An initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder

  • Stories
  • Multimedia library
  • For Journalists
  • Resources
  • About us
Home Blog Page 7

Aspen’s rich history of befouling the Roaring Fork River

An Aspen couple, circa 1900, in front of their dirt-chinked cabin with a sod roof and opaque windows. The man holds what may be a miner’s dinner pail behind his back and the woman’s dress shows the stains of hard work. Behind the house is a barn and outhouse. East Aspen Mountain, home of today's Ute Trail, is visible, which suggests the cabin was in the Eames Addition, near the top of South Aspen Street. Photo credit: AHS, Masterson Estate Collection.
An Aspen couple, circa 1900, in front of their dirt-chinked cabin with a sod roof and opaque windows. The man holds what may be a miner’s dinner pail behind his back and the woman’s dress shows the stains of hard work. Behind the house is a barn and outhouse. East Aspen Mountain, home of today’s Ute Trail, is visible, which suggests the cabin was in the Eames Addition, near the top of South Aspen Street. Photo credit: AHS, Masterson Estate Collection.

By Tim Cooney

On the afternoon of Aug. 23, 1895, Frank Klangel felt the urge and went out to the privy behind his uncle’s saloon, Adam’s Place, on Cooper Avenue between Hunter and Galena in downtown Aspen. As the angled sun over West Aspen Mountain (today’s Shadow Mountain) streamed through the open door into the usually dark place, Klangel looked down into the vault hole to commence business. There he saw a man’s feet clad in heavy shoes sticking up out of the muck.

Saloon owner Adam Klangel, jailer Hudner, police Capt. Williamson and coroner Hughes “inaugurated measures to get the man’s body out of the fearful receptacle,” the Aspen Times reported the next day. “All his body was buried except the pedal appendages.”

With the building overturned, the coroner climbed down the wood cribbing of the vault and secured a rope around the dead man’s feet. A number of men assisted in raising the corpse, which was so covered as to be unidentifiable.

They spent an hour hosing him — laid out in the street — and cutting off his clothes before the coroner could examine the body. Word spread and a crowd gathered “to witness one of the most despicable sights ever brought to mortal vision,” one that “tested the endurance of the strongest constitutions,” the Times said.

In the crowd was a member of the deceased’s family, who at a certain point identified the body of Irishman Dominik Crosson, a pumpman for the Schiller Mine on Aspen Mountain (off today’s Schiller Road ski trail). Crosson had left his home on Juan Street for work at 7 a.m. the day before, but “later in the forenoon was seen among the Cooper Avenue resorts.”

Coroner Hughes noted bruises on Crosson’s face, but no wounds indicated foul play. Hughes concluded that an inebriated Crosson stumbled on the upright board that served as a seat and fell into the “sufficiently large aperture where he entered the death trap.” The coroner surmised he had been upside down in the viscous night soil for the past 24 hours.

A young man tending to business in Aspen, 1900. The view is of West Aspen Mountain, now Shadow Mountain, possibly from the pond on the flats of the one-time Paepcke Ranch, or some former pond above today’s William’s Addition, above Centennial. Photo credit: Aspen Historical Society
A young man tending to business in Aspen, 1900. The view is of West Aspen Mountain, now Shadow Mountain, possibly from the pond on the flats of the one-time Paepcke Ranch, or some former pond above today’s William’s Addition, above Centennial. Photo credit: Aspen Historical Society

Vault mining

Make no mistake that the good-old days in earliest Aspen were better than now. The Times editorialized on March 22, 1890, that Aspenites “were careless to the preservation of their own health,” due to the estimated 2,500 privy vaults and cesspools in the city proper that had been accumulating filth since 1880.

On the heels of silver mining prosperity, early townspeople simply threw dirt on top of a full vault and dug another. Newspapers reported open cesspools under wooden sidewalks around town. Accumulation, seepage and odors had to be addressed because they affected health and clean drinking water.

Add to that the spring rains and snowmelt that churned an unimaginable mud season, where town commerce and mule-drawn delivery became a challenge. The March 27, 1893, edition of the Aspen Daily Chronicle warned, “West Main Street is not navigable for mud scows drawing over four feet of water.”

Between 1879 and through the early 1900s in the mining camp, polluting was a de facto industrial right. Everything from mining waste, sewage, slaughter offal, city dump runoff and sawdust drained into the Roaring Fork River. With cholera outbreaks around the world and medicine finally connecting the circular route of disease from sewage to table, Aspen doctors warned of the need to avoid a city pestilence.

Although mortality in Aspen due to dysentery and idiopathic fevers was often mentioned in the newspapers, and with local cemeteries evidencing many young deaths, one clip in the Times noted that the “little son of Mr. and Mrs. Bert Watts nearly died of cholera infantum.”

In 1890, the Times reported that Aspen officials had directed W.J. Connors — who was the “city scavenger,” an official position since the mid-1880s charged with cleaning and disinfecting alleys with lime and hauling animal carcasses, slop, night soil and more to the city dumping grounds — to clean out the old vaults, at $15 to $240 per vault. City scavengers quit often, but the higher-paying job came with city-backed “enforcement and emoluments.”

The vault-cleaning “work is done in the silence of night all winter long,” and once opened, “for a three block radius it is impossible to breathe. … The labor is severe and the men use strong disinfectants and take extra care of their health in the vitiated atmosphere,” the Times wrote. Connors’ crew, utilizing horse teams, dug out 450 vaults that winter, some as deep as 40 feet.

West Aspen in 1896. The City Sawmill was at the west end of Cooper Avenue across Castle Creek from the Holden Lixiviation Plant. Just on the edge of the ravine served by the train loop is the Aspen Smelting Company/Texas Smelter structure near the Castle Creek bridge. Waste from all three went into the Castle Creek before the Roaring Fork River junction. Red Butte is in the background. Photo credit: AHS, Shaw Collection
West Aspen in 1896. The City Sawmill was at the west end of Cooper Avenue across Castle Creek from the Holden Lixiviation Plant. Just on the edge of the ravine served by the train loop is the Aspen Smelting Company/Texas Smelter structure near the Castle Creek bridge. Waste from all three went into the Castle Creek before the Roaring Fork River junction. Red Butte is in the background. Photo credit: AHS, Shaw Collection

Lazy dumpers

Before 1889, the city dumping grounds were in the Riverside Addition, the Times noted on April 28, 1888, a poorer neighborhood just over today’s Roaring Fork River bridge toward the North Star Nature Preserve, where many Irish and English miners lived and a lot cost $50. There the city regularly took bids to burn animal carcasses.

On March 30, 1889, the Rocky Mountain Sun (RMS) wrote that the city dump had relocated to a 10-acre parcel overlooking Maroon Creek (near today’s Aspen High football field), where it remained until the 1960s. The newspapers between 1890 and as late as 1917 cited noxious accumulations and lazy dumpers tossing carcasses and putrid refuse along the road to the dump. Accounts said festive trips to Maroon Bells were a gauntlet-like challenge and the air in the town’s West End sported the odor.

In Glenwood Springs (originally called Fort Defiance), where the Roaring Fork T-boned the Grand River, the Times reported on Oct. 5, 1888, that the mayor and the entire board of trustees were arrested for telling their town scavenger Mike Tierney to dump offal into the Grand, in violation of a state statute concerning pollution of a running stream.

In 1897, the July 3 edition of the RMS headlined a story “Fishing vs Mining,” wherein state game warden Swan served notice to Aspen’s Smuggler Concentrator to “cease putting tailings into the Roaring Fork and so into the Grand,” that the “mine water is poisonous and destroying the fish.”

The newspaper countered that the opaque water “preserved trout from the persistent whipping by town anglers,” that Swan’s attempts are “a piece of bumbledom” and “the biggest and gamest trout is not worth the contents of a workingman’s dinner pail.” The paper argued he would close down Aspen mines, put thousands out of work and bankrupt shareholders. “With mines, it is impossible to stop putting runoff in streams. Swan must be taught this and his officiousness curbed.”

This view of Aspen, in 1910, overlooks the Roaring Fork River and the Smuggler Concentrator plant, which processed zinc and lead. Its toxic tailings, along with untreated sewage from town, drained into the river. Note the two cabins between the concentrator and the river, each with an outhouse on the river. Just upriver from the mill, the Galena Street sewer outlet, across from “Oklahoma Flats,” drains into the river. Photo credit: John Bowman via AHS, Shaw Collection
This view of Aspen, in 1910, overlooks the Roaring Fork River and the Smuggler Concentrator plant, which processed zinc and lead. Its toxic tailings, along with untreated sewage from town, drained into the river. Note the two cabins between the concentrator and the river, each with an outhouse on the river. Just upriver from the mill, the Galena Street sewer outlet, across from “Oklahoma Flats,” drains into the river. Photo credit: John Bowman via AHS, Shaw Collection

River bears it away

In fact, Aspen was an industrial Victorian city with the unhygienic conditions of Dickensian London. During the camp’s mining boom between the mid-1880s and early 1890s, the population of between 12,000 and 14,000 peaked in 1893.

As has been the case since civilization, rivers have served as disposals; however, the Roaring Fork had an extra advantage in settlement days, before later water diversion, when it unleashed a good month-long torrent during spring runoff that scrubbed mining and foul sediment out of the deeper riverine pools. This flushed everything downstream to Glenwood and beyond.

But this hard-working act of nature was diminished when Eastern Slope water diversion in the early 1930s fractioned the Roaring Fork’s runoff. Accounts say the Roaring Fork got its name before diversion because the daily roar was so loud around town that people had to yell.

These days, the norm is mostly a quiet meandering, and the observant might notice during the low-water season of August that the once-natural-colored rocks along the Rio Grande Trail on down are permanently stained black from past ore-processing waste.

In 1900, a pistol-packing woman, second from left, holds a lever-action rifle (possibly a legendary Henry rifle) while standing with a group of sawyers and another woman of the era. They are holding peaveys, or ‘cant dogs,’ which were used to roll logs. Sawdust from the many local sawmills often went into the streams and river, disrupting the trout population. Photo credit: John Bowman via AHS, Shaw Collection.
In 1900, a pistol-packing woman, second from left, holds a lever-action rifle (possibly a legendary Henry rifle) while standing with a group of sawyers and another woman of the era. They are holding peaveys, or ‘cant dogs,’ which were used to roll logs. Sawdust from the many local sawmills often went into the streams and river, disrupting the trout population. Photo credit: John Bowman via AHS, Shaw Collection.

Primary sources

These observations and more — found in the Aspen Historical Society’s archives in a 1976 firsthand, written account by Bede Harris, who was born in Aspen in 1884 — say that mine dross stained the river a lead color from the Neale Street Bridge (today’s No Problem Bridge) down, leaving a blue, black and brown hue on the rocks and sand bars, even past Basalt.

Difficult Creek and upper Roaring Fork rocks were also stained by early 1880s runoff from upstream gold mining in the town of Independence, on Independence Pass. An RMS article titled “Our Drinking Water,” published Oct. 9, 1886, described concentrate from two wood-fueled stamp mills there as discoloring the “almost perfect translucent (water) to a yellow ochre, with the consistency of new made cheese,” lacing it with “undetectable quicksilver” (mercury) from the stamp plates.

Before that mix reached Aspen, the story said, the water cleared itself. Yet Andy McFarlane’s early 1880s sawmill, just east of town, and timber work in McFarlane Gulch, above today’s Difficult Campground (see “Hope delivers Pandora’s Box,” aspenjournalism.org), added sawdust to the water. Other sawmills populated Castle, Maroon and Hunter creeks. The sawyer’s trick then was to run a canal under the saw blade that zigzagged back to the creek.

A detailed 1896 map of town by W.C. Willits, on file at the historical society, shows the lineup of Aspen industry draining waste into the Roaring Fork then: the Aspen Sampling works near today’s Gant condos; the Smuggler Concentrator (which Harris called the “lead mill”), near where the Eagles Club now stands; the Mellor Foundry in today’s Mill Street Plaza area; and Sander’s Brewery in the Pitkin Green locale. The RMS reported in 1885 that Aspen consumed 120 kegs of beer per day in winter and 160 in summer.

On Castle Creek, just above its intersection with the Roaring Fork in today’s Holden/Marolt grounds, the massive Holden Lixiviation Plant, the Union Smelting Company and the Aspen Smelting Company (a.k.a. Texas Smelter) sent their discard downriver as well.

This became worse, Harris wrote, after 1900 and through 1917 when mining-populist David Hyman massively dewatered and reopened the deeper levels of the Smuggler, Free Silver, and Mollie Gibson in hopes of a mining renaissance after the economic crash of 1893. (See “Dewatering Smuggler Mountain mines,” aspenjournalism.org.)

Harris mourned the loss of in-town trout fishing during Hyman’s mining revival and, after water diversion, the disappearance of water-skipper bugs, pollywogs, frogs, muskrats and the delightful water ouzel songbird that dips its head as it sings and dives under the current for larvae, before resurfacing and resuming its same tune. Gone too, he wrote, were the many toads about town that came out after summer cloudbursts.

