Transmountain Diversions connect us all — Water Quality and Quantity Blog

September 30, 2014
Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer's office

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

Here’s a report about last week’s Colorado Foundation for Water Education transbasin diversion tour from the Water Quality and Quantity Blog. Here’s an excerpt:

Because QQ works to address environmental (and resulting economic) impacts from transmountain diversions, the best part of the tour for me was gaining a better appreciation for how interconnected the State is through transmountain diversions.

The Arkansas Valley is the recipient of water that is diverted through complex tunnel systems, or simple diversion ditches, from the western side of the Continental Divide to water population centers on the Front Range. The tour focused primarily on the benefits that historic transmountain diversions (TMDs) have provided to the Eastern Slope. Chaffee County Commissioner Dennis Giese even thanked the West Slope for the water that makes their recreation and ranching economies thrive (a touching gesture that does not happen enough in dialogue across the divide).

We saw the first-ever TMD, the Ewing Ditch, and walked along the ¾ mile ditch from the diversion point to the point it crosses the Continental Divide. We saw TMDs of a much larger scale too, watching water blast from the side of a mountain, bringing water from Homestake Reservoir in the Eagle River basin through a 5-mile tunnel to Turquoise Reservoir and the Arkansas River basin.

More Colorado Foundation for Water Education coverage here.

Aspinall Unit operations update: 450 cfs in Black Canyon

September 30, 2014
Aspinall Unit

Aspinall Unit

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from Crystal Dam will be reduced from 1450 cfs to 1350 cfs on Tuesday, September 30th at 9:00 AM. The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association will be reducing diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel by 100 cfs on Tuesday morning. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows have remained relatively high due to the September rains and flows are expected to stay above the September baseflow target at the new rate of release.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the base-flow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1050 cfs for September through December.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 450 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be around 950 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon should still be around 450 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

More Aspinall Unit coverage here.

EPA plans concrete bulkhead for Red and Bonita mine in 2015

September 30, 2014
Bonita Mine acid mine drainage

Bonita Mine acid mine drainage

From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):

Representatives from several government agencies, including the EPA, informed La Plata and San Juan county commissioners last week that the Red and Bonita mine will be plugged to help stem the flow of metals.

“This is a worthwhile investment,” said Steve Way, on-scene coordinator for the EPA.

The EPA plans to pay for the large concrete bulkhead, which could cost between $750,000 and $1.5 million, Way said earlier this year.

The Red and Bonita Mine is a major source of metals such as cadmium, zinc, iron and aluminum that have been flowing into Cement Creek and are responsible for killing off native fish and other species, the researches told local commissioners.

“We really need to do something about this before it gets worse,” said John Ott, general manager of Animas Water Co.

While his well water is in good shape, as a farmer on the Animas River below Bakers Bridge, he said he is disturbed by the pollution.

In 2003, the Sunnyside Gold Corp., the last major mining operation in Silverton, stopped treating the water in Cement Creek.

Then in 2006, the Red and Bonita started leaking high levels of metals after the American Tunnel was plugged in several places, which raised the water table, said Peter Butler, co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group.

In recent years, the EPA and other agencies have come together to assess if plugging the mine would significantly reduce pollution. They found it contributes some of the highest levels of heavy metals year-round to Cement Creek and leaks about 300 gallons of polluted water per minute, Way said. A plug would help, but it would not eliminate all the seeping metals.

The mine was active for only a few years in the late 1800s, and miners carved out only 2,000 feet of tunnels below the surface that the EPA and the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety could explore in 2013. After mapping the mine, scientists don’t believe the tunnels are connected to any other systems where polluted water could find an outlet.

The scientists also reason that the bulkhead could reduce the amount of pollution any potential water-treatment plant would have to process if one is installed. The Animas River Stakeholders Group has been researching treatment plant options, but it could be very expensive to maintain.

“Treating water, that is a forever decision,” Way said.

However, a valve will be built into the bulkhead, so that if it causes problems, it could be opened back up. To what degree the plug may raise the water table and how the water would be dispersed is unknown, Way said.

While this would be an EPA project, it will not require Superfund listing. It would be a short-term project by a different branch of the agency.

More Animas River watershed coverage here.

