Fires leave land unable to absorb water — The Pueblo Chieftain

August 21, 2014
West Fork Fire June 20, 2013 photo the Pike Hot Shots Wildfire Today

West Fork Fire June 20, 2013 photo the Pike Hot Shots Wildfire Today

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

When fires raged through the eastern San Juan Mountains last summer, they left a threat to public safety even after the flames had gone out. Of the 88,000 acres burned on the Rio Grande National Forest last summer by the Papoose and West Fork fires, more than 21,000 acres of the burn scars were left with water-repellent soils. The condition, known as hydrophobicity, heightens the risk of flooding during summer and fall thunderstorms and, in part, prompted the formation of the Rio Grande Watershed Emergency Action Coordination Team.

The watershed team received $2.5 million in state funding last year for recovery work and emergency response and has installed rain and stream gauges throughout the burn scars to better detect flooding.

The team also deployed a temporary Doppler Radar to get a better picture of thunderstorms passing over the burn scar during the monsoon season. Last summer, the team placed a radar unit on Bristol Head Mountain, roughly six miles southwest of Creede. At the end of this month, the group will put a temporary unit at a new location on Lobo Overlook near Wolf Creek Pass.

“It actually gives a little bit better coverage over the burn scar,” Tom Spezze, the watershed team’s director, said.

The site is also more accessible than Bristol Head and will bring the radar unit closer to Internet and power utilities, he said.

The need for the radar stems from the inability of permanent National Weather Service radar units in Grand Junction and Pueblo to give a complete look at storms coming through the headwaters of the Rio Grande.

“There’s a black hole right there,” Spezze said.

Pamela Stevenson, a meteorologist in the weather service’s Pueblo office, said that’s because the radar units are set at such an angle that their signals rise in elevation the further they travel. By the time a signal from Pueblo’s radar reaches the burn scars, it’s at roughly 24,000 feet, she said While stronger storms are often detectable at that elevation, she said the watershed team’s temporary unit will give a better look at storms below that elevation “Definitely having the radar close to the burn scar is going to help,” she said.

Spezze said the need to closely monitor flood threats and inform locals of the dangers will likely last until vegetation can return to the sections of the burn scars with damaged soils. Spezze said that process can take anywhere from two to four years, according to discussions he’s had with officials monitoring the Hyde Park and Waldo Canyon burn scars near Fort Collins and Manitou Springs, respectively.

So far, property owners below the Papoose and West Fork scars have avoided much trouble with flooding and debris flows. The most significant event came at the end of last month when rain washed out a U.S. Forest Service Road near Shaw Lake.

Most of the significant rain since the fires have come from fast-moving storms, rather than slow-moving ones that pose a greater flood risk, Spezze said.

“We’ve been lucky and dodged a bullet,” he said.

More restoration/reclamation coverage here.


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

August 15, 2014

San Luis Valley Groundwater

San Luis Valley Groundwater


From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here.


Western watershed priority: Manage wildfire risk and impacts

August 11, 2014


From the Albuquerque Journal (John Fleck):

Krista Bonfantine can look up into the mountains behind her Sandia Park home and understand, better than most, the connection between the forested watersheds that provide most of New Mexico’s water and the stuff coming out of her tap.

As she opened the lid on the concrete box that surrounds Cienega Spring, which supplies her neighborhood’s water, she pondered what might happen if a fire burned through the overgrown woods above – the risk of floods tearing down the picturesque canyon, ash and debris wiping out the water supply intake.

Fire and the resulting damage to watersheds have been an increasing concern in recent years, and Bonfantine is part of an ambitious effort to tackle the cause – overgrown forests in New Mexico’s mountains.

While the risk to Bonfantine’s neighborhood is nearby, and therefore immediately apparent, the widespread risk of fire in the watersheds that provide much of New Mexico’s water supplies is harder to see.

The problem is not just the forests themselves, explained Beverlee McClure, president of the Association of Commerce and Industry, a business group. The threat of upland fires threatens the reliability of the water supplies on which we all depend, she said…

McClure’s organization is part of The Rio Grande Water Fund, a broad-based coalition that is working to scale up patchwork efforts underway in the mountains of northern and central New Mexico to restore forests in order to protect the watersheds and water systems on which they depend.

