Several tributaries of the Colorado River get their start in the crags of the Central Colorado mountains. Storied rivers: Blue, Eagle, Roaring Fork and the powerhouse Gunnison. They’ve all faced the footstep of humankind. The mines dotting the slopes, hay fields, ranching, orchards and cornfields bear witness and are now part of the allure of the high country. Folks cast a line, shoot rapids and enjoy the scenery of those waterways.
On September 27, 2017, the International Boundary and Water Commission, United States and Mexico inked Minute 323, the amendment to the 1944 United States-Mexico Treaty for Utilization of Water covering operations on the Colorado, Rio Grande and Tijuana rivers. (The Rio Grande is another of Central Colorado’s contributions to the Western U.S. economy.)
An important part of Minute 323 are environmental flows for the Colorado River Delta. Most everyone knows the river doesn’t reach the sea any longer. Environmental streamflow was initiated under Minute 319 signed by then Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar.
In March 2016 a diverse group of conservationists, biologists, irrigators and government officials effected a release of 100,000 acre-feet of water from Morelos Dam into the dry Colorado River Delta. There was a line of vehicles racing point to point along the river to witness the river’s front. At San Luis Rio Colorado, most of the residents went down to the river to celebrate the return of the river although many had no memory of running water in the sandy channel.
There was a great deal of success from channeling some of the streamflow to restoration sites in the Delta. Within weeks, new growth sprouted – cottonwoods and willows. Much of the diverted water served to replenish groundwater supplies. Wildlife immediately started using the habitat.
There probably won’t be a repeat of the Colorado River once again reaching the sea. The environmental flows in Minute 323 are planned to be set to work in the restoration of the Delta. It was great to see the river reach the sea but the conservationists want to concentrate flows like irrigators do for maximum yield.
Another feature of the deal allows Mexico to store water in Lake Mead to better manage their diversions for agriculture. The U.S. is also helping to rebuild and upgrade Mexican infrastructure. Under Minute 319, Mexico was allowed to continue storing water, and that water was used for the pulse flow. The idea is that greater efficiency in Mexico will lead to more storage in Lake Mead.
Currently, Arizona, California and Nevada are working on a drought contingency plan to stave off a shortage declaration in Lake Mead. Arizona’s Colorado River allocation takes a big hit under a declaration. Mexico’s water in Lake Mead will help. Negotiations about the drought contingency plan will now move forward with greater certainty with the signing of Minute 323.
The final signatures for the Minute came from Roberto Salmón (Mexico) and Edward Drusina (U.S.). There were several officials from President Obama’s administration in attendance, including Jennifer Gimbel and Mike O’Connor. The negotiations started before last year’s election but did not conclude before the inauguration.
Minute 323 is an important piece of the puzzle for administering the Colorado River.
Central Colorado is joined at the economic hip with the Colorado River. A lot of transbasin water flows down the Arkansas River from the Twin Lakes and Fryingpan-Arkansas projects. Some is pumped over to South Park by Colorado Springs and Aurora but most of it goes down to Lake Pueblo and the Fry-Ark partners. Colorado Springs, Fountain and Security pump some back north in the Fountain Valley. Cities along the river divert and treat the water for their populations. The water also is used to grow the famous crops in the Arkansas Valley: Rocky Ford melons, Pueblo chile, corn and others. Timing the releases from Twin Lakes and Turquoise Reservoir also contributes to the rafting economy. 100 miles of the Arkansas River are designated as gold medal fisheries. Transbasin flows help the riparian habitat.
• Comments about managing the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area are due by November 10, 2017. Check out the AHRA Plan Revision page on the Colorado Parks & Wildlife website.
• Congratulations to Wet Mountain Valley ranchers Randy and Claricy Rusk for winning the Dodge Award for a lifetime of conservation from the Palmer Land Trust.
• Congratulations to the Colorado Parks & Wildlife folks at the Roaring Judy Hatchery for successfully spawning the line of Cutthroat trout rescued from Hayden Creek during the Hayden Pass Fire.
• James Eklund has moved on from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Becky Mitchell is the new director.
• Coloradans cam now legally collect rain off their roofs. Governor John Hickenlooper signed House Bill 1005 in May.
• R.I.P. Gary Bostrom. He was one of the driving forces behind Colorado Springs’ $825 million Southern Delivery System.
John Orr works for a Front Range water utility where he keeps one eye on the sky to monitor Colorado snowpack. He covers Colorado water issues at Coyote Gulch (www.coyotegulch.blog) and on Twitter @CoyoteGulch.
A mutual acquaintance of ours walked up and said to Nolan, “Am I wrong, it just doesn’t seem like we’re having as many 100 degree days as we used to?”
Nolan’s answer, “We haven’t seen many 100 degrees days this summer.”
He went on to relate that, “In Fort Collins we’ve only had one day over 100. In the Greeley area you’ve seen more, but no long streaks of 100s strung together, as we had in 2012.”
Nolan didn’t ask why our friend was asking the question. He didn’t hit him with a barrage of statistics. Nolan just delivered an observation for this season and emphasized the variability of climate.
