La Plata County: “[In the SW corner of the county] Old-timers used to say it was nine months of winter and three months of drought” — Trent Taylor

April 17, 2014

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From The Durango Herald (Ann Butler):

Agriculture is a difficult profession in the best of times, but it’s an even bigger challenge during a drought.

That’s one of the many takeaways from Wednesday evening’s panel discussing current and future issues for local agriculture sponsored by the League of Women Voters of La Plata County. About 85 people filled the Program Rooms at the Durango Public Library, including representatives from agricultural areas around the county and numerous local residents, as well.

“Everyone in this room is in agriculture because we’re all consumers,” said Patti Buck, president of American National Cattlewomen, who ranches with her husband, Wayne, in the Ignacio area. “We need to be heard. Cattle ranchers are a small number of people, but we feed the world.”

Other members of the panel included Trent Taylor of Blue Horizon Farms, who farms on the Dryside; Maria Baker, a member of a Southern Ute ranching family; Steve Harris of Harris Water Engineering; and Darrin Parmenter, the Colorado State University Extension agent for La Plata County. Marsha Porter-Norton, who grew up in a ranching family north of Cortez, served as moderator…

The idea for the panel came out of a national study the League did, said Marilyn Brown, the local chapter’s secretary and a member of the committee that’s been studying the local agricultural sector with an eye on public policy…

Harris gave a lesson about how water works in La Plata County, from the natural average runoff of about 950,000 acre-feet a year (an acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre in 1 foot of water, or 325,851 gallons). Almost two-thirds, 600,000 acre-feet, comes down the Animas River, with the Pine River drainage accounting for another 230,000 acre-feet…

All domestic use, including wells, is “insignificant,” he said, about 10,000 acre-feet.

Ranchers and farmers actually have been fighting drought conditions for more than a decade. Baker talked about how the tribe, which grants grazing units to the four or five full-time ranchers in the tribe, declared a complete moratorium on grazing units for five years starting in 2000 and still limits time or location on the ones it grants.

After taking everyone through a short history of farming and ranching in the southwest corner of the county, Taylor summed up the situation: “It’s a harsh area. Old-timers used to say it was nine months of winter and three months of drought.

More Animas River watershed coverage here. More La Plata River watershed coverage here.


Tough going for cattlemen in the dry southwestern part of the state #COdrought

April 6, 2014

From The Durango Herald (Ann Butler):

“The folks on the west side of the county have been hurt worse than anyone else,” said Wayne Semler, the recently elected president of the La Plata-Archuleta Cattlemen’s Association who runs cattle and farms south of Bayfield. He has shrunk his herd between 25 and 30 percent in the last couple of years. “With no irrigation, water tables dropping and springs drying up, they’re really struggling.”

The heavy rains last fall and a predicted El Niño weather pattern, which generally brings us moisture, may make this year a little better, he said.

“Last year’s snow melted into the ground because it was so dry, so there was no runoff” he said. “This year, at least, the soil moisture’s a little higher.”

Morley said rain this year is more critical than ever as the drought continues.

“We’re all praying for rain,” she said. “Tell people we all need to pray for rain.”[...]

Most cattle ranchers run cow/calf operations, where the calves are fattened up during the summer for market in the fall.

Some ranchers feed the heifers, or mama cattle, on their own land all year long, grazing in the pasture for the summer, feeding them hay grown in their fields during the colder months.

“We fed our cattle longer than normal,” Semler said about 2013. “And our hay last year, some fields we cut once, some none at all. We had a grasshopper problem, too.”

Other ranchers, like Brice Lee, whose ranch is south of Hesperus, move them from private pastures in New Mexico, where they’ve wintered the heifers, to private pastures in Colorado for the summer.

“Last year, we only got four days of water, when we normally get 30 to 40,” Lee said. “Most everybody’s had to adjust. We haven’t harvested hay in two years, and we haven’t had a lawn for several years because we didn’t want to waste the water.”

Still others winter the cattle on their own land, moving them during the summer to pastures in the mountains where they have grazing permits on Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management land.

More La Plata River coverage here.


Long Hollow Reservoir should improve water rights administration on the La Plata River

May 22, 2013

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From The Durango Herald (Dale Rodebaugh):

The water collected in Long Hollow Reservoir from Long Hollow Creek and Government Draw will supplement the often scant water from the La Plata River, half of which must be shared with New Mexico.

