Fort Collins: April Innovation After Hours Presented by the Colorado Water Innovation Cluster, April 10

April 6, 2014

waterfromtap
Click here for the pitch and to register:

You’re invited to join the Colorado Water Innovation Cluster for next week’s Innovation After Hours which is packed with exciting, quick and informative updates from Colorado’s water sector!

This month, we focus on one of our region’s upcoming initiatives called the Net Zero Water Planning Template which is creating a path to net zero water, and provide a networking opportunity for creative people to meet and exchange ideas.

More education coverage here.


Monitoring the pulse of the #ColoradoRiver — National Geographic

April 6, 2014
Pulse flow tongue upstream of San Luis Rio Colorado

Pulse flow tongue upstream of San Luis Rio Colorado

From National Geographic (Sandra Postel):

Now in its 14th day, the historic pulse flow coursing through the Colorado River Delta toward the sea is under the careful watch of dozens of scientists who fan out across the landscape to measure and track its vital signs – from flow rates and salinity levels to seed dispersal by native cottonwoods and willows.

The goal is to learn as much as possible from this unique experiment in large-scale ecosystem restoration so that future pulse flows – designed to mimic the spring flood that naturally occurred before large dams and diversions were built – will deliver as many benefits to river health, habitat creation and local communities as possible.

“This is a once in a career kind of thing,” said Karl Flessa, professor of geosciences at the University of Arizona in Tucson and Co-Chief Scientist of the monitoring team for Minute 319, the binational agreement signed in late 2012 that established the terms of the pulse flow.

“Scientists all around the world are watching.”

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.


Ditch companies are running out of time for repairs, the runoff is coming #COflood

April 6, 2014
St. Vrain River floodplain November 2013 via the Longmont Times-Call

St. Vrain River floodplain November 2013 via the Longmont Times-Call

From the Longmont Times-Call (Tony Kindelspire):

Left Hand Creek has been diverted from its main channel by a temporary earthen dam with two 48-inch pipes running through the middle of it. That’s so the workmen can rebuild the diversion dam and headgate that last September’s flood obliterated.

“We have like 13 spots that we’re working on, various levels of destruction, with this being the worst. This is the Allen’s Lake diversion,” said Plummer, vice president of maintenance and operations for the Left Hand Ditch Co. “Most everything was just buried in debris. … The Allen’s Lake diversion was just rolled up into a ball of concrete and steel.”[...]

Ditch companies control the water rights to irrigation ditches and are charged with maintaining them. The Left Hand Ditch Co. is typical of most such entities: it’s privately held and owned by shareholders — in the case of Left Hand, 460 shareholders. Sixteen percent of its shares are owned by the Left Hand Water District and goes toward drinking water, and the rest goes to agriculture.

Ditches operate using diversion dams and headgates. The dams slow the water and back it up so it can then flow through the headgate, which is opened to let water through.

In the Allen’s Lake diversion both the dam and headgate were wiped out, and in the narrow riverbed of Left Hand Canyon, the only way to replace them is to divert the river, build half the structure, then move the river again and build the other half.

“We’ll get that (side) done and then we’ll move the river back over,” Plummer said as he watched the construction crew pour concrete. “What we’re doing is racing, we’re racing the run-off.”[...]

Sean Cronin, executive director of the St. Vrain & Left Hand Water Conservancy District, attended an emergency meeting of the Highland Ditch Co. in the days following the flood.

“Not repairing this is not an option,” Cronin recalls hearing the shareholders — many of whom are farmers — saying in the meeting. “This is how we make our living.”

Cronin said there are 94 ditches and reservoirs within the St. Vrain & Left Hand district, and of those 43 suffered some amount of damage, totaling about $18 million. Some, such as the Highland, were completely destroyed.

September’s flood all but wiped out the Highland’s diversion dam and headgate, which were built in 1870. What little remained after the water subsided was not repairable.

The Highland Ditch, the biggest in the St. Vrain basin, goes all the way to Milliken, primarily serving ag land but also providing some of the city of Longmont’s drinking water.

