Arkansas River Basin Water Forum: “What happens when you overdevelop?” — Jim Pokrandt #COWaterPlan

April 24, 2014
Arkansas River Basin -- Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey

Arkansas River Basin — Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey

Chris Woodka was front and center at the Arkansas Basin Water Forum. Below are 3 articles recapping the first day of the event.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A team of paragliders won’t cut it out of a glacier with a chainsaw. A ski patrol can’t bring it down from the top of a snowy mountain. Deep-sea divers won’t blow up an iceberg to get at it. In other words, no Silver Bullet for the state water plan. But it will provide options, said James Eklund, executive director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

“If you want to do planning, you have to do it before the crisis hits,” Eklund told the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum at Otero Junior College on Wednesday. “We’re not going to luck into what we want for our kids. We have to be intentional.”

The state water plan occupied all of the attention at the first day of the forum, along with the Arkansas Basin Roundtable’s basin implementation plan. The forum continues today with the focus on preserving irrigation for farms. The basin plan will be part of a draft state water plan that will be submitted to the governor in December.

“I can’t tell you what will be in the plan,” Eklund said. “It has to come from the grassroots up.”

The basin roundtables, the Interbasin Compact Committee and the CWCB have been talking about the core issues of a water plan — alternatives to ag dry-up, urban conservation, new supply, storage and environmental needs — for 10 years. New meetings are pushing to include more people in the statewide conversation, with about a dozen more planned in the next three months.

Eklund stressed the need to preserve watershed health to prepare for drought, floods and fires that have plagued the state for the past two years. While there will be measurable outcomes, the state water plan likely will not contain blanket solutions for filling the needs of cities on the Front Range as more people move into the state, he added.

“There may be tough decisions in the future,” Eklund said, speaking about some climate models that show reduced snowpack in coming years. “If climate change occurs, at that point dramatic steps will be taken. We have to be comfortable as a state.”

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The Arkansas River basin is no stranger to the troubles of overdevelopment of water resources. But its neighbors also have complaints as they develop their part of the state water plan. Experts from four other basins shared some of those Wednesday at the Arkansas River Basin Water Forum at Otero Junior College.

September’s record floods were a mixed blessing for the South Platte basin, said Sean Cronin, executive director of the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District.

“While some reservoirs filled, it wiped out the infrastructure to deliver water to ditches,” Cronin said.

The Rio Grande basin has been in drought since 2002, and will provide little help in meeting the state’s water gap because it’s struggling to fill its own needs, said Mike Gibson, general manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District.

“We’re an ag-based economy, and we have a gap already,” Gibson said.

He jokingly suggested moving Interstate 70 — the dividing line for the state’s wet and dry weather — 300 miles south to solve state water problems.

The Gunnison River basin is softening its hard line against taking water out of its basin, but would demand tough conservation measures and no Colorado River Compact complications before agreeing to any further diversions out of the basin, said John McClow, attorney for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. It’s still not a popular idea.

“We’re an untapped basin and intend to keep it that way,” McClow said. “And, we’re paranoid.”

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer's office

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

The Colorado River basin is also resistant to more transmountain diversions, said Jim Pokrandt, an education and communication specialist for the Colorado River District. The Front Range already takes 450,000-600,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River each year, so there is no excess water. Pokrandt applauded cooperative agreements with the Denver Water Board and proposals by the Northern Water Conservancy District as examples of moving ahead collaboratively. The Colorado River basin is cautious because of the types of problems the Arkansas River and Republican River basins already have faced.

“What happens when you overdevelop?” Pokrandt asked. “The Colorado River Basin Roundtable does not want that kind of future.”

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

An aquatic biologist who worked to establish a high-quality fishery on the Upper Arkansas River was honored Wednesday. Greg Policky, who works for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, received the Bob Appel Friend of the Arkansas River award at the 20th Arkansas River Basin Water Forum. The award is named for the late Bob Appel, who was a farmer and conservationist who helped found the forum 20 years ago. Policky has been the state’s primary biologist for the Upper Arkansas River for more than 20 years and has worked to improved the brown trout fishery.

“His attention to detail and collection of objective fishery data has provided numerous benefits to the river’s fishery,” said Jean Van Pelt, in introducing him at the forum.

In addition to programs and studies, his ability to provide public education about fisheries was cited.

“His goal is to increase the public understanding of aquatic ecology and fishery management,” she said. “He has actively targeted angling organizations and land resource agencies, but he finds his most rewarding beneficiaries in school-age children.”

Policky was humble in accepting the award, thanking members of the Arkansas River basin forum for working together on the voluntary flow program, which modulates reservoir releases for the benefit of fish.

Past winners of the Appel award are Mike Conlin, Denzel Goodwin, Paul Flack, Reed Dils, Carl Genova, Allen Ringle, Bud O’Hara, Alan Hamel and Steve Witte.

More Forum coverage from Bette McFarren writing for the La Junta Tribune-Democrat:

The 20th Arkansas River Basin Water Forum “Planning and Planting for the Future” got under way on Tuesday evening at Otero Junior College. Welcoming the group was La Junta Utility Board Chairman Lorenz Sutherland.

The first session was “Landscaping for Drought Tour of Otero Junior College Campus,” an informative session on selecting drought tolerant plants, xeriscape principles and growing drought tolerant trees, conducted by Genia Short of Otero Junior College, Liz Catt of Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, and Shelly Simmons of the Colorado State Forest Service. The group urged use of drip irrigation and showed the simple and inexpensive tubing needed to accomplish the job. Also stressed were weed barrier material which is water permeable, gravel for mulch and edging to keep out encroaching grass. Also, look at your neighbors’ yards for good drought-tolerant plants. Anything with a bulb or tuber, such as irises and tulips, are drought-tolerant. Also, the old-fashioned bushes like spirea and rose of Sharon are good. Many other design suggestions and tree selection pointers made the session extremely worthwhile.

In the next session, Kevin Rein of the State Engineer’s Office explained the complications of the Colorado water rights system. It sounds simple, first in, first rights, but industrial, agricultural and municipal needs have complicated matters. Many states, in fact more than half of the United States, depend on water originating in Colorado, known as the Headwater State. “It falls as snow on our mountains,” said Rein, “melts, and runs off out of state. We try to catch a little of it as it goes by.”

La Junta’s Director of Water and Wastewater Joe Kelley led off the session on the Arkansas Valley Conduit, supported by Erin Mink, of Senator Mark Udall’s office. She recalled 20 years ago when she was warned about our drinking water while she was working at Bent’s Old Fort. Also making comments about the conduit were Doris Morgan of Congressman Cory Gardner’s office and Brian McCain, of Congressman Scott Tipton’s office. They emphasized that all of Colorado’s congressional representatives are supporting the Arkansas Valley Conduit.

On Wednesday morning, the really big crowd arrived, filling the adjacent parking lots around the Otero Junior College Student Center. Host Chairman Lorenz Sutherland, Otero County Commissioner Keith Goodwin, and La Junta City Manager Rick Klein welcomed the group. The local color guard presented the colors. The keynote speaker was James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, who spoke on “Colorado’s Water Plan.”

More Arkansas River Basin coverage here.

Aspinall Unit Operation Coordination Meeting, April 24 #ColoradoRiver

April 23, 2014

Apr 2014 Agenda

Aspinall Unit operations update

April 11, 2014


From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association (UVWUA) will be diverting an additional 100 cfs through the Gunnison Tunnel Monday morning, April 14th. At the same time, releases from Crystal Dam will also be increased by 100 cfs, from 850 cfs to 950 cfs. After this change, the total flow through the Gunnison Tunnel should be about 500 cfs, which should leave about 450 to 500 cfs in the Gunnison River downstream of the tunnel.

More Aspinall Unit coverage here.

The Gunnison County Commissioners take a look at the Gunnison Roundtable basin implementation plan #COWaterPlan

April 11, 2014
Gunnison River Basin via the Colorado Geological Survey

Gunnison River Basin via the Colorado Geological Survey

From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (George Sibley):

Concern about possible transmountain diversions dominated a public information-and-input meeting in Gunnison on Gunnison Basin Roundtable water planning.

The Gunnison County Commissioners hosted the meeting during their work session Tuesday, March 25. Thirty-five or 40 citizens participated in the discussion through the course of a two-hour meeting.

The water plan under consideration was the Gunnison Basin Roundtable’s contribution to the Colorado Water Plan ordered by Governor John Hickenlooper in May 2013; the plan will create possible solutions for a significant gap between the known water supply and the needs of a population projected to grow 60-100 percent by mid-century, mostly in the Front Range metropolis. Presenting information on the Gunnison Basin plan were roundtable members Frank Kugel, Rufus Wilderson and George Sibley.

The meeting focused mainly on goals that have been identified for the Gunnison Basin over the next four decades, and some “statewide principles” that it hopes to persuade at least the other West Slope basin roundtables to adopt in negotiations for the statewide water plan; some may be acceptable to all eight state river basins plus the metro area.

The priority goal stated for the Gunnison Basin is “to protect all existing water uses.” Roundtable members, according to Sibley, feel that the Gunnison Basin now has a good mix of consumptive uses (agricultural and municipal/domestic/industrial) and non-consumptive uses (environmental, recreational and hydropower), town-and-country, working-and-playing landscapes, and they want to carry that forward into the future. Change should be incremental, and weighed against its impact on existing uses.

Some of the citizen input warned the roundtable presenters to anticipate possible major changes in the headwaters region, from the oil and gas industry and potential mining operations for copper, molybdenum and “rare earth” minerals. Several citizens wanted to see more focus on water quality.

Other intra-basin goals discussed supporting the priority goal. While the planning process was brought about by a projected metropolitan water shortage, the municipal/industrial shortage in the Gunnison Basin is projected to be small, around 6,500 acre-feet (enough for approximately 13,000 four-person households) — roughly one percent of the projected statewide municipal/industrial shortage, and probably manageable through some anticipated agricultural land-use changes.

The heavily agricultural basin does, however, have a significant existing shortage of agricultural water, mostly late in the season, limiting the productivity of the land. Concern over these shortages is not limited to the ranchers; it acknowledges the close relationship between the valley’s agricultural land base and its economically important non-consumptive uses — the environmental and recreational uses also dependent on the extensive groundwater storage, wildlife wetlands and increased late season flows that result from irrigated floodplains, as well as aesthetic open-space considerations.

Most of the concerns expressed by the citizens present, however, reflected a Gunnison Basin antipathy toward headwaters diversions across the Continental Divide going back to the 1930s. These fears were not entirely allayed by the “Statewide Principles” being advanced in the Gunnison Plan. Kugel and Sibley explained that the strategy was to set the bar so high, for Front Range demand reduction preceding any diversion and West Slope compensations in exchange for any diversion, that the diversion would prove to be economically unfeasible. This strategy is furthered by the fact that both the Gunnison and Upper Colorado Basins are now over-appropriated in sub-average water years; any new diversion would be limited to above-average water years — a serious risk for the Front Range water suppliers to contemplate, given the projections for climate change on the one hand and the high cost of “pumpback” projects on the other.

That notwithstanding, the message from the audience was clearly for the roundtable to not be “soft” on the inevitable discussion of further transmountain diversion from any West Slope basin, since water removed from any of them increases the amount of water the other basins must send downstream for still undefined Lower Basin obligations.