As we know now, it all connects. But in Aspen’s short history in the scheme of things, how the early settlers first managed the abundant clean water from the mountains deserves a closer look.

Aspen, circa 1887. The Ute Spring area is on the edge of town at the base of the mountain, at left. On the right side, the facial profile of the original, reclining “Aspen Silver Queen” can be seen in the ridge contour of West Aspen Mountain (Shadow Mountain). The profile then was also known as the “Sleeping Ute” on what some called Ute Mountain. Photo credit: Aspen Historical Society
Aspen, circa 1887. The Ute Spring area is on the edge of town at the base of the mountain, at left. On the right side, the facial profile of the original, reclining “Aspen Silver Queen” can be seen in the ridge contour of West Aspen Mountain (Shadow Mountain). The profile then was also known as the “Sleeping Ute” on what some called Ute Mountain. Photo credit: Aspen Historical Society

Ute Avenue vanguard

When a handful of prospectors and Aspen pioneers first came over “Hunter Pass” (Independence) from Leadville in 1879, they dipped their tin cups into creeks without a thought of pollution or giardia. They camped by the clear, pooling waters of “Ute Spring,” which a rudimentary 1881 Aspen map at the Aspen Historical Society places between the soon-to-come Argentum Juniata and lower Durant mines, where today’s lower Aspen Alps abuts Aspen Mountain Road.

That map shows the Ute Spring streaming down a pastoral Original Street to Hunter Street, across today’s Rio Grande field and into the Roaring Fork near the John Denver Sanctuary. This runnel was Aspen’s first water supply.

Accordingly, original settlers built their cabins with access to the Ute Spring along Ute Avenue, the first official “street” in Aspen, an Aspen Times column on Feb. 21, 1886, recounted. Others erected tent dwellings and businesses along the spring’s flow down to the Roaring Fork.

As town boomed with silver strikes on Aspen and Smuggler mountains in the 1880s, water-supply routes for irrigation and general use became a priority for the camp.

Setting the stage prior to that, the robust B. Clark Wheeler (not to be confused with Jerome B. Wheeler of Opera House and Jerome Hotel fame) snowshoed over Independence Pass during the first winter of 1879-80 and resurveyed the nascent town of “Ute City,” which had already been laid out by the first wave of “’79-er pioneers.” After many had decamped for the first winter because of the rumor of a possible Ute Indian invasion, Wheeler registered his new plat in Leadville and renamed the town Aspen.

Some resented Wheeler, believing he had “claim-jumped” the town from the first settlers. On top of that, he declared ownership-by-discovery of the Ute Spring and set to managing it, reinforcing the ever-filling pool and installing spouts to fill barrels.

Then Wheeler claimed the rudimentary west-flowing “town ditch” first cut from the spring along the bottom of Aspen Mountain, which supplied water near Mill Street and Durant Avenue, where the Clarendon, Aspen’s first hotel, opened in 1881. Personal ditches connected to the town ditch, too. The first settlers down Ute Avenue had already built an east-flowing ditch from the spring to service them.

That same year, Wheeler started the Aspen Times, the first newspaper in town, which reported on April 23 that kids played in the ditches and dammed them, causing flooding, and reported on May 6 that the town trustees approved an ordinance: “No dead animals or brute or foul or nauseous substance” could be disposed of in the water ditches.

Of course, water flowing through uncovered ditches free to horses, burros, loose pigs and jacks became turbid. In 1882, a follow-up ordinance cracked down on sawdust disposal in the ditches and, later, in the Roaring Fork. Remarkably, some still took drinking water from the ditches.

A detail of an 1881 map shows a portion of the route of the flow from Ute Spring, crossing Spring Street toward Original. The spring was at the foot of Aspen Mountain, about where today’s Aspen Alps office stands.Photo credit: Aspen Historical Society
A detail of an 1881 map shows a portion of the route of the flow from Ute Spring, crossing Spring Street toward Original. The spring was at the foot of Aspen Mountain, about where today’s Aspen Alps office stands. Photo credit: Aspen Historical Society

Water monopoly

Initially, Wheeler let water flow gratis through the town ditch and original Ute runoff. But with his improvements, he aimed to profit. Entrepreneurial “watermen” brokered the clean Ute Spring water about town from him, delivering “table water” in barrels on carts, dubbed “Donkey Hydrants” by the Times.

One waterman said he would “rather trade with 10 men than one woman,” because women bargained too well. The waterman added: “Her weakness is her weapon.” Another said it “cost the Christian Church $4.50 every time a batch of sinners is baptized.”

Soon, controversy brewed, because many believed that nobody owned the spring water. A letter in the Times on Aug. 30, 1881, said “the great Ute Spring in its quiet beauty pouring forth its crystal flood … was put there by the great creator for all to use.”

Afraid that the town’s water supply might become unaffordable if Wheeler monopolized, Mayor Tanfield and a public interest of townspeople incorporated the Aspen Irrigation and Ditch Company (AIDC), the May 5, 1882, edition of the Times reported. They dug the first ditch from the Roaring Fork at the end of “Waters Avenue,” connecting with the original town ditch along the bottom of Aspen Mountain, which then commingled with the Ute Spring water Wheeler claimed as his.

That AIDC ditch snaked from Waters Avenue onto Ute Avenue — the original course of which the 1896 Willits map infers. The previously cited newspaper accounts indicate that the “Wheeler Ditch” trail along the Roaring Fork just northeast of today’s Ute Avenue is a misnomer and should actually be named the AIDC Ditch.

Stock in the town’s AIDC cost $5 per share. A day’s work digging equaled one share. This defrayed the delivery cost of $1.50 per month to town lots for those who worked, while water came free to lots planted with trees. The AIDC expanded ditches throughout town, while many dug their own channels off these to their dwellings or businesses.

The crew at the Aspen Times stands in front of the newspaper’s offices, then on Cooper Ave, in 1890. Photo credit: Aspen Historical Society
The crew at the Aspen Times stands in front of the newspaper’s offices, then on Cooper Ave, in 1890. Photo credit: Aspen Historical Society

Wheeler schemes

In reaction to the formation of the citizens’ ditch company, Wheeler cooked up a Victorian leveraged-buyout scam. The May 7, 1882, edition of the RMS reported that he speciously offered the new AIDC board use of “his ditch” (the original town ditch along the bottom of Aspen Mountain) and the natural Ute Spring runoff ditch to the Roaring Fork in exchange for consideration.

He valued his labor and infrastructure at a bloated $75,000, offering that as stock value in a new company to be under his control. But the AIDC rejected his offer and trenched that first ditch from the Roaring Fork at the end of Waters Avenue, which connected via flume over Wheeler’s Ute Spring waterworks with the old town ditch he still claimed as his property.

Next, the City Council stepped in and granted right of way to the new AIDC ditch water, nullifying Wheeler’s claim to the town ditch, the May 20, 1882, edition of the Times reported. With that, Wheeler showed his true colors.

His own paper — the Times — proclaimed on Sept. 9, 1882, “Troubled Waters” and “Attempted subversion of the existing order of things relative to the Ute Spring by B. Clark Wheeler … the water rustler.”

A flume carrying water discharge, and possibly mining discharge, flows into the Roaring Fork River, just above and east of the Neale Street Bridge (No Problem Bridge) in Aspen in 1910. On the right, a large-diameter pipe heads toward the river, too. The Ute Spring area is at the base of the mountain in the background. Photo credit: AHS, Masterson Estate Collection.
A flume carrying water discharge, and possibly mining discharge, flows into the Roaring Fork River, just above and east of the Neale Street Bridge (No Problem Bridge) in Aspen in 1910. On the right, a large-diameter pipe heads toward the river, too. The Ute Spring area is at the base of the mountain in the background. Photo credit: AHS, Masterson Estate Collection.

Aspen women take charge

Enraged, Wheeler tore out the AIDC’s bypassing water flume over his Ute Spring operation to the town ditch. He then rerouted “his Ute Spring water” solely into the town ditch, disrupting the AIDC flow and posting a notice threatening legal prosecution if anyone interfered, while announcing he would build a locked shed over the Ute Spring. Personal threats against him and plans to burn that building became shrill.

When finally confronted at the spring, the Times said, Wheeler threatened further court action to prove his ownership of the spring, surrounding property and water rights. With that, a contingent of town women took charge and surrounded Wheeler. The Times quoted one as saying, “If the men couldn’t manage him, the women could.” Wheeler backed down, but his reputation for being a tricky dealer continued.

In reaction to the uprising, Wheeler formed the rival Aspen Ice and Water Company in 1882. The RMS reported on May 5, 1885, that there were two ditch companies competing, the AIDC and Wheeler’s. At some point after, AIDC quit using the disputed upper town ditch, prone to overflowing into structures below, and built a lower ditch down Durant from their Waters Avenue river tap.

With water flowing unobstructed into gardens and stock pens, table water delivery resurfaced as an issue. The RMS reported on August 15, 1885, that someone dynamited waterman “Swede Jacob Brown’s” water tank because he was selling water at 25 cents per barrel, while other water-cart owners fixed prices at three barrels for $1. Weeks before, someone put coal oil in Brown’s tank and removed two “burrs holding a wheel” on his cart.

Donkey-cart deliveries from the prized Ute Spring water continued until 1889, when the Sept. 28 edition of the RMS reported the end of Ute Spring as a major water source because mining above had diverted the flow.

Much later, mining magnate David Hyman, for whom Wheeler originally brokered Hyman’s initial 1880s Aspen mining claims, reflected circa 1920 on Wheeler in his autobiography, “Romance of a Mining Venture,” that Wheeler was “a man of wonderful energy, of great professions, but whose character I never admired and whose knowledge of mining matters was not at all equal to his profession.”

This 1900 view of Aspen, from the lower Castle Creek valley, shows DRC Brown’s Aspen Water Company reservoirs, which supplied Aspen with water starting in 1886. One is in the foreground, near the location of today’s city water treatment plant and reservoir, and one is across the creek on the lower western flank of West Aspen Mountain, now Shadow Mountain. Photo credit: Aspen Historical Society
This 1900 view of Aspen, from the lower Castle Creek valley, shows DRC Brown’s Aspen Water Company reservoirs, which supplied Aspen with water starting in 1886. One is in the foreground, near the location of today’s city water treatment plant and reservoir, and one is across the creek on the lower western flank of West Aspen Mountain, now Shadow Mountain. Photo credit: Aspen Historical Society

Kidney health

With town growth, the hustle and bustle of more traffic, trash accumulation on lots, the mud-manure, road-base mix of town streets and settling detritus into the ditches, the need for water beyond the murky ditches became an infrastructure necessity and plentiful, alternative water from Castle Creek and Hunter Creek came on line.

To this end, the Aspen Water Company, “organized by esteemed townsmen H.C. Cowenhoven and D.R.C. Brown secured the franchise to supply the city with water,” the Times reported on Jan. 2, 1886. A crew excavated ditches and laid the water mains about town by that March.

That water supply came by flume and ditch out of Castle Creek to a reservoir on the west side of Aspen Mountain just downstream of today’s Music School. A 1900 photo at the AHS locates that oblong reservoir and another on the opposite side of the creek above today’s hospital.

After earlier debate comparing “Hunter’s Creek” (now Hunter Creek) with Castle and Roaring Fork waters, the town physician — to whom the city paid $50 a month, according to the complete town ordinances published in the July 27, 1886, edition of the Times — weighed in favoring the mineral composition of Castle Creek for better kidney health.

This photo shows the lower end of the Castle Creek ditch and flume water-delivery system to Aspen, part of Cowenhoven’s and Brown’s Aspen Water Company, which first piped water into west Aspen around the corner of Shadow Mountain and down West Hopkins Avenue. The photo was taken in 1900 near today’s foot/bike path bridge over Castle Creek to the Holden/Marolt Mining and Ranching Museum. Photo credit: AHS, Shaw collection.
This photo shows the lower end of the Castle Creek ditch and flume water-delivery system to Aspen, part of Cowenhoven’s and Brown’s Aspen Water Company, which first piped water into west Aspen around the corner of Shadow Mountain and down West Hopkins Avenue. The photo was taken in 1900 near today’s foot/bike path bridge over Castle Creek to the Holden/Marolt Mining and Ranching Museum. Photo credit: AHS, Shaw collection.

Upscale leavings

By 1889, the city installed two major sewer drains. The first, called the “Wheeler sewer,” after the other Wheeler, Jerome B., who financed it in 1888, ran 8-inch pipe 1,800 feet down Mill Street from the two-story, first-class Clarendon Hotel, which dominated the southeast side of today’s Wagner Park.

Those upscale Mill Street leavings commingled with inflow from the nearly completed J.B. Wheeler Opera House/Bank building and his Hotel Jerome, dumping that raw sewage into the Roaring Fork river near today’s Mill Street Bridge. The Sept. 2, 1889, edition of the Times reported the cost at $2,500 ($70,000 today), including lateral pipes to some adjoining streets.

