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White River dam and reservoir project headed for water court trial

White River between Meeker and Rangely.
A view of the White River between Meeker and Rangely. The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District and the State of Colorado are headed to a water court trial because they can’t agree on whether the district actually needs the water it claims it does for a reservoir and dam project. (Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism)

By Heather Sackett

A water court case is headed toward trial because the state of Colorado and a water conservancy district still cannot agree on whether the district actually needs the amount of water it claims it does for a large dam and reservoir project in the northwest corner of the state.

Expert reports from an engineering firman aquatic ecologist and an economics firm outline how they say the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District can and will put its water storage rights to beneficial use. But even after Rio Blanco reduced the amount of water it’s asking for by more than 23,000 acre-feet, a report from Colorado’s top water engineers indicates the district still largely has a project in search of a need.

In their expert report submitted Aug. 31, Deputy State Engineer Tracy Kosloff and Division 6 Engineer Erin Light outline 11 instances where they say Rio Blanco has not met the requirements of state law by showing it has a specific plan and intent for the water it says it needs.

According to the report, Rio Blanco has not shown a need for water above its current supply in the categories of irrigation, municipal use, recreation, maintenance and recovery of endangered species or a back-up water supply to protect against a compact call. State engineers are asking that part or all of the water claimed for these uses be removed from the court’s final decree and deducted from the total water rights claim.

A pre-trial readiness conference is scheduled for Nov. 13. The case is scheduled to go to a 10-day trial starting Jan. 4 in Routt County District Court in Steamboat Springs, but the parties could still reach a settlement before then.

In 2014 Rio Blanco applied for a 90,000 acre-foot conditional water-storage right on the White River and proposed a dam and reservoir between Rangely and Meeker, known as the White River storage project or the Wolf Creek project. The district has now reduced that claim to either 66,720 acre-feet for an off-channel reservoir or 72,720 acre-feet for an on-channel reservoir.

There are two proposed versions of the project: one that would construct a dam and reservoir on the White River (the scale of this project is now rare in Colorado) or an off-channel reservoir at the bottom of Wolf Creek gulch, in the arid sagebrush hills just north of the river.

The conservancy district would prefer to build the off-channel option: a 66,720-acre-foot reservoir, with a dam that is 110 feet tall and 3,800 feet long. An off-channel reservoir would involve pumping water uphill from the river into the reservoir.

Rio Blanco is a taxpayer-supported special district that was formed in 1992 to operate and maintain Taylor Draw Dam, which creates Kenney Reservoir, just east of Rangely. The district extends roughly from the Yellow Creek confluence with the White River to the Utah state line.

A view looking downstream of the White River in the approximate location of the potential White River dam and reservoir.
A view looking downstream of the White River in the approximate location of the potential White River dam and reservoir. Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District and the State of Colorado are headed for a water court trial after state engineers claim the district still hasn’t proven it needs the water tied to the project. (Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism)

Disputed amounts and uses

Rio Blanco says the project should store 7,000 acre-feet annually for irrigation. But Light and Kosloff’s report says according to the 2019 Technical Update to the Colorado Water Plan, the irrigated acres in the White River Basin are projected to decrease in the future, and that this storage project, because it is situated low in the basin, cannot serve the majority of the irrigated lands anyway, which are concentrated upstream along the mainstem of the White River near Meeker and along tributaries like Piceance Creek.

“Per the proposed decree, the applicant is once again requesting the court award irrigation use,” the engineer’s expert report reads. “The engineers continue to contend there is no evidence to suggest that there is a future water need for this purpose.”

Rio Blanco says some of the water would also be used in a future augmentation plan to replace depletions within the district that are out of priority due to a Colorado River Compact curtailment.

Rio Blanco is proposing that 11,887 acre-feet per year be stored as “augmentation,” or insurance in case of a compact call. According to the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the upper basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet a year to Lake Powell for use by the lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada). If the upper basin doesn’t make this delivery, the lower basin can “call” for its water, triggering involuntary cutbacks in water use for the upper basin.

By releasing this replacement water stored in the proposed reservoir to meet these compact obligations, it would allow other water uses in the district to continue and avoid the mandatory cutbacks in the event of a compact call.

But state engineers say compact compliance is a problem to be tackled by the state and not individual water users. And since no one knows exactly how compact compliance would unfold (that’s still to be decided by the Upper Colorado River Commission and the state engineer) it’s not possible for Rio Blanco to have a plan in place for this augmentation water.

Light and Kosloff’s report says there is no recognized beneficial use that allows a water right “to provide water to users outside of Colorado for the purpose of allowing ongoing diversions of water rights within Colorado.”

Rio Blanco claims it needs three years-worth of drought contingency storage for uses within the basin. But state engineers say that there has never been a call on the White River below the town of Meeker, even in the driest years, and the likelihood of the reservoir being able to fill during the runoff season every year is extremely high. Light and Kosloff point out that not even Denver Water or Aurora Water have three times their annual demand in reserve.

The state also says Rio Blanco has overestimated the amount of water the town of Rangely will need, and that the need for the full amount claimed for recreation water is unsubstantiated, as is the need for water for the recovery of endangered fish species.

A view of the White River foreground, and the Wolf Creek gulch, across the river.
A view of the White River foreground, and the Wolf Creek gulch, across the river. The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District and the State of Colorado are headed to a water court trial because they can’t agree on whether the district actually needs the water it claims it does for a reservoir and dam project at this site. (Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism)

No comment from engineers, district officials

State engineers declined to talk to Aspen Journalism about their expert report.

Rio Blanco District Manager Alden Vanden Brink also declined to comment on the state’s opposition, citing concerns about litigation. Vanden Brink also is chair of the Yampa/White/Green River Basin Roundtable and sits on the board of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

But another roundtable member says the project doesn’t hold water. Deirdre Macnab owns 4M Ranch, which is adjacent to the proposed project site, and was until recently the sole remaining opposer in the case. She recently pulled out of the formal water court process, citing mounting legal costs, but still opposes the project.

“Families living in western Rio Blanco County should be aware that a project that the professionals say doesn’t show any justification would put them in debt for years, and not just paying for the hundreds of millions in construction costs, but also almost a million dollars every year in electricity costs to pump the water up and over the dam,” Macnab said in a written statement. “Do Rio Blanco citizens really think this is in our economic best interests?”

Despite the state opposing the current project proposal, since 2013 it has also given roughly $850,000 to Rio Blanco in the form of Colorado Water Conservation Board grants to study the project. The Colorado River Water Conservation District has also given Rio Blanco $50,000 to investigate the feasibility of the project.

River District General Manager Andy Mueller said the multi-purpose water uses outlined in the project is the way water projects should be put together.

“Identifying the right-size project for the White River is still very important,” he said. “The specifics about the White River storage project as it’s currently proposed I think are things that still need to be worked out.”

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Steamboat Pilot & Today and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Oct. 6 edition of The Steamboat Pilot & Today. 

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism. The Water Desk is seeking additional funding to build and sustain the initiative. Click here to donate.

Even in a pandemic, drought drives water use along the Front Range

Golfers take shots on the green lawns of the City Park Golf Course in central Denver on Sept. 28 2020
Golfers take shots on the green lawns of the City Park Golf Course in central Denver on Sept. 28 2020. Urban utilities this summer saw sharp increases in single-family home and outdoor water use, primarily due to drought. (Lindsay Fendt / Aspen Journalism)

By Lindsay Fendt

The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated much of life and the economy in 2020, but when it comes to water use along the Front Range, drought is still the ruling force.

Most municipal water providers saw commercial water use plummet at the beginning of the pandemic, but those savings were quickly erased once the hot summer rolled in and the region’s residents switched on their sprinklers.

