Water: Does the Colorado River compact need tweaking?

September 27, 2014

Originally posted on Summit County Citizens Voice:

‘Demand-cap’ concept could avert a compact call

The time to address water planning is before the reservoir run dry.

The time to address water planning is before the reservoir run dry.

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Water managers in the Southwest are considering all sorts of options to address what is expected to become a huge shortage of water in the Colorado River Basin. But one path they haven’t explored in detail is a fundamental re-allocation of water between the Upper Basin and Lower Basin states.

That reluctance is understandable. Since 1922, the Colorado River Compact has functioned to the satisfaction of all the states using Colorado River Water. But persistently lower-than-average flows, the looming threat of an overall shortage and the uncertainties of climate change may require a new way of thinking, said Doug Kenney, head of the Colorado River Governance Initiative.

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#ColoradoRiver District seminar recap

September 27, 2014

From KREXTV.com (Brian Germ):

The Colorado River District held its annual seminar on Friday [September 18] at Two Rivers Convention Center to discuss water issues concerning the Colorado River Basin.

Each year, there is a certain topic of discussion at the seminar involving development plans or water-allocation. This year, District leaders and speakers focused on agriculture efficiency and conservation when it comes to water. Some of the challenges that are facing agriculture water users include climate change and drought.

The Colorado River District encourages the public and representatives to voice their opinions and get involved with them. They say it’s important to talk about the water in the Colorado River Basin and its use, priorities, and development.

From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Amy Hadden Marsh):

What would the Colorado River and Roaring Fork valleys look like without the ranches and farms? That question has been haunting me ever since I attended the Colorado River District’s water seminar in Grand Junction last week. Close to 300 people listened to speakers Brad Udall, of the Colorado Water Institute, Jeff Lukas, lead author of a report about how climate change could effect water management in the state, CSU’s Perry Cabot, Aaron Citron of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Mark Harris of the Grand Valley Water Users Association and author Kevin Fedarko.

Agriculture is a large part of life on the West Slope. But, it’s not just about bucolic landscapes; it’s also about what goes on behind the scenery – the rural lifestyle and economy that depend on agriculture to survive as well as a healthy, natural environment that supports animals, plants, and humans.

So, what could make West Slope farms and ranches disappear? No water. Or, at least, not enough water, which is what experts from all sectors agree could very well be Colorado’s future.

Here’s the numbers part. The Colorado River serves about 40 million people right now. But, that won’t always be the case. Two years ago, the Bureau of Reclamation issued the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, which predicted a population increase anywhere from 9.3 million to 36.5 million people within the Colorado River Basin. That means the amount of people living in the seven basin states could almost double within the next four decades. As a result, says the study, we could be short 3.2 million acre-feet of water…

…does that mean farmers and ranchers have to give up their livelihoods and thereby cause a domino effect around the rural West in order to satisfy Front Range urban needs?[...]

Basically, the answer was “no” but, according to most of the speakers, that doesn’t mean ag folks and Front Range municipal water users should stand on their respective ends of the tug ‘o war rope, arms akimbo, refusing to budge. “Efficiency” and “conservation” were the buzzwords of the day, meaning everyone basically needs to use less water. That’s sort of a no-brainer but the real conundrum is getting everyone to agree on what that looks like.

EDF’s Aaron Citron writes a sort of ag blog for the organization’s website and he said he thought people would laugh at the idea. When I asked him why, he said that in the West, environmentalists are seen as anti-agriculture or anti-growth. But, he added, that is changing. And, it’s all because of water.

“As we talk about the future of water in the West,” he said, “there really is an important alignment between agriculture who want to keep water in place and tend to be some of the best stewards of the land and environmentalists and conservationists who also want to see the protection of open space and who want to keep water in place.”

In other words, environmentalists and ranchers can be friends. And, in terms of the West’s water future, they have to be…

Solutions at this point are experimental and include new irrigation techniques and incentives to use them, and efficiency technology like smart ditches and soil monitoring. But, what it comes down to is education, open-mindedness (particularly about climate change), agreement, and respect.

