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.


The CWCB approves a $500,000 grant for the La Plata Archuleta Water District pipeline project

October 28, 2012

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From The Durango Herald (Dale Rodebaugh):

A Colorado Water Conservation Board grant will cover $475,000, with the remainder coming from the Southwest Basin Roundtable’s share of the Water Supply Reserve Account. Ground breaking is scheduled Nov. 13. Water will be available for the district’s first customers next year, Steve Harris, the district’s engineer, said Friday. Long­range plans envision serving 400 square miles, first in southeast La Plata County and later southwest Archuleta County…

The pipeline will follow Bayfield Parkway from the roundabout on County Road 501 to County Road 509, then south along County Road 509 to County Road 510, where it will turn west…

The district’s water will come from the city of Bayfield treatment plant, the capacity of which is to be expanded from 1.5 million gallons a day to 2.5 mgd. The plant currently treats 900,000 gallons a day…

The first two miles of pipeline will be 14 inches in diameter to accommodate several laterals, Harris said.
“Once we get into the rural area, we’ll use 8­inch pipe,” Harris said.

More infrastructure 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 was in Telluride last week to gather input on the effects of drought on tourism and recreation

November 7, 2011

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From The Telluride Daily Planet (Benjamin Preston):

The Colorado Water Conservation Board hosted an informational meeting Wednesday about its Drought Assessment for Recreation and Tourism, or DART. CWCB designed the program to fill gaps in the state’s drought impact data — which had been focused more on agriculture — and provide county-specific assessments.

“This is the first time anyone has done an assessment like this in the U.S.,” said Taryn Hutchins-Cabibi, a CWCB official who traveled to Telluride to reach out to potential survey coordinators and participants. She called the I-70 corridor a threshold region and said the area south of it needs more detailed drought impact analysis. “Anything below I-70 seems to be more susceptible to drought.”

Hutchins-Cabibi sought more survey participants affected by drought, finding representatives from the Telluride Foundation, Mountain Studies Institute and other organizations around town at Wednesday’s meeting. But Hutchins-Cabibi said she needed as many participants as possible to make the survey more accurate. Honed in on the San Juan, San Miguel and Dolores River watersheds, DART’s Southwest Colorado component will evaluate a region of the state where tourism is particularly prone to the effects of drought.

A preliminary list of industries DART will evaluate includes skiing, wildlife viewing, hunting, fishing, camping, golf, boating and rafting. Meeting attendees offered a number of other suggested industries from which to seek input; everything from dog sledding and horseback riding to dude ranch operation. Cooperation with the Colorado Department of Corrections — which maintains fisheries in Cañon City — was also suggested.

While DART’s main collaborators are CWCB, the Colorado Department of Agriculture and Colorado State University, the study incorporates a long list of other participants: Colorado State Parks; the Colorado Division of Wildlife; the Colorado Tourism Office; the National Park Service; the U.S. Bureau of Land Management; the U.S. Forest Service; Ft. Lewis College; the University of Colorado; area tribal communities; Telluride, Silverton and Durango Mountain Resorts ski areas; and the River Rafting Association.

More CWCB coverage here.


The long-range forecast for the San Juans is for slightly below average precipitation — blame La Niña

November 3, 2011

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From The Telluride Daily Planet (Benjamin Preston):

According to the National Weather Service, La Niña, a condition where colder-than-average sea surface temperatures off the coast of Peru push the jet stream further north, usually dumps precipitation farther north. First hitting the Pacific Northwest, these systems tend to travel through the Northern Rockies before expiring over the Ohio River Valley.

“Colorado is the transition zone where the northern mountains get more snow than the southern mountains,” said Dennis Phillips, a meteorologist at the NWS station in Grand Junction. Droughts and fires across the Front Range and Southern Plains suggest that conditions this season will most likely resemble last year’s, although cold air masses in the Arctic could cause conditions in Colorado to change quickly. But although Arctic weather conditions can impact weather in the Rockies more rapidly than South American sea surface temperatures, forecasters are unable to predict its impact further than two weeks in advance…

Joe Ramey, another of NWS Grand Junction’s team of meteorologists, said that precipitation during the weeks leading up to the April ski area closure approached average levels. He compared this year to the 2000-2001 winter season, which produced La Niña weather patterns after a La Niña had occurred the year before.

“The 2000-2001 season gives us the best idea of what will happen this year,” he said, adding that he expected below average precipitation in the Southern San Juan Mountains. From Telluride north, he expects near average snowfall, especially toward the end of the season.


