Honing in on options for a potential White River Dam near Rangely

Looking up the White River valley, with the Wolf Creek valley opening up to the left. The view is from Hwy 64.

By Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

CRAIG — Three variations of a potential dam that could someday sit astride the main stem of the White River between Meeker and Rangely have been examined by the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District in Rangely.

Last week in Craig, Steve Jamieson, a principal engineer and president at W.W. Wheeler and Associates, told the members of the Yampa, Green and White river basin roundtable that an 80-foot-tall dam built across the main stem of the White River at Wolf Creek could store 68,000 acre-feet of water.

He said a 104-foot-tall dam across the river could store 138,000 acre-feet.

And a 290-foot-tall dam across the valley floor could store 2.9 million acre-feet of water.

“The maximum you can get here is 2.9 million acre-feet in this bucket,” Jamieson said. “It’s a big bucket, and you can do that with a dam that it’s about 290 feet high. It would be a very efficient dam site, but you need to have the water to fill it.”

A slide being presented by Steve Jamieson of Wheeler a showing the range of dam and reservoir sizes that have been studied for the potential White River Dam on the main stem of the White River 23 miles east of Rangely. The dams range in size from 80-feet-tall to 290-feet-tall and could store between 68,000 AF to 2.9 MAF. The dam sizes were studied as part of Phase 2A of the White River storage project, and the state has provided $500,000 in funding so far to study the project.
Steve Jamieson, left, of Wheeler and Associates, and Brad McCloud, right, showing an illustration of where the axis of a 290-foot-tall dam across the White River would be. The big dam would require a 500-foot-wide spillway, which would mean relocating a section of Hwy 64.

Water enough

About 500,000 acre-feet of water a year runs down the lower White River each year, flowing through Meeker and Rangely and into Utah and the Green River.

And between 1923 and 2014, the annual flow in the White River at the Utah line ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million acre-feet, according to Wheeler and Associates.

The potential White River Dam would be located 23 miles east of Rangely, along Highway 64.

The existing Taylor Draw Dam, which forms Kenney Reservoir on the main stem of the White River, is six miles east of Rangely.

That reservoir was built in 1984 to hold 13,800 acre-feet of water, but it’s gradually silting in, as was expected in a 1982 EIS done for the project. The surface area still “available for recreation,” or boating, is now less than 335 acres, down from 650 acres when the reservoir opened.

The dam’s hydro plant, however, is still generating about $500,000 a year in electricity revenue for the Rio Blanco district in a run-of-river setup.

A slide being presented by Steve Jamieson of Wheeler and Associates and Brad McCloud of EIS Solutions showing the range of dam and reservoir sizes that have been studied with state funding for the Wolf Creek drainage. The dams range in size from 80-feet-tall to 260-feet-tall and could store 41,000 AF to 1.6 MAF. The dam sizes were studied as part of Phase 2A of the White River storage project, and the state has provided $500,000 in funding so far to study the project.

Off-channel too

Jamieson also has been studying an off-channel dam in the Wolf Creek drainage, which is a broad, dry valley on the north side the river, just upstream of the proposed White River Dam site.

The Wolf Creek Dam would be located 3,000 feet back from the river and 170 feet above it.

An 80-foot-tall version of that dam could store 41,000 acre-feet of water, a 119-foot-tall dam could store 130,000 acre-feet, and a 260-foot-tall dam could store 1.6 million-acre feet, Jamieson said.

“This is really good dam site here, I like this,” Jamieson said. “It’s very flexible.”

However, the off-channel Wolf Creek Dam would require that water be pumped up from the river, at a high cost, or delivered via a 40-mile long canal or pipeline starting near Rio Blanco Lake — closer to Meeker than Rangely.

“It’s going to be a very long and expensive canal,” Jamieson said.

The pumping facility for a 90,000 acre-foot reservoir, which was studied in 2014, was estimated to cost $18.2 million build and up to $1.1 million a year to operate.

Jamieson said Highway 64 would need to be moved to accommodate the biggest White River Dam option, which requires a 500-foot-wide spillway on one side of the river valley.

The river itself would also have to be moved during construction.

“You’d be constructing two to three years at least,” Jamieson said. “So what we looked at is actually building a tunnel around into this abutment that we would divert the White River through during construction.”

A slide presented by Steve Jamieson of Wheeler and Associates on May 9, 2018, showing the maximum inundation area of a 290-foot-tall dam on the main stem of the White River. Jamieson presented the slide at the May 9, 2018 meeting in Craig of the Yampa/White/Green basin roundtable.