More Colorado River Water Conservancy District coverage here.


USGS: Potential for Underground Water Storage in the Buena Vista-Salida Basin

September 26, 2014
Arkansas River Basin -- Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey

Arkansas River Basin — Graphic via the Colorado Geological Survey

Here’s the release from the USGS (Kenneth R. Watts, Tamara Ivahnenko, Robert W. Stogner, James F. Bruce):

By 2030, the population of the Arkansas Headwaters Region, which includes all of Chaffee and Lake Counties and parts of Custer, Fremont, and Park Counties, Colorado, is forecast to increase about 73 percent. As the region’s population increases, it is anticipated that groundwater will be used to meet much of the increased demand. In September 2009, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District and with support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board; Chaffee, Custer, and Fremont Counties; Buena Vista, Cañon City, Poncha Springs, and Salida; and Round Mountain Water and Sanitation District, began a 3-year study of groundwater and surface-water conditions in the Buena Vista-Salida Basin. This report presents results from the study of the Buena Vista-Salida Basin including synoptic gain-loss measurements and water budgets of Cottonwood, Chalk, and Browns Creeks, changes in groundwater storage, estimates of specific yield, transmissivity and hydraulic conductivity from aquifer tests and slug tests, an evaluation of areas with potential for underground water storage, and estimates of stream-accretion response-time factors for hypothetical recharge and selected streams in the basin.

The four synoptic measurements of flow of Cottonwood, Chalk, and Browns Creeks, suggest quantifiable groundwater gains and losses in selected segments in all three perennial streams. The synoptic measurements of flow of Cottonwood and Browns Creeks suggest a seasonal variability, where positive later-irrigation season values in these creeks suggest groundwater discharge, possibly as infiltrated irrigation water. The overall sum of gains and losses on Chalk Creek does not indicate a seasonal variability but indicates a gaining stream in April and August/September. Gains and losses in the measured upper segments of Chalk Creek likely are affected by the Chalk Cliffs Rearing Unit (fish hatchery).

Monthly water budgets were estimated for selected segments of five perennial streams (Cottonwood, North Cottonwood, Chalk, and Browns Creeks, and South Arkansas River) in the Buena Vista-Salida Basin for calendar year 2011. Differences between reported diversions and estimated crop irrigation requirements were used to estimate groundwater recharge in the areas irrigated by water supplied from the diversions. The amount of groundwater recharge in all the basins varied monthly; however, the greatest amount of recharge was during June and July for Cottonwood, North Cottonwood, and Chalk Creeks and South Arkansas River. The greatest amount of recharge in 2011 in Browns Creek occurred in July and August. The large seasonal fluctuations of groundwater near irrigated areas in the Buena Vista-Salida Basin indicate that the increased groundwater storage resulting from infiltration of surface-water diversions has dissipated by the following spring.

Areas within the Buena Vista-Salida Basin with the potential for underground storage were identified using geographic information system data, including topographic, geologic, and hydrologic data, excluding the mountainous areas that border the Buena Vista-Salida Basin and igneous and metamorphic rock outcrop areas. The areas that met the selection criteria for underground water storage are located on terrace deposits near the Arkansas River and adjacent to its major tributaries. The selected areas also contain much of the irrigated land within the basin; consequently, irrigation ditches and canals could provide a means of conveying water to potential recharge sites.

More groundwater coverage here.


CWCB ponies up $275,000 for Ten Mile Creek restoration

September 26, 2014
Ten Mile Creek via ColoradoFishing.net

Ten Mile Creek via ColoradoFishing.net

From the Summit Daily News (Ali Langley):

In the summer of 2013, the group of partners put heavy machinery in the creek and began the project, which is expected to take four summers and cost about $800,000.

Due to a lack of initial funding, the project was broken into two parts and shortened from a goal of 3,200 feet of creek restoration to about 2,750 feet.

Project partners completed phase one of the project last week. So far, they’ve restored about 1,600 feet of stream channel and 3.15 acres of riparian, wetland and floodplain habitat.

On Sept. 12 the partners received a $275,000 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board for phase two.