I’ve known Nolan for a few years now, primarily through our participation in the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Water Availability Task Force. The State Climatologist’s office always gives the task force a briefing letting us know where we are currently against the historical climate record. Precipitation, temperature, soil moisture, and evaporative demand are all discussed and put into historical perspective, both short-term and long-term. I know that the water providers in the room pay close attention. We’re looking for clues for projecting our water supply in future months. Are we heading into or are we in in a drought? A shortage of supply is a primary focus and a primary focus for Nolan and his staff.
On Thursday Nolan took a similar approach during his last presentation as the State Climatologist (He retired at the end of last week). The title “2017 Water Year” does not come close to conveying the enthusiasm he exhibits during presentations. His historical memory is amazing. He often highlights a data point on a chart and asks those in the room to search their climate memories for events. It’s a great technique for engaging his audience and is much more effective than a death march through a slide show of charts and graphs.
“The drought in 2002 started in 2000 with some dryness, 2001 was near average, then the bottom dropped out in February of 2002, then one storm in March 2013 pulled the Front Range out of drought,” is a statement typical of his style. He relates the numbers to our experiences and that helps climate science come alive.
Nolan assured attendees he was leaving the State Climatologist’s office in good shape with the staff that he had trained. One of his employees told me at Nolan’s retirement celebration that Nolan had taken a back seat to the active research at the office so that those charged with carrying on the mission would have the experience necessary for a smooth transition. What was unstated was that Nolan had imbued a sense of confidence in his staff and also a sense of responsibility to keep a high level of competence and professionalism.
Nolan ended his presentation with the a question, “If you aren’t a member of CoCoRaHS, why the heck not?”
He told me recently that he plans to continue his efforts with CoCoRaHS. The organization, Nolan’s response to the Spring Creek Flood in Fort Collins July 28, 1997, is a highly successful citizen science project that started in Colorado but now has spread across the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas.
As he left the stage on Thursday the crowd rose and gave him a heartfelt standing ovation.
In his typical humble fashion he said, “That doesn’t happen very often in the world of climatology.”
Handing off operations and the setting of priorities was a common theme at the conference.
I was talking to Doug Kemper on Wednesday afternoon after the meeting of the Legislature’s Interim Water Resources Review Committee. He remarked that many of the younger folks at the conference would not have the opportunity to work on the same type of big projects that he did early in his career. Indeed, purchases of ditch systems, the drying up of acres of agricultural land and the associated change cases are probably not in their future, nor are big mainstream reservoirs and dams. The days of the “Water Buffalo” tromping across the landscape without regard to the environment are most likely over.
Those in leadership roles must learn to collaborate and be inclusive. That was the lesson learned from the the Basin Roundtables, IBCC, and the development of the Colorado Water Plan. The plan and the process that led to its publication was a frequent topic of conversation and several presenters mentioned it during their talks.
Those who will be responsible for implementation value collaboration over conflict and conversation over litigation.
An example of this attitude was on exhibit just prior to the conference when an article about the estimated cost of the plan inferred that the original estimate of $20 billion was only half of what would be necessary.
Becky Mitchell, the new Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, told the Colorado Independent:
“It’s not productive to get hung up on the cost. That’s divisive…What’s more productive is framing this around how much progress we’ve made coming together around this plan. We have to look at the whole picture right now. We just have to.”
Most know that power politics, eminent domain, and the wealthy outspending the less well-heeled in water court and elsewhere won’t solve the problems associated with Colorado’s growth and the challenges ahead with Global Warming.
“We’re more connected that we like to admit,” says Travis Smith.
I mentioned to Doug that the next generation of leaders have a much bigger challenge than he did. He could count on stationarity in climate and therefore in the Water Cycle, they can’t. Permitting projects now requires an understanding of disparate points of view and the ability align varied interests. Coloradans will not accept environmental degradation in exchange for supply delivery. Balance is the key. Going forward Coloradans have to learn to listen to each other and create an inclusive framework for that conversation.
These issues and understandings were present throughout the conference.
The day before the conference begins is filled with concurrent workshops where members share their ideas and experiences about topical issues and challenges.
Sharing Critical Water Infrastructure Information Ethical Responsibilities
This workshop was designed to get us thinking about critical infrastructure information. Some information has to be kept close to the vest by the owners of facilities. For example, we know that terrorists have hopes to target water treatment plants. Information about the design and construction of those plants could aid those that seek to exploit their vulnerabilities so there needs to be a balance between the public’s right to know and security.
Bill McCormick made the point that Colorado’s dam safety program is really a risk management approach to information sharing.
Doug Kemper said that infrastructure owners need to ask the question, “Who else has a copy of your records?” Think about consultants, regulators, etc.
Dan Hodges added, “We don’t want to fool ourselves that we have this perfect system — there are many vectors to information.”
Another workshop focussed on watershed health and plans. The Colorado Water Plan calls for watershed plans for 80% of Colorado streams.
Heather Dutton said that the Rio Grande Basin is just getting started with a watershed plan. She is very excited about the cooperation and collaboration around the river and the efforts to time reservoir releases to benefit fish and riparian habitat. They have been working with the Division Engineer to administer the releases.