As McClure spoke, a crew from a Corona-based company called Restoration Solutions was at work up the road with chain saws, felling trees in an overgrown patch of woods at a place called Horse Camp on the edge of the Cibola National Forest.

The overgrown woods in the mountains of New Mexico are the result of a century of firefighting that prevented natural, low-intensity fires that used to clear out undergrowth. The result is forests that are so thick in places that they are hard to walk through…

Trees being cut last week on Forest Service land near the Sandia Crest Road can be used as firewood, but there is not enough money to be made from cutting the small timber clogging the unhealthy forests to make such work self-supporting, Racher said. “There’s not enough value in that wood to pay for what needs to be done,” Racher said.

That is at the heart of the Forest Trust, which is attempting to raise $15 million per year in government money and private contributions to pay to expand the work, said Laura McCarthy, director of New Mexico conservation programs for the Nature Conservancy, an environmental group…

“This is a big problem that the federal government is not going to be able to solve for us,” McCarthy said.

More restoration/reclamation coverage here.


New partnership formed to address drought in Colorado River Basin — Denver Water

August 8, 2014
Denver Water's collection system via the USACE EIS

Denver Water’s collection system via the USACE EIS

From Denver Water (Travis Thompson):

In a first-of-its-kind partnership, agricultural and environmental organizations, West Slope water districts and Denver Water have come together to explore measures that could help benefit the Colorado River and avoid reaching critically low water levels in Lake Powell. Should levels in this important reservoir continue to decline due to the prolonged drought in the basin, it could result in a compact call, putting water supplies to much of Colorado and the upper basin states at risk. This also could result in a loss of regionally important hydropower production, a reduction in revenues derived from the sale of this power, and an associated loss of funding for important programs like the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program that provides the means by which all existing water use and an increment of future use in the upper basin can comply with the federal Endangered Species Act.

The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Farm Bureau, Colorado River District, Southwestern Water Conservation District, Denver Water, The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited are working together to leverage $11 million made available under the Colorado River System Conservation Program, which will fund pilot projects to reduce demands in the Colorado River Basin and improve reservoir levels in Lake Powell as well as Lake Mead, which also has declined to its lowest level in its 80 year history.

“Without collaborative action, water supplies, hydropower production, water quality, agricultural output, recreation and environmental resources are all at risk in the next several years in the upper basin, if Lake Powell reaches critically low levels,” said Doug Robotham, Colorado water project director of The Nature Conservancy in Colorado.

The Colorado River System Conservation Program, announced last week, was created by the Bureau of Reclamation and four municipalities in the upper and lower Colorado basins, including Denver Water, to provide funding to develop, test and gather data on potential short-term demonstration or pilot programs that keep water in lakes Powell and Mead through temporary, voluntary and fully compensated mechanisms. If a pilot program proves to be successful, it could be part of a contingency toolbox developed by states and the federal government to be implemented only if a severe shortage looks imminent and discontinued when conditions improve.

“Our interest is to protect water users in Colorado and the upper basin. We know that if there is a compact call, agriculture is the first area that will be looked at for the solution,” said Don Shawcroft, Colorado Farm Bureau. “A crisis is bad for everyone — especially agriculture. It is vital that we have a voice at the table.”

The upper basin pilot projects developed under the System Conservation Program will be used to demonstrate ways to put water immediately in Lake Powell, through voluntary, compensated means, and only for as long as a drought continues.

“Lake Powell is the ‘bank account’ that assures the upper basin has the wherewithal to meet our obligation to the lower basin under the Colorado River Compact. While the risks of Lake Powell going below its power pool are low, the consequences are high,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO/manager of Denver Water. “Currently there are no contingency plans for such an event. Denver gets half its water supply from the Colorado River so we have a big stake in the future security of the river, not just for ourselves, but for all water users in Colorado. As leaders, we simply cannot wait for a crisis to happen before we come together to figure out how to address it. That would be irresponsible.”

“For a number of years now we have been working with Colorado, Front Range water providers, Southwestern, TNC, and agricultural producers on a long-term water banking solution. The System Conservation Program is a natural outgrowth of that effort. The challenge is to be sure all parties are represented and that we have fair and transparent processes,” said Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River District.

In order to ensure that local concerns are addressed, and that there is equity and fairness among all parties, the upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and the Upper Colorado River Commission will have a direct role in program efforts. This envisioned structure is distinct from that of the Lower Colorado River Basin, where the Bureau of Reclamation will manage conservation actions in Arizona, California and Nevada to address declining reservoir levels in Lake Mead in a manner consistent with past programs.

