired per actual streamflow available early in the season. Contact as needed with water users on drainages never under Call in order to explain matters and ensure proper administration and compliance.

    CG: What memories stand out from prior years prowling Colorado River Headwaters streams?

    SH: None, in my 26 year career with DWR there are no years that can compare to 2021, in my opinion.

    All across Colorado the snowpack map didn’t look so bad on April 1, 2021, but snowmelt did not make it to the streams in some watersheds, particularly the Colorado River Basin.

    Colorado snowpack basin-filled map April 1, 2021 via the NRCS.

    This was due to the dry soils and early snowmelt from drought conditions. Note the peaks in the hydrograph showing precipitation.

    Yampa River at Steamboat discharge April 1st through December 31, 2021 via the USGS.

    Colorado Drought Monitor April 6, 2021.

    Back to Scott:

    “As we are sitting here on the 22nd of July, the look of the Upper Yampa valley above Stagecoach is a different hue than it was 30 days ago. We’ve been the beneficiary locally of what I would call monsoonal moisture, more traditional summer time monsoonal moisture. Really the first moisture that we’ve seen in months in any significance. I’m not saying that the storms have been significant it’s that they’ve been a little bit consistent. The green here is nice to see but kind of gives the false illusion that we are in a place with our water supply that we’re actually not.”

    “#1 [runoff] hit me right between the eyes. Absolutely no runoff whatsoever, none. That is just the most shocking thing for myself and the longtime locals. I mean multi-generational ranching families are experiencing that, they never have, they never even contemplated that they would, that they could.”

    “Placing calls on streams that have never been on call previously, ever. Understanding the severity of the situation by listening to my water users and one quote that really caught my ear here recently per a meeting we had some local water users and the CWCB in regards to some instream flow issues. The question was posed to the water user, ‘What are you seeing this year?’ And his reply was, quote, ‘My family has been here for a 135 years and there has never been a year like this, ever.'”

    Yampa River below Oakton Ditch above Phippsburg May 2021. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

    “For example, in a normal year, instead of the 20 cfs passing by us over to our left, it would be closer to a 100 cfs so I have a ditch that’s about 2.5 miles up the river from where we’re sitting right now, has a water right for 5.4 cfs. I was there yesterday and it was only pulling about a little over a foot and a half but there was plenty of water in the river. But they lost some of the pressure at their check dam on the river so they need to get back in the river to re-construct their check to keep water moving and pressured up on their headgate. That has been an issue throughout the season on every drainage that we have. Some of the photos that I sent to you early in the season where the river was pretty much being swept like at the Stafford Ditch or the Oakton Ditch. For the last 30 days it was a different picture, there was much more water there, but we’re now starting to trim back to where we were back in late May going back into mid-May and I’m afraid that by, in a month, in another 30 days…I’m not optimistic about what the flow regimes will be like. I think we’ll continue to see streamflows drop back to levels that we saw previously in the season and maybe lower. Especially on the side tribs.”

    The Yampa River below the Stafford Ditch June 3, 2021. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

    “If you went back to CO-131 and you drive up the river towards Yampa keep your view on the east side of the valley from basically Oak Creek to Toponas. On the east side of the valley here none, and I literally mean none, of the tributaries that came off the east side of the valley up high on the west facing slopes, none of those streams had any water in them on the first of May. I mean, so little that it was a trickle. It wasn’t enough to fill…there’s a number of small reservoirs on the east side of the valley that came nowhere near to filling, no where near being even a quarter full. And there are meadows that would usually be irrigated from runoff off the streams on the east side of the valley that never saw water this year. And, if you drove back to the south and looked up high you would see those dry meadows, they stick out like a sore thumb.”