According to Angie Fowler Grand County is working on a integrated management plan to make sure that agriculture, recreation, and in industry are all represented. The Middle Colorado Watershed Council is also moving ahead with an integrated management plan.
Frank Kugel told the workshop that the Gunnison Basin hopes to be a leader in the effort to craft watershed plans. He cautioned that agriculture needs to be involved from the start of the process. Their plan is incorporating the preserving of agriculture, doing more with less, and the development of relationships to determine non-consumptive uses.
Kelly Romero-Heaney gave a report about efforts in the Yampa River valley. The approach here is to start with the smaller watersheds and to address the unfavorable 303d listing due to temperature in the Yampa River. She said that it takes time to find stakeholders and get funding. There is a limit to local capacity but local input is essential. Also, these watershed efforts are expensive, start early on with your fundraising.
Nicole Seltzer reported that there is still a need for education around the hows and the whys of stream management plans. Some communities are taking a wait and see approach. There is a need for storytelling about how the plans can be beneficial to water users and why there is a need for the plans. Her approach is to bring the technical community together to learn what they need from stakeholders, fill the need for coaching, public affairs. and legal assistance. The plans should accomplish a statewide goal. For example, they could roll-up into a non-consumptive needs assessment. Public affairs knowledge and awareness is needed because sometimes politics gets in the way. An overall goal of sustainability and approach to build understanding with the community should also be part of the effort.
On a side note. I was speaking with Nicole later on about how the Colorado Water Congress could engage more environmentalists in the organization. She mentioned that involvement is very expensive and the non-profits, in many cases, cannot afford memberships and travel for the conferences.
Secrets of Water Planning and Policy, Unravelling the Mysteries
On Wednesday there was a panel discussion with Eric Kuhn and Mark Waage that was moderated by John McClow.
Eric Kuhn told the East Slope and West Slope story, 34 years ago and today:
Kuhn said, “34 years later there is not even ‘One Fork'”:
Mark Waage’s presentation was about water planning in 2017.
One huge driver was the 2002 drought when Denver Water’s storage dropped more than 50% in one year, “Something we never thought possible,” he said.
That was when the utility started looking at Climate Change and they realized that they could not have rigid plans. He said that Denver Water’s motto is now, “Keep it simple and practical,” by doing simple vulnerability assessments.
Waage told planners in the audience to plan for multiple futures — Denver Water has embraced ‘Scenario Planning’ because no one controls the future. “Embrace uncertainty,” he said.
Also, “Develop a robust strategy,” ask, “What can you do now that is beneficial in the future?”
“Invest in research and innovation,” he said, “They are pretty cheap, actually.”
Waage stressed the effectiveness of regional cooperation: The approach set up the South Platte Basin pretty well for the Colorado Water Plan and helped bring folks together; The basin can better at conservation; SP players can share resources across the region and build projects incrementally; Don’t export SP problems to other parts of the state; Work with the West Slope in case there is a need for a Compact call insurance policy (Denver Water took the lead in a Upper Colorado River Basin wide demand management program); Continue to pressure the Lower Basin to get them within their Compact allocation. These efforts will go a long way in mitigating Climate Change.
The Significance of Conservation
This session was a panel discussion about conservation, moderated by State Rep. Jeni Arndt.
Kevin Reidy told us that, “You can get some demand reduction from efficiency.” He said that the question is how will it be used, are you storing it for the future or are you leaving it in the river?
Everyone is going to have to conserve and reduce demand over time since we’re going to have 5 million more people in Colorado, he said. Conservation does not have to fuel growth but it can help. Muni and ag perspectives are different, and both action and inaction have consequences.
Frank Alfone from Mt. Werner Water and Sanitation said that they view their conservation efforts in light of delaying capital investments. He added that it is important as a supplier to have a common message.
Jim Yahn told the audience that the South Platte Basin is pretty efficient, using water 7 times before it reaches the state line. He is talking about the the phenomena of farm and municipal return flows. He said he, “Flushes a lot when I go to Denver.”
Western Water Stories with Chris Woodka — Oroville Dam
A big treat for me was Chris Woodka’s presentation about journalism, story telling, and the Oroville Dam near disaster this spring out in California. Chris is a friend and the former water reporter for The Pueblo Chieftain.
Chris is always ready to teach. He told us that much of the material in the Oroville Dam was taken from mining waste left over from the 19th century. The crisis was due to the failure of the main spillway at a time when runoff was exceeding the facility’s ability to be drawn down (huge snowpack and then rain to melt it). The emergency spillway had never been used and once water started flowing severe erosion occurred that could have caused a catastrophic failure.
He laid out the timeline for the events:
He also laid out his approach to telling water stories within the context of the Oroville near disaster:
There was much more to see and hear at the conference. What a great learning experience and chance to network. I have just mentioned a few sessions that were important to me. There is much more in the Twitter feeds from the social media wonks in attendance. Hashtags in use were: #CWCSC17 and #CWCSC2017. To view the Tweets: Click on one of the links above, click the “Latest” tab and scroll to the bottom. You read Twitter feeds from bottom (oldest) to top (newest).
For Twitter coverage of the event check out these folks: