Too much of a good thing — The Pueblo Chieftain #RioGrande

October 23, 2014
Rio Grande and Pecos River basins

Rio Grande and Pecos River basins

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

Too much water has become a bad thing in the Rio Grande basin. That might seem like nonsense in a region that has seen below-average stream flows for most of the last 12 years, but inaccurate stream forecasts coupled with the demands of the Rio Grande Compact have put water managers and users in a pinch. The compact governs how much water Colorado must send downstream and includes separate delivery schedules for the Rio Grande and Conejos River.

Those deliveries run on a sliding scale with the highest demands in wet years and the lowest ones in dry times. Each spring, the state engineer’s office relies on stream forecasts from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to balance how much runoff can be diverted by irrigators with how much must go to New Mexico.

The service draws that forecast partly from the eight automated snow gauges and a string of manual snow survey sights in the basin. But this year’s projections were low by roughly 50,000 acre-feet on the Conejos and almost 150,000 acre-feet on the Rio Grande, Division Engineer Craig Cotten said. That has left Cotten and his staff in the position of curtailing or limiting the amount of water that irrigators would otherwise be entitled to according to their respective water rights.

“The most senior water rights on both rivers are being curtailed dramatically in order to meet the compact,” Steve Vandiver, director of the Rio Grande Water Conservancy District told the basin’s roundtable earlier this month.

Moreover, the service’s snow measurement and forecasting program may have an uncertain future. Last year, the service proposed eliminating 47 of the 110 manual snow survey sites in Colorado to meet agency budget cuts. While those sites were saved, the threat of future funding cuts along with the inaccuracies plaguing the forecast have led officials in the Rio Grande basin to look at other options.

The Conejos Water Conservancy District is in the middle of a $237,000 project that will install a temporary radar system, six weather stations and a string of new stream flow gauges. The aim is to get a more accurate forecast that will reduce curtailments for water users. In 2012, the Conejos district estimated that those curtailments cost water users in the basin up to $13,000 per day.

“We can’t realistically blame Craig because it’s the forecasting error,” said Nathan Coombs, the district’s manager. “We don’t have anything else that helps us.”

The Conejos basin is home to two of the automated snow gauges run by the service.

The radar, which will be located either at Antonito or Alamosa, will give officials a clearer picture of where storms are happening, while the six weather stations will allow them to determine how much the storms are depositing.

Moreover, the project will add flow gauges to key tributaries of the Conejos such as Elk Creek and the South Fork of the Conejos.

“If we can start measuring better what these tributaries are doing, that will give us an indication of what these sub-basins are looking at,” Coombs said.

The snowpack and stream flow data gathered by the district will be turned over to researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Severe Storms Laboratory. In turn, those researchers will try to use that data to create a forecasting model. Coombs said the district will stack up that end product with the service forecasts.

“If there’s enough discrepancy to pursue it, that’s how we’ll go,” he said.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board played a role in funding the Conejos project and also has pursued the use of satellite technology to help increase the accuracy of snowpack measurement.

“We’ve had this conversation a lot,” Travis Smith who represents the Rio Grande on the board, told The Chieftain. “Forecasting drives our compact decisions.” Smith, who has been heavily involved in fire recovery issues in the Rio Grande’s headwaters, said temporary radar near Wolf Creek Pass that’s been installed to warn of late summer and fall monsoon storms, may end up playing a role for winter snowstorms as well.

But moving state officials toward improved forecasting can be difficult given that two of the biggest water management organizations in the state — Denver Water and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District — do their own forecasting independent of the service.

Still, Smith sees a potential ally in the Arkansas River basin, where water managers are dependent on service forecasting for its voluntary flow management program and reservoir operations.

Mike Gibson is chair of the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable, which also divvies up state funds for water projects and funded a portion of the Conejos pilot project. He wants all options left on the table.

“I personally feel we need to pursue all avenues available until we come up with a better system than we have now,” he said.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.


Lake Pueblo State Park: Proposed new pumping rules to be discussed November 17 #ArkansasRiver

October 17, 2014

Arkansas River Basin -- Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey

Arkansas River Basin — Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey


From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Groundwater rules that could help certain farmers avoid some of the cost of water court applications are being considered for the Arkansas River basin.