“The increase in residential and irrigation use have more than offset the decrease in commercial use, resulting in above normal water use across the service area,” said Todd Hartman with Denver Water. “The short story from our perspective is that we are seeing higher use this watering season because of very hot, dry conditions.”

The entire state of Colorado has been under some level of drought since early August, meaning that grass, shrubs and trees need more water than normal. To make up for that increased demand, Front Range communities have to rely more on the Western Slope water contained in their reservoirs

In a typical year about 48% of Denver’s water comes from the Western Slope, while Colorado Springs pipes in about 75% of its water from the other side of the divide. Fort Collins typically gets more than half of its water from the Western Slope and Aurora Water gets 25% of its water from sources within the Colorado River basin.

Even though most of western Colorado is now in an extreme drought, Front Range water providers are able to rely on their storage from previous years to provide that additional water and then refill the reservoirs during the next snowmelt season.   

Northern Water manages the Colorado Big-Thompson project, which pumps water from west of the Continental Divide to municipal and agricultural users along the northern Front Range. During a drought, the water district’s board generally increases the amount of water per share of the project that it doles out, known as a quota, allowing more water to be drawn from its reservoirs and increasing the amount of water delivered to shareholders. In a typical year, the project delivers about 217,000 acre-feet of water to its users. This year, to make up for drought, the board gave users an additional 31,000 acre-feet of water.

“The more water that’s available on the Front Range, like through soil moisture and local storage, the lower the quota we set because the rest of the demand can be furnished by local sources,” said Jeff Stahla with Northern Water. “The drier it is then the higher the quota, because we’re supplementing.”

Dillon Reservoir in late August. The reservoir is the largest in Denver Water’s collection system, which delivers water to 1.5 million people.
Dillon Reservoir in late August. The reservoir is the largest in Denver Water’s collection system, which delivers water to 1.5 million people. With drought leading to increased water use this year through August, Front Range water providers have had to rely more on water stored in reservoirs. (Lindsay Fendt / Aspen Journalism)

Outdoor watering dominates

The data from the year so far show just how overwhelming a factor outdoor water use is on overall water-use trends. Even in a pandemic, the watering needs of yards on the Front Range during drought seem to supersede any other behavior changes. In a typical year, 40% of urban water use on the Front Range is for outdoor use. That number often increases during a drought.

Preliminary consumption numbers for the year through August show single-family use up in Denver by about 20% and multi-family use up 5%.  Industrial use is down 5%, office buildings are down 9% and restaurants — which remain under limited operations due to the pandemic — are down a whopping 31%. Altogether, Denver Water saw a 12% increase in water use system wide this year, through August. The increase in single-family use began in May when many home irrigation systems were likely first turned on. Other Front Range cities saw similar trends. 

Because the pandemic overlapped with a hot, dry summer, it’s been difficult for utilities to determine how much of an effect either event had on overall water use. The most revealing data comes from the spring when businesses closed and most people had yet to turn on their sprinklers.

At Aurora Water, the water conservation team started pulling data early in the pandemic to see if any trends emerged. Between March and April — right as the state transitioned to a stay-at-home order —  Aurora saw a commercial water use drop of 14.3% accompanied with an 8.8% increase in residential water use and a 4.6% increase in multi-family use. 

But according to Tim York, a water conservation specialist at Aurora Water, the modest increases in residential water use skyrocketed once irrigation season began. Commercial use also ticked back up once businesses began reopening. According to York, Aurora Water saw a 10.3% system-wide increase from January to July that they attribute almost entirely to drought conditions.  

“Indoor use kind of is what it is, right? I mean, you’ve got to use the toilet as many times as you need to, you’ve got to do dishes when they’re dirty, you’re going to take your showers just like you normally would, but people react differently to weather,” York said.

A couple sits at the edge of the lake at City Park in central Denver on Sept. 28 2020. In a typical year, about 48 percent of Denver’s water comes from the Western Slope.
A couple sits at the edge of the lake at City Park in central Denver on Sept. 28 2020. In a typical year, about 48 percent of Denver’s water comes from the Western Slope. (Lindsay Fendt / Aspen Journalism)

‘People are home and wanting to work on their yards’

Most utilities had an adequate amount of water storage going into the summer to make up for the increased water use. Denver, Colorado Springs and Aurora have maintained their normal summer watering restrictions, which include guidelines on when and how often to water outdoors. 

On Oct. 1, Fort Collins went under mandatory level IV water restrictions in order to avoid a water shortage in the fall. In most cases residents are no longer allowed to water their lawns and cannot wash their cars. The restrictions are due partially to drought conditions and some planned maintenance on water infrastructure, but the city is also taking preemptive measures to conserve water in case the Cameron Peak Fire begins to affect the water quality in the Poudre River.

Though the drought has been the driving factor in water use this year, water managers say that the pandemic likely did have some effect on behavior and might even pay dividends down the line. Abbye Neel, a water conservation specialist in Fort Collins, says the city has seen a large increase in its Xeriscape Incentive Program. The program provides rebates and project support for Fort Collins residents to redesign their yards to be more water-efficient.

“I have nothing to back this up, but I think it’s just like people are home and wanting to work on their yards,” she said. “There’s a high potential to do more projects this year as people actually get their ducks in a row and sign up.”

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization. This story initially ran online in the Sky-Hi News on Oct. 3 and in print in the Summit Daily News Oct. 4.

This story was supported by The Water Desk and The Walton Family Foundation.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism. The Water Desk is seeking additional funding to build and sustain the initiative. Click here to donate.

Water conservation payments to Colorado ranchers could top $120M; is it enough?

Colorado River on the West Slope. Credit: Kevin Maloney

By Jerd Smith

With another drought year draining the Colorado River system, a new economic study suggests that a wide-scale water conservation program in Colorado to reduce stress on the river could cost more than $120 million, depending on the amount of water saved for use in the program.

The study examined how much money it would take to adequately compensate ranchers and farmers who agree to temporarily remove water from Colorado’s West Slope hay meadows and corn fields using a practice known as fallowing. It also looked at how such a conservation program would affect the farm economy and the communities and workers who rely on it for jobs.

“Potentially the program could be beneficial to the participants,” said BBC Managing Director Douglas Jeavens, a principal with BBC Consulting, which conducted the work. “The payments have to be large enough to offset any losses,” he said.

The water saved would go into a special drought pool in Lake Powell. The pool is envisioned as a way for Colorado and other states in the Colorado River Basin’s Upper Basin—Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico—to further protect their ability to use the river’s water even as Lake Powell continues to shrink.

Kathleen Curry, a former lawmaker and rancher in the Gunnison River Basin, said the analysis covered all the variables at play.

“I thought they did a good job,” she said. “The numbers they came up with are reasonable.”

The study looked at two different scenarios. Under a moderate scenario it examined the impact of fallowing 25,000 acres of West Slope land annually over five years, and an aggressive scenario under which 100,000 acres of land would be fallowed for the same period of time.

The study, released Sept. 25, was sponsored by the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, the Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District, and Tri-State Generation and Transmission, among others. It adds important new detail to a statewide discussion about whether Colorado should participate in the drought pool.

Since the state began studying the pool’s feasibility in 2019, West Slope ranchers have said repeatedly that they can’t make a decision about whether to participate if they don’t know how much money they would be paid and how such a program would affect the local economy.

The study provides some preliminary answers.

Across the Yampa, Colorado, Gunnison and Dolores river basins, under the moderate scenario, ranchers would see a net benefit of nearly $9 million, while under the aggressive scenario, the net benefit would rise to $36 million over a five-year period. The water in the study was priced in a range starting at $194 an acre-foot and rising to $263 an acre-foot.

Demand Management basin map
The Colorado, Yampa/White, Gunnison and Southwest basins were evaluated for secondary impacts of a demand management program that eventually could include the entire state. Source: Colorado River District

Individual ranchers who agree to fallow 100 acres of land could see an annual benefit, after expenses, of more than $50,000 under at least two scenarios, according to BBC’s analysis.

In modeling changes to the economy, the study found that 55 jobs would be lost under the moderate scenario, while 236 jobs would be lost under the aggressive scenario.

It also found that hay prices would rise 6 percent as supplies tighten and livestock populations would shrink by 2 percent.

Another key concern for ranchers and others is whether taking water off the fields could harm other water users on the river farther downstream.

“This is a critical issue,” said Jeavens. “But we think looking ahead we could design a program that either reduces or eliminates that risk.”

The pool would be filled with 500,000 acre-feet of water, roughly half of which would likely come from Colorado, should it, along with Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, agree that filling the drought pool is doable.

Under a broader statewide study also underway, ranchers and cities would be asked to voluntarily set aside water for the drought pool and would be paid for whatever water they contributed to the program.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board, which is conducting the statewide feasibility analysis, declined to comment on the West Slope economic study.

Whether Colorado’s Front Range will embark on a similar study focusing on its contributions to the conservation program isn’t clear yet.

Previously Front Range cities have said they would be willing to contribute whatever water and/or cash is necessary to fill the drought pool in a way that is fair to cities and agricultural producers, as well as to different regions of the state.

The Colorado River, which starts high in Rocky Mountain National Park, supplies roughly half of the drinking water on the Front Range and is also used to irrigate millions of acres of hay meadows, corn fields and other crops on both the West Slope and Eastern Plains.

But if the drought-stressed river continues its decline, it could feasibly trigger involuntary cutbacks under the Colorado River Compact for the Upper Basin states, affecting both Colorado’s West Slope and Front Range.

Though such a scenario is still considered unlikely, policy makers and others want to see Colorado develop some kind of insurance against such a catastrophic event.

Who would pay for the conservation program remains to be decided. Some have suggested that thirsty state’s in the Colorado River’s Lower Basin—California, Nevada and Arizona—ante up any needed cash. Others believe that a new set of fees or taxes could fund the ambitious effort.

Don Schwindt, a rancher who sits on the board of the Southwestern Water Conservation District, said the study is a good step forward, but he wants more detailed analyses.

“These numbers are as good as any that have been generated. But the simple answer right now is that this is not enough money to generate the water. For my operation, I have to have a higher dollar than those averages or I am going to go broke.

“We’ve moved forward,” he said, “but we don’t have anything we can take to the bank yet.”

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.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism. The Water Desk is seeking additional funding to build and sustain the initiative. Click here to donate.

Pitkin County’s opposition to tax follows pattern of ‘misalignment’ with River District

Roaring Fork River headwaters
Pitkin County commissioners passed a resolution Tuesday opposing the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s proposed tax increase. The River District has said the tax revenue would be used for fighting to keep water on the Western Slope, but commissioners said the ballot language was too ambiguous. The headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, near Independence Pass, are shown here in a file photo. (Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism)

By Heather Sackett

In a reflection of long-simmering mistrust of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, Pitkin County is opposing the organization’s proposed tax increase on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Pitkin County commissioners in a special meeting Tuesday passed a resolution that said that without an identified use for the revenue, a tax increase is irresponsible and not in the best interests of county citizens.

The ballot question tells voters in the 15-county district that the money will be used for fighting to keep water on the Western Slope, protecting water supplies for Western Slope farmers and ranchers, protecting drinking water, and protecting fish, wildlife and recreation. But commissioners said the language was flawed and too ambiguous.

“It’s not that we don’t support the efforts of the water district, it’s not that we don’t support protecting water on the Western Slope,” Commissioner Patti Clapper said. “It’s just that I would like more clarification, more specification in the ballot language as to the benefits to the Pitkin County taxpayers.”

The resolution opposing the River District tax hike passed on a 3-2 vote, with Commissioners Greg Poschman and Steve Child voting against it. Both said they would like to hear from members of the public and the River District before making a decision.

River District general manager Andy Mueller wasn’t happy with the way the meeting was noticed or that the draft resolution wasn’t included in the packet materials for the public to see. In a last-minute request to postpone Tuesday’s vote, Mueller asked commissioners in a Monday night email for an opportunity to engage in direct communications with Pitkin’s five-member Board of County Commissioners about the ballot measure.

The BOCC did not take any public comment at Tuesday’s meeting. In order to vote on the resolution, the BOCC came out of Tuesday’s work session and went into a “special meeting.”

“The fact that they refused to allow public comment and input, and that they held it during a really strangely noticed meeting is really disturbing,” said Mueller, who learned Monday about the county’s resolution to oppose the tax measure. “The public in Pitkin County deserves a hell of a lot better.”

Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said the BOCC discussed in August all the different questions on the ballot this year and whether the elected officials should bring in presenters both pro and con.

“The board decided at that time that we didn’t think it was necessary and there was enough information out there for us to make a decision rather than put time on the schedule, which we frankly don’t have, to allow these groups to come in and present,” McNicholas Kury said. “I know the River District would have liked the opportunity to present. (Pitkin County Attorney) John Ely sits on that board, and he’s given us the accurate picture. He’s been fair in his summaries.”

In July, the River District decided to move ahead with Ballot Issue 7A, which will ask voters to raise its property taxes from a quarter mill to a half mill. That works out to an increase of $1.90 per year for every $100,000 of residential home value, and will raise nearly $5 million annually.

According to numbers provided by the River District, the mill levy for Pitkin County’s median home value would increase from $18.93 per year to $40.28. Pitkin County’s median home value, at $1.13 million, is the highest in the 15-county district. The Glenwood Springs-based River District, which was created in 1937 to protect and develop water supplies in western Colorado, spans Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Rio Blanco, Routt, Moffat, Garfield, Mesa, Delta, Montrose, Ouray, Gunnison, Hinsdale and Saguache counties.

Ely, the Pitkin County representative on the River District board, was the lone “no” vote against the ballot measure in July, saying that the district’s fiscal implementation plan — where it outlines how the tax money could be allocated — is not directly tied to the ballot language, so there’s no commitment on how exactly the money will be spent.

On Tuesday, Ely told the BOCC that environmentally minded Pitkin County has been a proponent of enhancing streamflows and improving riparian ecosystems, while the River District has been more “traditional” in seeking ways to develop the Western Slope’s water, meaning dam and reservoir projects.

“The district has not been aligned with many Pitkin County directives,” he said.

After learning of Tuesday afternoon’s impending vote on the resolution, environmental groups American Rivers and Western Resource Advocates, which support 7A, scrambled to rally their members in an attempt to stop, or at least postpone, the vote.

“Pitkin County representatives need to understand that this issue is bigger than them,” Matt Rice, director of American Rivers’ Colorado Basin Program, wrote in an email. “The most progressive communities and the most conservative communities, conservation organizations, agricultural associations, ranchers, water providers, business leadership, etc. are putting their differences aside and coming together to do what needs to be done for the Colorado River. None of us are getting everything we want nor are we going to agree on everything in the future — but we know we have to do something now.”

Other counties, including SummitEagle, Garfield and Delta, have passed resolutions supporting the River District’s ballot measure.

Grand Valley Irrigation Canal
Water from the Colorado River flows through the Grand Valley Irrigation Company’s canal near Palisade, shown in a file photo. Pitkin County commissioners passed a resolution Tuesday opposing the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s proposed tax increase. (Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism)

Historic mistrust

Pitkin County’s opposition to a River District tax increase is just the latest in the historically antagonistic relationship between the two entities, a dynamic that Poschman noted Tuesday.

“I know maybe there’s a necessary and justified amount of suspicion and mistrust that the money could be spent against our interests, because we do have a misalignment with Pitkin County and the River District,” he said.

