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.


CFWE: Transbasin Diversion Webinar Series November 12, December 10, January 14

October 22, 2014

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer's office

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office


From email from the CFWE:

The Colorado Foundation for Water Education and Colorado Water Congress are working together to bring you a series of webinars focusing on Transbasin Diversions in Colorado. The webinars will include a diverse range of panelists and presenters to expand upon CFWE’s newest Citizen’s Guide to Colorado’s Transbasin Diversions and coming blog series. Stay tuned for speaker information and details.

Click here to register.

More Colorado Foundation for Water Education coverage here.


Aspinall Unit update: 350 cfs in Black Canyon

October 22, 2014
Blue Mesa Reservoir

Blue Mesa Reservoir

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from Crystal Dam will be decreased from 1150 cfs to 1050 cfs on Wednesday, October 22nd at 10:00 AM. The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association will be decreasing diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel Wednesday morning. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the October baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow 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 800 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 350 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be around 700 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will still be around 350 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

More Aspinall Unit coverage here.


#ColoradoRiver District 2014 Water Seminar videos available

October 22, 2014


Weekly Climate, Water and Drought Assessment of the Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin

October 22, 2014

wyutcoprecipitation1001thru10192014

Click here to read the current assessment. Click here to go to the NIDIS website hosted by the Colorado Climate Center.


Water Lines: Water year review & outlook — the Grand Junction Free Press

October 22, 2014

Colorado River Basin including out of basin demands -- Graphic/USBR

Colorado River Basin including out of basin demands — Graphic/USBR


From the Grand Junction Free Press (Hannah Holm):

Golden cottonwood trees and shorter days signal not just the changing of the seasons, but also the transition from one water year to the next, as irrigation demands taper off and snow starts to accumulate in the high country. Oct. 1 is the official turning point, so 2015 has already arrived in water time.

The 2014 water year brought relief to most of Colorado and the Upper Colorado River Basin after two very dry years. Above-average precipitation eased drought conditions and allowed reservoir levels to creep upwards.

Blue Mesa Reservoir, Colorado’s largest, is now 71-percent full, in much better shape than at this time last year, when it was just 42-percent full. Near average inflows brought Lake Powell, the “savings account” for the Upper Colorado River Basin to meet downstream obligations, up to 51-percent full. It was just 45-percent full at this time last year. Inflows to Lake Powell in both 2012 and 2013 were less than half of average.

Soil moisture is also looking pretty good, with levels in most of the Upper Colorado Basin above average, although there are some dry spots in the four-corners area of New Mexico and Arizona and in southwestern Wyoming. Soil moisture in the fall is a factor in how much snowmelt reaches streams and reservoirs the following year, as opposed to being sucked into dry ground.

What will the [2015] water year bring? That remains a largely open question, although it does appear that the Southwest will get some relief from persistent drought. The three-month outlook issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in September indicates that conditions are likely to be wetter than average in Arizona, New Mexico, Southern Utah and Southern Colorado. Farther north in Colorado and Utah and in Wyoming, the three-month forecast shows “equal chances” of drier and wetter conditions.
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The Bureau of Reclamation forecasts that the “most probable” inflows into Lake Powell in the 2015 water year will be 98 percent of average, while acknowledging that water supply forecasts at this time of year are highly uncertain. Conditions do appear favorable for another high-flow experimental release in November to benefit the Grand Canyon ecosystem by flushing sediment downstream. Total releases from Powell in 2015 are expected to 8.23 million acre feet, up from 7.480 million acre feet in 2014, which was the lowest release since Lake Powell filled in the 1960s.

This is also the time of year when we can start to look at snowpack numbers to get clues about what the coming water year (and ski season!) will bring. However, it’s also impossible to draw any reasonable conclusions from snowpack numbers now, since the total amounts are so small and “percent of normal” can swing wildly overnight.