The diversion dam and headgate were rebuilt at a cost of $750,000, according to Wade Gonzales, superintendent of the Highland Ditch Co…

The “Big Three” headgates, as far as Longmont is concerned — the Highland, the Oligarchy and the Rough & Ready/Palmerton — were all destroyed by the flood, according to Kevin Boden, environmental project specialist with the city of Longmont’s Public Works and Natural Resources Department.

The Oligarchy, it should be noted, actually held up during the initial flood but then finally gave way the following Sunday during heavy rains.

All three either have been or will be repaired by May 1, Boden said…

[Dave Nettles] said that although the Poudre, Big Thompson and Boulder Creek watersheds all sustained some damage, none of them reached the “catastrophic” levels seen in the St. Vrain and Little Thompson watersheds.

More infrastructure coverage here.


Southwestern Water Conservation District 32nd Annual Water Seminar recap #ColoradoRiver

April 6, 2014

southwesternwaterconservationdistrictmap

From The Durango Herald (Sarah Mueller):

Speakers addressed the controversial practice of transmountain diversions, which takes water from the Western Slope to the Front Range. The water crosses the Continental Divide.

“Frankly, on the Front Range, they’re really not interested in depleting that aquifer; they’re more interested in the transmountain diversions,” Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose said. “They haven’t addressed the situations of storage; their answer is there’s more water on the Western Slope than they need.”

Steve Harris, president of Harris Water Engineering, talked about the recent controversy over his idea of limiting lawn size in new suburban developments after 2016. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, drew fierce opposition from home builders and utility companies.

“About half the people I talked to thought that was a great idea and the other half thought I was a demon,” he said. “In this state, I know what it’s like to get between people and grass.”

Roberts rewrote the bill to call for a study of water conservation.

Another bill floating through the General Assembly would require Colorado residents to purchase “WaterSense” fixtures, such as toilets, shower heads and faucets, after 2016.

Coram said he opposed the bill because the products don’t save much water, and it’s impossible to enforce. WaterSense is a Environmental Protection Agency program labeling products as water-efficient…

Kehmeier, speaking on the water banks panel, said he’s participated in an informal marketplace among local farmers with personal reservoirs where people could lease excess water…

The Colorado Water Conservation Board also gave an update about creating the state’s water plan. Gov. John Hickenlooper directed the board last year to develop the plan. A draft plan is expected to go to Hickenlooper by the end of the year.

More Southwestern Water Conservation District coverage <a href="


Snowpack news (% of avg): San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan = 83%

April 6, 2014

From The Durango Herald (Dale Rodebaugh):

The snowpack in the combined Animas, San Juan, Dolores and San Miguel river basins was 79 percent of the 30-year median April 1; however, this week’s storms brought the basins up to 82 percent.

If it’s any consolation, the combined snowpack this April 1 is 111 percent of what it was last year on the same date.

There’s a chance late storms could increase the snowpack for the southern San Juan basins, but it’s unlikely since the maximum level is generally reached in the first week of April.

In other words, it’s as good as it’s going to get for the Animas, Dolores, San Juan and San Miguel basins…

Overall, the statewide snowpack is above normal – 115 percent of the median on April 1 and 156 percent of the April 2013 number.

But storms carried less moisture in March than in previous months. As a result, the major basins showed a slight decrease in snowpack.

Only two basins – the Colorado and the combined Yampa, White, North Platte – had snowpack percentages higher than last month.

Storms have provided runoff that improved storage in reservoirs statewide.

Reservoir storage in the Animas, San Juan, Dolores and San Miguel basins was 82 percent of average, compared with 66 percent at this time last year.

Statewide, reservoirs held 89 percent of their average, compared with 69 percent a year ago.

From The Fort Morgan Times (Michael Bennet):

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to strap on some snowshoes for a short hike on Berthoud Pass with local water managers and staff from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). They were taking a manual reading of the state’s snowpack and checking the automatic SNOTEL measurement device. Undersecretary Robert Bonnie, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s top environmental and natural resource official, and the man who oversees NRCS, also came along.