The second sewer, the larger 2,200-foot Galena Street project, started at the base of Aspen Mountain and drained mine-waste water, which helped flush the raw, lower Galena sewage via a dogleg across the Rio Grande railroad yards into the river near today’s John Denver Sanctuary. This drainage came online in 1889, the Nov. 11 edition of the Times reported, with an “18-inch tile pipe” eight feet down that serviced the business center of town, at a cost of $5,725.

On the other side of the river, on North Spring Street across from this ripe excrement port, another poor neighborhood of 57 miner shacks called “Oklahoma Flats” — largely abandoned after the 1893 silver crash — conveniently set their privies at the water’s edge and let the river do the flushing. In later years, the area became known for its colorful residents such as “Slops,” “Midnight Mary,” “Hoofy” Sandstrom and Pope Leo Roland.

A convenient privy cantilevers over the Roaring Fork River in Aspen’s Oklahoma Flats, circa 1900. It was a poor neighborhood populated by miners’ shacks, right across the river from the Galena Street sewer outlet, which drained raw sewage from downtown. Photo credit: Aspen Historical Society
A convenient privy cantilevers over the Roaring Fork River in Aspen’s Oklahoma Flats, circa 1900. It was a poor neighborhood populated by miners’ shacks, right across the river from the Galena Street sewer outlet, which drained raw sewage from downtown. Photo credit: Aspen Historical Society

Thoroughly modern

In contrast, the Times, in June 1889, bragged that “the city embraces the handsomest dwellings of any mountain town in Colorado … with fine lawns and gardens … and abundance of water furnished to all desiring by the excellent Castle Creek water company.”

Roll-riveted steel and lead water pipes supplied new and old buildings. Many outskirt privies and “modern septic tanks” remained, while groundwater was too deep for in-town wells.

That same year, the new Hunter Creek electric power plant completed a building (today’s former Aspen Art Museum off North Mill Street), which housed Pelton-wheeled water turbines, powered by an 876-foot-vertical water drop from the Hunter Creek reservoir above. The innovative, cupped paddle-wheel, invented by Lester Pelton — a one-time Sacramento River fish monger in the California goldfields — captured the impulse force of the incoming water with cutting-edge efficiency.

So notable was this fin-de-siècle accomplishment in Aspen, the first town west of the Mississippi with hydro-electricity, that water engineers from Japan traveled to Aspen — arriving by stagecoach in 1888 — to study the technology and duplicate it in Kyoto, where that plant still stands today.

As electricity demand increased, the city along with Cowenhoven and Brown built the Castle Creek power plant in 1892 under “State Bridge” (now Castle Creek Bridge) using the same flumes-to-turbine mechanics.

Soon, electric lights illuminated downtown, “reducing police patrols,” according to a local newspaper account, as homes, mines and businesses multiplied with electric technology into Aspen’s peak mining year of 1893. That same fateful year, the U.S. government subsidy of silver prices and a bank-leveraged economy with too many railroad loans collapsed in the “Crash of ’93.”

The Washington School on Bleeker Street in Aspen’s West End, circa 1900. On the right, the Bleeker street ditch nourishes the cottonwoods and gardens of Aspen’s West End. Up until the 1960s ditches still flowed along many cottonwood-lined streets in Aspen’s residential areas, and even populated both sides of Main Street. Photo credit: AHS, Cooper Family Collection.
The Washington School on Bleeker Street in Aspen’s West End, circa 1900. On the right, the Bleeker street ditch nourishes the cottonwoods and gardens of Aspen’s West End. Up until the 1960s ditches still flowed along many cottonwood-lined streets in Aspen’s residential areas, and even populated both sides of Main Street. Photo credit: AHS, Cooper Family Collection.

Water, sewers refined

Yet Aspen carried on. The 1896 Willits map confirms expanded routes of the city’s water and sewage systems. Victorian-modern plumbing routed pipes into euphemistic “water closets” in new Aspen homes, with a seated bowl below and a pull-chain flushing tank overhead. Nickel-plated faucets, porcelain sinks, marble counters with wood trim and wainscoting styled out an upscale West End Aspen bathroom then.

The map further details where Brown’s Aspen Water Company laid the Castle Creek water main down West Hopkins to First Street, attaching lateral delivery into the West End and south to the base of Aspen Mountain.

At the other end of town, a city-funded water main tapped into the relatively cleaner Roaring Fork at the end of East Cooper above the polluting mills. This supplied the downtown core and east end of town up to First Street, north to Lake Avenue area, and south to Durant and Ute avenues.

These two sources combined then with a water main from Hunter Creek, which Brown et al. had an interest in. All three sources in the 1890s fully charged ubiquitous fire hydrants about town and allayed fear of fires starting in the many wooden tinderbox buildings. A gala downtown inauguration of the system shot water from hydrant hoses about 180 feet up in the air, and a full-on water fight with hoses by competing fire brigades entertained a raucous crowd, fueled by free beer from Brown.

A new era had rolled into Aspen by 1907, when jaunty Ted Cooper, in his first car, took some high-fashion Aspen ladies out motoring, while two horseman follow behind. This photo was taken on the corner of Bleeker and Fourth streets, near Pioneer Park. Photo credit: AHS, Shaw Collection.
A new era had rolled into Aspen by 1907, when jaunty Ted Cooper, in his first car, took some high-fashion Aspen ladies out motoring, while two horseman follow behind. This photo was taken on the corner of Bleeker and Fourth streets, near Pioneer Park. Photo credit: AHS, Shaw Collection.

The dust settles

Although momentum ceased as silver prices settled lower, steadily producing mines such as the Durant, AJ, Smuggler and Midnight kept working at modified levels into the early part of the 20th century. While hope burned for a revival of silver mining, small operations leased idle mining properties and tried to eke out a living that way.

At the same time, small in-town businesses, ranching and no demand for real estate made Aspen an idyllic, little Western town enjoying the innocent normalcy of the era, before igniting again into the early ski period of the 1950s. Along the way, the city and county upgraded purified water delivery and sanitation infrastructure at a steady pace.

All but forgotten, the massive tunnel diversion of Aspen’s Independence Pass watershed to the Eastern Slope for agriculture and development — a major Western Slope resentment for many years, which some in Aspen in the 1930s thanked for employment — is another story.

Still, on a positive note in these current times of environmental warming, microplastic particles, Frankenstein chemicals and global atmospheric transport of pollution, nature ostensibly cleaned the Roaring Fork River of toxic sediments since the mining era. Yet, the permanently stained rocks in the river stand as a reminder of our continuing stewardship.

Tim Cooney is an Aspen-based freelance writer and former Aspen Mountain ski patroller. He investigates Aspen’s history for Aspen Journalism’s History Desk and does so in collaboration with the Aspen Daily News. The Daily News published this story on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020.

States, Congress, Trump okay $156M to extend innovative Platte River recovery program

The three-state Platte River Recovery Implementation Program was reauthorized by Congress and President Trump at the end of the year in a rare show of bi-partisan support for species conservation. Credit: PRRIP
The three-state Platte River Recovery Implementation Program was reauthorized by Congress and President Trump at the end of the year in a rare show of bi-partisan support for species conservation. Credit: PRRIP

By Jerd Smith

After a year of anxious waiting, scientists and researchers who’ve helped build one of the most successful species recovery programs in the nation have gotten a 13-year extension to finish their work.

The Platte River Recovery Implementation Program began operating in 2007 with the bi-partisan backing of Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska and the U.S. Department of the Interior. Since then it has created some 15,000 acres of new habitat for stressed birds and fish, and added nearly 120,000 acre-feet of new annual water to the Platte River in central Nebraska. An acre-foot equals nearly 326,000 gallons.

The region is critical because it serves as a major stopping point for migrating birds, including the whooping crane, the least tern and the piping plover.

In addition to helping fish, birds and the river, the program also allowed dozens of water agencies, irrigation districts and others to meet requirements under the Endangered Species Act, which can prevent them from building and sometimes operating reservoirs, dams and other diversions if the activity is deemed harmful to at-risk species.

Last year it wasn’t clear that three new governors, three state congressional delegations, and a fractious Congress could come together to re-authorize the program.

Jo Jo La, an endangered species expert who tracks the program for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said everyone was grateful that politicians united to push the federal legislation, and the new operating agreement, through. It was signed by President Trump at the end of December.

“Our program was fortunate to have the leaders it had,” La said.

But it wasn’t just politicians who were responsible for the program’s extension, said Jason Farnsworth, executive director of the Kearney, Neb.-based program.

It was the diversity among the group’s members that was also key, he said. “Everyone from The Nature Conservancy to the Audubon Society to irrigation districts in the North Platte Basin supported this. You don’t often see an irrigation district sending a support letter for an endangered species recovery program. That’s how broad the support was.”

Of the $156 million allocated, Colorado is providing $24.9 million in cash and another $6.2 million in water, Wyoming is providing $3.1 million in cash and $12.5 million in water, Nebraska is providing $31.25 million in land and water, and the U.S. Department of Interior is providing $78 million in cash, according to PRRIP documents.

With their marching orders in hand, researchers and scientists can now focus on completing the program so that at the end of this 13-year extension it will become fully operational.

Early results have won accolades from Wyoming to Washington, D.C. The CWCB’s La said congressional testimony routinely described it as one of the “marquee” recovery programs in the nation, largely because, even though it isn’t finished, species are coming back in a major way.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the endangered whooping crane, least tern and pallid sturgeon, and the threatened piping plover, were in danger of becoming extinct, with the river’s channels and flows so altered by dams and diversions that it could no longer support the species’ nesting, breeding and migratory habitats.

Today the picture is much different.

The whooping crane spring migration has risen more than 12 percent since 2007, while the number of least tern and piping plover breeding pairs have more than doubled during that same time period, a major achievement in the species conservation world.

Still ahead is the work to acquire more water and land, and research to understand how to help the rare pallid sturgeon recover. Thus far it has not responded to recovery efforts, in part because it is extremely difficult to locate.

The idea is to ensure there is enough water and habitat to keep the birds and fish healthy once the program enters its long-term operating phase.

“The intent is to spend the next 13 years working on identifying the amount of water and land that is necessary to go into [the final operating phase]. The focus will be less on acquiring and learning, and more on operating and managing,” Farnsworth said.

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.

5 essential reads about snow and ice

Snowflake photo
‘Tis the season. Anteromite/Shutterstock

By Jennifer Weeks, The Conversation

As cold weather settles in across North America, some communities have already started up their snowplows, while others keep watchful eyes on the forecast. Snow and ice can wreck travel plans, but they also play important ecological roles. And frozen water can take amazing forms. For days when all talk turns to winter weather, we spotlight these five stories from our archives.

1. The strange forms water can take

Beyond snowflakes and icicles, frozen water can behave in surprising ways. For example, during very cold snaps, lakes can appear to steam like a sauna bath.

As Colorado State University atmospheric scientist Scott Denning explains, this happens because the liquid water in the lake can’t be colder than the freezing point – about 32 degrees Fahrenheit. As water evaporates from the relatively warm lake into the cold dry air, it condenses from vapor (gaseous water) to tiny droplets of water in the air, which look like steam.

When it gets extremely cold, ice can form on the ocean’s surface. Waves break it up, so the water starts to look like an undulating slurpee. “For anyone willing to brave the cold, it’s wild to stand by the shore and watch the smoking slushy sea with its slow-motion surf,” Denning writes.

2. How road salt tames ice

When a big storm is forecast, utility trucks often will head out to pre-treat streets and highways, typically spraying rock salt or saltwater solutions. But contrary to popular belief, salt doesn’t melt ice.

Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, but mixing it with salt lowers its freezing point. “The salt impedes the ability of the water molecules to form solid ice crystals,” explains Julie Pollock, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Richmond. “The degree of freezing point depression depends on how salty the solution is.” When dry salt is spread on ice, it relies on the sun or the friction of car tires to melt the ice, then keeps it from re-freezing.

Pulses of salt can harm plants, water bodies and aquatic organisms when it washes off of roads – especially during spring runoff, which can carry huge doses. Researchers are working to find more benign options, and are currently studying additives including molasses and beet juice.

Testing beet brine as an environmentally friendly road deicer in Canada.

3. Why trees need snow

Snow may seem like nothing but trouble, especially if you have to shovel it. But it’s also a valuable resource. In the Northeast, environmental scientists Andrew Reinmann and Pamela Templer have found that winter snow cover acts like a blanket, protecting tree roots and soil organisms from the cold.

In experimental forest plots where Reinmann and Templer removed snow from the ground, they have observed that

“…frost penetrates a foot or more down into the soil, while it rarely extends more than two inches deep in nearby reference plots with unaltered snowpack. And just as freeze-thaw cycles create potholes in city streets, soil freezing abrades and kills tree roots and damages those that survive.”

Climate change is shortening northeast winters and decreasing snowfall, with serious effects on forests. “Losing snowpack can reduce forest growth, carbon sequestration and nutrient retention, which will have important implications for climate change and air and water quality all year-round,” Reinmann and Templer predict.

4. Frozen reservoirs

Snow is even more valuable in western states, where many communities get large shares of their drinking water from snowpack that lingers at high altitudes well into the warm months. Here, too, warming winters mean less snow, and scientists are already observing “snow droughts.”

