Oak Creek is preparing to move forward with important upgrades to a 68-year-old dam at Sheriff Reservoir…With the threat of a dam breach, the town worked with the engineering firm W. W. Wheeler & Associates to create a hydrology study to determine what repairs would be necessary. Completed this year, the report used updated high elevation hydrology formulas to anticipate how much water the dam and its spillway would need to handle in a maximum flood event. According to Torgler, the study found the spillway would need to be expanded from its current 32 feet to 55 feet across. Approved by the state’s engineer Monday, the study is key, the town administrator said, because it was originally believed the expansion improvement would need to be 330 feet across…
After completing work to replace the headgate on the dam, which sits close to the structures base on the reservoir side, the project will now turn to the completion of the design engineering for the spillway enhancements, Torgler said. To date, the town has spent $520,000 for design engineering for the headgate and the purchase and installation of operating equipment and $320,000 for final design work. Cost estimates for the spillway work will be ready by the end of the year.
Torgler said that without performing the dam improvements, there would be a significant reduction in the amount of water stored in the reservoir. He noted the reservoir provides recreational opportunities for locals and visitors, but it is also Oak Creek’s drinking water supply.
Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):
The Western Slope delivers 70% of the Colorado River water. So why do Aspen, Vail and other places want to replace thirsty turf?
This story, a collaboration of Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism, is part of a series that examines the intersection of water and urban landscapes in Colorado.
If you’ve ever slipped and spun your way across Vail Pass through a wet, heavy snowstorm, you can be excused for wondering how Eagle River Valley communities could ever have too little water.
Vail and its neighbors do have that problem, though. It has become evident in the growing frequency of drought years in the 21st century.
First came 2002. Water officials, verging on panic, restricted outdoor water use. The drought was believed to be the most severe in 500 years. Fine, thought water officials as rain and snow resumed, we’re off the hook for at least our lifetimes.
In 2012 came another drought, one nearly identical in severity. More bad years followed in 2018 and 2021. The Eagle River normally chatters its way down the valley through Avon and to a confluence with the Colorado River near Glenwood Canyon. In those bad, bad drought years, it sulked. The shallow water was hot enough to endanger fish.
Colorado River flows have declined 20% since 2000. Having water rights is not enough. And the future looks even hotter and, because of that heat, drier. Brad Udall, a senior scientist and scholar at Colorado State University, warns of up to 20% additional flow loss by midcentury.
Average temperatures in the Colorado River Basin are projected by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to rise 5 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit during the 21st century. The agency projects slightly greater increases in Colorado and other upper basin states.
In Vail, managers of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District have decided they need more storage. They plan a 1,200-acre-foot reservoir near Minturn called Bolts Lake. That compares with the 257,034-acre-foot storage of Dillon Reservoir. At that capacity, this new reservoir will be the most cost-effective way to ensure resilience as the climate becomes more variable. With the reservoir, they hope to capture water during high-runoff years for use in the district’s service territory from Vail through Edwards.
Demand reduction will be another tool of growing importance in a hotter, sometimes drier climate. Managers hope to reduce water demand in the district 5% by 2026 even as new housing, especially more affordable units, gets built. That’s 400 acre-feet per year.
The most productive place to wring these savings will be in water used for outdoor landscapes. Only 25% — or even less — of water applied to lawns returns to streams and rivers compared with 95% of water used indoors.
Siri Roman, the district’s general manager, said short-term change, such as restricted lawn watering in drought years, can be a strategy. But her district wants to effect permanent change.
“It’s not about drought years,” she said. “It’s about a drying climate. We have to get people to shift their attitudes, to know that water is getting to be more scarce.”
Roman’s district, like other water utilities in Colorado, is targeting nonfunctional turf. Precise definitions vary, but nonfunctional generally refers to grasses that require large volumes of water to irrigate but rarely see human feet except when mowed. It is also described as aesthetic turf.
Three years ago, Eagle River Water began offering rebates of $1 per square foot to customers willing to replace thirsty lawns with landscapes that use less water. Using state aid, the district this year bumped up the incentive to $2.
“We are not saying it needs to be stone and look like Arizona,” Roman said.
Directors of the district in October also agreed to new tiered rates that will discourage high-volume consumption.
Other Western Slope communities have also set out to discourage thirsty landscape choices. Motivations vary, but for many, there is also acknowledgement of the need to walk the talk of water conservation expected of Front Range communities. “That is something I hear a lot from communities I am working with,” said Marjo Curgus, a consultant.
‘Lawn Begone’ in Durango
Almost a decade ago, Steve Harris, a water engineer in Durango, summoned the local news media to his house to watch him remove sod from his front yard. He also had bumper stickers produced: “Lawn Gone.” In an editorial, the Durango Herald offered an alternative: “Lawn Begone.”
Harris believed that Colorado needed to make clear that decorative lawns had less value than agriculture. He worked with his state legislators to draft a bill that would have limited transfers of agricultural water to cities if that water went to lawns. As for his own lawn, Harris thought that he and others on the Western Slope couldn’t just pay lip service to this idea.
At the Colorado Capitol, the bill introduced in 2014 by then-Sen. Ellen Roberts and then-Rep. Don Coram was quickly shelved. Local governments objected. So did ag producers who thought state legislators had no business blocking their abilities to sell water rights.
Instead, the idea was directed to an interim committee for further study. Bills sometimes get sent there to die. In this case, the conversation continued, as Roberts had intended.
Since then, legislators have adopted several laws. A bill that passed in 2022, House Bill 22-1151, does not institute a prohibition but instead allocated $2 million to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, $1.5 million of which went to local jurisdictions to spur voluntary replacement of irrigated turf.
The law asserts that for every 100 acres of turf converted to water-wise landscaping, up to 200 acre-feet of water can be conserved. The act defines water-wise landscaping as a water- and plant-management practice that emphasizes using plants with lower water needs.
Whether that much water gets saved also depends upon whether irrigation systems are changed to match the lesser water needs of the new landscapes. Grass that needs 12 inches of supplemental water per year need not continue to get 25.
All that funding has now been allocated. On the Western Slope, the municipalities of Cortez, Glenwood Springs and Frisco were awarded funds as was the Eagle County Conservation District. The state agency said 25% of turf-replacement funds were for Western Slope entities.
Rep. Marc Catlin of Montrose and then-Rep. Dylan Roberts of Frisco, two of the four prime sponsors, are from the Western Slope. Another prime sponsor, Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa, now has a district that encompasses southwest Colorado, while Roberts has become a senator.
Without state funding, Montrose County approved grants for seven turf-replacement projects.
“From the start, I thought this initial effort might have more value from an education and outreach perspective than actual water savings,” said Justin Musser, the county’s natural resources manager.
Projects were chosen based on various objectives. For example, do the new landscapes provide energy savings or wildlife benefits? “We are not overly prescriptive,” said Musser. “If you have a good plan that references standards from the Colorado State University Extension or another reputable source, the application gets a higher ranking.”
Why would Montrose County be interested in yanking sod to save water?
“It’s important that we look at these types of things across the Colorado River basin,” Musser said. “We would want people in California and Arizona and Nevada to be looking at these types of programs, too. I think it makes sense for a place like Montrose County to be conserving water as much as we can, too.”
But, he added, this is “one part of a very complex issue.”
Droughts versus aridification
The Western Slope of Colorado produces 70% of the water in the Colorado River, according to the Colorado River Water Conservation District. Some of that water stays in Colorado. About half of the water for Front Range cities comes from the Western Slope. Yet more of the Colorado River gets diverted to farms in the South Platte and Arkansas river valleys.
And, of course, water from the Western Slope flows downstream to farms and cities in Arizona, California and Nevada.
The Colorado River has infamously been falling short of meeting all demands. The river first failed to reach the Sea of Cortez in the 1960s and, as diversions in Arizona and elsewhere expanded, has ceased to reach the sea altogether since the 1990s — save for an especially engineered pulse in 2014.
In 1922, when delegates of the seven states met to negotiate the Colorado River Compact, they assumed that flows of the early 20th century would be the norm, delivering more than 20 million acre-feet. As Eric Kuhn and John Fleck explain in their book, “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River,” it had been a wet period.
It didn’t stay that wet, and in the 21st century it has been delivering far less water, an average 13.2 million acre-feet through 2022. Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, and others have warned that continued warming could depress flows to 9 million acre-feet during coming decades. Or even less.
Grand Junction more recently adopted regulations curbing water needed for urban landscaping. The city has adopted sustainability goals, “and water plays a big part of that,” said Randi Kim, utilities director for the city of 69,000 people.
Cost savings enter into the city’s calculation as it prepares for a projected 91,000 residents by 2040. The municipal utility taps high-quality water from Kannah Creek, which originates on Grand Mesa. When that is insufficient to meet demands, as the city utility projects will be the case by 2040, the city will tap the Gunnison River but will need to pay more to treat the dirtier water.
Rising heat can also drive higher demand. Grand Junction in July reached 107 degrees, tying the record that had been set just two years before. The city’s 13 highest temperatures have occurred this century.
This is but one aspect of the changing and drying climate, a process that many — including Kim — describe as aridification. “I think people realize that we have to change the way we use and manage water, and it really affects every aspect of our lives,” she said.
Grand Junction’s new regulations apply to new developments. Turf that does not meet the city’s definition of “functional” cannot exceed 15% of landscaping. The new regulations also require low-water vegetation in traffic medians and some other common areas.
Steamboat Springs, although cooler and wetter than Grand Junction, faces similar challenges. It gets 24 inches of precipitation a year, compared with 10 inches for Grand Junction. Some years, the snow along streets of Steamboat gets piled higher than the head of a rim-rattling professional basketball player.
These prodigious snowfalls have not been yielding equally impressive runoffs in the Yampa River. Several times during the longer, hotter summers of the 21st century, the river slunk to such shallow depths that water officials decreed a temporary end to fishing. It almost happened again in July before temperatures cooled and rain arrived.
“We were one day from the river being shut down again,” said Madison Muxworthy of the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, a nonprofit. “It was crazy.”
Muxworthy calls the Yampa River the “life beat of our community.” The description is apt. Kayakers paddle amid the waves during runoff months, and anglers drop lines every season. There are always people along the river banks.
In 2021, heeding local sentiment, the sustainability council launched a water-conservation program focused on outdoor use. Working with the city government and Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District, the group created a guidance document for landscapes called “Yampascaping.” Four educational workshops this year were well attended.
“Citizens are really interested in this because they see the impacts from climate change that we’re already having,” said Muxworthy, her organization’s soil moisture, water and snow program manager. “It’s really easy for them to make the connection and want to do something about it.”
The Mount Werner district, which serves the base of the city’s bigger ski area, offers rebates of $1 per square foot for turf removal.
Eighty miles south of Steamboat, at a 131-unit multifamily project along the Eagle River called The Reserve, turf-removal incentives of $2 per square foot have also helped the homeowners association replace a half-acre of thirsty grasses with native vegetation. The homeowners hope to replace another 60% of the more than 4 acres of common area.
Saving water is paramount in the mind of Deb Forsline, a director of the homeowners association. She sometimes lulls her grandchildren to sleep with the soothing sound at river’s edge and, at other times, accompanies her husband on fishing expeditions, knitting while he dangles lines. “It’s about saving water for the river, not the money,” she said of the efforts to reduce water for landscaping.
Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager at Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, concurs. The $2 per square foot “helps move the thinking of people who have already been thinking about it,” she said.
Roman, the district’s general manager, points to the innate connection that most of her district’s 31,000 consumers have with the outdoors. “A lot of people who live here year-round know that it is irresponsible to overuse.”
A steeper staircase of water rates
After the 2002 drought, the Eagle River district adopted an inclining block rate structure. The more you use, the more you pay. The district got inconsistent results. Larger homes and those with more expansive and water-intense landscaping dropped their use in smaller percentages than smaller homes. The rate structure had been flawed, allowing larger homes to pay less per 1,000 gallons than smaller homes for the same volume of water. Different rates were needed to snag the attention of high-volume consumers.
Aspen had the same problem. It adopted tiered water rates in 2005. Managers thought the rates would discourage high volumes of consumption. But even in drought years, some properties continued stubbornly high volumes.
In 2017, Aspen adopted a new approach. The regulations require reduced water use in the landscape and irrigation plans for new and redeveloped projects. Such caps are called budgets. Like Denver and Boulder, Aspen has almost no new development of raw land. The law imposes a hard cap of 7.5 gallons per square foot of landscape. That’s about a foot of water, or roughly half of the supplemental water required in Colorado for Kentucky bluegrass. The law also requires so-called “smart” irrigation systems and alternative plants but leaves some flexibility in how developers and their consultants stay within the water budgets.
So far, 110 to 120 projects in Aspen have been reviewed, but only 15 to 20 have been executed – still too soon to discern clear results in water savings for the city, said Rob Gregor, utilities permit coordinator. Still, the city has leveled its water use and hopes to achieve even greater efficiencies in water devoted to residential and commercial landscapes. That could leave more water in Castle Creek and the Roaring Fork River, one of the goals of the program.
Durango, with 19,000 people and a projected population of 25,000 by 2035, has considered using rates to nudge high-volume users to less demanding landscapes. Justin Elkins, utilities manager, said the city hopes to encourage voluntary reductions in water use by allowing water users to monitor the volume of their use and compare it to consumption by their neighbors.
The Ute Water Conservancy District has successfully used rates to encourage water conservation. The Grand Junction-based district delivers water to rural and exurban areas of the Grand Valley from Cameo to the Utah border. Customers tend to be more responsive “when it hits them in the pocketbook,” said Andrea Lopez, the district’s external affairs manager. “As they use more water and enter into tiers that become steeper with the more they use, we usually see a reduction in use.”
That’s what Eagle River Water has done. Like Aspen, the Vail Valley has some wealthy homeowners. Under the old tier system, somebody in a smaller home paid more per gallon than somebody in a larger home, if they both used the same large volume.
Beginning in January, Roman was on the agenda of everybody from Rotary clubs to Eagle County commissioners. “Really, this is targeting our excessive users,” she told the Vail Town Council at a June meeting. “They’re the ones that are going to feel this.”
District directors in October approved the new tiered rates that intend to discourage high-volume consumption.
In Wildridge, a neighborhood on the south-facing slopes of Avon, Linn Brooks has shown what is possible in landscape conversions. Fifteen years ago, before she started transitioning her landscape, her home used 15,000 to 25,000 gallons a month. Now, it uses, at most, 7,000 gallons a month and her landscape is commanding.
The takeaway, she said, is that communities can have vibrant landscapes and protect property values – and still use less water.
Next: How did bluegrass lawns in Colorado become the default? Some trace it to the castles of Europe. Half or more of Coloradans live in neighborhoods governed by homeowners associations. Some have started to curb thirsty bluegrass, but others needed a firm nudge this year from state legislators.
Allen Best, a longtime Colorado journalist, publishes Big Pivots, which tracks the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water, environment and community. This story is part of a five-part series produced in a collaboration between Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism. Find more at https://bigpivots.com and at https://aspenjournalism.org
Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Water Trust website (Marsha Daughenbaugh):
Heroes are sometimes hard to find. However, in the world of protecting Colorado’s environment, culture and water resources, Colorado Water Trust is a hero.
I have served on the Board of Directors with Colorado Water Trust (CWT) for five years and am continually amazed with the projects, work ethics and involvement of the staff and fellow board members. The positive, “can-do” attitude is proving to be a model of what can be done to protect and improve our state’s river flows.
I became aware of Colorado Water Trust before joining the Board because of their efforts to maintain sustainable water levels in the Yampa River. As a non-legal, non-engineering individual in the water world, it was amazing to me that a non-profit had the interest and resources to purchase water for a struggling river system. My first thought was “they really care about agriculture” because this extra water meant ranchers along the Yampa River would be able to irrigate hay fields and pastures that were threatened with severe drought conditions. A search of CWT’s website opened my eyes to their mission, and I became intrigued with other projects.
Years later, through a strange set of events, I was asked to become part of their Board. They were looking to expand their representation throughout the state with people involved in day-to-day agricultural water and land use. I became a candidate, was accepted, and was thrilled with the opportunity to become involved.
CWT is striving to find solutions for many of the land use challenges facing agriculture: water equity, adequate water quantity, protection of natural resources, retention of properties for future generations, and respect for people who provide food and fiber to our country and world.
Much has been accomplished and there are many successful CWT stories. We have projects in process and potential proposals are being researched. There is much to do—and Colorado Water Trust is a positive leader in the efforts.
Hero is defined as a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. CWT is an organization that embodies that definition, and I am proud to serve on the Board.
Board Member, Colorado Water Trust
Rancher, Steamboat Springs
Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen “You got the story right, without going too long” Best):
Colorado’s Just Transition legislation intends to help coal-dependent communities like this one ease into an economy after coal
Yampa, the town of 400 near the headwaters of the river of the same name in northwest Colorado, recently got a small grant from the state’s Just Transition program designed for coal-reliant communities.
You won’t immediately see the presence of coal in Yampa. You will quickly recognize that for hunters, wilderness hikers, and anglers, it’s a gateway to the Flat Top mountains with all of their wilds and mysteries plus the reservoirs that store their melted snow. At the head of one of the creeks is a narrow bridge of land above timberline called the Devil’s Causeway. Those with acrophobia need not cross.
Yampa also lies amid a valley of hay ranches, emerald in some seasons but always comforting in their relative emptiness. This is a valley that to some is best described as “Colorado as it used to be.” It’s not crowded, nor is there a rush. Not surprisingly, Yampa is on a Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway.
The coal is less obvious. The closest active mine, Twentymile, Colorado’s fourth largest, is actually about 50 minutes to the north along sometimes winding roads choked by oak brush.
Yampa’s economy is intertwined closely with that of coal extraction at Twentymile. Some coal miners and others directly associated with the mine live in Yampa. Others work on the railroad. There’s even a motel for railroaders built in the 1990s and a café, Penny’s Diner, created specifically to ensure that railroaders can get a square meal at all hours of the day.
The coal economy of northwest Colorado is on the decline. Most of the coal mined at Twentymile travels only a short distance, to be burned at the two units at Hayden operated by Xcel Energy. The same is true for mines in Moffat and Rio Blanco counties, whose coal mostly if not entirely gets burned at the three units of the Craig Generating Station. That plant is operated by Tri-State Generation and Transmission.
All five coal-burning units are scheduled to cease operations from 2025 to 2030.
Will the coal mines continue operations? That’s unclear. Peabody Energy, the owner of Twentymile, has not said for certain what it plans.
Without reservation it can be said that the shipments of coal from Routt County through Yampa and to markets elsewhere have significantly declined in the last 20 years. The official evidence is scant. Coal companies don’t release such reports. But the anecdotal evidence—what locals can report about the frequency of passing trains —is abundant.
In recognition of this impact, Colorado has awarded Yampa a $105,000 grant for implementation of a business support program. The money is to be used for purchase of new and upgraded equipment for local businesses.
Some of the money will also be used to install signs along Highway 131, which passes on the edge of town. Many travelers use the highway to get between Steamboat Springs and the I-70 corridor.
Colorado also awarded a $600,000 grant to the Pioneers Medical Center in Meeker for implementation of a new electronic medical health record system. That was identified as the first step to expand healthcare services and long-term plans to develop medical tourism. See: “Medical tourism in a land of fishing poles & orange vests”
Both grants come from state funding allocated to smooth the transition of coal-dependent communities during the energy pivot underway in Colorado.
New jobs will be the end result of the grants, according to a press release issued by Gov. Jared Polis’s administration.
“As the economy moves away from the high cost of coal power, Colorado is helping local communities diversify their economies and creating new opportunities for their residents to be successful,” said Polis.
Paul Bonnifield, a resident, rejects the characterization of the new grant for Yampa as being a “nod of the hat.” In the context of Yampa’s municipal government, “it’s a pretty danged big chunk of money,” he said when asked for his on-the-ground observations.
As a history professor at a college in Oklahoma, he had several books to his credit, including “Dust Bowl: Men, Dirt and Depression,” which was published in 1979.
While never completely abandoning his interest in history, Bonnifield decided to pursue a life of railroading on Colorado’s Western Slope. He was based in the nearby railroad community of Phippsburg for 25 years while working as a conductor on trains from Grand Junction to Denver before retiring in 2002. This writer became familiar with him when we met during the early 1990s at the Turntable, a railroad restaurant located adjacent to newspaper offices of The Vail Trail in Minturn. Both of us were regulars there for awhile.
At one time, far more trains traveled through Yampa, he said. A train from northwest Colorado, for example, delivered coal to a plant along the South Platte River near downtown Denver. That plant, Arapahoe Station, ceased electrical production in 2014. Trains also delivered coal from northwest Colorado to Texas.
Now, maybe one train a month exports coal out of the Yampa Valley. One train a week may travel through the town ferrying wheat and other goods from northwestern Colorado and delivering pipes and other supplies.
But the valley no longer has a maintenance crew and other railroad employees like it once did. As for the diner for railroad employees, it has had trouble finding enough local help to maintain reliable hours.
At the same time, local governments will enormously suffer from the eroded tax base if the mine closes.
These grants are an expression of Colorado’s commitment to ease coal-dependent communities economically as the era of coal, now more than 125 years old in Colorado, ebbs even more rapidly through the end of this decade. By 2031, the state’s remaining last eight coal-fired electricity-generating plants will be closed, casting doubt on the viability of Colorado’s six remaining coal mines.
The legislative roots were in 2019, when Colorado adopted what was then seen as ambitious—too ambitious, in the minds of at least some Republican legislators—decarbonization goals: 50% economy-wide decarbonization by 2030 and 90% by 2050, both compared to 2005 levels. The law was HB 19-1261.
In HB 19-1314, Colorado legislators declared that they did not want to throw coal workers in the mines, power plants, or on the railroad under the energy transition bus. Colorado had been mindful of impacts, the law said, and state government had a role in helping provide a transition for those people and their communities.
The state, Colorado’s law declared, had a “moral commitment to assist the workers and communities that have powered Colorado for generations” by supporting a “just and inclusive transition” away from coal.
It also noted that resources existed at neither the state nor federal levels sufficient to assist workers and communities impacted by the transition. That included the absence of coordinated leadership within Colorado’s state government.
The law appropriated a thin sum for staffing, not quite $157,000, with the understanding that more would come. Wade Buchanan, a veteran of several state positions, was hired to run the new Office of Just Transition.
Meetings in early March 2020 were held in Craig and Hayden. I attended all three. In Craig that first evening, I heard anguish and dismay about the announcement two months before by Tri-State Generation and Transmission that the three coal units it operated there would all be closed by 2030. Only one had been announced previously.
The third day, the governor arrived in Craig. First he toured a small shop, Good Vibes, that produces gear for river boaters. It was just the governor by himself with the two co-owners and me the observer.
That afternoon, he sat in the Hayden Town Hall listening to testimony when the news arrived. One coal miner from Twentymile pleaded with the governor to see a future that included coal. Polis seemed to be listening, but likely he had been told just a few hours before that Colorado had its first case of covid. Surely, he was thinking many thoughts.
Colorado put together a 20-page action plan by the end of 2020 that outlined 13 strategies for communities, workers, and funding. It also gained state funding.
Between the Office of Just Transition and its parent agency, the Office of Economic Development & International Trade, $9.62 million in funding in the form of coal transition community grants had been issued. They were:
- Yampa Valley, $5,152,538
- West end of Montrose County (Nucla and Naturita), $3,058,192
- Pueblo County, $471,423
- Morgan County, $471,423
- $471,423 for Delta, El Paso, Gunnison, La Plata and Larimer counties collectively
So, money is getting distributed, lots and lots of meetings are being held now, and the Office of Just Transition is no longer a one-man office, as it was for the first year.
Yampa’s main street, Moffat Avenue, is wide and still largely without pavement. It has never had a large population, hovering between 300 and 400 in recent decades. None of the busyness of Steamboat Springs 40 miles to the north, or the Vail Valley communities, 40 miles to the south, can be found in Yampa. To most locals, that’s fine.
Still, a little more activity would also suit the locals, and that is how the town intends to use the money, to bolster business activity. Part of that plan is to ensure that the community has a restaurant open to the public on a year-round, not just seasonal basis.
Yampa has had a very fine restaurant called Antlers. The business was established in 1904, just before the rails arrived from Denver through the Moffat Tunnel on their way to Moffat County, and has been in operation continuously since then with the exception of 2005-2009.
The restaurant has now returned to operating hours year-round with some help from the town government.
The opening of Yampa Garage Eatery is another bright spot in the town’s economic story. The money will also help expand the space and variety of goods at the local grocery store and mercantile.
But 90% of the town’s workers leave to work elsewhere, points out Mary Alice Page-Allen, the town planner and treasurer.
The goal of her work, she said, is to “retain what we have, but also to expand and attract.” The town core lies just a block off the highway, but for many travelers, there may be no particular reason to pause on their journeys.
Oak Creek, a one-time coal-mining town 10 miles to the north, which Page-Allen formerly managed, has had some success in creating more buzz in its commercial district. It even has a parking problem a couple days a week.
That’s a hard problem to imagine for Yampa, but a few more cars on that big, broad street would be welcome.
For even deeper dives:
The first of a two-part primer on Colorado’s nation-leading effort.
Aug. 7, 2020
Aug 14, 2020
April 30, 2021
Also of possible interest
February 18, 2023
Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Anne MacKinnon):
Climate change poses challenges for Wyoming water law, seen these days on the Grand Encampment River southwest of Saratoga.
The Encampment River valley is like many small, irrigated valleys in Wyoming. It was once the home of a few pioneer ranches that built a network of ditches, but the ranches have been divided up, the river has moved over time, and people have kept irrigating using the old ditches, sometimes with a little jerry-rigging. The Encampment valley is also narrow, with usually more than enough water, so state water officials haven’t had to “regulate” to keep water use in line with water rights.
Enter the Sinclair Refinery near Rawlins, Carbon County’s biggest employer. Its workforce includes people from the Encampment valley, located some 40 miles away. In just the last year and a half, the oil company that took over the refinery bought a ranch on the Grand Encampment River.
