@COWaterCongress Annual Summer Conference recap #cwcsc2019

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

From The Steamboat Pilot (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck):

Water leaders from across the state converged on Steamboat Springs this week as part of the Colorado Water Congress Summer Conference.

The Colorado Water Congress is a group of people who work and live in water, explained Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger…

In a legislative update, attendees heard about three proposals that could change water management in the state. Reps. Dylan Roberts, Jeni Arndt and Donald Valdez and Sens. Kerry Donovan, Jerry Sonnenberg and Don Coram sat on the panel.

“As somebody who represents Routt County and other Western Slope counties, we know what a dry year looks like,” Roberts said. “We just had one last year, and we’re fortunate to have a wet year this year, but we have to continuously plan for those dry years and look at any legislation that helps us to preserve and conserve as much water as possible, prevent forest fires and protect agriculture, because they’re the ones that really lose out when we have dry years.”

Changes to a program that increases river flow in dry years

The instream flow program allows the Colorado Water Conservation Board to designate water rights to preserve or improve the natural environment of a stream.

In the Yampa River, this program has been used to release reservoir water to boost flows through Steamboat in dry summers.

Under the current law, the program allows people who hold water rights to temporarily loan reservoir water to the state to boost flows in a stream three times over the course of a 10-year period. The Colorado Water Conservation Board has already used loaned water for an instream flow in the Upper Yampa River three times in 2012, 2013 and 2017.

Though reservoir water has been released in other years, including last summer, it was under a different legal mechanism.

Roberts, a Democrat who represents Routt and Eagle counties, introduced a bill that would allow for more instream flow releases.

“Once the 10-year period is done, you’re done forever, and you can never do it again,” Roberts explained. “So while city of Steamboat and the Yampa River has taken advantage of that program, they’ve started their 10-year clock. Once we hit 10 years in 2022, they won’t be able to use it again, so if we have a really low water year on the Yampa in 2023 or 2024, we won’t be able to use the instream flow to keep the Yampa running through town.”

The bill, as currently proposed, would allow these loans for five of every 10 years and allow it to be renewed twice once those 10-year periods end.

This would improve stream habitat, Roberts said, as well as limit economic impacts due to river closures placed during low flows that impact tubing outfitters, fishing shops and the businesses that benefit from recreation in the area.

Monger, who sits on the board of the Upper Yampa Conservancy District, said the program has “been a great thing.” The district operates Stagecoach Reservoir.

“(The district’s) actually been fortunate enough to have some available wet water that we can send down through to the city of Steamboat Springs, and it helps with water quality as well as water temperature,” he said. “It’s been a great thing, and the upper Yampa sells a little bit of water for its revenue sources to be able to take care of the water, so that’s a good thing.”

It would also expand the program by allowing more water to be released to create more habitat for aquatic species, whereas currently, these releases are smaller releases designated only to preserve the existing natural environment…

Ballot measure to legalize sports betting with tax revenue funding water projects

Earlier this year, the legislature passed a measure that will ask voters to legalize sports betting with tax revenue from the practice funding the implementation of the Colorado Water Plan.

If approved by voters, Colorado would allow some casinos to offer a sports book, essentially a room with a betting board and “every game known to man” on television screens, as Donovan put it. Casinos could also contract with online sports betting companies, such as DraftKings and FanDuel, to operate web-based sports betting. People could bet on college, professional and Olympic games.

While sports betting has taken place in the state, it’s currently illegal.

“This is a chance to legalize an action that we know is happening on the ground and to provide regulation protection under that act if people choose to bet on sports betting,” Donovan said.

A 10% tax on each wager would be paid by casinos, with the bulk of the revenue funding the Colorado Water Plan. Some revenue would be directed to administrative costs, a hold harmless fund and a gambling crisis hotline.