“Complying with the Colorado River Compact is a shared responsibility across all water-use sectors and among all the upper basin states” said James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “We must control our destiny. The worst case is a compact call or a situation where the federal government determines how we will manage critical flows. We simply must work together to protect the future of this state, all our economies and critical industries to avoid a future compact call.”

As this is a basin-wide project, the coalition will continue to seek additional stakeholders throughout the upper basin states. The members also plan to actively seek additional funding for education and outreach.

“This is not a one-sector or one-state solution. The pilot programs will demonstrate the viability of cooperative means to reduce water demand from any number of different sources where water is lost or consumed — agriculture, municipal and industrial,” said Frank Daley, president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.

“We have learned in Colorado though our Water Conservation Board and Basin Roundtables how critical public awareness is to project success. Education and awareness of the pilot projects may be equally as beneficial as the projects themselves. We have to be sure people have the real facts of what we are trying to do, buy in to the process and then document the benefits,” stated Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwestern Conservation District.

The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water to nearly 40 million people for municipal use, and the combined metropolitan areas served by the Colorado River represent the world’s 12th largest economy, generating more than $1.7 trillion in Gross Metropolitan Product per year along with agricultural economic benefits of just under $5 billion annually.

More Denver Water coverage here.


San Luis Valley: Counties oppose endangered species listing for Rio Grande cutthroat

July 28, 2014
Rio Grande cutthroat trout   via Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Rio Grande cutthroat trout via Colorado Parks and Wildlife

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

With a recommendation due by the end of the month whether or not to list Rio Grande cutthroat trout as endangered, local officials are ramping up efforts to prove this species does not need to be listed. The SLV County Commissioners Association, encompassing the six counties in the San Luis Valley, earlier this year joined four other nearby counties in a memorandum of understanding asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the RG cutthroat as endangered. On Monday the Valley commissioners, joined by Hinsdale County Commissioner Cindy Dozier and Hinsdale County Attorney Michael O’Loughlin , reaffirmed their desire to do all they can to show Fish and Wildlife the species does not need to be listed because it is already amply protected in this region.

Hinsdale County has taken the fiscal lead on coordinating this effort, enlisting the help of O’Loughlin and consultant Tom Spezze to draft the memorandum of understanding as well as a conservation agreement plan. Dozier told the SLV county officials on Monday the share of each of the 10 participating counties would be about $4,000, if the counties divided up the costs for O’Loughlin’s and Spezze’s work equally. That would cover the work that has been completed to this point (approximately $24,000, about $20,000 for Spezze’s efforts and the remainder for O’Loughlin’s ) plus the work that will be performed from now through January. Dozier said Spezze is offering his time at a reduced rate.

“Both of them have been watching their hours carefully ,” she said.

Dozier said if the costs were split according to occupied habitat for the species, some counties would bear a much greater share than others, and since there will undoubtedly be other species the counties will have to work together on in the future, it would probably be best to just split up the costs equally among them. She said her county officials see this as a wise investment compared to the economic harm this listing could cause the county.

Alamosa County Commissioner Michael Yohn said he saw this type of effort as ongoing since there are many other species that could be potentially listed in the future.

The county commissioners said they would discuss the funding again at their next association meeting in September. The association will hear regional budget requests on September 29. The Valley commissioner association voted on Monday to continue using Hinsdale County as the fiscal agent for this project.

Dozier thanked the counties for signing the memorandum of understanding (MOU.) She said Las Animas County signed a letter of support but not the memorandum of understanding. Other counties involved are San Juan and Archuleta Counties.

“We are all in this boat together,” Dozier said. “It’s important we work together.”

She said each county has a vested interest in whether the RG cutthroat trout are listed or not, so it is vital the counties let their collective voice be heard at the state and ultimately the federal level.

The listing of a species can affect an area that never even had the species, she added. For example, Hinsdale County is included in the Gunnison sage-grouse critical habitat even though that species never existed in the county or within 18 miles of it.

O’Loughlin explained the next step after the MOU is a conservation agreement “showing the Fish and Wildlife Service we are doing what we can as local counties to help conserve the species.”

It is a similar process to the one Gunnison County went through on the sage grouse, he said. The conservation agreement brings the local counties to the table to have a voice on the RG cutthroat trout discussion .

O’Loughlin said the next range-wide conservation team meeting is in January and he hoped the counties represented by this conservation plan would be able to participate in that meeting.

Spezze said the recommendation is due the end of this month whether to propose listing RG cutthroat trout as endangered or whether to continue its status as not warranted for listing. Spezze added that whether or not the species is proposed for listing, the 10-county group is still ahead of the curve in developing a conservation strategy.

“It gives us a seat at the table.”

Spezze explained there are two ways to be involved, as a signatory to the conservation effort, which would obligate the group financially , or as a participating entity. Trout Unlimited, for example, is a participating entity but not a signatory.

A participating entity would be showing political support but would not be obligated directly and financially. Saguache County Commissioner Jason Anderson said some folks are discouraged by the efforts against the Gunnison sage-grouse listing that seem to be futile in light of the federal government’s unyielding hand to do whatever it wants, regardless of local input.

“I am hearing a lot of people say we are not going to do anything”until they see what happens with the sage-grouse .”

Spezze said the decision on whether to list the Gunnison sage-grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act is expected by the end of November. In May the D.C. District Court granted a six-month extension to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make the final decision.

O’Loughlin said whatever the decision is, there will likely be legal action afterwards . He said it could be years before the outcome is reached.

Dozier said Gunnison County has told the government if it lists the Gunnison sage-grouse, the county will file a lawsuit.

“Will the states succeed against the feds in a lawsuit ? We don’t know,” she said.

“What do we do in the meantime?” O’Loughlin asked. “I look at it and say we should probably do something.”

He said he believed it would be better to be proactive with the RG cutthroat trout.

Dozier added what the counties are doing now is laying the groundwork for whatever may occur in the future with this species. O’Loughlin said, “I don’t want to give Fish & Wildlife any reason to say you didn’t do anything.”

He added, “My job is to ensure we have done everything we can to be as solid as we can to get the outcome we want, which is an unwarranted decision for each of these species.”

Alamosa County Commissioner Darius Allen said, “I believe it will end up in court, so everything we have done will show them we have made efforts.”

Rio Grande County Commissioner Pam Bricker said, “I do think we need to move forward and be proactive.”

Saguache County Commissioner Linda Joseph said conservation efforts need to continue, regardless of the Fish & Wildlife Service’s decision. Dozier said O’Loughlin will revise and strengthen the conservation agreement within the next week and send it out to the counties again for their county attorneys’ review and subsequent approval during public meetings.

She also asked for the association’s approval of the conservation agreement once it is finalized.

More endangered/threatened species coverage here.


“We are going to have to be sure [Colorado] protects #RioGrande compact apportioned water” — David Robbins

July 27, 2014
Rio Grande and Pecos River basins

Rio Grande and Pecos River basins

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

WildEarth Guardians have not backed off from seeking more water from Colorado to keep fish afloat in New Mexico. This week the environmental group wrote to U.S. Department of the Interior Deputy Secretary Mike Connor asking the department to become more actively involved in management of the Rio Grande to protect endangered species like the silvery minnow and provide water for wild and scenic river and recreational uses as well as bolstering bosque and wildlife refuge areas in New Mexico. The group specifically asked, for example, that the department “engage” the states of Colorado and New Mexico “in order to find a way to ensure the Rio Grande receives its fair share of water.”

The Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) is watching the WildEarth actions closely since they could ultimately affect water use in Colorado. The group maintains that downstream states are already receiving their “fair share of water” through Rio Grande Compact requirements that have been in place for decades.

RGWCD Attorney David Robbins told the water district’s board of WildEarth’s latest move this week and said although the environmental group acknowledges the compact, it does not agree with it.

“There is no panacea that will right the wrongs of the past century on behalf of the Rio Grande,” said Jen Pelz, Wild Rivers program director at WildEarth Guardians . “The fate of the river, however, depends on the willingness and leadership of state and federal agencies to create a water right that belongs to the Rio Grande ” The wild west approach to managing water in the Rio Grande Basin cannot continue without further serious consequences for flows in the river. Interior is in a unique position to implement and navigate new strategies and to reform the archaic system of water management under which it currently operates.”

WildEarth in its letter to the Department of Interior recommended: 1) expanding “the scope of the solutions” by engaging the states of Colorado and New Mexico in order to find a way to ensure the Rio Grande receives its fair share of water, 2) providing funding so the Bureau of Land Management can determine the flows necessary in the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River to preserve recreational , scenic and other values of the designated reach in central New Mexico, and 3) investigating and planning to remove or modify the dams and reservoirs that segment the Rio Grande to reconnect isolated habitat.

Robbins said the water district needs to keep track of this situation.

“We are going to have to pay more attention. We are going to have to be more involved. We are going to have to be sure the state of Colorado protects compact apportioned waters for beneficial use within Colorado.”

Robbins said it was ironic that within a few days of Gary Boyce’s video presentation on the internet proposing to take San Luis Valley Water north WildEarth Guardians sent a letter to the Department of Interior proposing to send more water south.

“We are going to end up having to deal with a proposal to take water north for the metro area, Front Range and demands that federal agencies take an active role trying to force more water out of the Valley going south,” Robbins said.

He said there have been efforts by people in New Mexico to buy senior water rights in Colorado to try to send more water downstream, but the compact that governs how much water goes downstream is between states, not individuals. If someone were to buy water rights in Colorado and retire them in hopes of sending more water downstream, it would just mean that the next water right in line would get to use the water, and it would not affect the total volume sent to downstream states.

RGWCD Board Member Cory Off said it is interesting the WildEarth group wants to improve the bosque in New Mexico but does not seem to care about Colorado’s scenic areas. Robbins said the cooperation the Valley and Colorado have experienced in protecting riparian areas in this state does not exist in the same manner in New Mexico, but Colorado should not have to “disassemble what’s good in Colorado because they would like to see that happen in New Mexico.”

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

For more than four decades, Colorado has followed the letter of the law that dictates how flows on the Rio Grande are divvied up with downstream neighbors New Mexico and Texas.

But a New Mexico environmental group concerned with the survival of an endangered fish says that is not enough. WildEarth Guardians told Colorado officials in January it intended to sue the state over its management of the Rio Grande, claiming that the miserly flows that cross the state line in May and June of dry years were not enough to preserve the Rio Grande silvery minnow. Last week, the group wrote to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which has the responsibility of preserving the fish and also plays a large role in managing the river in New Mexico, asking that it exert more influence over Colorado.

“We just see the federal government playing some role in making the conversation more broad,” said Jen Pelz, an attorney for the guardians who specializes in water issues.

Pelz said she has not gotten a formal response from the state regarding the January notice.

But David Robbins, an attorney for the Alamosa-based Rio Grande Water Conservation District, was clear in his review of the letter to the Interior with the district’s board.

“It’s wrong and it deserves to be resisted strenuously,” he said.

Water users in the valley have lived up to the compact’s obligations and aren’t required to go beyond it, he said.

“We don’t have to let the water go downstream,” Robbins said. “We’re entitled to use it in our state and we always want to remember that.”

Colorado has complied with the 1939 Rio Grande Compact for more than four decades after settling a lawsuit brought by New Mexico and Texas. Following the 1968 settlement, Colorado’s state engineer initiated the practice of curtailing surface water rights — even those that predate the compact — to ensure that enough water made it downstream to satisfy compact requirements.

The delivery requirements vary from year to year, depending on the size of Colorado’s water supply. When the Rio Grande has a wet year, more water must be sent downstream. In dry years, water users in the San Luis Valley keep a bigger share.

But there are no requirements that dictate what time of year the water has to be delivered. When the irrigation season begins April 1 in the valley, irrigators divert water for nearly 600,000 acres of potatoes, barley, alfalfa and pasture. Moreover, what the plants don’t soak up in late spring and early summer, often percolates down to the unconfined aquifer, which many water users then tap to finish their crops after the stream flows have dwindled.

But for Pelz, the compact, with its emphasis on the role of the states, is not enough to solve the river’s problems.

“No one really looks at it as a whole river,” she said.

The timing of Colorado’s diversions are a problem, WildEarth Guardians argued, because in dry years the compact allows Colorado water users to take nearly all of the river’s flows. The group’s letter to interior officials noted that on May 18 of last year, the Rio Grande reached its peak flow and Colorado was diverting 98 percent of the river before it crossed the state line. That leaves an insufficient amount of water left over when the minnow enters breeding season in May and reduces the chances of the fish’s survival, the group said.

And the dry years in which this scenario occurs are likely to become the norm as climate change advances, the group said in the letter.

Pelz estimated that shutting down irrigators for three days would produce the flows needed to clean out sediment and produce the habitat needed for the minnow.

“It doesn’t take shutting down the San Luis Valley for two weeks,” she said.

But Robbins pointed to a host of problems in New Mexico that could be solved before asking Colorado to send additional water downstream.

For example, New Mexico has five dams that hinder the minnow and Colorado has nothing to do with their operations.

Moreover, Robbins said that as early as 1916, the minnow was effectively healthy despite the fact that Colorado already had reached its peak use along the Rio Grande.

And the conservation district has undertaken its own plan to preserve habitat for the southwestern willow flycatcher, a federally endangered species that also is of concern to WildEarth Guardians.

The demands from the south for more water out of the valley also come just as valley rancher Gary Boyce has developed a new proposal to export water to the Front Range.

The timing of the two developments was not lost on Robbins.

“If everybody in the room and all of your neighbors are starting to feel a little bit pulled asunder or under threat of being drawn and quartered, you’re probably awake and your senses are working,” he said.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.


Feds sued over #RioGrande flow for minnow, bird — Albuquerque Journal

July 26, 2014


From the Albuquerque Journal (Mike Bush/John Fleck):

Citing “two decades of broken promises by federal and state water managers,” a Santa Fe-based environmental group filed a federal lawsuit against two government agencies Thursday alleging they failed “to secure dynamic and perennial flows for the Rio Grande” needed to protect the silvery minnow and Southwestern willow flycatcher.

Water managers of one agency say they have made major changes in how they operate, while another said it has spent at least $50 million over the past decade to protect the fish.

In its suit, WildEarth Guardians accuses the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of failing to adopt “even the most modest changes in management on behalf of the Rio Grande.”

WildEarth Guardians has its eye on the two endangered species the silvery minnow and a small bird, the Southwestern willow flycatcher.

“The primary objective of this litigation is to secure the congressionally mandated protections of the (Endangered Species Act) to protect and conserve the silvery minnow and the willow flycatcher,” it says.

Neither of the defendant agencies would comment on the complaint Thursday, although the Corps of Engineers said it may issue a statement next week after a review of the document.

Here’s the release from Wild Earth Guardians:

WildEarth Guardians filed suit today [July 24, 2014] in federal court citing two decades of broken promises by federal and state water managers to secure dynamic and perennial flows for the Rio Grande. The group believes that these agencies’ failure to exercise the full range of their authority to protect the river and its imperiled species not only violates the Endangered Species Act, but also makes it impossible to restore a functioning Rio Grande ecosystem.

“The Rio Grande is central to the history, culture and beauty of New Mexico,” said Jen Pelz the Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “The river has sustained the valley for centuries, and we have a moral obligation to hold water managers and users accountable to ensure that the river does not vanish.”

The group’s lawsuit details the failures by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to implement even the most modest changes in management on behalf of the Rio Grande. A 2003 management plan attempted to return some balance to the Rio Grande in central New Mexico by requiring certain flows and physical infrastructure changes—reconnecting the river from fragmentation by dams—for the benefit of the species. The federal and state agencies, however, failed to honor their commitments to the detriment of the endangered species.

“The plan of the past decade did not go far enough to protect and maintain a living river,” added Pelz. “This lawsuit seeks to provide the shake up necessary to realign our collective values and secure new commitments from all water managers to ensure that the river has a right to its own water and it is a sustainable, dynamic ecosystem.”

The lack of oversight and accountability in the Rio Grande also adds to the decrease of flows in the river. As just one example, the “Water Bank” operated by the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District—which distributes water throughout the District to land without water rights—requires authorization by the State and federal government. However, even though both entities have expressed notable concerns about the validity of the Water Bank and requested proof of beneficial use of the District’s water rights prior to any such approval, the District operates the Water Bank each year without any oversight or authorization.

“It’s a bank without a charter. Not even the worst Wall Street bankers could have established a system so lacking in accountability and supervision,” said Pelz. “Stealing water like this from our river and our future is reckless and cannot continue.”

Steve Sugarman and in-house lawyer, Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, represent the organization in the litigation. This lawsuit is the latest action in WildEarth Guardians’ campaign to protect and restore the Rio Grande, America’s third longest and one of its most iconic rivers.

More endangered/threatened species coverage here.


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