Monsoon, hurricane Odile help southwestern Colorado precipitation totals for water year #COdrought

September 30, 2014

West Drought Monitor September 23, 3014

West Drought Monitor September 23, 3014

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Trotter):

The 2014 water year is ending gently – for Colorado, at least – as monsoonal rains and the remnants of Hurricane Odile provided enough moisture to push even the drought-stricken southeastern quadrant of the state into the 70-90 percent of normal precipitation range…

The 2014 water year is ending gently – for Colorado, at least – as monsoonal rains and the remnants of Hurricane Odile provided enough moisture to push even the drought-stricken southeastern quadrant of the state into the 70-90 percent of normal precipitation range.

It’s reasonable to think of it almost as an escape, as the state was cool and wet enough to avoid the massive wildfires of the previous two years, Black Forest in 2013 and Waldo Canyon and High Park in 2012, which claimed a total of more than 1,100 homes. There was no epic September flood this time around.

In comparison to California, which continues in the throes of devastating drought, and parts of Washington and Oregon, where millions of acres burned this water year, Colorado was downright fortunate.

“Water year” is a Western term, and the new one begins Oct. 1. It has to do with the annual cycle that includes the first snow in the high country, the accumulation of the snowpack, the spring melt and runoff, the warm summer and whatever rain might fall.

That makes today, Sept. 30, New Year’s Eve of the 2015 water year. But one can forgive residents of southeastern Colorado if they’re not breaking out the party hats. While the late rains boosted moisture totals there toward respectability, the region has been locked in various stages of damaging drought for years.

The U.S. Drought Monitor map, a product of the Department of Agriculture that is updated weekly, has five levels of dryness, from D0, abnormally dry, to D4, exceptional drought. Along with the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, a big chunk of northeastern New Mexico and southwestern Kansas, southeastern Colorado has been firmly fixed with D3s, extreme drought, and D4s, as bad as it gets.

The modern map, in fact, has looked very similar to that of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, even though, as of now, it has moderated a bit.

“Absolutely,” said assistant state climatologist Wendy Ryan from her office in Fort Collins. “As we were keeping track, particularly in 2011 and 2012, we started drawing comparisons to the ‘30s. It was as dry and as hot down there as the Dust Bowl.”

The visual elements were also there: Enormous dust storms, but not with the frequency or longevity of the 1930s, and tumbleweed melees that covered highways and buried barns and houses…

The lower Arkansas River basin has a long way to go before recovery to normal, Ryan said. The late season moisture has allowed farmers there to get a start on winter wheat, an endeavor that hasn’t panned out in the recent drought years. The big word is evapotranspiration, which is the soil losing moisture with no rain, and through plant transpiration, or “plant sweat.”[...]

The Four Corners were also dry this water year, as was the San Juan River basin, and the Rio Grande has been drought-plagued – which pretty much accounts for the southern tier of Colorado.

In the northern half of the state, the picture for this closing water year has been dramatically different.

The upper Colorado River basin has been flush, and beginning after last September’s massive floods, conditions along the South Platte basin have been extraordinary. Winter wheat yields on the northeastern plains were bountiful, conditions there “beautiful,” as Ryan described them.

A look at the “teacup” map published weekly by the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University also tells the story. Lake Granby is 128 percent of average for this time of year, 98 percent full. Blue Mesa is 74 percent full, Lake Dillon is 99 percent full. Green Mountain is at 85 percent.

All of this munificence is a matter of scale, of course. Downstream on the Colorado River, massive Lake Powell was only 51 percent full last week, and, on the other end of the Grand Canyon, giant Lake Mead has been losing water after years of drought like someone pulled the plug.

Unrelated to the Colorado River but very related to water in the West is the map published last week by the California Department of Water Resources depicting water levels in the Golden State’s major reservoirs, which ranged from 12 to 39 percent full.