    Scott Hummer, water commissioner for District 58 in the Yampa River basin, checks out a recently installed Parshall flume on an irrigation ditch in this August 2020 photo. Compliance with measuring device requirements has been moving more slowly than state engineers would like.
    CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

    “[There was a diverter] whose headgate was leaking and the measuring device was non-functional and you know they may not have [that maintenance on the schedule] prior to the start of the season, we were simply in a position that, based on never having to administer that system before had to have every device functioning properly. Luckily that particular user got right on it, fixed the headgate, fixed the device, and I was able turn his water back on to him in a fairly timely manner. But I think that a lot of folks, if they haven’t, are going to be paying more attention to the necessity of measurement.”

    “One of the biggest concerns to my local ag users, stock producers, is going to be the availability of stock water as we move into the late summer and the fall. We have people all over S. Routt County, and when I say S. Routt County, that includes the portion of the county that is outside my jurisdiction that is actually in Water Division 5, the headwaters of the Colorado River. We have had people down around McCoy hauling stockwater since May and I’ve noticed more water tanks running up and down highway 131, between Oak Creek and Yampa hauling water as well.”

    “Not only for stock but also for domestic potable purposes. Some folks still have hand-dug wells for example. And because of a lack of tailwater and runoff some of those hand-dug wells have actually gone dry at some of the older ranch homes. I know for a fact that there are at least two older ranch homes that have traditionally been served by springs and the springs have gone dry. And they’re looking perhaps at replacing their springs with a well and cost of doing that, of course.”

    A rancher digs a boot heel into the dry ground of the Little Bear Ranch near Steamboat Springs, Colo., during the Northwest Colorado Drought Tour on August 11, 2021. Credit: Dean Krakel, special to Fresh Water News.

    “The other concern for stock growers in this area right now and throughout the summer irrigation season is the lack of pasture. Lots of stock growers are pasturing animals on meadows that they normally would have irrigated to grow hay on all summer long. They have cows out on meadows that normally you wouldn’t see them on this time of year.”

    “So when you came from Oak Creek for example, the old depot, the red depot, down there…You can actually park right there and get cell service. It’s spotty around here, yeah.”

    Long-Term Environmental, Instream, and Recreational Water Storage Contract Approved for Stagecoach Reservoir — @COWaterTrust #YampaRiver

    Yampa River. Photo credit: Yampa River
    Integrated Water Management Plan website

    Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Trust (Dana Dallavalle) and the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District (Holly Kirkpatrick):

    Steamboat Springs, Co., (November 18, 2021) – On Wednesday November 17th, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District (UYWCD) board of directors approved a 10-year contract with the Colorado Water Trust (Water Trust) for the purchase of stored water in Stagecoach Reservoir. The water supply contract, deemed for environmental, instream and recreational use, is the first long-term contract that extends beyond temporary one-year contracts between UYWCD and the Water Trust in years past.

    Since 2012, the Water Trust has purchased and released 14,500 acre-feet of water into the Yampa River from Stagecoach Reservoir. Water Trust releases help maintain healthy streamflow and water temperature from Stagecoach Reservoir downstream through the City of Steamboat Springs during hot and dry summer months.

    Historically, UYWCD and the Water Trust have worked together to negotiate contract terms as needed on an annual basis using state legislation that allowed for environmental water releases to be loaned for instream flow use in 3 out every 10 years.

    In 2020, Colorado House Bill 20-1157 was passed, allowing for the establishment of amended rules governing the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s (CWCB) Instream Flow and Natural Lake Level Program, previously governed by the 3 in 10 rule. Effective March 17, 2021, the amended rules provide potential for increased flow rates and expand the temporary loan of water rights for instream flow use from 3 years to 5 years out of every 10 in addition to potential loan renewals for up to three 10-year periods.

    Renewable loans through the program could allow environmental releases to bolster flows in the Yampa River for up to 15 out of 30 years if needed.

    For the past year, UYWCD and the Water Trust have been working towards a longer-term contract that could help support the Yampa River during low flows and utilize the new state legislation. The new 10-year contract ensures 100 acre-feet of water in the general supply pool of Stagecoach Reservoir will be allocated to the Water Trust each year if supply is available. The contract also allows for the Water Trust to purchase additional water from two other contract pools in Stagecoach Reservoir at various volumes as needed. Payment for water contracted outside of the general supply pool will only be collected if the water is released.