“We’re happy to see the project moving along so well,” Brice Lee, president of the sponsoring La Plata Water Conservancy District, said last week. “It’s been a tough year because we haven’t gotten the monsoons yet.” Lee gets water from a ditch off the La Plata River for pasture and to irrigate hay. But he’s had only four days of water from his ditch so far this spring…

Long Hollow Creek and Government Draw drain a basin of 43 square miles on the east side of Colorado Highway 140 about five miles north of the New Mexico line and about a half mile from the confluence of Long Hollow Creek and the La Plata River. The reservoir, expected to be completed this year, will have a capacity of 5,432 acre-feet and 160 surface acres…

Colorado and New Mexico share the water of the La Plata River under a 1922 agreement. Each state has unrestricted use of water from Dec. 1 to Feb. 15. But from then to Dec. 1, if the river is flowing at less than 100 cubic feet per second at the state line, Colorado must deliver one-half the flow at Hesperus to New Mexico.

Fulfilling the compact isn’t easy for several reasons:

The La Plata, which rises in the mountains north of U.S. Highway 160, doesn’t have abundant water even in its best years.

Water availability and the growing season don’t follow parallel paths. The bulk of the water – as 95 years of records show – is available from April 1 to July 1. Flow shoots from 50 cubic feet per second to 200 cfs then drops quickly to 50 cfs before trailing off. The growing season goes on much longer.

A porous river bed and vegetation siphon off water in the 31 river miles from Hesperus to the state line.

Lee said there are probably 15 major ditches off the La Plata River and many smaller ones. He estimated that 500 to 600 irrigators have a share of the flow, however small.

The cost of the project must come in at $18.6 million or less because there’s no additional funding in sight, Lee said. The source is $15 million – plus accrued interest – from what the state contributed for irrigation in the Animas-La Plata Project. The irrigation component was removed from the A-LP – a settlement of Native American water right claims – in the 1990s.

More La Plata River Watershed coverage here and here.


Will Lake Nighthorse recreation facilities be online in by 2014?

April 9, 2013

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From The Durango Herald (Jim Haug) via the Cortez Journal:

Almost two years after the reservoir was filled in June 2011, local government officials have not allowed kayaking, bird watching or mountain biking on the 5,500-acre site. Lake Nighthorse might be a case of politics proving to be a bigger obstacle than the laws of physics.

About two miles from downtown Durango, the lake is a temptation for all kinds of outdoor enthusiasts, but it is not yet accessible to the public. Officials now are saying 2014, but they have delayed the opening before.

To venture onto the property without permission literally is a federal offense, although judging by footprints and pawprints, people and their dogs apparently have made the trek. “We’ve had to chase out people with kayaks and canoes,” said Tyler Artichoker, facilities manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation…

After budgeting almost $200,000 to open the lake this summer, Durango Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Metz laid out a series of complications that has moved the goal of opening the lake to the summer of 2014. The city first must annex the land so it can provide law enforcement. The Bureau of Reclamation must approve a lease agreement with the city and do an environmental assessment of the city’s master recreation plan, which was developed after much public input and consensus building about the kinds of recreation to allow. Jet skis are out. The master plan calls for a “family beach” to distinguish it from other kinds of beaches. The bureau’s environmental assessment then must be made available for public comment, which is expected to happen in April.

Once the bureau signs off on the lease agreement, the city plans to get assistance from the Colorado National Guard for help with land clearing. An entrance station and boat-inspection area also must be built with funding from a state grant…

“If you can name a governmental entity, it has a stake in Lake Nighthorse,” Rinderle said.

More Animas-La Plata Project coverage here and here.


Colorado Water 2012: A look at the basins of Southwestern Colorado

October 31, 2012

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Here’s the latest installment of the Valley Courier’s Colorado Water 2012 series, written by Bruce Whitehead. Here’s an excerpt:

Southwestern Colorado’s rivers are unique in that many of the rivers and tributaries flow from north to south and are administered as independent river systems.

This is due to the fact that many, such as the Navajo, Blanco, Piedra, Pine, Florida, Animas, La Plata, and Mancos Rivers, are tributary to the San Juan River in New Mexico or just upstream of the state line. The Dolores River flows from north to south, but makes a “U-turn” near Cortez and heads back to the northwest and joins the Colorado River in Utah. The San Miguel River originates just above Telluride, and flows to the west where it joins the Dolores River just above the Colorado-Utah state line.

The southwest basin has many areas that are under strict water rights administration on a regular basis, but there is still water available for appropriation and development pursuant to Colorado’s Constitution and the Colorado River Compact. The region is also known for its beautiful scenery and recreation opportunities, which is the basis for the establishment of the Weminuche Wilderness area as well as nearly 150 reaches of streams with in-stream flow water rights. Over 50 natural lake levels are also protected by the state’s In-Stream Flow and Natural Lake Level Program.