Other public-input meetings are planned for other communities throughout the Gunnison Basin over the coming weeks. In addition, a public survey is available online, through the Upper Gunnison River District website —

The roundtable is now moving into the stage of generating specific plans for meeting the identified needs and expressed goals. The roundtable meets the first Monday of every month, except for January, July and September, at 4 p.m. in the Holiday Inn Express in Montrose; the meetings are open to the public. The meeting on June 2 will precede a “State of the River” informational event held in conjunction with the Colorado River District at 7 p.m.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

Aspinall Unit update: The Uncompahgre Water Users are calling for water #ColoradoRiver

April 8, 2014
Gunnison Tunnel via the National Park Service

Gunnison Tunnel via the National Park Service

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association (UVWUA) will be diverting an additional 100 cfs through the Gunnison Tunnel tomorrow morning Tuesday, April 8th. At the same time, releases from Crystal Dam will also be increased by 100 cfs, from 750 cfs to 850 cfs. After this change, the total flow through the Gunnison Tunnel should be about 400 cfs, which should leave about 450 to 500 cfs in the Gunnison River downstream of the tunnel.

Gunnison Basin Rountable basin implementation plan focuses on agriculture #COWaterPlan

April 2, 2014


From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Hannah Holm):

Current efforts to develop a Colorado Water Plan have been largely driven by a large projected gap between urban water needs and developed supplies. Gunnison Basin water planners, however, are more focused on a current gap between agricultural needs and developed supplies. The water managers and stakeholders that make up the Gunnison Basin Roundtable are concerned that efforts to address the urban gap will negatively impact agricultural uses, whose importance goes beyond food production to environmental and recreational values.

In the Gunnison Basin, which stretches from the headwaters near Crested Butte, Lake City, Ouray and Paonia downstream to Delta and Grand Junction, the anticipated gap between municipal needs and developed supplies is relatively small, while the gap between agricultural needs and supplies is already large.

According to the latest statewide water supply study, the present gap between water requirements to fully meet crop demands and water available is about 128,000 acre-feet per year in the Gunnison Basin. An acre-foot is about enough water to fill a football-field-sized tub one foot deep. This is generally considered sufficient to sustain two to three average households for a year.

Agricultural water shortages are experienced in every water district in the basin. The district that includes the North Fork of the Gunnison River and Delta has the largest gap at over 75,200 acre-feet per year. This district also has the largest number of irrigated acres in the basin, with 90,200. The Lake Fork and Lower Uncompahgre districts have the smallest gaps, at between 2,500 and 3,000 acre-feet per year. The farmers of the 79,800 irrigated acres in the Lower Uncompahgre District benefit from senior water rights and upstream reservoirs, while the Lake Fork District contains just 16,500 irrigated acres.

Analysis conducted so far points to a need for additional upstream reservoir storage to support late-summer and fall irrigation. The Wilson Water Group, the consulting group hired by the Gunnison Basin Roundtable to assist with the basin plan, is conducting targeted technical outreach meetings to more precisely identify the causes of the shortages and identify potential projects to address them. Causes for shortages can be categorized as physical (insufficient water available), legal (water is present, but the irrigator doesn’t have rights to it), storage-related (insufficient late-season water), or efficiency-related (sufficient water could be available if managed more efficiently).

The focus on agriculture in the Gunnison Basin makes sense, given that the Gunnison Basin Roundtable’s primary goal is to “protect existing water uses in the Gunnison Basin.” Agriculture (mostly grass and alfalfa hay, but also pasture, fruit trees, wine grapes and the famous Olathe Sweet Sweet Corn) accounts for approximately 90 percent of the basin’s water consumption. In addition to its intrinsic value, irrigated agriculture is also seen as supporting other valuable attributes of the basin’s landscape. It provides the aesthetic “open space” important to the basin’s growing recreational economy, and the flood irrigation for high hay meadows slows the flow of water downstream, supporting late-season streamflows. Flood irrigation also creates wetland areas that nurture birds and other wildlife.

Additional goals, supporting that primary goal of protecting existing water uses, include addressing municipal and industrial shortages, quantifying and protecting environmental and recreational water needs, and maintaining and modernizing critical water infrastructure, including hydropower.

The Gunnison Basin Roundtable has also put forward a number of “statewide principles” for consideration by other basin roundtables. These principles warn of the hazards of new water projects on the Western Slope and encourage conservation and the development of local projects to meet local needs. Those principles are a response to the perception that Basin Roundtables in basins east of the Continental Divide continue to look west for new water supplies, despite the fact that additional depletions from the West Slope could increase the risk that Colorado may not be able to meet its contractual obligations to the downstream states that share the Colorado River.

The basin roundtables are working to collect public input on water needs and priorities as well as to technically analyze supplies and demands. In order to learn more and take a survey to contribute your insights, go to and click on “Gunnison Basin Water Plan.”

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

The Spring 2014 Water Information Program newsletter is hot off the presses

March 31, 2014
US Drought Monitor March 25, 2014

US Drought Monitor March 25, 2014

Click here to read the newsletter.

Aspinall Unit update: 350 cfs in the Black Canyon #ColoradoRiver

March 17, 2014
Fog-filled Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Fog-filled Black Canyon of the Gunnison

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Flows in the Gunnison River have dropped to ~350 cfs today to accommodate the sonar mapping exercise at the Crystal Dam stilling basin.

Maintenance and testing of both power generators at Blue Mesa Dam will also start today – this is scheduled to be finished within 10 days. During this time there will be no power generation at Blue Mesa Dam. In order to minimize the amount of bypass water at Blue Mesa Dam, releases at Crystal Dam will remain at 300 cfs until the Blue Mesa power plant is back online. Therefore flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will continue to be around 350 cfs until further notice.

More Aspinall Unit coverage here.

Aspinall Unit update: 800 cfs in the Gunnison River below Crystal Dam #ColoradoRiver

March 9, 2014
Aspinall Unit via The Denver Post

Aspinall Unit via The Denver Post

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The March 1st runoff forecast for Blue Mesa Reservoir projects 850,000 af of inflow between April and July which is 126% of average. This represents a 35,000 af increase from the February 15th forecast.

Considering the wet conditions and increasing forecast, releases at Crystal Reservoir will be increased by 200 cfs on Friday morning, March 7th. This will bring releases and river flows up to 600 cfs. Then releases will be increased another 200 cfs on Monday morning, March 10th which will bring river flows up to 800 cfs.

On Monday, March 17th releases at Crystal will be reduced to 300 cfs for the day to accommodate an inspection of the stilling basin below Crystal dam. Flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will begin to drop to 300 cfs on Sunday before returning back to 800 cfs by Tuesday, March 18th.

More Aspinall Unit coverage here.

Conservation easements are helping to keep water in agriculture

March 9, 2014
Lake Fork Gunnison River

Lake Fork Gunnison River

From Steamboat Today (Michael Schrantz):

John McClow is general counsel for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and a member of Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy, which focuses its efforts solely on agriculture.

“We broker conservation easements to maintain working agriculture,” McClow said.

In the Upper Gunnison area, the organization has helped place easements on about 18,000 acres, which McClow said is a substantial percentage of the total area. Most of the easements have a financial incentive for the landowner, he said.

“Often, they will use the money to invest in more land,” McClow said, adding that it helps keep the ranch operation financially stable.

“Our easement activity has slowed a little bit,” he said. “We’ve pretty much picked all the low hanging fruit.”

The organization is getting into more complicated easements on lands that are more valuable and take more money, many being larger and closer to Crested Butte.

Gunnison County directs some funds from its 1 percent sales tax toward purchasing development rights, about $300,000 per year, according to Mike Pelletier.

“Typically, we’re able to fund what’s requested,” said Pelletier, who is the county contact for the program. “We have limited funds, and people just don’t ask if they don’t think we can fund it.”

The tax dollars were reauthorized in 2012, he said, and are used to match dollars from elsewhere…

“For every dollar we give to local land trusts, they attract $12 from outside” the county, he said. “By doing that you leverage a lot of outside money.”’

From Steamboat Today (Michael Schrantz):

George is working on his third easement with the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust. He’s donating the value of the development rights in return for a state tax credit he will sell for 82 cents on the dollar, but his previous two easements went through Routt County’s purchase of development rights program, which pairs tax dollars with other funds to buy the right to develop the land and places the property under an easement dedicated to conservation.

“The benefit was we were able to keep the family ranch in the family,” George said about the easements, especially one in 2012 that was valued at $2.56 million.

The PDR program contributed $825,000 toward that transaction, about 31 percent of the total cost.

That money helped buy out other family members while George’s other easements allowed him to buy more land and pay down debt on parcels he’d already purchased.

“If I die or if we sell the ranch, it cannot be subdivided,” he said. “All these parcels will stay their size.”

George thinks more ranchers should look into easements on their property.

“They lack the knowledge,” he said. “They’re scared of them.”[...]

As early as the 1980s and during the push for major development in Pleasant Valley south of Steamboat, residents banded together in support of open-space conservation.

In the mid-1990s, these efforts gained momentum with Routt County ranchers placing conservation easements on their property and new county policies being enacted to preserve open space.

The effect of this work can be seen in the absence of development.

The drive down Rabbit Ears Pass into Steamboat Springs shows an open south valley floor where hay meadows still dominate the view. Colorado Highway 131 cuts through working ranches in South Routt County, and traffic on county roads still sometimes pauses to accommodate cattle being moved to greener pastures.

Preventing the fragmentation of agricultural land through subdivision and development keeps more land in production and helps maintain the working order of the landscape.

Splitting large tracts of agricultural land into ranchettes and subdivisions means introducing new neighbors to rural Colorado.

“They just don’t have a clue to what’s going on in the ranching world,” Routt County commissioner Doug Monger said about some people who live near land he’s leased for his cattle. “No one fixes their fence.”

Colorado is a fence-out state where landowners are required to maintain a lawful fence if they want to keep cattle out of their land. The cattle owner is not responsible for trespassing by his livestock if a fence isn’t maintained…

Gunnison County, another Western Slope county with a long ranching heritage, has seen the effects of agricultural fragmentation that arise from subdividing working ranchland.

“What happens is when they put in the road and building sites then turn over management of the property to someone who has no experience in the area, it disrupts the irrigation system within that drainage,” said John McClow, general counsel for Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and member of Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy.

The Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy brokers easements for ranches in Gunnison County.

“It’s a disruption in the process that makes shortages much more frequent,” McClow said. “It’s not collaborative anymore.”

With flood-irrigated pasture, such as in Routt County, ranchers depend on water returning from their neighbors’ fields back into the river or ditches. Turning an upstream ranch into a subdivision or 35-acre parcels takes away return flows for the ranches below it.

Subdivisions downstream and closer to towns also pose challenges as the managers might be unfamiliar with how the river was managed in the past and place a call on the river if they aren’t getting their full allocation. Under Colorado’s prior appropriation system, when a senior rights holder places a call on a river, upstream junior appropriations must stop diverting water until the senior right has its full allocation.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Michael P. Dowling/Chris West):

There is a nice bonus for Colorado in the Farm Bill that President Obama signed last month (Feb. 7). Senate Conservation Subcommittee Chairman Michael Bennet, D-Colo., fought hard for programs that will enable Colorado conservation organizations and local governments to partner with landowners to keep our state’s unique ranches and farm lands in agriculture. The new Agricultural Lands Easement program will provide grants to purchase conservation easements that permanently restrict development on important ranches and farm lands. These voluntary agreements will ensure that land stays in agriculture and continues to be an important — and growing — part of our state’s economy.