“We’re not necessarily committed to this idea, but it may have benefits,” Water Division 2 Engineer Steve Witte told the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District board Thursday. “The public needs to weigh in.”

The first chance to do that will be at a meeting at 1 p.m. Nov. 13 at the Lake Pueblo State Park visitors center auditorium.

The rules would apply to water replacement plans for post-1985 pumping, new uses for wells drilled prior to 1985 or new wells. They would provide an administrative alternative to water court, which can be too expensive for individual water users to navigate.

Witte reviewed the history of legal issues surrounding wells in the Arkansas Valley, including the 1972 attempt to reconcile surface and groundwater use, the Kansas v. Colorado case filed in 1985 that led to the 1996 well rules and the Simpson v. Bijou decision by the state Supreme Court in 2003 that took many well augmentation plans out of the hands of the state engineer.

“Decreed plans for augmentation costs have been so prohibitive in the South Platte that thousands of wells remain shut down to this day because of Simpson v. Bijou,” Witte said. There have also been instances in the Arkansas River basin, he said after the meeting.

On the same day that the Simpson v. Bijou ruling came, the state Legislature entered the Arkansas Valley well rules into law. In 2003, it also gave the state engineer’s office authority to approve five-year substitute water supply plans and to develop future rules.

Nearly 1,800 wells in the Arkansas Valley are covered by Rule 14 group augmentation plans under the 1996 rules, and those would stay in place even if new well rules are adopted.

The new rules could benefit a farmer who wants to use his own surface water rights to replace water pumped from wells, revegetation projects or even someone drilling a new well for a business, Witte said. At the same time, they would protect downstream water users and Colorado’s obligation under the Arkansas River Compact.

Witte acknowledged that there might an “augmentation gap” that makes finding sources of replacement water difficult, as discussed by the Arkansas Basin Roundtable recently. Permanently changing water uses still would require a trip to court.

But he said the purpose of the rules would be to give farmers a new tool to stay in business while complying with water law.

“We’re relying on data that were developed 30 years ago,” Witte said. “Life goes on and we need to think of ways to adjust and not be hampered by things already in place.”

More Arkansas River Basin coverage here.


“NRCS does their best, based on the SNOTELs they have” — Steve Vandiver #RioGrande

October 16, 2014

NRCS Streamflow Forecast June 1, 2014

NRCS Streamflow Forecast June 1, 2014


From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Nobody’s crystal ball worked very well this year when it came to predicting river flows. In a Valley-wide water meeting yesterday, former long-time Division Engineer Steve Vandiver indicated the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) crystal ball might be cracked.

“NRCS does their best, based on the SNOTELs they have,” he said.

However, there are only about eight SNOTEL sites in the entire basin. SNOTEL is an automated system of snowpack sensors. Most of the SNOTEL sites in this basin provide information for the Rio Grande, with only two in the Conejos River system area. Vandiver said he was concerned about the apparent move by NRCS to rely on electronic data such as SNOTEL without confirming it through manual snow courses, a move that he believed would “lessen their ability to give us a good forecast.”

Vandiver added, “It’s vitally important we keep up with a forecasting system that means something.”

NRCS forecasts are the primary tool used by the Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 office to determine how much water the basin has to send downriver each calendar year and how much water irrigators will have available to them during the growing season. This year the NRCS forecasted annual stream flow for the Rio Grande at the beginning of the irrigation season was nearly 150,000 acre feet lower than the current forecast of 640,000 acre feet and the Conejos River system was almost 50,000 acre feet lower than the current forecast of 225,000 acre feet.

Because the earlier forecasts were off, the water division must send more water downriver now to make its annual obligation to the states of New Mexico and Texas as required by the Rio Grande Compact, Vandiver explained. That means an earlier cut off on the irrigation season on the Conejos River water users and greater curtailments on both the Rio Grande and Conejos River irrigators. Vandiver explained that because of the way the Rio Grande Compact was structured , the more water this basin receives, the higher percentage of it must be sent downriver, and the obligation percentage on the Conejos is already higher than the Rio Grande. In a big water year, which doesn’t happen very often , the Conejos system would have to send 70 percent of its water downstream, he said.