Some of that mistrust can be traced to a River District-led project that included conditional water rights for 200,000 acre-feet of water storage on the Crystal River. The water rights for what is known as the West Divide Project were tied to three dams and reservoirs, including a dam just downstream from Redstone, which would have created the 129,000-acre-foot Osgood Reservoir.

The River District abandoned these conditional water rights in 2011 after being sued in water court by Pitkin County, but the memory is still raw for some.

“The timescale is still fresh in the minds of those people up the Crystal,” said Assistant Pitkin County Attorney Laura Makar.

The River District and Pitkin County have also been on opposing sides of designating the upper Crystal as “Wild & Scenic.” The River District has opposed the federal designation, saying it would end water-development opportunities in the valley, but Pitkin County still supports the move.

Crystal River
The narrows just below Placita where a dam big enough to store 62,009 acre-feet of water was once planned by the Colorado River District and the West Divide Water Conservancy District. The Pitkin County BOCC passed a resolution opposing the River District’s proposed tax increase. (Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism)

Competing water studies

The county is also going its own way on an analysis of water needs in the Crystal Valley. It recently hired hydrologist Kristina Wynne of Englewood-based water consultants Bishop-Brogden Associates to study backup water-supply options for Crystal River water users instead of relying on a study already underway by the River District and Rifle-based West Divide Water Conservancy District.

2018’s summer drought revealed a water shortage on the Crystal that may not leave enough for both agricultural users and residential subdivisions. Irrigators south of Carbondale placed a call on the river, meaning that upstream junior water rights holders — including some homes that use wells — would have to stop using water so the downstream senior irrigators could get their full amount.

The River District, which often advocates for the interests of agricultural water users, was awarded state grant money to study the issue.

Mueller maintains that his organization is no longer the dam builders of yore and emphasizes his desire for collaboration. Last week, he told members of the Crystal River Caucus that the River District will commit to not damming the mainstem of the Crystal and will emphasize solutions to the water shortage other than storage.

“I recognize our district has a lot of trust-building to do in the valley,” he said. “I think, frankly, the River District has evolved and realized that damming anything on the Crystal is not a good idea.”

But it’s a hard sell for some in Pitkin County.

“It’s pretty alarming we didn’t get a heads up from the River District,” said Kury, the county commissioner, regarding the district’s Crystal River study. “We’ve had to fight the River District before. We were taken off guard by the outreach to our constituents about shutting off their wells. I have some hesitancy in that relationship.”

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 Sept. 17 edition of The Aspen Times.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism. The Water Desk is seeking additional funding to build and sustain the initiative. Click here to donate.

The Colorado River is awash in data vital to its management, but making sense of it all is a challenge

The Colorado River is a source of irrigation, hydropower and drinking water for 40 million people in seven Western states. (Source: The Water Desk)

By Gary Pitzer

Practically every drop of water that flows through the meadows, canyons and plains of the Colorado River Basin has reams of science attached to it. Snowpack, streamflow and tree ring data all influence the crucial decisions that guide water management of the iconic Western river every day.

Dizzying in its scope, detail and complexity, the scientific information on the Basin’s climate and hydrology has been largely scattered in hundreds of studies and reports. Some studies may conflict with others, or at least appear to. That’s problematic for a river that’s a lifeline for 40 million people and more than 4 million acres of irrigated farmland.

From the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah to the urban centers of Arizona, Nevada and California in the Lower Basin, water managers depend on that science to guide their decisions. More than ever, as those managers grapple with a hotter, drier Colorado River Basin and growing demand for a shrinking resource, they need an accessible scientific handbook as they get ready to draft a new set of rules for managing the river.

A new report synthesizes that science and puts it into context. Titled Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology: State of the Science, the report released earlier this year draws from about 800 peer-reviewed studies and agency reports on crucial topics – weather, streamflow, historical hydrology and climate change – to help navigate the future of river management. It doesn’t provide answers but offers a technical manual of sorts for a river system so vital to the Southwestern United States and Mexico.

“There is not now, and likely never will be, perfect weather and climate data. Producers of climate information need to communicate, and users should be cognizant of, the strengths and weaknesses of the data they choose and how climate data choices influence their conclusions.”
~State of the Science report

“It’s attempting to create that two-way dialogue, but to do so in a way that water managers aren’t having to go and read 20 different reports,” said Colby Pellegrino, deputy general manager of resources with the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which helped fund the report. “It’s a fabulous tool in that [it] is one guiding document to look at if you want to increase your understanding.”

A warm spring this year quickly erased what had been a robust snowpack, which melts and feeds the Colorado River and tributaries like the Gunnison River in Colorado. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

Written by a veteran cadre of more than a dozen scientists and engineers, it pulls no punches in describing a river system in peril.

“The average conditions, over time and across the basin, suggest a (barely) sufficient supply and, by smoothing out the variability, mask existing and prospective shortages,” says the report, produced through the Western Water Assessment, an interdisciplinary research program based at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

The report notes that the ultimate aim of integrating new research into practice is to produce more accurate short- and mid-term forecasts of runoff and more meaningful long-term projections of expected water supply.

“The future is and always has been uncertain,” said Jeff Lukas, research integration specialist with the Western Water Assessment and co-lead author of the report. “Now, at a time in which the Basin’s water supply and depletions are in delicate balance at best, system storage is half-full, and climate change is increasingly impacting hydrology, these forecasts and projections have become even more critical.”

Improving forecasting tools

Funded by the Bureau of Reclamation and its partners in the seven Western states that depend on the river, the report emphasizes the need to improve hydrologic forecasts, projections and predictive tools in the Colorado River Basin, all the while acknowledging the need for resilience.

“There is not now, and likely never will be, perfect weather and climate data,” the report says. “Producers of climate information need to communicate, and users should be cognizant of, the strengths and weaknesses of the data they choose and how climate data choices influence their conclusions.”

Terry Fulp, regional director of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Region, said the report emphasizes that Colorado River Basin hydrology is increasingly volatile and must be planned for accordingly.

“This made it very clear that we can’t rely on the 100-year record,” he said. “You can’t just look at the past and assume it’s replicated in the future. We all knew that, but it is good to have the body of science conclude that, too.”

Brad Udall, a senior climate and water research scientist at Colorado State University who was a technical reviewer for the report, said that while it covers an amazing breadth of material, it has key advice for water managers.

“At the broadest level, the take-home message is, a tremendous amount of science has been done in the Basin,” he said, “and while it may not give us the answers that tell us what to do, it strongly suggests we need to be prepared for a very different kind of future that’s hotter and drier.” 

“This made it very clear that we can’t rely on the 100-year record. You can’t just look at the past and assume it’s replicated in the future.”
~Terry Fulp, Bureau of Reclamation Regional Director

The past 40 years have seen a substantial warming trend, the report says, noting that the period since 2000 has been about 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th-century average and likely warmer than at any time in the past 2,000 years.

Authors of the State of the Science report note they did not evaluate current Basin water management, address ecosystem needs or provide recommendations. Instead, they concentrated on assessing the chain of data and models that provide an understanding of the Basin’s hydrology, while recognizing how the rapid expansion of scientific knowledge and its increasing complexity parallel the growing uncertainties about how future climate will affect hydrology. Absent a dramatic increase in rain and snow, the Basin’s runoff and water supply are increasingly being affected by warmth.

With temperature, there is “a very clear signal and that trend … is significant enough that people have a fair amount of confidence it is impacting the hydrology in the Basin,” said lead co-author Liz Payton, Western Water Assessment’s Colorado River Basin assessment specialist.

Those effects were evident this year as a warm spring quickly erased what had been a robust snowpack leading up to April 1.

“I’m still stunned by the 100 percent snowpack and the 52 percent runoff,” Udall said. “That’s just mind-boggling.”