    “As drought conditions and water scarcity continue to challenge our basin, having this 10-year contract in place will help minimize some of the recurring challenges we typically face each year when we revisit temporary contracts without constraining UYWCD water supplies or Water Trust funds. Developing longer- term solutions frees up time and money for all our partners to be even more innovative in their collaboration to keep the river flowing,” said Andy Rossi, General Manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District.

    UYWCD and the Water Trust will be one of the first in the state to utilize the newly amended statute and rules when they present the 10-year contract as part of their joint application to the CWCB program, which is anticipated to take place in January of 2022. Following completion of the CWCB application review, UYWCD and the Water Trust hope to secure a loan of water rights for instream flow use by spring of 2022, making the first 10-year contract effective through 2032.

    “UYWCD and the Water Trust have forged something new here. It’s a big step forward for the Yampa River Project and collaborative water management in general. We can now focus our efforts on the new instream flow loan application, and if we are successful, to expanding the Project’s benefits downstream of the instream flow reach where it can benefit even more of the river and all those who rely upon it,” commented Alyson Meyer Gould, Staff Attorney for the Water Trust.

    The success of the Yampa River Project involves many partners and dedicated donors including: The Yampa River Fund, Yampa Valley Community Foundation, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, and individual donors as well as key project partners: The City of Steamboat Springs; Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District; Catamount Development, Inc.; Catamount Metropolitan District; Colorado Parks and Wildlife; Colorado Water Conservation Board; and the Colorado Division of Water Resources. Without these generous donations and the collaborative work of numerous local and statewide entities, water releases to support the health of the Yampa River would not be possible.

    Deep, Watson creeks being considered for instream flow water right — Steamboat Pilot & Today

    From the Steamboat Pilot & Today (Dylan Anderson):

    When water runs low in the late summer, many small creeks and streams dry up as water is diverted for irrigation, leaving pools scattered around each bend of the channel.

    Ranchers and other water users have a right to this diverted water, part of a system that dates back more than 100 years. Until the early ’70s, leaving any amount of water in these creeks was considered a waste.

    “There was no beneficial use recognized to keep water in the channel,” said Rob Viehl, a water resources specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

    Colorado passed a law in 1973 that said the streams had a right to some of the water too by establishing the Instream Flow Program. Nearly 50 years later, the board is considering new rights for two creeks in Routt County, adding to a network of more than 1,700 flow rights decreed across the state.

    Deep Creek, which flows from Hahns Peak down into Steamboat Lake in North Routt County, is being considered for an instream flow water right by the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
    Colorado Water Conservation Board/Courtesy photo

    Deep Creek, which runs from the southwest side of Hahns Peak down into Steamboat Lake, and a stretch of Watson Creek, which is on public and private land west of Yampa, are being considered for the new instream flow rights.

    These rights are a little different than traditional water rights because they span between two points on a stream, rather than a point where water is diverted. Between these points, the river is entitled to a certain amount of flow.

    The riffles section of a creek will dry up first because it is the shallowest. But it also holds a lot of biological significance for fish and other aquatic species, Viehl said. The Instream Flow Program is meant to consider the uses of water with the benefits there are to leaving it in the creek…

    But the program also provides certainty to current rights holders that any of these flow rights would still be administered within the larger system, Viehl said. For the proposed rights on Deep and Watson creeks, Viehl said they would be for 2022, meaning rights established for it are not affected.

    That means there is no guarantee that these rights will be able to keep water in the channel year-round, Viehl said.

    The rights take about three years to establish and requires another entity to approach the water board with a recommendation. Colorado Parks and Wildlife is the more likely recommending agency, but Viehl said the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies make recommendations, as well…

    Deep Creek has a fishery of cutthroat and rainbow trout, riparian plants like willow and alder, and flows down into Steamboat Lake. The proposed right would ensure that there are 2.5 cfs of water flowing from May 1 to July 1, with a lesser amount later in the summer and winter.