In normal water years, the basin has to send about a third of its water downstream to New Mexico and Texas.

“The delivery schedules dictate how much we can use,” Vandiver explained. Currently Conejos River system users are seeing a curtailment of more than 40 percent and the Rio Grande irrigators about 28 percent.

“On the Conejos system we are probably going to have to shut off early just to meet the compact,” Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten said yesterday during the Rio Grande Roundtable meeting. He added the Rio Grande could probably make it to the first of November, the scheduled ending point for the irrigation season, but not extend past that point.

He said he will meet with Rio Grande irrigators before making the final decision on when to shut off the irrigation season this year. Vandiver, who held the division engineer position prior to Cotten and Mike Sullivan, described the headaches of managing water deliveries in the Rio Grande Basin (San Luis Valley) so that Rio Grande Compact deliveries are made and irrigators receive the water due them.

He said there are so many variables that affect runoff and stream flow every year from rain to dust on snow. He said NRCS has depended on various snow measurement sites around the basin through the years but has not had the funding and manpower recently to maintain, improve or increase those sites. When SNOTEL sites are not maintained, they are not able to provide accurate information for annual forecasts. For example, he said the SNOTEL site at Wolf Creek had problems ranging from large trees laying across it to a gopher hole in the middle of it that were not fixed before last winter, so the site did not work right, and it is one of the key sites in the SNOTEL system.

Conejos River irrigators are embarking on a $237,000 pilot project to use a portable radar system coupled with meteorological stations and river data collection sites to determine if there might be a better way to forecast runoff and stream flows in the basin, or at least to augment the information provided through NRCS. The Rio Grande Roundtable and state water board provided funding for that pilot project.

Nathan Coombs, manager for the Conejos Water Conservancy District that is spearheading this project, said it is not the group’s intention to influence or circumvent NRCS “We don’t need to pitch that aside and start over” but to collect data on a parallel track and see if it is useful for future forecasting efforts. Coombs said the best place for the radar truck to be set up would either be Antonito or at the airport in Alamosa. He added the radar coverage would provide information for both the Conejos and Rio Grande.

Cotten said his office is not mandated to use NRCS forecasts , “but there’s nothing else out there really.”

He added the weather service had started doing some forecasting.

“We are looking at their forecasts also.”

He said the NRCS and weather service forecasts were about 100,000 acre feet apart from each other this year, and it appeared the weather service’s forecast was closer to the truth this time, “which doesn’t always happen.”

Roundtable board member Cindy Medina suggested the roundtable or another group take the lead on presenting a package of basin snow measurement needs to legislators like Senator Michael Bennet who could work with NRCS to make sure funding is in place to meet those needs.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.


San Luis Valley: Well rules heading into home stretch — Valley Courier

August 15, 2014

San Luis Valley Groundwater

San Luis Valley Groundwater


From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Years in the making, rules to govern wells in the San Luis Valley are likely one meeting away. In Alamosa yesterday Colorado Division of Water Resources State Engineer Dick Wolfe told the advisory group assisting his office in developing the rules that he expects next month’s meeting to be the last one before he submits groundwater rules to the water court.

“We have been working at this a long time now,” Wolfe said. “We would like to get this through.”

One of the goals of the rules is to reach sustainability in the confined (deep) and unconfined (shallow) aquifers in the Rio Grande Basin, which encompasses the San Luis Valley. The state legislature has set that sustainability benchmark as the time period between 1978 and 2000, and the rules specify how that goal will be determined and reached.

Wolfe said the peer review team, which has overseen the technical aspects associated with the rules, will be meeting again on Monday to finalize changes to the g r o u n d w a t e r m o d e l t h a t will be used to implement the rules. They will finalize response functions within the next few weeks, Wolfe added, and the final draft of the rules should be ready about this time next month.

Wolfe said anyone with further comments at this point should submit them to Deputy State Engineer Mike Sullivan.

“I envision about a month from now will be the last meeting and would envision very shortly thereafter being in a position to submit these to the water court for their consideration,” Wolfe said.