Thanks to that grant funding, Anderson said, the project has almost reached its fundraising goal and work will continue.

The state water conservation board has provided most of the money for the project. Climax contributed $80,000 to the first phase and $50,000 to the second, Copper Mountain paid for the Forest Service environmental assessment and some materials, and the National Forest Foundation and CDOT are pitching in.

This summer, the group planted around 3,000 shrubs, Anderson said. The town of Frisco provided 2,200 willow clippings from a site near Whole Foods, which a Forest Service crew clipped in the early spring and volunteers with the Friends of the Dillon Ranger District planted in June. Then another 800 shrubs came from a nursery.

The revegetation has seen an 80 percent success rate so far with the willow transplants, said Jim Shaw, board treasurer of the Blue River Watershed Group, which he credits to “a wonderfully wet summer.”

That wet summer created some hurdles though. Runoff season lasted longer than usual, and high flows eroded the creek for two weeks, damaging the revegetated area in two places.

The heavy runoff gave some insight into how the creek will flood in future years, Shaw said, so last week the partners fixed up some of the damaged spots but they will probably keep one part the way it is now.

Next summer, the partners will start phase two and work toward restoring another 1,200 feet of the creek downstream toward the Conoco gas station.

When the project is finished, the creek will have improved habitat for fish, birds and other creatures. For the humans spending time in and around the Tenmile, that means better wildlife watching, fishing and kayaking.

“Having natural ecosystems that function at their potential, be they streams or lakes or forests,” Anderson said, “all these things, they’re important to the quality of life in Summit County.”

More Blue River watershed coverage here.


One Farm at a Time, USDA Helps Landowners Conserve Water in Ogallala Region

September 26, 2014

Here’s the blog post from the US Department of Agriculture:

James Pike has tackled an important and thorny issue in Laramie County, Wyoming – water conservation. More specifically, this district conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has diligently worked to encourage farmers and ranchers in the region that is fed by the Ogallala Aquifer to use water wisely.

Stretching from western Texas to South Dakota, the Ogallala Aquifer supports nearly one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton and cattle produced in the United States. Underlying about 225,000 square miles of the Great Plains, water from the aquifer is vital to agricultural, cities and industry, making up 30 percent of all groundwater used for irrigation in America.

NRCS’ Ogallala Aquifer Initiative aims to reduce aquifer water use, improve water quality and enhance the economic viability of croplands and rangelands in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Too many wells combined with inefficient irrigation have made water conservation a volatile topic in Wyoming.

The result of Pike’s hard work for Wyoming so far: 1 trillion gallons of water saved annually or 3,000-acre feet. To put acre feet into perspective, in the United States, one acre foot of water is used by a suburban family of five each year.

The former Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, or AWEP, provides farmers like Mike Poelma, who grows wheat on 125 acres, with financial incentives to not use underground water source for crops – only rainwater.

Poelma hopes his one irrigation well and two smaller wells will eventually recharge with water. But he knows it’s not an easy fix and will take some time.

Additionally, AWEP also provides financial assistance for practices for better efficient water use. The program has helped save energy that would have gone to growing marginal crops. From 2010 to 2014, NRCS invested about $2 million through the program in Laramie County.

The 2014 Farm Bill has many other programs are available to landowners who want to help conserve water, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which is the program that now funds NRCS’ Ogallala Aquifer Initiative.

This initiative in the eight states saved enough water during fiscal 2010 and 2011 to provide water for over 53,000 families or 265,000 people.

More Ogallala aquifer coverage here and here.


Southwestern basin implementation plan ready for comment #COWaterPlan

September 26, 2014
San Juan River from Wolf Creek Pass

San Juan River from Wolf Creek Pass

From the Pagosa Sun (Ed Fincher):

Laura Spann from the Southwestern Water Conservation District in Durango announced yesterday the release of The Southwest Basin Implementation Plan (BIP), which can be found under the “community” tab on the Colorado Water Plan website http://www.coloradowaterplan.com.