The white bathtub ring along Lake Mead reflects the effects of years of drought in the Colorado River Basin (Source: Water Education Foundation)

Adding the climate change factor

The State of the Science report comes at an important time. Fresh from completing unprecedented Drought Contingency Plans in 2019, key players in managing the river will next turn their attention to updating and renegotiating the river’s 2007 Interim Operating Guidelines, which expire in 2026. Crafted in the early stages of a two-decade drought, the 2007 guidelines along with the subsequent Drought Contingency Plans are a testament to managing the Basin’s extreme volatility.

Coming to terms on a new set of guidelines, including their length, will differ from 2007 because the last set of guidelines was based on limited modeling data that didn’t fully incorporate climate change projections, said Bill Hasencamp, manager of Colorado River resources with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

While it is hard to predict specifically how the science report will inform the renegotiations, its recurring themes of increased temperatures, reduced streamflow and variable precipitation “will almost certainly arise in the context of the modeling efforts undertaken in the renegotiation,” said Amy Haas, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission.  

The Colorado River winds 1,450 miles from mountaintop to sea in a basin that includes seven American states and two Mexican states. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

New revelations about Colorado River Basin science appear with increasing frequency. In a lengthy July thread on Twitter, Udall noted the growing footprint of climate change in the Basin and how the expected pace of warming, which some models project could be as much as 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050, would greatly amplify the impacts seen in 2020. Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey this year said warmer temperatures by 2050 could reduce the amount of water flowing in the river by as much as 30 percent.   

“All of this has a name: aridification,” Udall wrote on Twitter. “Get used to it.”

The State of the Science report helps water managers understand key subjects, such as what climate monitoring is revealing and where uncertainty and errors exist.  

Report contributor Carly Jerla, who manages Reclamation’s Modeling & Research Group, called it a “no-nonsense” scientific platform with a clear message. “We know we can’t just let history repeat itself,” she said. “This report clearly lays out that something else has to be done.”

Pellegrino, with Southern Nevada Water Authority, said the report provides a “one-stop shop” for busy river managers.  

“If we knew next year was going to repeat the hydrology we saw in 2002, the driest year on record, would we make different water management decisions? I think the answer to that is yes at all time scales.”
~Colby Pellegrino, Southern Nevada Water Authority

“Of all the many hats water managers wear, we are not researchers and we are not innovators,” she said. “It’s difficult to have an eye on all of the things we are doing related to species and policy and water supply planning and also be able to comb through the various sources of new hydrologic or climate change data.”

Like many, Pellegrino would prefer a consistent pattern of climate and water supply projections from which to base management decisions.

“It’s really hard for somebody who wants predictability to acknowledge there is going to be wide range of variability that’s going to persist for a very long time,” she said. “But that’s where we are.”

The State of the Science report stems from the 2017 Colorado River Hydrology Research Symposium aimed at giving water resource managers a better understanding of new hydrologic research initiatives, and giving researchers a better understanding of the Basin water system and the tools used by managers. Together, they explored how research could help improve those tools. That was crucial because research not fully grounded in the particulars of the managed system can produce alarming results. Hasencamp recalled one study that gave Lake Mead an even chance of going dry by 2021, a finding that dumbfounded water managers.

“We all looked at it and said, ‘What assumptions are they making?’” he said. “This is not very good science because they didn’t talk to the people who are actually running the system and managing it.”

Reaching consensus on science

The historical record illustrates the dramatic swerves in Colorado River Basin hydrology. Some years the snow never stops. Other times, unseasonable warmth and dryness dominates as officials nervously watch lake levels plummet in the river’s two major reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

Warming temperatures are affecting the hydrology in the Basin, according to Liz Payton, co-author of the State of the Science report. (Source: Western Water Assessment)

Scientists devote their careers to figuring how forecasts and projections can improve. On the ground, life can be more stressful for water resource practitioners charged with providing a reliable water supply. Report authors acknowledge the conundrum.

“Given the stakes involved, it is reasonable that Colorado River Basin planners and managers desire greater certainty in water supply forecasts and long-term projections,” the report’s authors wrote. “They need some sense of the likelihood of hydrologic shifts, especially shifts to the dry side.”

One area of possible improvement is the 24-month water supply forecasting system that is partly based on assumptions of average monthly inflows to the Colorado River between Lake Powell and Lake Mead, said Payton.

“That’s a significant reach because if there is a lot or not as much inflow as the monthly average, you could shift Lake Mead above or below one of the important thresholds” that determine how much water agencies can draw from the river, she said. “If Mead is right at a shortage threshold and you have underestimated the inflow, you may end up declaring a shortage when you didn’t have to.”

Average conditions, over time and across the Basin, suggest a barely sufficient water supply, the State of the Science report says. (Source: Western Water Assessment)

Improvements in forecasting are needed from months to years to even decades out, said Pellegrino, with Southern Nevada Water Authority.

“Obviously, the long-term time scale is probably the most relevant for policy decisions, but the short and mid-terms are just as important,” she said. “The question is, if we knew next year was going to repeat the hydrology we saw in 2002, the driest year on record, would we make different water management decisions? I think the answer to that is yes at all time scales.”

Faced with uncertainty, Pellegrino believes the prudent approach is to be “eyes wide open” to the implications of the wide range of variability.

“Instead of identifying the hydrology that’s problematic or exact streamflow record that’s correct, spend your efforts coming up with the benchmarks for your water management community or basin that really mean something,” she said.

Making better decisions

For an area such as Las Vegas, that means preparing for more heat and dryness. Pellegrino said her agency has calculated that the creeping temperature rise could increase per capita water use by nine gallons a day by 2035.

Reclamation Regional Director Terry Fulp oversees the last 700 miles of the Colorado River to the Mexican border. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

Outcomes like that mean agencies should prepare for as many scenarios as possible, aiming for maximum flexibility, “like a dimmer switch,” said Taylor Hawes, Colorado River program director with The Nature Conservancy. Waiting too long to act could be costly.

“We should consider this time before a full-blown crisis as a gift,” she said. “We are on ‘water time,’ and developing new water management tools takes years. We should not squander this time now, because we will never have a perfect picture of what the next year or two holds. Trying to develop these kinds of tools in the middle of the crisis will create chaos, social and economic impacts and unintended consequences. It is much more effective to have the tools ready to deploy before they are needed.”

“We should consider this time before a full-blown crisis as a gift. We are on ‘water time,’ and developing new water management tools takes years.”
~Taylor Hawes, Colorado River program director with The Nature Conservancy

Fulp, Reclamation’s regional director, said the report helps reframe the basis for near-term planning and gives a glimpse of what to expect further out, uncertainty and all.

“You’re talking about looking at hundreds, if not thousands of different futures and seeing what the statistics tell us,” he said. “Is one decision better under a lot of scenarios or is it only better under a few scenarios?”

The flow of scientific data about the Colorado River Basin will continue. Some reports will generate more response than others. Amid that, the depth and breadth of the Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology: State of the Science stands out.

“We hear about so many studies with dire predictions for the Colorado River but I think the bigger meta message is we have this great collaboration among water agencies to gather more information about the past, present and future of climate hydrology to make better decisions and planning,” said Lukas, with Western Water Assessment. “That’s the story I like to emphasize.”

Key Findings: Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology: State of the Science

The Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology: State of the Science synthesizes hundreds of studies on the Colorado River Basin, from historical hydrology and current climate change research to observations about streamflow, snowpack and weather, to the models used to inform water management decisions. The 531-page report doesn’t make recommendations but does highlight areas of uncertainty about science in the Basin and lays out challenges and opportunities to expand scientific knowledge and improve modeling that may aid water managers.