The attraction: the old water rights on the ranch. The goal: to bolster the refinery’s water supply in the face of climate change.
Two years out of the last six, the Upper North Platte Basin has seen climate change in low snowpack. It has meant that in spring, the refinery couldn’t legally use its own 100-year-old water rights. Refinery managers had to arrange for temporary use of older water rights from elsewhere. Buying the Encampment ranch offers the new refinery’s owners, called HF Sinclair, a more permanent solution for those low snow-pack years.
That has some neighbors worried. Now, how water works in the Encampment valley — which lands are irrigated or not, when and through what ditch — must be examined.
It might seem neighboring irrigators wouldn’t care if a ranch won’t use its water rights in some years. But in a classic Wyoming spot like the Encampment valley, where the water rights and ditches and the irrigation practices and the water table and the water runoff from irrigation are interwoven, the refinery’s water use could disrupt the current pattern.
HF Sinclair’s plan will test the capacity of Wyoming water law to serve both the refinery and the Encampment irrigation community in the era of climate change. Will water officials’ decisions start to unravel the fabric of the community, as some fear, or will it leave that fabric substantially intact?
Most climate change headlines in Wyoming have focused on the Colorado River Basin, but the Upper North Platte River Basin — embracing both the Sinclair refinery on the North Platte and the Encampment River, a North Platte tributary upstream — has also gotten steadily hotter in the last 20 years.
HF Sinclair’s proposal to move water rights from one location to another — in response to the impending climate crisis — is a prospect that has long alarmed Wyoming irrigators. The fear is that “drying up” a ranch can damage local economies. Such moves were once mostly illegal in Wyoming, and many irrigators believe they still are. But 50 years ago in another national crisis — rising energy prices, creating demand for power plants in Wyoming — the state changed its law to allow such moves if they meet strict standards. There must, for instance, be proof of how much water was consumed at the original spot — no more can be consumed at the new spot, and the amount of water that used to return to the stream from the original irrigation must be left in the stream at that point.
Notably, HF Sinclair is not proposing to dry up its ranch with any such permanent move of water rights. Only in low snowpack years would the refinery activate a new arrangement — a proposed “exchange.” The plan is that in those years the refinery would legally get to use its rights on the North Platte despite low flows, while it would not irrigate its Encampment ranch at all in spring or summer. That would allow Encampment water unused at the ranch to flow down the North Platte to Pathfinder Reservoir as “makeup” water, as required by the Wyoming water exchange law.
HF Sinclair also says it will invest in the interconnected headgate and ditch system on the Encampment to make sure that when the ranch does not tap the Encampment River at all for a year, neighbors still get water for their rights.
There is heavy pressure for an uncomplicated review of HF Sinclair’s plan. The company does not hesitate to underline the implications for sustaining local jobs. To get approval, the company has hired a phalanx of high-powered law and technical people, including a former Wyoming State Engineer.
But leading irrigators on the Encampment have asked state officials for a thorough review — they don’t, however, want the cost and trouble of hiring lawyers and engineers to fall on them. The Wyoming Stock Growers, meanwhile, this summer called for public meetings on water changes as a review of Sinclair’s plans got underway.
Neighbors don’t have grounds to complain if a ranch just decides not to irrigate in a few years. But because HF Sinclair is proposing a legal change, the ranch neighbors have brought concerns to the state water officials who must decide whether to approve the exchange.
To get that approval, HF Sinclair must take two steps: first clean up the water rights on the ranch, and then get the exchange petition granted.
Cleanups are standard in places like the Encampment River, since actual use of old water rights in Wyoming often changes over decades, as streams move a little and ditches fall into disuse. Often old water rights must be identified and nailed down to the current use, at the expense of the right-holder. Sometimes, cleanups get complicated. The strict standards of Wyoming’s water-moves law can apply, if change over time includes water moving some distance.
HF Sinclair is asking for a simple cleanup, which could avoid that scrutiny. The company has filed documents to show that only relatively insignificant changes in irrigation have taken place in over a century of ranch operations — nothing that should invoke the scrutiny required for serious movements of water rights.
There are, of course, all kinds of questions that could arise in HF Sinclair’s cleanup: How much of the ranch’s Encampment River rights have actually been used, where and from what headgates? Does the groundwater level in low-lying lands mean that water consumption there can’t really be stopped, and maybe fields there haven’t required much irrigation water? Has enough irrigation water been used on other ranch fields to provide the proposed “makeup” water for the exchange?
How intensely to review HF Sinclair’s cleanup is a decision for the state Board of Control (the State Engineer and the superintendents of Wyoming’s four geographical water divisions). Then HG Sinclair’s separate request for an exchange – a transaction expressly encouraged by state law – goes to the State Engineer alone to decide.
It will take months or years to see how Wyoming’s water rights review process plays out in this case. And the practical impact may finally depend on how many low snowpack years the future holds for the North Platte Basin. But ultimately, what happens on the Encampment will say a lot about how the state’s water law system will handle the pressures on water that are brought by climate change.
Relatively smooth approval of an exchange on the Encampment could encourage towns and industries in Wyoming’s Green and Little Snake River basins to seek their own exchanges. For them, exchanges could be a solution to water supply shutdowns threatened by climate change on the Colorado River. In recent years the State Engineer’s Office has suggested that exchanges could be useful for that purpose, using reservoirs as makeup water.
On the Encampment, HF Sinclair’s experts include former State Engineer Pat Tyrrell, former Division I Water Superintendent Brian Pugsley, and veteran water lawyer Dave Palmerlee.
The facts on the ground may well be such that the refinery’s proposal would easily survive any tough scrutiny. But the way the consultants have couched the requests makes it appear they’re betting they won’t trigger that kind of review, so they get approval — and relatively quickly.
The Encampment community’s fear of local damage has brought an audience to the normally unnoticed Board of Control meetings, however.
Nearby ranchers would like to see Sinclair offer a signed contract for the investment in headgates and ditches to secure access to all neighbors’ water rights. They don’t want to contend with Sinclair’s experts in formal hearings or appeals. But they do want a very careful state review.
Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Suzie Romig). Here’s an excerpt:
To study 11 tributaries on U.S. Forest Service land in the Yampa River basin, organizers and volunteers are traveling four seasons per year by snowmobile, ATV, raft, four-wheel drive, mountain bike or on foot to test stream water quality. The goal is to collect water quality samples and data so that the tributaries can be considered for the Outstanding Waters designation program that helps to safeguard water quality. Jenny Frithsen, environmental program manager at nonprofit Friends of the Yampa, is leading the local Outstanding Waters two-year study and application process to determine if the candidate tributaries on Forest Service land qualify for the water quality protection program. The 11 streams are located in four general areas across northern Routt County and in Steamboat Springs, including Elkhead and First creeks in the west California Park area, middle fork of the Little Snake River north of Columbine, four tributaries that feed into the Elk River east of Clark, and Fish, Walton and Soda creeks near Steamboat.
Friends of the Yampa staff are working with the Colorado River Basin Outstanding Waters Coalition formed in summer 2022 to identify and try to protect “clean water” across the state and to designate more headwater streams as outstanding waters deemed worthy of increased protections by Colorado. Frithsen said similar studies are underway in the region, for example, in the Roaring Fork and Eagle River watersheds…
The water quality sampling at 13 different sites in the Yampa River basin started in summer 2022 and will be completed in spring 2024 with a decision on the designations in summer 2024, Frithsen said. The designation would not impact irrigation water rights that are based on water quantity but would serve as an added layer of protection from dangers to water quality from point-source pollution such as wastewater treatment plant discharge or runoff or discharges from mining. Outstanding Waters is the highest level of anti-degradation protection under the federal Clean Water Act, Frithsen said. The designation prevents new or increased sources of pollution, but preexisting uses such as grazing and recreation can continue at current levels as long as pollution is not increased.
The Outstanding Waters designation is awarded through the Water Quality Control Commission of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. For a stream or part of a stream to qualify, the water must meet specific quality criteria gathered across 12 key parameters such as dissolved oxygen, pH, E. coli bacteria levels, nutrients, metals and water temperature. Partners on the local project include The Pew Charitable Trusts and two nonprofits, American Rivers and Mountain Studies Institute in Durango.
More detailed analysis is underway for “less environmentally impactful” locations for the proposed 264-foot high concrete West Fork Dasm and 130-acre reservoir
Citing a need to examine alternative dam and reservoir sites, officials have pushed back the expected completion of the environmental review of the proposed and contested West Fork Dam.
The Savery-Little Snake River Water Conservancy and Colorado’s Pothook Water Conservancy District want Wyoming to build the 264-foot-high dam in the Medicine Bow National Forest and swap state land with forest service property to streamline and enable the project. Designed to meet irrigation desires and provide other benefits to Carbon County’s Little Snake River Valley, the proposed 10,000 acre-foot reservoir would flood 130 acres at the confluence of the West Fork of Battle Creek and Haggarty Creek.
But the proposed development in a steep, forested canyon drew opposition over its cost, location, need, efficiency and potential environmental impacts. Opponents have criticized a proposed land exchange between Wyoming and the Medicine Bow that would put the development site in state hands and construction more firmly under its control.
Wyoming, which would pick up the bulk of the initially estimated $80-million dam cost, favors that site and design, said Jason Mead, director of the Wyoming Water Development Office. Wyoming has touted the development as one that would meet late-season irrigation needs and provide environmental benefits too.
“When the state and [irrigation] districts went through the feasibility analysis, it was felt, based on the information, that the West Fork site was the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative,” he wrote in an email.
The U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service anticipated completing a draft environmental impact statement in September. The review of alternative sites has added “a few months to the anticipated schedule” spokeswoman Alyssa Ludeke wrote in an email, but how long the delay might be is unknown.
A better solution?
Wyoming identified nine alternative sites, one or more of which will now be reviewed in depth in the draft environmental impact statement.
“We have to do a more detailed analysis to see if [they are] less environmentally impactful or provide a better answer, a better solution,” Shawn Follum, an engineer with the NRCS, said Friday. “While there’s a preferred alternative [at the West Fork site], that’s the very beginning, not a deal.
“We’ve not seen any indication that that site won’t be a possibility,” Follum said.
Meantime, the Medicine Bow National Forest continues to work on a “feasibility analysis” to inform the Forest Supervisor whether to move forward with a land exchange for the West-Fork site. There’s no deadline for that yet, said Aaron Voos, the Medicine Bow spokesman, and no guarantee a land swap would take place.
“It is looking highly likely that one of the alternatives analyzed will include a non-land exchange option, such as a special use permit,” Voos said.
The Medicine Bow has been analyzing the feasibility of the proposed land exchange, Voos said. If feasible, the Forest Service would determine whether an exchange is in the public interest.
“‘Public interest’ is required to be addressed and will be heavily factored into the Forest Supervisor’s recommendation to proceed or not proceed,” Voos wrote in an email.
Wyoming shunned obtaining a special use permit for the West Fork site because environmental reviews and other regulatory burdens would have been more complex. If the reservoir land were instead exchanged and became state property, construction permitting would be simpler, according to state officials.
Wyoming may have underestimated the complexity of the undertaking, stating in a proposed contract that it expected 100 comments on the development plan with only 40 being substantive. Instead, people submitted 936 comments, of which 96% opposed the project, according to a tally by WyoFile.
The study’s delay is not a surprise, Mead said. “Oftentimes federal agencies want a little more information to determine if an alternative should be dismissed or not, or may want to reconsider other sites,” he said. The additional analyses will ensure “a reasonable range of alternatives” is considered, he said.
New work necessary for the draft environmental impact statement includes hydraulic analysis and other tasks, some of which may involve field work, Follum said. It’s possible that work could be delayed by snow, extending the task until next spring, he said.
The NRCS is leading the environmental study with cooperation from the Medicine Bow National Forest and other agencies.
Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (307)… More by Angus M. Thuermer Jr.
Click the link to read the article on the Sibley’s Rivers website (George Sibley):
We’re in a bit of a holding pattern along the Colorado River today, at least in the Upper Basin: on the one hand, waiting for the Bureau of Reclamation to weigh the options for big cuts in Lower Basin use; and on the other hand, seeing the Lower Basin states trying to come up with a less painful set of big cuts to impose on themselves over three years, taking advantage of the big snow year that relieves a little (but just a little!) of the immediate pressure.
At any rate, it’s an opportunity for me to step back a step and try to restore something of the perspective with which I started these posts – ‘learning to live in the Anthropocene.’ I’ve been calling the posts ‘Romancing the River,’ wanting to work in the spirit of Frederick Dellenbaugh in his book The Romance of the Colorado River: making the story of the First River of the Anthropocene something to engage in rather than deny. But the stories keep getting lost in the avalanches of mostly dispiriting details coming down these days….
So anyway, today – an unremembered part of the story of Glen Canyon Dam. Last post, we explored the structure of the dam itself, a good solid Early Anthropocene structure. But today I want to explore the infrastructure of the dam. As with most dams, what you can see is not the whole thing, even physically. To get a firm foundation on bedrock for ten million tons of concrete, the builders had to dig out more than a hundred feet of rock, rubble and sand from the natural streambed. That hundred feet of dam below the streambed is the physical infrastructure of the dam.
