Colorado Aquifer Management Conference day one recap: Data collection vital for administration statewide

November 30, 2012

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From The Greeley Tribune (Eric Brown):

Progress has been made, but a better understanding of the region’s aquifer remains critical for the future in the South Platte River Basin — parts of which have been labeled by the federal government as “highly likely” to see a “potential water­supply crises by 2025.”

That was the general consensus among groundwater experts who spoke during the first day of the Colorado Aquifer Management Conference on Wednesday.

Much of the discussions during the two­ day meeting will focus on the relationship between groundwater and surface flows in streams and rivers — particularly how well­pumping, usually done for agricultural uses, affects surface flows needed downstream by senior water rights owners.

The experts agreed that a better scientific understanding of that relationship could lead to better management practices and help “maximize beneficial use” of the region’s water.
Many of the presentations focused on new methods of measuring the timing of how well­pumping affects surface flows, and to what extent. Experts said they’re gaining a better understanding of the aquifer from those new methods and models, but added that the complex mathematical equations and other techniques can’t take into account the geohydrology, surrounding vegetation, proximity to the river, weather extremes and other factors that make most wells different from one another.

Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs, the keynote speaker of the day, was among those who emphasized the need for more analysis and data. He said it’s needed to make sure the state manages its water as well as possible.

Some groundwater pumpers, including a number of Weld County farmers, favor making changes to how the state manages its aquifers. They believe the state’s requirements for augmentation plans — an approved plan to make up for surface­flow depletions caused by groundwater pumping — are too stringent.

Some farmers can’t afford enough augmentation water to get their wells pumping again.

Thousands of wells are now curtailed or shut down, and some believe the build­up of groundwater in the basin — 10 million acre­feet of water, according to some estimates, which is eight times more water than is in all of the South Platte Basin’s surface reservoirs — could be put to a more beneficial use.

Those farmers were big supporters of a South Platte Basin groundwater study that was approved during last spring’s legislative session and is under way. The Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University is doing the study, which is expected to be complete by the end of 2013.

Hobbs and others stressed that data is also needed to prevent any over­pumping of groundwater in the state.

On more than one occasion, experts brought up the fact that about 40,000 acres of farmground in the San Luis Valley have been taken out of production in efforts to replenish the aquifer there that’s been depleted from over­pumping.

More groundwater coverage here and here.


Drought news: South Platte River Basin snowpack drops (42% of avg) below minimum of record/2002 levels #CODrought

November 30, 2012

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Click on the thumbnail for the current Basin/High Low ogive from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The snowpack is eerily similar to the winter of 2002-2003 on the Front Range. A monster snowstorm around St. Patrick’s Day in March of 2003 saved the day (and water year).

From the National Weather Service — Pueblo:

With just over a month left in the year, 2012 looks to go down as one the warmest and driest years on record across south central and southeast Colorado. Unless there is a major change in the weather pattern over the next month, 2012 will likely be the warmest year on record in Colorado Springs, and possibly the warmest year on record in Pueblo and Alamosa. In addition, 2012 will likely be the second driest year on record in Pueblo; the third or fourth driest year on record in Colorado Springs; and the twelfth driest year on record in Alamosa.

From the Grand Junction Free Press (Hannah Holm):

The situation varies around the state, but doesn’t look good anywhere. Snowpacks in the Colorado, Gunnison, Yampa/White, Upper Rio Grande and San Miguel/Dolores/Animas/San Juan River Basins are all registering between 40-47% of average, while the Arkansas is at a mere 30%. The South and North Platte River Basins are in the best shape, at 50% and 52% of average.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll have another drought year, since Colorado tends to get a large share of its snowfall in a few big storms later in the season. It bears watching, though, since statewide reservoir levels are already low: 66% of average for this time of year, and at 37% of their total capacity. Graphs shown by State Climatologist Nolan Doesken at Colorado Mesa University on Nov. 26 showed levels at Lake Dillon, Blue Mesa Lake and Lake Powell dropping between April and June of this year, a time when they normally refill.

Doesken pointed out that severe and widespread droughts are regular occurrences in Colorado, and the last one we have long-term data for (2002) was pretty short compared to droughts in the 1930s and 1950s. It’s worth noting that there were a lot fewer people in Colorado during those droughts.

Currently, the US Drought Monitor is reporting that over 90% of the state is in at least a “severe” drought, with a wide swath in the northwest corner (including Grand Junction) in “extreme” drought, and a large section of the southeastern part of the state in “exceptional” drought, the worst category. The US Drought Monitor also forecasts that drought conditions will persist or intensify in Colorado and all surrounding states over the next three months…

It’s entirely possible that we’ll get a big storm or two that will make skiers happy (even below 10,000 feet), and water users across the state will breathe sighs of relief. But the historical record (never mind climate change) tells us we won’t dodge the bullet forever. At some point we’ll face a severe multi-year drought again, so it’s not too soon to start thinking about how to adapt.