After Wolfe submits the groundwater rules to the court, objectors and supporters will have 60 days to file responses. If there are objections to the proposed rules, the judge will have to set a trial date to deal with objections that have not yet been resolved by that date. Wolfe said in Division 2, there were 21-22 objections filed , but the state was able to resolve all of the issues raised in the objections short of a trial.

“I hope we get to do that on these. We would like to get these implemented and operational,” he said.

The rules will become effective 60 days after publication or after all protests have been resolved, in the event there are protests.

Trying to minimize the objections that might arise over proposed groundwater rules, Wolfe set up an advisory group at the onset of the rulemaking process. In January 2009 he signed an order establishing the advisory committee, which includes representatives from senior and well user associations, residents from the basin’s various geographical areas, canal and irrigation companies , municipality and county designees, federal and state agencies, engineers and water attorneys. The initial group, comprised of 56 members , met for the first time in March of 2009. At that time Wolfe told the group he hoped to submit well regulations to the water court by the end of that year.

The process took longer than initially expected, in part due to the laborious development and revision of the groundwater model, the Rio Grande Decision Support System.

The arduous process may soon be over, however. Advisory group member LeRoy Salazar told Wolfe yesterday he hoped the rules would be ready by October so the farmers and ranchers could have time to review them in the winter months when they are not as busy.

“I think we are almost there,” Salazar said. “We appreciate all the work so many of you have done getting these rules.”

Wolfe explained as he went through changes in the proposed rules yesterday that most of the modifications now are for the purpose of clarity, consistency and flexibility within the document.

One new definition introduced into the document during yesterday’s meeting was composite water head, the metric by which sustainable water supplies will be evaluated and regulated. The composite water head represents water levels or artesian pressures of an aquifer system within specified areas. It is derived from the annual measurements collected outside of the irrigation season of multiple monitoring wells, water level or artesian pressure and applies weighting within the specified areas. The metric will refer to the change in the composite water head from a baseline rather than an aquifer’s absolute elevation.

Water Division 3 Assistant Division Engineer James Heath explained that this is not based on individual wells but composite water head representative of different areas throughout the Valley that have been divided into four response areas: Conejos Response Area; Alamosa La Jara Response Area; Saguache Response Area; and San Luis Creek Response Area.

“Each well would have its own percentage based on the area it represents,” he said. Wolfe said the water division has been working with the Rio Grande Water Conservation District to add new monitoring wells in areas where there might not be sufficient existing wells to provide representative data.

Those are scheduled to be in place by March 2015, which will serve as a baseline for the groundwater rules. Wolfe said the model would utilize the data that has been gathered over time as well as the new data, which will fill in some gaps that have existed in data collection. He added within 10 years after the effective date of the rules his office, using the model and all of the collected well monitoring data, should be able to establish with a fair amount of confidence the historical average composite water head for each response area for 1978-2000 , the sustainability target set by the state legislature.

“That’s what we are building back to,” Wolfe said. Heath said the new data would be calibrated into the model, which can go back in time to extrapolate the 1978-2000 ranges not available in existing data.

“This 10-year time frame gives us time to add in additional information ” that will better give us confidence when estimating the water levels in these locations going forward.”

The rules require that after five years the composite water head in each response area must be above the minimum level it was in 2015, the starting point.

“If not, there’s a provision they’ve got to reduce their pumping levels back to what they were in the 1978-2000 period,” Wolfe explained. The next benchmark is at 10 years and the next at 20 years, Wolfe added. Between the 11th and 20th years, composite water levels must be maintained above the 1978-2000 range for at least three out of 10 years, Wolfe explained.

“Once we reach the 20th year, they’ve got to meet absolutely that sustainability requirement from that point forward ” This is just the first step in that process getting there.”

Salazar said the 1978-2000 target set by the legislature may have been based on faulty assumptions and may need to be modified.

“I guess in the end we may need to go back to the legislature and say it didn’t make sense to do what you did,” Salazar said. “We didn’t have the database we needed.”

Wolfe said the data collected from this point on may confirm the need to go back to the legislature, but “what this does is gets us started on the path so we can collect data we need.”