    Watson Creek at Ferguson Ditch Headgate June 3, 2021. Photo credit: Scott Hummer

    Watson Creek’s fishery is different, with longnose and whitehead suckers rather than trout. It also has insects like mayflies and caddisflies, and several riparian grasses. The proposed flow rate would be 1.9 cfs from April 1 to June 21, but there would be no rate through July and early August.

    Amid population growth and #ClimateChange, big challenges lie ahead for #Colorado Water Trust — The #ColoradoSprings Gazette

    Coyote Gulch along the Yampa River Core Trail July 21, 2021.

    From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Carol McKinley and Marianne Goodland):

    The Colorado Water Trust is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, with two decades of efforts to restore flows in Colorado rivers. But the trust’s next 20 years will likely face greater challenges of climate change and population growth that are already taking a toll on the state’s waterways.

    The trust’s main focus is to improve instream flows, the flows and water levels in a stream or river.

    Back in 1973, the Colorado General Assembly recognized the need for a statewide instream flow program. The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) was given the authority to acquire water rights, or lease them, for instream flow purposes. Instream flow water rights, one of the beneficial uses under Colorado’s water rights law, are the exclusive authority of the CWCB.

    While the original purpose of the legislation was to “protect the natural environment,” the instream flow program has expanded to address “water requirements for declining, sensitive, and threatened and endangered species, and protection of macroinvertebrate populations and rare riparian vegetation assemblages,” according to the CWCB.

    Since 1973, the CWCB has appropriated instream flow rights for 1,700 stream segments covering more than 9,700 miles of stream.

    But the instream flow program got off to a slow start, and drought was becoming an increasing problem in Colorado. One of the first big droughts was in the winter of 1976-77, which “sent shock waves through Colorado’s economy and state government.”

    There was a gap. The CWCB had the authority over junior water rights for instream flows, but nothing in place to acquire senior water rights.

    Those junior rights are useful very high up in the mountains where there aren’t a lot of other rights, said Andy Schultheiss, the trust’s executive director. Senior water rights, on the other hand, are more secure, but the state needed an outside group to scout opportunities for the state to buy or lease those senior water rights.

    In 2000, water engineers, water lawyers and conservationists began discussions on how to bolster the instream flow program, and that led to the formation of the trust in 2001.

    Like most new water programs in Colorado, the trust faced suspicion from water rights holders early on, especially farmers and ranchers. According to the Colorado Water Exchange, 80% of the state’s water goes toward irrigation, and that’s mostly for agriculture.

    “It took us eight or nine years to develop our first project,” Schultheiss said. “There’s a lot of reluctance to try anything new.”

    A cyclist takes a break from their ride to wade in the Roaring Fork River near the Hooks Spur Bridge on Oct. 13, 2020. A U.S. Geological Survey stream gauge at this location said the river was running at about 350 cubic feet per second, lower than the median of 395 cfs for this time of year. Water year 2020, which ended Oct. 1, was a “miserable year from a hydrology perspective,” said Colorado River Water Conservation District General Manager Andy Mueller.

    That first major project came in 2009, when Pitkin County and the CWCB signed an agreement, brokered by the trust, to allow the county to lend water for the instream flow program.

    Since then, the trust has directed 13.5 million gallons of water through 588 miles of Colorado waterways.

    Rancher Bryan Bernal irrigates a field that depends on Colorado River water near Loma, Colo. Credit: William Woody

    The approach today works like this: The Trust goes to a rancher and says, “How about you stop irrigating, say Aug. 1, and we compensate you for the days you’re missing, and we give the rest of your water to the state to lease it to use in an instream flow reach?” That’s a classic kind of trust project, Schultheiss said.

    On July 7, 2020, we closed our headgate that takes water from the Little Cimarron for irrigation. The water in the above photo will now bypass our headgate and return to the river. Photo via the Colorado Water Trust.