But even before that digging-down could begin, a political, economic, legal and philosophical infrastructure had be cobbled together on which to erect the physical structure. Recent articles about the river and its troubles that try to offer any river history at all tend to give credit (or blame) for the dam to a large mass of ego and bluster, Floyd Dominy, but he was just the Reclamation Commissioner when the dam was legislated, a guy who wanted to build dams as big as his ego. He built the structure, but he didn’t assemble the legal and political infrastructure that enabled it.
The larger story of Glen Canyon Dam’s infrastructure is mostly, but not entirely, a story of the Old West – a story of the most serious attempt to achieve a working truce between the Old West and the New West. And for those with my tendency toward an iconoclastic interpretation of history, it was one of the final episodes (thus far anyway) in America’s semi-civil westward war between the advance of the well-defined and well-funded Industrial Revolution and the retreat of a vaguely defined agrarian counter-revolution. For a review of that semi-civil war, go to ‘Westward the Curse of Empire,’ April 4, 2022.
When we talk about the Old West and the New West, we are talking about two very different cultures. Most (over)simply, we can say that the Old West is the west to which people went to live and make a living developing and marketing the natural resources of the West; and the New West is the west where people who live in the urban-industrial realm go to play, to ‘recreate’ themselves among the natural wonders and magnificent scale of the West.
It is useful to make a further distinction about the Old West: it was populated by ‘settlers’ and ‘unsettlers’: the unsettlers usually arrived first, the human equivalent of a plague of locusts with a mining mentality (mining gold and silver, other metals, old-growth timber and grass) – a drive to get there first, get the goods, and get rich. The settlers, on the other hand, came to farm or ranch with the intention of staying and making a life, settling down, homesteading. Some of the farmers tended to be soil miners, but the ones who stayed were true agrarians, the counterrevolutionaries to the industrial revolutionaries.
People of course do come to live in the New West too, not just to visit: they are usually either relatively well-off people retiring, or professionals working remotely with incomes from elsewhere, or they are mendicant people like I was sixty years ago (relatively poor, mostly by choice) who work for the recreation industries set up for the people who come to play, in exchange for getting to live and play themselves among the natural wonders of the West.
The story of Glen Canyon Dam, and the counterrevolutionary effort to co-opt it, began in the years immediately following World War II. The Lower Colorado River Basin had already been transformed into a desert empire through the 1928 Boulder Canyon Project, completed just in time for Southern California to grow explosively through the war effort. The four Upper Basin states figured that they would get their day after World War II. And in 1946 the Bureau – eager to follow the creation of Hoover Dam and the desert empire with more river miracles – came out with a pamphlet: ‘The Colorado River: A Natural Menace Becomes a National Resource.’ In it the engineers presented a smogasbord of 88 possible projects, large and small, all in the four states of the Upper Colorado Basin. They cautioned that there would not be enough water for all 88, so there must be some choosing.
The principal architect for the legal, political and economic infrastructure underlying what came to be the Colorado River Storage Project was no larger-than-life figure like Dominy, but an unprepossessing Congressman, Wayne Aspinall, from Colorado’s West Slope and the river’s largest headwaters catchments. Aspinall did not stand out in a crowd, but he was savvy, and absolutely committed to the Old West as an economy of working people engaged in the production of resources needed in the larger society – and with a deep love for irrigated agriculture, having grown up with his father’s peach orchard in the Grand Valley after the Bureau’s highline canal brought them water.
He was a Democrat, an unlikely representative from one of Colorado’s most conservative districts, but he began his political career in the late 1920s as a common sense alternative to the mess the Ku Klux Klan had made everywhere in Colorado, and he kept getting re-elected to state, then national offices because he got things done.
He also knew which way the tide was running in America. The 1920 census for the first time showed more people living in the cities than in the rural areas, and by the end of World War II, that imbalance was accelerating. (‘How ya gonna keep’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?’) His Old West constituency was being diluted by newcomers aghast at learning a few eggs had been broken in making the omelet they took for granted. The cities they came from were also needing more water, and Aspinall was often caught between constituents angry about yet another transmountain diversion, and east-slope movers and shakers angry about what he could not deny but could often delay.
Nonetheless, his Old West constituents knew where his heart lay, and returned him to Congress 12 times. That might have continued indefinitely, but his own Democrat party outgrew its working-class roots, became a big city party, and gerrymandered him into a mostly urban district where he could not win; he was ‘primaried out’ in 1972. It was probably time; he had become a lightning rod for the early naive-environmentalist movement, and being aligned with that movement myself, I felt naively righteous in voting against him. I still think it was the right thing to do then; he had become increasingly reactionary and defensive, at least as he was being reported in the newspapers. But given what I’ve learned about him since, and my ambiguous feelings about the New West that has replaced the Old West, and about the staggering march of American history in general – I wish I had cast that vote a little more humbly.
In the 1950s, however, Aspinall was just hitting his stride when the Bureau was ready to finish remaking the First River of the Anthropocene, and he jumped on the opportunity to do something big and (he hoped) enduring for the West he and his constituents believed in. More than any other single person, he laid the infrastructure for the Colorado River Storage Project. For better or worse.
The Colorado River Storage Project had to first be a really serious storage project, to assuage Upper Basin water users’ fears of a Compact call, which they thought would come even if nature, not human overuse, caused a shortfall in Lower Basin deliveries. Another time we will take a look at the Upper Basin Compact created in 1948, and the knots the four states tied themselves into, due to their Caliphobia. So the first charge to the Bureau was to build some big ‘holdover’ reservoirs on the scale of Mead Reservoir – dams capable of storing at least two years of inflow.
But the Bureau and Aspinall also wanted big hydropower units in those dams – ‘humming the tunes of endless wealth,’ as a bit of precious Bureau prosody put it. ‘Cash register dams’ was a more prosaic nickname for the big power-generating dams: they wanted the wealth so generated to be applied not only to paying off the big dams, but also to pay for a lot of smaller dams in the higher country.
The biggest problem farmers and ranchers in the arid lands had in irrigating from a desert river fed primarily by snowmelt was the erratic flows – snowmelt floods early in the irrigating season and then almost no water in the late summer when it was most needed. Storage to even out the flows was the key, and storage was expensive. Every community of farmers could go out after harvest with shovels, black powder and mule scrapers, and dig canals to move water, but water storage required materials and equipment they couldn’t afford. Every irrigation district had sketch plans for dams and reservoirs, but for small communities, the Bureau’s cost-benefit analyses for dam repayment were impossible.
But – if a general fund for a big multi-unit project could be created, with power revenues pouring into it, and some small storage projects drawing on it, with cost-benefit analysis calculated for the whole multi-unit project, then the big dams could carry the otherwise unaffordable little dams…. Glen Canyon Dam would (‘twas hoped) assure that the industrial revolution’s desert empire got its water – but it would also provide storage for the counterrevolutionaries’ ‘headwaters republics.’ Win-win.
And that was essentially the Colorado River Storage Project Aspinall and his collaborators in the Upper Basin put together. They started in 1950 with a bill calling for nine big holdover dams and reservoirs, and a couple dozen ‘participating projects’ (the smaller storage dams for the local communities). By the time they finally got the project through Congress in 1956, they were down to three actual holdover dams (Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado mainstem and Flaming Gorge on the Green River, both with full power generating units, and Navajo Dam on the San Juan with no power unit), the Curecanti unit of three dams on the Gunnison that was primarily for power production, and eleven ‘participating projects’ to be partially paid for from the power revenues – and another two dozen potential participating projects for further study.
And because Aspinall knew the New West was coming, like it or not, the Act included a requirement that every unit would include recreational facilities.
Did it work out as planned? Yes and no. The ‘cash register’ dams were all built, and facilitated the building of around a dozen of the small ‘participating projects.’ My great-grandparents would have been glad for the dam built on the North Fork of the Gunnison River above Paonia, the erratic river whose spring floods had forced them to move their house to higher ground. But they had sold the homestead by the time the dam was built because none of their offspring wanted to contend with the erratic water supply.
By the late 1960s, however, the nation had grown tired of building (and paying for) western water projects, and NEPA and the advent of the Environmental Impact Study after 1970 made even small water projects problematic. The last project done under CRSP auspices was an Animas-LaPlata project originally intended to help the Ute Indians develop agricultural lands, but it got so scaled down that it was not much use to anyone.
By the turn of the century, ‘reclamation’ was more likely to be interpreted as work to reclaim and restore land and waterways damaged by the collateral debris that the Old West’s heavier industrial unsettlement left behind. Then in the 1980s a large portion of the power revenue from the big holdover dams was diverted from further CRSP counterrevolutionary structures, to an all-out effort to restore four endangered fish species that, back in the 1970s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tried to kill off by poisoning the Green River. Mistakes have been made, and visions and dreams got carried out with the debris.
The recreation industries, and the accompanying real estate and construction industries, have pretty much overrun and occupied Aspinall’s would-be agrarian republic; but there are, nonetheless, still places in the West where small farms and ranches hang on, some of them ‘heritage cultures’ passed on through families predating CRSP, some of them new and serious about growing local food – and many of them served by CRSP facilities generated by Glen Canyon Dam. But the agrarian philosophy and vision they represent is largely unarticulated in the mainstream culture; I believe, however, that a careful and potentially difficult interrogation of a large number of rural MAGA supporters would reveal that a virulent form of the agrarian counterrevolution still lives, mute but mad, in a twisted variant of unarticulated hope.
Just call it all another story in the romance of the Colorado River – the story of how Glen Canyon Dam was, for a time, put in service to another America.
Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Kit Geary). Here’s an excerpt:
Routt County Emergency Management is warning residents to expect flooding Thursday, May 4, into Friday, May 5, with the Yampa River anticipated to reach its highest level yet this season. Emergency Operations Manager David “Mo” DeMorat told Routt County commissioners on Monday, May 1, that the river had hit 6,500 cubic feet per second, and warm temperatures are expected to continue through the week, which could cause the river to reach 7,000 cfs by Friday. DeMorat said this amount of water for the Yampa River is considered “action level” flooding by the National Weather Service. Action levels generally require municipalities to keep a closer eye on flooding and have potential mitigation plans and flood warnings in place…
To gauge what flooding will look like, the county uses snow-water equivalent gauges that provide estimates for the amount of snowmelt that could occur three to four weeks out. This looks at the amount of snow on the ground, but cannot predict at what rate it will melt. Because of this, no exact estimates can be given, as it is ultimately the weather and the freeze-and-thaw cycle that will determine at what rate the snow melts.
DeMorat explained to commissioners that these gauges show areas north of Steamboat and the Stagecoach Reservoir currently have the highest potential for flooding. Three snow-water equivalent gauges stationed north of Steamboat have helped emergency management identify these regions as problem areas for flooding due to the snowpack that could melt. All three are north of Steamboat with one near Dry Lake, one near Lost Dog Creek and another slightly farther northwest. DeMorat noted these locations range from 165-185% of the average snowpack. He told commissioners that Stagecoach Reservoir is another area of concern with 140% of its average snowpack.
Alongside the problem areas DeMorat named, the National Weather Service issued a flood warning for Elkhead Creek, particularly where the creek meets the Yampa River. This flood warning began on Monday and will end Friday unless communicated otherwise by the National Weather Service.
Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Suzie Romig). Here’s an excerpt:
In the first official scorecard of Yampa River system health, the middle section of the Yampa earned an overall score of B. That B means the middle Yampa River from Pump Station boat launch east of Hayden to South Beach about 2 miles south of Craig is a “highly functional river where some stressors are present but in general it remains largely resilient to disturbances and may rely on limited management,” said Jenny Frithsen, environmental program manager with Friends of the Yampa, which is managing the scorecard project. Within the overall score of B as part of the Yampa River Scorecard Project, the middle Yampa earns an A for dissolved oxygen, PH levels and metals in the water, “the only ecological indicators that got an A,” Frithsen reported.
The first results of the long-term scorecard project will be released fully in early May with information available at YampaScorecard.org. Data collection started in the middle Yampa in summer 2022, and the overall project will include five river sections.
During summer 2023, data collection will focus on the stretch starting from Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area to the Pump Station boat launch.
The river scorecard is derived via approximately 45 different indicators in and around the Yampa River that fall under three main areas: ecological health and function, river uses and management, and people and community benefits.
“By seeing what areas are a C, D or F, we can now focus on action and how to improve these numbers,” said Lindsey Marlow, executive director for Friends of the Yampa. “We now have a template to start conversations with people in this basin about the health of the river and its ecosystem services.”
Marlow said another key finding that stands out is riverscape connectivity, or a measurement of the ease in which a river can move around such as a connected flood plain and river channel.
“There are areas that score so well at 95% and others that need help at 65%, and now we get to embark on the exciting task of figuring out how to improve floodplain connectivity,” Marlow said.
Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Suzie Romig). Here’s an excerpt:
Last year, Elkhead Reservoir operators carefully managed the reservoir that straddles the Routt and Moffat countyline due to low water issues, but this year reservoir managers are facing challenges due to high water from abundant snowmelt in the Yampa Valley. Managers predict Elkhead Reservoir will top its spillway in mid-May with water exiting the spillway and outflow at a combined rate of about 2,000 cubic feet per second, or cfs, or about the same level of peak water as in wet 2011, said Don Meyer, senior water resources engineer with the Colorado River Water Conservation District based in Glenwood Springs.
“The current outflow is about 550 cfs with valves 100% open,” Meyer said. “When (the reservoir is) full, the release will be 590 cfs. When spilling, we will likely keep the outlet discharge at 590 cfs, and the rest will go over the spillway.”
Meyer, who has managed Elkhead Reservoir releases since 2007, said high water flows in 2011 recorded 1,800 cfs on May 8 and more than 2,000 cfs on May 16, May 24 and June 4. He expects 2023 spillage will follow a similar path…
The watershed upstream of Elkhead Reservoir drains a 205-square-mile basin, according to the river district that owns or controls water supplies that are available for contract to agricultural, municipal, industrial and other water users.
Five inches of snow falling ahead of closing day made 2023 the second snowiest season ever recorded at Steamboat Resort. Flakes fell throughout Friday, April 14, and continued into early Saturday, April 15, bringing the mid-mountain snow total on Steamboat’s snow report to 448 inches. There are some discrepancies on the resort’s snow report at Steamboat.com/the-mountain/mountain-report, as the sum of monthly totals is 459 inches. Nevertheless, 448 was all that was needed to become the second snowiest season at the resort, according to data collected by the resort since 1980. In order to become the second snowiest season on record, this year’s snowfall had to surpass the 447.75 inches that collected at mid-mountain in the 1996-97 season. The record of 489 inches set in 2007-08 will continue to stand at least for another year, as the resort will close on Sunday, April 16, and stop documenting snowfall…
While the melt was slowed by Friday’s snow and cold temperatures, the fluffy stuff is diminishing quickly. The snowpack or snow water equivalent in the Yampa, White, Little Snake Basin seems to have peaked on April 7, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture…The presumed peak, which came 24 hours before the median peak based on 30-year averages, was 30.1 inches. The past two years peaked at 18 inches, or just below. The last year to have a similar peak was 1997. Between April 1 and 8, the area had record snow water equivalent as the measurement surpassed 29 inches and reached 30. With the melt, the 2023 snowpack is back below the record trajectory, which was set in 2011.
Yampa River flow hit 817 cubic feet per second on Thursday evening, April 13, which is four times greater than the flow of 204 cfs on the same day the year before, according to U.S. Geological Survey data. The Elk River hit a high flow of 1,700 cfs on Friday, April 14, more than six times the flow on the same day in 2022.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department comments cast doubt on irrigators’ claims that a 264-foot-high dam proposed in Carbon County will benefit fisheries, riparian zones and wetland-wildlife habitats.
The dam proposed for the West Fork of Battle Creek above the Little Snake River on the Medicine Bow National Forest would provide 6,000 acre-feet of late-season irrigation to ranches near Baggs, Dixon and Savery and in Colorado. The 700-foot-long concrete dam and associated 130-acre reservoir would also provide a “minimum bypass flow” to improve fisheries in downstream creeks and rivers, according to the proposal.
The reservoir itself could be a “brood facility” and refuge for native Colorado River cutthroat trout, a species of conservation concern, the Wyoming Water Development Commission and others say.
As dam backers’ plans were opened to formal public review and comment earlier this year, however, critics challenged the rosy ecological picture and accounting of public benefits claimed by water developers.
Among these critics is Wyoming’s own Game and Fish Department, which says construction and operation of the dam would cause “substantial negative impacts on the aquatic and fisheries resources in the West Fork Battle Creek, Battle Creek and Little Snake River drainages.”
Even though mitigation efforts are “likely” to offset such impacts and may conserve and enhance fish and wildlife habitat, the wildlife agency expressed reservations about the project.
“Given the complexity of ecological systems and inherent uncertainties about project operation and impacts and future climate and hydrology,” Game and Fish wrote in nine pages of comments, “it is not known if the proposed project will benefit fisheries, riparian, and wetland wildlife habitats, as suggested by the proponents.”
In-stream flow vs. bypass
Wyoming’s wildlife agency made its comments along with 935 other individuals and organizations as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency tasked with aiding agriculture on private lands, analyzes the project through an environmental impact statement. Eight hundred ninety-nine commenters opposed dam construction and an associated land swap with the Medicine Bow National Forest that would enable it.
Game and Fish offered six pages of recommendations for how to potentially alleviate some of the dam’s impacts. Those include a program to wipe out non-native trout from a network of creeks that extends about six miles upstream of the dam site. Colorado River cutthroat trout would then be planted in an artificial “brood facility” in the reservoir and upstream.
In launching the plan to dam the West Fork of Battle Creek, dam backers declared benefits would accrue to “fisheries, riparian and wetland wildlife habitats, and water-associated recreation,” according to a legal notice published in the Federal Register.
“Ecological objectives … include improvements to aquatic ecosystems and riparian habitats by supplementing stream flows during low-flow periods, and … to terrestrial habitat associated with irrigation-induced wetlands,” the notice posted by the NRCS states. “Benefits are expected to accrue to these attributes [downstream] to the confluence with the Yampa River including improvements to both cold water and warm water sensitive species.”
Fisheries below the dam could benefit from 1,500 acre-feet earmarked for bypass flow, a 483-page Wyoming study says. Bypass water that would be released from the dam would maintain a minimum flow for about 4 miles downstream.
Nothing in the plan as currently written, however, would prevent any irrigator from taking water out of the creek below that point and using it for irrigation.
“Without an in-stream flow water right, once released from the bypass flow account in West Fork Reservoir, the water could be used or diverted for other purposes,” Jason Mead, interim director of the Wyoming Water Development Office wrote in an email. Nevertheless, “[m]ost of the water released solely for habitat flow purposes, according to hydrologic models, occurs during the non-irrigation season months,” Mead wrote. “[T]here are no irrigation diversions below the [proposed] West Fork Reservoir on the West Fork of Battle Creek or Battle Creek until it runs on to private land.”
The 4.8-mile reach of Battle Creek that runs across private land would benefit from approximately 1,414 new fishery “habitat units” if the dam were built, according to Wyoming’s study. A “habitat unit” supports about one pound of trout per acre. Together, the new aquatic productivity “could facilitate additional private enterprise investment which could generate direct private fishing benefits of $144,228 annually,” the Wyoming Water Development Office says in the 2017 study.
That money would increase through an economic theory known as an “indirect benefit multiplier,” producing $379,320 in private benefits annually and $8.2 million over 50 years, Wyoming’s plan states.
That, plus other “instream flow benefits,” are estimated to generate $35 million in public benefits in the dam’s half-century life, the WWDO study states. All told, the state forecasts $73 million in public benefits. That sum justifies the state paying for most of the 2017-estimated $80 million project price tag.
“Given the unique location of the West Fork Reservoir project, its most valuable recreation attribute may be its isolated location which provides a sense of solitude that some recreationalists seek and consider priceless,” the state study reads.
In a comment letter, downstream ranch owners Sharon and Pat O’Toole said the proposed dam “offers multiple benefits,” and would offset the city of Cheyenne’s water diversions from the Little Snake River Basin.
“An environmental benefit would include creating and enhancing wetlands and riparian habitats upstream from the West Fork Reservoir, and improving stream habitat to sequester copper and other metals” from an abandoned mine, the O’Tooles wrote. “The created wetlands and improved stream channel could also provide wetland and stream channel mitigation for the project.
“Our family owns all the private land on Battle Creek,” the couple wrote, adding that “in the lower reaches we have Colorado Cutthroat Trout,” along with other species.
“Haggerty Creek [above the site of the proposed reservoir] used to provide habitat for this species of interest, and could again, with the benefit provided by the dam. The proposed dam would offer value to the recreating public. It would provide a fishery on Haggerty Creek and downstream that does not presently exist.”
John Cobb, chairman of the Little Snake River Conservation District, an irrigation group, wrote that there are “many self-mitigating aspects of this [dam-building] alternative with the potential to drastically offset any potential negative impacts.” Dam construction could “result in a net benefit to the native ecosystems and human economies that thrive within the proposed service area of this project,” his comment reads.
The project would also contribute to the goals of the Colorado-based Yampa, White, Green Roundtable, a consortium of river users, according Jonathan Bowler, watermaster for the Savery-Little Snake River Water Conservancy District that applied to build the dam. Among those is a goal to develop a system to reduce water shortages and meet environmental and recreation needs, he said in a presentation to the group.
Professional, expert critique
In addition to Game and Fish comments on the plan, reaction includes reviews and criticism from angling and conservation groups.
Wyoming proposes to swap state property for federal land to enable construction, and budgets $594,000 of the estimated $80 million project cost for wetland and stream mitigation, public documents state.
Without endorsing construction, Wyoming Trout Unlimited recommended that any plan include funding for non-native brook trout removal and other conservation measures, Kathy Buchner, Wyoming TU Council chair and two other TU officers wrote. Other groups were more critical.
“Five years of construction will destroy the present aquatic habitat for all populations of vertebrate and invertebrate species and terrestrial wildlife habitat,” wrote Brian Smith, a former Wyoming water development technician who operated the nearby High Savery Dam and Reservoir where Game and Fish established a similar Colorado River cutthroat trout reserve. “Spawning migrations that have occurred [in and above Battle Creek] presumebly (sic) since the last ice age by CRCT will be terminated. The Little Snake River Drainage is one of only 3 in the State of Wyoming, where the CRCT exist.”
The nonprofit American Rivers also criticized the state plan saying the proposed project could threaten year-round water in the Belvidere Ditch upstream of the proposed reservoir. That ditch is “a WGFD stocking source of cutthroat trout,” and disruption there could harm “these valuable populations.”
Matt Rice, the group’s Colorado River Basin program director, said threats to the ditch could damage “one of the only remaining healthy populations of cutthroat trout [and] could perhaps push the species sufficiently to the brink to merit a federally endangered listing.” The dam would further reduce flows downstream, including in the Yampa River “with additional consequences for protection and recovery of pikeminnow and other sensitive species,” Rice wrote.
A promise of ecological benefits downstream is unsubstantiated, wrote Ben Beall, Friends of the Yampa president. He said that was “a questionable claim given the project’s stated primary purpose is to supply late season irrigation water and the limitation of capacity of the bypass account in the reservoir.”
Forest staffer worried
Worries about the dam’s impacts and a lack of critical review emerged well before the NRCS opened the issue for comments. When the Medicine Bow began preparing for a potential land swap two years ago, a staff hydrologist became alarmed that the dam’s effects wouldn’t be thoroughly analyzed.
The Medicine Bow distributed a briefing paper to its staff that included language “taken from the water development justifications/benefit promotional material and adopted by FS management/lands staff w/o consultation of fisheries professionals,” Medicine Bow hydrologist Dave Gloss wrote to colleagues.
The Medicine-Bow distributed the briefing paper after dam backers had held several meetings with national forest officials and put the bureaucratic wheels in motion for the land exchange, according to an email chain obtained by WyoFile through a Freedom of Information Act request.
“There is much more to the aquatics story,” Gloss wrote, “including the upstream reaches above the reservoir not supporting fish populations due to metals contamination and dewatering from an irrigation ditch, the in-reservoir and downstream trade-offs from altered flow, etc.
“If I could achieve one thing related to this project, it would be an honest and critical look at the social and environmental effects …” Gloss wrote.
He held out little hope for that “honest and critical” look. “There are a lot of factors in play making that approach very unlikely at the moment …” his email read.
A Medicine-Bow spokesman earlier this year wrote that Gloss’s worries are now unfounded. In briefing papers like the one Gloss complained about, “external opinions are encouraged to be included in the full range of information, as they help give situational awareness,” spokesman Aaron Voos wrote in an email. Information in the briefing paper was appropriately cited to make clear it came from project proponents, he wrote.
Further the Medicine Bow will consider the social and environmental effects of the dam and a wide range of public input and values for the public lands, water and resources involved, Voos wrote. “That will be accomplished with the EIS. We are a cooperating agency in that process and will be involved.”
The Medicine Bow, however, has no plans to peer-review Wyoming’s study of public benefits that justifies state funding of the dam, Voos wrote. The NRCS also said it will not peer-review the 483-page Wyoming Little Snake River final report of 2017.
“At this time we cannot say whether or not the Little Snake River Supplemental Storage Level II Phase II Study Report will be used in the land exchange feasibility analysis,” Voos wrote. “[H]owever, it could be used as a reference document during the feasibility analysis or at other points in the land exchange and NEPA processes.”