He added, “We may have to come back and amend the rules at some point.”

He said the primary purposes of this plan are to protect senior water rights and reach sustainability, and if the plan needs to be modified in the future, the state can go back to the court to do that.

Pat McDermott from the water division office said the state is recognizing this basin has finite water supplies.

“We have to learn to live within our means,” he said. “That’s what this is all about.”

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here.


Fountain Creek: “It seems to me at some point there will be a balance between water rights and property rights” — Steve Witte

July 23, 2014
Fountain Creek flood debris May 2014 via The Pueblo Chieftain

Fountain Creek flood debris May 2014 via The Pueblo Chieftain

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Would a dam on Fountain Creek make a difference in a situation such as last week’s drainage along the Arkansas River?

“It is something we need to talk about,” Water Division 2 Engineer Steve Witte said Monday, looking back at a wild ride of a week on the river. “It’s a discussion that needs to take place. It seems to me at some point there will be a balance between water rights and property rights.”

The Arkansas Basin Roundtable earlier this month turned away a grant request from the Fountain Creek Flood Control and Greenway District to study the practical effects of building a dam or system of detention ponds on Fountain Creek.

Chief among objections: the damage to junior water rights. By changing the peak flow on Fountain Creek floods — delaying the time it takes water to reach points downstream — junior water rights might not come into priority.

On the other hand, the peak flows that came crashing off the prairie into already full canals caused three of them to blow out after storms early last week.

“We already have an example, Pueblo Dam, of how we can reduce flood damage,” Witte said. “On the South Platte, they already are using upstream, out-of-priority storage. They use the water where it exists and determines who gets it later.”

Answering the basic question of whether those types of programs might work on Fountain Creek — the largest single tributary to the Arkansas River in Colorado — needs to be explored. Otherwise the only option to catch floodwater below Lake Pueblo is John Martin Reservoir, Witte said.

“I hope they’ll come back with a revised request,” he said.

One of the problems with last week’s storms is that much of the water was flowing in from unmeasured creeks and gullies. There are no gauges on Chico Creek or Kramer Creek, both a few miles east of Pueblo. Chico Creek boosts flows past the Avondale gauge, but no one can be sure just how much is being contributed to the river. The break in the Colorado Canal was caused by heavy flows on Kramer Creek near Nepesta.

“We were just flying blind,” said Witte, who witnessed the flooding at Nepesta.

The water from several tributaries hit the Arkansas River at the same time, creating “waves” that peaked quickly and then subsided. Some falsely high readings caused unnecessary worries downstream, where no major flooding occurred.

While the system of satellite river gauges has grown in the past 25 years, and provide easy access to information on the Internet, some malfunctioned during last week’s storms. Division of Water Resources staff scrambled to find out what was happening.

“I think we’ve improved, but there is still an element of human judgment,” Witte said. “We need to have people on the ground to verify if our gauges are accurate.”

More Fountain Creek coverage here and here.


Colorado Water Officials Association (CWOA) conference October 1-3

July 21, 2014
Steamboat Springs

Steamboat Springs

From email from the Division of Water Resources (Laura Kalafas):

Hello, we are having our annual Colorado Water Officials Association (CWOA) conference October 1-3, 2014, in Steamboat Springs, CO. Please let me know if your company/organization is interested in being an event sponsor…We would be happy to list your company/organization in our conference program and other publications.

Click here for the agenda
Click here for more information
Click here for the registration form
Click here for the sponsorship form

More Colorado Division of Water Resources coverage here.


A look at Rio Grande Compact administration this season #RioGrande

July 20, 2014
Rio Grande and Pecos River basins

Rio Grande and Pecos River basins

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

After years of drought, more water in the San Luis Valley’s rivers is a welcome change, but it comes with a price.

With higher stream levels comes a higher obligation that must be paid to downstream states. Colorado Division of Water Resources Division Engineer for Division 3 Craig Cotten reminded Valley residents of that fact during his report on Tuesday to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board.

When the forecasts increased for the Rio Grande and Conejos River systems, so did the curtailments on irrigators, he explained, because Colorado’s obligation to New Mexico and Texas also increased.