Fountain Creek: Stormwater needs through Colorado Springs and El Paso County could total $1 billion

November 30, 2012

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From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Stormwater needs in the Colorado Springs area could total more than $1 billion, while less than $10 million annually in funding is available from year to year. “This is not going to get done overnight,” said Springs Councilwoman Brandy Williams. “It took 30 years to get here, and I hope it won’t take 30 years to get out.”

An El Paso County stormwater task force Thursday reviewed a partial list of about 500 capital projects in the Fountain Creek watershed with a price tag of more than $760 million, along with annual estimated maintenance needs of $7.5 million annually. The list includes incorporated areas and military bases, and does not factor in a possible $180 million more in projects in unincorporated El Paso County. It will be finalized at the task force’s final meeting in January. Colorado Springs has the greatest need, with $684 million in capital projects and $4.9 million in annual maintenance, while Fountain needs $46 million and the Air Force Academy $24.5 million in construction.

“We will have identified $1 billion in needs and have only about $10 million budgeted,” said Tim Mitros, stormwater engineer for Colorado Springs. “What we’re going to have to look at in phase II is where the money is coming from.” Some concrete structures are more than 50 years old and reaching the end of their usefulness. New methods of controlling flooding are being explored, he added.

The meeting also addressed the need for Colorado Springs to control its stormwater in order to turn on the $986 million Southern Delivery System. When SDS was approved by the Bureau of Reclamation and Pueblo County commissioners, a stormwater enterprise was in place. Stormwater funding is just one part of the requirement, said Mark Pifher, a Colorado Springs Utilities executive. The other major piece is a drainage criteria manual, which should be completed by the city of Colorado Springs next spring. “Our hope is that the drainage criteria manual will allow no increase in flows from new development, which would assure that conditions of the permit are met,” Pifher said.

More coverage of Colorado Springs’ rehab work required by the Waldo Canyon Fire, from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

Colorado Springs Utilities will spend about $12 million reinforcing pipelines below Rampart Reservoir, already starting to wash out because of the Waldo Canyon Fire last summer. “Flood flows out of the area are greater than they were before the fire,” said Mark Shea, watershed planning supervisor for Colorado Springs Utilities. He made his comments at a stormwater task force meeting Thursday.

The severity of flooding is 4 to 10 times worse, even for small storms and swells dry creeks to the point where they overflow their banks. Roads and bridges can be washed out as additional sediment clogs drainages.

A back­up water supply main runs from Rampart Reservoir, north of the city, where 80 percent of Colorado Springs water is stored. While the reservoir itself will need some rehabilitation, the supply line is of paramount importance, Shea said. Another $25 million to $50 million will have to be spent to protect other parts of Colorado Springs where mud flows are likely in the wake of the fire.

Ultimately, the sediment would find its way into Monument and Fountain creeks, creating problems for Colorado Springs at its wastewater treatment plant, landowners on Fountain Creek and Pueblo County. The ash from the fire already has caused water quality problems for downstream water users.

The fire started June 23 and burned more than 18,000 acres, destroyed 350 homes and took two lives before it burned out in July. About 10,600 acres suffered moderate to high damage. Threequarters of the land is in the National Forest, but the impacts of flooding will be felt by area property owners.

Based on the experience of the Hayman Fire in 2002, it could be years before the worst effects of the fire show up. So far, mulch of straw and wood chips has been spread on the most damaged hillsides to try to stem erosion.

More Fountain Creek Watershed coverage here and here.


Senate should pass hydropower improvements — U.S. Representatives Diana DeGette and Cathy McMorris Rodgers

November 29, 2012

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From Politico.com:

As Congress faces tough questions about our fiscal future, we also have a unique opportunity to advance bipartisan energy policy that will create jobs. Putting Americans to work by expanding the nation’s access to clean, affordable hydropower is a solution on which the House of Representatives already found consensus. Indeed, when we passed the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act earlier this year, we acted unanimously — the only example of unanimity on an energy issue in this Congress. That is why we urge the Senate to take up and pass this hydropower legislation before the end of the year…

The Department of Energy reports that more than 12 gigawatts of capacity could be installed at our nation’s existing non-powered dams. That’s the equivalent of 12 nuclear power plants. In fact, only 3 percent of the country’s 80,000 dams currently have generation facilities. Many developers are also exploring smaller applications, including construction in engineered irrigation conduits.