Water leaders have been active for many years in the basin and recognized early on that in order to meet agricultural and municipal demands storage would need to be developed. The Southwestern Water Conservation District was formed in 1941, and has been responsible for the planning, development, and water rights acquisition for many of the federal projects in the region. Reservoirs such as McPhee (Dolores Project), Jackson Gulch (Mancos Project), Ridges Basin a.k.a Lake Nighthorse (Animas-La Plata Project), Lemon (Florida Project), and Vallecito (Pine River Project) provide for a supplemental supply of irrigation and municipal water in all but the driest of years. The delivery of these supplemental supplies assists with keeping flows in many critical reaches of river that historically had little or no flow late in the season due to limited supplies and water rights administration.

Southwest Colorado is also home to two Sovereign Nations and Indian Reservations that were established by treaty in 1868. Under federal law the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Southern Ute Indian Tribe were entitled to federal reserved water rights, which had the potential to create conflicts with Colorado water law and non-Indian water users in the basin. After nearly a decade of negotiations, a consent decree was entered with the water court that settled the tribal claims. The Tribal Settlement included some early dates of appropriation for the tribes, and a water supply from some of the federal storage projects including the Dolores, Animas-La Plata, Florida, and Pine River Projects. This landmark settlement is evidence that both tribal and non-Indian interests can be provided for with water storage and cooperative water management.

More Colorado Water 2012 coverage here.


San Juan Mountains: Acid rock drainage predated mining activity by millennia, mining made it worse

July 6, 2012

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From The Telluride Watch (Peter Shelton):

The report, titled “Natural Acid Rock Drainage Associated with Hydrothermally Altered Terrane in Colorado,” was recently given an award by the Geological Society of America as the best environmental publication of 2011. The report identifies a number of high-country streams in Colorado, including Red Mountain Creek, where surface water is acidic and has high concentrations of metals upstream of historic mining.

“Of course, the mining made it much, much worse,” commented Don Paulson, a former chemistry professor who is now curator of the Ouray County Historical Museum. Paulson has followed efforts to identify sources of stream pollution and the remedial measures undertaken to improve water quality in the Uncompahgre River and its tributaries.

There was a big push to clean up the water affected by mine waste (and the role it plays in the inability of high country waterways to support aquatic life) in the 1980s. At that time the Colorado Department of Health (now Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) first sued under the Superfund Act, then negotiated with Idarado Mining and its parent company, Newmont Mining, substantial cleanups on both the Telluride and Ouray sides of the mountain. The Telluride side saw improvements to the water quality of the Upper San Miguel River. But the acid pH and the levels of zinc and other minerals in Red Mountain Creek has not changed significantly despite Idarado’s remediation in the area of the Treasury Tunnel.

More water pollution coverage here.


The CWCB and the Bureau of Reclamation are finished hammering out the Animas-La Plata purchase agreement

June 21, 2012

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Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Tim Feehan/Ted Kowalski/Todd Hartman):

This week the State of Colorado and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation finalized a contract that allows the state to purchase of a portion of water from the Animas-La Plata (A-LP) Project in southwestern Colorado. This contract represents the completion of almost two years of intense negotiations, cooperation, and hard work on the part of Colorado Water Conservation Board staff and other stakeholders.

The Animas-La Plata Project was built to fulfill a water rights settlement between the federal government and two Indian tribes that live in southwestern Colorado: the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. But the project also has auxiliary benefits for other water users in the region as a much-needed municipal and industrial water source and reservoir for long-term storage in Lake Nighthorse. The state’s allocation of 10,460 acre-feet will go a long way toward securing a water supply for water users in the southwestern portion of the state.

In 2010, the General Assembly authorized the expenditure of up to $36 million towards the purchase of the State’s 10,460 acre-feet allocation of A-LP project water. This Bill appropriated the first $12 million installment, which was available on June 30, 2011. Subsequent legislation appropriated the remaining $24 million, which will be available July 1, 2012. After the contract was signed and executed, the State made its first payment of $12 million to the Bureau.

After July 1, 2012, the State will pay the final installment to the Bureau, retaining enough of the General Assembly’s appropriation for future operation and maintenance costs. The execution of the contract also grants membership to the State in the Animas-La Plata Operations, Maintenance and Replacement Association. Over the next few months, the State will work with other members of the Association to address issues such as engineering, modeling, water administration and protocol.

For more information or background on the Animas-La Plata project, visit http://www.usbr.gov/uc/progact/animas/ or the CWCB website at http://cwcb.state.co.us.

