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A Colorado River leader who brokered key pacts to aid West’s vital water artery assesses his legacy and the river’s future

Terry Fulp served 31 years with the Bureau of Reclamation, including eight years as director of the Lower Colorado Basin Region. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

By Gary Pitzer

Managing water resources in the Colorado River Basin is not for the timid or those unaccustomed to big challenges. Careers are devoted to responding to all the demands put upon the river: water supply, hydropower, recreation and environmental protection.

All of this while the Basin endures a seemingly endless drought and forecasts of increasing dryness in the future.

For more than 30 years, Terry Fulp, director of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Basin Region, has been in the thick of it, applying his knowledge, expertise and calm demeanor to inform and broker key decisions that have helped stabilize the Southwest’s major water artery. The centerpiece of that effort was the landmark 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the river’s two major reservoirs. Fulp was instrumental in developing the modeling tool called RiverWare in the 1990s that has been used to build the data foundation for most of the key operational decisions on the river during the past 20 years.

“What really is the key to success are relationships. You can’t really work closely with folks and on very complex and contentious issues if you don’t know about each other and respect each other.”
~Terry Fulp, director of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Basin Region

Even with the 2007 agreement, worsening drought and declining reservoir levels pushed the seven Basin states — Arizona, California, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — into urgent but protracted negotiations. The result was unprecedented Drought Contingency Plans last year for the Upper and Lower Basins that included participation by Mexico, a development founded on Mexico’s recent ability to store some of its water in Lake Mead.

Fulp has played an integral part in all of these decisions. As 2020 nears completion, so does Fulp’s career with Reclamation. He’s retiring after 31 years with the agency’s Boulder City, Nevada, office, which oversees the last 688 miles of the river’s path in the United States, including Hoover Dam to the Mexican Border. In an interview with Western Water, he talked about his accomplishments in a leadership role and the challenges that await the many Colorado River water users as they begin the arduous task of negotiating a new operating agreement for the Colorado River to replace the current one that expires in 2026.

WW: What’s been your proudest accomplishment as Regional Director?

FULP: The biggest one probably is our leadership in the collaborative approach that we have shown works so well in the Basin over the last 20 years, starting with the Interim Surplus Guidelines all the way through the Drought Contingency Plans, and Mexico’s big part of that. Forging a really close relationship with our colleagues in Mexico has been key to that program’s success. I think we’ve been able to accomplish some really important things.

Sustaining Lake Mead for the benefit of downstream water users in the Lower Colorado River Basin has been a key objective of agreements reached in 2007 and 2019. (Source: Lighthawk via The Water Desk)
WW: Are there examples that come to mind where people made a breakthrough in their relationships?

FULP: Definitely. Starting all the way back to what was called the California 4.4 Plan in 2003, that was huge. The Multi-Species Conservation Program also comes to mind. It’s still very unique and very successful in all of the environmental type of programs within this country and even within the world… And then of course the Interim Guidelines in 2007, the flagship agreement between the Upper and Lower Basin on the coordinated operation of the two big reservoirs. And, if I can add one more, our relationship with our Mexican partners was unforeseen 15 to 20 years ago.

These agreements are still working well but there have been hiccups and the main hiccup is the drought. It became more severe and drove the need for the Drought Contingency Plans that were signed on May 20th of last year. We worked over five years on that. These things are complex and sometimes they take a really long time. Living in it felt like it was long to me for sure and probably everybody else who was so involved in it. It just shows the complexity with all the different interests and that the way you get through that is really being collaborative – building relationships amongst all of us and then being able to really talk about the serious issues and find compromises.

WW: This is an important time, as the renegotiations of the 2007 Interim Operating Guidelines will soon begin in earnest. What are some of the major challenges that all the parties will have to overcome?
The Upper and Lower Basin Regions of the Colorado River Basin. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

FULP: The foremost one in my mind is the changing hydroclimate. Certainly, we know from the very solid research that is now almost 10 years old, just the warming of the planet… explains 8 percent to 10 percent of the decline in water flow due to increased evaporation and evapotranspiration. So that’s paramount in terms of what we’ve got to deal with. … It brings up issues between the Upper and Lower Basin, primarily that the Lower Basin is at full development and has been for the better part of 20 years and the Upper Basin isn’t. With decreasing water supply, that’s going to be a really thorny issue to figure out.

What we know from other river basins and even this one, is the last place you want to be is in a courtroom letting a court decide the best way to operate. That belief is still consistent throughout the Basin. We don’t want to end up there.

WW: As water users, including tribes, seek to fully develop their water right allocations in a tightening system, how can the spirit of collaboration and cooperation be maintained?

FULP: You brought up the tribal issue and I really view them as an integral part of the Basin family. And so, when I talk about the Lower Basin that I’m in and the people that need to be involved in this collaborative effort, obviously the tribes are key in that. And they also haven’t grown into their full potential in terms of water use.

If I could relive this, I would have had a stronger focus on not just relationships with the tribal community, but also helping them build the capacity within their individual tribes to more effectively participate in these complex discussions. We are well on that path now and lots of folks are working hard and I feel very optimistic that we are not just on the right path, but we’ve made significant accomplishments in that area and it will just continue to improve.

What really is the key to success are relationships. You can’t really work closely with folks and on very complex and contentious issues if you don’t know about each other and respect each other.

I know it sounds simple. Of course, it’s not, in fact. It takes a lot of work just like the technical work is really important and the policy work, but [relationships] are equally as important, maybe more important.

WW: A host of experts have outlined scenarios of drying Basin conditions fueled by climate change. What has to be done now to get ahead of this?

FULP: We’ll know more in 10 years than we do today, more about what’s really going on with Mother Nature. We won’t have all the answers on how to deal with that and there still will be great uncertainty to our future. I think in 10 years we will have put other mechanisms in place to mitigate those impacts, but I don’t think we’ll have it all solved by any means. We don’t even fully understand yet what we’re facing.

A persistent drought in the Colorado River Basin has dropped water levels in Lake Mead, as evidenced by the bathtub ring around the lake. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)
WW: Is there room for getting even more innovative with the U.S.-Mexico relationship as far as how water is shared?

FULP: I think so. We do these things in increments. I love the term ‘pilot.’ I think the best way to get your experience initially and prove a concept is to do a program that is of finite duration with very specific, agreed-to goals and accomplishments. That’s the way you prove success and then you’re able to go forward to that next step.

Our agreement originally with Mexico to store water in U.S. reservoirs, because of that earthquake damage [in 2010] where they could not use their water during that period of time, was a huge breakthrough. It did have a finite term but because of that success we were able to build that concept into Minute 319 and expand upon it. And then Minute 323 went another step and extended those concepts and even included a drought plan. The door was then opened to much bigger projects to be co-funded by Mexico and the U.S. As an example, we have a work group looking at big picture desalination that the countries could share both the costs and benefits of that.

WW: You once told the story of how you were asked early in your career what the bumper sticker message would be for Colorado River Basin hydrology, and your answer was “Lake Mead Will Go Down.” Looking at the challenges ahead in the Basin, what would that bumper sticker message be today?

FULP: It probably isn’t that succinct or prophetic. But I would say the problems are only going to get harder. And the way to solve them is to communicate and collaborate. That’s the only way we will be successful.

Terry Fulp

Education: Bachelor’s degree, University of Tulsa; master’s degrees, University of Colorado and Stanford University; doctorate, Colorado School of Mines
Previous jobs: Deputy Regional Director, Lower Colorado Region; Area Manager, Boulder Canyon Operations Office; Manager, River Operations, Boulder Canyon Operations Office; Principal Investigator, Department of the Interior Watershed and River Systems Management Research Program; Manager, Geophysical Operations, Senior Geophysicist, Arco Oil and Gas Company (formerly Atlantic Richfield Company)
Fun fact: “When I first went to college and graduate school, I had no idea at all that I would end up in water. Through a bit of serendipity, I’d say, I just fell in love with it and have loved it for the 31 years or so.”

This story originally appeared on Western Water on November 6, 2020.

Reach Gary Pitzer: gpitzer@watereducation.org, Twitter: @GaryPitzer
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Using drone and aerial imagery – Water Buffs Podcast ep. 6 – Mitch Tobin

Expand video >

Aerial imagery captured with planes and drones can help illustrate the lay of the land and explain both natural and manmade water systems. The Water Desk’s open-source multimedia library offers both still imagery and video footage from a bird’s-eye view. In this episode, Water Desk Director Mitch Tobin explains the initiative’s partnership with LightHawk and his own work filming water-related locations with a drone.

NOTE: This episode was recorded before the pandemic forced LightHawk to shift to pilot-only flights, but we are now using mounted GoPros to capture imagery.