The potential of hydropower to create jobs is also enormous. A 2010 study conducted by the National Hydropower Association revealed that by utilizing currently untapped resources, the U.S. could add approximately 60,000 megawatts of new hydropower by 2025, creating up to 700,000 jobs in the process. It is estimated that for every megawatt of new small hydropower installed at existing dams without hydropower, 5.3 jobs are created (including direct, indirect and induced jobs). With jobs still scarce for too many Americans, we should be looking at every opportunity to put Americans back to work.

More hydroelectric coverage here and here.


Denver Water/USFS ‘From Forests to Faucets’ partnership update

November 29, 2012

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Here’s a guest column, written by Jim Lochhead and Dan Jirón, that’s running in The Denver Post. Here’s an excerpt:

We can’t prevent fire from occurring, but healthy forests can reduce the threat of catastrophic fire, like we experienced this year. Denver Water and the U.S. Forest Service have for decades worked side-by-side to care for the watersheds that provide water to Colorado citizens and Denver Water’s customers. Two years ago we forged a partnership — called “From Forests to Faucets” — to work in high-priority watersheds to accelerate forest health treatments that promote healthier, more resilient forests, reduce wildfire risks, restore burned areas and lessen erosion into reservoirs.

Last week, Denver Water and the U.S. Forest Service signed the third annual commitment of funds in support of this partnership. Together, we are focused on treating and restoring 38,000 acres of National Forest System lands in five priority watersheds including the Upper South Platte, South Platte headwaters, Colorado River headwaters, St. Vrain and Blue River. Since the From Forests to Faucets partnership began in 2010, we are currently treating nearly 17,000 acres.

More restoration/reclamation coverage here.


Drought news: So far 2012 is the second dryest year on record, statewide snowpack = 39% of avg #CODrought

November 29, 2012

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Click on the thumbnail for the current Statewide Basin High/Low ogive. The NRCS statewide map that I usually show is out of sync with the graph. They are working on it, according to Mage Hultstrand. She told me via email:

The High Low graph is using the “old” 1971-2000 averages and includes all the SNOTEL sites in the basin (with averages).

The statewide update map has already been switched over to the “new” 1981-2010 normals. We have not yet completed the calculations of these new normals for all of our sites; as a result this map does not include all the sites across the state or in the South Platte basin yet. That’s why I showed the high low graph instead of the map at the [Water Availability Task Force] meeting. For right now it is the more accurate representation of conditions across the state.

We plan to have all the new calculations done by January 1 and then the two products will both be updated with the new averages and should match.

Here’s the recap of the November 20, 2012 Water Availability Task Force Meeting from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

With ten consecutive months of below average precipitation, the 2012 water year, which ended on September 30th, saw just 75% of normal precipitation. November has continued on a below average trend; although a storm around Veteran’s day brought beneficial moisture to the mountains, slightly boosting statewide precipitation from 54% on November 1st to 58% as of the 19th. At this early stage in the snow accumulation seasons, snowpack is at 45% of average. Despite a cooler October, November temperatures are above seasonal averages. Currently, this calendar year ranks as the 2nd warmest on record (1895-2012) with a statewide average temperature of 51.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

 As of the November 20, 2012 US Drought Monitor, 100% of Colorado is experiencing some level of drought classification. D2 (severe) and D3 (extreme) cover nearly 79% of the state, while 13% of the state is experiencing exceptional drought (D4), isolated to the eastern plains. This is a slight decrease in D4 classification since the start of the water year on October 1, 2012.

 Many municipalities that had implemented both voluntary and mandatory watering restrictions earlier in the year will keep these in place throughout the winter. Through the irrigation season Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU) saw consumption increase to the highest levels since 2002; consequently reservoir levels are the lowest since 2002. Other communities are closely watching the situation and have some concern should the drought conditions persist for another year.

 Statewide reservoir storage is at 66% of average and 37% of capacity. The highest storage levels are in the Yampa/ White River Basin, at 96% of average while the lowest storage in the state is the Rio Grande River basin at 47% of average. All other basins range from 61% to 73% of average and 17% to 52% of total capacity.

 Many basins that were able to rebound following the 2002 drought are reporting reservoir levels that have not been seen in nearly a decade; while others that were not able to fully rebound to normal levels post the 2002drought continue to report below average reservoir levels.

 Surface Water Supply Index values have improved in some areas (Huerfano, Cache La Poudre & Big Thompson) and deteriorated in others. The central portions of the state as well as the southwestern corner have seen the largest decline. This is largely due to decreased stream flows and decreased storage levels. During this time of the year the SWSI is calculated using observed, rather than forecasted, stream flow volumes.