The predecessors to this program have already conserved more than 1 million acres of economically and ecologically important agricultural lands. The new program will easily double that total.

Senator Bennet joined Senate Agricultural Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow of Michigan in leading the effort to pass this bi-partisan bill, working with other Colorado leaders, including Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., a member of the House Agriculture Committee.

Senator Bennett also changed the law to allow the agriculture secretary to waive a local cash-match requirement. This waiver will allow the program, at no additional cost, to protect the most important ranches and farmlands, even if they are in rural counties that don’t have the funding to match the federal grants.

But the question is: Why should this land conservation matter to the vast majority of Americans who are neither farmers nor ranchers?

While producing crops, livestock and other agricultural commodities for all Americans, properly managed working ranch lands and farms protect important habitat for our wildlife and fish; maintain cherished scenic vistas; and safeguard our water supplies and the water quality of our rivers. In addition, conserving these farms and ranches keeps farmers and ranchers on the land, and is protects an important part of our state’s economy.

Colorado has 29 land trusts that are members of the Land Trust Alliance, and they have protected more than 1.1 million acres using conservation easements alone. For example, more than 150 years of Colorado history — and a part of its future — were preserved when the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust and the Trust for Public Land completed an effort to protect 650 acres of the Hutchinson Ranch in Chaffee County. Protection of the Hutchinson Ranch was made possible by funding from the Farm Bill programs that Senator Bennet just improved, along with lottery-funded Great Outdoors Colorado and Chaffee County.

Though these lands — including such unique resources as the Hutchinson Ranch — are productive and important for agriculture, without action they are very much at risk. Non-agriculture development overtakes two acres of productive agricultural land every minute. But conservation easement programs ensure that our state’s most beautiful and productive ranches and farm land will continue into the future.

Near Rocky Ford in Southeastern Colorado, 12,200 acres of the Mendenhall Ranches were protected using Farm Bill conservation funding last summer. The Mendenhalls used the easement to secure the future for their ranch, which is almost entirely native shortgrass prairie, home to cattle and increasingly rare grassland wildlife.

That is why the Farm Bill’s Agricultural Lands Easement program makes both economic and ecologic sense for Colorado and for America. And that is why we should all thank Senator Bennet for his leadership in making the conservation programs in the Farm Bill work for ranchers and farmers.

More conservation easement coverage here and here.

Water bank for Western Slope irrigators? #ColoradoRiver

March 5, 2014


From (Emily Fredrick):

he Colorado River District traveled to Montrose and Palisade Tuesday to speak with irrigators about the possibility of a water bank on the Western Slope.

The new concept would increase security for the Upper Colorado River Basin water supplies and reduce the potential negative impacts of persisting drought conditions.

“We live in a desert and all the fruit and actually all the houses and lawns and everything that are here in the Valley are here because of the water in the Colorado River essentially,” said Palisade farmer, Guy Parker.

“If Colorado is ever in a situation where we have to curtail our water usage in order to meet our obligations to our downstream neighbors under the compact, under our existing agreements that we could use those pre-compact water rights for post compact critical uses, health and human safety uses,” said Colorado River District’s Chris Treese, “When we go to them and say it’s time, we’d really like you to consider, and we’d like to compensate you, how much compensation will that take what does that market look like and will we have enough water if we put a marketplace out there. We’d like to sign people up on an option basis that you are willing to forgo either in complete or in part your historical irrigation in order to prevent a less attractive situation,” said Treese.

“I think it’s a really good idea to be very proactive because we do live in a desert and there’s not enough water to go around, we really have to be proactive and really have to be creative in our solutions to what we’re going to do,” said Parker.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.

The Tri-County Water Conservation District is bringing on two hydroelectric generation stations at Ridgway Dam

February 24, 2014
Ridgway Dam via the USBR

Ridgway Dam via the USBR

From The Watch (Samantha Wright):

Over the past year and a half, two hydropower generators have sprung up at the foot of the dam: a smaller, 800kV generator that should run efficiently on the low, 30-60 cubic-feet-per-second flows in winter, and a larger, 7.2 megawatt generator to run on summertime release levels.

Next week, on Feb. 24 or 25, the smaller of these two units will be turned on and start producing a steady stream of green electricity, said Mike Berry of Tri-County Water Conservation District, the entity that manages the Ridgway dam and is building the power-generating facility at its base.

The big generator should be ready for testing by April or so, Berry said. When the project goes fully online later this spring or early summer, it will have a total plant capacity of 8 Megawatts – enough renewable power to run 2,250 homes and take the equivalent, in greenhouse gases, of 4,400 cars off the road.

Both units will operate during high reservoir releases in the summer, and only the smaller unit will operate during lower wintertime releases.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission, the wholesale electric supplier for San Miguel Power Association and the Delta-Montrose Electric Association, has built two short transmission lines at the hydropower plant. One will connect to the existing 115kV line running alongside the highway, and another will connect with the generating station.

Power generation will have to be carefully calibrated in order to maintain historic release patterns at the dam – one of the requirements of the Bureau of Reclamation’s final Environmental Assessment of the project – while maintaining healthy lake levels and maximizing power production.

In times of drought, the water rights of downstream irrigators, industries and municipalities will trump power generation…

Power generated at the hydro plant will be sold to two entities: Tri-State, and the City of Aspen. Tri-County WCD first started discussing a partnership with the City of Aspen in 2002. Eventually, this partnership evolved into a Power Purchase Agreement, or PPA.

In an agreement inked in 2010, Aspen agreed to purchase the wintertime output from the hydropower project, from Oct. 1 through May 31, for 20 years, to help further its goal of powering the city with purely renewable energy. Tri-State has agreed to purchase, for 10 years, the higher summertime output.

If projections hold up, about 10,000 MWh worth of energy will be “transferred” to the City of Aspen through the PPA annually (although it is doubtful that any of the actual electrons flowing into the grid from the new hydropower plant will travel that far). This amount is not set in concrete – Berry emphasized that there will be annual fluctuations in the amount of power that is delivered to Aspen, depending on a number of factors including whether it is a wet or a dry year, the timing of the spring runoff, and the demands of downstream water rights holders.

Tri-County WCD has secured $15 million in financing for the project – including a $13 million loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and a $2 million loan from Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority – and has sunk an additional $3 million of its own money into the project…

As the new hydropower plant at Ridgway Reservoir prepares to go online, legislation has been introduced at the state capitol to help streamline development of smaller hydropower projects throughout Colorado.

Last week, the Colorado House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed HB14-1030 by a vote of 62-3. The bipartisan legislation complements the recent streamlining of federal permitting requirements for small hydro through the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act.

HB14-1030 was introduced in the House by Reps. Mitsch, Bush and Coram. Senator sponsorship includes Senators Schwartz and Roberts as well as Hodge.

In essence, the bill “makes it possible to simultaneously complete federal and state review at the same time,” said Kurt Johnson, the president of the Colorado Small Hydro Association. It also seeks to streamline the electrical inspection process for small hydro, using precedents set in the small wind industry decades ago.

The Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee will hold a hearing on the pending legislation on Feb. 27.

More hydroelectric coverage here. More 2014 Colorado legislation coverage here.

Reclamation Releases a Draft Environmental Assessment for Piping the Slack and Patterson Laterals

February 21, 2014
Rogers Mesa

Rogers Mesa

Here’s the release from Reclamation (Terry Stroh/Justyn Hock):

Reclamation announced today that it has released a draft environmental assessment on piping Roger’s Mesa Water Distribution Association’s Slack and Patterson Laterals off the Fire Mountain Canal, located in Delta County, Colo. The project involves replacing approximately 9.4 miles of unlined earthen laterals with buried water pipeline. The purpose of the project is to improve the efficiency of water delivery to ditch users and reduce salinity loading in the Colorado River Basin.

The draft environmental assessment is available our website or a copy can be received by contacting Reclamation.

Reclamation will consider all comments received prior to preparing a final environmental assessment. Comments can be submitted to the email address above or to: Ed Warner, Area Manager, Bureau of Reclamation, 445 West Gunnison Ave, Suite 221, Grand Junction, CO 81506. Comments are due by Friday, March 14, 2014.

More infrastructure coverage here.

The Ridgway Town Council approves bumping storage in Lake Otonowanda to 600 acre-feet

February 19, 2014
Lake Otonowanda -- photo / Applegate Group

Lake Otonowanda — photo / Applegate Group

From The Watch (Samantha Wright):

Located in Ouray County, about three miles south of Ridgway off of County Road 5, Lake O has been the Town of Ridgway’s primary municipal water source for nearly 100 years. The man-made lake is filled with water diverted into a natural basin via the Ridgway Ditch.

The Lake Otonowanda Rehabilitation Project will allow the town to exercise its full decreed storage right there by improving the lake’s capacity sixfold, from 100 to 600 acre feet, while restoring historic tunnel outlet works, which collapsed decades ago, to allow water to flow from the lake to town without having to be pumped.

The project is split into two phases, addressing tunnel restoration and lake excavation. Town officials had hoped to get started on the tunnel restoration phase last fall, but received only one response to a Request for Proposals issued in September 2013.

Hoping to attract more bidders, council and town staff agreed to broaden the scope of the contract to encompass both the tunnel restoration phase and lake excavation phase in a single package, and put the project out to bid in January.

This time around, there was a healthy response from contractors, with Town Manager Jen Coates reporting that over 30 people attended the project’s pre-bid meeting on Jan. 30; five of those companies went on to actually bid on the contract, with bids ranging from $1.4 to $1.9 million. The town budgeted up to $2 million for the construction project (bonding requirements put many smaller-scale local contractors out of the running, Coates said).

The Colorado Water Conservation Board awarded a $1.2 million grant/loan package to the Town of Ridgway last fall to help finance the Lake O project. In late January, the town applied to the Colorado River District for additional grant funds to cover a portion of the project construction.

More Uncompahgre River Watershed coverage here and here.

Aspinall Unit update: 400 cfs through the Black Canyon

February 19, 2014
Black Canyon via the National Park Service

Black Canyon via the National Park Service

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Due to the increasing forecasts for spring runoff into Blue Mesa Reservoir, flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are now set at 400 cfs.

More Aspinall Unit coverage here.

Redlands Water and Power Co. is asking shareholders to approve an increase in share assessments

January 18, 2014
Gunnison River

Gunnison River

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):

Low summertime flows in the Gunnison River and wintertime ice floes in the river have combined to grind down Redlands Water and Power Co.‘s finances. The squeeze has officials preparing to ask shareholders in the company to pay $20 a year more for their irrigation water, up to $145 from the current $125. That’s a 16 percent increase, but it also comes on the heels of four consecutive years with no increases, officials said.

“We probably should have had moderate increases for the last five years,” Redlands board Chairman Chuck Mitisek said.

Instead of increasing rates, Redlands used much of its fund balance, leaving the nonprofit company with about $100,000 in cash reserves. Redlands also has about $250,000 in emergency reserve, but it’s now time to rebuild cash reserves, Mitisek said.

Redlands Water and Power was founded to supply water from the Gunnison River to orchards on the Redlands, some 300 feet above the river. To get Gunnison River water up to its shareholders, Redlands employs a series of pipes and pumps, as well as a hydropower generator on Power Road that powers the system. Redlands Water and Power also relies on the generator to generate cash in the winter by pumping electricity into the grid, resulting in payments by Xcel Energy Co. back to the company. The generator, which was installed in 1933, is aging, but is still in operation. Ice can slow or stop it, resulting in reduced revenues, Redlands Superintendent Kevin Jones said.

