Where our water comes from — Fort Collins Coloradoan

July 14, 2014

Ash and silt pollute the Cache la Poudre River after the High Park Fire September 2012

Ash and silt pollute the Cache la Poudre River after the High Park Fire September 2012


From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Ryan Maye Handy):

With Colorado’s water year at its mid-July end and many Northern Colorado reservoirs still flush with the bounty of a plentiful water year, water woes of years past have turned into discussions of how the state will store water in the future.

In the coming months, the Army Corps of Engineers will release an updated study on the Northern Water Conservancy District’s proposal to expand its water storage capacity near Fort Collins. The Northern Integrated Supply Project would build Glade Reservoir northwest of the city, bringing a new reservoir larger than Horsetooth Reservoir to the area.

Before the release of the study reignites the battle over the potential environmental impacts of expanding Northern Colorado’s water storage capacity, we look at where Fort Collins gets the water that provides the basis for everything from the natural resources residents enjoy to the craft beer they drink…

Before the High Park Fire, which burned more than 87,000 acres of the Poudre watershed, Fort Collins Utilities split its water sources between the project and the river. But the Poudre’s water has since become filled with fire and flood debris, which prompted a total shutdown of river water for Fort Collins customers.

Time and the September 2013 floods have cleaned out the river, but the city is still mostly reliant on the C-BT project for more than 60 percent of its water each year.

Fundamentally, snowmelt fills the many reservoirs in the C-BT project. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which helps manage the project, delivers a certain amount of water to cities like Fort Collins as well as farmers and irrigators — all of whom own hundreds or thousands of acre-feet of the project’s water…

Here’s a look at where our water comes from.

THE WESTERN SLOPE

The water that feeds Colorado — and a vast swath of the nation — begins its downward flow from the Continental Divide high in the Rocky Mountains. In order to harness water that otherwise would flow to the Pacific Ocean, water managers created a vast network of reservoirs, tunnels and canals to reroute Western Slope water to Colorado’s more populous Front Range.

LAKE GRANBY

For Fort Collins, and much of the northern Front Range, this is where it all begins. Snowmelt fills this Western Slope reservoir, and the water from it is pumped to Shadow Mountain Reservoir. From there, it’s literally all downhill — gravity pushes water through five reservoirs until it gets to Horsetooth Reservoir, southwest of Fort Collins. This year, due to above-average snowpack, Lake Granby soon will spill over its banks. It can hold up to 540,000 acre-feet of water.

HORSETOOTH RESERVOIR

Horsetooth was built along with the Colorado-Big Thompson Project and is a fraction of the size of Lake Granby — it holds about 156,000 acre-feet of water. This is where Fort Collins will get most of its C-BT water, which has traveled through the 13-mile Adams Tunnel, under U.S. Highway 34, and through several reservoirs. Fort Collins Utilities has its only operational water treatment plant at Horsetooth. In 2014, Fort Collins gets about 65 percent of its water from the C-BT project.

THE CACHE LA POUDRE RIVER

The Poudre River typically provides Fort Collins with 50 percent of its water. But after the High Park Fire polluted the river, Fort Collins has been forced to shut down its Poudre River sources, sometimes for months. The upper part of the river is considered “wild and scenic” — a federal designation. It is also one of the few remaining dam-free rivers in Colorado. In 2014, Fort Collins gets about 35 percent of its water from the Poudre.

CARTER LAKE

Carter Lake is one of many reservoirs that make up the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. Some of Fort Collins’ water can come from this reservoir, but not frequently. Other reservoirs in the system include Grand Lake, Mary’s Lake, Lake Estes and Flatiron Reservoir, to name just a few.

FORT COLLINS

Treated water coming into Fort Collins comes from a plant near Horsetooth Reservoir. Since Nov. 1, the city has used about 9,700 acre-feet of water from the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, and about 5,200 acre-feet from the Poudre River. Before the High Park Fire, the city typically split its water use between the two sources but has since had to use more C-BT water.

More infrastructure coverage here.