Adrienne Marshall a research fellow studying hydrology and climate change at the University of Idaho, defines a snow drought as a year with snowpack so low that historically it would only happen once every four years or less.

“Today, back-to-back snow droughts in the western U.S. occur around 7% of the time,” she writes. “By mid-century, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, our results predict that multiyear snow droughts will occur in 42% of years on average.”

Snowpack is also melting earlier in the spring, which means less water is available in summer. These changes are affecting cities, farms, forests, wildlife and the outdoor recreation industry across the West year-round.

5. Can we make it snow?

If nature doesn’t deliver as much snow as we need, what about helping it along? Many western states and agencies have tried to do just that for years by cloud-seeding – adding particles to the atmosphere that are thought to serve as artificial ice crystals, promoting the formation of snow.

There’s just one hitch: No one has proved it actually works. Nonetheless, “Western states need water, and many decision-makers believe that cloud seeding can be a cost-effective way to produce it,” write atmospheric scientists Jeffrey French and Sarah Tessendorf.

In a 2018 study, French, Tessendorf and colleagues used new computer modeling tools and advanced radar to see whether they could detect ice crystals forming on silver iodide particles injected into clouds. They hung imaging probes from the wings of research planes, which flew in and out of the seeded areas of clouds. Sure enough, in those zones ice crystal formation increased by hundreds, leading to the formation of snow. No such results occurred in non-seeded regions.

More research is needed to see whether cloud seeding can change water balances over large areas. And ultimately, even if that proves to be true, another question will remain: Whether it’s worth the cost.

This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives.

[ Get the best of The Conversation, every weekend. Sign up for our weekly newsletter. ]

Jennifer Weeks, Environment + Energy Editor, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Counterfeits hit home: consumers are being foiled by fake water filters

More than 5,200 counterfeit refrigerator water filters from China were seized in July at the LA/Long Beach Seaport. (Photo by U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

By Nate Seltenrich, FairWarning, January 15, 2020

For years, Montreal resident Brent George bought replacement water filters for his refrigerator from a local appliance store. Then one time he turned to Amazon, where he often shopped for other products. Besides being more convenient, the online filters he selected — sold by a third party and not by manufacturer Whirlpool  were also cheaper.

Ultimately, George got more than he expected: an introduction to the hidden and potentially harmful world of counterfeit refrigerator water filters. Many consumers may be unaware of the risk of buying fake filters online, but sources in law enforcement and the appliance industry say it’s significant — and likely growing.Want more stories like this? Sign up here to get news alerts.

Refrigerator filters are an attractive target for unscrupulous sellers looking to make a quick buck. They’re pricey (typically up to $50), purchased every six months at the behest of large corporations, and often difficult for consumers to evaluate.

By slapping some labels, packaging and fake certifications on lookalike filters with little functionality, then selling them online at discounted prices — directly to consumers or via intermediaries who may not always be in on the act — counterfeiters can undercut legitimate manufacturers and still turn a profit.

Fake filters “in the millions”

They may also be putting consumers at risk by selling filters that are not merely ineffective, but unsafe. Along with failing to do what they claim, counterfeits can introduce chemicals such as arsenic, a carcinogen, and octane, a petroleum-derived solvent, into users’ drinking water, according to a May 2018 report from the industry group Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.

The organization representing more than 100 appliance brands and suppliers has argued for better protections against fake filters in meetings with Amazon, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center and the White House, said Jill Notini, the group’s spokeswoman. Its efforts have stirred interest in the issue, she said, but not much action.

Neither the association nor three major filter manufacturers could tell FairWarning how much counterfeiting costs the companies in lost revenue. But Notini said the group estimates the number of fake water filters to be “in the millions.”

And the threat appears to be increasing. Between 2016 and 2018, seizures of fake refrigerator water filters at U.S. ports grew considerably. In all, Customs and Border Protection seized more than 150,000 such products or related parts in dozens of cases nationwide, according to the agency’s most recent data, provided to FairWarning.

In July, customs officers at the Los Angeles/Long Beach Seaport, which accounts for 43 percent of all cargo entering the United States, seized 5,200 counterfeit filters from a shipment of various products sent from China to an address in Washington state.

Notini said she understood that the filters, which mimicked the brands Brita, GE, Frigidaire and PUR, were headed to a known Amazon seller. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Jaime Ruiz confirmed only that the products were intended to be sold “in an online store.”

Packaging can be tip-off

Soon after George received his two new filters in the mail, he began to suspect that something was wrong. “When they showed up, they were suspiciously wrapped,” he said in an interview with FairWarning. The hard plastic shell and softer plastic wrap looked “sloppy” and bore water spots, almost as if they or the filters had previously been used.

“And I distinctly remembered holographic stickers on the ones I bought before, and suddenly I noticed that was missing,” he said.

George said he reached out to Whirlpool to ask if there was any chance a legitimate replacement filter would lack a holographic sticker. He was told no. After reporting the alleged fraud, he received a refund from Amazon and a contrite note from the seller. He discarded the filters before they ever reached his fridge.

Many other consumers may not be so lucky, though it is difficult to say how many. Counterfeits by their very nature are difficult to track, especially when they’re not expected — as is often the case with replacement water filters. Most probably go undetected, Notini said.

Buyers who suspect they’ve been duped may reach out to the seller, the marketplace, the manufacturer of the copied product or various government agencies. What happens next varies – from criminal prosecution to a slap on the wrist.

Amazon spokeswoman Cecilia Fan said the company investigates any claim of counterfeiting thoroughly, “including removing the item, permanently removing the bad actor, pursuing legal action or working with law enforcement as appropriate.”

In the case of the July seizure in Los Angeles, the importer was not prosecuted but likely lost a lot of money, said Ruiz. “We believe that this would deter the importer to try to smuggle filters again.”

Ferreting out fakes at the nation’s ports is a complex and daunting process with the arrival every year of 11 million containers at sea ports, 10 million coming in on trucks, and another 3 million by rail, he explained.

Federal agents target lookalikes

Last year, Customs and Border Protection seized nearly 34,000 shipments containing counterfeit goods, or nearly 100 per day.

Officers track every container and its contents electronically. They use “sophisticated targeting systems” to call attention to new businesses and changed addresses or product types, Ruiz said. “Anything in the system that could create an anomaly raises a red flag.”

If counterfeits are found, they are seized and destroyed. “Our goal is to facilitate and expedite trade, but we also want to make sure products are in compliance with U.S. law,” Ruiz said.

But the agency isn’t keeping pace with online counterfeiters and needs to coordinate better with the private sector, according to a 2018 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. “Sharing additional information about seized items with rights-holding companies and e-commerce websites could improve enforcement,” the report stated.

Theoretically, a single faulty refrigerator filter could taint thousands of glasses of drinking water, Notini said.

For her organization’s 2018 report, three independent laboratories assessed different aspects of fake filters’ performance. Known counterfeits were purchased online by appliance manufacturers including LG, Electrolux, Samsung, Whirlpool, GE Appliances and Sub-Zero.

According to the report, one lab found that all 32 counterfeits it tested failed to meet advertised standards for lead removal. Another lab tested eight filters for removal of the microscopic parasite Cryptosporidium parvum, a common cause of waterborne disease in the United States, and again none passed.

The third lab soaked 46 filters in clean water to see if they’d leach new chemicals. Some, but not all, contaminated the water with a total of ten different compounds — including, in one case, arsenic at levels approaching federal drinking-water limits.

“Unlike food grade materials used in certified filters that are tested and approved,” the report reads, “these counterfeits likely used cheaper, non-food grade materials, which are known to leach these kinds of chemicals.”

Counterfeiters roost on Amazon

Amazon largely relies on two programs called Brand Registry and Project Zero to keep counterfeits off its site, whether that means water filters or handbags, said spokeswoman Fan. Both require manufacturers and brand owners to be proactive by providing detailed product information and reporting suspected fakes for immediate removal.

“We absolutely don’t want counterfeit products, and so there’s a lot that we do, but ultimately, brands are going to know their products better than anybody else,” she said.

More than 5,200 counterfeit refrigerator water filters from China were seized in July at the LA/Long Beach Seaport. (Photo by U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

Port officials snagged counterfeits of popular water filter brands in a July seizure at the LA/Long Beach Seaport. (Photo by U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

A separate system scans product reviews for claims of inauthenticity, which can then be investigated, Fan added.

Amazon’s policy for sellers requires that all water filters be certified to current standards by one of a handful of reputable outfits. But that doesn’t stop sophisticated counterfeiters from faking that, too, reproducing the National Sanitation Foundation’s widely trusted “NSF” logo, said Notini.

The e-commerce and auction site eBay — where a recent search for “refrigerator water filter” turned up more than 25,000 listings, representing untold numbers of individual filters — doesn’t have any special policies for filters at all. According to a spokeswomanthe company primarily depends upon customers and brands to report suspected fakes.

Counterfeiters are also finding customers through independent, often generic-sounding websites that specialize in selling water filters at reduced prices, said GE Appliances spokeswoman Julie Wood.

“Our company is seeing an increased trend in direct shipment of counterfeits, from foreign sellers to U.S. addresses,” Wood said. “We have seen several discount websites that we believe advertise, perhaps unwittingly, counterfeit or deceptive knock-off water filters.”

In the last year alone, officers have seized almost 14,000 counterfeit GE-branded refrigerator water filters at the nation’s ports, she added.

Jillian Hillard, director of ownership marketing for Sweden-based appliance manufacturer Electrolux, said that in addition to buying straight from the company, customers seeking a sure thing can use a search function on its website to locate authorized retailers, many of which also sell filters online.

Industry aims to educate public

“Counterfeits and knockoffs are a concern for all industries,” Hillard said. “Manufacturers like us want to protect our product, we want to protect our brand, and we want to protect the consumer.”

In hopes of slowing counterfeiting’s spread, Electrolux and its U.S. subsidiary Frigidaire are both working to raise its profile. Newly released educational videos and other materials are designed to “let consumers know that they have to be aware of counterfeits and knockoffs, and what the key criteria for spotting them are,” Hillard said.

In addition to costing less, fake filters often weigh less and come in similar, but poorer-quality packaging. The product, packaging or online listing may also contain misspellings or other typographical errors.

Notini, who leads the appliance-manufacturers association’s anti-counterfeit efforts from Washington, D.C., is prepared for a protracted battle.

“The counterfeiters try to stay one step ahead,” she said. “We’re trying to beat the drum because it’s not an issue that’s going to go away.”

This story was produced by FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org), a nonprofit news organization based in Southern California that focuses on public health, consumer and environmental issues.

Video story: When in drought, call the beavers

 


By Sara Cottle, Laura Daley, Alex Feltes and Julia Medeiros

Water challenges are prompting scientists in Colorado to look for solutions from a once-prominent native animal that was almost hunted to the brink of extinction: the beaver.

Beavers were formerly a common sight in Colorado, but the 19th century fur trade caused their population to plummet, and they never really recovered. 

“Traditionally, beavers would have been pervasive. Beaver dams would have been across the  landscape, up the mountains and down into the plains,” said Mac Kobza, Boulder County wildlife biologist.

Beavers were once a common sight in Colorado but the 19th century fur trade caused their population to plummet, and they never really recovered.

Trial program reintroducing beavers in Boulder County

Kobza and fellow wildlife biologist Dave Hoerath are part of an effort to try out beaver reintroduction in Boulder County. They recently relocated beavers to Caribou Ranch, a once thriving beaver pond that has dried up since the furry, dam engineering residents left a decade ago. 

Caribou Ranch was identified as ideal habitat by using a remote sensing technology called the Beaver Restoration Assessment Tool (BRAT). 

“It looks at vegetation that is available, it looks at the structure of a valley and of a river, how much water is there, how steep is it, things that beavers would care about when it comes to building their dams,” said Juli Scamardo, a doctoral student in fluvial geomorphology at Colorado State University. 

Mitigating the impact of furry movers and shakers on neighboring communities

Scamardo is studying how watersheds change in response to beaver reintroduction. She and her advisor, Ellen Wohl, utilized BRAT to examine areas across the St. Vrain drainage basin. In addition to looking for suitable physical characteristics for beaver dams, they also needed to factor in nearby human activity. As helpful as beavers can be for the environment, they can also pose a threat to human property by felling trees or flooding backyards.

As helpful as beavers can be for the environment, they can also pose a threat to human property by felling trees or flooding backyards.

Caribou Ranch fit the bill: a place where beavers could provide benefits for water storage and water quality without human interference. Researchers hope reintroducing beavers will improve the parched landscape not only in Caribou Ranch, but also potentially across the state. 

“The ultimate goal of beaver reintroduction in Colorado is kind of getting back to what these valley bottoms or rivers used to look like before people came in,” said Scamardo. “But we’re never going to get exactly back to what it looked like before humans because we are now part of the landscape too.”

Watch the video

The Water Desk is pleased to present this short documentary about beaver reintroduction efforts in Colorado, produced for The Water Desk by University of Colorado Boulder graduate students Sara Cottle, Laura Daley, Alex Feltes and Julia Medeiros.

Back to top

As the Salton Sea shrinks, it leaves behind a toxic reminder of the cost of making a desert bloom

The Salton Sea has shrunk dramatically over the last few decades, exposing miles of lake bed — and the toxic chemicals trapped there — that is sometimes stirred up as dust by the wind. Public-health experts fear that dust will exacerbate respiratory and other health problems that plague the residents who live nearby.
The Salton Sea has shrunk dramatically over the last few decades, exposing miles of lake bed — and the toxic chemicals trapped there — that is sometimes stirred up as dust by the wind. Public-health experts fear that dust will exacerbate respiratory and other health problems that plague the residents who live nearby.

By Lindsay Fendt

Water Desk Grantee Publication

This story was supported by the Water Desk’s grant programs.

Learn more about our standard and micro grants for journalists

Read more grantee stories »

It’s just past noon on a Wednesday, but the bar at the Ski Inn in Bombay Beach, California, is already packed. The crowd is mostly Canadian, snowbirds escaping to the desert spas and country club communities that dominate this southeastern corner of the state, just 50 miles from Mexico. Bombay Beach is not their destination, just a side trip to see the ruins of the once-famous party town.

In the 1950s, Bombay Beach was a celebrity destination. Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys and Bing Crosby frequented its luxury resorts perched at the edge of the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake. Lauded for its fishing, boating and water skiing, the Salton Sea attracted more visitors than Yosemite National Park. Birds, too, loved the lake, with thousands spending winters there every year.

The lake was formed in 1905, after the Colorado River breached an irrigation canal and flooded the Salton Sink, a basin in the desert that has periodically held lakes throughout history. Once the canal was repaired, two years later, the Salton Sea had no source of water other than the runoff that flowed in from the nearby farms of the Imperial Valley, one of the state’s agricultural hubs. 

This runoff water, full of chemicals and nitrates, was saltier than the lake water. As it drained through the soil, it combined with ancient salt deposits, raising the salinity even further, and in the 1970s scientists started warning that change was coming to the Salton Sea. The salt would transform the lake, causing it to shrink and making it inhospitable to wildlife.

Sure enough, before the decade was up, fish started dying off and bird populations declined. The lake began to stink, spurring the state to issue periodic odor advisories that sometimes extended as far away as Los Angeles. Today, the lake is about twice as salty as the Pacific Ocean.

“It’s a drastic change,” said Jane Southworth, the only local at the bar, who came seasonally to Bombay Beach before settling here for good in 1990. “It went from fun to no fun. From water to sand, or I should say mud.”

Now the Salton Sea has another problem: Climate change is making this dry region even drier. And a growing demand for water in the booming cities and suburbs of Southern California has reduced the amount of Colorado River water diverted to nearby farms. In the coming years these two factors are expected to dramatically increase the pace at which the lake shrinks, exposing more lake bed and the agricultural toxins trapped in the mud. 

The desert winds lift dust from the lakebed, and scientists fear that eventually the toxic residue of more than a century of agricultural runoff will be blown into the air — and into the lungs of residents. The area surrounding the Salton Sea already has some of the worst air quality in the country, caused by particulate matter swept up from farms and the desert. Local residents have some of the highest rates of asthma and other respiratory problems in the state, and public health officials say the heavy metals and chemicals in the lake bed pose an even greater threat.

Tourists stroll along Bombay Beach, home to a dilapidated resort town that once was a celebrity hotspot. Photo credit: Lindsay Fendt
Tourists stroll along Bombay Beach, home to a dilapidated resort town that once was a celebrity hotspot. Photo credit: Lindsay Fendt

Many of the people and businesses that once relied on the lake have left, driven away by the smell of dying fish or the fear of health problems. Those who remain — farmworkers, families, the elderly — are generally too poor to afford the rising cost of property elsewhere in the valley. Others, like Southworth, who’s retired, have too many fond memories of the lake to give up on its future.

“I just wish they would do something, put some water out there,” she said.

 A slow-moving disaster

To understand the Salton Sea — its massiveness, its unlikely place in the desert of Southern California — it’s best to see it from above. In November, I boarded a four-seat plane with Frank Ruiz, the Salton Sea program manager for the Audubon society. We took off from a small airstrip in Thermal, north of the lake, and soon the lake flooded our view from the window. 

It seems unnatural, the shimmering water surrounded by chalky sand and cactus. But water has found its way into this desert basin repeatedly throughout history. Before dams and other diversion structures fixed the Colorado River on its current path, the river used to periodically migrate across the floodplain, changing course to circumvent sediment that had built up in previous seasons. Sometimes it emptied here in the Salton Sink. During one such period, the river sustained an even larger lake, Lake Cahuilla, that stretched from the Coachella Valley, up by Palm Springs, all the way to northern Mexico. 

We fly near the Chocolate Mountains that rise up south of the Salton Sea, and Ruiz points to a discolored line high on one of the ridges where a thousand years ago lake water once reached.

“If you talk to anyone from the Cahuilla tribe, the people who have been in this basin forever, they say water has always been here,” Ruiz said. “So this isn’t just about saving some artificial lake.”

Lake Cahuilla dried up sometime in the 16th century after the river again shifted course, this time to the Gulf of California. Dams have tamed the river’s meandering, and it’s unlikely the Colorado will ever find its way into the Salton Sink again. Yet the river’s water is still coming, diverted into the desert via the 80-mile-long All-American Canal.

There are more than 500,000 acres of farmland in the Imperial Valley. All of it is irrigated with water piped in from the Colorado River through the 80-mile-long All-American Canal. Photo credit: Lindsay Fendt
There are more than 500,000 acres of farmland in the Imperial Valley. All of it is irrigated with water piped in from the Colorado River through the 80-mile-long All-American Canal. Photo credit: Lindsay Fendt

As the plane veers back, heading to the south side of the Salton Sea, more than 500,000 acres of farmland unfurl beneath us. This quilt of green is the Imperial Valley, home to some of the world’s most fertile soil, enriched with minerals from the Colorado River floodplain. 

The valley produces as much as two-thirds of the country’s winter fruits and vegetables, but sustaining that level of production in a desert has a cost. The Imperial Irrigation District, which manages the canal and the sprawling network of pipes and irrigation ditches it feeds, diverts 2.6 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado, about half of California’s entire allotment from the river. For perspective, it takes about 2 acre-feet to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

The valley’s agricultural boom is what created the Salton Sea. In 1905, flows on the Colorado River were unusually high and the river breached an irrigation canal that carried water to the valley. Unimpeded, the river shifted course toward the dry sink that once held Lake Cahuilla. The canal was fixed in 1907, but by then water covered 515 square miles. 

The lake would have eventually evaporated were it not for the wastewater that drained into it, mostly from the surrounding farms. This runoff included enough fresh water to sustain the Salton Sea for decades, but it also brought pesticides and herbicides, including now-banned chemicals like DDT and other cancer-causing compounds, all of which settled in the mud at the bottom of the lake. The inflows varied widely, but sometimes reached as much as 1 million acre-feet a year.

Then, in 2003, the Imperial Irrigation District agreed to agreed to conserve water and transfer the savings to San Diego County. Farmers were forced to abandon flood irrigation, a wildly inefficient strategy that involved flooding the fields and letting the excess run off. Farmers in the valley began using drip irrigation, diverting less river water and allowing San Diego and the Coachella Valley to take the excess. This change meant there was enough water for everyone — but not for the Salton Sea.

The Alamo River carries runoff from nearby farms into the Salton Sea. That runoff has filled the lake bed with decades worth of pesticides, including banned chemicals like DDT, as well as nitrates from fertilizer, raising the lake’s salinity higher than that of the Pacific Ocean. Photo credit: Lindsay Fendt
The Alamo River carries runoff from nearby farms into the Salton Sea. That runoff has filled the lake bed with decades worth of pesticides, including banned chemicals like DDT, as well as nitrates from fertilizer, raising the lake’s salinity higher than that of the Pacific Ocean. Photo credit: Lindsay Fendt

“There is this tension because we want to use water more efficiently instead of building more dams,” said Michael Cohen, a senior researcher with the Pacific Institute, an environmental group focused on water policy. “But the unintended consequence of that is that less water goes to the Salton Sea because it is entirely dependent on inefficiency.”

To stave off the lake’s evaporation, the irrigation district continued to put 800,000 acre-feet of water directly into the lake as it implemented efficiency measures. Those water deliveries ended in 2018 and in the coming years the pace of the Salton Sea’s evaporation is expected to triple.

In return for improved water-use efficiency, the state of California was supposed to implement a plan to control dust and reduce habitat loss for migrating birds on the Salton Sea by 2018. But that plan stalled, the lake continues to shrink, and a public-health crisis looms.

A forgotten place

In 2017, researchers from the University of Southern California partnered with the Comite Civico del Valle, an environmental justice group based in Brawley, an agricultural town just south of the Salton Sea for the first comprehensive study of child respiratory health in the region. 

The study’s researchers are using data from air quality monitors at schools surrounding the Salton Sea, analyzing the composition of dust coming from the Salton Sea and collecting health data from 500 children in the area to determine how the Salton Sea may change air quality in the region and impact health. Preliminary results confirm the community’s concerns about respiratory problems in children.

The valley’s air frequently falls below federal air-quality standards. One in five children in the area surrounding the Salton Sea have asthma, a rate three times higher than the rest of the state. The reasons for the elevated rates of pollution aren’t fully understood, but it is likely a combination of both natural and chemical dust from farms, the desert and the lake.

“We don’t have any evidence at this point that the existence of the Salton Sea is bad for respiratory health on its own,” said Jill Johnston, one of the researchers on the study, noting that there are a number of factors. “The community is cumulatively burdened, and we know that there are other sources of air pollution going on, but we think that adding in the [Salton Sea] dust without any mitigation can make things worse for children.”

Ryan Kelley, chairman of the Imperial County Board of Supervisors, grew up in Brawley. He was a firefighter and a paramedic before he decided to get into politics. He applauds to efforts of local activists, like Comite Civico del Valle, but says Imperial County has been forgotten by the state and federal governments.

Imperial County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, and in 2016 one in four people there lived in poverty. It has some of the worst air quality, too, and the active asthma rate is 12.1 percent, higher than both the state and national averages. But according to Kelley, the county isn’t a priority in the region which includes some of wealthiest communities in the state in nearby San Diego County, the Coachella Valley and Palm Springs. 

A shed in Bombay Beach is sprayed with graffiti that reads ‘toxic waste.’ Public-health experts worry that dust from the exposed lake bed will exacerbate respiratory problems in the community. Photo credit: Lindsay Fendt
A shed in Bombay Beach is sprayed with graffiti that reads ‘toxic waste.’ Public-health experts worry that dust from the exposed lake bed will exacerbate respiratory problems in the community. Photo credit: Lindsay Fendt

“When you think of Southern California how often do you think of Imperial County?” Kelley asks. “We don’t have that much in common with San Diego anymore, and our problems get swallowed by these larger, wealthier places.”

What’s happened to the Salton Sea is a case in point. It has been in decline for Kelley’s entire adult life, affecting the health of both residents and the local economy. Tourists are afraid of the potential health issues from the lakebed’s dust and are put off by the frequent odor issues brought on by dying fish. Businesses don’t want to come to Imperial for the same reasons. 

Solutions to these problems have been on California’s drawing board for more than a decade and still have not been finalized. 

The California Natural Resource Agency released the official Salton Sea Restoration Plan in 2007. The basic premise was to redirect the remaining inflows to the Salton Sea to small, man-made wetlands that would both suppress dust and create bird habitat. 

From the outset, the plan lacked funding, and over the years promises of money and action from state lawmakers would arise and evaporate as priorities shifted and water politics changed. 

The lack of official action has led to a cascade of alternative plans from environmental groups, advocacy organizations and local governments. Some have proposed piping saltwater in from the Sea of Cortez, desalinating it and returning the lake to its original size. Another plan calls for distributing the water along the lake’s outside to reduce dust, letting the middle dry out. Another group has proposed a complicated strategy that involves releasing foam block islands onto the lake to support new vegetation that would filter salt from the lake. All these plans, including the state plan, lack funding and official rights to any water beyond wastewater.

While there are very real hurdles for moving forward on the plan, Kelley says a lack of political will in Sacramento, the state capital, underlies the failure to act. That may be starting to change.

In recent years, the Imperial Irrigation District, the most powerful entity in the valley, has expressed frustration at the lack of action, suggesting it may abandon the 2003 water-transfer agreement with San Diego County if something isn’t done to fix the Salton Sea.

“The premise in which the [water transfer agreement] was finally agreed upon was having the state of California address the issues of the sea,” said Henry Martinez, the general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District. “There is a question of at what point that agreement is breached.” 

Under a new governor, Gavin Newsom, who took office last year, and new leadership at California’s Natural Resources Agency, the state has made some progress on the land-access issues and secured easements to begin some of the dust suppression and habitat restoration projects. Even with this progress, the state is still behind on the planned 10-year project. The government rhetoric has shifted, too, with officials making public statements about the importance of addressing the problems caused by the Salton Sea’s evaporation.

“I can’t really go back and fix the things that happened in the past,” Arturo Delgado, the new Salton Sea Secretary for the Natural Resources Agency told me in November, “but we made a commitment.”

Last Spring, though, the seven states that use Colorado River water agreed to a plan that would reduce the amount of water each would take from the river in certain conditions. Water politics are notoriously fraught in the West, but declining water levels on the Colorado, following a 20-year drought, forced the states and other major users of the river’s water to reach a deal. 

Despite pressure from Imperial Irrigation District, the deal did not include money to clean up the Salton Sea. 

Dan Cooper, a biologist with Audubon California, works on the group’s monthly bird count around the Salton Sea. It’s considered one of the most important sites along the Pacific Flyway, a major migratory path between Canada and Mexico. But as the waters have receded and the fish die off, the number of fish-eating birds has plummeted, with some species almost entirely gone. Photo credit: Lindsay Fendt
Dan Cooper, a biologist with Audubon California, works on the group’s monthly bird count around the Salton Sea. It’s considered one of the most important sites along the Pacific Flyway, a major migratory path between Canada and Mexico. But as the waters have receded and the fish die off, the number of fish-eating birds has plummeted, with some species almost entirely gone. Photo credit: Lindsay Fendt

In October, the Imperial County Board of Supervisors declared a local air pollution emergency at the Salton Sea. In November, the board declared another emergency, this one at the heavily polluted New River, which empties into the Salton Sea. Ryan Kelley hopes to use the local emergencies to cut through some of the red tape holding back the restoration projects. If the state were to declare an emergency, it could secure federal funding and expedite the permitting process.

Delgado says the state is reviewing the board’s declaration but has not yet decided whether to move forward with it. Meanwhile, the lake continues to dry up at a faster rate than ever before.  

“There was always a concern that when water stopped flowing to the Salton Sea that it would have an effect,” says Henry Martinez. “Fast forward to what is happening today. It appears we are at least getting close to the tipping point.”

Correction: The story has been changed to reflect the fact that the Imperial Irrigation District did not transfer a portion of its rights to the Colorado River water to San Diego County in 2003. Rather, the IID agreed to be more efficient in its water usage and send the conserved water to San Diego County. 

You made it this far so we know you appreciate our work. FERN is a non-profit and relies on the generosity of our readers so that we can continue producing incisive reporting like this story. Please consider making a donation to support our work. Thank you.

This story was produced in collaboration with The Weather Channel, where it first appeared. All rights reserved. Reporting was supported by The Water Desk, and aerial support for photos provided by LightHawk. This article may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN, where it was published January 13, 2020. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact info@thefern.org.

Small farmers wait for California’s groundwater hammer to fall

Randy Fiorini walking in his walnut orchard
Randy Fiorini in his Merced County walnut orchard. Five years ago, the Fiorini home’s groundwater well ran dry. With groundwater limits likely to be on the way, he wonders if he’ll be able to continue to rely on a critical backstop during droughts. (Madison Pobis)

A black lab trots dutifully behind as Randy Fiorini proudly points out the drip irrigation lines running along the base of his walnut trees. The orchards sit on land first planted in 1907 when his grandfather established Fiorini Ranch a few miles outside of Delhi, California after relocating from Redondo Beach. A cement ditch carrying water from the Don Pedro Reservoir about 50 miles away runs alongside peach, almond, and walnut trees.

Back when the ranch was irrigated by flooding its fields, Fiorini would splash around with his childhood friend, Scott Severson, in the huge pools under the shade of the trees. Like Fiorini, Severson grew up to farm his family’s ranch nearby in Merced County.

Like most parts of the Central Valley, the Fiorini and Severson ranches in the Turlock Irrigation District used surface water when it was available, and pumped groundwater when it wasn’t. Two decades ago, Fiorini decided to use water more efficiently and switched from flooding to drip irrigation on his peach trees, tripling the production of cling peaches. His overall water use didn’t fall, and the years of reliance on groundwater took its toll. Five years ago, in the middle of a crippling drought, Fiorini’s domestic well pump no longer reached the shrinking groundwater aquifer.


Video Profile: Randy Fiorini, Third Generation Grower

“You don’t have enough water and you lose those trees, you’re gonna be sideways with the bank in a hurry.”

Fiorini switched from flooding to drip irrigation on his peach trees, tripling production but continuing his orchards’ reliance on groundwater.

Video: Madison Pobis/Bill Lane Center for the American West

His land is part of roughly five million irrigated acres in the San Joaquin Valley distributed over about 20,000 farms. As Fiorini’s domestic well ran dry, underscoring the speed at which this crucial resource was disappearing, the California legislature took action to end more than a century of freewheeling, unregulated groundwater use. In 2014, it approved the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Basin by basin, local areas had to create new agencies — called groundwater sustainability agencies, or GSAs — to manage the groundwater.

Now farmers, large and small, are beginning to grapple with what this means for them and their choice of crops. Many expect to see cutbacks on pumping once the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) is fully implemented.

The groundwater basin underneath the ranches of Fiorini and Severson in Delhi is one of 48 in the state that is considered “high priority.” Its Groundwater Sustainability Agency, the West Turlock Subbasin GSA in Merced County, must submit plans by January 2022 that will bring it into a sustainable balance in two decades.


Map of California groundwater basins showing prioritization.

Map of California groundwater basins showing state prioritization levels. Click for interactive map. Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West

“Growers are starting to take notice,” said Scott Severson. “Some adapt much faster than others… And there’s a certain portion that will dig in and wait until the very end until they’re mandated what to do, and you know scream and yell about it the whole way.”

Chart: Groundwater use in wet vs dry years

Some farmers will find out their new limits soon. The state Department of Water Resources is already reviewing three sustainability plans. The sustainability agencies with authority over Al Rossini’s scattered farmland are responsible for two of California’s 21 critically overdrafted basins. Like Fiorini and Severson, Rossini’s family has farmed about 1,000 acres for generations. The Rossini acres are in both Merced and Stanislaus Counties; the relevant GSAs must submit their plans to the state at the end of this month.

What are farmers like these doing? Waiting. Most want their new GSAs to spell out precise limitations before hitting the brakes on production.

When they are told of the actual groundwater cutback requirements, they will face a reckoning. The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) estimates that since 2003 the San Joaquin Valley has overdrafted an average of 2.4 million acre-feet of groundwater every year. (An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or enough to supply water to two homes for a year.) Bringing California’s groundwater supplies into balance will require huge sacrifices from growers — some may see cutbacks as high as 50 percent on groundwater pumping. Farmers must also rethink which crops are worth keeping and how many acres can be sustained with limited water supplies.

Even under ideal conditions, the PPIC estimates that a minimum of 535,000 acres will need to stop producing crops by 2040, with landowners forfeiting billions of dollars in revenue. If new water supplies can’t be generated or redistributed, that number might be as high as 780,000 acres, according to Jelena Jezdimirovic, a research associate at the PPIC. “We kind of don’t take these numbers to be the absolute truth of what will happen,” she said, “but we want to show that, depending on how people want to implement this law, there is potential for better outcomes.”

Jezdimirovic said that it’s not all that surprising that most basins haven’t settled yet on firm allocation limits. Yet inevitably, land will come out of production and landowners will have to decide how — and how much — to fallow. The decisions of smaller family farmers may be wrenching, and they own a substantial portion of the land affected. In a 2017 PPIC report Jezdimirovic wrote that in the Central Valley, “farms with less than 500 acres of irrigated cropland account for a quarter of total irrigated acreage.”

A few farmers have acted already. Sarah Woolf Clark, a grower in the Westlands Water District, said her family operations had to cut production in 2009, when their surface water allocation dropped to zero. They reduced staff and eliminated equipment to scale back on two thirds of their property. They haven’t returned to full capacity, and are rotating lower-value row crops, diverting more water to their higher-value almonds and pistachios, and slowly divesting themselves of water-stressed areas.


Micro irrigation watering an almond orchard in Livingston, California in 2015. Most growers have already invested in more efficient methods of irrigation like these to increase yields

Micro irrigation watering an almond orchard in Livingston, California in 2015. Most growers have already invested in more efficient methods of irrigation like these to increase yields. Lance Cheung/USDA via Flickr


Many farmers must face the consequences of deciding to shift to permanent crops. Once planted, grapevines or nut trees must be watered, drought or no. The increasing dominance of high-value perennial crops — which now represent 45 percent of the production in the southern Central Valley, PPIC reports — makes it harder for San Joaquin Valley growers to plan for a future with less groundwater.

Field crops like alfalfa, corn, and grains return between $200 and $600 per acre-foot of water used. The profits are low, but the crops can be more easily rotated or those fields fallowed. But for growers like Rossini, whose vineyards produce grapes for Trader Joe’s popular “two-buck Chuck” wine, permanent crops can bring in as much as $2000 per acre-foot of water. How much of this harvest can continue once the cutbacks begin?


Video Profile: Al Rossini, Third Generation Grower

“Our company has spent over $3 million in water wells and development of irrigation systems to be able to farm our crops with the least amount of water possible.”

Al Rossini is a farmer with about 1,000 acres in Merced and Stanislaus Counties.

Video: Madison Pobis/Bill Lane Center for the American West

Most growers have already invested in more efficient methods of irrigation like drip lines and micro-sprinklers to increase yields. However, the PPIC notes that these methods can actually increase net water use as farmers intensify production on existing acreage.

Even in the West Turlock Subbasin, where overdraft isn’t yet critical, Scott Severson worries that small family growers will find it hard to resist the buyouts offered as corporate operations in critically stressed areas move to places where cutbacks may be more manageable. “Where is that point where small family farm or even you know, my kids or grandkids someday, it becomes to the point where they literally are offered enough money to get out.”

Central Valley farmland north of Sacramento

Central Valley farmland north of Sacramento. Bithead via Flickr


Could Farming Reductions Open an Opportunity for Environmental Conservation?

What to grow and where to grow it are the first questions. More follow: what to do with land you leave empty? Woolf Clark believes SGMA offers an opportunity to collaborate with the environmental community. As president of Water Wise, a consulting firm, she works with farmers to manage water projects and explain farmers’ positions to environmental experts. “SGMA has created this world that, like it or not, we’re all impacted by the regulations that are put forth,” she said.

The PPIC estimates that roughly 15 percent of the estimated 535,000 acres of land coming out of production could be used for habitat restoration. But there is hesitation about how much turning cropland into regions for species conservation can realistically help growers. Most of the land the state has acquired for this purpose was never farmed.

Erin Tennant, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s lands program, studies threatened and endangered species in desert areas that overlap with much of the Central Valley. Animals like the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, kit fox, and kangaroo rat thrive in dry upland habitats.

Top-priority areas usually border existing conservation easements, and even then, must have the right elements — from soil type to plant arrangements to food — for a species to return. “The easiest way to retire land is to connect to already conserved land,” said Tennant, “and hope that the species on the conserved land could simply move…”

Even if a parcel is perfectly positioned in a corridor with all the habitat boxes ticked, Tennant worries that economic returns will come too slowly for landowners losing the profits from farming. So they may be less likely to find conservation easements appealing. Also, the money farmers can earn is withheld until the state has evidence that target species are using it.

Environmentalists approached Al Rossini about the potential for tiger salamander habitat recovery on his land, but he wasn’t confident that the projects would succeed. Still, he thinks those partnerships can be productive in other ways. “The people that you don’t understand and you don’t quite get along with,” he said, “the best place for that person is next to you.”

For now, the process of converting active agricultural land for conservation is largely theoretical. “We’re purely in a mode of sit back and wait and see what happens,” Tennant said.


Video Profile: Scott Severson, Third Generation Grower

“We can all talk about what we think might happen, but nobody really knows for sure.”

Video: Madison Pobis/Bill Lane Center for the American West


Green Energy Could Bloom on Abandoned Farmland

What about wind and solar farms? Appealing in theory, but the PPIC report estimated such conversion, at best, would affect nine percent of the 535,000 dewatered acres. “There’ll be far more farm ground taken out in the next 20 years than the demand for solar,” said Jason Selvidge, a fifth generation grower with operations in the Rosedale-Rio Bravo and Semitropic water districts. Selvidge has consulted with both habitat-restoration groups and solar companies about potentially leasing land.

For the most part, he will adjust to new limitations by converting to higher value crops and dropping water-intensive, low-value crops like corn for dairy cattle. He anticipates that 15 to 20 percent of the current acreage in his operations could come out of production. But for many growers fully invested in permanent high-value crops, leaving orchards without water isn’t a viable option. “[If] you don’t have enough water and you lose those trees, you’re gonna be sideways with the bank in a hurry,” said Randy Fiorini.

Decreasing demand on groundwater is just one lever that can be used to respond to SGMA. Increasing the supply by refilling groundwater basins — the technical term is “recharging” — will play an important role in hitting the PPIC’s estimate of 535,000 fallowed acres.