Redlands Water and Power spent $27,000 more than budgeted last year to buy electricity from Xcel to operate its system while low water levels and ice took a share of electricity revenues, which were $83,000 below the amount the company took in 2010, company officials said.

To make up the difference, Redlands had to eat into its cash reserves. Officials will ask shareholders to approve the increase, amounting to $3.33 per month per share, at a meeting on Feb. 11 at the Redlands Community Center, 2463 Broadway.

The change doesn’t affect domestic water to the Redlands, which is supplied by the Ute Water Conservancy District.

Even with the increase, the irrigation water supplied by Redlands Water and Power is a bargain, Jones said, noting the amount of water it supplies over a six-month irrigation season.

“We’re asking for 145 bucks for a million gallons of water,” Jones said.

More infrastructure coverage here.

Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District ‘strongly oppsoses’ another transmountain diversion #ColoradoWaterPlan

January 8, 2014
Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer's office

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

From The Crested Butte News (Seth Manning):

The Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District has been busy developing a plan for future water use in the Gunnison Valley and, at the same time, watching other basins in the state to see where they expect their water to come from.

However, as the process of developing a statewide water plan starts to unfold, UGRWCD manager Frank Kugel said the conversation seems to be steering clear of the dreaded talk about trans-mountain diversion.

“Everyone acknowledged the 800-pound gorilla in the room—trans-mountain diversions,” Kugel said.

“For now everyone kind of decided to work around that.”

Basin representatives from around the state got together for a meeting hosted by the Colorado Water Congress in Denver on December 12. It was the first meeting of many to come related to the Colorado Water Plan and, more specifically, the Basin Implementation plans, which will be incorporated into the state plan over the next year.

“Once the plans are developed into a final draft form next July, we’ll present them to state water board for consideration,” Kugel said. “Then those plans will begin to be assimilated into a state plan, with an initial draft due by end of 2014.”

Kugel, who is also the chairman for the implementation planning committee for the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, says his goal for the process is to maintain water in our basin to be used, as it historically has been, for recreation, conservation and agriculture. And one of the best reasons to be close to the process, Kugel says, is to “make sure other plans do not put our plan at risk.”[...]

With a projected decrease in the amount of water that will fall in the state over the next 35 years and an increase in the state’s population, the plan is hastily being developed and battle lines are quietly being drawn, most noticeably along the Continental Divide…

“A key goal [of the plan] is to protect historic agricultural use and part of that is to minimize any future transfer of agricultural rights to municipal,” Kugel said. “So we’re very focused on keeping water on the land as it’s been done since 1875 in this basin.”
To help in developing its own Basin Implementation Plan (BIP), Kugel said, the UGRWCD hired Wilson Water Group as a consultant and has Greg Johnson helping them. He worked with the Colorado Water Conservation Board until July of this year.

“We feel very confident they bring a lot of expertise to this project,” Kugel said, adding the

Wilson Water Group is also the consultant for the North Platte Basin Roundtable. “At the same time they recognize the basin wants a bottom-up approach that is developed by our basin roundtable with help from all of the stakeholders.”

Having a plan that is written with an awareness of what other basins are doing could also help keep lines of communication open between the UGWRCD and other basins throughout the development of the Colorado Water Plan.

“[The state will] need to meld the basin implementation plans together to provide a basis for the state water plan and we will need to have clear conversations about how trans-mountain diversion might play into that plan,” Kugel said, making it clear that the UGRWCD would “strongly oppose” any attempts to divert water from the Western Slope. “Diversions from other basins could put ours in jeopardy … It could put us at risk of exceeding our compact allotment. So we have to be vigilant about how that process goes.”

Basin Implementation Plans will be presented to the Colorado Water Conservation Board on July 14.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

Text of the Colorado Basin Roundtable white paper for the IBCC and Colorado Water Plan

December 3, 2013
New supply development concepts via the Front Range roundtables

New supply development concepts via the Front Range roundtables

Here’s the text from the recently approved draft of the white paper:

The Colorado River Basin is the “heart” of Colorado. The basin holds the headwaters of the Colorado River that form the mainstem of the river, some of the state’s most significant agriculture, the largest West Slope city and a large, expanding energy industry. The Colorado Basin is home to the most-visited national forest and much of Colorado’s recreation-based economy, including significant river-based recreation.

Colorado’s population is projected by the State Demographer’s Office to nearly double by 2050, from the five million people we have today to nearly ten million. Most of the growth is expected to be along the Front Range urban corridor; however the fastest growth is expected to occur along the I-70 corridor within the Colorado Basin.

Read the rest of this entry »

‘Don’t goddamn come here [#ColoradoRiver Basin] any more’ — Lurline Curran

December 3, 2013
Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer's office

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

Here’s an article about the white paper approved last week by the Colorado Basin Roundtable, from Brent Gardner-Smith writing for Aspen Journalism. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

“Don’t goddamn come here any more,” was the way Lurline Curran, county manager of Grand County, summed up the roundtable’s position just before the group voted to approve a white paper it has been working on for months.

“We’re trying to tell you, Front Range: Don’t count on us,” Curran said. “Don’t be counting on us to make up all the shortages.”

The actual paper crafted by the Colorado roundtable states its case in a more diplomatic fashion, but it is still blunt.

“The notion that increasing demands on the Front Range can always be met with a new supply from the Colorado River, or any other river, (is) no longer valid,” the position paper states…

“There is going to have to be a discussion and plan for developing a new West Slope water supply,” the South Platte roundtable stated in a June memo directed to Committee.

Together, the South Platte, Metro and Arkansas roundtables are pushing that discussion. They’re asking the state to preserve the option to build “several” 100,000 to 250,000 acre-foot projects on the Green River at Flaming Gorge Reservoir, the lower Yampa River, and/or the Gunnison River at Blue Mesa Reservoir…

On Nov. 25, the members of the Colorado River roundtable clearly wanted to inform the Committee that they don’t support the idea of new Western Slope projects.

Jim Pokrandt, a communications executive at the Colorado River District who chairs the Colorado roundtable, said the group’s paper, directed to the Committee, was “an answer to position statements put out by other basin roundtables.”

The Committee’s eventual analysis is expected to shape a draft statewide Colorado Water Plan, which is supposed to be on the governor’s desk via the Committee and the Colorado Water Conservation Board in 12 months.

And while there has been a decades-long discussion in Colorado about the merits of moving water from the Western Slope to the Front Range, the language in the position papers, and the roundtable meetings, is getting sharper as the state water plan now takes shape.

“It’s not ‘don’t take one more drop,’ but it is as close as we can get,” said Ken Neubecker, the environmental representative on the Colorado roundtable, about the group’s current position.

The paper itself advises, “the scenic nature and recreational uses of our rivers are as important to the West Slope as suburban development and service industry businesses are to the Front Range. They are not and should not be seen as second-class water rights, which Colorado can preserve the option of removing at the behest of Front Range indulgences.”

That’s certainly in contrast to the vision of the South Platte, Metro and Arkansas basin roundtables, which in a draft joint statement in July said that the way to meet the “east slope municipal supply gap” is to develop “state water projects using Colorado River water for municipal uses on the East and West slopes.”[...]

The white paper from the Colorado roundtable states that “new supply” is a euphemism for “a new transmountain diversion from the Colorado River system.”

“This option must be the last option,” the paper notes.

Instead of new expensive Western Slope water projects, the paper calls for more water conservation and “intelligent land use” on the Front Range.

It goes on to note that Front Range interests are actively pursuing the expansion of existing transmountain diversions — many of which are likely to be blessed by the Committee because they are already in the works.

It says the Western Slope has its own water gap, as the growing demands of agriculture, energy development, population growth and river ecosystems are coming together in the face of climate change.

It calls for reform to the state’s water laws, so it is easier to leave water in Western Slope rivers for environmental reasons, and it rejects the Front Range’s call to streamline the review process for new water projects.

“Streamlining as a means of forcing West Slope acquiescence to any new supply project ‘for the good of the state’ is unacceptable,” the paper states.

Finally, the document advises the state not to endorse or get behind a Western Slope water project unless it “has been agreed to by the impacted counties, conservancy districts and conservation districts from which water would be diverted.”

More IBCC — basin roundtables coverage here. More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

Reclamation Releases the Final Environmental Assessment and Finding of No Significant Impact on the C Ditch/Needle Rock Pipeline Project

November 9, 2013
C Ditch photo via USBR

C Ditch photo via USBR

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Terry Stroh/Justyn Hock):

Reclamation announced today that it released the final EA and Finding of No Significant Impact on the C Ditch/Needle Rock Pipeline Project in Delta County, Colo. The project involves replacing a total of approximately 14,669 lineal feet of open irrigation ditch with buried pipe. The project will improve the efficiency of water delivery to ditch users and reduce salinity loading in the Colorado River Region. Funding for the project is through a cooperative agreement between Reclamation and C-Ditch Company.

The final EA and FONSI are available on our web site or a copy can be received by contacting Terry Stroh with Reclamation in Grand Junction at (970) 248-0608 or

Construction is anticipated to be completed by spring 2014.

More Gunnison River Basin coverage here.

Aspinall Unit update: Gunnison Tunnel diversions off until spring

October 31, 2013
Aspinall Unit

Aspinall Unit via The Denver Post

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

With the end of the irrigation season upon us, diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel have been shut down for the winter as of yesterday, October 30. Releases from Crystal Dam will be reduced to 300 cfs today, October 31, at 11 AM. This will leave 300 cfs in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon for the winter months.

More Aspinall Unit coverage here.

Gunnison Basin Roundtable recap — What’s worth more: 50 houses in Lakewood or kayaking on Daisy Creek?

October 10, 2013
Big Wood Falls photo via American Whitewater (2011)

Big Wood Falls photo via American Whitewater (2011)

From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Hannah Holm):

That question, or something close to it (I wish I’d taken better notes), was posed on Oct. 7 following a presentation by American Whitewater staffer Chris Menges to the Gunnison Basin Roundtable on the results of a survey of flow needs for whitewater recreation in the Gunnison Basin. That’s the kind of values question that will be hovering in the background as Colorado’s water leaders struggle to develop a plan that can stretch the state’s limited water supplies to meet its growing needs…

Water managers have long been accustomed to assessing water needs for crop irrigation and household use and factored that into their long-term planning. It’s only in recent decades that flow needs to keep streams healthy have begun to be taken into consideration, and an even more recent development to consider the flows needed to keep boaters happy.

Whitewater recreation has become a big business in Colorado, as well as an icon of the “Colorado lifestyle.” In the Gunnison Basin, commercial float trips were estimated to have added more than $6 million to the economy in 2011. The Colorado River Outfitters Association estimated that statewide, whitewater boating accounted for $155 million tourist dollars spent in that same year.

And so whitewater recreation advocates are now taking their place among other stakeholders wrestling with how to guide Colorado’s water future. According to an American Whitewater announcement promoting participation in their survey, it was designed to “help American Whitewater inform future management of the Gunnison River Basin, and build support for healthy river flows threatened by drought, development, and management policies.”