Episode highlights

Mitch Tobin, Director of the Water DeskMitch Tobin, Director of the Water Desk
Mitch is a licensed drone pilot with extensive experience taking aerial stills and video. He talks about the journalistic uses of aerials and the Water Desk’s resources for reporters.
 
Related links:

Starts at 1:31
How are aerials useful for water journalism?   (2:15)
Partnership with Lighthawk.org for aerial videoPartnership with Lighthawk.org for aerial video
The Water Desk partners with Lighthawk to get journalists up in the air to gain a different perspective and integrate aerial reporting and images into their work.

Starts at 3:37
Aerial shoots: know before you go   (8:43)
Water Words: ”Headwaters”Water Words: ”Headwaters”
The term “headwaters” refers to the area where a stream or river begins.
Starts at 12:18
Be aware of no-fly zones   (13:25)
Dealing with motion sickness on the plane   (13:36)
How the Water Desk uses drone footageHow the Water Desk uses drone footage  
Browse the Water Desk’s drone and aerial footage, collected in an interactive map.
Commercial drone use requires certification   (20:55)
How to use drone imagery in stories   (22:42)
Value in crisis journalism – but mind the risks   (25:28)
Controlling a droneControlling a drone   (28:36)
Avoiding #dronefails   (30:12)
Drones-eye-view with VR controller   (32:01)
Differences between aerial and drone footage   (36:52)
Using automated features to pilot safely   (39:20)
How journalists can work with Lighthawk and the Water Desk   (40:42)
Show more episode detail

Watch or listen wherever you get your podcasts

You’re welcome to watch the video version of Water Buffs here on our website or subscribe to it on our YouTube and Vimeo Channels. If you prefer your podcasts on audio or on a portable device, subscribe using one of the services below or grab the feed url for your own service.

Ways to get the audio version: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Soundcloud | Stitcher | Podcast RSS Feed

 

Share your thoughts – and consider joining us

If you’re interested in appearing on the show, please contact Water Desk Director Mitch Tobin at mitchtobin@colorado.edu. If you’d like to share your comments and questions, you can reach us at waterdesk@colorado.edu, or on Twitter and Facebook.

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Colorado eyes foreclosure against troubled Pueblo water company with $1.4 million in delinquencies

An Arkansas Valley water and land company has left the State of Colorado on the hook for nearly $1.4 million in delinquent loan payments and emergency dam repair bills, and may face a rare foreclosure proceeding by the Colorado Water Conservation Board as a result.
Colorado State Capitol. Credit: Jerd Smith

By Jerd Smith

An Arkansas Valley water and land company has left the State of Colorado on the hook for nearly $1.4 million in delinquent loan payments and emergency dam repair bills, and may face a rare foreclosure proceeding by the Colorado Water Conservation Board as a result.

At issue are two state deals, including a loan from the CWCB that has a remaining balance of $622,000 and an unpaid bill involving the Division of Water Resources and the CWCB’s emergency dam repair fund that has a remaining balance of nearly $750,000, according to the state.

Two Rivers Water & Farming Company, which has a history of chronic late payments, this year failed to make any payments on the $622,000 loan and has missed several payments on the emergency dam repair bill, according to the CWCB.

Greg Harrington, Two River’s chief executive officer, did not respond to requests for comment.

In a letter to shareholders late last summer Harrington indicated that the company’s problems were linked to a prior ownership team and the pandemic.

The CWCB’s revolving loan program has 335 active loans worth $400 million. The Two Rivers’ loan would be the first foreclosure the CWCB has pursued in more than 20 years, according to Kirk Russell, who oversees the CWCB’s lending program.

The CWCB loan dates back to 2012, when Two Rivers approached the state with a plan to rehabilitate a reservoir and restore dormant farmland to production, goals that are key to the CWCB’s mission, according to Russell.

“A storage project is right in our wheel house,” Russell said. “And they were interested in returning ag land into production and we are in full support of that.”

The CWCB typically lends to water utilities, cities and towns, and irrigation companies. But because Two Rivers presented valuable water rights and farm land as collateral, the state agreed to the loan.

“We felt that they were a risky borrower, because it was a private company, but we thought that with the collateral we would be protected and we would be able to recover the state’s revolving loan money if we had to foreclose,” said Russell.

Two Rivers is publicly traded on the federal Over The Counter stock exchange (OTC) under the stock symbol TURV. It describes itself as a company that develops “high yield irrigated farm land and the associated water rights in the Western U.S.”

It also has multiple subsidiaries, including two that are linked to the hemp and marijuana industries. One, GrowCo LLC, has filed for bankruptcy in U.S. District Court in Denver.

Whether Two Rivers can repay the state loans isn’t clear. It faces a shareholder lawsuit, and it has failed to file current financial statements with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, as required by law, despite at least one extension.

The last financials were filed Nov. 18, 2019 and cover the first nine months of 2019. They indicate that Two Rivers had $401,000 in cash on hand, long-term assets of $44.5 million, including its water rights, and liabilities of $22.5 million, according to the SEC.

The CWCB has given the company until Dec. 1 to make a $76,000 payment plus late fees to the revolving loan fund. If that doesn’t occur, the agency said it will begin foreclosure proceedings. The CWCB’s board is scheduled to take up the matter at its meeting Nov. 18.

Russell, chair of the CWCB’s finance section, said his agency would seek to take control of the company’s assets, including water rights and farm land, should the board opt to proceed with foreclosure.

Two Rivers has valued its water rights at $25 million, according to filings at the SEC.

How the state plans to address Two River’s other unpaid bills isn’t clear yet.

“I am planning for the worst and hoping for the best,” Russell said. “Our board is interested in recovering the principal and interest lost. I hope they can do that.”

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.

This story originally appeared on Fresh Water News, an independent, non-partisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Its editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.

Overlooked Army Corps rulemaking would shrink federal stream protections

A stream in the Rocky Mountains. Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash
A stream in the Rocky Mountains. Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

By Brett Walton

Earlier this year, the Trump administration secured one of its signature environmental legacies when it completed a rule that reduced federal protections for wetlands as well as for streams that flow only following rainfall.

Environmental policy experts concluded that the administration’s narrow definition of the scope of the Clean Water Act was its most damaging decision for waterways. The rollback of the Obama-era ruling was a campaign promise of President Trump and a rallying cry for industrial lobby groups that supported him.

Now, the Army Corps of Engineers, with much less fanfare and in the final months of the Trump administration, is considering another rule change that would also shrink federal protection of small streams, ecologists and lawyers say. The Corps said in its proposal that it is acting in response to the president’s order to review regulations that burden energy development.

Some of the proposed changes will have essentially the same consequence as the Trump administration’s contraction of the Clean Water Act, according to Laura Ziemer, the senior counsel and water policy adviser for Trout Unlimited. The proposed changes to the Army Corps’ nationwide permit will reduce stream protections and expose longer sections of streams to damage, she said.

“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” Ziemer told Circle of Blue about the program that permits construction in wetlands and streams. “It’s another way to pave over with impunity the hydrologic function of our high-order Western watersheds.”

And not only in the states west of the Mississippi. According to Adam Williams, president of Brushy Fork Environmental Consulting, which restores ecosystems in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, the changes will harm streams in the mountainous Appalachian region in which he works.

The proposal “can be devastating to clean water in this country,” Williams wrote in a comment to the Army Corps.

A change in criteria exposes waterways to more damage

Section 404 of the Clean Water Act authorizes the Army Corps to oversee permitting for actions that fill or dredge waterways. Nationwide permits, intended for “minor” actions, are issued for projects that are expected to do minimal environmental damage to streams and wetlands. Individual permits are used when a project could cause significant environmental damage and requires a deeper analysis plus more public consultation.

From 2013 to 2018, the Corps issued about 20 times more nationwide permits than individual permits.

Currently, nationwide permits apply to 52 categories of activity, including pipelines, boat ramps, cranberry growing, mining, and dredging. Big projects use nationwide permits, too: the developer of the Keystone XL oil pipeline did so for hundreds of water crossings, as did the backers of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a proposed natural gas pipeline in West Virginia and Virginia. Once a nationwide permit is granted, no additional public input or environmental review is required.

What constitutes “minimal” damage is determined by conditions set out in the nationwide permit.

The Corps is proposing extensive revisions, including adding five new categories while developing a separate category for oil and gas pipelines, which are now lumped with electric power lines.

One change above all has raised serious concerns from ecologists and conservation groups as well as state regulators.

For 10 of the permit categories, the Army Corps wants to shift from linear measurements to area measurements. Instead of limiting damage to 300 linear feet of stream bed, the Corps proposes that the standard be 0.5 acres, which is also the standard for wetlands. Disturbing less than that is assumed to have a negligible environmental impact.

The Corps did the math to make its case: Disturbing 300 linear feet of stream bed in a stream that is 6 feet across results in a loss of 0.04 acres. For a stream 25 feet across, the loss is 0.17 acres. Because the area of disturbance varies based on the length of the stream, the Corps wants to keep the area constant.

“This move seems fairly innocuous,” Ziemer said. But on closer examination this subtle change could have far-reaching effects.

The problem is with small streams, those that a person could jump across. Because these streams are narrow, a damage limit based on area would extend much farther upstream or downstream than the previous limit that was based on length.

The proposed change would greatly expand the length of stream that could be damaged in construction, according to calculations from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources that were submitted to the Corps.

The department’s calculations are this: Damaging 0.5 acres of stream bed for a stream that is 6 feet across means allowing nearly 3,500 linear feet of the stream to be damaged — more than 10 times the previous limit and roughly two-thirds of a mile in length.

The suggestion to remove the 300-foot standard was included in a internal review of the Corps’ regulations. Completed in 2017, the review argued that replacing the linear standard with an area standard would streamline the permitting process, reduce costs for regulated entities, and reduce processing time. That review was completed in response to President Trump’s order that agencies minimize regulatory requirements for energy development.

When asked about its justification for the changes, a Corps spokesperson referred to the reasons given in the Federal Register notice.

Ziemer said that these headwaters, both small streams and wetlands, are worth protecting because their value ripples outward. By keeping them intact it preserves their ability to store water, like a natural sponge. Having the land hold onto the water that falls on it yields benefits during droughts and floods. Disconnecting those waterways by paving, dredging, or filling them in “can really set back the climate resilience of the Western landscape,” she said.

The public comment period for the proposal extends through November 16. Many comments submitted so far object to the removal of the 300-foot standard.

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources wrote that the Corps’ use of acreage instead of linear feet is a false argument that ignores the way that rivers function. The department asserted that the 300-foot standard needs to be retained to “ensure continued protection of streams.”

Wendy Weaver, executive director of Montana Aquatic Resources Services, asked whether different metrics ought to be used. Shouldn’t the Corps consider a hybrid approach, she asked? In other words, comparing the length of the stream to the width. A stream 10 feet across could be allowed 50 feet of stream bed damage, but a 100-foot-wide stream could be allowed 500 feet.

Norma Kline, a former ecologist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 3 and a former biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, claimed that the Corps fails to account for the full environmental impacts of its proposed changes and that they should not be approved.

Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters is a hunting and fishing group that aims to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota. Spencer Shaver, the group’s conservation director, argued that the proposal would be worse than the current rules. He wrote that it would result in more degradation of streams and more damage to fish, wildlife, and aquatic plants like wild rice, which have cultural and ecological significance to tribes in the region.

Shaver asked the Corps to do an environmental evaluation of its proposal and consider the effects in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, where there are mining projects that would be using the nationwide permit.

The lack of environmental review for its current nationwide permit, which took effect in 2017, has already led to legal trouble for the Corps.

Environmental groups sued the agency over its use of Nationwide Permit 12 for the Keystone XL pipeline’s water crossings. The groups argued that the Corps failed to assess the impacts to endangered species of its current nationwide permit. That lawsuit resulted in the Supreme Court upholding a lower court’s ruling that suspended the pipeline’s permits.

Is the Corps taking the lessons of that lawsuit into account in this revision of the nationwide permit by doing a more thorough environmental analysis? No, according to Doug Hayes, a Sierra Club lawyer involved in the Keystone XL lawsuit.

“They refuse to do it,” Hayes told Circle of Blue.

This story originally appeared on Circle of Blue.

The surprising connection between West Coast fires and the volatile chemicals tainting America’s drinking water

Source: National Interagency Fire Center

By Lynne Peeples, Ensia

November 11, 2020 — Editor’s note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. View related stories here.

From his back deck, Bogdan Marian can see the scars running down into the San Lorenzo Valley: the pad of a destroyed home, the scorched brown trees at the ridge line.

Marian is grateful to have a standing home. Yet his family and many others in the area still face another worry: the safety of their tap water. After fires marred the valley near Santa Cruz, California, in August, the local water district issued a “Do Not Drink Do Not Boil” notice to residents.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including benzene, residents were warned, could be seeping into the water system — just as the toxic chemicals did in Santa Rosa and Paradise, California, in the wake of wildfires in 2017 and 2018.

“I have an 18-month-old,” adds Marian. “I don’t want to expose him to anything questionable. So, we went several weeks after that using bottled water for basically everything including showering, cleaning, watering plants.”

Pervasive Chemicals

VOCs are a large group of chemicals that share an ability to vaporize in air and dissolve in water. Since the 1940s, they have been widely used in industry, agriculture and homes. They are components of gasoline, glues, degreasers, dry cleaning fluids, pesticides plastics and more. In addition to the notorious threat they pose to indoor air quality — off-gassing is common from new cabinets or laminate flooring, for example — VOCs can also find their way into the environment, tainting soil and water.

While VOCs that migrate into surface waters tend to evaporate, VOCs that travel through the soil and into groundwater can stick around and, ultimately, contaminate drinking water supplies. Most community water systems and private wells in the U.S. use groundwater. And given the scale of VOC use and frequent large releases into the environment, as well as their persistence and potential to harm human health, these chemicals remain a serious threat to America’s drinking water.

An assessment published by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2006 detected VOCs at the 0.2 microgram-per-liter level in nearly one-fifth of aquifers tested. The chemicals commonly seep into systems via spills and improper disposals. Benzene, for example, can enter groundwater from a gasoline or oil spill on the surface or from leaking underground fuel tanks. Similarly, many VOCs, including perchloroethylene (PCE) and trichloroethylene (TCE), have been known to leach into groundwater from dry cleaners, as well as electronics and aircraft manufacturing or maintenance.

However VOCs get into drinking water, it can be bad news. “If you’re talking about something like lead in the water, you want to avoid drinking it. If you’re talking about VOCs, then you really don’t want to get those on your skin. Even a dishwasher creates vapor that could be inhaled,” says Gina Solomon, a program director with the Public Health Institute in Oakland, California.

Research has linked exposure to VOCs with increased risks of health effects including anemia, leukemia, kidney cancer, reproductive problems, birth defects and nervous system damage.

In general, children are at greatest risk from exposure to VOCs, explains Solomon. They take in a greater amount of fluid proportional to their body weight, compared with adults. And they have a lot more relative skin surface for their small size, resulting in a higher dose if bathed in the water.

“Benzene is also notorious for delayed health effects,” says Solomon. “The younger you are the more likely you are to live long enough to encounter those health effects.”

Wildfire Connection

Wildfires as a source of VOCs in drinking water had not really been on the radar until the Tubbs Fire burned through large swaths of Santa Rosa, California, in 2017. After the blaze, drinking water samples from municipal supplies had levels of several VOCs, including benzene, above state and federal exposure limits.

The next year, the Camp Fire devastated the town of Paradise, California. Benzene and other VOCs popped up in drinking water teststhere, too.

What tests uncovered after wildfires scorched the San Lorenzo Valley in late August, including one water sample with benzene levels at more than 40 times the state water board’s drinking water standard, “reinforced what we had found previously,” says Daniel Newton, an assistant deputy director with the California Environmental Protection Agency’s State Water Resources Control Board. “As the magnitude of fires is increasing and causing larger impacts to communities and water systems concurrently, we’re seeing more and more of these VOC detections. This year is setting a new pace for us.”

Solomon notes that benzene is known to cause cancer in humans. “It’s an alarming thing to find,” she says.

And benzene was just one of several VOCs detected in various water samples collected after the fire.

Marian recently learned about the drinking water contamination resulting from the earlier fires. And he laments that there still doesn’t appear to be a “playbook” for protecting water resources from wildfires. “I don’t think we’ve caught up to the things we’re learning from the 2017 and 2018 fires,” he says. “And we still don’t really understand how contamination happens. We just know it’s related to fire.”

Melting Plastics, Losing Pressure

No one knows for sure why VOCs are showing up in drinking water in the aftermath of fires. But a few ideas have emerged.

Plastic pipes and other plastics in the water system can melt or burn during a fire, releasing VOCs that could directly dissolve into the drinking water. In Paradise, scientists found globs of melted plastics in portions of the water service line. Chemicals from plastics may also absorb into pipes as they pass through, and then leach back into the water over time. “But I haven’t seen evidence yet that plastics are solely responsible for contamination after wildfires,” says Andrew Whelton, an associate professor of civil engineering and environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University.

Another hypothesis is that when a water system loses pressure due to fire damage, then smoke, ash and gases can get sucked into underground pipes and circulated throughout a water distribution system. Even without a fire, depressurization can cause bacteria and other contaminants to get into the water, notes Stefan Cajina, the north coastal section chief of the California water board’s Division of Drinking Water.

It’s possible that the presence of plastics and a loss of pressure may both be to blame. Whelton says he is doing tests to find the cause of the contamination.

Damaged water meters like this one photographed in Paradise, California, after a wildfire swept through 2019, can release volatile organic compounds, potentially contaminating drinking water. Photo courtesy of Gina Solomon

Historical Threats

Victims of California wildfires are not the first in the U.S. to be threatened by VOC-contaminated drinking water.

Military bases have been one notorious source, says Richard Luthy, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University.

Take, for example, Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Between the late 1950s and the mid-1980s, the drinking water on the marine base was tainted with toxic industrial chemicals including benzene, TCE and PCE, from waste disposal practices at an off-base dry cleaner as well as leaking underground storage tanks and industrial spills. Military veterans who served at the base during this time and developed certain diseases, such as kidney cancer or Parkinson’s disease, may now qualify for disability benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

VOCs were also the suspected villains in an unusual number of childhood leukemia cases in Woburn, Massachusetts, between 1969 and 1986. Well water had been contaminated with TCE and PCE, likely from industrial waste. A landmark lawsuit resulted in the responsible corporations contributing to the costs of remediation.

Still today, VOCs find their way into drinking water systems around the country. In Paden City, West Virginia, PCE levels in drinking water reportedly registered at almost three times the federal limit in January 2020. In August, officials detected 1,4-dioxane in a community water system in Springfield, Illinois.

Regulatory Lessons

The EPA regulates 21 VOCs under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Community water systems are required to monitor for these chemicals and, if their tests detect levels greater than the maximum contaminant level set by the EPA, they must inform their customers of the violation and take steps to remedy the situation. Still, Solomon and Whelton suggest the EPA’s regulations may not go far enough to protect the public from VOC contamination.

Methylene chloride, a VOC that appeared at levels above EPA limits in both Santa Rosa and Paradise, illustrates one potential reason. Federal and global health agencies consider it a probable human carcinogen. But standard drinking water testing might very well miss it. That’s because EPA requires that water systems test at the tap for lead and copper, but other tests for contaminants are done at the water treatment plant, explains Solomon. She notes a hypothesis that methylene chloride can form from a reaction among water pipes, disinfection byproducts and chlorine — contaminating water after it leaves the plant.

Other chemicals might be contaminating water systems after a fire, too. “We look for benzene, styrene, naphthalene. But we don’t actually know what chemicals we should be looking for,” says Whelton. He suggests that water testing using current EPA methods is not capable of detecting all of the chemicals found after the recent California wildfires.

Whelton further notes that government regulations for VOCs are based on long-term exposures and, therefore, generally don’t account for short-term, high-level exposures that can occur during a disaster such as a wildfire. And even when federal and state governments respond to a chemical disaster, they may fail to consider all of the potential routes of exposure. After a major industrial chemical spill in West Virginia in 2014, for example, efforts to protect residents from contaminated tap water relied on a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention screening level for the main compound of interest, a VOC called MCHM, based on ingestion alone. Inhalation of vapors and skin absorption are also critical potential routes of VOC exposure, argues Whelton.

“This is why we have a ‘Do Not Boil’ advisory,” he adds, noting that boiling water can send VOCs into the air. Based on evidence from the Tubbs and Camp fires, he recommends that water systems issue a “Do Not Use” order for their customers that allows use of the water solely “for firefighting purposes and toilet flushing.”

“We have lots of regulations on drinking water, but they are designed for conditions in which the source of the water is considered pretty clean and you haven’t had an immediate natural disaster.” – Richard Luthy

His other advice: Begin widespread sampling after a fire and rush those samples to be tested within 24 hours. Until tests confirm what chemicals are in the water system, don’t allow people to be exposed to that water. And then flush the water distribution system to make sure soot and other debris don’t sit around furthering VOC contamination.

Luthy also recommends that the government provide guidance to help utilities — particularly small ones — “get back in business” after a wildfire, hurricane or the like.

“We have lots of regulations on drinking water, but they are designed for conditions in which the source of the water is considered pretty clean and you haven’t had an immediate natural disaster,” he adds. “Do we need to have some other ways to address the safety of water after a natural disaster? I say, ‘Yes.’”

Cleaning Up

Increases in testing, largely resulting from recent awareness of their potential presence after wildires, along with improved treatment technologies in recent years means VOCs are less likely to reach the tap. Among the popular treatment tools are activated carbon filters that can absorb the chemicals and a process called air stripping, which can remove or “strip” benzene and other VOCs by contacting clean air with the contaminated water. The air movement causes the chemicals to evaporate at a faster rate. Such a system was installed to clean up industrial contaminants in California’s San Fernando Valley. Luthy notes that air stripping is the go-to method for cleaning up groundwater polluted by gasoline stations.

That said, both testing and effective treatment technologies come at a cost. “As soon as we start talking about private wells and small water systems, all bets are off,” says Solomon, referring to the tight budgets and limited staff generally available in these situations to invest in testing and treatment. “The dollar signs start piling up when you start testing that well. And in order to ensure your well is safe you really have to test periodically. If there are no contaminants today, that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be no contaminants a year from now.”

She notes that many homeowners and very small water systems simply skip the testing, especially with limited regulations holding them to do it.

A lot of homes so far affected by 2020 wildfires have been in areas with private wells or small to very small systems. “Those systems are getting some help from the state,” says Solomon, noting that residents in Paradise and surrounding areas also benefited from an emergency federal grant for free testing. “But that’s not typical.”

Of course, prevention is a more effective tool than any testing or treatment. Whelton suggests that communities adopt building codes that require the installation of fire-resistant water meter boxes placed a safe distance from vegetation, for example. Water meters with minimal plastic components would be less likely to ignite. Whelton also recommends water main shutoff valves and sampling taps at every water meter box, which could help responders quickly determine water safety. And to block contamination from flowing from a damaged building into a larger pipe network, he advises the use of one-way valves, also known as back flow prevention devices.

The San Lorenzo Valley Water District took many preemptive steps to mitigate the potential threat to the region’s drinking water. It shut down part of its system before the wildfire’s arrival. A one-way valve also separates the neighborhood of Riverside Grove, one of the communities in which benzene was found, from the rest of the water system.

The “Do Not Drink Do Not Boil” notice has now been lifted for Marian’s neighborhood. But Marian remains cautious until more tests are done. “I’m comfortable enough to use tap water for laundry and cleaning the house,” he says. “But out of an abundance of caution, we’re still using bottled water for drinking and cooking.”

This story originally appeared on Ensia on November 11, 2020.

Degrees of warming: How a hotter, thirstier atmosphere wreaks havoc on water supplies in Pitkin County

The Crystal River runs low outside of Carbondale on Sept. 1.
The Crystal River runs low outside of Carbondale on Sept. 1. With average temperatures warming in summer months by as much as 3.5 degrees since the 1950s in Garfield County, streamflows are trending down as peak runoff comes earlier and more water is sucked up by evaporation and dry soils, stressing available water supplies in late summer and fall. (Dan Bayer/Aspen Journalism)

By Catherine Lutz

In November 2018, Marble Town Manager Ron Leach received a letter that he said was a wake-up call.

The letter was a notice from the Colorado Division of Water Resources that the town’s water rights had been “out of priority” for four weeks the previous August and September because of a call placed by a senior water-rights holder downstream on the Crystal River. 

During drought years — and 2018 was an extreme one, with the Crystal running at less than 5% of average after peaking in May, several weeks earlier than usual — junior water-rights holders may have to curtail their water usage until the senior call is satisfied.

“Drought and water supply have been on people’s minds for a long time around here, but we’ve never gotten a letter like that,” Leach said. 

The letter urged the Marble Water Company — the private nonprofit entity that delivers water to the town’s approximately 150 residents and a handful of businesses — to create a plan of augmentation, which is an alternate source of water such as a storage pond. Without augmentation, the letter warned, a call could subject Marble to a cease-and-desist order on its municipal water wells.

Several other neighborhoods that get their water from the Crystal also narrowly dodged a bullet that August. The same call put more than 40 homes in Carbondale at risk of not having water, according to Town Manger Jay Harrington.

“Firefighting capability was an issue, too,” Harrington said. “That’s where we had to scramble.”

Carbondale officials were able to make an emergency arrangement with another senior water-rights holder on the Crystal to temporarily borrow water to supply the homes. And they quickly set in motion plans to avoid the situation in the future. In essence, the town is shifting the supply for some of its water needs from the heavily irrigated Crystal to the more reliable Roaring Fork, as the town has three wells that draw from the Roaring Fork aquifer, and has the option to develop more wells. The town also owns 500 acre-feet of water in Ruedi Reservoir it can use to offset its well depletions from the Roaring Fork aquifer.

Up in Marble, Leach doesn’t have multiple, redundant water supplies to serve his constituents. Noting that Marble’s water supply barely exceeds peak summer demand, an engineering firm’s preliminary recommendation was for an 11-acre-foot reservoir, which would require 3 to 4 acres of flat ground.

“The town of Marble doesn’t have cash to do anything like that,” said Leach, who added that space in the constrained mountain valley might also be a hurdle. “There’s no easy solution.”

Still, Leach is confident something will get figured out — a state-funded water study of the Crystal was recently approved, he said —  but a very dry 2020 has underscored that the water issue is not going away anytime soon. During what’s now widely accepted as a two-decade-long drought in the Colorado River basin, temperatures have risen, summer rains can’t be relied on and streamflows have dropped, with earlier peak flows sometimes leaving little water in streams by late summer. The state’s letter to Marble noted that “it is reasonable to assume that this administration scenario could happen more frequently in the future.”  

To those who deal with water day to day, there’s no question climate change is here and its impacts are being increasingly felt in the summer.

“It all starts with climate change — that’s the big picture,” said Leach. “What’s happening in Marble, this is the micro-example.”

Other Roaring Fork municipalities are also grappling with climate-caused water supply issues. The city of Aspen, which provides municipal water from free-flowing Maroon and Castle creeks and has seen Stage 2 water restrictions enacted two of the past three summers, is creating a 50-year water plan — driven in part by climate-change impacts — that may include expanded water storage. In Basalt, the 2018 Lake Christine Fire came close to cutting power supplies, which could have caused the failure of pump stations that deliver water to users. And after one of Glenwood Springs’ water sources was temporarily shut down during this summer’s Grizzly Creek Fire, debris, ash, mudslides and fire retardant pose lingering hazards.   

“We need to continually work on our water systems as we continue to adapt to climate change,” said Harrington. “We are going to have to figure out how to slow it down, but in the meantime, we need to take climate change into our planning.”

Marble Town Manager Ron Leach is looking for ways to augment the town’s water supply, which comes from the Crystal River aquifer.
Marble Town Manager Ron Leach is looking for ways to augment the town’s water supply, which comes from the Crystal River aquifer. In 2018, that supply was threatened when the river was running too low to satisfy all water-rights holders. (Catherine Lutz/Aspen Journalism)

The heat is on

Warming temperatures, linked to increased global greenhouse-gas emissions, are the catalyst that impacts other key conditions in the mountains, including lower snowpacks and streamflows; earlier snowmelt and runoff peaks; more precipitation in the form of rain than snow; more frost-free days; and lower soil moisture.   

As average temperatures rise in all seasons, heat waves like the one that gripped Colorado during the summer of 2020 are becoming more common. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, average temperatures from May to October in Pitkin and Garfield counties have risen more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1950s. Some months are warming faster than others. In Pitkin County, June, July and September have warmed by nearly 3 degrees since 1950, while in Garfield County, June and September are 3.5 degrees warmer. 

2019 report prepared for the town of Carbondale hints that warming has accelerated in the 21st century, with three of the five warmest years on record over the past decade. Also, this past August was the hottest on record for Colorado. In Aspen, the average temperature of 66.9 degrees in August was 5.6 degrees above normal. 

The Roaring Fork Valley sits on the eastern edge of the largest hot spot in the Lower 48, according to a Washington Post project that analyzed data to identify areas that have warmed by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — double the global average — since the industrial revolution. 

Garfield County’s average June temperature has been increasing 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit per decade and is roughly 3.5 degrees higher now than in the 1950s
Garfield County’s average June temperature has been increasing 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit per decade and is roughly 3.5 degrees higher now than in the 1950s. (Courtesy NOAA)

Noting that 12 of the hottest 14 years in western Colorado have occurred in the past 18 years, Colorado River Water Conservation District general manager Andy Mueller said at a recent conference that “the biggest change in temperatures has been occurring within our district and eastern Utah, which is a real problem when you look at the fact that we’re the area that produces the most-significant amount of water in the entire rivershed.”

Scientists are in broad agreement that as long as greenhouse-gas emissions continue to rise — or even level off — temperatures will follow suit. 

Projections for the region range depending on emissions scenarios, but nearly all of them forecast at least another rise of average temperatures of 3 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century and a rise of approximately another 10 degrees by the end of the 21st century. To put this into perspective, a warming Aspen could have the climate of Carbondale or Glenwood Springs, while Glenwood would look and feel like Grand Junction in a few decades.

This graph shows the range of average maximum temperature increases projected for Carbondale under both and high and low emissions scenario.
This graph shows the range of average maximum temperature increases projected for Carbondale under both and high and low emissions scenario. (Courtesy The Climate Explorer/NOAA)

The atmosphere taketh away

Local summer precipitation trends are less clear. Monsoon rains — or the lack thereof — drive great swings year to year in summer precipitation, which is usually dwarfed, in terms of volume, by winter precipitation in the form of snow. Historical data shows no clear trends. A report prepared for the town of Carbondale says that average precipitation in the 20th century and since 2000 are about the same.    

Still, the summer of 2020 capped a decade of multiple dry summers. Colorado this year saw its third-driest April-July period, according to the National Weather Service, and the 2.5 inches of precipitation Aspen had from June through August was nearly 2 inches below normal. It was the fourth summer in a row with below-average precipitation and the driest in that stretch — even the summer of 2018 saw more rain.

Precipitation projections are also not very clear — although some experts suggest that precipitation could decrease in the summer and increase in the winter. But whether there’s a little more or a little less rain and snow in the future — and the latest models show a long-term decline in the Colorado River Basin — scientists say it doesn’t matter.

“There’s more uncertainty in how much precipitation is going to change and less uncertainty about how much temperature is going to change,” said hydrology expert Julie Vano, who is research director at Aspen Global Change Institute. “And the effect of just having warmer temperatures means more water is leaving the system.”

Jeff Lukas, a researcher on NOAA’s Western Water Assessment team, put it this way: “A warming atmosphere is a thirstier atmosphere.” In the Roaring Fork Valley, he said, only about a third of all precipitation makes it into streams and rivers; the other two-thirds is reclaimed by evapotranspiration, which is the combination of evaporation from surfaces and what plants absorb then release. Since evapotranspiration is driven in large part by temperature, as temperatures rise, the amount of water in rivers declines.

“The atmosphere giveth and the atmosphere taketh most of it away,” said Lukas. “Warming is the factor — across all seasons and all water-cycle processes — that draws moisture away from the land surface before becoming runoff.”

A table showing hydroclimate trends from Western Water Assessment’s “Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology State of the Science” report.
A table showing hydroclimate trends from Western Water Assessment’s “Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology State of the Science” report. (Courtesy Western Water Assessment/“Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology State of the Science” report)

The flow is low

After more than a century of diversions, dams, storage projects and other stream manipulations, it’s complicated to calculate trends in natural streamflow, the term for the amount of water in a river. But streamflow, also called runoff, has perhaps the most direct effect on water availability. And trends are not looking good.

Since 2000, according to a recent report, the average annual volume of water in the upper Colorado River basin, from its headwaters to Lees Ferry (just below Lake Powell in Arizona), has dropped 15% below the long-term average from 1906 to 2019. Published last April, the Western Water Assessment’s “Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology State of the Science” report synthesizes all of the recent studies and data on this massive topic. The report’s authors compiled ever-increasing evidence about how rising temperatures are contributing to less water in the Colorado River, which supplies the needs of 40 million people. Although precipitation is still an important factor, some research shows that warming accounts for up to half of the water loss. One study calculated that every 1 degree Fahrenheit of warming decreases runoff by 7.5%.

Jeff Lukas, a researcher on NOAA’s Western Water Assessment team, has calculated that between 2000 and 2018, the Roaring Fork River at Glenwood Springs had 13% less water than the 20th century average, which in large part is attributable to declining peak flows, shown here in this graph.
Jeff Lukas, a researcher on NOAA’s Western Water Assessment team, has calculated that between 2000 and 2018, the Roaring Fork River at Glenwood Springs had 13% less water than the 20th century average, which in large part is attributable to declining peak flows, shown here in this graph. (Laurine Lassalle/Aspen Journalism)

Declining streamflows are also found up the Colorado’s tributaries. Taking into account water that would’ve been in the stream if it weren’t for diversions and ditches, Lukas calculated that between 2000 and 2018, the Roaring Fork River at Glenwood Springs had 13% less water than the 20th-century average. Analyzing data on the Crystal River near Redstone, he calculated a 5% drop in annual mean streamflow since 2000, compared with the latter half of the 20th century, but a 10% decline during drier years.

In that same analysis of the Crystal, Lukas found that the date of peak streamflow had shifted one week earlier since 2000: from reliably arriving in June to sometimes coming in May. Multiple studies across the Colorado basin have similarly calculated a one- to four-week earlier runoff — which means that high-country snowpacks are melting earlier, so that the highest volume of snowmelt rushing down those streams is coming earlier in the spring. 

But an above-average snowpack doesn’t mean an equivalent runoff, as this past year has shown. After a good winter followed by a warm, dry spring and summer, just 55% of the upper Colorado’s runoff made it into Lake Powell.

“The expectation that this amount of snow leads to this amount of runoff — we’re just not seeing as much as we did in the past,” said Vano, the hydrology expert.

Projections on how runoff will change in the coming decades from Western Water Assessment’s “Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology State of the Science” report. (Courtesy Western Water Assessment/“Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology State of the Science” report)

Earlier peak runoff and lower flows mean less water (especially in drought years) in late summer and early fall, a critical time for irrigation, recreation and natural systems. From late July through October, the Crystal River upstream from Carbondale has been flowing below half of average, lower than the instream flow water right held by the state for that stretch of river — but since irrigation rights are senior to the conservation right, there’s often no recourse. For example, that is what happened in August on another tributary of the Roaring Fork, when the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which holds 1,700 instream-flow rights throughout the state, requested administration of its instream rights on Hunter Creek, acknowledging that it would likely be “a futile call.”

“A river is not a river without water in it,” said Heather Tattersall Lewin, science and policy director for the Roaring Fork Conservancy. 

As with higher temperatures, declining streamflows and earlier runoff are certain into the future, but how much will depend on emissions. A 2006 report by the Aspen Global Change Institute calculated that by 2030, peak runoff for the Roaring Fork River at Woody Creek will occur in May rather than June. And by 2100, the lingering snowpack we see on the high peaks in June will no longer exist, which means less water in the stream all summer. Add in increased demand from growth and diversions, and future Roaring Fork River flows through Aspen could go below required instream-flow levels for nine months of the year.

Downstream in Glenwood Springs, the Roaring Fork’s late summer flows could decline by 30% to 50% by 2070, according to a 2018 analysis by Lukas. 

“Changes to water will touch nearly everything,” he said. “All the risk is on the dry side.”

The Crystal River showing a fraction of its normal summer volume in September.
The Crystal River showing a fraction of its normal summer volume in September. Water supply challenges related to climate change have been evident along the waterway as warmer summer temperatures stress streamflows. (Dan Bayer/Aspen Journalism)

The underlying factor

Another important factor to consider is one we don’t really see: soil moisture. 

One of the metrics used to calculate drought severity, soil moisture has been studied locally by the Aspen Global Change Institute since 2013. This short period of record may preclude discerning any trends about whether local soils are getting drier, but the data does show how moisture levels can have a domino effect season to season.

Elise Osenga, community science manager for the institute, likens the soil to a sponge. A dry sponge, like dry soil, absorbs more water than when it’s wet, while a wet sponge, like saturated soil, lets the excess run off. The water that the soil doesn’t absorb goes into streams.

“Climate change is more likely to dry soils in the spring,” said Osenga, who explained that peak snowmelt and peak soil saturation happen around the same time in the mountains. “When that happens, we’ll see soils dry earlier in the summer and become more dependent on summer rain — which is problematic when we don’t get those rains.”

The Aspen Global Change Institute has been tracking local soil moisture since 2013. In each of the past three years, soil moisture has dipped well under the 2013-2017 average for most of the summer.
The Aspen Global Change Institute has been tracking local soil moisture since 2013. In each of the past three years, soil moisture has dipped well under the 2013-2017 average for most of the summer. (Elise Osenga/Aspen Global Change Institute)

Each of the past three years, soil moisture in Pitkin County has dipped well under the 2013-2017 average for most of the summer. The drought year of 2018 saw an early snowmelt and soil drying, but fall rains helped soils recover, auguring well for the next year. Most remember the record snows of late winter and spring of 2019, but the lack of rain that summer dried things up. And 2020 largely mirrored 2018, although 2020 saw slightly better soil moisture until late summer.

This year, things may have cooled off since August, but drought conditions have worsened, with all of Colorado, as of Oct. 22, in some form of drought and 78% of the state in extreme or exceptional drought. This doesn’t bode well for spring.

With soil moisture, said Osenga, “what happens in September and October is actually really interesting, because it plays a big role in determining whether we start the next spring already at risk of a drought versus in better shape.”

With multiple dry years over the past two decades, some scientists are wondering if we’re entering a period of megadrought, which hasn’t been seen in several hundred years. 

“It might be a combination of natural variability plus climate change — a double whammy,” said Vano.

No single drought is evidence of climate change, Lukas said, but “what we’re seeing since 2000 is that climate change is stacking the deck. We’re more prone to the deep droughts, the ones that sneak out of left field like in 2020.”

And even with good planning, that’s sure to make water managers in Marble and Carbondale and throughout the Colorado River basin nervous.

“We do see changing conditions, whether attributable to increased demand/development by water users, drought or long-term climate change,” wrote Colorado water commissioner Jake DeWolfe in an email. “Any of them leads to the same problem: a shortage of water. We are involved in planning for the future likelihood that we will need to limit, if not curtail, uses in Colorado to meet the needs of downstream states.”

An abridged version of this story ran in The Aspen Times on Oct. 30.

Study finds small number of jobs lost under demand-management program

Big beaches are growing, and stabilizing, along the Colorado River in Cataract Canyon just above Lake Powell, like this one captured in early October. A recent study on the secondary economic impacts of a water-use-reduction program intended to deliver more water to Lake Powell found some jobs could be lost across western Colorado.
Big beaches are growing, and stabilizing, along the Colorado River in Cataract Canyon just above Lake Powell, like this one captured in early October. A recent study on the secondary economic impacts of a water-use-reduction program intended to deliver more water to Lake Powell found some jobs could be lost across western Colorado. (Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism)

By Heather Sackett

A recent study of a program that could pay irrigators for their water to bolster streamflows found that the benefits would be comparable to the negative secondary impacts. But that finding doesn’t take into account what some say is a new worrisome trend in Western Slope water-rights ownership: a New York City-based private equity fund buying land and the water tied to it.

The study, commissioned by the Colorado River Water Bank Work Group, looked at the secondary economic impacts of a potential water-use-reduction program — known as demand management — on Western Slope communities. The Water Bank Work Group is composed of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Southwestern Conservation District, Grand Valley Water Users Association, The Nature Conservancy and other entities.

Denver-based BBC Research & Consulting ran the numbers for two hypothetical water-use-reduction scenarios.

Under the moderate scenario, irrigators across western Colorado would reduce their consumption of water by 25,000 acre-feet annually. Under an aggressive demand-management scenario, each of the four river basins on the Western Slope — Yampa/White, Colorado, Gunnison and San Juan/Dolores — would each reduce its annual consumptive use by 25,000 acre-feet, for a total annual reduction of 100,000 acre-feet of consumptive use.

The study came about because the state of Colorado is investigating whether to implement a demand-management program where irrigators are paid to voluntarily and temporarily fallow fields and leave more water in the river in order to fill a 500,000-acre-foot pool in Lake Powell. This saved water could be used as a modest insurance policy to help protect the Upper Basin against a compact call. The Water Bank Work Group is concerned with the potential economic impacts to agricultural communities of fallowing agricultural lands as part of such a program.

The study found that payments to irrigators should range from $194 to $263 per acre-foot of water. Annual demand-management payments across western Colorado would total almost $5.9 million under the moderate scenario and nearly $24 million under the aggressive scenario.

The reduction in crop production — in western Colorado, about 90% of irrigated acreage produces grass hay or alfalfa — is likely to create a trickle-down effect and result in fewer purchases of seed and fertilizer and reduce the need for labor, hauling and other services, the study found.

Some agriculture jobs would be lost, but the infusion of money from payments would create jobs in other areas of the economy, including the service sector. The net job loss across western Colorado would be between 14 and 49 secondary jobs under the moderate scenario and between 72 and 222 jobs under the aggressive scenario, the study found.

Doug Jeavons, managing director of BBC Research & Consulting, conducted the study and has given several presentations in recent weeks about its findings. He said that while the net job loss sounds minimal, the impacts could be greater in certain areas if farms participating in a program are not spread out equitably across basins.

“In terms relative to the overall size of the western Colorado economy, the numbers are not that large,” he said. “I do think there’s a risk depending on how the program is set up and administered, that the participation in the program could be much more geographically concentrated, and certainly if most of the participants are within a relatively small area, the impacts could be bigger.”

According to the study, agricultural activity in western Colorado provides about 13,600 jobs, which is about 3% of total jobs in the region. By comparison, tourism provides 75,400 jobs.

As Lake Powell reservoir levels remain low, some of the silt left behind is turning into white sandy beaches, like this one seen this month where the upper Colorado River flows into the upper edge of the reservoir, a sign of years of low inflows into the reservoir. The state of Colorado is exploring a temporary, voluntary and compensated water-use-reduction program to bolster levels in Lake Powell. (Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism)

Game changer

But these study results don’t paint the full picture, said River District general manager Andy Mueller. The study assumes that participants in a demand-management program would be owner-operators of the land being temporarily fallowed. They would probably take the payments they receive from a demand-management program and spend them locally, invest them back into their business or use them to pay down debt. But the negative impacts could be greater if the money paid to irrigators flows out of the region.

In recent years, the New York City-based private equity fund Water Asset Management has been buying up land and the water rights tied to it in the Grand Valley. An investigation by Aspen Journalism and KUNC found that as of June, WAM had spent $16.6 million buying 2,222 acres of irrigated land in the farming communities west of Grand Junction, making it the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association.

In many cases, WAM makes improvements to irrigation infrastructure and leases the land back to tenant farmers, who keep it in agricultural production.

WAM representatives have said the company would be interested in participating in a demand-management program.

Mueller called this shift away from small family farm ownership a game changer and said there is a likelihood of significant economic harm to Western Slope communities.

“If you pay New York-based investment companies and they take that money and return it to their investors who live in New York or elsewhere, the money doesn’t get reinvested in the community,” he said. “Tenants are not receiving payments under a demand-management program, so their livelihoods have disappeared.”

Jeavons agreed that money paid to absentee landlords through a demand-management program probably wouldn’t stay in the community.

“The analysis we did assumes that most of the participants would be family-owned farms and ranches because most of the ranches and farms in western Colorado are family owned,” he said. “I think it’s pretty clear that if you have outside investors that are essentially trying to make a profit from this kind of program, that would certainly change some of these results.”

Partly in response to WAM’s activities in western Colorado, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources has convened a workgroup to explore ways to strengthen the state’s anti-speculation law.

But at least one Colorado water-policy expert doesn’t see a problem with WAM’s receiving payments for participation in a demand-management program. James Eklund is the former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and one of the architects of the Drought Contingency Plan, which allowed for the creation of the 500,000-acre-foot pool in Lake Powell.

He represents WAM as counsel but said his comments to Aspen Journalism for this story were not on behalf of the company. WAM representatives could not be reached for comment.

Eklund said the biggest threat is not out-of-state investors but, rather, climate change. He said filling the Lake Powell insurance pool as quickly as possible should be the goal.

“The Colorado River is facing an existential threat to its water supply that requires solutions at scale (500,000 acre-feet annually at minimum),” he said in an email. “If investment groups are willing to invest in solutions that keep agriculture in production, while also making more water available for the benefit of our state and the environment, we should encourage that investment, just as we do in other sectors.”

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Oct. 28 edition of The Aspen Times and the Oct. 26 edition of The Steamboat Pilot & Today.

State officials set sights on ponds without water rights

A canoe floats in the Milvich family pond in Old Snowmass. The Colorado Division of Water Resources issued a cease-and-desist letter because the pond, which does not have a legal water right, was taking water out of priority.
A canoe floats in the Milvich family pond in Old Snowmass. The Colorado Division of Water Resources issued a cease-and-desist letter because the pond, which does not have a legal water right, was taking water out of priority. (Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism)

By Heather Sackett

OLD SNOWMASS — Rebecca Milvich has many fond childhood memories of playing in the pond on her family’s Old Snowmass property, which they purchased in 1985.

Every summer, the pond off Little Elk Creek Avenue in Old Snowmass, became the neighborhood hangout as Milvich and her siblings and friends swam and paddled a canoe. Still today, the pond, which is filled by a ditch branching off Little Elk Creek, brings the family joy as they admire the ducks, fish and muskrats that live there.

“Those are the passions that are wrapped around it,” Milvich said. “It’s very personal. It’s something that has enhanced our quality of life a thousandfold. Our ability to have a water feature has changed our lives for the better, for sure.”

But on Sept. 22, the Milvich family received a cease-and-desist order from the Colorado Division of Water Resources that said they had to stop filling their pond because of a downstream call on the Colorado River, in which water users junior to the Grand Valley irrigators’ water rights had to be shut off. 

It turned out the Milvich family did not have a legal water right for their pond, making them one of the most junior water users on the Colorado River system and one of the first to be curtailed.

“We were from Southern California and we missed having the beach,” Milvich said. “And my dad was excited to purchase an actual piece of property that had water on it, totally not knowing that we were in some ways for these last 35 years breaking some rules and regulations. We had absolutely no idea.”

The Milvich family’s pond is not the only one in the area lacking a water right. DWR officials say undecreed ponds throughout the region are depleting the Colorado River system in a time when a climate change-fueled drought makes it more important than ever to account for every last drop of water.

The Glenwood Springs-based Division 5 engineer’s office issued five cease-and-desist orders for ponds without water rights this season in the upper Roaring Fork Valley. And officials say there are many more ponds like these out there. Some of them are recently built for fire protection.

The main concern with these ponds is water loss to the Colorado River system through evaporation. The bigger the surface area, the more water that is lost.

“A lot of the depletions are pretty small, but it’s death by a thousand cuts,” Division 5 Engineer Alan Martellaro said. “When you have these all over the place, they add up at some point.”

According to Colorado water law, anyone is allowed to divert water from a stream simply by putting it to beneficial use as long as it does not harm senior water-rights holders. To protect their ability to keep using the water and save their place in line, most users make their water right official by getting a decree through water court. This enshrines the water right in Colorado’s system of prior appropriation in which the older the water right, the more powerful it is.

“It’s a good idea because it protects your standing,” Martellaro said. “It protects your priority. That’s the whole point of a water right.”

That means ponds without a decree are last in line and are the first to be shut off when there’s a downstream call from irrigators in the Grand Valley, which have much older water rights — one from 1912 and one from 1934. Known as the “Cameo Call,” these irrigators can control all junior water rights upstream of their diversion at the roller dam in DeBeque Canyon. 

Most summers, Grand Valley irrigators “call” for their water when streamflows begin to drop. In general, the drier the year, the earlier the call comes on. This year, the Cameo Call first came July 30 and went off at the end of irrigation season Oct. 26.

As long as the call is on, junior upstream water rights must be shut off or “curtailed” so that the downstream irrigators can get the full amount of water to which they are legally entitled. It is up to the division engineer’s office to decide exactly how to administer the call and which junior water rights to curtail, but undecreed water use is generally the first to go. 

“When the call is on, they are stealing somebody else’s water if they don’t have a water right,” said Bill Blakeslee, water commissioner for District 38, which encompasses the Roaring Fork River watershed. 

Blakeslee said he doesn’t like to issue cease-and-desist orders, and his goal is to educate people about the Colorado River system. 

“We don’t like to do our business this way, but this is one of the tools we use to help people understand we don’t have as much water as we used to and we all need to take steps to preserve as much as we can,” he said. “It makes a statement to the general public that we are in a drought situation, so let’s not do things that continue to contribute to further loss of water.”

Even though the ponds are causing water loss to the river system at all times, Blakeslee said he can apply the pressure of the law only when there is a call.

“I can’t enforce the rules until the call goes on the system,” he said.

Rebecca Milvich has many fond childhood memories of playing in this pond on her family’s property in Old Snowmass. Officials from the Colorado Division of Water Resources say ponds without a water right, such as this one, are depleting the Colorado River system.
Rebecca Milvich has many fond childhood memories of playing in this pond on her family’s property in Old Snowmass. Officials from the Colorado Division of Water Resources say ponds without a water right, such as this one, are depleting the Colorado River system. (Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism)

Compact call

The Milviches were supposed to have stopped diverting water out of priority within 10 days of receiving the order or else face enforcement actions such as having to pay the state’s costs and legal fees. But Martellaro said his office so far has not fined the owners of any of the five ponds and won’t as long as they are working toward a solution. And since the Grand Valley call is now off the river, the issue is less urgent — for the moment.

Colorado is entering a period of tighter accountability for some water users as Lake Powell’s levels continue to drop and the threat of a compact call looms larger in a warming West. 

A compact call could occur if the upper-basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower-basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada), as required by the Colorado River Compact, a nearly century-old binding agreement. Upper-basin water managers desperately want to avoid this scenario.

“I guess you could say one of the elephants in the room is the interstate compact situation,” Blakeslee said. 

So what are the Milviches’ options to remedy the situation? In order to be allowed to keep using water for the pond when a call is on, they must replace that water to the system. One possibility is getting a contract for an augmentation plan with a local water-conservancy district to release water from Ruedi Reservoir to make up for depletions from the pond. The Milviches have met with an engineer to assess their options.