Where to Find Additional Water Supplies? Banking Water Underground Could be a Start

The Rosedale-Rio Bravo water storage district, whose sandy soils are perfect for recharging water, holds water in underground banks and can have water districts or farmers “deposit” water in the water-bank accounts — or purchase credits for future water use — when prices are cheap, then store them until they need to pump from a well during a dry year.

The ability to lease land and trade water rights within local regions, and eventually between water districts, will enable farmers with permanent crops to be assured they will have the water they need to continue producing high-value, thirsty crops. Woolf Clark said systems like this are a good reason to avoid blanket solutions. Areas that can support recharge and groundwater storage shouldn’t necessarily adhere to strict water conservation practices.

Conservation, new renewable energy sites and water banking and trading are likely to expand around the Central Valley as cutbacks take hold.

Perhaps one of the most unsettling aspects of preparing for SGMA is trying to anticipate the unintended consequences. “One of the big problems is the potential for disease and pests,” Fiorini said. “If you’ve got an orchard [taken out of production] sitting next to an orchard that’s still in production, you’re making significant problems for the guy next to you who’s trying to keep going.” The law makes local agencies responsible for implementing the plans and managing groundwater in the decades to come, but it’s unclear who will deal with such issues.

Jezdimirovic of PPIC has noticed that time itself is an essential — and sparse — resource for small farmers planning ahead for SGMA. “Large farmers have practically dedicated staff that can participate in the SGMA process,” she said. Many immigrant farmers with small acreage in a single basin may not even be fully aware of the law until they are handed a mandate on groundwater pumping restriction.

The plans being submitted for critically overdrafted basins this month are just a baby step toward the decades-long process of implementing SGMA in California. “Time after time, and it’s been going on for a while but you see farms sold to the big corporations, the big farms, the investment groups,” said Jason Selvidge. “It’s just kind of one more straw on the camel’s back.” As small family growers look toward the future, they hope that groundwater sustainability doesn’t come at the cost of generational farming traditions.

“I live this business with a passion and I got four sons…and they’re involved in agriculture one way or the other,” said Rossini. “It’s a way of life and a heritage that you stay with.”

and the west logo

Edited by Felicity Barringer and Geoff McGhee.

This story was republished from ’…& the West,’ a blog by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.

Can a grand vision or incremental change solve the Colorado River's challenges?

With talks looming on a new operating agreement for the river, a debate has emerged over the best approach to address its challenges.


Some Colorado River water users in 2020 will begin taking voluntary reductions to protect the water elevation level at Lake Mead. Source: Bureau of Reclamation
Some Colorado River water users in 2020 will begin taking voluntary reductions to protect the water elevation level at Lake Mead. Source: Bureau of Reclamation

By Gary Pitzer

The Colorado River is arguably one of the hardest working rivers on the planet, supplying water to 40 million people and a large agricultural economy in the West. But it’s under duress from two decades of drought and decisions made about its management will have exceptional ramifications for the future, especially as impacts from climate change are felt.

The issues facing water users are many, complex and span the entirety of the 1,450-mile river and its tributaries. The Colorado is overallocated, meaning more water is committed to water users as a whole than is available in an average year. Adding more pressure, the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico want to develop their full allocations. American Indian tribes, meanwhile, are asserting their rights to more of the river’s waters.

Amid these challenges, and with critical negotiations looming for an agreement that will chart how the river is operated and managed possibly for decades, a debate is emerging: Should stakeholders pursue a visionary “grand bargain” to wrap their arms around the host of challenges facing the Colorado River? Or is an incremental approach – solving the puzzle piece by piece instead of the whole puzzle at once — the best path toward getting disparate stakeholders to reach a consensus?

The stakes are high. Parties with an interest in the river will renegotiate the 2007 Interim Guidelines for shortage sharing and river operations that expire in 2026. The landmark 2007 deal spelled out Lower Basin shortage guidelines and rules to store conserved water in Lake Mead and equalize storage in both Mead and Lake Powell. Those issues have become even more critical as a two-decade drought and a structural deficit continue to drop the level in Lake Mead.

The Colorado River Basin. Source: U.S. Geological Survey
The Colorado River Basin. Source: U.S. Geological Survey

The debate surfaced anew in September at the Water Education Foundation’s Colorado River Symposium in Santa Fe, N.M. Panelists representing major stakeholders across the basin repeatedly invoked the idea of an incremental vs. a visionary approach as key interests prepare for those guideline negotiations, expected to begin in late 2020.

David Palumbo, the Bureau of Reclamation’s deputy commissioner, challenged the notion of a dividing line between incrementalism and grand visionary, suggesting to symposium participants that the two can coexist and are not mutually exclusive.

“Incrementalism is not small,” he said. “It is visionary and … maybe … we can purge our vernacular from this idea of incrementalism, at least the connotation that it’s small, that it’s not visionary.”

In a region that has seen its share of big projects and prolonged drought, some have said the time is right to take unprecedented problem-solving steps such as reopening the terms of the Colorado River Compact, the landmark 1922 document that divided the river into two basins and apportioned its waters.

Obstacles and challenges

Since the Compact was signed in 1922 and then ratified by Congress in 1928, Colorado River water users have successfully navigated obstacles by a variety of means. Those include landmark deals for shortage sharing and voluntary use reductions to help protect Lake Mead’s water level and keep it from reaching dead pool – the point at which no water could pass Hoover Dam for downstream water users. Set to expire in 2026, the current operating guidelines for water deliveries and shortage sharing are designed to prevent disputes that could provoke conflict.

There is a sense among some that a big plan is needed for 2026 and beyond.

“We need to be more creative in our work and I think incrementalism should be thrown out of the dictionary and we should all become visionary,” Ted Kowalski, senior program officer with the Walton Family Foundation, said at the symposium. He formerly served as chief of the Interstate, Federal and Water Information Section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

Kowalski does not advocate reopening the Compact but believes creativity is needed in all aspects of the river’s operating agreements to support a vision that reconnects it with the Sea of Cortez, such as what occurred through a U.S.-Mexico agreement in 2014.  

Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman supports collaboration and cooperation between Basins within the confines of the Compact. Source: Water Education Foundation
Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman supports collaboration and cooperation between Basins within the confines of the Compact. Source: Water Education Foundation

Advocates of incrementalism say it makes sense to maintain the course of collaboration and cooperation, staying within the existing framework of the Law of the River – the all-encompassing term that describes the compacts, federal laws, court decisions and decrees, and contracts and regulatory guidelines that oversee the use and management of the river among the seven basin states and Mexico.

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman is no fan of reopening the Colorado River Compact to forge a grand bargain.

“I see all these challenges on the river, but I don’t see a clear or a better outcome for this Basin by assuming that all of these challenges could be easily addressed if we were simply to rip up our founding document, the Compact, and start over,” she said at the symposium.

Former Interior Secretary and Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt echoed that sentiment, saying at the symposium that it’s not the time to begin a big negotiation about the Compact prior to 2026.

“I’m not a Compact modifier because every time I read that I say, ‘Man, if you can’t find your way to a consensus past that document, you better go back to school, because there’s all kinds of possibilities out there of reconciling these differences rather than stacking them up and sending out our respective advocates to build anticipatory cases,” he said.

Big river, big vision

Much of the discussion about Colorado River water use involves semantics. Can the many agreements enacted through years be categorized as incremental progress or evidence of a grander vision? Or is that characterization even the right way to view all the actions that have built dams and aqueducts, solidified water sharing agreements and provided for environmental needs.  

Long-time policy participants say the scale and scope of what’s occurred in the past century has not been done piecemeal.

“The Colorado River Compact was not incremental,” Jim Lochhead, chief executive officer and manager of Denver Water, said at the symposium. “It was based on a huge idea of a major dam on the river and the All-American Canal. And it was premised on a lot of structural development in the Upper Basin.”

Bruce Babbitt, former secretary of the Interior and Arizona governor, said modifying the Colorado River Compact is not necessary for long-lasting solutions. Source: Water Education Foundation
Bruce Babbitt, former secretary of the Interior and Arizona governor, said modifying the Colorado River Compact is not necessary for long-lasting solutions. Source: Water Education Foundation

On the flip side, he said, there have been environmental actions — the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, Wilderness Act and the National Environmental Policy Act — that created a legacy of stewardship and balance on the river.

Babbitt said stakeholders can be locked into a narrow focus on the river and their relationship with it.

“All of us have tended for these vision discussions to be compartmentalized into sort of Lower Basin/Upper Basin, as if there’s kind of a virtual curtain across the basin line in which our best efforts at vision tend to look into our basin,” he said.

Major players “need to be out there in this basin, working the vision not via a negotiation, but by some real outreach to talk about the future,” Babbitt said.

“I don’t think we’re even close to being done with innovation and flexibility.”
Brenda Burman, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner

One possible element of a bold, visionary approach that has been talked about would remove the Lower Basin’s legal right to “call” for water during dry times that was established by the Compact. Under the Compact, the Upper Basin cannot cause flow of the river at Lee Ferry to be depleted below an aggregate of 75 million acre-feet for any period of 10 consecutive years.

According to a November white paper called “The Risk of Curtailment Under the Colorado River Compact,” a debate has swirled since the drafting of the Compact as to whether this imposes a delivery obligation on the Upper Basin states, or merely a requirement that those states not deplete the flows of the river beyond that amount. That debate has intensified as projections of a drying basin have raised concerns that the water won’t be there to meet the obligation to the Lower Basin.

“A delivery obligation (as opposed to a non-depletion obligation) would mean the Upper Basin must absorb any climate change reductions to the flows in the Colorado River … even if that requires curtailing existing uses,” says the paper, written by Anne Castle, senior fellow with the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the University of Colorado Law School, and John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program.

Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis advocates early engagement of tribes in the decision-making process. Source: Water Education Foundation
Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis advocates early engagement of tribes in the decision-making process. Source: Water Education Foundation

Meanwhile, American Indian tribes in the Colorado River Basin want access to water allocations that are rightfully theirs, but which have not been developed. Combined, tribes have rights to more water than some states in the Basin. That means inclusion, collaboration and cooperation are crucial.

“What I’m advocating for is that the Basin states engage with tribes early on and incorporate them into the decision-making process,” Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community said at the symposium. “Especially if tribes can bring something meaningful and innovative to the table to help address the difficult challenges we all face in managing our water resources.”

Looking ahead to 2026

Because the task of creating a revised framework for the operation of the Colorado River in 2026 is so monumental, leadership from key players is critical, said Michael Cohen, senior researcher with the Pacific Institute, a water think tank that promotes sustainable water policy.

Through the years, Colorado River water users have deployed several tools to hone water use accounting and conducted mutually beneficial interstate sharing agreements, actions that were previously unheard of and far from incremental in nature, he said.

“We need to be more creative in our work and I think incrementalism should be thrown out of the dictionary and we should all become visionary.”
Ted Kowalski, Walton Family Foundation

“There’s been significant changes in the river to date, and we like to call them incremental, and that’s how they’re framed,” Cohen said. “But what we’ve seen is dramatic change.”

The 2007 Interim Guidelines to better coordinate the operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead are an example of the dramatic change that’s enabled users to prevent Lake Mead dropping to levels that crash the system. Forged from long-standing water accounting issues between the Upper and the Lower Basins, including the obligation to meet water deliveries to Mexico, the imbroglio resulted in then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton essentially strong-arming the Basin states to get together and resolve their disputes.

Former Reclamation Commissioner Robert Johnson said at the symposium that Norton warned stakeholders that if they didn’t solve the problem, she would.

“She was basically throwing down the gauntlet, an approach that Bruce Babbitt took frequently when he was secretary,” Johnson said. “That was the start of the 2007 guidelines, and true to form, the Basin states came through. They went far beyond just defining on an interim period. I’m sure that the disagreement over the legal aspects of the delivery to Mexico is still there, but the interim guidelines solved that problem for 20 years by putting operational procedures in place.”

Chuck Cullom, manager of Colorado River programs with the Central Arizona Project, said programs such as the 2007 guidelines, compensated conservation programs and voluntary use reductions demonstrate what can happen within the existing framework of laws and regulations to achieve resiliency.

There is a “false choice” between visionary focus and incrementalism, he said, adding that he describes it as incremental transformation. That transformation is evident in interstate and intrastate agreements in which people invested their time and resources to take concepts from development to implementation.

“It is not possible to understand all of the intended and unintended costs of an incremental transformation without testing it first,” Cullom said. “Metropolitan Water District took that concept in the early 90s to demonstrate that water could be saved in Lake Mead by investing with Palo Verde Irrigation District. There was no clear accounting framework to make all that happen, but they created a pathway for intentionally created surplus to be something that we’re all using on the river today.”

Incremental progress

The challenges facing Colorado River water users are varied and complicated. The decline of water levels in Lake Mead spurred Basin states to sign on to a Drought Contingency Plan in May after more than five years of discussion. Yet Imperial Irrigation District, the river’s largest water rights holder, walked away from the agreement because it failed to address air and water quality issues of a shrinking Salton Sea.

Robert Johnson served as commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation between 2006 and 2009. Source: Water Education Foundation.
Robert Johnson served as commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation between 2006 and 2009. Source: Water Education Foundation.