Among other things the State of Science report notes:

  • On average, about 170 million acre-feet of precipitation falls over the Colorado River Basin each year, but only about 10 percent becomes natural streamflow available for use. Because the Basin has such high overall losses to evapotranspiration, its hydrology is more sensitive to changes in temperature than for watersheds in California and the Pacific Northwest.
  • It is unclear whether the period of below-normal precipitation since 2000 is indicative of future precipitation, but unless average Basin precipitation increases substantially, system runoff and water supply are expected to decline over the next several decades due to warming alone.
  • In general, there is not a simple way to measure the quality of the many models used to inform understanding of Colorado River Basin hydrology, but it is possible to assess their strengths and weaknesses. Continual improvements are being made by agencies and the academic community, but areas with inadequate data remain.
  • The Basin lacks a complete picture of how much snow falls and where. That is still a major source of error in streamflow forecasts, especially in extreme years – a phenomenon that appears to be more frequent in a changing climate.
  • Global climate models do not agree on the magnitude of warming and changes in annual precipitation to expect in the Basin, but they do agree that continued warming will tend to drive streamflow downward overall.
  • The full range of future uncertainty in the Colorado River Basin includes not just climate but also land use, water demand, and the future state of institutions, economies, technologies and policies that influence and constrain water demand and allocation. Water resource practitioners in the Basin are trying to make the best decisions possible given the uncertainty in future water supply.

Further reading

  • Western Water: Questions Simmer About Lake Powell’s Future As Drought, Climate Change Point To A Drier Colorado River Basin May 15, 2020
  • Western Water: Can a Grand Vision Solve the Colorado River’s Challenges? Or Will Incremental Change Offer Best Hope for Success? Dec. 13, 2019
  • Western Water: Could “Black Swan” Events Spawned by Climate Change Wreak Havoc in the Colorado River Basin? Sept. 12, 2019
  • Western Water: With Drought Plan in Place, Colorado River Stakeholders Face Even Tougher Talks Ahead On The River’s Future, May 9, 2019
  • Western Water: As Shortages Loom in the Colorado River Basin, Indian Tribes Seek to Secure Their Water Rights, Nov. 2, 2018
  • Western Water: Despite Risk of Unprecedented Shortage on the Colorado River, Reclamation Commissioner Sees Room for Optimism, Sept. 21, 2018
  • Aquapedia: Colorado River

Reach Gary Pitzer: gpitzer@watereducation.org, Twitter: @GaryPitzer
Know someone else who wants to stay connected with water in the West? Encourage them to sign up for Western Water, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

This story was originally published by Western Water on September 11, 2020.

Feds issue red flag warning on lakes Powell and Mead

Aerial view of Lake Powell. Credit: Bureau of Reclamation

By Jerd Smith

Risks of severe water shortages in the seven-state Colorado River Basin have risen dramatically since April with new forecasts indicating that lakes Powell and Mead could hit crisis levels much sooner than previously expected.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said the change in the forecast is noteworthy.

“We’re dealing with more uncertainty than we thought,” she said during a virtual press conference.

The Bureau of Reclamation is responsible for managing the two storage vessels and monitoring the mountain snowpack and runoff that feeds them every year.

As recently as April, when the last forecast came out, inflows to Lake Powell were projected to be roughly 75 percent of average this year. The latest report, however, indicates inflows will be just 55 percent of average.

In just five months, the risk that reservoir levels could fall low enough by 2025 to threaten power generation and the ability to release physical water to downstream users has risen 12 percent, according to Reclamation.

Carly Jerla, a hydrologist and water modeling expert, runs the modeling team for Reclamation’s Lower Basin operations.

The 21-year stretch of drought in the Colorado River Basin has made the system extremely vulnerable to changes in weather patterns, Jerla said.

“In this system, one year of poor hydrology can influence the ways these reservoirs are impacted for multiple years into the future,” she said.

Reclamation officials stopped short of saying how states should respond to the dire water supply predictions.

Seven U.S. states share water from the Colorado River Basin. These include Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah in the Upper Basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada in the Lower Basin. Mexico also relies on the river’s flows.

Colorado River Basin. Credit: Chas Chamberlin

The two regions in the U.S. are governed separately, with the Upper Basin states overseen by the Upper Colorado River Commission and the Lower Basin overseen by the Bureau of Reclamation.

The river is a major source of water in Colorado, where it supplies roughly half of the drinking water on the Front Range and irrigation water for ranches, fruit orchards and corn fields on the Western Slope and Eastern Plains.

Brad Wind is general manager of Northern Water. It serves cities and farms from Boulder to Greeley and is one of the largest water providers in the state. Wind said the rising risk levels aren’t that surprising.

But, he said, to help the drought-stressed system regain some semblance of balance will require much more work. “We can’t walk away from this.”

Last year, for the first time in history, the seven states agreed to adopt a basin-wide Drought Contingency Plan. The Lower Basin component of that plan is now complete and requires cutbacks in water use as levels in the reservoirs fall and reach certain elevations. Arizona has already had to cut back its water use in 2020 as a result of the agreement, and Mead’s levels have risen as a result of these actions and other conservation programs. Now at 44 percent full, the reservoir is the highest it’s been in six years, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

But the Upper Basin, though it has agreed to big-picture elements of an Upper Basin plan, has more work to do to define how a major piece of that plan involving large-scale water conservation, called demand management, would work.

Rebecca Mitchell is director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the agency managing the demand management study process in Colorado. She also serves on the Upper Colorado River Commission, representing Colorado. In a written statement, she said the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan has provided additional security for the system and that the study will move forward even as conditions on the river worsen.

“Colorado will continue to track the hydrologic conditions, and work collaboratively with the other basin states,” she wrote.

With the new forecast, however, pressure to cut back water use is rising.

Since 2000, lakes Powell and Mead have lost nearly half of their stored water supplies. Back then the system was nearly full, at 94 percent, according to Reclamation. This year the two reservoirs are collectively projected to end what’s known as the water year, on Sept. 30, at just 53 of capacity.

Climate change and warmer temperatures continue to rob the river of its flows. In fact, water flowing into Lake Powell during that 20-year period was above average just four out of the past 19 years, according to Reclamation.

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.

Restoration, infrastructure and the economic value of rivers – Water Buffs Podcast ep. 4 – Fay Hartman

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We discuss a recent American Rivers report that examines the economic value of rivers and our nation’s crumbling water infrastructure. The report calls on Congress to invest $500 billion over 10 years in water infrastructure and river restoration.

Episode highlights

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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Water released from Elkhead Reservoir lifts call on Yampa River

The Yampa River by Hayden
The second-ever call on the Yampa River was lifted on Sept. 3. The river is shown here as it flows through Hayden on Aug. 3. (Allen Best/Aspen Journalism)

By Allen Best

CRAIG — The second-ever call on the Yampa River was lifted Thursday morning after a trio of water providers announced the release of up to 1,500 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to support irrigators in the Yampa River Valley and endangered fish.

The latest call was placed on the Yampa River on Aug. 25. The first call was in the late summer of 2018, also after an uncommonly hot, dry summer. The release of the water has ended the immediate need for water administration, allowing irrigators who had been legally prevented from taking water to resume diversions.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association has begun releasing 500 acre-feet of its water, and the Colorado River District is releasing another 750 acre-feet of water that it controls from the reservoir near Hayden.

A third organization, the nonprofit Colorado Water Trust, will use money from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to support the upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program’s contract for additional water in Elkhead in 2020. The Colorado Water Trust also has raised private funds to support a potential release of 250 acre-feet of water to provide in-channel flows for endangered fish species in the Yampa.

Water will continue to be released from Elkhead Reservoir, as necessary, through September. Rain, snow and cloud cover could suppress demand.

Yampa River near Hayden Generating Station
The second-ever call on the Yampa River ended Wednesday. Here it flows near the diversion from the Hayden Generating Station on Aug. 3. (Allen Best/Aspen Journalism)

Irrigators, fish feeling the heat

A statement from the River District and Tri-State emphasized the intention of helping irrigators.