Whatever they decide, securing a water right through water court can be a lengthy, expensive process. 

“We are definitely terrified about that reality,” Milvich said. 

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative journalism organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Nov. 2 edition of The Aspen Times.

Voters overwhelmingly pass Colorado River District tax hike

The Colorado River flows through Glenwood Canyon. Voters in the 15-county Colorado River Water Conservation District overwhelmingly passed a tax increase to fund water conservation and infrastructure projects in the election decided on Nov. 3, 2020. Photo by Mitch Tobin/The Water Desk.

By Heather Sackett

Western Slope voters have overwhelmingly passed a proposal by the Colorado River Water Conservation District to raise property taxes across its 15-county region.

According to preliminary results as of 10:45 p.m. Tuesday, encompassing about 246,245 ballots, about 72% of voters said yes to the measure. Saguache County was the lone county to vote against the measure.

Pitkin County voters passed ballot question 7A with 80% in favor, despite three of five county commissioners and Pitkin County’s representative to the River District board John Ely opposing the measure. Nearly 69% of voters in Mesa County, which has the largest population base in the district, supported the measure.

The River District announced that the measure had received voter approval in a news release at 7:55 p.m. Tuesday, saying the organization is ready to get to work implementing water projects across the district.

River District general manager Andy Mueller said the results prove that water is the one issue that can unite voters in western Colorado.

“It was the one issue that’s not partisan, that was about uniting a very politically diverse region,” he said. “Everybody is so sick of the nasty, divisive, partisan politics. People with (Donald) Trump signs and (Joe) Biden signs voted for the same thing.”

Ballot measure 7A raises property taxes by a half-mill, or an extra $1.90 per year for every $100,000 of residential home value. The measure will raise nearly an additional $5 million annually for the River District, which says it will use the money for fighting to keep water on the Western Slope, protecting water supplies for Western Slope farmers and ranchers, protecting drinking water for Western Slope communities, and protecting fish, wildlife and recreation.

According to numbers provided by the River District, the mill levy will increase to $40.28 from $18.93 annually for Pitkin County’s median home value, which at $1.13 million is the highest in the district. In Eagle County,  where the median home value is $660,979, the mill levy will increase to $23.63 from $11.11 annually.

Property owners can expect to see the mill-levy increase on their 2021 tax bill.

The proposal received wide support among county commissioners, agricultural organizations and environmental groups.

Eagle County Commissioner and River District board member Kathy Chandler-Henry, who also served as vice-chair of the political action committee Yes on 7A, said it would have been nearly impossible for the River District to protect Western Slope water without the tax increase. 

“I’m glad people throughout the district saw the value in that, even though it’s a tough time to be asking for a tax increase,” she said. “I think that’s a huge win and a huge vote of confidence in the work the River District’s been doing.”

The River District, based in Glenwood Springs and created by the state legislature in 1937 to develop and protect water supplies in western Colorado, spans Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Gunnison, Garfield, Rio Blanco, Routt, Moffat, Mesa, Delta, Montrose, Ouray, Hinsdale and Saguache counties.

The River District’s fiscal implementation plan for the revenue that would be raised by the tax hike says 86% would go toward funding water projects backed by roundtables and local communities. Those projects would fall into five categories: productive agriculture; infrastructure; healthy rivers; watershed health and water quality; and conservation and efficiency.

This story ran in The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Summit Daily News, the Vail Daily, the Steamboat Pilot and Today and the Sky-Hi News.

Millions in new taxes approved for West Slope, Front Range water districts

At the polls Tuesday, a Longmont woman, who asked that her name not be used, said she supported increased funding for water to ensure Colorado's rivers and streams remain healthy.

At the polls Tuesday, a Longmont woman, who asked that her name not be used, said she supported increased funding for water to ensure Colorado’s rivers and streams remain healthy. Credit: Jerd Smith, Fresh Water News

By Sarah Kuta

Water won big in Colorado on Election Day as voters in two multi-county districts approved property tax increases to fund water projects and programs.

Voters in two local water districts — the Colorado River Water Conservation District on the West Slope and the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District on the Front Range — said yes to ballot measures that will generate millions of dollars in new money for conservation, water education, stream health, storage and agriculture.

Based on vote totals as of 4:30 a.m. this morning, 72 percent of voters in the Colorado River District approved ballot issue 7A, with nearly 28 percent voting against the measure.

Meanwhile, 69 percent of voters in the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District approved a separate ballot issue 7A, with 31 percent voting against.

Though statewide funding for water projects has historically been a tough sell for Colorado voters, local initiatives with a more direct connection to residents are finding more success at the polls in recent years. These 2020 water funding ballot measures come on the heels of similar successes in 2018, when voters in Denver, Eagle, Chaffee and Park counties approved tax increases, new taxes, and tax extensions for water and land-focused initiatives.

“Passing any type of fiscal measures statewide in Colorado is going to continue to be an extreme challenge but it’s a much different story on the local level and the regional level,” said Matt Rice, director of the Colorado Basin Program for American Rivers, which supported the Colorado River District measure. “People in Colorado like to make their own decisions locally about fiscal issues, but also about how we manage and protect and restore our rivers for the environment, for agriculture and for local economies.”

In deciding to ask voters for more money this year, the two districts’ leaders cited factors like growing demand for water, drought, higher temperatures, population growth, declining oil and gas revenue, and declining property tax levels under the state’s Gallagher Amendment.

Those reasons resonated with voters on both sides of the political spectrum across the state. On the West Slope, for example, voters in right-leaning counties like Mesa and Montrose and left-leaning counties like Pitkin and Summit approved the ballot measure. (Of note: Nearly 80 percent of voters in Pitkin County approved the ballot measure, despite opposition by three county commissioners and the county’s representative on the district’s board.)

“It’s really a testament to what can happen if people put aside partisan differences on water issues,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District. “Voters in Colorado are seeing the effects of rising temperatures, changing climate and the impact it’s having on water resources, and they know that we need to adapt and mitigate and that it’s going to cost money to do that.”

An angler casts a line on the Roaring Fork River upstream of Basalt in Pitkin County. West Slope voters said yes to millions in new taxes for the Colorado River District.
An angler casts a line on the Roaring Fork River upstream of Basalt in Pitkin County. West Slope voters said yes to millions in new taxes for the Colorado River District. Credit: Jerd Smith, Fresh Water News

West Slope says yes

In the large Colorado River District, which includes 15 counties and some 500,000 residents, voters approved a mill levy increase that will double the district’s budget by generating an additional $4.9 million every year starting in 2021.

The district spans an area that covers 28 percent of the state and encompasses the Colorado River and its major tributaries, which include the Yampa, the White, the Gunnison and the Uncompahgre rivers.

With the passage of the ballot measure, West Slope voters approved a median residential property tax increase of $7.03 per year for residents of Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield, Routt, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Mesa, Delta, Ouray, Gunnison and parts of Montrose, Saguache and Hinsdale counties. The increase represents an additional $1.90 per year for every $100,000 of home value.

The district, which has 22 employees, will use the new funding for projects related to agriculture, infrastructure, water quality, conservation, efficiency, and other key priority areas determined by local communities and river basin roundtables.

District leaders say they will also stretch the extra money further by using it to solicit matching funds from state, federal and private sources.

Water funding on the Front Range

It was also a historic night for the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District, where voters approved a property tax increase for the next 10 years. This is the first time in nearly 50 years — since its founding in 1971 — that the district has asked voters for more funding.

The district’s board thought long and hard about how best to approach voters — and whether this was the right year to do it. But in the end, their approach paid off.

“The discussions were good and essentially resulted in consensus and agreement with the board,” said Chris Smith, board vice president representing district 3, which encompasses northwest Longmont and parts of unincorporated Boulder County. “It was all done in a very thoughtful manner, which speaks a lot to having a board that represents, geographically, the entire watershed.”

Smith said he was happy to see the West Slope ballot measure pass, too.

“The people of Colorado have really keyed in on the importance of water,” he said. “There are so many new people moving to Colorado, it’s good to see that they’re carrying on that mantle of protecting our most important resource.”

The St. Vrain and Left Hand district encompasses some 500 square miles along the St. Vrain and Left Hand creeks in Boulder, Weld and Larimer counties. Voters agreed to a mill levy increase from 0.156 mills to 1.25 mills through 2030.

The tax increase will generate an additional $3.3 million per year for the district starting in 2021, up from the $421,000 generated annually by the current mill levy. On a $350,000 home, the tax increase represents an additional $2.61 per month; on a $500,000 commercial building, it’s an extra $15.10 per month.

District leaders say they will use the extra money for projects related to water quality, river and creek health, water education, agriculture, storage and conservation, among others.

Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at sarahkuta@gmail.com.

This story originally appeared on Fresh Water News, an independent, non-partisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Its editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.

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