The Colorado Water Plan outlines a number of actions such as conserving more water used by cities and industry, storing more water, establishing plans to protect critical watersheds and increasing public awareness of water issues. The Yampa-White-Green River Basin Roundtable would implement the plan locally.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jared Polis requested $30 million to fund the plan and statewide drought planning. The legislature granted $8.3 million to fund the water plan and $1.7 million for drought planning…

Using new technology to trade water rights in real-time

Another law, passed earlier this year, establishes an advisory group to study possible uses of blockchain technology within agriculture.

Blockchain is a way to track transactions, and it uses the same record-keeping technology as bitcoin. Each transaction within the network, whether the blockchain network is trading water or money, is recorded in a block and includes data about transactions under a unique signature, sort of like a username. Each transaction is verified by the network of computers in the blockchain.

Evan Thomas, director of the Mortensen Center in Global Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, presented on possible applications of blockchain in the world of water rights. Blockchain could create a system to trade water by using sensors that track how much water is used or conserved to create “water credits.”

“(Those water credits are) entered into the blockchain,” Thomas said. “Somebody requests a transaction. They say ‘I need to buy more water this month, so I want to buy somebody else’s water credits.’ You enter in that transactionm, and they buy and sell points. The sensor identifies water use and water consumption, (and) turns that into a blockchain node.”

Thomas said this is a worthwhile tool to study in its applications for water rights, but that it is one part of a “suite of tools” that should be examined to update how water is traded.

A feverish stream, a legion of volunteers, a $1.7 million grant. Is it enough to help the Yampa River keep its cool? — @WaterEdCO

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

Here’s a report Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith). Click through for the photos and the graphics:

Could something as simple and natural as a ragged corridor of expansive, towering shade trees help a river arm itself against a world in which temperatures are rising?

In northwestern Colorado’s Yampa River Basin, a 300-person-strong army of volunteers is banking on it.

The Yampa River historically has produced so much abundant, clear, cool water that its fish, kayakers, and the farmers along its banks were rarely left wanting.

But climate change is altering that dynamic. Last summer the river’s flows shrank sharply, and its formerly cool waters became dangerously warm, threatening the fish. Its high fever prompted the City of Steamboat Springs to close the popular stretch through town to fisherman and boaters on multiple occasions to avoid further stressing the mountain white fish, which is found in few other Colorado regions.

The shut-down was a huge blow to the city and to local rafting and tubing companies who rely on the river for their livelihoods.

The disturbing heat added urgency to a small program that has been gaining supporters and clout in the Yampa River Basin. The Yampa Sustainability Council (YSC), aided by $175,000 from local donors and some state grants, has ramped up a broad-based tree planting program along the river’s banks known as ReTree. Additional funding from a new $1.7 million Nature Conservancy water fund will add even more muscle to the effort.

On a hot Friday afternoon in late June, Sarah Jones, executive director of the YSC, parks at a trailhead just east of town, slathers herself in sunscreen, and loads a white plastic bucket with small calipers, a measuring stick, a GPS device and wooden stakes to take down to the river’s edge. These are the tools she and others will use to carefully locate and measure the progress of trees planted in recent years.

The reforesting work is conducted with a careful, slow precision. Each tree that is planted along the banks, and there are hundreds, is assessed, measured and located each season, even as more are placed in the ground.

The trend of warming rivers is creating a need for new science and reams of field data. “This is a new, not well-understood problem,” Jones said.

She and her partners, including the Colorado State Forest Service and the City of Steamboat, are taking the long view, carefully evaluating each year what has worked, discarding practices that have failed, and boosting those that have succeeded.

They once used elaborate planting protocols for placing the young saplings in the ground, but the trees respond much better when their small root balls are poked into the side of the bank, almost casually, supported by simple twigs. The starter trees also like being planted in the fall, they’ve learned, not the spring.

The Yampa River, in some ways, is a blessed stream, with more water than most Western rivers, and a community of hard-working, often wealthy, advocates.

This year The Nature Conservancy announced it had raised $1.7 million in a long-term water fund to restore and protect the Yampa River. The goal is to raise another $4.3 million to protect the watershed.

It is an unheard-of sum in this remote, northwestern corner of the state.

But those who know the Yampa understand the significance of protecting it, not just for the sake of this region, but for the state of Colorado and even for the greater American Southwest.

The river sits near the headwaters of the drought-stressed Colorado River system and is one of its last, mostly free-flowing tributaries. Because it is relatively unhindered, with only a few small reservoirs high on its mainstem, it serves as a kind of benchmark for scientists seeking to understand natural river dynamics and mimic them elsewhere.

Keeping the Yampa healthy also helps a much broader effort in the West to bring the Colorado River system back from the edge of a crisis precipitated by population growth, a nearly 20-year drought, and rising temperatures.

Jones and her colleague Caroline Manriquez, assistant district forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, walk slowly along a public stretch of the river. Each of them notes the young trees planted two or three years ago that are outgrowing the metal cages put in place to protect them from beavers, who are both a curse and a blessing on the river.

“On the one hand we want them,” said Manriquez, because their work on the river creates natural dams and habitats. “But on the other hand, they’re cutting the trees we want to preserve.”

Each tree that outgrows its anti-beaver cage will need to be visited, its protective metal enclosure cut off and a bigger one put in place.

The re-treeing effort anticipates a Johnny-Appleseed kind of longevity, with some 200 shade trees planted annually over the next 20 years.

“This is a huge project, and we are planting very small trees,” Manriquez said. “But given the water issues climate change is creating, we decided we had better start now.”

Like other river basins around the state, the Yampa Basin has developed a state-funded management plan for the river. Some of that funding went toward several years of studies and planning to develop the science to support the reforestation effort, said Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for Steamboat Springs.

“We’ve done a tremendous amount of modeling to look at what this river will look like in the future,” Romero-Heaney said.

Just downstream of the work zone, on the opposite bank from the workers, is a nursery which houses hundreds of delicate, young willow, cottonwood, and box elder trees. These varieties are known for growing tall and spreading a generous shade canopy.

The young seedlings have been sprouted in a nursery in Fort Collins, then transferred up to the Steamboat nursery early in the summer, all in preparation for the fall planting season.

These seedlings will be planted in the public stretches of the river, but reforesting there alone won’t be enough.

Jones and Manriquez know that the key to success for the project will be to bring the private landowners who control most of the land on the river’s banks into the program.

And that’s not easy. Western ranchers are notoriously government-averse, skittish about letting federal and state environmental officials onto their property, they said.

Rancher Steve Williams is an exception. He owns 200 acres of land along a critical reach of the Yampa east of Steamboat Springs, one that has been degraded by heavy cattle grazing, its cottonwood canopy gone, its streambed wide and much shallower than it once was.

As a result the water temperature here each summer threatens to exceed the state’s standard for the stream. If Williams can cool down his reach of the river, it will help everyone farther down and closer to Steamboat Springs.

To achieve this, he has partnered with federal agencies to shore up the river’s banks, deepening it as it curves, snakelike, through the wetlands and pastures above Lake Catamount.

This land hasn’t been grazed in 10 years, Williams said, and he’s hopeful the bank restoration work, as well as the re-treeing effort, will give this stretch of the river the assistance it needs to heal.

Williams understands the magnitude of the work that lies ahead and the challenges, the discrepancy in scale between young trees and a sprawling Western river, and the global dilemma of warming. “We will see how this goes,” Williams said. “It is a Band-aid, but it’s one I think will last at least through my lifetime.”

Romero-Heaney and other river advocates know that they will likely never see the final results of this reforestation effort, but based on the preliminary studies, they see it as an important tool for helping this playful, powerhouse of a river flourish in a very different world than it has inhabited up until now.

“I have to believe that if any river can persist through climate change, it will be the Yampa,” Romero-Heaney said.

This story is made possible, in part, by The Water Desk, an initiative of the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism.

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

#Runoff news: #YampaRiver streamflow close to average

From Steamboat Today (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck):

On Monday afternoon, the river was flowing at about 200 cubic feet per second at the U.S. Geological Survey stream gauge at Fifth Street, falling over the course of the past week from just under 300 cfs on Monday, July 22. Saturday’s rainfall boosted flows back up to 300 cfs on Sunday, though the river fell back to 200 cfs by Monday.

The river typically levels out after its peak, but city water resources manager Kelly Romero-Heaney said that level varies year to year.

“We see the hydrograph tail off after the peak snowmelt, and then it hovers above 100 cfs typically for the majority of the summer, but it can depend on what’s happening with releases out of Stagecoach Reservoir and irrigation diversions upstream from town and the weather,” Romero-Heaney said…

So far this July, the area received 1.06 inches of precipitation at a National Weather Service Cooperative Observer Network weather station, below the long-term average of 1.52 inches at the same location.

#YampaRiver: The more things change the more they stay the same

From email from Scott Hummer:

Please note the attached newspaper article from, the “Yampa Leader”, May 18, 1923…

Kind of ironic…Given the fact, we’re still attempting to deal with the same issues in 2019 as they were on the ground in the Yampa Valley in 1923, and before…

#Runoff news: #Tubing season starts on the #YampaRiver

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

From Steamboat Today (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck):

The Yampa River has finally fallen to a level that allows for commercial tubing.

On Monday, the river dropped below 700 cubic feet per second through downtown Steamboat Springs, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the flow rate that typically kicks off tubing with commercial outfitters…

Though lower than it has been all summer, the river is still running quickly, with water temperatures around 60 degrees. The city of Steamboat Springs — and commercial outfitters — recommend wearing a life jacket on the water, even when on a tube.

#Runoff news: “Farmers are happy. Farmers and ranchers seem to be a lot happier this year” — Brian Romig

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

From The Craig Daily Press (Clay Thorp):

fter several weeks of rising water on the Yampa River, homes near the waterway might see drier river banks soon as river level continues to fall.

“We had a big snow year,” said Jim Pokrandt, community affairs director for the Colorado River District. “Then we had a cool, wet spring even into summer as you saw in Steamboat with their snowfall.”

Officials say much of the snow in Steamboat Springs and other highland areas of the Yampa Valley hasn’t melted yet. So, unless there’s a series of exceptionally hot days, the Yampa River should stay steady…

That standing water has caused some mosquito issues in Moffat County. At least one mosquito tested positive for West Nile Virus near the South Beach boat ramp in Craig. No official human cases of West Nile Virus have been reported anywhere in Colorado yet, but officials want residents to be proactive in protecting themselves during the peak mosquito feeding times of dawn and dusk…

Though it breeds mosquitoes, much of that water has made things green up at ranches across the Yampa Valley as cows and other livestock are having their fill of the foliage.

“It’s been a great year, especially compared to last year,” [Brian Romig] said. “Farmers are happy. Farmers and ranchers seem to be a lot happier this year.”

From the Steamboat Pilot & Today (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck):

Nearly 5 inches of June precipitation and 2 inches of June snow have contributed to keeping the Yampa River flowing near peak levels since the beginning of the month.

Since the river rose to 2,300 cubic feet per second at the Fifth Street gauge in downtown Steamboat Springs on June 5, the river hasn’t fallen below that level, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

“It’s a good year, and that’s no surprise to anybody at this point,” Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District General Manager Kevin McBride said. “It’s a good thing that it comes off and stays at that level for a long time, because the last thing we want to see is one big peak because that means flooding.”

[…]

Scott Hummer, Colorado Division of Water Resources water commissioner serving water users in South Routt, said the ranchers he works with say it’s peaked, but he’s still waiting to see.