If the past is a reliable indicator, the answers going forward will build on the legacy of cooperation and innovation while steering away from precedent-setting action.

“There’s lots of increments that have gotten us to where we are today,” Palumbo with Reclamation said. “And those are visionary actions that were taken. They were visionary at the time and as we reflect on them, they’re visionary today.”

Water providers are “too humble” in describing the collective efforts taken to brace against the conditions caused by drought and an overallocated system, Cullom said. “We talk about increments,” he said. “We need to say these are visionary. The system conservation project (in which agricultural users were compensated for conserving water) is a visionary thing instead of an incremental approach to protecting Lake Mead.”

Reclamation Commissioner Burman said she believes there is much left to be done to solidify river management between the Upper and Lower basins.

“I don’t think we’re even close to being done with innovation and flexibility,” she said. “We have tools we haven’t invented yet and we have so much still to learn and do and cooperate and collaborate on this river.”

Does that mean renegotiating the Colorado River Compact is off the table?

“If you merely asked should we reopen the Compact, perhaps everyone can imagine that outcome would be better for their interest group, but I really question how could it be simultaneously better for all of our interest groups?” Burman said. “Looking for a panacea in that Compact renegotiation is just the wrong investment of time and talent.”

“I suggest that the best way to proceed is to have an articulated visionary goal with specific incremental steps to get there.”
Anne Castle, Getches-Wilkinson Center, University of Colorado Law School

Castle with the University of Colorado Law School said the time is now for communities to bolster themselves against a future supply shock through varying responses, including clarifying shortage sharing rules and setting up voluntary, compensated water conservation programs.

“We think that any of those discussions need to be based on an objective risk assessment that could lead to either incremental or more radical approaches to Colorado River management,” she said in an email, referring to herself and Fleck, her research paper coauthor.

Castle, who served as assistant secretary for water and science at the Department of the Interior in the Obama administration, believes there is a false dichotomy between the incremental and visionary characterization of river management.

“I suggest that the best way to proceed is to have an articulated visionary goal with specific incremental steps to get there,” she wrote. “The vision is needed to guide choices along the way, but it’s not either desirable or realistic to suddenly make big changes in operations on the river, precipitously undermining investments and reliance on the previous status quo.”

Scientists warn that a drying climate means Colorado River flows could diminish substantially in the next 50 years. The prospect of steep declines in flows adds a sense of urgency because of the potential impacts to the environment, cities and agriculture.

Looking downstream at the Colorado River from Glen Canyon Dam tailrace. Source: Bureau of Reclamation
Looking downstream at the Colorado River from Glen Canyon Dam tailrace. Source: Bureau of Reclamation

“This river can turn on a dime, and we need to be prepared for it as a Basin,” said Lochhead, with Denver Water. “If we take too incremental of an approach, we could be caught short. We need to be aspirational in terms of what we think we can achieve and reach for that and get as far as we can in this next set of negotiations.”

Kowalski, with the Walton Family Foundation, urged stakeholders to be innovative and not be afraid to act.

“We need to remember the river in all of this,” he said. “It’s critically important to take care of the river as well as your service requirements. I want to challenge you … as we’re looking at the renegotiations, how do we do that and not just have it be for the benefit of the system but for the benefit of the river that sustains us all?”

Reach Gary Pitzer: gpitzer@watereducation.org, Twitter: @gary_wef
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 and Twitter.

Further reading

  • 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
  • Western Water: New Leader Takes Over as the Upper Colorado River Commission Grapples With Less Water and a Drier Climate, Aug. 10, 2018
  • Aquapedia: Colorado River

This story was originally published by Western Western on December 13, 2019 and is republished here with permission.

Northwest Colorado ranchers grapple with state requirements to measure, record water use

Irrigated pasture at Mantle Ranch along the Yampa River. Ranchers in the Yampa River basin are grappling with the enforcement of state regulations that require them to monitor their water use. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Irrigated pasture at Mantle Ranch along the Yampa River. Ranchers in the Yampa River basin are grappling with the enforcement of state regulations that require them to monitor their water use. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

By Lauren Blair

Craig, Colorado: Irrigators in Northwest Colorado are facing a sea change in how they use their water, and many ranchers are greeting such a shift with reluctance and suspicion.

The final frontier of the free river, irrigators in the Yampa River region have long used what they need when the water is flowing with little regulatory oversight. Water commissioners have been encouraging better record keeping in recent years, but a first-ever call on the system during the 2018 drought led state officials to begin enforcing requirements to measure and record water use.

State law requires all irrigators to maintain measuring devices on their canals and ditches. Kevin Rein, state engineer and director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, said such devices are widely used in other river basins throughout Colorado, where bigger populations and more demand for water have already led to stricter regulation of the resource. The Yampa River Basin is the last region to get into compliance, Rein said.

“The basin went under call for the first time in 2018,” he said. “I would not call that a driving force; I would call that affirmation of why it’s been important … to do this for so many years.”

Nearly 500 Yampa River Basin water users were ordered this fall to install a device by Nov. 30, although irrigators don’t need to comply until spring 2020, when irrigation water begins to run. Those without devices won’t be allowed to use their water and could be fined $500 daily if they do.

The new enforcement is being met begrudgingly by irrigators, many of whom are third- and fourth-generation ranchers and whose families have never measured and recorded water use in more than 100 years.

“Ever since the 1880s, there has never been a call on the Yampa River,” said Craig cattle rancher Dave Seely. “If there wasn’t any water, (ranchers) accepted the fact, so it’s unusual that suddenly we have all this coming down on us now.”

A call on the river occurs when someone with senior water rights isn’t receiving their full allotted amount, and the state places a “call” for users with junior rights to send more water downstream or stop diverting altogether. The move triggers administration of the river by state water commissioners, who make site visits to monitor how much water is flowing through each ditch.

A hayfield in the Elk River Basin, a tributary of the Yampa River. A first-ever call on the Yampa River in 2018 is leading state officials to enforce regulations about measuring water. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
A hayfield in the Elk River Basin, a tributary of the Yampa River. A first-ever call on the Yampa River in 2018 is leading state officials to enforce regulations about measuring water. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Government oversight

An air of the Wild West still lingers in this sparsely populated corner of the state, where many ranchers would rather accept a shortfall than invite the government into their affairs by making a call for their water.

“They just took it on the chin and dry farmed,” Seely said.

State officials have seen this resistance to change before and accept it as a matter of course.

“It’s a rough, rocky road at first, but after a while, I think a lot of people will be glad they have a device there,” said Erin Light, Division 6 engineer with the Division of Water Resources.

Light and her colleagues reminded irrigators at the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable meeting in November that keeping accurate records helps protect their water right, since rights are considered abandoned if not used, although the state rarely enforces this.

“Your water right has a value, a value to water your livestock or your crops, but it also has a dollar value for your heirs,” Scott Hummer, a Division 6 water commissioner, said at the meeting. “The only way they have to sell the water or get a price for the water is if the engineers know how much water is consumed by your crop.”

But many irrigators feel mistrustful of state government having more oversight of their water and are worried that outside entities may have designs on the region’s largely unallocated resource. Climate change has led to hotter, drier conditions over the past 20 years, and growing populations have increased the demand for water — both in the Colorado River Basin and along the Front Range.

“It just raises the question of what’s the drive behind it,” said third-generation Yampa cattle rancher Philip Rossi. “It’s hard to have an opinion when you don’t fully understand the long game.

“They’re trying to put a monetary value on water,” Rossi said. “Are they trying to get a better understanding of exactly how much water there is … so they can put a value on it if they want to sell it? Are we helping ourselves, are we hurting ourselves, are we helping them? There’s so many of us that are not interested in selling our water.”

Other ranchers are concerned that increased oversight could mean new restrictions even when water is plentiful. Many are in the habit of using as much water on their fields as they need, regardless of their decreed right.

“When the water’s high, we want to get it across our fields quickly, so we take more water than (our allotted right),” said John Raftopoulos, a third-generation cattle rancher in western Moffat County. “The fear is that, even with high water, they’re going to cut you down to the maximum you can take … that they’ll regulate you to the strict letter of the law.”

An irrigated hayfield along the lower Yampa River. If irrigators don’t install measuring devices on their diversions by the spring irrigation season, they could be fined $500 a day. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
An irrigated hayfield along the lower Yampa River. If irrigators don’t install measuring devices on their diversions by the spring irrigation season, they could be fined $500 a day. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

No waste

Rein said users could continue using more than their allotted right when the river is a free river — in other words, not under a call — as long as they are not wasting it.

“There’s a statutory term called waste; you can’t divert more water than you can beneficially use,” Rein said.

He also said keeping accurate records would only protect the water user as demand increases statewide and across the West.

Measuring devices cost from $800 to $1,500, so installation can get expensive for the many ranchers who have more than one ditch. Rossi has three more devices to install. Raftopoulos has about five others, for a total of 15 on ditches irrigating roughly 2,500 acres of grass hay and alfalfa.

Light estimated 100 irrigation structures had requested extensions — which she is granting in many cases until either July 31 or Oct. 31 — but she won’t have an accurate count on how many ditches are in compliance with the orders until May or June.

“It’s something that was going to happen sooner or later because of water shortages. That’s the system, that’s the law,” Raftopoulos said. “It’s a burden right now, it’s expensive and it’s going to put more government in our ditches. There’s going to be more people watching what comes out.”

Aspen Journalism collaborates with the Steamboat Pilot and Today, the Craig Press and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. This story appeared in the Dec. 27 edition of the Steamboat Pilot and Today.

Anger and disappointment as Yampa River ranchers ordered to measure water

Anger and disappointment as Yampa River ranchers ordered to measure water
The Yampa River, Aug. 19, 2019. Credit: CU News Corps

By Jerd Smith

Steamboat Springs, Colorado: Hundreds of ranchers in the scenic Yampa Valley have ignored a state request to begin measuring the water they use, putting them on a collision course with regulators that will land many of them in court this summer if they don’t relent.

Division Engineer Erin Light, the top water chief in the region, said roughly 70 percent of irrigators in this remote part of northwestern Colorado have not installed measuring devices, meaning that millions of gallons of water are being consumed without oversight, something that is routine on other river systems.

“I sent out a notice in March saying, ‘I’m going to issue an order if you don’t install them now,’” she said. “It was a friendly gesture.”

No one responded.

“We have not been impressed with the response,” Light said.

On Sept. 30, she issued a formal order to 550 ranchers, which, if ignored, could result in fines of up to $500 a day and court action.

The deadline to respond this time was Nov. 30. Few did so, Light said.

Under the terms of the order, ranchers who don’t install measuring flumes or other devices to track diversion rates from the river into their irrigation systems will be cut off if they try to irrigate in the spring. They will also likely face prosecution, Light said.

“We’ll be working with the attorney general’s office to begin court proceedings,” she said.

The issue reflects an end to a gentleman’s agreement that dates back to the late 1800s, a consensus that said these tough, resourceful ranchers could manage their own water, that the state did not need to issue a direct order, and that the hay meadows, and cattle and sheep operations, could continue diverting their irrigation water as they always had.

And that’s largely because of the Yampa River’s amazing flows. Unlike almost any other place in Colorado and the West, water here was once so abundant that there was almost always plenty to go around. Measurements weren’t needed, and the state rarely had to step in to resolve disputes among water users, allowing Mother Nature free rein.

But chronic drought, climate change, and population demands have begun eroding the Yampa’s once bountiful supplies. For the first time ever, in the desperately dry summer of 2018, Light was forced to step in, cutting off some irrigators because more senior water rights holders weren’t getting their legal share of water. That sent a shock across the valley but triggered little action.

These days the Yampa River has the distinction of being the only one of Colorado’s eight major river basins that remains largely unmeasured and unregulated.

But Light said the issue has become too critical, and water too scarce, to allow that to continue.

Mike Camblin, whose family has been ranching here for more than 100 years, said he will comply with the order. But he and many of his colleagues feel the state has been too heavy handed in its approach.

“What I don’t like about the order is that it’s forcing people to install those or they are going to get fined $500 a day to run water even if it’s a free river,” he said. The term free river means that there is enough water in the stream to satisfy all water rights, and under normal circumstances people can divert as much of the excess as they want.

Not anymore.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Dave Seely, a long-time rancher who has 11 different irrigation ditches that span Moffat and Routt counties.

Many of his ditches already have measuring devices, but the order means he will have to install at least five new ones at a total cost of more than $10,000, he estimates.

Light is aware of the anger in the ranching community and said she understands the financial burden the order will place on many irrigators.

“I’ve been trying to encourage my water users to understand that there is a value to them in measuring how much water they divert. Water is often a rancher’s most valuable asset. But many don’t want to hear that,” she said.

Seely plans to comply with the order so that he can divert in the spring. But there is a lingering resentment and sense of loss for an era that is ending.

“Historically there was never a call on the river, but now there is,” Seely said. “Now we’re under the jurisdiction of the state engineer forever.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that it was illegal to divert water at this time. It will be illegal in the Spring if measuring devices have not been installed.

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.