So, keeping in mind that this is largely a recreational exercise, we do have some early data: Most Colorado river basins have less than half of the average water content in their snowpack for this time of year, except that the Gunnison has 65 percent and the Arkansas Basin has 93 percent. In Utah, the snowpack in the river basins that drain the Wasatch Mountains into the Great Basin have between 400-900 percent of their average water content for this time of year, while levels in Utah’s portion of the Colorado Basin range from 41-83 percent of average. Snowpack numbers for Wyoming are also way below average, and no data is available yet for New Mexico.

Here are two websites that are very useful for keeping track of climate, water supply and streamflow information:

• The Colorado Climate Center and National Integrated Drought Information System page on Upper Colorado River Basin water conditions, at http://climate.colostate.edu/~drought.

• The University of Colorado-based Western Water Assessment’s “Intermountain West Climate Dashboard,” at http://wwa.colorado.edu/climate/dashboard.html.

You can also get information on current conditions and operations at Lake Powell from the US Bureau of Reclamation at http://www.usbr.gov/uc/water/crsp/cs/gcd.html.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.


Durango faces possible $55 million in wastewater plant upgrades

October 22, 2014
Wastewater Treatment Process

Wastewater Treatment Process

From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):

In addition to the staggering estimate, the construction must be completed by December 2017 to meet state regulations for higher water quality.

Currently, the plant is releasing more nitrogen and phosphorous into the Animas River than the new regulations allow.

If the plant does not meet the new rules, it could be placed under a consent order by the state and will not be allowed to build any more sewer taps. This would halt any city growth. It could also equate to a $25,000 daily fine, said Utilities Director Steve Salka.

The regulations were approved in 2012 because high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous causes algae to bloom faster than ecosystems can handle. Too much algae deprives fish and other aquatic life of oxygen, said Meghan Trubee, community relations liaison for the Colorado Water Quality Control Division.

“We’re affecting the base of the food cycle in the wild,” said John Sandhaus, wastewater treatment plant superintendent for the city of Durango.

To remove what is effectively too much fertilizer, the sewer plant will need greater capacity and new technology, he said.

The upgrades should make the plant quieter and reduce the sickening smell that occasionally wafts across Santa Rita Park.

“If this plant is built the way we suggest it be built, you won’t even know it’s here,” Salka said.

Designs include 11 new structures, including a new administration building that may be built near the park to distance the public from the process, Salka said.

The capacity of the plant also will be increased from 3 millions gallons of water per day to 4 million, so it would be prepared for growth.

The new structures will add more equipment to almost every step of the treatment process.

When raw sewage enters the plant, it flows into a headworks building where the current flow-measurement device is too small to handle peak times. It also violates state standards because it cannot be cleaned or calibrated because it is underneath the concrete floor, Sandhaus said.

Once inorganic matter is removed, the waste flows into stilling basins, called primary clarifiers. Here, solid waste is separated from the liquid waste. These would not be replaced, but they would be covered with domes to filter the air.

The water then flows into an aeration basin where micro-organisms digest the waste in the water.

“We call ourselves bug farmers,” Sandhaus joked, while looking out across the dark-brown bubbling basins.

Four new aeration basins must be built with about five times the capacity of the existing basins, Sandhaus said.

Management also plans to replace the blowers that pump air into the basins from direct current to alternating current for efficiency, Salka said.

Solids are then removed from the water again in secondary basins, and the plant will need two more of these basins.

The water is then sterilized with ultraviolet light. A secondary sterilizer will be part of the upgrades because the plant is violating state regulations without one.

Sludge is processed separately from water in a digester. Much as the name suggests, here micro-organisms feed on the waste. The upgrades call for another digester that will prevent the stench currently caused by cleaning and maintenance.

Under the plan, processed waste will be dried in another new building. Here, human waste will be turned into dry pellets that can be sold as fertilizer.

Currently, the plant produces four to five tanker truck loads a day of mostly water mixed with 2.5 percent processed human waste. The plant pays $250,000 a year to truck this waste away.

The preliminary designs also call for a station where restaurants could send grease instead of pouring it down a drain. This can be used to increase the production of methane and produce more electricity.

All of these improvements would be scheduled, so that the plant can continue processing waste during construction. April 2016 is the earliest that construction may start.

More wastewater coverage here.


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