“Some of my water users have told me they think the river’s peaked,” Hummer said. “I’m not particularly sold that it’s peaked. I think that everything is still totally temperature dependent. We may see a very sustained, higher-flow rate.”

Hummer added that water users in the southernmost end of the district have seen high water — with the Yampa spilling out of its banks and pooling up in fields — that hasn’t been seen for a lifetime.

“We are light years ahead of where we were last year at this particular point in time,” Hummer said. “Last Saturday (June 22), we saw record all-time inflows into Stagecoach (Reservoir). On Sunday, we saw Stagecoach spill at an all-time record amount, so it’s a much different season than last season, simply based on the snowpack.”

On Thursday, about 200 cfs of water was flowing into Stagecoach Reservoir. The mean for this date — the average of the 31-year record — is 90 cfs…

These higher flows are a boon for river runners who are still catching big waves on the Yampa and to ecosystems that rely on fluctuating flows. While ranchers are glad to have enough water to irrigate hay, the moisture and low temperatures have likely pushed back the growing season, meaning they’ll cut hay later in the season, Romero-Heaney said.

For those who hope to hit the river, it might be a better bet to rent a raft instead of a tube for awhile yet. Commercial outfitters typically start renting out tubes when the river falls below 700 cfs. The Yampa is still flowing at four times that rate.

Romero-Heaney guessed — based on data from 2011, a similar runoff year — that the river might fall to a tube-able level in mid- to late-July.

And while the water is high now, McBride cautions that it doesn’t remedy years of low flow in the greater Colorado River Basin, which the Yampa is a part of.

“As they say, don’t get too comfortable with just one year of good runoff in the Colorado Basin as a whole, but for users in the Yampa, it looks like a banner year,” he said.

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

Community Agriculture Alliance: Rivers rise as rain and snow hammer #YampaRiver basin — Steamboat Pilot & Today #runoff

Here’s a guest column from Kent Vertrees that’s running in the Steamboat Pilot & Today:

For all snow, water and river junkies out there, last weekend’s weather was one of the most intense and bizarre we have seen in some time. Twenty or more inches of snow in the high country, inches of rain, massive lightning, cold temps, snow in downtown Steamboat Springs marked the official beginning of summer in the Yampa Valley.

Since 1983, the year of all water years in the Colorado Basin, 2011 was the next wettest on record. This year is now very comparable.

This is a reality of ours. Living on the spine of the continent, high up in elevation, this offers extreme variability in our climate as is. We have always experienced broad shifts in annual snowpack, rain, temperature and river flow, and the perfect scenario like last weekend is never out of our reality. We already had a deep snowpack remaining from winter and spring. Then, throw in a low front with adequate moisture and low temperature and residents woke up to snow on first day of summer.

The trick with last week’s storm is that is wasn’t all snow. We typically see river levels drop when we get cold fronts, because they shut down the snowmelt with colder temperatures. But in this case, it poured rain leading up to the snowfall which spiked our rivers, creeks and streams to their seasonal peak flows.

River flows in the Yampa Basin are notorious for having large fluctuations in their seasonal flow. With limited storage reservoirs in the basin, there isn’t the capacity for water managers to store the runoff. When the conditions are right, and Mother Nature sends us her wrath, it’s not out of the ordinary to see river levels spike.

In early June at the Yampa Basin Rendezvous that was held in Steamboat Springs, we learned all about snow, water, rivers, climate modeling and the resiliency of communities to handle shifting climate aridity. We learned from scientists that the future we can expect in the Yampa and greater Colorado River basins in general, will only continue to be more variable, extreme and a bit wilder than what we are all used to.

Years of hotter and dryer climate, drought and low river flow, followed by periods of extreme snow and rainfall along with heavier flooding seems probable in our future, and it is what many of the modeling trends are indicating. What we saw last weekend is just a glimpse into our extreme weather reality and is something that we will all have to get used to.

Kent Vertrees is the board president of the Friends of the Yampa.