Click the link to read the article on the Steamboat Pilot & Today website (Dylan Anderson, Tom Skulski and John F. Russell). Here’s an excerpt:
Hayden’s Dry Creek certainly didn’t live up to its name Thursday, as flash flooding from melting snow crested its banks around midnight. The floodwaters closed streets, Hayden Valley Schools, the town’s parks and a 38-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 40 to start the day…Many Hayden residents — whether they are new to town or have spent decades in the Yampa Valley — said they had never seen flooding like this before. While for part of the morning there was a true sense of panic in town, many residents were quick to pump water out of their houses, and their neighbors were ready to help…
While Thursday’s flooding was significant, officials expect flooding to continue as snow keeps melting. Water in Dry Creek was starting to rise again Thursday evening…Hayden officials closed several streets on Thursday as well, with Third, Fourth and Poplar streets all seeing significant flooding. The water submerged roads, flooded garages and made its way into some people’s homes…U.S. 40 was closed to through traffic between Steamboat and Craig until after 1 p.m. Thursday, though the road was largely free of the flooding. Rather, CDOT officials were concerned about a key bridge just west of Hayden, and waited for an engineer to inspect it before reopening the highway. The bridge may eventually close the highway again if floodwaters rise overnight after a day of melting, DeMorat wrote in his update.
Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Bruce Finley). Here’s an excerpt:
Mountain snow-melting intensified this week with an unusually abrupt “flick of the switch” from cold to hot, leading to flooding that on Thursday cut off northwestern Colorado’s main transportation route and forced a shutdown of schools. The statewide heat that brought Denver temperatures to 85 degrees, breaking two records, combined with mountain snowpack more than a third above the norm, also has boosted the potential for early replenishment of water supply reservoirs, including those along the Colorado River…
But rapid melting here and around the Southwest this week has brought higher-than-expected flows in rivers, such as the Mancos River in southwestern Colorado, along U.S. 160, and in the Yampa River in northwestern Colorado, along U.S. 40…Water in the Yampa and tributaries on Thursday gushed over banks and submerged a bridge near Hayden, forcing state transportation officials to close U.S. 40, the main transportation route in northwestern Colorado, between Steamboat Springs and Craig…
As the Mancos River swelled near Cortez, Montezuma County officials who had anticipated possible flooding in May or June suddenly faced those perils a month early.
Click the link to read the article on the OutThereColorado.com website (Spencer McKee). Here’s an excerpt:
As snow keeps falling in Colorado, boosting some parts of the state to record-highs, plenty of powder has been stacking up in the state’s ski country. On March 23, Steamboat Resort took to social media to announce that their mid-mountain station had passed the 400-inch season total mark. Perhaps more impressive is the 500 inches of snow they report has landed on the ski area’s summit. Reported totals at the mid-mountain station and the summit are 401.5 inches and 507 inches, respectively…According to Steamboat Pilot and Today, this is only the 9th time the mid-mountain station has recorded more than 400 inches, with the last time being the 2012 to 2013 season, when 433 inches fell. The snowiest season on record was that of 2007 to 2008, when a total of 489 inches was hit…
The greater Yampa-White-Little Snake river basin that includes Steamboat Springs is currently at 147 percent of the 30-year to-date median snowpack. This isn’t a record high, but it’s close.
From email from Big Pivots (Allen Best):
During early March I traveled to Colorado’s Yampa Valley to see, hear, and feel what a big-snow winter looks like and to ponder the implications for the Colorado River. This has been an epic winter, both wondrous and awful.
Ranchers in that valley have long measured snow depths against three-wired stock fences. In Steamboat Springs and along flanks of the Park Range, it’s three wires and more. Nearing Hahns Peak, only dimples in the snow marked the tops of fence posts.
Along the Wyoming-Colorado border, rancher Patrick O’Toole reported that this has been the hardest winter since he arrived in 1976. That includes 1983, when snowstorms persisted until June, catching Colorado River water managers flat-footed. Gargantuan flows into Lake Powell nearly ruptured Glen Canyon Dam.
“This year is more,” said O’Toole.
O’Toole’s family operation moved 7,000 head of sheep from winter range north of Craig to more hospitable desert range. The deep snow, cold, and winds that seem to be worsening were too much for his woolies. He told of pronghorn antelope left behind, some just lying along roads, too weak to stand.
“And there’s a lot of winter left,” he said.
In Craig, walls of icicles hung from roof edges, and the motel parking lot had snow and ice a half-foot thick. Along the edges of the frozen Yampa River, six cow elk huddled, looking perplexed, as another storm moved in. Glancing at my phone, I saw that in Denver, the temperature was near 50. In the opposite corner of Colorado, Lamar had been warned of potential prairie fires.
Driving twisting, snow-covered county roads made me tense, but the whitened landscapes blanketed by snows filled me with joy. My mind’s ears erupted in the chorus from Bach’s “Hallelujah.”
The Steamboat ski area surpassed last season’s total snowfall in mid-January. In the town itself, banks of carefully placed snow head-high and taller form a labyrinth of slots and passages, the city’s streets, sidewalks and driveways. Mindful that spring will eventually arrive, city crews have already ordered sandbags.
Nobody can know for sure when melting will begin in earnest. Along the Elk River, north of Steamboat, Jay Fetcher has faithfully recorded the day each year that the final snow on his pasture melts. His father began the records in 1949. The “snow off meadow” date varies, as do the snowpack and temperatures, but has arrived on average one day earlier every five years.
Will this epic snowpack end the drought, fill Lake Powell, and cause Colorado River states to get chummy instead of testy?
It’s still early March. Much uncertainty remains. The Upper Colorado Basin River Forecasting Center report on March 1 projected runoff for the Yampa and White rivers at 120% to 170% of average as defined by runoff totals during the last three decades.
Will the weather stay cold and snowy or, as has happened in some recent years, will turn warm and dry in April, May and June? In 2020, for example, a mid-March snowpack of 108% snow-water equivalent yielded runoff of 79% of average. On the Colorado River altogether, an average snowpack that year yielded runoff 52% of average.
How much melted snow will the thirsty soils sop up? Last year’s summer rains restored the soil moisture somewhat in northwestern Colorado, but they remain subpar and thirsty. Runoff will again underperform the snowpack.
It’s also useful to note that not all sub-basins in the Colorado River Basin have had the same plentitude as the Yampa. On the Green River, upstream of Flaming Gorge Reservoir, the runoff is forecast to be only 84% of average.
As for Lake Powell, the runoff from the Yampa can only help—but only so far. It was 21.8% full on Tuesday, March 7. One winter’s heavy snows will not refill it, though. Colorado State University climate researcher Brad Udall told KUNC’s Alex Hager in January that it will take five or six winters of 150% snowpack to refill Powell and Lake Mead.
Filling Flaming Gorge and other upper-basin reservoirs drawn down to keep Powell levels high enough to produce electricity need to be refilled. Peter was robbed to pay Paul. Now Peter’s pockets need replenishing. That will take time, too.
This has not been drought, as conventionally understood. Udall and other climate researchers call it a “hot drought,” the result of rising temperatures caused by atmospheric pollution.
“We are not changing any of our tactics based on one year,” said Lindsay DeFrates, a spokeswoman for the Colorado River Water Conservation District in Glenwood Springs. “It’s such a long game. We need to be sure we are prepared for a hotter, drier future.”
This year’s epic snow in the Yampa Valley means plenty of water for ranchers to grow grass this summer. Beyond that, little can be said.
Allen Best tracks the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond at BigPivots.com. He welcomes comments and contributions.
Hopes to forge a plan to reduce Colorado River Basin water use by 15% to 25% this year disintegrated this week with dueling proposals that pit California against Arizona and other basin states, including Wyoming.
That leaves the U.S. Department of the Interior and Bureau of Reclamation, which issued the water-savings challenge in June 2022, to potentially impose their own plan to cut releases from Lake Powell and Lake Mead to maintain hydropower generation.
“Given the magnitude of water-use reductions that are being considered, talks between the Basin States have been very difficult at times,” Wyoming State Engineer Brandon Gebhart said in an email to WyoFile.
Responding to a Jan. 31 deadline, Wyoming joined fellow Upper Colorado River Basin states — as well as Nevada and Arizona in the Lower Basin — in supporting a proposed “consensus-based” model for better accounting of actual water supplies, including water losses due to evaporation and seepage at Lake Mead. That framework, if implemented, should result in a water savings of 1.5 million acre-feet to 3.3 million acre-feet of water, according to a letter signed by water officials representing the six states.
But those proposed water savings may not be fully realized this year. Plus, the six-state proposal leaves open the prospect for major water cuts this year to the Lower Basin states, particularly California — the largest consumer of Colorado River water in the system. California countered this week with its own proposal for short-term water savings that would maintain the state’s bargaining power rooted in its senior water rights. That plan would shift the burden of water cuts to Arizona, which has water rights that are junior to California’s.
“I think that’s why Arizona was quick to jump on the letter with the other six states,” Great Basin Water Network Executive Director Kyle Roerink said.
Arizona prefers the consensus-building approach to sharing the pain of water-use reductions, Roerink said, over a strict adherence to the legal framework to restrict water use among those with the most junior water rights.
“In both letters, you have some serious shots across the bow as it relates to litigation and political posturing,” Roerink said. “And no one is calling on the Congress to fix this.”
Although the six-state proposal that Wyoming signed on to doesn’t commit specific, voluntary water-use reductions, it’s a necessary “next step toward a consensus solution,” Gebhart said.
“As we continue the process, we try to understand and respect the very difficult realities being faced by California and the other Basin States,” he said. “We remain committed to working with the other Basin States and impacted water users to find consensus solutions.”
Despite varying legal positions and dire circumstances faced by each Colorado River stakeholder, some observers say Wyoming and the other Upper Basin states have offered up too little to help address the immediate problem that threatens some 40 million people who rely on the river.
“The Upper Basin is getting off scot-free,” Roerink said. “Plus, there’s no prohibitions put forth on potentially new development of Upper Basin water, like the West Fork of Battle Creek, for example.”
Regardless of what new actions the federal government may take in coming months, the Bureau of Reclamation will continue to rely on releasing extra volumes of water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border to help balance levels at downstream reservoirs, according to those close to the issue.
The bureau enacted extra releases totaling 625,000 acre-feet of water from the reservoir since 2021, and is expected to announce additional releases in April or May. Flaming Gorge was at 69% capacity in January, according to the bureau. If that continues into the summer, many boat ramps will be left high and dry threatening the local recreation economy.
Meantime, Wyoming and the Upper Colorado River Commission are encouraging voluntary water conservation, soliciting interest in a program that pays irrigators, municipalities and industrial facilities to leave water in streams that flow to the Colorado River.
This week, the UCRC extended the application deadline for the System Conservation Pilot Program to March 1. Wyoming officials expect to receive 15 to 20 proposals from individual water users in coming weeks, according to the state engineer’s office.
For more information about the SCPP, visit the UCRC’s website.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
…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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.,,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
…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
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.
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.
The Yampa River flows from the Flat Tops Wilderness, through the city of Steamboat Springs, then turns west and eventually joins with the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. Along the way it turns the semi-arid landscape of Routt and Moffat counties into a ribbon of green, irrigated meadows.
In recent years the Yampa has started experiencing issues that have long been a part of other river basins like over-appropriation, calls and water shortages.
“That reach has seen declines in water levels over time with drought and long-term climate impacts,” said Jennifer Wellman, TNC project manager. “(The Maybell Ditch project) was one of those that rose to the surface where we could hopefully work with the water users to have a greater impact in that basin … . That whole reach is really special, and it warrants more water if it’s available, especially during the low flow periods.”
Challenges for irrigators, boaters, fish
Maybell Irrigation District manager Mike Camblin said historically some ranchers couldn’t get their full amount of water unless the ditch, which was constructed in the 1890s, was running full blast.
“We had one field where if the ditch wasn’t full, they couldn’t get it wet because there wasn’t enough elevation to it,” he said. “It was too flat.”
That meant more water was being sent through the ditch as “push water” to make sure flows make it to dry fields. It also meant more water was flowing back into the Yampa River at the end of the approximately 18-mile-long ditch, known as tailwater. If there’s too much tailwater, that can mean a ditch is taking more out of the river than it is able to use, a no-no according to the state Division of Water Resources.
A first round of improvements to the ditch added a liner to reduce seepage and check structures, which slow the flow of water. Those measures only partially addressed the issues.
The project that is now being proposed is much more extensive and involves reconstructing the diversion and modernizing the headgate, which controls the flow of water from the river into the ditch. By fixing a grade control structure — essentially arranging boulders in mid-stream that push up the water in the river upstream of the headgate — it creates more elevation to allow gravity to move water into the ditch, which should reduce the need to push water. It will also smooth out a passage for both fish and boats.
The twin, circular, century-old headgates are rusted and hard to operate.
“There’s no way those things are easy to adjust,” said Erin Light, Division 6 engineer at the state Division of Water Resources. “Quite frankly, if the water commissioner had to adjust it, I don’t think he or she could. We would have to rely on (the irrigation district) to do that, which is not preferred.”
The remote location of the headgate — a three-mile round trip hike down the rugged Juniper Canyon off an already-remote dirt road — is a challenge for the district. When all the headgates on the ditch are opening and closing according to the differing schedules and water needs of the irrigators, it can be hard to coordinate the manual operation of the main headgate. The new headgate will be automated and controlled remotely.
“That’s a four- or five-hour deal by the time you drive up there, walk up there, adjust it and drive home,” Camblin said. “The automation on that will be huge. As far as management, it will be our biggest tool.”
But construction won’t be easy. Heavy equipment can’t make it down to the river along the ditch and will have to access the diversion using newly constructed roads on Bureau of Land Management land. The BLM considers the ditch a cultural resource and project proponents will have to be careful to avoid impacts to it.
Western Colorado Area Manager for JUB Engineers Luke Gingerich explained the complexities of the project on a site visit in July.
“They are going to have to create a couple miles of nice road to get in,” Gingerich said. “It will be a large disturbance and we’ve got to come back and make sure we return this as close as we can to the condition it was in before.”
According to Camblin, it was the federal Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program that first pushed the district to take a look at where it could manage its water better. That stretch of river is designated critical habitat for species of endangered fish. Water is released out of the upstream Elkhead Reservoir for the fish, and the new automated headgate will allow the Maybell Ditch to more easily let that water flow past it, to get to where it’s needed.
Boon for boaters
The diversion reconstruction project will also be a boon for boaters. River advocacy nonprofit Friends of the Yampa said in a letter of support for the project that the Maybell Diversion is the most significant barrier for safe, passable recreation along a 200-mile stretch of the Yampa River. Boaters often have to get out to portage the rapid formed by the diversion structure. The new diversion will create a boat passage, connecting two sections of boatable river.
At July’s site visit, recreation and education coordinator for Friends of the Yampa Kent Vertrees said he’s grateful for the collaboration between the agriculture, recreation and environmental water users.
“As a recreation person, I’ve said all along we get the dregs of all the other water users,” Vertrees said. “We rely on agriculture more than anyone to make sure there’s water in the river. It’s really great, our partnerships in northwest Colorado.”
But that partnership was a bit of a hard sell at first, Camblin said. Some Maybell Ditch irrigators were skeptical about a project spearheaded by an environmental group. Tensions can sometimes run high between irrigators, who take water out of rivers, and environmental groups, who want to leave water in rivers. Camblin said the district held several meetings between irrigators and TNC to assure water users their water rights or how they manage their ranch wouldn’t be threatened.
“One of our goals we talked about when we started this was, we wanted to show people the agriculture community can work with groups they don’t normally work with,” Camblin said. “We are hoping other ag communities say, ‘Hey, you know what? Some of this stuff is possible. I might have to reach across the table to make it work but this will be a beneficial project to so many people.’”
The headgate and diversion reconstruction could come with a hefty price tag and TNC is still fundraising for what could end up costing more than originally thought due to supply chain interruptions and inflation. The project has secured almost $3.5 million so far, nearly $2 million of which comes from a Bureau of Reclamation WaterSMART grant. The Colorado Water Conservation Board has contributed about $1 million so far; the Colorado River Water Conservation District will give $500,000; $40,000 will come from the Yampa River Fund and the irrigation district is also contributing money and in-kind resources. However, the total final price tag remains unknown and is likely to be higher than what’s already been secured. Wellman said some of the additional funding needed will also come from the National Resources Conservation Service.
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. This story appeared in the Sept. 11 edition of The Aspen Times.
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.
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.
The corridor project encompasses several improvements to Loudy Simpson Park, including a new concrete boat ramp, access road and parking area, as well as improving the existing diversion dam site with a whitewater park, access road, parking area and park amenities. According to a statement from Kilpatrick, the project fits into Craig’s master plan for parks, recreation, open space and trails. It also fits within the Moffat County Vision 2025 Transition Plan, which outlines proactive strategies to help the community transition from a coal-centered economy.
The goal of the EDA funding is to support economic resilience by diversifying the region’s economic base. The idea is that having an outdoor recreational amenity so close to town will attract more visitors to spend time in town, creating a ripple effect in the local economy. While visitors bring in tourism dollars, the employees who serve those tourists then spend money on other goods and services in town. There have been studies in other communities where similar projects have taken place to measure the economic impact of whitewater parks.
A 2006 study in Durango estimated that whitewater recreation created 33 jobs for $1 million in annual sales from tourist dollars. In 2009, the University of Idaho estimated that a whitewater park in Cascade, Idaho, generated $8.2 million annually from this ripple effect. A whitewater park in Truckee, Nevada, reported economic benefits ranged from $1.9 million to $4.1 million annually.
Good Vibes River Gear and the Craig RV Park, local employers whose businesses would directly benefit from growth in river tourism, have committed to adding over 30 new full-time employees. And it’s estimated that the project will create approximately 129 new jobs in both direct and adjacent industries…
Craig’s current city water intake diversion dam is a 200-foot wide and 10-feet high barrier made of concrete and rip rap boulders. Kilpatrick said in a statement that the existing diversion is in disrepair and needs to be updated. In its current condition, the diversion can also be a hazard for boaters, and it blocks passage for numerous fish species, several of which are federally listed endangered species. Replacing the current diversion dam with a natural channel design will allow the city to continue to draw its allotted water from the river and will improve boater safety and year-round fish passage.
“This sustains the city’s water supply in a fiscally responsible way. That’s hugely important to us,” Kilpatrick said. “We get improved fish passage, and healthier aquatic and riparian habitat. We get better access to the river. And we get the economic development associated with whitewater recreation.”
Near the end of July, flows into Stagecoach Reservoir from the Yampa River dropped below 40 cubic feet per second for a few days. That threshold is important because it helps, in part, determine how much water flows out of the reservoir and continues downstream to Steamboat Springs. If the flow coming in is more than 40 cfs, then at least 40 cfs is usually discharged at the bottom of Stagecoach Dam. If the inflow drops below 40 cfs, the outflow generally would as well, leaving less water for critical fish habitat below the dam and in the river in general.
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.
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…
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.
The landscape of eastern Colorado can be expected to look substantially different by the end of 2025. The plans — approved conceptually in a series of meetings during recent weeks by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission —will yield thousands and thousands of new wind turbines during the next few years scattered across eastern Colorado, likely massive amounts of solar, and game-changing amounts of storage. I can’t cite precise numbers, because they are yet to be worked out.
More clear is the transmission needed for this farm-to-market delivery of renewable energy: up to 650 miles of high-strung wires looping around eastern Colorado in a project called Power Pathway. Also possible is a 90-mile extension from a substation north of Lamar to the Springfield area.
Driving this hurried, gold rush-type of development in Colorado’s wind-rich regions is the state’s determination to dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions from electrical generation during this decade. It aims to do this even as it displaces use of fossil fuels in transportation and for space and water heating in buildings.
A hard deadline is imposed by the expiration of federal tax credits for wind and solar at the end of 2025.
An Xcel representative, Amanda King, had testified to the importance of completing the first two Power Pathway transmission segments sooner rather than later. The PUC commissioners cited that testimony in their June 2 decision approving the transmission lines:
“The company asserts that by having these segments in-service by the end of 2025, wind and solar developers will be able to interconnect resources prior to the expiration of the production tax credit and step-down of the investment tax credit, which would represent cost savings of approximately $300 million per (gigawatt) of interconnected wind capacity and $100 million per (gigawatt) of interconnected solar capacity, in net present value, to customers,” the decision said.
“It’s a pretty amazing amount of infrastructure that needs to go into the ground in a really short time,” says one individual, a stakeholder in the PUC process, speaking on condition of confidentiality.
Because of that exigency, a written decision is likely in July, no later than August. Appeals by Xcel or other stakeholders could delay the actual green light, but not for long.
For some, this represents a triumph of arguments going back almost two decades.
“It helps unleash the innovation we need to build the 21st century electrical system,” said Leslie Glustrom, who wears various hats but was speaking as a representative of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society the day I talked with her.
She uses the metaphor of inheritance vs. income. In this case, fossil fuels are the inheritance. In the future we must live off the income of renewables.
“If you were lucky enough to have a big inheritance you could buy three houses and five condos,” she said. Living off income poses a major challenge, she says, especially if you haven’t acquired the skills you need.
“We can do it,” she adds, “especially if we are better at matching our demands to the times when we have an abundance of wind and solar.”
Risk is inherent in this process of transition. But risk cuts both ways, as pointed out by Gwen Farnsworth, senior policy advisor for Western Resource Advocates. The PUC deliberations are focused on how to evaluate those risks of relying upon fossil fuel generation in terms of system reliability and climate change. The commission, she says, is “pushing Xcel so that its future resources are cleaner, more flexible and more reliable.”
With this triumph also comes anxiety. The three commissioners used the word “uncertainty” maybe a dozen times when they deliberated during a long afternoon on June 10.
“We are making decisions about billions of dollars of investments under conditions that may have unprecedented uncertainty,” said Eric Blank, the chair, while mentioning climate change, inflationary pressures, rising labor costs, and supply chain disruptions.
Renewables won’t be the steal they were in 2018. Demand has grown. This is the gold rush. California alone wants to add 8,000 megawatts of renewable generation.
Closely related is the growing concern about “resource adequacy” mentioned by Commissioner Megan Gilman and also Commissioner John Gavan. Can Xcel keep the air conditioners on during a really, really hot day—or, as in February 2021, on a very cold day?
After, I talked with Jeffrey Ackermann, the chair of the PUC for four years prior to Blank, to get his big-picture assessment of what this represents.
“I think everyone – regulators and utilities, but stakeholders, too – are eager to move forward while also realizing that you can’t get it mostly right. It has to be 100% right.”
Ackermann was referring to the greater complexity of the electrical grid being assembled with its more diverse resources and greater interplay between utilities and consumers. The stakes have also elevated.
Overlay that onto the burgeoning Western markets that are still taking shape, which provokes new questions about resource adequacy and reserve margins. What if the interconnected utilities from Montana to New Mexico get struck by a heat wave at the same time?
In the PUC handling of this complex case, Ackermann commends his successor, Blank.
“I like how this chairman has sequenced the conversation,” he said. “It affirms the complexity of this and also the uncertainty. At the same time it doesn’t shy away from realizing that some tough decisions need to be made now if you want to achieve 2030 goals and beyond. It’s a tough balance.”
Ron Lehr, who chaired the PUC beginning in 1983, concedes the complexity, acknowledges the uncertainty – although pointing out that in 1983, interest rates stood at 18%. (I can confirm; I was suffocating that year, paying 21% interest on my loan for a purchase of a trailer in Granby).
Colorado’s planning process, says Lehr, deserves credit. For outsiders, it’s maddeningly complex and anything but transparent. Even those deeply engaged in the process sometimes get frustrated with the filing system at the PUC. Joe “Schmo,” public citizen? Fuggedaboutit.
Despite these shortcomings, Lehr argues the process itself has been very effective and has improved over time. It creates a forum for diverse voices to exchange ideas.
That process yields some crackpot ideas, he said, “but you weed through them. Then you can diversify your thinking and create a lower-risk template that can attract investment from the private sector.”
Colorado’s process, he added, has drawn national attention for yielding lots of bids for electrical generation — and lower prices.
“The more inclusive and integrated our planning and the more far-sighted the planning, the better we can handle the uncertainty,” he told me.
The story about moving on from coal is the easy story here, but Lehr thinks a side story – about the impacts of Winter Storm Uri on natural gas prices in Colorado — will move the needle past natural gas, too.
“Gas is a bankrupt long-term strategy. You don’t have it when you need it.”
Back to the metaphor of rebuilding the airplane in mid-flight. It was given to me by Mike Kruger, the chief executive of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association, and in a far more colorful way than I’ve articulated here.
We wouldn’t be remodeling this plane in flight if it wasn’t necessary, he says. Yes, uncertainties exist, and likely new uncertainties will become apparent. But the status quo of centralized fossil fuel generation isn’t working.
“We have to try something.”
Despite its cumbersome aspect, he believes Colorado’s legal structure and the stakeholders – Xcel but also the business, consumer, environmental, government, and other groups – have enough flexibility to respond rapidly if necessary.
“If in two and a half years we find we missed the mark on something, I would be surprised if the industry and the environmental and labor groups and Xcel would not be able to figure how to correct it quickly.”
That brings up Colorado’s newest coal plant, not quite a dozen years old, and also its largest, at 750 megawatts: Comanche 3.
(Some refuse to call it by that name in the belief that it besmirches tribal people. I couldn’t help note that almost invariably in the PUC discussions it was referred to as unit 3 or Pueblo unit 3.” Maybe Leslie Glustrom’s rants on this are being heard).
When the plant was formally approved in 2005, Colorado’s first major wind farm, Colorado Green, located near Lamar, had just begun producing electricity. It was the future, not coal, but most utilities had not yet gotten that memo. Tri-State was about to start spending $100 million on a humongous coal plant downstream along the Arkansas River in Kansas—a decision from which it has not fully recovered. And, of course, Comanche 3 cost upwards of $1 billion in today’s dollars. Xcel still had humongous debt, a central issue in how soon it is retired.
Coal’s rapid fall from favor and competitiveness is told in these numbers. The fuel produced 66% of Xcel’s electricity for Colorado retail and wholesale customers in 2005. Last year It had fallen by more than half, to 32%. It should be close to zero by 2030. (Xcel may still buy some power from the market that will come from coal plants).
As Noah Long of the Natural Resources Defense Council pointed out in a May 25 posting, this electric resource plan being approved could put Xcel on track to achieve approximately 90% carbon emissions’ reductions as compared to 2005 when Comanche closes, no later than New Year’s Eve of 2030.
Actually, the plant will likely close before then, perhaps long before.
Operations of Comanche will be determined, in part, by a new filter, the social cost of carbon, as specified by new Colorado laws in the last several years.
Another element of the plan being approved by the PUC will create a performance-incentive mechanism (PIM, in the acronym-heavy soup of PUC discussions) to give Xcel financial incentives to steer the plant with decarbonization goals in mind.
The PUC commissioners are going beyond the settlement agreement submitted to them in May by Xcel and the various stakeholder groups. At the suggestion of Blank, the commissioners plan to adopt an additional review governing operations and management that is to be tripped if another major investment is needed to continue operations of the plant.
At issue is how much money will be poured into propping up what one person close to these proceedings described as a “dog.” The analogy is to a car. At what point do you just walk away from it?
“Five years down the road we may have another turbine-bearing outage, and it just isn’t worth it,” said Commissioner Gavan, alluding to the cause of the most recent outage that has had “Pueblo unit 3” off-line for most of 2022 (it’s back in operation now). It was also off-line for most of 2020.
It seemingly has been cursed with problems since it began operations in the summer of 2010. The latest evidence was the deaths of two men in a slide of coal outside the plant on June 5. Their bodies were found under about 60 feet of coal.
A sharper definition of the closing should come into view during a “Just Transition” proceeding that begins in 2024. That proceeding will consider another round of new generation, presumably renewables, likely with a preference for those that can be added to property tax rolls in Pueblo County, to compensate for the loss of property tax there as the coal plants get retired.
In all this, the PUC has much balancing to do. Xcel is ultimately responsible for reliability of electricity, the PUC in protecting the interests of ratepayers. At least in theory – and I believe in practice – both have an interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while Xcel has the additional motivation of delivering profits to investors.
This gets into a complex area of cost-recovery. As Glustrom points out, “these are not insignificant numbers.” The Colorado Renewable Energy Society documented undepreciated assets of the Hayden coal units of somewhere around $70 million, the Pawnee plant at Brush of $170 million, Comanche 3 even more.
Glustrom has long argued that state regulators allow Xcel and its investors unreasonably large returns on their investments. The authorized rate of return is 9.3%. If the utility’s decisions are risk free, then the return on equity should be below 5%, she says. Most everybody else is inclined to be more generous to Xcel than Glustrom.
What almost certainly will come into play is a concept called securitization. It’s fundamentally a way for an investor-owned utility to shuffle its debt into lower-interest long-term bonds. This will be part of the process going forward and, once again, could alter the retirement date of Comanche 3.
This area of cost recovery, almost certainly will be controversial – and might trigger an appeal by Xcel.
Three of the many additional elements of this deserve mention.
One is the idea advanced by Blank to give Xcel some leeway to begin planning and incurring expenses for gas-fired generation, but also wind, solar, and storage – with the expectation that the company will be able to recoup costs short of actual commissioning construction of the assets. It’s called “pre-construction development assets.”
This provision reflects the concern about the uncertainties and fluidities that Blank talked about in the June 10 meeting. This gives the company some rope to move forward but only so far.
Status of water
Another new element never seen before in Colorado – and perhaps no other state, either – is a provision that Xcel must report the status of its water rights associated with its retiring coal plants. Think particularly of Hayden, although Xcel has an interest in the coal plants at Craig, too. And then there is Comanche 3.
At first glance, this seems like a strange requirement. After all, Colorado state government already has a Division of Water Resources. Why does the PUC need to poke its nose into water?
That was essentially Xcel’s argument. The PUC commissioners, though, hesitated not at all in embracing this requirement
The idea had been advanced by Western Resource Advocates. WRA’s Ellen Howard Kutzer explains the expansive view here: Water is an essential component of the coal-fired steam plants built by the monopoly to create a public good, the production of electricity. As the coal plants go, the PUC should have some purview over the disposition of those assets. And Xcel has the staff that can provide the essential information in a way that is understandable to PUC staff.
True, the state water agency gets the same information. But the water world gets weirdly wonky at times. So, Xcel’s water staff can translate it for non-water-wonks. It won’t be a major imposition.
But why does this information matter?
Xcel likely has not decided, and certainly has not disclosed, what it will do at Hayden. It has talked about molten salt but has not dismissed the possibility for green hydrogen or other technologies that may – or may not – be ready for prime time. They can involve water.
The way Western Resource Advocates sees the water, it should be considered as part of the just transition process for Yampa Valley communities. The water that is kept there will most benefit the local communities.
The fear here is of water export, particularly to the Front Range. I dove deeply into this in late 2019 and early 2020 on behalf of Aspen Journalism. Geography matters entirely here. Exporting the water would require pumping it over two mountain ranges. That’s a big lift. That said, money has surfaced recently to reanimate the even bigger stretch of exporting water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir to the Front Range, so who knows.
Just how much water is involved in water for the coal plants? I forget the precise volumes, but they are not as much as you might think, but neither were they insignificant. Importantly, they have relatively high seniority.
WRA’s position, Howard Kutzer said, is that it’s not right to leave the utility to do with the water entirely what it pleases.
“They used these public resources to create a public good, so ultimately — not now, but in the future — the PUC should be able to say whether transferring those water rights is in the public interest.”
Level playing field for storage
Finally, the PUC affirmed their support for the treatment of storage proposed by Colorado Solar and Storage.
“Storage will be a critical path to getting the grid of the future that we want,” said Gilman at the June 10 meeting of the commissioners in endorsing the recommendation of the trade group.
The critical issues here are of the value assigned to storage and the role of private operators in providing that storage as opposed to company-owned storage. The limitations of storage are well known. Lithium-ion batteries currently can store reserves for about four hours. Because of that, Xcel Energy wanted to assign a lower value, but others wanted a higher value. This outcome favors higher value and hence greater incentive for private developers to propose projects.
Other elements of this plan being approved could deserve mention. An entire story could be written through the lens of Pueblo County (and maybe I will—later).
Or through the lens of Akron, or Cope or Walsh, places on the eastern plains near which these new transmission lines will be draped, along with wind turbines. I hear diverse voices. Some resent the coming wind turbines, an intrusion into rural life to benefit city residents. Others – more commonly those who will directly benefit from lease payments – welcome the development of wind and solar resources.
This won’t solve all the problems of eastern Colorado, where mechanization has left farmers arguably more prosperous but it’s the main street of towns ever more anemic. Many, like Yuma County, had larger populations 100 years ago than they do today. Several times in recent years, I’ve had young people from eastern Colorado say to me, “I just wish Kit Carson had two or three restaurants,” or “It would be nice if Lamar was just a bit bigger.”
This won’t make that happen, but it will at least slow some of the erosion.
What’s next in this transition? So many things are up in the air. Rules are being drawn up governing the minimized use of natural gas in buildings (and boy, is that stuff tedious).
Then there will be the question of demand-side management and energy efficiency. Xcel is expected to submit its plans for that and for beneficial electrification of buildings on July 1. Expect a lot of push and pull here, as there has been over Comanche 3. The environmental community believes Xcel has vastly under-estimated what it can do in terms of reducing demand and shaping demand to better correspond with this vast fleet of renewables soon to take shape on Colorado’s High Plains.
There’s good cause for high-five’s, but there will be little time to dawdle.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The second is to keep the soil covered with plant residue. Residue increases infiltration and decreases erosion.
The third is to maximize plant diversity. Just like any ecosystem, soil ecosystems benefit from diversity, and diversity above ground means diversity below ground.
The fourth principle is to maintain a continuous growing root in the soil. We are limited by a short growing season, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t keep a live root in the soil year-round.
The fifth and final principle is to integrate livestock into the growing system. Livestock play a critical role in nutrient distribution and residue cycling.
A good first step to improving soil health on your property is to get a soil test that will give you a baseline to better understand where nutrients are limited or in abundance. The Routt County Conservation District has a grant program available that can pay for a soil test on fields that have the ability and intention of implementing management changes that could improve soil health.
Lyn Halliday is the Board President of the Routt County Conservation District, and the Upper Yampa River Watershed coordinator. Clinton Whitten is the resource team lead with the National Resource Conservation Service. For more about the Community Agriculture Alliance, go to CommunityAgAlliance.org.
The community-based collaborative Yampa River Fund is accepting applications through April 4 for $195,000 in funds available for conservation and restoration activities that positively impact Yampa River basin flows and support natural resource-based livelihoods including agriculture and recreation.
Eligible applicants include state and local government entities, public districts, irrigation entities, mutual ditch companies, homeowner associations and nonprofit organizations. The grant guidelines and application are posted at YampaRiverFund.org/grants. Technical support is available for applicants to help develop grant proposals.
The Yampa River Fund, which launched in September 2019, is dedicated to identifying and funding activities that protect the water supply, aquatic habitat and multi-beneficial opportunities provided by the Yampa River. The fund was created through a partnership of 21 public, private and nonprofit entities representing the Yampa River basin. Total grants for $200,000 from the endowment fund were awarded to six projects in 2021 stretching along the Yampa River from Maybell to Craig and Steamboat Springs to Oak Creek. In 2020, five projects were awarded a total $200,000.
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?”
Click the link to read the article on Big Pivots (Allen Best):
A bill proposing study of nuclear energy in Colorado was killed in an obscure legislative committee last week by the majority Democrats.
This debate isn’t over, though, nor will it be until we’ve learned how to store our bounty of renewable energy for weeks or even months.
We have made huge strides since voters in 2004 mandated Colorado’s largest utilities achieve 10% of their generation from renewables by 2015. Xcel Energy now expects to achieve 86% penetration of renewables by 2030. Nearly all other utilities, large and small, expect to be close behind, or like the Glenwood Springs-based Holy Cross Energy, further ahead.
Sharing of renewables across broad, multi-state areas will be imperative. Smaller, incremental approaches will help. For example, new programs will help us run our dishwashers and charge our electric cars when renewable energy is most abundant.
This gets utilities to maybe 90% emissions-free electricity without imperiling reliability or jacking up costs. It’s that last 10% that perplexes.
Possible paths include molten-salt storage. Xcel Energy considers this an option at Hayden, in northwestern Colorado, when it closes those coal units by 2028. Tri-State, operator of the three coal units at Craig, has indicated an openness to all options, including green hydrogen, which is made from renewable electricity and water in a still-expensive process. Some hope for improved batteries.
Another answer may be pumped-storage hydro, as Xcel has been thinking about in Unaweep Canyon, in western Colorado. Others have similar hydro thoughts for the Yampa Valley.
State Sen. Bob Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale, represents Craig and Hayden. An electrical engineer by training, Rankin had a career in technology, including a stint managing the aerospace division of Ford Motors. He pitched nuclear energy last week to members of the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee as necessary for Colorado to meet its decarbonization goals.
That a Republican representing coal country accepts that coal is not coming back is itself noteworthy. In Wyoming, many have not.
The second major component of the bill was the most telling. Rankin initially wanted Colorado’s economic development agency to commission the $500,000 study (pared to $250,000 before the vote). The Colorado Energy Office, the more obvious choice, was too strictly focused on wind and solar, he said.
That’s not entirely accurate. Wind and solar have been major successes, but just weeks before, the energy office released a study about the legal framework Colorado needs for carbon capture and storage. Carbon capture would allow continued burning of natural gas—a possible way to get to 100%—or, for that matter, burning of coal.
Rankin was absolutely on target in describing nuclear power as being a way to make use of existing infrastructure, both the coal plant sites at Hayden and Craig and transmission. Nuclear could also produce jobs and tax base for those communities. Just as 100% emissions-free energy (at an affordable price) remains elusive, so do the answers for Craig’s economy once the coal plants close. For the same reasons, commissioners in Pueblo County last summer quietly began pushing the idea of nuclear energy.
Cost is the conversational crux of nuclear. The technology has a history of high costs for construction. A new generation of small, modular reactors, if done in many places, may be more economical. One such reactor backed financially by Bill Gates is proposed for a Wyoming coal town, but it’s years from breaking ground. It may be the future—but it’s a big gamble.
Climate change is an even larger, more costly gamble. That’s one reason nuclear power does not fall neatly along a Republican/Democratic divide. One person who testified in support of Rankin’s bill identified himself as a card-carrying Democratic activist.
Democrats were unpersuaded, even after Rankin moved the study to the energy office. He never explained exactly what answers this study would have delivered that couldn’t be found elsewhere. The bill seemed more intent on making a political statement than delivering useful information. But then Democratic legislative leaders had made a statement themselves by not assigning the bill to the energy committee.
Had the bill advanced, we would have heard from State Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat and a key architect of Colorado’s energy transition. Growing up in a Kansas farm town, Hansen became enamored of nuclear energy. Even as he earned a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering, though, he pivoted his studies to economics, capping it with a Ph.D. The economics of nuclear energy, he told me last June, is why he believes the technology won’t be a major answer to the climate emergency.
Until we get to 100% renewables, though, it’s likely to be on the table.