Cotten said the annual forecast for the Rio Grande has increased every month since May because more water is expected now than forecasters predicted this spring. The May forecast for the Rio Grande was 475,000 acre feet. In June the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) increased the projected annual index for the Rio Grande to 545,000 acre feet and this month bumped it up even higher to 590,000 acre feet.

“That’s up significantly from what we had projected earlier on in the season,” Cotten said. The obligation to downstream states from the Rio Grande is 158,400 acre feet from that new 590,000-acrefoot forecast. With the water that has already been delivered , estimated deliveries for this winter, and a contribution from the Closed Basin Project, the water resources division is projecting it must deliver about 22,000 acre feet during the remainder of the irrigation season. To reach that goal, the division is curtailing irrigators 25 percent, which is significantly higher than curtailments earlier in the irrigation season. Curtailments in April and May were 7-10 percent, with curtailments increasing to 15 percent in June, 21 percent by July 3 and 25 percent July 4th.

“That’s just because of the increased forecast amount and needing to deliver quite a bit more to the downstream states,” Cotten said.

“We are watching that pretty closely,” he added. “Depending on the monsoon season, if we do get a significant amount of rain and rain events, there’s a possibility we may have to go up a little higher than that.”

Curtailments on the Conejos River system are even higher. Since July 4, the curtailment on the Conejos has been 32 percent with only the #1 and #2 ditches in priority right now, according to Cotten . The curtailment on April 1 was 12 percent, decreasing to 6 percent by April 4 and 1 percent by May 7, but then increasing to 14 percent on June 7 and jumping to 27 percent by June 21.

“Curtailment of the ditches is indicative of raising the forecast every month,” he said. The projected annual index for the Conejos River system was 185,000 acre feet in May, 210,000 acre feet in June and is now estimated at 220,000 acre feet.

Of the 220,000 acre-foot annual flow , the Conejos River system owes 57,000 acre feet to New Mexico and Texas. To reach that goal, the Conejos will have to send about 8,000 acre feet downstream during the remainder of the irrigation season, according to Cotten.

Cotten shared the threemonth precipitation outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for August, September and October.

“For the first time in quite a few years we are in the above-average range,” he said. “It’s looking like we are going to have a pretty good monsoon season.”

Temperatures during that three-month period will be another court case where the fine could top that.

“We are watching the well meter usage and metering and making sure everybody has active and accurate meters on their wells,” he said.

In his report to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board on Tuesday, District Engineer Allen Davey said both the unconfined and confined aquifers had shown some improvement recently, but the basin has a long ways to go to re-establish the kind of aquifer levels the state legislature mandated, reflecting the levels of the period from 1978-2000 .

The confined aquifer, or deeper aquifer, has improved this last year by an overall total of about 2.66 feet in the wells included in Davey’s study. He said if the weather returned to a wetter cycle, with improved run off, irrigators would not need to pump as much, and the aquifers would naturally improve.

He added, “If we have bigger water years and the pumping stays the same, the aquifer will recover, and if the pumping is reduced, the aquifer will recover more.”

Since 1976 the unconfined aquifer, or shallow aquifer, in an area representative of the area now covered by the first groundwater management sub-district has declined a total of more than one million acre feet. Davey said the study area showed some improvement this spring with the aquifer level increasing by 105,000 acre feet during June, for example. “equal chances” of being in the average range.

Cotten said his office has had to file four or five court cases in the last month or so against well owners who did not comply with the well use rules, specifically not turning in well usage numbers or not having valid well meters in place. Fines could range from a few hundred dollars in simple cases to thousands of dollars. One irrigator is looking at a fine of more than $8,0000, Cotten said, and his office is currently working on He reminded the group that the target level required by legislators is -200 ,000 to -400 ,000 acre feet for a fiveyear running average.

“Right now it’s about 500,000 acre feet below that -400 ,000,” he said.

He said it’s like gas in a vehicle’s tank, and the more the vehicle uses, the lower the gas level is.

“What we need to do in order to recover is reduce the amount of ‘driving’ we are doing ,” Davey said. “Well users need to ‘drive’ less, pump less water, irrigate less land.”

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.


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