These snowpack measurement systems, some that date back to the 1900s, are a critical part of the Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting program that Colorado water officials rely on to anticipate river flows in the spring when the snow melts and calculate how much water will run off into rivers and reservoirs. Our state’s farmers and ranchers depend on these forecasts to decide how much and what type of crops to plant, while metropolitan leaders use the data to decide how best to meet their needs in the coming years and to prepare for potential flooding.

Beyond Colorado, these measurements are important for states downstream that depend on our watersheds. Colorado contains nine major watersheds, each with its own snowfall patterns and obligations to other states. While some of these water sources may be at 100 percent, in other regions the levels may be less than half of the normal supply. Many of the state’s water rights agreements are predicated on the level of snowpack making the accuracy of these measurements particularly important.

Recently, however, funding for the Snow Survey and Water Supply Forecasting Program was threatened by budget cuts and sequestration.

Colorado communities from across the state shared their strong concerns that cutting funding to this program would damage the accuracy of the measurements and reduce the effectiveness of this vital planning tool. In response to these concerns, we joined forces with Colorado’s water community, Senator Mark Udall, and Congressman Scott Tipton to urge the NRCS to reconsider the cuts. After working with local

communities, water managers, and the NRCS, we secured funding for the program for this winter. In addition, we secured funding in congress for the next fiscal year.


“The dust storms we had here a week or so ago are just about as bad as I’ve ever seen” — Joe Rosengrants #COdrought

April 6, 2014
US Drought Monitor Colorado statewide map and stats April 1, 2014

US Drought Monitor Colorado statewide map and stats April 1, 2014

From The Denver Post (Joey Bunch):

Topsoil blew into a dark cloud that swept across the flat landscape of southeast Colorado once again Monday afternoon. Footsteps leave dust in loose pockets and grit in the teeth of those who speak. The land pays a bigger price. After nearly four years of deep drought, wind-churned dust has become a slow-moving natural disaster. Comparisons to the Dust Bowl are no longer hyperbole — they’re accurate.

“The dust storms we had here a week or so ago are just about as bad as I’ve ever seen,” Joe Rosengrants said. The 79-year-old farmer and rancher is part of a family that has worked the land in Baca County since 1910.

His son Mike and others in the family here still tend thousands of acres of farm and ranchland and thousands of head of cattle. They also mind the skies for any glint of rain. “We can go a long way on just a little bit of rain down here,” Mike Rosengrants, 56, said as he delivered hay to cattle spread across 8 arid miles. “But we haven’t even been getting that.”

The devastation of this drought comes in three forms: pastures that have dried up or are choked by drifts of sand; tumbleweeds that blow into tall hills against fences, homes and barns; and massive dust storms that steal topsoil and could make it harder to grow grain, wheat and sunflowers for years.

The region hasn’t seen normal amounts of rain since the blizzards of 2007. Southeast Colorado averages 12 to 16 inches of rain annually, but many areas have gotten fewer than 8 inches each year since 2010, according to National Weather Service data.

Since the latest drought officially set in late in the summer of 2010, the Arkansas Valley has been drier for a longer sustained period of time than during the Dust Bowl, said Nolan Doesken, the state climatologist at Colorado State University.

“We have not seen consecutive years this dry,” he said.

As goes the rain, so go the people. The county’s ties to cows and crops have inextricably linked its upswings and downturns to the weather.

Between 1930 and 1940, the southwestern Great Plains, home to thousands of settlers, suffered a severe drought. Dry-land farming led to the systematic destruction of prairie grasses, and overgrazing destroyed large areas of grassland. Gradually, the land was laid bare, and environmental damage began to occur. Strong winds in the region were devastating. The overfarmed land began to blow away.

From 1935 to 1938, Baca County accounted for some of the worst soil erosion of the Dust Bowl era. The railroad’s arrival here in 1926, along with homesteaders who spilled over from Oklahoma, swelled the county’s population to its peak of 10,570 residents in 1930. By 1940, after a decade of crop failures, the population had dwindled by almost 42 percent.

Last year, the census showed 3,682 county residents, down 2.8 percent since 2010, while the rest of the state grew by 4.8 percent.

Only a quarter of that population loss occurred between 2010 and 2012, and three-quarters of it took place just last year.

Ward Williams, 65, is leasing out his 200 acres north of Springfield so cattle can chew off the stubble of his last grain-sorghum harvest in 2012. He had hoped to leave it to his children to farm, something he has done for more than 30 years.

“It’s just too much of a cycle of booms and busts,” he said, his foot on the bumper of his old Ford pickup outside the Alco store in Springfield. “Kids that grow up here, if they have anywhere else to go, they aren’t staying here.

“If it doesn’t get over soon, this (drought) might leave the land to the big corporate operations that can ride it out, and not for the people who grew up down here.”

Drier than the Dust Bowl

Most of Colorado has made it out of the deep drought. The regions hardest hit by September’s floods are now drought-free, although a swath of western Colorado is “abnormally dry,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Southeast Colorado, however, shows only variations of bad news — severe, extreme and exceptional stages of drought, according to the drought analysis.

And the hardest-hit areas are along the agriculturally vital Arkansas River.

The decade-long Dust Bowl had periodic wet years. This drought in many areas of southeast Colorado has had an unyielding presence since 2010, Doesken said.

“It’s really been back to back to back — and, now, it appears — to back years of drought,” he said. “Normally, they get just enough precipitation to grow something down there, but they haven’t had that in a full 3½ years now.”

Crop data indicate that about 15 percent of the farmland in Baca County is irrigated, fed by high-country reservoirs. That leaves 85 percent of the naturally sandy soil turning to dust — “more blowable ground,” Doesken called it.

Years to recover

Displaced topsoil means it could take years for the land to bounce back.

“They’re so far in the hole right now that even if they do get a few (rain) storms, … it’s not going to immediately solve the problems,” Doesken said.

PHOTOS: Southeast Colorado drought conditions akin to Dust Bowl

The cattle herd in this corner of the state has dwindled, but not entirely because of drought. Cattle prices and hay prices have been up since 2011, coaxing some to sell off parts of their herds. Big ranchers, like the Rosengrants family, had the luxury of moving cattle to rented fields elsewhere in Colorado or other states to take advantage of rain and grazing there, said Ron Carleton, the state’s deputy commissioner of agriculture.

Because the worst of the drought has been in the last year and a half, the depths of the crop losses haven’t yet been plumbed, at least not on paper, he said, so the data isn’t yet reflecting the worst effects.

Eugene Backhaus, the state resource conservationist, said the end might not be in sight when the rain eventually starts to fall.

“If you consider recovery getting things back to what they were before, with the amount of degradation and the depth of the drought, my best guess is three to five years,” he said. “The grasses down there are so damaged. When you’ve lost all the seeds and the root system is destroyed, then there’s nothing to grow back. The only way you’re going to get grass back in there is to put it in mechanically.

“And that takes time and money.”

Taxpayers already have posted a big financial stake in southeast Colorado’s productivity.

Baca County farmers and ranchers received $413 million in government aid between 1995 and 2012, including $85.9 million in crop-insurance subsidies and $50 million in disaster grants, according to the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that monitors such federal programs.

Farmers in Baca County received government checks to seed grass on 269,249 acres of cropland to try to hold down the soil, according to the county’s U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency.

Kevin Larson — a researcher at the Plainsman Research Center in Walsh, Colorado State University’s agricultural experiment station for southeastern Colorado — said the current drought isn’t a measure of the investment in such programs.

“Just can’t grow anything if there’s not any precipitation on it,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

The research center’s work these days focuses on making the best use of sparse precipitation, urging farmers to plant varieties that mature faster and use less water, or weighing the trade-offs of no-till farming, which keeps the ground covered but also makes weeds harder to fight.

The Western Kansas Weather Modification Program — the seeding of clouds with silver iodide crystals — began just across the border from Colorado’s struggling counties in 1975.