From the Associated Press via The Colorado Springs Gazette:

Colorado lawmakers had authorized paying $36 million for the state’s allocation of 10,460 acre-feet from the water storage and delivery project in southwest Colorado. Money for the final payment will be available after July 1. The contract announced by the state Wednesday makes Colorado part of a group that will operate and maintain the project.

More Animas-La Plata Project coverage here and here.


The Colorado Legislature intends to pony up $36 million for Animas-La Plata Project water

April 15, 2012

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From the Associated Press (Catharine Tsai) via The Durango Herald:

Colorado’s Legislature has authorized paying $36 million to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for its share of 10,460 acre-feet of water, plus interest on construction costs. But the interest has been building, and the $36 million likely won’t cover everything Colorado owes.

The tribes had proposed that Colorado allow its share of water to revert back to the tribes, which weren’t assessed for construction. The tribes then would sell the water back to the state at what they say would be a much lower price than what the state would pay the bureau.

“When we heard what the state would spend to get water, our first thought was, ‘Why?’” said Peter Ortego, general counsel for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. “We can make it cheaper for the state. Sure, it puts money in our coffers, but it keeps it in Colorado.”

However, after two years of talking with tribal representatives, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has directed its staff to move forward on contract talks with the Bureau of Reclamation, board director Jennifer Gimbel said.

Gimbel said the board took the tribes’ proposal “very seriously.” However, some board members questioned whether outside parties would challenge the proposal in court. Though legislators already have approved $36 million for project water, some board members also questioned how willing legislators would be in future years to spend on Animas-La Plata Project water.

More Animas-La Plata Project coverage here and here.


La Plata River: Long Hollow Reservoir will help with compact deliveries

April 14, 2012

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From the Cortez Journal (J. Paul Brown):

A water storage project, on the La Plata drainage, that has been on the drawing board since 1945, the Long Hollow project, finally is about to become a reality. This is a project located in the mouth of the Long Hollow Drainage about 3 miles from the New Mexico state line. It will allow Colorado to store winter runoff and floodwater in the off irrigation season to be used to satisfy the New Mexico water right at critical times.

One of the big problems in managing the delivery of water to New Mexico under the compact is when there is very little water at Hesperus, all of it can be released and because of seepage and evaporation nothing is delivered to the state line. The idea of the Long Hollow project is to store water so that New Mexico’s portion can be delivered out of the dam and Colorado can use more water that is in the river. It is a great project, and it is too bad that it has taken 67 years to become a reality.

More La Plata River coverage here.


Animas-La Plata Project Repayment Negotiations Continue between Reclamation and Colorado

March 1, 2012

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Here’s the release from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Ryan Christianson):

The Bureau of Reclamation and the state of Colorado are continuing negotiations on a proposed repayment contract for the Animas-La Plata Project. The contract will provide the terms and conditions by which the state will repay the construction costs associated with all or a portion of its statutory allocation of project water. The third negotiation meeting is scheduled for Wednesday August 10, 2011, at 10:00 a.m. at Reclamation’s office, 835 E. 2nd Ave., Suite 300, Durango, Colo. 81301.

The contract to be negotiated will provide for storage and delivery of project water, identify the amount of project construction costs to be paid to the federal government by the state, and provide for operation and maintenance of the project.

All negotiations are open to the public as observers, and the public will have the opportunity to ask questions and offer comments pertaining to the contract during a thirty minute comment period following the negotiation session. The proposed contract and other pertinent documents will be available at the negotiation meeting, or can be obtained on our website under Current Focus or by contacting Brett Griffin of the Bureau of Reclamation, 835 East Second Avenue, Suite 300, Durango, Colorado, 81301, telephone (970) 385-6531.

More Animas-La Plata coverage here and here.


The La Plata Water Conservancy District to turn dirt for the long-proposed Longhollow Reservoir

February 20, 2012

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From The Durango Herald (Dale Rodebaugh):

The approval of an escrow agreement allows the La Plata Water Conservancy District to break ground on the Longhollow Reservoir. “It’s been 15 or 20 years,” Lee said Friday. “Things move slow, but we’re getting there.”

Groundbreaking could occur as early as next month, said Lee, president of the water district. The reservoir will be located just east of Colorado Highway 140 about five miles north of the New Mexico state line. It will store 5,400 acre-feet of water – 300 of them to help satisfy Colorado’s La Plata River obligation to New Mexico. The remainder is for irrigators in the arid southwest corner of La Plata County…

Longhollow Creek and drainage from Government Draw will fill the reservoir. The project will cost about $22.5 million.

More La Plata River coverage here.


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