The local portion of the state plan can be accessed by clicking on “San Juan and Dolores River Basin” under the community tab. The resulting page states, “Residents and interested parties are encouraged to participate in the Basin Implementation Plan process. As the process moves forward, documents relating to the plan will be posted here.” There are currently two documents on the page available for download.

While the website allows for electronic comments to be made concerning the broader Colorado Water Plan, Spann asks that interested members of the public direct any comments specifically about the southwest portion of the plan to Carrie Lile via email at carrie@durangowater.com or phone, 259-5322…

The website goes on to explain, “The Southwest Basin is located in the southwest corner of Colorado and covers an area of approximately 10,169 square miles. The largest cities within the basin are Durango (pop. 15,213) and Cortez (pop. 8,328). The region also includes three ski areas: Telluride, Wolf Creek and Durango Mountain Resort.”

The website concludes, “The Southwest Basin is projected to increase in municipal and industrial (M&I) water demand between 17,000 acre feet (AF) and 27,000 AF by 2050 with passive conservation included.”

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.


Projects planned for upper and lower reaches of the Dolores River

September 26, 2014

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

Matt Clark, director for the Dolores River Chapter of Trout Unlimited, is organizing a project to install a fish passage and improved diversion dam at the Redburn Ranch north of Dolores.

Currently, landowners have to build a cobble push-up dam across a wide section of river every year to get enough draw into a nearby diversion that irrigates the pastures.

The make-shift dam blocks fish from moving up and down the river and washes out every year at high flows.

“During the nine months out of the year it is up, there is no water flowing over it, preventing fish passage,” said Clark. “Plus it is a pain for the landowner to maintain.”

The solution is to build three, large-rock dams 200 feet apart that step down.

“Each one drops down the river a foot and has a pour-over,” Clark explained. “A side benefit is that it forms pools and ripple-habitat structure in between.”

In addition a new head-gate will be installed for the irrigation diversion.

Clark said there is anecdotal evidence that juvenile fish are getting trapped in that area of the river.

“A health trout fishery requires a connected river system,” he said. “When fish spawn higher up in the system, their larvae drift down and need to spread out without obstructions.”

The project is expected to be installed next fall, with cost estimates between $200,000 and $300,000. The Redburn Ranch fish passage project has been awarded a $50,000 grant from the Southwest Basin Roundtable, and $98,000 from the Colorado Water Conservation board. Trout Unlimited contributed $20,000, and the landowner contributed money as well, Clark said.

“We’re piecing it together,” Clark said. “It is a win-win for ranch management and fish habitat. Plus the pour-overs allow for easier passage for recreational boat passage.”

Meanwhile on the Lower Dolores River below McPhee dam, The Nature Conservancy is committed to improving riparian habitat by eradicating invasive tamarisk and planting native species.

TNC, along with the Southwest Conservation Corp, and the BLM formed the Dolores River Restoration Partnership. So far the effort has created 175 jobs and restored 821 acres.

“The impact of tamarisk is huge — they rob waterways of their health and make recreational access cumbersome,” says Peter Mueller, director of the Conservancy’s North San Juan Mountain Program in Colorado.

But, he adds, “When you get rid of this wicked tree, all of a sudden you can see the light, and you can see the river again.”

Aiding the effort is the spread of the tamarisk beetle, introduced into the West in the 1990s as a biological control agent. The U.S. Department of Agriculture imported tamarisk beetles from Eurasia, where they keep tamarisk in check, and after years of quarantine and testing, released them in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado.

“These beetles are one of the most tested biological agents we have and there’s little risk of them harming other plants,” says Mueller.

Over the last three years, the beetles have defoliated a majority of the tamarisk on a 60-mile reach of the Colorado River. From the release site in Utah, the insects have now moved into Colorado and the Dolores River watershed.

The lower Dolores is a more difficult river to tame because damming has altered its flow and flood timing, a condition that favors tamarisk and other exotic species.

“Restoring the health of the Dolores will require not only tamarisk removal, but improved water management and planting of native species,” Mueller said.

Native willow, sumac, and cottonwoods are planted, and native grass seeds are spread around where tamarisk once dominated.


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