Say hello to @Northern_Water #ColoradoRiver

July 12, 2014

Meanwhile, Northern is looking at big rate increases to coverage operations. Here’s a report from Steve Lynn writing for the Northern Colorado Business Report. Here’s an excerpt:

Under current projections, rates for Colorado-Big Thompson Project water could rise from $28 to more than $100 per unit for municipal users and from $10 to $80 per unit for agricultural users by 2023, according to documents from the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District…

The extra money is needed because Northern Water’s expenses have outpaced its revenue in three of the last four years. Property taxes, which have remained flat since the recession, make up more than half of Northern Water’s revenue, while water-rate revenue accounts for about 20 percent of its funding.

The agency has coped, up until now, by drawing from cash reserves to fund its operations. Reserve funds are partly intended to help stabilize revenue but are not a sustainable funding approach in the long term, according to Northern Water.

The agency’s board is expected to decide on short-term rate hikes through 2018 this month. These potential hikes to $52.70 for municipal users and $32.20 for irrigation users would represent the largest dollar increase in Northern Water’s history, although the district has seen similar, double-digit percentage increases in the past.

“In the early 1980s, there were several years with double-digit increases, similar to what we are looking at now,” Northern Water spokesman Brian Werner said.

The rate hikes are essential to maintain infrastructure, according to Northern Water, and experts believe they will lead to additional water conservation. But the higher prices will put pressure on farmers…

Northern’s customers receive water under two types of contracts: fixed and open rate. The new rate hikes apply to those customers who buy open-rate water. In June, Northern Water board members raised the open-rate assessment 9 percent for next year. The 2015 rate for cities will increase to $30.50 per unit while the agricultural rate will rise to $10.90 per unit. Fixed-rate assessments based on decades-old contracts will remain $1.50 per acre foot.

Roughly two-thirds of Northern’s water is delivered via open-rate contracts, while one-third is governed by fixed-rate agreements…

Northern Water isn’t the only water district that has had to raise water rates. The Greeley-based Central Colorado Water Conservancy District, which supplies water to areas of Weld, Adams and Morgan counties, also has passed rate-assessment increases in recent years and plans to meet this month to consider additional rate hikes.

“Our organization is looking at future (operations and maintenance costs) and how do we keep our finances up,” Central Water Executive Director Randy Ray said. “You’ve got regular operations costs like labor, electricity and gasoline for vehicles. Then you also have deferred maintenance.”

The rate increases come as the nation faces challenges from deteriorating water infrastructure, which will cost more than $1 trillion over the next 25 years to fix in order to maintain current water service levels, according to a report from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Customers will pick up the tab mostly through higher water bills.

Similarly, users of Colorado-Big Thompson Project water will pay higher water bills as a result of the increased rate assessments. Increased revenue from the assessments will help fund Northern Water’s operations and maintenance budget, which accounts for almost half of the water district’s expenses. Northern Water says it needs to make major upgrades to water delivery infrastructure, much of which was built more than 60 years ago.

Tom Cech, director of One World One Water Center at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said higher expenses and a rising population have pressured water supplies, leading to elevated costs. He noted, however, that investments in water infrastructure are critical to maintaining water delivery systems.

“Look at all the investments that water providers did 100 years ago in our water system: new reservoirs, delivery systems and so forth,” he said. “That’s just the process of keeping up with the costs and population growth.”

The Northern Board did pass an increase. Here’s a report from Steve Lynn writing for the Norther Colorado Business Report. Here’s an excerpt:

The board of directors for Colorado’s largest water wholesaler Friday passed a historic water-rate hike in terms of dollars, representing a 202 percent increase for agricultural users and 90 percent for municipal users from 2014 through 2018.

Customers of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District receive water units under two types of contracts: open rate and fixed. By 2018, the open-rate assessment for a unit of water from the Colorado-Big Thompson Project will cost $30.20 for agricultural users, up from $10 this year, and $53.10, up from $28, for municipal users.

Fixed-rate assessments based on decades-old contracts will remain $1.50 per acre foot.

Board members unanimously approved a steep rate hike for the open-rate assessments, though Colorado-Big Thompson Project water users had requested a smoother transition of increases over time. The rate hike through 2018 represented the largest dollar increase in the public water district’s 77-year history, though the water district’s board members has passed similar percentage increases in the past.

The steeper rate hikes will help Northern Water more quickly achieve a balanced budget, said Jerry Gibbens, project manager and water resources engineer for Northern Water. The water district’s expenses have outpaced its revenue in three of the last four years, but Northern Water expects to reach a balanced budget by fiscal 2017 through the rate hikes.

Based on decades-old contracts, the fixed-rate assessments remained the same, a point of contention among some water users who pay the higher open-rate assessments and contend that Northern Water should raise the fixed-rate assessments.

Northern Water’s board agreed to look into how it could adjust the fixed rates in the future, but the agency has indicated that it may not be able to do so because they are set “contractually in-perpetuity.”

In June, the board decided to raise 2015 open-rate assessments to $30.50 per unit while the agricultural rate will rise to $10.90 per unit.

Under current projections, rates for Colorado-Big Thompson Project water could increase to more than $100 per unit for municipal users and to $80 per unit for agricultural users by 2023, according to Northern Water documents.

Board members did not decide on increases after 2018, but they plan to set rates annually as well as make projections of rate adjustments two fiscal years in advance.

More Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District coverage here.


Runoff news: Lake Granby spill imminent? #ColoradoRiver

July 7, 2014
Lake Granby spill June 2011 via USBR

Lake Granby spill June 2011 via USBR

From the Sky-Hi Daily News (Hank Shell):

Typically, reservoirs on the Front Range fill by May, which lowers Lake Granby enough to accept additional water during runoff season, said Kara Lamb with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. But flooding on the East Slope in September, coupled with additional precipitation and runoff, have kept Carter and Horsetooth reservoirs, the Colorado-Big Thompson Project’s main draw points for Front Range water users, too full to accept much water. Add above-average runoff on the Western Slope to the equation, and there is a fair amount of uncertainty whether the Alva B. Adams Tunnel will have anywhere to transport water if and when Lake Granby spills.

“There could be a little pumping to help with the spill situation,” said Brian Werner with Northern Water. “It’s dependent on this side of the mountains, and if there’s any room to put any water, so demands really haven’t started, and like I said, we’re full everywhere.”

There’s a possibility that pumping could be halted until Labor Day, Werner said.

For Grand Lake residents, pumping can mean the difference between pristine clarity and a cloudy lake. Last year, reduced pumping saw the clarity of natural Grand Lake increase, while the shallower Shadow Mountain Reservoir became more turbid…

As of July 3, Lake Granby was at 2.6 feet from capacity, with levels rising around a third of a foot per day. Werner, of Northern, said if the lake does spill, forecasters expect it to do so between July 10 and July 14.

“Our forecaster, who I just talked to, said we’re still 50-50 on whether we’re going to spill,” Werner said.

Spilling is not a very common occurrence for Lake Granby. The last time the lake spilled was in 2011, and before that it was in 2000. The large amount of snowpack has led to above-average flows this year, and reservoirs on the Front Range are already near capacity. Specifically, Carter Lake is at 99 percent full, while Horsetooth Reservoir is 99.2 percent full, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s website.


Conservation front and center in Broomfield

July 7, 2014

broomfield

From the Enterprise Broomfield News:

Broomfield offers two water conservation programs to help residents save water and money. Residents and businesses could qualify for an irrigation audit and/or rebates if they receive treated water from Broomfield.

Free irrigation audits are provided by Slow the Flow Colorado, a nonprofit program of the Center for Resource Conservation. To schedule an irrigation audit, call 303-999-3820 ext. 217 or go to conservationcenter.org/.

Water rebates help offset the cost to replace inefficient toilets and irrigation components. More information on rebates, including qualifying models and residential rebate instructions, go to broomfield.org/index.aspx?NID=1098.

More information on water conservation, including lawn watering guidelines, can be found at broomfield.org/index.aspx?NID=439.

More conservation coverage here.


Runoff/snowpack news: Good year to fill storage — if we had it to fill

June 10, 2014
Northern Integrated Supply Project via The Denver Post

Northern Integrated Supply Project via The Denver Post

From CBS Denver:

Flooding along the Cache La Poudre River damaged nearly two dozen homes and businesses in Greeley last week, and according to officials at the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the Poudre River does not have any dams or reservoirs specifically for flood control. But there is an effort underway to change that.

The Poudre River is full of melted snow — so much so right now that levels are well above average in Larimer and Weld counties, spilling over banks, and flooding homes and businesses.

“We could fill a reservoir in a year like this,” Brian Werner with the Northern Colorado’s Water Conservancy District said.

He points out farmers’ irrigation dams inside the Poudre Canyon, but says water cannot be diverted to those to prevent flooding. He says there is no reservoir along the river because the idea was unpopular in the past.

“I think the general public is more aware when they see these flows and saying, ‘Boy, couldn’t we just store a little bit of that?’ Which is what this proposal does,” Werner said.

Northern Water wants to build two reservoirs off stream that could store water during high flow times. Planners estimate the project would cost $500 million, including $40 million to re-route Highway 287 to make room for Glade Reservoir, and build a smaller one north of Greeley…

But the federal approval process is moving slowly.

“We’ve been working on this in some form for over 20 years, taking some of the flood flows here on the Poudre and storing it,” Werner said.

They do expect to get some news on the status of studies being conducted on the project by the end of this year. It’s unlikely building would start before 2018.

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Ryan Maye Handy):

Several of the reservoirs that feed Northern Colorado are full, or approaching overfull, said Brian Werner, a spokesman for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which helps manage the reservoirs. Carter Lake, southwest of Loveland, is full, and Lake Granby near Rocky Mountain National Park is about to overflow, Werner added.

“We wouldn’t have guessed that in a million years a year ago,” Werner said Tuesday. Only a month ago, it was fifty-fifty if the reservoir would spill. “Now it looks like it will spill.”

Horsetooth is just 2 feet shy of being full, the highest the reservoir has been in late May and early June in the past six years.

The reservoir can hold enough to submerge 156,735 football fields in a foot of water. As of June 3, Horsetooth was holding 154,480 acre-feet of water, putting it around 98.5 percent full, said Zach Allen, a spokesman for Northern Water.

But what happens if Horsetooth does get full? The answer, Werner said, is basically “nothing.”

“We can control all the inflows to Horsetooth,” he said. Flatiron Reservoir and the Big Thompson River feed Horsetooth, and Northern Water controls all the outflows and inflows to the reservoir; Horsetooth’s water level can’t get higher than Northern Water wants it to, Werner said…

Lake Granby, on the other hand, is fed with snowmelt straight from the mountains. It’s levels are uncontrollable, and it could spill over any day now, Werner said.

“You can’t control what nature is going to do” with Granby, he added…

Northern Water for years has pursued an expansion of its water storage capacity to take advantage of plentiful water years. The Northern Integrated Supply Project would build a reservoir larger than Horsetooth northwest of Fort Collins. The proposal has drawn opposition from environmental groups and is in a yearslong federal review of its potential environmental impacts expected to be released late this year…

Much of Northern Colorado’s snowpack, around 200 percent of normal levels after an early May snow, has yet to melt, which brings the potential for much more water to come down from the mountains in the coming weeks.

From email from Reclamation (Kara Lamb):

We have seen the water level at Green Mountain Reservoir rise to the spillway gates as snow melt runoff inflows continue to come into the reservoir. As a result, we were able to increase the release from the dam to the Lower Blue River by 300 cfs today [June 9], using the spillway.

We are now releasing 1800 cfs to the Lower Blue.

From email from Reclamation (Kara Lamb):

The weekend went pretty smoothly for runoff here on the east slope of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. Thunderstorms boosted runoff to the Big Thompson River slightly with inflow into Lake Estes peaking early this morning around 721 cfs. But this is still a downward trend.

As a result, outflow through Olympus Dam to the Big Thompson Canyon dropped today down to about 125 cfs. As we move into the rest of the week, visitors to and residents of the canyon will continue to see nightly flows rise with snow runoff, enhanced some by rain runoff, just as they have seen for the past week.

Deliveries to the canal that feeds Horsetooth Reservoir have brought Horsetooth back up to full. Its water level elevation has been fluctuating within the top foot of its storage between 5429 and 5430 feet. With it back up near 5430, we have curtailed the canal to Horsetooth and increased the return of Big Thompson River water to the canyon at the canyon mouth using the concrete chute. By 5 p.m. this evening the chute should be running around 300 cfs.

The drop off in snowmelt runoff inflows will allow us to begin bringing some Colorado-Big Thompson Project West Slope water over again using the Alva B. Adams Tunnel. We anticipate the tunnel coming on mid-week and importing somewhere between 200-250 cfs.

Once the tunnel comes back on, we will also turn the pump to Carter Lake back on, probably on Wednesday of this week. Carter’s water level elevation dropped slightly during runoff operations. It is around 95% full. Now that Horsetooth is basically full, Carter will receive the C-BT water. Turning the pump back on to Carter means residents around and visitors to the reservoir will see it fill for a second time this season.

Pinewood Reservoir, between Lake Estes and Carter Lake, is seeing a more typical start to its summer season. It continues to draft and refill with power generation as it usually does this time of year. This is also true for Flatiron Reservoir, just below Carter Lake and the Flatiron Powerplant. Both are expected to continue operating this way through June.

That is the plan we anticipate the East Slope of the C-BT to follow the rest of this week, June 9-13. We will post information if there is a major change; but as it stands now, I do not plan on sending an update again until next Monday. The state’s gage page is always available for those wishing to continue watching the water on a daily basis.

From The Crested Butte News (Toni Todd):

Word on the street this spring was that Blue Mesa Reservoir would be bursting at its banks this summer. Predictions were based on official and unofficial reports of above-normal river flows. However, a 2012 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) has changed how local dams are operated in wet years, in deference to endangered fish species downstream. This new operational protocol will preclude the reservoir from filling this year.

“The reservoir is now only scheduled to reach a maximum storage of around 80 percent capacity in 2014,” said Upper Gunnison River District manager Frank Kugel. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) began blasting water through Blue Mesa Dam last week, with simultaneous releases happening at Morrow Point and Crystal Reservoirs, a trifecta of water storage and management that makes up what’s known as the Aspinall Unit.

The Record of Decision (ROD) states, “The EIS modifies the operations of the Aspinall Unit to provide sufficient releases of water at times, quantities, and duration necessary to avoid jeopardy to endangered fish species and adverse modification of their designated critical habitat while maintaining and continuing to meet authorized purposes of the Aspinall Unit.”

Given this new norm of operations adapted by the bureau during wet years, will Blue Mesa ever fill again?

“That’s a valid question, since the reservoir often does not fill in dry years due to lack of supply, and now with the Aspinall EIS, it will have trouble filling in wet years,” said Kugel.

“We all signed onto this because we agreed it’s important to save these fish,” said Colorado Fish and Wildlife Aquatic Species coordinator Harry Crocket.

According to the BOR’s website, an update written by hydraulic engineer Paul Davidson, unregulated inflow to Blue Mesa is 126 percent of normal this year, April through July. That’s 850,000 acre-feet of water entering the lake during the runoff months. “This sets the senior Black Canyon Water Right call for a one-day spring peak flow of 6,400 cfs, the Aspinall 2012 ROD target at a 10-day peak flow of 14,350 cfs… Reclamation plans to operate the Aspinall Unit to meet both the water right and ROD recommendations,” said Davidson.

The Colorado pike minnow, bonytail chub, humpback chub and razorback sucker are the fish that stand to benefit. The big flows are expected to improve the fishes’ critical habitat, at a time when the fish will be looking to spawn. Water will inundate otherwise shallow or dry riverbank areas, creating calm, sheltered spots for hatchlings, and heavy flows will wash the larvae into those areas.

The Gunnison River, said Crocket, was “mostly omitted” from the EIS as critical habitat. However, he said, “Historically, it was home to at least a couple of these species.”

“It’s a highly migratory fish,” Crocket said of the Colorado pike minnow. “It’s adapted to this big river system.”

It’s a system irrefutably changed by humans. Critical habitat for the Colorado pike minnow includes 1,123.6 miles of river, to include stretches of the Green, Yampa and White rivers, from Rifle to Glen Canyon, and the Yampa River to its confluence with the Colorado River.

“They [US Fish and Wildlife] did designate critical habitat [from the mouth of the Gunnison] to the Uncompahgre confluence [at Delta],” Crocket said.

The Colorado pike minnow called the Gunnison River home through the 1960s. “After that,” said Crocket, “it blinked out. It’s not been possible for it to be re-colonized.” A new fish passage at the Redlands structure, two miles upriver from the Gunnison-Colorado River confluence at Grand Junction, allows fish to make their way around the barrier and upstream, marking the first time in more than 100 years for those downstream fish to gain passage to the Gunnison.

Meanwhile, upstream, a form of collateral damage resulting from the big water releases at Blue Mesa worries Fish and Wildlife personnel. The number of fish sucked into and blown out through the dam is staggering. The technical term for this is entrainment.
“Bigger water years mean more water through the dam, and more fish entrained,” said Gunnison area Colorado Fish and Wildlife aquatic biologist Dan Brauch. “Certainly, loss of kokanee with those releases is a concern.”

From the Vail Daily (Randy Wyrick):

Water levels and snowpack are 121 percent of normal, with as much as 40 percent yet to melt at some higher elevation areas, according to Snotel data…

Snow water equivalent at the Fremont Pass Snotel site, the headwaters of the Eagle River, had 15.1 inches of snow water equivalent on Friday morning still to melt and run into the river. It hit 17 inches on March 18 and kept piling up until May 17 when it peaked at 25.6 inches. It usually doesn’t melt out until June 18, Johnson said.

Streamflow on the Eagle River in Avon may have peaked on May 30, when the daily mean discharge was 4,110 cubic feet per second, which was 249 percent of median for that date. Thursday’s daily mean discharge was 3,650 cfs, 197 percent of normal for Wednesday.

Gore Creek in Lionshead may have peaked June 4.

“Having 20 to 40 percent of the total snowpack remaining in higher elevations in the Colorado Basin is good overall. It should help sustain streamflows through the month,” [Diane Johnson] said…

Copper Mountain still has 4.1 inches of snow water equivalent. That would normally be melted out by now, Johnson said…

Reservoir storage in the state is running 95 percent of normal and 62 percent of capacity. That, however, depends on where you are.


Northern Water sets rates for 2015

June 6, 2014

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Ryan Maye Handy):

While the district’s board of directors opted to wait until July to resolve the debate of how to change long-term water rates, the short-term rates for 2015 were fixed. At its monthly meeting, the board voted to raise the cost of water 9 percent for all its customers — from irrigators to cities to industrial users.

Nearly three months ago, the district announced that it needs to change its water rates, or else it will continue to borrow from its financial reserves to stay afloat. It hired Denver-based CH2MHill consulting firm to come up with three suggested changes to its rate structure.

The water in question comes from the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, or C-BT, a network of reservoirs on the Western Slope that provides water to Northern Colorado. Like many cities, Fort Collins gets much of its water from the project. The city is equally dependent on water from the C-BT and from the Poudre River.

Northern Water charges for water by the acre foot. Fort Collins Utilities, for instance, owns 18,855 units of project water, 12,803 units of which go for about $28 per acre foot. That cost will likely double when Northern Water rates increase in 2016.

In addition to setting the rates for 2015, the board did agree that the rate structure should shift from being based on users’ ability to a model based on the cost of service. The board was divided, however, on how quickly the rates need to change.

CH2MHill gave the board two options: one is for a gradual increase, the other for a rapid increase that would help the district quickly recover lost revenue. The gradual increase would bump rates by 20 percent and 41 percent for cities and irrigators, respectively. The sharp increase would bump rates by a respective 61 percent and 92 percent.

More Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District coverage here.


2014 Boulder County Water Tour 6/7/14

June 3, 2014

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