Gardner-sized

Jamieson said the district started studying the maximum size of the potential reservoirs after Sen. Cory Gardner asked during a site visit, “How big can you make this reservoir?”

During his presentation Jamieson repeatedly referred to Sen. Gardner, using phrases such as “this is the maximum Cory Gardner reservoir.”

A roundtable member asked, “Did the senator promise the money for this?”

The basin roundtables operate under the auspices of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and review grants for water projects.

“No, he did not, unfortunately,” said Brad McCloud of EIS Solutions, a public affairs consulting firm retained by the district. “We asked.”

The Colorado Water Conservation Board also wants to know what the maximum reservoir size is.

“Based on recent comments from some stakeholders, it may be beneficial to build the largest possible reservoir at Wolf Creek,” the scope of work for a 2017 grant from the board to the district states.

It also says “a much larger reservoir … could have additional benefits to the state.”

One of those benefits could be helping the state avoid a compact call on the Colorado River.

“Part of the Phase 2A study is to determine if the project may have the potential to provide Colorado compact curtailment insurance during periods of drought,” the 2017 grant application from the district said.

Since 2013, the district has received three grants totaling $500,000 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board for its White River project, and the potential benefit of compact compliance has been mentioned in all three grants.

The White River near the vicinity of the Wolf Creek drainage. The river sends about 500,000 acre-feet of water a year across the state line into Utah, with flows ranging from 200,000 AF to 1.2 MAF a year. The White drains the western side of the Flat Top Mountains and flows through Meeker and Rangely.

20,000 or 90,000

On Wednesday in Craig, Jamieson downplayed compact curtailment and focused on the district’s goal of creating a 20,000 or 90,000 acre-foot “working pool” of water inside larger potential reservoirs.

For example, it would require a 138,000 acre-foot on-channel reservoir to establish a 90,000 acre-foot working pool for the district, after allowances for a recreation pool and a 24,000 acre-foot sedimentation pool — which would fill in over 50 years.

To establish a need of the stored water, Jamieson cited a 2014 study showing demand in the basin at 91,000 acre-feet in 2065.

That’s on the high end, though.

The low-end need in 2065 was 16,600 acre-feet.

The district filed in water court in 2014 for a 90,000-acre-foot storage right at both the on-channel and off-channel locations.

But Erin Light, the division engineer in Div. 6, told the district in July 2017 “this application continues to contain aspects that are speculative and this is concerning to me.”

She questioned the district’s use of the highest estimates for such potential uses as oil shale production and flows for endangered fish.

The water attorney for the district, Ed Olszewski, responded to Light in August.

He said the district “disputes that any portion of the application is speculative” and the application is intended to be “as flexible as possible.”

As Jamieson wrapped up his presentation, he said the Rio Blanco district plans to “initiate project permitting” in 2019.

“I know we’re very aggressive,” Jamieson said. “We’re making progress.”

Aspen Journalism is covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. The Times and the Post Independent published this story on Monday, May 14, 2018.

Agricultural resiliency in the face of #drought

The headwaters of the Yampa River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From the CSU Extension Office (Todd Hagenbuch) via Steamboat Today:

If it feels dry and warm this winter, it’s because it is. While our snowpack water equivalent is lower than average in Northwest Colorado, it’s the warm temperatures that make it feel like even less snow as it has melted and condensed the snow considerably. In fact, every point west of the Continental Divide, from Idaho to New Mexico, has experienced unseasonably warm temperatures all winter, further exacerbating our low moisture levels.

When comparisons are made on percentage of snow level or temperatures, they are measured against an average, even if it is sometimes listed as a percentage of normal. The reality in our area is that normal weather is variable, really variable.

So how do landowners and agricultural producers make themselves resilient to dramatic weather?