Explaining Extreme Events of 2013 from a Climate Perspective — American Meteorological Society

September 29, 2014

Click here to download the report (Herring, S. C., M. P. Hoerling, T. C. Peterson, and P. A. Stott, Eds., 2014: Explaining Extreme Events of 2013 from a Climate Perspective. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 95 (9), S1–S96.) Here’s the abstract:

Attribution of extreme events is a challenging science and one that is currently undergoing considerable evolu- tion. In this paper, 20 different research groups explored the causes of 16 different events that occurred in 2013. The findings indicate that human-caused climate change greatly increased the risk for the extreme heat waves assessed in this report. How human influence affected other types of events such as droughts, heavy rain events, and storms was less clear, indicating that natural variability likely played a much larger role in these extremes. Multiple groups chose to look at both the Australian heat waves and the California drought, providing an opportunity to compare and contrast the strengths and weak- nesses of various methodologies. There was considerable agreement about the role anthropogenic climate change played in the events between the different assessments. This year three analyses were of severe storms and none found an anthropogenic signal. However, attribution assessments of these types of events pose unique challenges due to the often limited observational record. When human-influence for an event is not identified with the scientific tools available to us today, this means that if there is a human contribution, it cannot be distinguished from natural climate variability…


Introduction. Welcome rains over northeast Colo- rado starting on 9 September 2013 turned into a deluge during 11 September and continued through 15 September. Boulder, an epicenter of this regional event ( /bou/?n=stormtotals_092013), almost doubled its daily rainfall record (from 12.2 cm in July 1919 to 23.1 cm on 12 September 2013), with 43.6 cm for the week. Widespread flooding took 10 lives and caused at least $2 billion in property damage, second only to the June 1965 floods of eastern Colorado (

Events of similar magnitude are not unprecedented during summer in the Colorado Front Range (Hansen et al. 1978; McKee and Doesken 1997). Some reach that size in a few hours and are more localized (e.g., Big Thompson in late July 1976), while others take longer and have larger footprints as in June 1965 and September 1938. Interestingly, attributes of the 2013 event, including its late-summer occurrence, regional scale, long duration, and slowly changing atmospheric circulation (see Gochis et al. 2014, manuscript submitted to Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc.) that transported extreme moisture into the Front Range, also characterized the 1938 event.

Does the recent occurrence of this extreme event indicate that its likelihood has increased due to global warming? Globally, the atmosphere has become warmer and moister, with the observed rate of increase since the 1970s broadly consistent with that expected from the Clausius–Clapeyron relation (~7% per °C; Hartmann et al. 2014). Heavy precipitation events have increased over much of the United States since 1901, however, with no sig- nificant long-term trends over the northern Great Plains or Southwest (Kunkel et al. 2013). Further, the relationship between heavy precipitation and atmospheric water vapor varies seasonally, with moisture availability rather than moisture-holding capacity being a more dominant factor in summer than winter (Berg et al. 2009). Thus, the answer to our question cannot be readily gleaned from globally and annually averaged statistics but requires careful consideration of place and time…

Conclusion. Our analysis of the GEOS-5 simulations leads to a diagnosis that the occurrence of extreme five-day rainfall over northeast Colorado during September 2013 was not made more likely, or more intense, by the effects of climate change. From an observational perspective, analogous events have occurred before in the Front Range, perhaps most strikingly similar in September 1938, long before appreciable climate change.

Although our model results suggest that the occurrence of this recent extreme has become less probable over northeast Colorado due to climate change, model projections do show an increase in the intensity of maximum five-day precipitation over the globe and for annual averages as a whole by the end of the 21st century (Sillman et al. 2013). Yet, a slight decline in intensity of the maximum five-day precipitation over the central Great Plains during summer is also projected (Sillman et al. 2013), emphasizing that global and annual perspectives of climate change may not always pertain to events at a specific place and time.

A strength of our study is the availability of an ensemble of long-term climate simulations spanning 1871–2013, conducted at 1° spatial resolution, that permits an analysis of statistical properties of the change in extreme events. For the purpose of study- ing regional five-day rainfall events over northeast Colorado, the GEOS-5 model has the attribute of re- alistically characterizing the tails of the distribution. A weakness of our study is that results are based on a single model and thus require confirmation using additional models. Also, the physical reasons for the decline in simulated frequency of extreme five-day rainfall over northeast Colorado during September are not addressed. Better understanding of the deliv- ery mechanisms for atmospheric moisture that pro- duce heavy rain events and how those mechanisms respond to global warming will be critical.

From Climate Central (Bobby Magill):

climate change may have had little to do with those extreme rains, and global warming could reduce the likelihood that they’ll happen again, according to a new study, which is disputed by one of the nation’s most prominent climatologists.