“Agriculture producers in the western U.S. currently are being hit with the triple threat of drought, low prices and pandemic restrictions, so anything we can do to ease the burden of farmers and ranchers in the Yampa Valley is something we are willing and honored to do,” said Duane Highley, CEO at Tri-State, the operator of coal-fired power plants near Craig.

Andy Mueller, the general manager of the River District, echoed that theme.

“We hope these actions help alleviate the depth and severity of ranchers being curtailed and allow some of them to turn their pumps back on to grow more forage before winter,” he said.

“It was a crazy hot and dry summer,” said Andy Schultheiss, the executive director of the Colorado Water Trust. “There was just nothing left in the river — or, at least, very, very little.”

Schultheiss said the trust was interested in preserving habitat for fish and other species in the river, including fish in the lower reaches of the Yampa that are on the endangered species list. In August, the organization also contracted to release 500 acre-feet of water from the Stagecoach Reservoir, near Oak Creek, to ensure flows through Steamboat Springs.

Impact of the releases was reflected Thursday afternoon at stream gauges maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey. The river above the confluence of Elkhead Creek was running 102 cubic feet per second. Bolstered by the reservoir releases, however, it was running 125 cfs downstream at Maybell. It was 95 cfs at Deer Lodge, located 115 river miles downstream from Elkhead Reservoir at the entrance to Dinosaur National Monument, below several agricultural diversions.

A warming climate of recent decades and the weather of the past year probably both played a role in 2020’s second-ever Yampa call.

“August likely will end in the top 10 hottest and driest on record in the Yampa basin,” state climatologist Russ Schumacher said during an Aug. 25 webinar. “You see warmer-than-average temperatures everywhere except a couple of pockets in North Park.”

Many areas were 4 to 6 degrees above average, and some pockets were even hotter. Fall and winter temperatures are more variable, which summer’s are much less so, said Schumacher. “Having 5 or 6 to 8 degrees above average in summer is quite remarkable,” he said.

The River District’s Mueller nodded to this broader context.

“As drought and low flows promise to persist, today’s cooperative actions could help us learn and plan for an uncertain water future,” he said.

Parshall flume in the Yampa River basin.
This recently installed Parshall flume in the Yampa River basin replaced the old, rusty device in the background. Water users are now required to measure their water use. (Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism)

Regulation is new reality

What sets the Yampa River apart from other rivers in Colorado is its storied tradition: a river without administration. The contrast may be most stark with the South Platte, which drains the heavily populated towns and cities and still abundant farms on the northern Front Range. There, it’s barely an exaggeration to say that every drop is measured, ensuring that diverters are taking only as much water as to which they have rights.

The Yampa has typically met the needs of all diverters, including those of irrigators, who are responsible for nearly all the water consumed in the Yampa River basin on an annual basis. Diverters were on an honor system to take no more than their allocated share of water.

Putting a call on a river requires the sorting out of water rights under Colorado’s first-in-time, first-in-right hierarchy. Those with mostly older — and, therefore, senior rights — have first dibs but only to the amount they are allocated.

The call placed on the river Aug. 25 was triggered by agriculture users lower on the river, at Lilly Park near Dinosaur National Monument. They were failing to get the river’s native flows to which they were entitled within their priority of 1963.

To honor the seniority of those water rights, Erin Light, the division engineer, initiated a call on the river to ensure that the more senior right would get delivery of the water.

Those affected were all water users upstream, even to the headwaters, with junior or more recent allocations. Junior water users are cut off to the amount necessary to satisfy the call, which could be partially or completely, as per the needs of the downstream user with the senior but unsatisfied allocation.

Light last year announced that all water diverters must install headgates and measuring devices, to allow withdrawals to be controlled and measured. Some have done so, others have been given extensions and some others have failed to comply, she said. Those without headgates and measuring devices — even if they have a more senior water right — risk being cut off entirely when a call occurs.

This push to measure diversions began at least a decade ago, after Light arrived in the Yampa Valley. One of those she persuaded was Jay Fetcher, who ranches along the Elk River, northwest of Steamboat Springs. He remembers some grumbling. The informal method had always worked. Now he’s glad he can prove he’s taking his allocated water — and no more.

“Once we changed, we realized that it was a real plus,” Fetcher said. “We knew what we were doing with our water, and we could justify (our diversions), not only to ourselves, but to Erin and the state.”

Jim Pokrandt, the director of community affairs for the River District, echoed that sentiment.

“It’s in everybody’s best interest,” Pokrandt said, “to foster a solution that recognizes the reality, that doesn’t put agriculture out of business, while we are on the pathway to better water administration.”

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with Steamboat Pilot & Today and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Sept. 7 edition of Steamboat Pilot & Today.

This story was supported by The Water Desk and The Walton Family Foundation.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism. The Water Desk is seeking additional funding to build and sustain the initiative. Click here to donate.

Pitkin County launches project to restore ancient wetland at North Star Preserve near Aspen

Liza Mitchell, a natural resource planner and ecologist with Pitkin County shows off the recent work on a restoration project at a fen on North Star Nature Preserve. This fiber mat is plugging an old ditch that drained water from the wetland to the Roaring Fork River.
Liza Mitchell, a natural resource planner and ecologist with Pitkin County, shows off the recent work on a restoration project at a fen on North Star Nature Preserve, on Aug. 26. This fiber mat is plugging an old ditch that drained water from the wetland to the Roaring Fork River. (Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism)

By Natalie Keltner-McNeil

On a recent morning, Liza Mitchell of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails rolled out fiber mats over a soil-filled portion of a ditch in the North Star Nature Preserve, adding a final layer to a wetland plug that the natural resource planner and ecologist and her team had been working on for the three weeks prior. 

The plug is the central component of the program’s fen-restoration project, which aims to enhance the wetland’s ability to provide habitat, store and filter groundwater, and sequester carbon.

While North Star is known as an idyllic paddleboarding and beach destination, 77% of the preserve is closed to public access. This includes the property west of the Roaring Fork River, where the fen sits. 

The preserve’s 245 acres function primarily to protect native species and ecosystems. The first 175 acres of the preserve were bought by the Nature Conservancy in 1977. In 2001, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails and the city of Aspen jointly purchased the 70 acres below the initial property, creating the current North Star Nature Preserve, according to the 2020 North Star management plan.

“It’s for wildlife,” Mitchell said of North Star.

Liza Mitchell, a natural resource planner and ecologist with Pitkin County, stands near the wetlands on the North Star Nature Preserve on Aug. 26. A restoration project aims to keep water in the fen, which is habitat for many kinds of wildlife, including ducks, plovers and moose.
Liza Mitchell, a natural resource planner and ecologist with Pitkin County, stands near the wetlands on the North Star Nature Preserve on Aug. 26. A restoration project aims to keep water in the fen, which is habitat for many kinds of wildlife, including ducks, plovers and moose. (Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism)

Critical to the nature preserve

Aligning with the goal of conservation, Open Space and Trails staff identified the North Star fen as a site for ecological restoration. Situated in the northwest corner of the property, the 14-acre fen, which is a peat-filled wetland, is populated with sedges, reeds and grasses. 

The wetland is critical to the entire preserve, providing wildlife habitat, water filtration and flood mitigation. In dry months, groundwater stored in the fen percolates into the Roaring Fork River, benefiting the watershed and its thirsty users, Mitchell said.

Yet, due to human alterations to the watershed and North Star, the fen is drying out. In 1936, two tunnels, multiple canals, and the Grizzly and Lost Man reservoirs were completed as part of the Independence Pass Trans-Mountain Diversion System. The system moves water from the upper Roaring Fork River basin to the east side of the Continental Divide, satisfying the water needs of Colorado’s largest cities, according to the 2020 management plan. 