  • Make a grazing plan for the longterm. Plan to have enough pasture for your animals no matter what happens. Yes, you may not use it all to maximum effectiveness every year, but having land in reserve for dry periods pays dividends in the longterm. Range grasses overgrazed even one year will lead to long-term, decreased production. Stressed grasses take even longer to recover from grazing, so allowing plenty of time for grass to rest during the growing season is critical, too.
  • Cull animals as appropriate while preserving genetics. If times get tough and you need to reduce the amount of forage consumed on your property, it may be time to cut numbers. Older, larger animals take more resources than smaller, younger ones, so consider that when culling. If you’ve raised your own replacement livestock, then keeping heifers/ewes and young bulls/rams with the same genetic makeup as the older animals allows you to keep the genes you’ve worked hard on promoting while reducing the forage required to keep the herd going.
  • Take advantage of moisture when it’s more likely to come. Consider taking on seeding projects and fertilization in the fall, when winter snows are more likely to guarantee moisture than unpredictable spring rains. Fertilizer depends on moisture, so move it into the soil profile quickly after application. Applying it right before snow-up helps guarantee it will move into the soil before dry air can cause volatilization of the nitrogen you’re trying to supply to your plants.
  • Use water wisely, for conservation sake and for better grass. Grass plants do not want to be wet all of the time, but do need water. Thoroughly soaking grass then letting it dry for a period of time before wetting it again helps grass remain resilient and helps your pasture retain the grasses that are best for grazing, not sedges and other water-loving plants. If you have little water, you’ll be more likely to manage it well if you’ve been practicing your irrigation skills in times of plenty.
  • Always plan for the unthinkable. Forest fires and other natural disasters can happen any summer. Be prepared with an evacuation plan for yourself, family and animals. Share the plan with your family and neighbors, and find out what their plans are. Practice when possible and make sure that everyone is on the same page so when the time comes, you’re ready.
  • There is only so much one can do to thwart the challenges Mother Nature throws at us. But thinking through possible scenarios and having a drought mitigation plan in mind before disaster strikes is paramount. Weather variability and extreme events are here to stay, and by planning ahead, you can assure that you can weather whatever comes our way.

    Todd Hagenbuch is the interim county director and agriculture agent for the CSU Extension office.

    Steamboat “State of the River” meeting recap

    From Steamboat Today (Tom Ross):

    “The key with Lake Powell is that it is our river savings account,” Andy Mueller told a gathering of more than 200 people who packed into the Steamboat Springs Community Center Tuesday night for the Steamboat State of the River meeting, less than 50 feet from the banks of the Yampa River…

    Less understood, Mueller said, is the Colorado River District’s stake in power generation at Glen Canyon Dam, where water levels are coming perilously close to dropping below the intakes for the power plant.

    “It really starts with power generation at Lake Powell,” Mueller said. “That dam is a cash register for those of us on the river. It pays for the Colorado Endangered Fish Program, which allows all of us in Colorado to continue to divert water while the endangered fish are being protected.”

    […]

    Mueller told his Steamboat audience that agricultural water rights continue to be of preeminent importance in the district.

    “On the Western Slope, try to picture what it would look like without ag. It is a very different world if we don’t have irrigated agricultural land,” he said. “That’s where the water is. Eighty percent of the water consumed on the Western Slope is in ag. We have to protect this agriculture, and a lot of that has to do with agricultural water rights.”

    […]

    The district represents about 28 percent of the physical land mass in Colorado but is home to just 500,000 of the 5 million people in the state. And 57 percent of the water produced statewide comes from the Colorado River District…

    Lake Powell, backed up by Glen Canyon Dam, just above the Grand Canyon, is where the Rocky Mountain states, including Utah, Wyoming and the northern portions of Arizona and New Mexico store water to ensure they can meet their obligations to send water to the lower basins states including California, Nevada and southern New Mexico and Arizona.

    As of 1999 the reservoir was almost full. But subsequent drought years, notably 2002, drew the reservoir down. It took until 2012 to slowly re-build storage in the vast reservoir, but snowpacks in the Colorado Basin have not been generous since.

    As winters have grown milder, river flows are sapped and extended growing seasons are also resulting in plants absorbing more of the available water.

    “We’re working on cloud seeding, but you have to have storm events in order to hit them with the silver iodide,” Mueller said.

    The DWR is enforcing well rules in the Upper Yampa River

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

    From Steamboat Today (Tom Ross):

    When the Stagecoach Property Owners Association was informed by the Colorado Division of Water Resources in summer 2017 that it was temporarily suspending the issuance of well permits in unincorporated Stagecoach, 18 miles south of Steamboat Springs, it caused a significant amount of distress.

    Some homeowners in Stagecoach get their domestic water from the Morrison Creek Water and Sanitation District, but many others, with lots of 1 to 2 acres, rely on water wells.

    With 2,300 platted building lots and only 400 of them developed, people were concerned that the moratorium might become permanent and de-value their properties. With the arrival of spring, most of those worries have been resolved, Stagecoach Property Owners Association President John Troka said.

    Since last summer, the Colorado Division of Water Resources has studied the circumstances that led to the moratorium. Decades ago, neither property owners in some rural subdivisions here nor the Routt County Planning Department had been submitting water supply plans to the Colorado Division of Water Resources for its review and approval.

    In the interim, the Yampa River above Steamboat Springs, as well as the entire length of the Elk River, have become over-appropriated, placing homeowners in rural subdivisions where they depend on wells for domestic water temporarily in limbo.

    However, the Division of Water Resources studied the situation through autumn 2017, and State Engineer and Director of the Division Kevin G. Rein reached a solution intended to honor the rights of senior water rights holders and do as little harm as possible to people living in rural subdivisions. He sent his findings to Routt County Planning Director Chad Phillips in a lengthy memo dated Feb. 1.

    Troka thinks the Division’s findings worked out as well as they could have for Stagecoach property owners.

    “We put our lawyers on notice,” Troka said. “(The Division) could have drawn a hard line. This was a positive outcome for us. People in originally platted subdivisions out there can relax. Owners will be allowed to drill a well.”

    What they won’t be able to do is irrigate their yards or gardens, nor will they be able to provide water to livestock. These restrictions will protect the rights of those senior water rights holders.

    That’s not a big deal in Stagecoach where the large majority of people have natural yards, and as Troka pointed out, the property owners association rules forbid horses.

    However, the story varies around the upper Yampa Valley. But for the present, there are far less concerns, because the Yampa in that stretch is not yet over-appropriated.

    Say goodby to Green Acres?

    Stagecoach wasn’t the only neighborhood in Routt County where rural subdivisions were confronted last summer with the suspension of well permitting. The same process was being applied to long-standing subdivisions in the upper Yampa Valley above Steamboat Springs and in the Elk River Valley.

    The rub has to do with the fact that the waters in the Yampa River above the kayak feature in downtown Steamboat Springs, known as Charlie’s Hole, and the Elk River basin have been deemed over-appropriated. There’s no more water in the streams and rivers that isn’t spoken for.

    The second issue is the Division’s recognition last year that there are rural subdivisions in Routt County in those watersheds where the Division has discovered that it never had the opportunity to review “water supply plans” required of many new subdivisions, depending on when they were approved. That means the potential to harm senior water holders was never adequately considered.

    Routt County Planning Director Chad Phillips described the situation in a memo to the Board of County Commissioners.

    “The regulations required an applicant wanting to subdivide land to provide proof of a dependable and potable water supply,” Phillips wrote. “The regulations laid out several ways an applicant could prove this. During the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, staff did not send a referral to the Division for their covenants … because it was not required by the regulations.”

    Kevin G. Rein, state engineer and director of the Division of Water Resources, wrote in his agency’s finding that in spite of the lack of the required water supply plans, the division will continue to issue well permits in the affected subdivisions “under limited conditions.”

    The good news is that the division will resume issuing well permits in over-appropriated areas. The concerning news, for some, is that in certain cases the new permits will be limited to providing water for use within the home only. Using the water outside the home to water gardens or horses won’t be permitted, unless the property owners are able to arrange a contract leading to an “augmentation plan,” which would offset an outdoor use with stored water, for example, from another basin.

    Division 6 water engineer Erin Light said the application of the Division’s findings varies from subdivision to subdivision.

    And Rein’s memo to Phillips contains eight different scenarios about how Rein’s findings will be applied in different rural subdivisions, varying with circumstances like the layout of the subdivision and the configuration of the lots.

    Rural property owners can read Rein’s findings for various categories of rural subdivisions in the appendixes at the bottom of his letter to Routt County, which is embedded in the online version of this news story.

    Steamboat State of the River Forum, Tuesday, March 20

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

    From Steamboat Today:

    A Steamboat State of the River Forum will be held from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 20 at the Steamboat Springs Community Center. A free chili supper will be served at 5:30 p.m. and the program will begin at 6 p.m.

    Retired state climatologist Nolan Doesken will discuss how this winter unfolded and talk about the weather patterns that have created a low snow year on par with the record drought year of 2002.

    Also speaking will be Andy Mueller, new general manager of the Colorado River District. Mueller will highlight river district priorities surrounding irrigated agriculture and Lake Powell, as well as talk about operations of Wolford Mountain and Elkhead reservoirs.

    Other presenters include the following:

  • Kevin McBride, manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, who will talk about snowpack and reservoir operations.
  • Zack Smith of the Colorado Water Trust, who will discuss the Yampa River water leasing program.
  • Erin Light, Division 6 engineer, who will address water administration.
  • Jackie Brown, chair of the Yampa-White –Green River Roundtable, who will give an update on water resources planning and actions.
  • The meeting is sponsored by the Community Agriculture Alliance, the Colorado River District, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and the Yampa-White-Green River Roundtable.

    #Snowpack news: Wanted — more snowfall *and* a #MiracleMay #drought

    Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map February 14, 2018 via the NRCS.

    From the Craig Daily Press (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck):

    According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Yampa River basin has received 73 percent of the average amount of snow it typically receives by this time of year. The Little Snake River basin has received 72 percent. In river basins in the southwest and south central part of the state, this number is in the 30s.

    The drastic difference in snowpack between the northern and southern parts of the state is thanks to the La Niña winter. La Niña is a weather phase that cools the waters of the Pacific.

    A La Niña year influences weather patterns around the globe, but in the United States, it creates a ridge of high pressure in the West. Storms develop in the moist air of the Pacific Northwest, then ride the jet stream on the northern edge of this high-pressure ridge.

    National Weather Service meteorologist Megan Stackhouse calls these storms “northern clippers.” They typically hit only the northern edge of Colorado.

    According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, all of Colorado (except a sliver at the northern edge, containing Larimer and Jackson counties) is facing drought or near-drought conditions.

    Eastern Moffat County is abnormally dry, which is a pre-cursor to a drought designation. West of Maybell, the county is in a moderate drought. Steamboat Springs is also in a moderate drought, which could have implications for Moffat County, as snowpack in the Park Range melts into Moffat’s water supply.

    Stackhouse said it would take 40 to 60 inches of snow for the Yampa/White River basin to reach an average level of precipitation for this water year. Receiving that much snow is not out of the question, though it’s unlikely.

    With this in mind, Tom Gray, Moffat County’s representative to the Colorado River District, cautions the public not to panic before it’s warranted. In 2015, he said, Northwest Colorado faced a similar light snow year. Then, there was a “miracle May.” Mountain storms dumped snow late in the season and brought the basin back up to the average…

    Gray and others at the Colorado River District are worried about meeting obligations under the Colorado River Compact. Under the agreement, the state of Colorado is required to contribute a 10-year rolling average amount of water downstream to the Colorado River system to help fill reservoirs such as Lake Powell.

    So far, Colorado is set to contribute about 40 percent of its average annual contribution, according to Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs at the Colorado River District.

    That puts Colorado on track to send the smallest amount of water downstream to Lake Powell in the past 10 years, according to data from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. This could cause shortages to water users in parts of California, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.,,

    Closer to home, the Stagecoach and Elkhead reservoirs are on track to be filled. These reservoirs are relatively small, however, which makes them easier to fill.

    But unless more snow comes, rural Moffat County is likely to feel the impact.

    “If you start the spring with not-very-good soil moisture levels, and then, through April and May, if we don’t get rain to get some soil moisture, you’re that much drier,” Gray said.

    For farmers, this could mean a weaker hay crop, as water to irrigate isn’t there. Dry soil also means dry grasses, which are better fuel for wildfire.

    For now, residents of Northwest Colorado can kick off their snowshoes and hope to receive more moisture to avoid a drought. The weekend snowstorms helped.

    “Statewide snowpack for Colorado approximately went up 5 percent with this last storm,” Stackhouse said in an email. “But that is very preliminary, since we are still collecting and receiving reports with this storm.”

    Colorado Drought Monitor February 6, 2018.

    #Wyoming legislative committee hopes to add $40 million to budget for dam on the Little Snake River

    Yampa River Basin via Wikimedia.

    From Wyoming Public Media (Melodie Edwards):

    Last week, lawmakers on the Select Water Committee agreed to put $40 million in their budget to build a new dam in southern Wyoming, but only if all the money for the project is identified first. The total cost of the dam is estimated at $80 million dollars.

    Water Development Office Director Harry LaBonde says with more droughts expected in the future, more irrigation water is needed for about 25 different ranches along the West Fork of Battle Creek in south-central Wyoming.

    “When you get to August, flows are low and so the irrigation purpose of this project would be to provide these late season irrigation flows so that they could continue to irrigate and enhance their grass hay crops,” said LaBonde.

    Battle Creek flows into the Yampa River in Colorado and the hope is that state would help fund the project…

    Water Development Office Director LaBonde said, with more droughts likely, Wyoming needs to provide for its irrigators. He said now is a good time to build dams.

    “I will say also that with regards to the President’s infrastructure bills that are being proposed, there’s also potential for a component of federal funding for this project.”

    LaBonde says the reservoir will also provide recreation opportunities and habitat for the imperiled Colorado cutthroat trout.

    The project is one of Governor Matt Mead’s 10-in-10 water projects, an effort to build ten new water storage projects in ten years. Four others around the state are also moving forward including Middle Pioneer Reservoir and an enlargement of Big Sandy Reservoir, both in Sublette County on the Green River, a main branch on the Colorado River. Also, two dam projects in the Bighorn Basin in northern Wyoming have been funded for construction costs, including Alkali Creek Dam and Levitt Reservoir.

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