When the effort spread into southeast Colorado about a decade ago, with the aim of suppressing crop-destroying hail storms in southwest Kansas, leaders in southeast Colorado protested, afraid it would cause more hail on their crops instead, Larson said. The program in Colorado soon fizzled out.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board offers grants to water providers and local governments to help pay for cloud-seeding programs. In the parched southeast corner of the state, however, there have been no takers.

But the solutions and practices that researchers have worked out, that government officials have promoted and that landowners have adopted since the Dust Bowl have kept this bad drought from turning into a catastrophe, Larson said.

Hope and fear in drought

Doesken said there’s reason for hope for this year, even if it depends on temperature fluctuations over the tropical Pacific Ocean.

The El Niño weather pattern, if it takes shape, tends to mean rain for the Eastern Plains, he said.

“But there’s no guarantee they’ll get more precipitation this spring,” he said.

Wildfires also are a big concern. Some fields are parched to a stark white. The high winds would make a grass fire explode across thousands of uninterrupted acres primed to burn, said a group of local residents outside the Alco store in Springfield.

The abundance of tumbleweeds — the thin, dry aftermath of a Russian thistle bloom late last summer — makes Jeff Turner, 52, of the Campo area worry even more.

“If fire hits one of those, it might as well be soaked in gas,” Turner said. “Imagine that spinning ball of fire coming across your property at 30 miles per hour.”

Others here say land-related hardship is a tradition, and they will wait on the rain.

“It will start raining again,” said Prowers County resident Flauran Beckwith. “It has to.”

The Rosengrants family is faring well because of diversity, said father and son. In addition to tending to cattle and crops, family members work in real estate, teach school and do hair.

“During the Dust Bowl, people didn’t have as many opportunities,” said Joe Rosengrants.

But the family’s foundation is, as it has been for more than a century, the land, said the patriarch.

“You’re just attached to the soil, and you love it,” he said.

His son says it another way.

“There’s a cost to living out here.”


US Rep. Scott Tipton queries top Interior officials about federal policy (USAA vs. USFS)

April 6, 2014
Sheep Herders on the Uncompahgre Plateau

Sheep Herders on the Uncompahgre Plateau

From The Durango Herald (Katie Fiegenbaum):

Tipton’s questions for Vilsack focused on the ability of federal agencies to take or place conditions on water-use permits held by ski areas and ranches.

“I’d just be curious: How much of your resources are you going to be putting in to develop a taking (of) Fifth Amendment right(s) in the West when it comes to the private-property rights of water?” Tipton asked.

Vilsack said the agency understands the law, does not intend to infringe upon any private-property rights and will have a clarification forthcoming.

Tipton insisted that his bill, the Water Rights Protection Act, was necessary to ensure certainty on the issue. In an interview, Tipton expressed frustration at Vilsack’s ambiguous responses.

The Water Rights Protection Act, which would prohibit agencies from placing conditions on water-use agreements, was passed by the House on March 24 and awaits action in the Senate. Obama issued a statement in March opposing the bill.

Tipton also expressed concern to Vilsack about climate hubs, a multi-agency effort announced in February to deliver information to farmers and ranchers to help them adapt to climate change. Tipton wants clarity on their purpose and expressed concern that the hubs will be duplicating work done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. One of seven regional climate hubs will be in Fort Collins.

“I’m not trying to make a judgment,” Tipton said in an interview. “I want to get clarity on why or how much, and if these are duplicative.”

He also was assured by Vilsack that progress was being made on preventing forest fires by increased leasing of air tankers…

He also inquired about progress of clean water projects in Colorado, hydroelectricity and the potential addition of the sage grouse to the list of endangered species, which Interior is considering. Tipton asked for some measurable species preservation goals to be identified before a decision is made about the endangered species designation.

Given the short amount of time allocated to each representative for questioning, many lawmakers choose to fill their time with questions and have the department follow up with them. In some other cases, answers could not be fully provided at the hearing.

“I think, as you saw, the answers that came from the secretary were ‘We’ll have to get back to you,’” Tipton said in an interview.


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