Energy policy — coalbed methane: Water Court Division Seven judge dismisses BP America and others applications

June 20, 2011

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From the Associated Press via The Denver Post:

The Durango Herald reports BP America Production Co. and others had sought claims to nontributary groundwater, which isn’t considered connected to surface streams. Water Judge Gregory Lyman said last month that state law gives landowners the right to such water under their property, so companies need landowners’ consent first.

More coalbed methane coverage here and here.


Bayfield: The town approves more comprehensive grease trap standards in March

April 24, 2011

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From the Pine River Times (Carole McWilliams):

The town board approved updates to the town’s grease trap ordinance in March, to require more business accountability for grease trap and interceptor maintenance. It lists penalties but states intention to seek voluntary compliance first…

Saba told the Times that the grease issue is not just restaurants. It’s residential customers too. “We have a pretty good idea of a resident dumping motor oil” into the system, he said. He urges residential customers not to put grease down the drain.

More wastewater coverage here and here.


Colorado Supremes ruling solidifies King Consolidated Ditch Co. and seven others winter livestock watering rights

April 4, 2011

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From the Cortez Journal (Joe Hanel):

The 4-3 ruling solidified water rights for the King Consolidated Ditch Co. and seven others. The companies wanted to make sure their 1930s-era rights are protected against a plan to fill Vallecito Reservoir twice a year in order to maintain winter flows in the river…

Lawyers for the [Southern Ute] tribe argued the Utes and about 100 other water rights owners on the Pine River should have been served with legal notice that the ditch companies – which own the some of the most senior water rights on the stream – were going to court to clear up their rights. “This is a declaration that affects not particular water rights, but virtually all senior water rights on the Pine River,” said Adam Reeves, a lawyer for the tribe, during September’s arguments.

The high court was sharply divided on its March 14 ruling. Dissenting Justice Nancy Rice called the ruling a precedent that “opens the floodgates for the scope of already-adjudicated water rights to be revisited and reinterpreted without direct notice to rights holders.”

More San Juan basin coverage here.


HB 10-1250 (Water Conservation Bd Construction Fund): La Plata-Archuleta Water District update

April 14, 2010

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From The Durango Herald (Dale Rodebaugh):

The water district, created in 2004, wants to provide drinking water in a 400-square-mile area in southeastern La Plata County and southwestern Archuleta County. La Plata County would be developed first. But before it can move ahead, residents must agree to tax themselves to pay for planning, capital improvements, construction, maintenance and administration. If they approve ballot Issue A, voters are authorizing a levy on the market value of their property of 5 mills (half a penny), expected to raise $5.1 million in 2011. The levy could vary in future years but may never exceed 5 mills. The 5-mill levy would cost the owner of a $200,000 house $7 a month.

[Board president Dick Lunceford] and Amy Kraft with Harris Water Engineering, the district’s consulting engineer, told commissioners they’ll soon begin discussing technical issues with county planners and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe on whose reservation much of the area to be serviced lies. They’ll also be evaluating the project’s overall viability in light of possible drops in revenue, Kraft and Lunceford said. BP is the largest gas producer and the largest source of property-tax revenue for the district. But as gas production eventually falls off, so will revenue. For now, however, a 5-mill property tax levy – applied to the $1.2 billion of assessed value in the district – will produce the $5.1 million annually that the district anticipates, Lunceford said…

The district has several water sources in mind, Lunceford said. For starters, it owns a total of about 22 cubic feet a second from the Piedra, Pine, Animas and Florida rivers. It also is interested in buying 500 to 1,000 acre-feet from the state if Colorado exercises its right to Animas-La Plata Project water. The district has its eye on leasing 200 to 300 acre-feet from the Pine River Irrigation District. The district will need an estimated 2,750 acre-feet to serve about 5,000 customers in the two counties over the next 20 years…

Eventually, a joint water-treatment plant with Bayfield is anticipated, Lunceford said. But whether it would be constructed before a treatment plant at the base of Lake Nighthorse, the A-LP reservoir, depends on which water source comes on line first, he said. If the A-LP is developed first, distribution lines would be extended to Florida Mesa. If the joint project with Bayfield comes about first, Gem Village and points south and west would be the first area to receive district water.

Meanwhile State Senator Bruce Whitehead is pushing the state of Colorado to buy water from the Animas-La Plata project, according to a report from Joe Hanel writing for The Durango Herald. From the article:

The proposed sale – financed by state natural-gas and oil tax money – raises the question of why the state should buy the same water that the tribes can get for free. “I might have the same question,” said Scott McElroy, an attorney for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.

The answer lies in control of the water. “It comes down to whether you would rather own the water or do long-term leases,” Whitehead said. Whitehead was the executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District until last year, when he filled a vacancy in the state Senate. The district has pushed the state for years to buy rights in the Animas-La Plata Project.