This system diverts as much as 40% of the Roaring Fork’s headwaters upstream of the preserve, reducing the volume of river water that flows into the property and saturates the fen, Mitchell said.

The fen underwent further drying in the 1950s, when the preserve was a private ranch owned by James Smith. Smith dug ditches through the fen for pasture and hay cultivation, and those ditches continue to drain standing water into the Roaring Fork, according to Mitchell.

The wetland plug combats the drying by slowing the outflow of water from the fen into the Roaring Fork River. Mitchell, two staffers from Basalt-based Diggin It Riverworks and two ecological consultants began the plug construction Aug. 10. The first week, the team filled 130 feet of the main ditch with a mixture of locally sourced and imported soil. In the second and third weeks, the team added a layer of local soil, scattered native plant seeds and sealed it all with hay, mulch and matting, Mitchell said.

“It’s been a pretty quick project,” she said. “We’ve really tried to get in, get out and minimize disturbance as much as possible.”

The wetland plug is 130 feet long.
The wetland plug is 130 feet long, and composed of a mixture of local and imported soil, hydromulch, straw, native seeds and erosion mats. The restoration team later added wattles across the plug, and they hope to engage the community in planting native sedges and rushes across the top of the plug this spring. (Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism)

6,700 years of carbon sequestration 

The wetland plug increases saturated conditions in the fen, or the presence of standing water, enhancing the fen’s ability to provide ecological services to the preserve. For instance, saturated conditions allow fens to function as carbon sequesters by storing peat, or carbon-rich plant material. 

Peat accumulates at a rate of 8 inches per 1,000 years, according to David Cooper, wetland ecologist and professor at Colorado State University. With 53 inches of peat soil, the North Star fen is estimated to be 6,700 years old, according to a Pitkin County news release.

“Peatlands make up about 5% of the land surface of the world,” Cooper said, “but almost 45% to 50% of all the soil carbon on Earth is in peatlands.” When fens dry up, the carbon stored as peat is released as carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming, he said. 

Saturated conditions also support wildlife. Standing water creates the ideal habitat for native plants, such as beaked and blister sedge, as well as native amphibians and waterfowl. Saturated conditions suffocate canary grass, an invasive species that spread increasingly through the fen as it dries up, Mitchell said.

Wet by standing water, fens filter groundwater. The peat body removes excess nitrogen as well as heavy metals that would otherwise accumulate in watershed fish populations, Cooper said. 

The project’s final phase, completed this past week, involves adding wattles and straw bales to two smaller ditches in the fen to retain groundwater storage and promote standing water conditions. (Liza Mitchell / Pitkin County OST)

A positive for North Star neighbors

Mitchell anticipated finishing the construction phase of the restoration project this past week. She plans to place wattles, or cylinders of hay, across the wetland plug to prevent soil and seed erosion. She also will add hay bales and cylinders to the fen’s two smaller ditches to retain water and provide a surface for native plants.

After this construction phase, a hydrologist and botanist hired by Open Space and Trails will monitor the fen for three years. The consultants will conduct studies and submit reports to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issued the initial permit for the project in 2018, according to Mitchell.

In the spring of 2021, Open Space and Trails staffers hope to get the local community involved with the project by having volunteers plant native sedges and rushes over the plug. 

Already, community response to the restoration project has been very positive. Even without physical access to the fen, neighbors are excited about the prospect of improving habitat for wildlife, such as blue heron and elk, which they enjoy watching from their windows, Mitchell said.

“North Star can get a lot of negative attention surrounding the paddleboarding and recreation use, so it’s really nice to have another project that there seems to be widespread agreement on,” Mitchell said. “Everyone can get behind that it’s a pretty light touch for a pretty big benefit.”

This story ran in the Sept. 5 edition of The Aspen Times.

This story was supported by The Water Desk and The Walton Family Foundation.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism. The Water Desk is seeking additional funding to build and sustain the initiative. Click here to donate.

CD3 candidates agree on protecting Western Slope water, reservoir enlargements

Lauren Boebert, left, and Diane Mitch Bush are facing off in the November election for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District. (Courtesy images)

By Heather Sackett

Diane Mitsch Bush, the Democratic candidate for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, pledged cooperation and Lauren Boebert, her Republican challenger, promised to fight — the Front Range, neighboring states and the federal government — to protect Western Slope water.

The two candidates on Thursday tackled water-related questions at this year’s Colorado Water Congress. Typically among the largest annual gatherings of water managers, policymakers and scientists, the 2020 series of panels and workshops has gone online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mitsch Bush answered questions live via Zoom, while Boebert sent in a prerecorded video. She was attending President Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention speech at the White House on Thursday night.

Mitsch Bush touted her experience as a former Routt County commissioner and three-term state representative, and framed herself as a pragmatic problem-solver who uses science, not ideology, as the basis for decisionmaking. From her history of working with the basin roundtables, she said the best ideas come from listening to one another.

“I’ll work diligently with our delegation and the other Western states to ensure our Western voices are heard and our needs as a headwaters state get met,” she said. “To do that, I will work with colleagues across all the divides: the aisle, basins and states to rebuild our infrastructure so our communities can flourish now and in the future.”

Boebert, the owner of Shooters Grill in Rifle, made headlines earlier this summer when she beat Rep. Scott Tipton, an incumbent endorsed by Trump, in the District 3 Republican primary. The upset has thrust the conservative gun-rights activist and mother of four into the national spotlight.

Moderator Joey Bunch, of Colorado Politics, posed the question of how the burden of drought and a potential Colorado River Compact call could be shared equally by the Front Range’s populous urban center and the rural, agriculture-dependent Western Slope.

Western water managers desperately want to avoid a compact call, which could occur if the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah) can’t deliver on the amount of water they owe the lower basin states (Arizona, Nevada and California). A compact call could trigger involuntary cutbacks in water use for Colorado, known as “curtailment.”

This scenario reveals an interesting intrastate dynamic: Many of the oldest and most valuable water rights are on the Western Slope, meaning the cutbacks wouldn’t affect them because they predate the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

But the state’s population center and deep-pocketed municipal water providers are on the growing Front Range. Some worry that Front Range interests will try to secure these senior Western Slope agricultural water rights so they can avoid cutbacks. Cities’ purchasing of agricultural water rights is sometimes derided as “buy and dry.”

Mitsch Bush said, “My top principle is: We cannot let curtailment lead to buy and dry of agriculture.”

Boebert agreed and played up the urban/rural divide, saying she is against more transmountain diversions to the Front Range and is primed to fight for Western Slope water. The burden for compact curtailment cannot fall solely on District 3, she said.

“I’m 100% committed to fighting this out with Denver and Boulder and making sure they don’t push all the work and all the costs onto us,” Boebert said. “Rural Colorado must have a voice, and we must have someone willing to fight for us in D.C.”

Both candidates agreed on the expansion of existing reservoirs to increase water storage as an alternative to building new reservoirs.

“The enlargement of existing reservoirs is the quickest, least expensive and most environmentally sensitive manner to secure more water storage,” Boebert said. “Increasing water storage capacity is key for Colorado’s future.”

Mitsch Bush agreed.

“Enlarging existing reservoirs is much more cost-effective for the taxpayer and for water users and much less environmentally challenging than building new reservoirs,” she said. “The best sites are already occupied by dams and reservoirs, so increasing the reservoirs’ capacity makes sense.”

After the candidates spoke, political commentator and former Colorado GOP state chair Dick Wadhams gave his analysis on where water issues fit into the campaign.

“Water is one of the most important issues we have in Colorado going back since statehood, and yet it’s the most obscure and least understood and least prioritized oftentimes by voters,” he said. “I do think with our dramatic increase in population that we are headed to a calamity at some point if we have a horrible drought.”

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

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism. The Water Desk is seeking additional funding to build and sustain the initiative. Click here to donate.

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