    In an apparently groundbreaking permanent water sharing agreement in 2014, said to be the first in the West, the trust purchased a portion of the water rights on the McKinley Ditch to restore flows to a three-mile segment of the Little Cimarron River, a tributary of the Gunnison River. In spring and summer, the water is available for agricultural irrigation. Late summer and fall, the water heads down the Little Cimarron…

    Pelicans hanging out at the inlet to Stagecoach Reservoir July 22, 2021.

    The trust has been trying to improve instream flows on the Yampa since the 2012 drought, according to Schultheiss. In some years, the water they buy from Stagecoach Reservoir represents a third or more of the water in the river, he said.

    Back in 2012, the trust recognized that there was water sitting in Stagecoach with very few customers.

    “And we said, ‘Why not? Why can’t we just buy water and release water from Stagecoach? There’s an in-stream flow reach just below the dam, and then there’s the city farther down.’”

    By 2021, the releases from Stagecoach have been institutionalized, according to Schultheiss. Thanks to the Yampa River Fund, a collaboration between the Steamboat Springs and the Nature Conservancy, and with a $4.5 million endowment to pay for it, the river got a record-breaking 2,000 acre-feet of water from Stagecoach. In a year with severe drought in northwestern Colorado, it was enough to keep the water temperatures down and avoid fish kills and other environmental damage…

    “We are a market-based organization. … Our whole reason for being is that we participate in the market on behalf of the environment, and we need money to be able to do that.” — Andy Schultheiss

    Six New Community Water Projects Receive Grant Funding: #ColoradoRiver District Board of Directors approve staff recommendations to award $780,000 in new Community Funding Partnership projects #COriver #aridification

    Here’s the release from the Colorado River Water Conservation District (Marielle Cowdin and Lindsay DeFrates):

    Nearly one year since voters approved ballot measure 7A, the subsequent Community Funding Partnership has awarded nearly $3 million in grant funding to 23 multi-benefit West Slope water projects. The Colorado River District Board of Directors greenlighted $780,000 for four larger applications at the recent Fourth Quarterly Board Meeting in addition to two smaller grants approved by River District staff. Additionally, the District Board of Directors approved a new policy statement prioritizing multi-purpose, multi-benefit water projects.

    “These six projects represent collaboration between stakeholders across multiple user groups,” said Amy Moyer, Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Colorado River District. “When agricultural producers, environmental non-profits, recreationalists, and local communities join together, the outcome is beneficial for everyone in the watershed.”

    The Community Funding Partnership supports multi-benefit projects, Moyer stated, with a goal of geographical equity within the District’s fifteen-county region.

    “Our first year of grant funding represents communities across the West Slope. The Colorado River District is proud to provide integral support for projects in every river basin and nearly every county we serve.”

    Below is a summary of the most recent project awards. A complete list of Community Funding Partnership projects is available on the River District’s website at: https://www.coloradoriverdistrict.org/community-funding-partnership/

    Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

    Steward Mesa Ditch Diversion Improvement Project
    $200,000 awarded, Delta County

    The Stewart Mesa Ditch is the second largest agricultural water provider in the North Fork Valley, serving 243 users and supplying water to farms, ranches, and orchards on the South side of the valley. Identified as a priority project via the recent Stream Management Plan, this project will modify and improve the diversion structure and headgate of the ditch. The existing diversion is antiquated and problematic for water users served by the ditch, for recreational users of the river, and for fish, including native fish species. Through this upgrade, the project will protect the ditch from flooding, improve controls, reduce erosion, eliminate safety hazards for boaters, and improve the habitat and population resiliency for fish populations.

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

    Yampa River Forest Restoration Project
    $150,000 awarded, Routt County

    Over a three-year period, the Yampa River Forest Restoration Project aims to restore mid and upper canopy tree cover to reaches of the Upper Yampa River to help reduce summer water temperatures. As identified in the 2018 Stream Management plan, the project offers an innovative, natural infrastructure approach to protecting West Slope water supplies in the face of rising temperatures. The expected outcomes from the project are six acres of new riparian plantings, and 1.5 miles of river with increased shading