The Southern Ute tribe also welcomes state participation, McElroy said. But if the state doesn’t buy in, the tribe is willing to talk with local water districts about supplying water, McElroy said at a Colorado Water Conservation Board meeting on March 29…

The new La Plata Archuleta Water District wants to buy up to 1,400 acre-feet from the state. The La Plata West Water Authority also has told the state water board it is interested in buying water out of the state’s future share. The La Plata Archuleta district has not talked to either Ute tribe about leasing water, said Steve Harris, the district’s consulting engineer. The district would need the lease to be permanent, Harris said. “But if they were reasonable terms, of course, we’d be willing to talk,” Harris said…

The federal government built the reservoir [Lake Nighthorse] primarily to settle American Indian water rights claims. Both the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes get 33,050 acre-feet, enough to turn the tribes into two of the biggest water owners in the Four Corners. Smaller amounts go to the Navajo Nation and water districts in Colorado and New Mexico. The state of Colorado has an option to buy 10,460 acre-feet, half of which could be consumed in any year. It’s roughly enough water for a city the size of Durango. If Colorado does not buy the water, it would go to each Ute tribe in equal parts…

On Thursday, the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee will consider an amendment to House Bill 10-1250 to spend $36 million over three years to buy the water from the federal government…

The last two years, the Legislature has raided most of Colorado’s water funds in order to balance the budget. An improved forecast for gas and oil tax money has given state officials the confidence that they will have enough money to complete the Animas-La Plata deal.

Ballots for the election will be mailed to residents in the district on Thursday, according to a report from Dale Rodebaugh writing for The Durango Herald. From the article:

Votes must be cast by May 4. Voters may mail their Issue A ballot or hand-carry it to the office of Harris Engineering, the district’s consulting engineer.

Voters are asked to approve a 5 mill (half a penny) property-tax increase to raise $5.1 million in 2011, and future mill levy increases cannot exceed 5 mills annually. Approval of Issue A also would remove the La Plata Archuleta Water District’s revenue limit set by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights Amendment – allowing it to spend such proceeds and any other revenue such as from grants.

The mill levy could be adjusted annually by the district’s board of directors. [ed. This is the TABOR exemption -- the mill levy adjustment does not require taxpayer approval.]

More infrastructure coverage here.


CWCB: La Plata Archuleta Water District scores $400,000 from board for creation of district

September 25, 2009

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From The Durango Herald (Dale Rodebaugh):

“We’ve been working on the master plan over the summer,” Steve Harris, the principal in Durango-based Harris Water Engineering, said Thursday. “It will identify sources of water and the general layout of the pipelines and the order of installation.” The Animas and Pine rivers are the desired choices to provide water for the system, Harris said. Although no sources of water have been secured, the district would like to get half from the Pine, half from the Animas. Pine River water would be taken from the diversion point used by the town of Bayfield, which would partner with the water district in building a new water-treatment plant next to the town’s existing plant, Harris said. The water would serve customers in the eastern part of the district, Harris said. Animas River water, which would serve residents on Florida Mesa, would be diverted from the outlet on the Ridges Basin dam southwest of Bodo Industrial Park, treated at a plant yet to be constructed and then piped to Florida Mesa, Harris said…

Harris said there are 4,000 houses in the water district service area, but not all need or want a connection. Projections estimate the district will have 4,000 customers over 50 years. “But the advantage is that even without a single new house, the system is feasible,” Harris said. “It is not dependent on growth.” The district has been a long time in coming, Harris said. Most rural communities on the Western Slope have drinking-water systems, he said. Harris said the state agency grant allows work to continue on the master plan and permit acquisition from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and La Plata County.

More coverage of the recent CWCB grants from The Denver Post:

The Colorado Water Conservation Board has awarded $3.3 million in grants to 14 water projects across the state and approved more than $2 million in loans for four projects. Director Jennifer Gimbel says the grants included two totaling about $1 million to address water supplies and infrastructure in the south Denver area. The Fort Morgan Reservoir and Irrigation Co. in eastern Colorado will get a $670,000 grant in part for a wetlands project.

More CWCB coverage here.


Senator Udall proposes legislation to fund upgrade for Pine River Project

June 16, 2009

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From The Durango Herald (Jason Gonzales):

On Monday, [U.S. Senator Mark Udall] proposed a bill that, if passed, will repair the decrepit system that pumps irrigation water from Vallecito Dam to serve a 13,000-acre tribal and nontribal area. The irrigation system funded by the federal government has been neglected and meets only about 60 percent of the acreage it is intended to serve, Tara Trujillo, Sen. Udall’s communication director, said in an e-mail. “Currently, people who live farthest away from the project seldom get the water allocated to them, even though they pay operating and maintenance fees (to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for Native American tribes),” she said.


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