Generally speaking, the survey found that the lowest flows survey respondents considered worth a repeat trip were in the range of 400-800 cubic feet per second (cfs), while flows considered “optimal” ranged between 500-10,000cfs. Respondents tended to prefer higher flows on stream segments farther downstream in the basin.

Menges pointed out that these “acceptable” flows do tend to be achieved seasonally on most of the segments considered in the survey, and that maintaining these seasonal flows also helps serve environmental needs on these streams.

Roundtable members expressed some irritation with how the whitewater boating community has interfered with other land and water users in certain instances, but also expressed appreciation for data that could help bolster the case for the need to keep adequate water on the Western Slope. They made no immediate decision on what to do with the data from the survey…

What remains to be seen is how Colorado’s water plan will make choices between consumptive and nonconsumptive demands when there’s not enough water to satisfy all of them.

More IBCC — basin roundtables coverage here.

Localized rainfall is less important to the overall water equation than a good winter snowpack #COdrought

October 5, 2013

US Drought Monitor October 1, 2013

US Drought Monitor October 1, 2013

From The Crested Butte News (Seth Manning):

Even during rainfall events over the summer that would double the amount of water in the valley’s rivers and streams overnight, often the amount of water in the reservoirs remained largely unchanged. According to Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District general manager Frank Kugel, that’s what happens after two years of below-average precipitation.

Kugel told the Gunnison County Planning Commission at a meeting on Friday, September 6 that there were several peaks in the amount of water in Blue Mesa Reservoir over the summer, with some dramatic drops in between. He also said the localized rainfall is less important to the overall water equation than a good winter snowpack.

“The entire Gunnison River basin got less than a quarter of its normal inflow but the good news is that much of that inflow, percentage-wise, came from the East River and Taylor. Those are the two biggest contributors as far as basin inflows, percentage-wise,” Kugel said. “As grim as it looked we were actually doing better than some of our other neighbors in other basins. In the end there was a significant volume above what we had last year. That’s the good news.”

The bad news is that after two consecutive years of below-average precipitation in the winter months, Blue Mesa isn’t going to recover anytime soon and, Kugel said, will probably drop lower than it was at the end of last year.

“We’re anticipating by late October it will hit a low point. Likely not as low as 2002, but close,” Kugel told the Planning Commissioners. “So it’s going to be a long look out from the Lake City Bridge to where the lake actually starts.”

Even the heavy rains and snow that have swept across the Western Slope throughout September have yielded only modest gains in stored water, with Blue Mesa holding steady at 350,000 acre-feet.

And while the Gunnison River, the East River and Ohio Creek have all shown tremendous, temporary spikes in streamflow this summer, even doubling in size over night, Kugel said the years of drought have drawn down aquifers to a point where they can easily absorb any amount of water dropped during a rainstorm…

But through some litigation and inter-basin agreement, the UGRWCD has made great strides in securing the water already in use in the Gunnison Basin. Now it’s focused on providing the state with a clear plan for the basin’s water as part of the governor-initiated State Water Plan.

“Our number-one priority at this point is to protect existing uses within the basin, be it by overdevelopment from here or particularly to any export to other basin,” UGRWCD board member George Sibley told the commissioners. “We want to make sure we’re operating and managing our existing resources as effectively as we can and are prepared for other circumstances that may have dramatic impact on how much water is available.”

To accomplish that, the UGRWCD hired Lakewood-based Wilson Water Group—with a $200,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board—as a contractor to help develop a water-use plan for the entire Gunnison Basin that will be submitted to the state for consideration as part of a statewide water plan to be drafted over the course of 2014.

At the same time, the UGRWCD is trying to keep information about the valley’s water supply flowing, through manual snowpack observations that are under threat of being defunded by the National Resources Conservation Service.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.

Ridgway is embarking on a rehabilitation project for Lake Otonowanda

September 26, 2013
Lake Otonowanda -- photo / Applegate Group

Lake Otonowanda — photo / Applegate Group

From The Watch (Samantha Wright):

The $2.4 million Lake Otonowanda Rehabilitation Project will allow the town to exercise its full decreed storage right by improving the lake’s capacity from 100 to 600 acre feet, while restoring the tunnel outlet near the reservoir to make the delivery system more efficient.

The town’s municipal water right on Lake O predates the Colorado River Compact, a 1922 deal made by seven U.S. states in the basin of the Colorado River in the American Southwest, which to this day governs the allocation of the water rights to the river’s water.

Currently, due to Lake O’s modest size and declining condition, the Ridgway stores only a fraction of the water to which it is legally entitled; the renovation will allow the town to maximize Lake O’s historic adjudicated capacity. Stored water will supply the town when its flow rights are out of priority, ensuring enough water for most anticipated situations, even during drought years, and accommodating growth well into the future.

When the renovation is complete, the town will be able to supply water to the community for a minimum four-month period in a drought event, compared to its current storage capacity of only 10‐14 days’ worth of water.

The rehabilitation project got the big green light earlier this month, when the Town of Ridgway finalized a $1.2 million grant/loan package with the Colorado Water Conservation Board that will contribute significantly toward financing the project…

Arguably among the most scenic municipal reservoirs in the nation, Lake O is located about three miles south of Ridgway off of County Road 5, in an alpine meadow encircled by ponderosa forests and pristine views of the Cimarrons and Sneffels mountain ranges. It is the town’s primary municipal water source; the town also holds junior flow rights on Beaver Creek and Cottonwood Creek/Happy Hollow that are more vulnerable to calls. Generally, the lake provides enough water for the town’s needs (with an average of 280 acre feet diverted each year), but in the drought of 2002, all of Ridgway’s water rights were called by downstream senior water rights holders. The state water engineer subsequently put the town on notice to shore up water rights and storage strategies to prevent this situation from happening again.

More Uncompahgre River Watershed coverage here and here.

New federal hydroelectric permitting laws would have helped Ouray with their project

September 7, 2013


Here’s a report from Allen Best writing for The Mountain Town News. Click through and read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:

[Ouray] Mayor Bob Risch wishes that the two new federal laws signed by President Barack Obama in August had been adopted before he set out to get his project approved.

Those two new laws simplify the federal government’s process for small hydroelectric projects involving pre-existing infrastructure. Promoters say the laws will make it easier to harness the power of flowing water in existing irrigation canals, small dams, and even municipal water lines. Neither of the new laws will result in new dams or diversions. They apply only to existing infrastructure and to installations of 5 megawatts or less.

The previous process was cumbersome. “It was unbelievable,” says Risch, of requirements for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission permit. “They sent you a list of all the steps you have to go through. For example, it included a list of 55 organizations to which we had to send letters, informing them that we were going to start this process and invite comment from them.”

More hydroelectric coverage here and here.

Reclamation Selects Five Entities to Receive $485,423 to Establish or Expand Existing Watershed Groups

August 25, 2013


Click here to read the release from Reclamation (Peter Soeth):

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael L. Connor announced today that five entities in Colorado, Idaho and Oregon will receive a total of $485,423 to establish or expand watershed groups. The selected entities will use the funding to address water quality, ecosystem and endangered species issues.
“Collaboration is the key if we are going to meet the many water challenges we face across West,” said Commissioner Connor. “Reclamation’s Cooperative Watershed Management Program focuses on bringing diverse groups together within basins. These strong partnerships will ultimately help reduce and resolve future conflict.”

The funding is made available through the Cooperative Watershed Management Program, part of the U.S. Department of Interior’s WaterSMART Initiative. This grant program supports the formation and development of locally led watershed groups and facilitates the development of multi-stakeholder watershed projects. The five entities selected for funding are:

  • Land Trust of the Treasure Valley in Idaho ($100,000) – The Land Trust of the Treasure Valley will establish the Boise River Enhancement Network in collaboration with Trout Unlimited, Ecosystem Sciences Foundation, Idaho Rivers United and the South Boise Water Company. The Network will address water quality issues, endangered species and loss of natural habitats in the lower Boise River watershed and will work with stakeholders to increase opportunities for public and private enhancement project collaboration.
  • Western Slope Conservation Center in Colorado ($100,000) – The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia is an established watershed group that will use funding to address issues in two adjacent drainages above and below the North Fork of the Gunnison River to improve stream stability, riparian habitat and ecosystem function in the watershed. The watershed has been experiencing water quality issues with E.coli exceeding state water standards, selenium in the North Fork of the Gunnison River and excessive amounts of salt flowing from the river into the Colorado River.
  • Friends of the Teton River, Inc. in Idaho ($89,379) – Friends of the Teton River located in Teton County will expand a current watershed group to form the Teton Advisory Council to develop a restoration plan that identifies, prioritizes and endorses a specific series of watershed restoration and water conservation activities to improve water quality and ecological resiliency of the Teton River watershed.
  • San Juan Resource Conservation and Development in Colorado ($96,415) – The San Juan Resource Conservation and Development in Durango will expand the membership of the Animas Watershed Partnership. The partners will address concerns with the temperature, sedimentation and E. coli levels in the Animas River as well as issues related to the endangered Southwest Willow Flycatcher.
  • Hood River Soil and Water Conservation District in Oregon ($99,629) – The Hood River Soil and Water Conservation District will use the funding to expand the Hood River Watershed group. The watershed group will address water supply and instream flows for threatened native fish such as the winter steelhead, Chinook salmon and coho salmon and other concerns in the watershed. The watershed group will address these issues by conducting analyses to identify and prioritize actions that partners can undertake to develop long term solutions within the basin.
  • A complete description of all projects is available at:

    Each entity will receive half of its funding this year and if sufficient progress is made as identified in its application, it will receive the remainder of its funding next year. No cost-share was required.

    Reclamation awarded $333,500 to eight entities in 2012 in the first year of grant funding for the Cooperative Management Program of the WaterSMART initiative. Since its establishment in 2010, WaterSMART has provided more than $161 million in competitively-awarded funding to non-federal partners, including tribes, water districts, municipalities, and universities through WaterSMART Grants and the Title XVI Program. Funding for WaterSMART is focused on improving water conservation and helping water and resource managers make wise decisions about water use.

    More Bureau of Reclamation coverage here.

    Aspinall Unit operations update: 550 cfs in Black Canyon

    August 3, 2013


    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Due to the continuance of precipitation throughout the Gunnison River basin, flows in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, have remained above the Aspinall Unit ROD baseflow target of 890 cfs. Scattered rainfall is forecast to occur over the basin during the next week, which will hopefully keep streamflows at or above their current levels.

    Therefore, in order to conserve some storage in the Aspinall Unit, releases from Crystal Dam shall be decreased by 50 cfs (from 1,600 cfs to 1,550 cfs) at 8:00 am, Saturday, August 3rd. This will bring flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon down to around 550 cfs.

    Western Water Workshop — Planning for the new normal — recap

    July 25, 2013


    From The Gunnison Times (Will Shoemaker):

    Colorado’s Instream Flow Program — the first of its kind in the West — was established by a law passed by the Colorado legislature in 1973, though it took six years to subsequently survive legal challenges. A pair of water leaders in Colorado described the program’s history and evolution during a talk last Thursday as part of the 38th annual Colorado Water Workshop at Western State Colorado University.

    It was an appropriate topic at this year’s workshop — the theme of which was “Planning for the New Normal” — given that 40 years ago, the implementation of the Instream Flow Program introduced a “new normal” by challenging the assumption that water must be diverted for a right to be granted. “The program provides the legal foundations for a new understanding of the value of water that goes beyond direct human uses,” said Jeff Sellen, director of the Water Workshop. The law set up a regulatory framework for establishing water rights that depict minimum flows in a stream or levels in natural lakes. Under the program, only the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) can hold those rights.

