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

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

From email from Scott Hummer:

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

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

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

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

From Aspen Journalism (Lauren Blair):

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

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

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

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

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

Historical uses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wakeup call

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

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

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

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

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

The water treatment process

From The Craig Daily Press (Joshua Carney):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Derek Maiolo):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#SnowpackNews: #YampaRiver Basin off to a good start

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

From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Bryce Martin):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Denver Post (Chris Bianchi):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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