 For the first time in nine years ENSO-neutral conditions are likely to dominate through the winter months. Without El Nino or La Nina influencing weather patterns, it is difficult to determine when the current drought regime will be broken in Colorado. The latest long term experimental forecast, issued November 19th, shows below-normal chances of moisture from January to March throughout much of Colorado. This is based largely on other factors such as a cold north Pacific (PDO) and a warm North Atlantic (AMO).

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Colorado snowpack through November is only 43 percent of normal, raising concerns that a statewide drought may be entering its second year.

The statewide water availability task force, meeting last week in Denver, pointed to several indicators that drought is continuing. The most extreme drought is in the Lower Arkansas Valley — Crowley, Otero, Kiowa, Bent, Las Animas and Prowers counties — where the drought could be entering its third year. Despite a widespread storm on Veterans Day, snowpack is at 43 percent of normal statewide. The Arkansas River basin is in the worst shape at 26 percent, while the Colorado River basin, which supplies supplemental water to this basin, is at 44 percent.

The Rio Grande basin snowpack is at 43 percent.

Early snow levels are not a good indicator of water availability for 2013, since most of the snow in Colorado falls in March and April. Coupled with last year’s subpar snowpack, however, a dry winter could spell trouble.

Statewide reservoir storage is at two­thirds of average and just 37 percent of capacity. were able to rebound following the 2002 drought are reporting reservoir levels that have not been seen in nearly a decade,” said Taryn Finnessey, of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and co­chair of the task force.

Some cities are extending outdoor water restrictions into winter months.

Pueblo did not put restrictions in place, but was forced to draw down water held in storage to meet increased demand.

The task force also noted that temperatures in November were again above normal, as 2012 has been the second warmest year on record. The warmest was 1934.

Long­term forecasts call for drier than normal conditions through March.

From the Vail Daily (Lauren Glendenning):

In recent memory, the 2007-08 season started off dry and ended up wet. Last season — one of the worst snow years on record — started out snowy. You can never tell what December and the rest of the season will bring based on November weather, but that doesn’t help local hotels waiting for December bookings to fill up.

The sunny skies are unsettling, said Meteorologist Joel Gratz, who runs the powder forecasting site www.opensnow.com.

Gratz points out that weather, or storm tracks, often gets stuck in a pattern. Over the last decade or so, he said those patterns have tended to persist for 2 to 4 weeks and then they change. Last season, however, the pattern never really flipped, Gratz said.

“That was the first time I had seen that in a long, long time,” he said. “We were on the wrong side of the storm track and nothing really shifted, and the last few weeks we’ve been on the wrong side of the storm track and nothing has really shifted. … It’s unsettling to see this now. I don’t know if it’s going to change or not. I have no clue.”[...]

Sites like www.accuweather.com predict weather a month in advance. That site shows the Vail area turning to a colder, snowier pattern around mid-December, but Gratz said you just can’t scientifically predict weather that far in advance.

He does see a storm heading toward Colorado around Monday, but he only expects 2-4 inches out of that storm, if that.

It’s still a bit too early to pin down the exact timing or amounts, but the models are somewhat consistent with this storm hitting Colorado, so I’ll jump on the band wagon,” Gratz wrote in his Tuesday forecast. “At this point I wouldn’t expect much more than a 2-4 inch event, but maybe if we get lucky there could be talk of six inches.”

Gratz has looked at some historical data over the last 30 years and said there have been maybe 2 to 4 seasons that had an equally slow start like this season. Half of those seasons turned out about average, and half turned out below average, he said.


Frederick: Water rates to rise

November 29, 2012

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From the Longmont Times-Call (Scott Rochat):

The town’s board voted Tuesday to raise household trash collection rates by a dollar (to $10.65 a month) and overall water rates by 20 percent. The trash charge passed unanimously; the water increase passed 4-1 with Trustee Rafer Burnham against and Trustee Jim Wollack absent. Burnham said he knew rates needed to go up, but that he wanted to see a discount for those who conserved water, and not just higher rates for heavier users…

Frederick hasn’t raised its water rates since 2005. Town manager Matt LeCerf said the town needed to catch up on accumulating expenses and to start saving toward its share of the Northern Integrated Supply Project, a project to bring 40,000 acre-feet of water to 15 partners in the northern Front Range, including Dacono, Firestone and Frederick. The town plans to pay $6.2 million toward NISP design and engineering.

Without the increase, LeCerf said, the water utility fund will be in the hole by 2017. “We’re getting behind the ball, so to speak,” he said.

More infrastructure coverage here.


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