    But one local woman traces the program’s roots back to a meeting among three visionaries at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in Gothic in the mid-1960s. “Instream flow has it’s origin with the question ‘Why?’ over a glass of wine,” said Gunnison’s Scottie Willey, a longtime RMBL researcher…

    While the intent of the 1973 law specifically aims to protect the environment to a reasonable degree, secondary benefits have resulted “for fisheries and for recreation,” said Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) General Manager Frank Kugel. “There’s extensive flow protection in our basin,” he added.

    Linda Bassi, chief of CWCB’s Stream and Lake Protection Section, said during last week’s Water Workshop talk that to date more than 9,000 miles of streams have been protected by instream flow rights across the state — in addition to levels in 480 natural lakes…

    Following the passage of the instream flow law, prominent Colorado water attorney David Robbins worked to ensure that the program remained. He was part of a team that filed for instream flow rights on three waterways in the Crystal River Basin — “test cases” for the new law. Each were “headwaters” streams of the type that even today comprise the bulk of protected segments under the program. Robbins explained during last week’s Water Workshop that most of the water community in 1973 still believed the new law to be unconstitutional. “It didn’t produce a recognized beneficial use under past case law and statutes,” he explained. “And it would preclude a portion of water from streams from citizens being able to remove that water in the future and apply it to another beneficial use.”

    That is, Colorado’s “first in time, first in right” appropriation system did not prior to then provide a widely recognized means of protecting the natural environment by establishing water rights. Not until 1979 was the Instream Flow Program upheld in state Supreme Court.

    Robbins said that the 1973 law was largely in response to efforts already underway at the time to recognize non-consumptive water rights — including in Gothic. “It’s purpose was in part to blunt the fledgling effort to amend the constitution to recognize instream flows as a recognized use within Colorado,” said Robbins. “We need to be very clear that prior to 1973, it was the generally held view in Colorado that in order to obtain a decreed water right, you had to divert the water from a river.”

    More education coverage here.

    Aspinall Unit operations update: 1600 cfs in Black Canyon

    July 17, 2013


    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    Rainfall over the last week has helped keep river flows in the Gunnison River at the Whitewater gage well above the baseflow target of 900 cfs. Currently flows are over 1,200 cfs and the weather forecast is showing a good chance for a continuation of rain storms into the weekend.

    Therefore releases from Crystal Dam will be reduced by 100 cfs (from 1,700 cfs to 1,600 cfs) today, Tuesday July 16, at 5:00 pm. This will bring flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon down to around 600 cfs.

    More Aspinall Unit coverage here.

    Ouray: The city is trying to bolster its water rights to protect against a downstream call

    June 27, 2013


    From The Watch (Samantha Wright):

    Thus the City of Ouray has been forever saddled with junior water rights compared to thirsty downstream irrigators, who are more and more likely to place a call on the city’s water supply as that water becomes ever scarcer in future years. This is the basic problem which the city seeks to resolve.

    CDWR conducts tabulations of water rights throughout its various districts every two years. Water rights holders have one year from the time of the tabulation to object to a particular determination. The last tabulation of water rights affecting the City of Ouray took place in 2012, and the next one occurs in 2014.

    The City of Ouray, through [City Attorney Kathryn Sellars], intends to file an official objection to the CDWR’s 2012 tabulation which enabled the M&D Canal to make a call on the city’s water supply last year.

    In a position paper sent to to Division 4 Water Engineer Bob Hurford on June 13 outlining this objection, Sellars related the complicated history of water adjudication in Colorado and exposed special circumstances which, she argued, underline several flaws in the system when applied to Ouray.

    Central to her argument is the so-called “subordination clause” in the first general adjudication decree in Division 4 in 1888 which “subordinates” agricultural water uses to so-called domestic water use but has been interpreted narrowly so as not to equate “domestic” with modern-day municipal water use…

    “We don’t have the authority to tabulate a water right in the way the City of Ouray is asking,” [Jason Ullman, Assistant Division Engineer for CDWR’s Division 4] argued. “We have told them we would not oppose them if they filed with the water court to request that the seniority of water rights be clarified, and see what the water court judge says. They really need to take the matter to someone who has the authority to direct us to retabulate.”

    CDWR’s research has not produced any other examples of other Colorado municipalities in the same situation as Ouray.

    “It’s just the way the priority system was developed in Colorado,” Ullman said. “They couldn’t foresee this problem back then. It’s worked well for over 100 years, but there are some quirks in the system. The point is, we would not file an opposition to their request for retabulation, but the court needs to give its blessing to that. Because there is no other municipality in this situation.”

    More Uncompahgre River Watershed coverage here and here.

    Aspinall Unit operations update: 700 cfs in the Black Canyon

    June 25, 2013


    Even with the recent increase in releases from the Aspinall Unit, the forecast for flows on the lower Gunnison River continues to decline. Without additional water, flows at the Whitewater gage are again expected to approach the 900 cfs baseflow target by this weekend.

    In order to meet the environmental commitments set forth in the Aspinall ROD, releases from Crystal Dam shall be increased again, starting at 8:00 am on Wednesday, June 26, by 100 cfs (from 1,600 cfs to 1,700 cfs). This will increase flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon to around 700 cfs. At this level, flows in the canyon will be above the Black Canyon Water Right peak flow target of 685 cfs. Flows through the canyon are expected to remain at this level for the foreseeable future.

    More Aspinall Unit coverage here.

    Aspinall Unit operations update: Releases from Crystal Dam bumping up 100 cfs to

    June 22, 2013


    Click on the thumbnail graphic for project background.

    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    The forecast for flows on the lower Gunnison River continues to decline as the last remaining snow melts away. Even with the additional water released from the Aspinall Unit yesterday, it appears that flows on the Gunnison River as measured at the Whitewater gage will again recede towards the 900 cfs baseflow target by next week.

    In order to meet the environmental commitments set forth in the Aspinall ROD, releases from Crystal Dam shall be increased again, starting at 8:00 am on Sunday, June 23, by 100 cfs (from 1,500 cfs to 1,600 cfs). This will increase flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon to around 600 cfs

    More Aspinall Unit coverage here and here.

    Aspinall Unit update: 500 cfs in the Black Canyon and Gunnison Gorge

    June 19, 2013


    From email from Reclamation (Dan Crabtree):

    Flows at the Whitewater Gage on the Gunnison River near Grand Junction have declined to a point where additional releases from the Aspinall Unit are necessary to maintain environmental commitments. Tomorrow morning (Thursday the 20th) releases from Crystal Dam will increase by 200 cfs bringing flows to 500 cfs in the Black Canyon and Gunnison Gorge. An additional increase will likely take place next Wednesday the 26th, but we’ll send out a notice prior to that time with more details.

    More Aspinall Unit coverage here and here.

    Move water from west to east or dry up agriculture?

    June 8, 2013


    Hannah Holm recaps the Gunnison Roundtable discussion of the proposed Flaming Gorge Pipeline in this column running in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. Here’s an excerpt:

    One reliable way to rile up a room full of western Coloradans is to start talking about moving water from the Colorado River basin (“our water”) east across the Continental Divide for use by Front Range cities. You’ll hear lots of muttering, and someone will probably say something to the effect that not one more drop should go over while a blade of bluegrass remains in the Denver metro area.

    It doesn’t even have to be water that resides in Colorado to get people’s backs up, as was demonstrated by the reaction to a proposal floated by entrepreneur Aaron Million to pump water from the Flaming Gorge reservoir in southwestern Wyoming east along the I-80 corridor and then south to a reservoir near Pueblo. In September 2011, billboards sprouted up along I-70 protesting providing funding to even study the idea. The billboards were funded by environmental organizations, but a host of resolutions approved by the City of Grand Junction, Mesa County and others roundly condemned the proposed project as well.

    However, if Front Range cities can’t take water from our side of the hill, they have to look elsewhere — and that usually means “buying and drying” agricultural land. Since western Coloradans tend to like farms, even if they are east of the Divide, this creates a bit of a quandary. While some claim that ramped up conservation could preclude the need for more water transfers, it’s not easy to see how to push conservation far enough to close the 500,000-acre-foot gap between supply and demand that is forecast to afflict the state by 2050 if measures aren’t taken. Besides, if the Front Range has to dry up lawns, we might have to do the same — and that becomes a more complicated conversation.

    Despite the billboards and resolutions, the state did fund a committee to study the potential benefits and impacts of the Flaming Gorge proposal. It included representatives from each of Colorado’s major river basins, including many highly skeptical of the proposal as well as potential beneficiaries, and it met once a month for a year. In short order, the committee broadened its mission and ended up developing a series of questions to be addressed for any proposed major movement of water across the Divide, as well as criteria for what would be a “good” project. This report was presented to the Gunnison Basin Roundtable and Gunnison “State of the River” meeting in Montrose June 3.

    More Flaming Gorge Pipeline coverage here and here.

    Gunnison River Basin: The June Watershed News from the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition is hot off the press

    June 4, 2013


    Click here to read the news.

    More Gunnison River Basin coverage here and here.

    Aspinall Unit operations update: The Black Canyon Water Right one day peak flow target is 685 cfs #COdrought

    May 31, 2013


    From email from Reclamation (Dan Crabtree)

    Based on the May 1st April-through-July runoff forecast of 335,000 ac-ft for Blue Mesa Reservoir, the Black Canyon Water Right one day peak flow target is 685 cfs. Today’s flow through the Black Canyon is 300 cfs.

    Due to the dry conditions and low Blue Mesa Reservoir content, the Whitewater baseflow target for June and July is 900 cfs. Current flows at Whitewater are around 1600 cfs. As tributary flows to the Gunnison diminish, and Whitewater flows approach 900 cfs, Reclamation will increase releases to attempt to maintain the target at Whitewater. We will provide as much advanced notice as possible regarding these release changes. We anticipate this operation will allow the Black Canyon one day peak target to be met sometime in the latter part of June, however, if insufficient, we intend to supplement releases with additional power releases as necessary to meet the target. We will keep you updated as things progress.

    More Aspinall Unit coverage here and here.

    Mt. Emmons Mine NEPA review may begin soon

    May 19, 2013


    From The Crested Butte News (Aimee Brown):

    “Theoretically, scoping could be initiated sometime this year,” added USFS district ranger John Murphy. “It will be an EIS, I can guarantee you that.”

    Though US Energy’s MPO has not yet been made public, a statement released by the company cites a proposal for an underground molybdenum mine with a 33-year operational life that would produce up to 12,600 tons of ore per day using a vertical blast hole cut and fill method of mining. In addition to the mine, the MPO also calls for a cement mixing plant to be constructed at the mine site to prepare backfill materials; three fresh water reservoirs; and a state-of-the-art lined tailings storage facility.

    Companies have been attempting to mine molybdenum deposits on Mt. Emmons since the 1970s, but have faced many economic, political, environmental and social setbacks, and rights to mining claims on the mountain have been repeatedly sold.

    Currently US Energy owns 25 patented mining claims consisting of approximately 365 acres of fee land ((define: privately owned?)) and mineral rights within the Gunnison National Forest, as well as an additional 160 acres of fee land. It also holds approximately 1,353 unpatented mining and millsite claims associated with the Mt. Emmons project for approximately 15 square miles of holdings.

