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 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.


Rio Blanco River restoration update

December 30, 2010

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From The New York Times (Chris Santella):

To create a habitat that would support trout in the valley reaches of the Rio Blanco, it was necessary to slow the river enough to stem erosion and create deeper pockets of water to provide shelter for the fish. Before he could begin to create a blueprint to engineer the necessary changes, Rosgen needed to find a river in the region that would provide a natural model.

“I looked for a system that had a similar flow regime and hence was naturally stable,” he said. Once such a model was found — the East Fork of the San Juan in an adjoining valley — Rosgen set to work, hauling in boulders and parts of old trees to rejuvenate the Blanco’s banks and direct its waters toward a more defined channel.

“My goal was to develop a naturally meandering stream that has a close connection to the surrounding riparian environs,” Rosgen said. “In the past, methods included using junked cars and concrete to shore up stream banks. That doesn’t exactly give the river a natural feel.”

One of the main challenges Rosgen faced on the Rio Blanco was filtering out the massive amounts of sediment that is carried down from the mountains during spring runoff. If the sediment was not diverted, the stream bed would be clogged and water would flow outside of the primary channel. Rosgen and his team constructed a tube to divert cobble, gravel and sand away from the river channel; water flows through, and sediment is routed to a holding area that can be periodically emptied. The excess gravel — which during my visit rivaled the sand piles along highways during the snow season — is used to supplement the roads and trails around the ranch.

Because of Rosgen’s efforts, there are three miles of the Rio Blanco that may be fished by guests of El Rancho Pinoso, which is owned by Robert Lindner Sr., the founder of United Dairy Farms. The price tag for the renovation was about $1 million.

Thanks to Loretta Lohman for the link.

More Rio Blanco River watershed coverage here.


San Juan Water Conservancy District unveils 2010 budget

January 9, 2010

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From the Pagosa Sun (Chuck McGuire):

…the district has said it will continue working with the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) to obtain additional land for a future reservoir, the exact size of which will be determined sometime in the future. It will also participate in the final phase of the Lower Blanco River Restoration Project in 2010, as it has throughout the first three phases. Once complete, the project will afford improved water quality, fishing and public access to several miles of mountain stream.

The bulk of the district’s anticipated 2010 income is based on property tax revenues subject to statutory limitation of $102,648. Calculated by a certified mill levy of 0.316 mills, it is based on a countywide assessed property valuation of $324,836,502, excluding bond and interest payments, and election-approved contractual obligations. On the budget’s revenue side, the district expects $50,000 in grants (Environmental Protection Agency and Southwest Water Conservation District); the $102,648 in mill levy money; $7,500 in specific ownership tax; $2,700 in delinquent tax and interest; and another $6,000 in interest earned. The total should equal $169,348, or some $63,000 more than last year. As for expenses, the proposed Dry Gulch Reservoir project will account for the lion’s share, with $162,050 going to land acquisition and water rights. The Blanco River restoration project will receive $5,000 in district support; while other ditches and streams, cloud seeding and various contributions will total another $3,500. Assorted administrative and legal expenses will add up to $49,400, as public relations, education, and treasurer’s fees will cost $5,600. Total expenses should be $225,550. In 2010, the district expects expenses to exceed those of 2009 by approximately $33,400. As the new year begins, its budgetary fund balance will amount to $220,279, while its year-end budgetary fund balance should equal $164,077. The 2010 beginning balance will be roughly $86,000 less than last year’s, while the ending balance will fall short of last year’s by about $56,000.

More San Juan Basin coverage here.


Lower Blanco River restoration efforts

April 9, 2009

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Here’s an update on restoration efforts along the Lower Rio Blanco River, from Jim McQuiggin writing for the Pagosa Sun. From the article:

At a meeting scheduled April 28 from 7-9 p.m. in the south conference room of the Pagosa Springs Community Center, project supporters will present plans for further restoration of the river. According to Dave McDonough of the Lower Blanco Property Owners Association (LBPOA), there are 26 property owners who would be affected by the project. “Raising the money is not an issue,” McDonough said. “We’ve done that. We need the property owners to engage with us. Ultimately, we need their permission to work in their back yards.”

When the Chama river diversion was opened in 1971, removing about 70 percent of the Blanco’s water to be sent to New Mexico, portions of the Lower Blanco were impacted, with diminished fish and wildlife habitats as well as changing the overall dynamics of the river.

With the third phase of the project completed last year, about five miles of the total nine miles of the project have been finished. Reaction to improvements on the river so far completed have been unanimously positive…

Although expanded fish habitat is a primary goal of the project, the restoration boasts several other merits from slowing down the river through the narrowing and deepening of channels, essentially making the most of available water resources that were depleted by the Chama diversion. The project also includes the construction of flood plains that can protect the integrity of river banks as well as mitigate flood issues with private properties. “The flood plains will help keep the water off of pastures and properties and put it back into the river,” said McDonough. “Ultimately, what this project does is keep more water in the river. It creates a healthier watershed, healthier riparian environments, vegetation, and fish habitats.”

The LBPOA also reports that improvements on the river have not only provided safer environments for fish — along with increased numbers of fish — but also increased numbers of turtles, crayfish and birds. Furthermore, wells monitored along improved portions of the river have not only shown increased levels but water collected from those wells has been reported to be clearer and cleaner.

With permitting from the Colorado Department of Wildlife and the Army Corps of Engineers contingent on the project securing easements, McDonough hopes to contact property owners as soon as possible, either by meeting with them at the scheduled April 24 meeting or through phone or e-mail…

According to project engineer Chris Phillips of Riverbend Engineering, crews “Should start construction in late August, early September,” with the project taking about six weeks. Should construction be completed this summer, the LBPOA will begin the process of securing funding to begin the fifth and final phase of the project. That phase would include about 2.5 miles of the river.

Lower Blanco residents interested in the Lower Blanco river restoration project should contact Dave McDonough at 264-0596 for more information.


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