The new study, published Monday in a supplement to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS) analyzing climate change’s role in extreme weather events across the globe in 2013, uses a single computer model to reach its conclusion and says the results have yet to be confirmed by other models.

Using a computer model called GEOS-5, the study concludes climate change made last September’s rains neither more likely nor more intense. Similar events have occurred in the past before human-caused climate change was a factor in any region’s weather, the study says…

He said the local geography, where the Great Plains end abruptly at the point where the Rocky Mountains rear skyward out of the prairie near Boulder, lends itself to greater precipitation due to the orographic effect. The orographic effect is the way landscape topography, mountains in Colorado’s case, affects local weather.

Hoerling cautioned that more research needs to be done to confirm his team’s findings, and the study should not be viewed as the final word on climate change’s role in the Colorado floods.

“We don’t have a lot of answers,” he said. “It raises more questions.”

One critic of the study, which was announced with a news release under the headline, “Climate Change Not to Blame for 2013 Colorado Floods,” didn’t mince words after it was published.

“There is no justification for the headline of the news release at all, and the study has little relevance to the flood in Colorado in September 2013,” said National Center for Atmospheric Research senior scientist Kevin Trenberth, who is also based in Boulder. “They ask the wrong questions, do the wrong analysis with inadequate tools and come up with the wrong answer.”

In any extreme rainfall event, the weather situation is always the main player in how such a storm develops, but says nothing about the role of climate change, Trenberth said in a written statement.

“They do note the importance of having abundant moisture in the region in order to produce high enough rainfall amounts,” he said. “But they fail to analyze where the moisture comes from.”

Water vapor above Denver hit a record during the rains at the same time as sea surface temperatures south of Baja California, Mexico, were briefly 30°C, about 1°C warmer than normal, making it the hottest spot for the ocean in the Western hemisphere, Trenberth said.

“An incredible 75 mm of moisture was recorded in the atmosphere in that region by NASA satellites,” Trenberth said in his statement.

High sea surface temperatures (SSTs) led to the large-scale convergence of moisture into the region, and it was siphoned north by a very unusual pattern in the atmosphere creating a large river of moisture flowing straight toward Colorado, he said.

“I think there is no doubt that those extremely high SSTs and record water vapor amounts likely would not have occurred without climate change,” Trenberth said. “This study is largely irrelevant; it misses the big picture and gets the wrong answer.”

Hoerling said the study’s model accounted for high sea surface tempertures in the Pacific, the river of moisture flowing toward the state and other factors. He said he is perplexed as to why Trenberth was unaware of that.

“I’m confident that other experiments will repeat the experiments we published in this BAMS report, and those will help reveal if the indications from the first such effort are robust or not,” Hoerling said.

Colorado State Climatologist Nolan Doesken told Climate Central that the study’s conclusions do not surprise him.

“Maybe it will be more obvious in 35 years, but from a 2014 vantage point here in our part of the country, changes in temperatures on a seasonally and annually averaged time frame do show a trend; precipitation probably does not, and the extreme tail of the precipitation distribution — the really big ones — are just too few and far between here to yet get much of a handle on,” Doesken said.

Giant floods and extreme rain happened in the same region at least twice in the 20th century, so it’s hard to peg climate change on something that has ample precedent in the area, and even harder to associate local extreme events to an increase in global greenhouse gas emissions, he said.

Student water field conference visits Orchard Mesa Irrig Dist, learns about BOR, Grand Valley water #ColoradoWater

September 29, 2014

The Fountain Creek District launches series of meetings to iron out rights protection with flood mitigation

September 29, 2014
Fountain Creek Watershed

Fountain Creek Watershed

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The question of how flood control projects on Fountain Creek can be built without harming water rights will be taken up next month in the heart of farm country.

The Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District will host the first of a series of meetings to discuss the issue during the winter water meeting set for Oct. 17 at Otero Junior College in La Junta.

The winter water meeting will be hosted by the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and will bring together some of the largest ditch companies east of Pueblo.

The group determines how a court-decreed program that allows farmers to store water in Lake Pueblo or ditch company reservoirs outside the growing season will operate.

That’s similar to the issue at hand on Fountain Creek, where flood control dams have been proposed, primarily to protect property in Pueblo.

At the July meeting of the Arkansas Basin Roundtable, a grant that proposed to look at the feasibility of Fountain Creek dams was rejected out of hand because several farmers objected to altering water rights to accommodate the dams.

They argued that junior water rights would be injured by such storage.

The timed release of water at more useful times in programs such as the winter water program could actually enhance water rights, however. Some have said this is possible with flood control dams.

In fact, the Denver Urban Drainage District is attempting to work through the same issue, Executive Director Larry Small told the board.

“We need to make it clear we have no intention of harming anyone’s water rights,” Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart said.

Several other meetings are planned by the Fountain Creek district to determine if flood control can be done in a way that keeps junior rights whole.

Meanwhile, the district is starting to prioritize spending prior to Colorado Springs’ $50 million payment as part of the Southern Delivery System. Here’s a report from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

A district formed to improve Fountain Creek wants to start planning how it will use $50 million in funding that will begin arriving when the Southern Delivery System pipeline comes on line.

“We have to get an idea of what our priorities are before a dime arrives,” said Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart, a member of the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District board.

The $50 million will be paid to the district over five years by Colorado Springs Utilities as part of its 1041 agreement with Pueblo County. The money is for building flood control projects that primarily benefit Pueblo, such as a dam or series of dams.

SDS is projected to be fully permitted and online as soon as 2016, so the checks could begin coming in early 2017.

The district does not want to be put in a position of having to directly spend the money, but wants to use it to leverage funding from other sources.

“The projects identified so far exceed $100 million,” Hart said. “There could be even more as we branch out of the core area. We need to find the best ways to leverage other grants.”

Hart asked the board to form a committee specifically to look at how the money would be spent. It would include representatives from Pueblo County, the district and Utilities.

That conversation comes even as the district watches the progress of a stormwater vote in El Paso County this November and sets its budget for next year.

The vote will determine whether Colorado Springs and its neighbors will agree to fund stormwater improvements to the tune of $39 million annually beginning in 2016. That would satisfy other requirements of the 1041 agreement.

The district also is looking at whether its own budget could be paid with advance interest payments from Colorado Springs Utilities or if it’s time to pass the hat again among member governments.

At the meeting, Hart noted that the district is relying heavily on voluntary contributions and must start looking at its real operating costs if it is to become sustainable.

Finally, water quality is a concern and responsibility on Fountain Creek as well. Here’s a report from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

While the focus lately has been on reining in water on Fountain Creek, the quality of that water is important too.

“We have a statutory duty to clean up the Fountain Creek watershed,” said Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart Friday at the meeting of the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District. “There are significant problems that we still don’t know enough about.”

So the board caught up on the science of water quality from Del Nimmo and Scott Herrmann, who have spent years studying water quality on Fountain Creek, the Arkansas River and Lake Pueblo.

The three are interconnected, Nimmo explained.

“We have tremendous resources and they are all connected,” Nimmo said. “They are tied to the reservoir.”

Lesson 1: Invasive species in Lake Pueblo will have more opportunity to spread to Fountain Creek and reservoirs in Pueblo County when the Southern Delivery System pipeline is completed, Herrmann explained.

Lesson 2: Mercury has accumulated in the water and fish in the headwater areas of Fountain Creek and Monument Creek, where the scientists did not expect to find it. Nimmo’s theory is that emissions from power plants or from former smelters in both Pueblo and El Paso counties contributed to this, but that’s not been proved. He suggested the district think in terms of an “airshed” as well as a watershed.

Lesson 3: The researchers have baseline data about water quality prior to the large, destructive Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires. They also collected samples of the charcoal-laden water after the first big rainfall following the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012.

“This study needs to be repeated about now, in the next year, to see what effect the fire had,” Herrmann said.

Nimmo and Herrmann have headed up numerous Fountain Creek studies at Colorado State University-Pueblo over the past decade. Herrmann has studied aquatic life in Lake Pueblo since its construction in the early 1970s. Nimmo was involved in other studies on the Upper Arkansas River near Leadville as well.

“We need to continue this type of study,” Hart said. “It should be a district project.”

More Fountain Creek coverage here.


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