    More Gunnison River Basin coverage here and here.

    Say hello to the Ouray County Water Users Association

    May 17, 2013


    From The Watch (Samantha Wright):

    Irrigators and other upper Uncompahgre River water users took preliminary steps last week to form a new organization which can act as a unified voice for various Ouray County water users in local, regional and statewide water use negotiations.

    Ridgway attorney Andy Mueller, a senior partner at the Tisdel Law Firm in Ouray, led the discussion, which occurred last Thursday, May 9 at the Ouray County Land Use building, with about 30 water users and other interested parties in attendance.

    Mueller is a member of the Colorado River District Board of Directors representing Ouray County, and has extensive water law experience. He expressed growing concern that as water becomes ever scarcer throughout the West, Ouray County water users still do not have an organized entity through which to assert their collective interest.

    This puts them at a distinct disadvantage compared to entities such as the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, Tri-County Water and the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District, “all of whom are very organized and very well versed in water administration and protecting their own rights and how they can best be served,” Mueller observed. “I wouldn’t suggest by any means that these folks are enemies, but just like anybody else, they are not necessarily there to look out for us. I think that’s our job as water users.”[...]

    The association would take the form of a nonprofit corporation whose members use water from the Upper Uncompahgre River for any number of beneficial uses that are recognized by the state constitution. The entity would be self-governed and independent of county government. And, Mueller stressed, the organization first and foremost would respect the ownership and control of water rights as utilized within Colorado’s prior appropriation system – the “first in time, first in right” doctrine which in times of water shortage, permits a senior right to place a “call” on a stream to obtain a full supply. “This is not an effort to subvert water appropriation,” Mueller said. “It’s more to understand it and work within that system to the benefit of the water users.”[...]

    The group could also focus on flushing out the “big picture” of water usage in the county, studying when and where shortages occur, and focusing on various solutions to address those shortages. Ultimately, the association could propose the formation of a new Water Conservancy District, the formation and funding of which would need to be put to a vote in Ouray County. Such an entity would have the authority to construct and acquire upstream reservoirs for county-wide water rights augmentation purposes that could be operated for the benefit of the county’s municipalities and irrigators alike, as well as for other water users, Mueller said…

    A stakeholders group comprised of local ranchers Daris Jutten, Ken Lipton, Jack Flowers and Ken Orvis, and representatives from the Town of Ridgway and the City of Ouray, agreed to meet again in the near future to further explore the concept of forming a Ouray County Water Users Association. The next community-wide meeting on the topic is tentatively scheduled for Thursday, June 13 at 7 p.m. at the County Land Use building north of Ridgway.

    More Uncompahgre River Watershed coverage here.

    Aspinall Unit update: Blue Mesa is expected to reach 7465 feet in elevation (400,000 af) at the end of June

    May 2, 2013


    Click here to read the notes from the recent operations meeting. Here’s an excerpt:

    Precipitation in the Gunnison Basin in October and November, 2012 was well below 50% of normal; December precipitation was near normal. January precipitation was in 70-90% range and February dropped to 50-70%. Conditions improved in March and April with April precipitation at 150% of average to date. March and April temperatures have been below average which delays the runoff.

    As of April 23rd, snowpack in the Gunnison Basin is 83% of the long-term average for that date. The current inflow forecast to Blue Mesa for April through July is 50% of the long-term average.

    Blue Mesa content is now 340,583 af and has gained only 13,000 af through the winter. April 2012 content was around 533,000 af.

    As of April 15th, the forecasted April-July inflow to Blue Mesa is 340,000 af, down from 370,000 af in January. 2013 falls in the Dry Year category and would be expected to be exceeded in 93% of years.

    If this inflow forecast is maintained, it would represent the 5th lowest inflow since Blue Mesa was constructed (1977, 1981, 2002, and 2012 were lower).

    The Black Canyon National Park peak flow will be based on the May 1 forecast; if the present forecast is maintained the peak would be 973 cfs. However, the drought provision in the water right (based on prior dry year and low Blue Mesa content) reduces this peak to 697 cfs. It is expected this flow will be achieved through normal operations; however a small increase may be necessary if conditions dictate otherwise.

    Flow Recommendations call for a 900 cfs peak at Whitewater in a Dry Year based on the present forecasted inflow. Base flow targets at Whitewater are 890-900 cfs from May- August in this type year.

    Under most probable conditions, Blue Mesa is expected to reach 7465 feet in elevation (400,000 af content) at the end of June which is 54 feet short of filling. By the end of the year, Blue Mesa is predicted to be 6 feet lower than the 2012 end of the year elevation.

    Black Canyon flows January to April were around 300 cfs and may increase to 400-500 cfs in the summer. A peak of around 700 cfs will occur. Changing conditions always have the potential to affect these early predictions.

    More Aspinall Unit coverage here and here.

    Aspinall Unit operations update: Diversions through the Gunnison Tunnel bumped to 600 cfs #ColoradoRiver

    April 11, 2013


    From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

    A recent flow measurement by the USGS has shown us that the Gunnison River below the Gunnison Tunnel is currently running around 375 cfs. The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users could use more water to keep up with irrigation demands. Therefore, tomorrow morning, April 11th, diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel will increase by 75 cfs or so, leaving 300 cfs in the Gunnison River below the Gunnison Tunnel. There will be no change to Crystal releases. After this increase in diversion, flow in the Gunnison Tunnel should be around 600 cfs.

    More Aspinall Unit coverage here and here.

    Grand Mesa cloud-seeding program history and results #ColoradoRiver

    April 9, 2013


    From the Grand Junction Free Press (Sharon Sullivan):

    For 50 years, humans have attempted to modify the weather for the purpose of increasing snowpack, to fill up reservoirs, reduce hail, and even prevent rain. The scientific practice of cloud seeding has been utilized on Grand Mesa since the 1990s. Two years ago, the Water Enhancement Authority stepped up its Grand Mesa program by doubling the number of cloud seeders to 16. “We’re trying to increase snowpack on the Mesa, to fill up the reservoirs,” said Mark Ritterbush, the Grand Junction water operations supervisor and secretary for the Water Enhancement Authority (WEA).

    The WEA is comprised of the City of Grand Junction, Powderhorn Ski Mountain Resort, Collbran, the Grand Mesa Water Conservancy District, and Overland Ditch and Reservoir Company. Funding for the cloud-seeding program comes from those entities, as well as Delta County, the Colorado River District, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and lower Colorado River basin states.

    Meteorologists determine where to place the cloud-seeding machines on the Mesa. Oftentimes, they’re located on private property where landowners are paid rent to host the machines.

    In China, cloud seeders — many of them farmers — are paid to use anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers to release pellets containing silver iodide into clouds, according to Wikipedia. Other areas disperse the precipitation-enhancing agents via airplanes.

    On the Grand Mesa, cloud-seeding machines consist of tanks on the ground filled with a silver-iodide solution containing chemicals such as acetone. The solution is sprayed across a propane-fueled flame, causing the particles to drift with the wind current up into the cloud. The condensation nuclei turn into ice crystals, ride along with the cloud and fall out as a snowflake. Silver iodide is used because its crystalline structure is almost identical to ice, Ritterbush said.

    “A meteorologist (John Thompson of Montrose) watches storms as they come in,” Ritterbush said. “He calls and tells (the landowners) when to turn it on. Rarely are all 16 cloud seeders running at the same time.”


    There is an ongoing debate regarding the effectiveness of cloud seeding versus letting nature take its course, Ritterbush said. Ten years ago, the National Academies of Science released a report saying, that after 30 years of research, there is no convincing proof of intentional weather modification efforts. “In nature, it’s hard to set up an experiment with a control,” Ritterbush said. “It’s a conundrum how to compare.”

    Yet, studies suggest cloud seeding can increase snowpack 5 to 15 percent, which makes the program’s annual cost of between $30,000 and $40,000 cost-effective when you factor in the extra water, Ritterbush said. The cost variable is due to weather conditions, how often seeding takes place, and the cost of silver, Ritterbush said. According to the World Meteorological Policy Statement, “a well-designed, well-executed program shows demonstrative results,” said Joe Busto, who runs the weather modification permitting program out of Denver for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

    The Grand Mesa has been a forum to introduce new equipment and different seeding technologies, Busto said. The topography is ideal for setting up cloud-seeding machines at a high elevation, he said. “There’s a rich history of research on the Grand Mesa, during the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s,” Busto added.

    Arlen Huggins, a semi-retired research scientist with the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev., is familiar with the Grand Mesa project. Huggins said there is plenty of convincing evidence that modifying weather is effective for increasing precipitation. He mentioned prior Bureau of Reclamation studies, plus a recently completed five-year experiment in Australia. “There’s a lot of evidence related to snowfall enhancement,” Huggins said. “It makes it a viable option for increasing water supply.”

    The Water Enhancement Authority is in the process of collecting data comparing seeded areas versus non-seeded areas on the Mesa, Ritterbush said.


    So, what happens when silver-iodide particles hit the ground or land in lakes or rivers? While there has been no monitoring for silver in western Colorado’s environment, researchers in Australia have spent millions searching for traces of the mineral, Ritterbush said. In Australia, where lake beds and soils have been tested, they “just don’t find it near toxic levels,” Busto said.

    Huggins, who is considered a cloud-seeding expert, said he’s often asked about potential risks of silver toxicity in the environment. “It’s a minuscule amount of silver being released,” Huggins said. “The silver iodide amounts released are not harmful. (The particles) are not soluble in water. It cannot be taken up by aquatic species. It does not bio-accumulate.”

    There are approximately 106 cloud-seeding sites in Colorado, including Summit County, Gunnison, Telluride and the Dolores area, the West and Eastern San Juan mountains. Vail and Beaver Creek have the oldest program, having cloud-seeded for 38 years. Most permits are issued from November through March and sometimes into mid-April, Busto said. “We monitor snowpack, avalanche hazards, and suspend programs when needed,” he said.

    A 2010 statement from the American Meteorological Society states that “unintended consequences of cloud-seeding, such as changes in precipitation or other environmental impacts downwind of a target area have not been clearly demonstrated, but neither can they be ruled out. Continued effort is needed toward improved understanding of the risks and benefits of planned modification through well-designed and well-supported research programs.”

    More cloud-seeding coverage here and here.

    Grand Junction: Aspinall Unit operations meeting April 25

    April 8, 2013


    From email from Reclamation (Dan Crabtree):

    The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users began diversions through the Gunnison Tunnel [last] week. Consequently, releases from Crystal Dam are about 750 cfs, the Tunnel is currently diverting about 400 cfs, with the balance through the Canyon/Gorge. Reclamation plans to continue to operate in accordance with the Aspinall Operations Record of Decision and to allow the Black Canyon Water Right to be met. As the Tunnel increases diversions over the next few weeks, mild fluctuations in the Gunnison River in the Canyon/Gorge may occur.

    The April 1 Blue Mesa forecast for unregulated April through July runoff is 315,000 ac-ft which is 47% of average. The April Operations Meeting will be held on April 25th in Reclamation’s Western Colorado Area Office, 2764 Compass Drive Suite 106, beginning at 1:00 p.m.

    More Aspinall Unit coverage here and here.

    Reclamation Releases a Final Supplemental Environmental Assessment and Finding of No Significant Impact on Ridgway Dam Hydropower Interconnection Facilities

    March 28, 2013


    Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Steve McCall/Justyn Hock):

    Reclamation announced today that it released a final Supplemental Environmental Assessment and Finding of No Significant Impact on Ridgway Dam Hydropower Interconnection Facilities. The supplemental EA and FONSI augments the 2012 Ridgway Hydropower EA and FONSI and addresses additional details and information on the interconnection and transmission facilities.

    Reclamation will issue a license agreement to Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association for construction of interconnection facilities to interconnect Tri-County Water Conservancy District Hydropower facilities to the existing 115-kV transmission line that runs along U.S. Highway 550. In addition, a memorandum of agreement will be signed with Tri-County to relocate dry storage facilities and utilities operated by Colorado Parks and Wildlife as part of Ridgway State Park.

    Tri-County is currently constructing the hydropower facilities at Ridgway Dam on the Uncompahgre River in Ouray County, Colo. and operates and maintains Ridgway Dam.

    The final EA and FONSI are available on our website under the “environmental documents” heading [or] by contacting Steve McCall with Reclamation in Grand Junction at (970) 248-0638.

    More hydroelectric coverage here and here.

    2013 Colorado legislation: SB13-019 moves along to the state house #coleg

    March 26, 2013


    From The Aspen Times (Janet Urquhart) via the Glenwood Springs Post Independent:

    The drought-fueled measure, put forth by state Sen. Gail Schwartz, a Democrat from Snowmass Village, passed unanimously in the Senate last week and now moves to the House, starting with the Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee. Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, is the sponsor.

    While the legislation, Senate Bill 13-19, was amended to gain the necessary support — losing its most ambitious provisions in the process, Schwartz on Thursday called the measure a critical first step and one that will lead to further conversations this summer about water conservation. With Colorado likely facing a second straight summer of severe drought, Schwartz said she hopes to encourage water conservation among agricultural users without punishing them in the process. “We need to modify our thinking and our attitudes about how we use water,” the senator said.

    The legislation was originally to apply statewide, but concerns among the state’s seven river basins were varied and ultimately, the bill’s focus was narrowed to the Gunnison, Colorado main stem and Yampa/White River basins…

    Under Schwartz’s bill, a water user who enrolls in various conservation programs could reduce their water use in drought years but the reduction would not be considered by a water judge in determining that user’s historic consumptive use. “What we’re trying to say is, ‘If you’re willing to do this, your historical consumptive use is protected,’” Schwartz said.

    The conservation programs include those enacted by local water districts. Last year, for example, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, which provides water to the eastern half of Eagle County and is a main user of water from Gore Creek and the Eagle River, worked with its customers to conserve water but also convinced other water diverters to do with less, according to spokesperson Diane Johnson. Entities such as golf courses and the town of Avon, which uses raw water to irrigate its parks, got on board, she said. Schwartz’s bill would mean those entities wouldn’t get dinged in a calculation of consumptive use if that voluntarily reduction is repeated, she said.

    “Gail’s bill is quite significant,” said Basalt attorney Ken Ransford, secretary for the Colorado Basin Roundtable. The group is one of nine in the state that focuses on water-management issues under the umbrella of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Ransford has watched Schwartz’s legislation closely. Its passage would mean an important incentive for conservation, he said. “It’s a significant change in the law. It takes away a disincentive to a landowner who wants to enroll their land in a conservation program,” he said…

    Gone from the legislation, however, are provisions that would have provided incentives to irrigators to increase the efficiency of their watering systems without jeopardizing their water rights.

    More 2013 Colorado legislation coverage here.

    Greg Trainor named ‘River Manager of the year’ by the River Management Society #coriver

    March 24, 2013


    From the Grand Junction Free Press (Sharon Sullivan):

    Trainor was awarded “River Manager of the Year” by the River Management Society at a workshop held at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction March 12. The national nonprofit organization’s mission is to support professionals who study, protect and manage North America’s rivers. Its membership includes federal, state and local employees, educators, researchers, consultants, organizations and citizens.

    The River Management Society honors those who show leadership in protecting natural, cultural and recreational resources, and who work cooperatively with various user groups and establish long-term partnerships to protect and manage river corridors. “The award is very special, as it is truly peer recognition,” from throughout the nation, said River Management Society president Dennis Willis of Price, Utah.

    Trainor, 64, has been a member of the River Management Society for the past 15 years, and currently serves as its secretary. He was editor this past winter of the RMS Journal, for which he has written articles as well as poetry relating to water and the natural world…

    A part of Trainor’s job with the city is ensuring that the Persigo Wastewater Treatment Plant discharges meet stringent standards. Trainor is also in charge of catching stormwater and removing trash and other debris from flowing back into the river. Additionally, Trainor works with the U.S. Forest Service, establishing water protection standards as it relates to oil and gas development in the city’s watershed…

    Trainor serves on the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, representing municipalities where he helped produce a water and energy report that looked at projected water use of potential oil and gas, uranium, coal and oil shale development through 2050. “As a community we’re connected to the Gunnison and Colorado rivers not only from a utility/public works standpoint, but also more and more from a recreation-related standpoint,” Trainor said. “Those uses are as valid as traditional uses.”

    Trainor additionally supports restoration activities along the river, including Tamarisk Coalition efforts to remove the water-hungry invasive species that has crowded out the native cottonwoods in some areas. “I spend time to ensure the Colorado River remains healthy, similar to the goals of the River Management Society,” Trainor said.

    San Juans: Just two dust on snow events so far this winter #codrought

    March 11, 2013


    From The Telluride Daily Planet (Collin McRann):

    One of the leading local climate research entities in the state is the Silverton Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, which has been conducting research on local precipitation and snowpack for more than a decade. Over the years, the center has accumulated reams of data about the snowpack, and on Friday a researcher presented some of the center’s findings at the monthly EcoAction Roundtable at the Wilkinson Public Library to a crowd of more than 15 people…

    Though a lot of climate change research is focused on increasing temperatures, there are many side effects of warmer temperatures that could have a profound impact locally. One of those is dust on snow, which the center has been studying for years. Since 2004, the center has been gathering data on the amount of sunlight radiation reflected from the snowpack at sites in Beck Basin. When the snow is clean it reflects more heat and melts slower, but when covered in dust it melts faster. [Researcher Kim Buck] said almost all of the dust on snow in Colorado comes off of the Colorado Plateau. She said once the dust blows in and gets on the snow, it can speed up the melt dramatically — by an entire month in the spring…

    Locally, there have been two dust blow-ins this winter, but they were mild compared with dust storms of the past few years, notably 2009, Buck said…

    The center’s and NOAA’s snowpack data shows that this year’s snowpack is lower than last year at this time. According to NOAA information, the snowpack in the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River Basin is around 85 percent of normal. Last year it was slightly higher. Buck said it could be bad news this summer.

    “It is extremely unlikely that we’re going to catch up on precipitation,” Buck said “Last year the state was just coming off of that great big water year, so reservoirs were full. This year reservoirs are low and then we’re getting another low snow year back to back. So I think the cities in the Front Range will have a pretty hard time in the summer.”

    Ridgway Reservoir: Tri-State hopes to start on the hydropower generation facilities in June

    March 10, 2013


    From The Watch (Peter Shelton):

    On the heels of a new Draft Supplemental Environmental Assessment released Feb. 25 by the Bureau of Reclamation, Mike Berry came before the Ouray Board of County Commissioners Tuesday with an update. Berry is general manager of Tri-County Water Conservancy District, which manages the dam and is building the power-generating facility at the base of the dam. Power wholesaler Tri-State Generation and Transmission will receive its permit to begin construction of the interconnection station and transmission lines when BuRec’s final EA is approved. Berry reported that Tri-State hopes to begin construction in June and finish the substation by November or December of this year.

    “We hope to have the small generator up and running for this next winter,” Berry told the board. “It should be ready for Aspen’s PPA [Power Purchase Agreement].” The City of Aspen has contracted to purchase the wintertime output from the dam over 20 years. Tri-State, the wholesale electric supplier for San Miguel Power Association and the Delta-Montrose Electric Association, has agreed to purchase, for 10 years, the higher summertime output.

    “Aspen probably won’t see any of those actual electrons,” Berry said. “They will most likely go to [the City of] Delta, which shares the same wholesaler, an outfit with the acronym MEAN out of Nebraska.”

    Tri-County WCD is installing two generators, a smaller 800kV one that should run efficiently on the low, 30-60 cubic-feet-per-second flows in winter, and a bigger 7.2 megawatt one to run on summertime release levels. Together, they will provide enough juice to run 2,000 homes and take the equivalent, in greenhouse gases, of more than 4,000 cars off the road. The big generator should be ready for testing by April 2014, Berry said.

    More hydroelectric coverage here and here.

    Black Canyon and Curecanti generate $50 million in economic activity

    March 2, 2013


    From the Montrose Daily Press:

    The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Curecanti National Recreation Area attracted nearly 1.1 million visitors between them in 2011 while generating an economic impact of almost $50 million, according to a report released Thursday by the National Park Service.

    The report also claims a total of 621 local jobs were supported by the two entities in 2011, the most recent year for which statistics were available. Black Canyon supported 111 of those jobs, while the other 510 were attributed to Curecanti.

    “Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is a wonderful place to learn about America’s story,” park superintendent Connie Rudd stated in a press release. “And Curecanti National Recreation Area offers outstanding waters and a healthy fishery. We attract visitors from across the U.S. and around the world that come here to experience these places and then spend time and money enjoying the services provided by our neighboring communities and getting to know this amazing part of the country. The National Park Service is proud to have been entrusted with the care of America’s most treasured places and delighted that the visitors we welcome generate significant contributions to the local, state and national economy.”

    More Gunnison River Basin coverage here.

    Reclamation Releases Draft Supplemental Environmental Assessment on Ridgway Dam Hydropower Interconnection Facilities

    February 27, 2013


    Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Steve McCall/Justyn Hock):

    Reclamation announced today that it released a draft Supplemental Environmental Assessment on Ridgway Dam Hydropower Interconnection Facilities. The draft EA supplements the 2012 Ridgway Hydropower Environmental Assessment and Finding of No Significant Impact and addresses additional details and information on the interconnection and transmission facilities.

    The proposed action in the EA is to issue a license agreement and rights-of-way to Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association for construction of interconnection facilities to interconnect Tri-County Water Conservancy District hydropower facilities to the existing 115-kV transmission line that runs along U.S. Highway 550. In addition, a memorandum of agreement will be signed with Tri-County to relocate dry storage facilities and utilities operated by Colorado Parks and Wildlife as part of Ridgway State Park.

    Tri-County is currently constructing the hydropower facilities at Ridgway Dam on the Uncompahgre River in Ouray County, Colo. and operates and maintains Ridgway Dam.

    The draft supplemental environmental assessment is available on our website or a copy can be received by contacting Steve McCall with Reclamation in Grand Junction at (970) 248-0638 or

    Reclamation will consider all comments received prior to preparing a final environmental assessment. Comments can be submitted to the email address above or to: Ed Warner, Area Manager, Bureau of Reclamation, 2764 Compass Drive, Suite 106, Grand Junction, CO 81506. Comments are due by Friday, March 15, 2013.

    More Uncompahgre River Watershed coverage here.

    Photo of fog-filled Black Canyon of the Gunnison from the Interior Department

    February 12, 2013


    Click on the thumbnail to go to Interior’s Instagram page.


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