Revered and manipulated, cherished and disregarded, the Colorado is a lifeline and an overallocated system exacerbated by drought. Explore this defining moment on the Colorado, fact check some assumptions about the river, and read about ways that Colorado is taking proactive steps to shore up contingency plans for water shortage. Flip through or download the issue here.
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From the Colorado Foundation for Water Education:
Register now to join us December 10 from 9-10 AM for a webinar on managing groundwater for agriculture.
Water is an essential ingredient for productive agriculture, but not always easy to come by in semi-arid Colorado. Some of the state’s most significant agricultural producing regions rely on groundwater levels that are in decline. As water tables drop, the threat of limited water availability puts the state’s agricultural producers and rural communities at risk. Join us to explore solutions to sustain groundwater aquifers that can support agriculture for the long term. Click here to register.
Topics will include state administration, as well as locally guided efforts to address the legal threats of well shut-downs and physical limits of shrinking aquifers. We’ll take a statewide look at the issue, then focus on management approaches, local perspectives, and on-farm adaptations farmers are making to remain viable in the Rio Grande Basin and Republican River Basin.
We’ll hear from and have the opportunity to ask questions of speakers:
Kevin Rein, Deputy State Engineer, Colorado Division of Water Resources
Sheldon Rockey, Rockey Farm and Board Member with the Rio Grande Water Conservation District
Deb Daniel, General Manager, Republican River Conservation District
This webinar is brought to you through a partnership between the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and CoBank.
From The Watch (Regan Tuttle):
Telluride’s early days, survival depended dearly on water. The enterprises that built the region — farming, ranching and mining — required irrigation from rivers, and lots of it. Of course, water becomes scarcer the farther one moves from the mountains or from the San Miguel River.
For the pioneers, creating an infrastructure that could sustain them in the short term and withstand the march of progress was no easy task. Suffering cold conditions, subsisting on biscuits and beans, laboring with shovels, axes and other hand tools, pioneers worked to channel water from its source to where they needed it.
Back then, this was legal. Just decades ago, as the old-timers established our local towns, “Water could be diverted from the stream, and ditches built across public and private land to convey water to its place of beneficial use,” the Colorado Foundation for Water Education reported.
“In a dry and thirsty land it is necessary to divert the waters of the streams from their natural channels,” Colorado Chief Justice Moses Hallet said in the late 1800s.
During Telluride’s early days, water was hauled from the San Miguel River and from springs on the east side of town. Wilson Rockwell said in his book “Uncompahgre Country” that a man named Dutch George in the late 1800s delivered five-gallon buckets of water from the spring at Cornet Creek to saloons and businesses on what is now Colorado Avenue for 10 cents each, two buckets at a time, balanced by a yoke around his neck.
When attorney L.L. Nunn needed water for his commercial bathhouse on the east end, he ran a garden hose from Cornet Falls. Later, in 1886, H. H. Corbin constructed a 370-foot vertical pipeline that transported water from Cornet Creek into town.
Though people then said it couldn’t be done, high pressure water was flumed from Trout Lake to help establish the Ames power plant, and later the Ilium plant, that would put Telluride on the map as the first city in the world to be powered by alternating electric current. Of course, the purpose was to support the mining industry.
For some, creating access to water was more difficult. The Town of Nucla, formerly Tabeguache Park, was founded by a socialist organization whose members wanted to escape their greedy landlords in Denver. By accident, they discovered the location that provided everything they desired: mild winters, ample sunlight, virgin soil — but no water.
Called the Colorado Cooperative Company, the members, or comrades, set up camp in the late 1800s in what became the second largest city in Montrose County to bring water to the homesteads for which they’d filed claims.
They were told their task was impossible.
“I believe [that] actually helped build the ditch. When you are told you can’t, you’ll bust a tug to do it,” Leonard F. Zatterstrom said in a memoir published in Marie Templeton’s book “The Visionaries.”
The Colorado Cooperative Company constructed a 17-mile-long wooden flume, called the CC Ditch, built along the wall of the San Miguel River canyon. David Lavender in “One Man’s West” writes that those who worked on the ditch were compensated by “credit at the commissary for food and supplies, plus water credits toward the purchase of ditch rights. The canal succeeded, and several prosperous farms sprang up.”
People like Zatterstrom worked eight-hour days building the flume, sleeping in the bunkhouse, buying their food through the company store and receiving rations of milk from the cooperative’s dairy cows.
Nucla was born when the project was completed in 1904, and “Piñon became a ghost town practically overnight,” Zatterstrom said.
But the hard work didn’t pay off for everyone. Mary Rogers was a 9-year old girl during the CC Ditch project. Because both her parents died, she went to live with her grandmother and uncles, the Heinemans, who worked on the CC Ditch. Like others, the German family came to Piñon in search of a better life, and hoped to one day own a farm.
“My mother worked in the garden and did dishes,” Norma McKeever, now 88, said. According to her, the conditions were not pleasant, especially in the winter. Rogers said the food was terrible, just biscuits and beans at the camp’s boardinghouse in the cold season. But it was worth it to the family. They’d filed a homestead claim with hopes that when the CC Ditch was done, they’d have irrigation water and could build a life.
Rogers was in her teens by the time the CC Ditch was completed. But the water didn’t reach the Heineman’s farm in 1904. The majority of the CC Ditch workers had accomplished what they’d needed for their own homesteads, and they weren’t willing to extend the project. What can you do with a farm that has no water?
Grandmother Heineman went to work as a washerwoman and housekeeper for those who owned prosperous farms. Mary Rogers got a job at the Western Hotel in Norwood. One of her uncles moved to Nevada and never came back.
McKeever said the Heinemans, buried in the pauper site at Nucla Cemetery, weren’t the only ones to feel cheated out of their homestead dreams.
Though socialism failed, the town has not. Water still serves Nucla to this day, though the wooden flume has mostly been replaced by more practical means. The town celebrates the water victory every July with their Water Days celebration.
Wilson Barrett of Redvale is the ditch rider — the patroller or inspector — for the waterway that is the lifeblood of Norwood, the Gurley Ditch. He is the only employee of Farmer’s Water Development, the stock company that “owns” the Gurley and divides its shares of water. But nobody really owns the water in Colorado, he said, just the rights to use it. According to him, life in Norwood wouldn’t be possible for anyone if the old-timers hadn’t dug the ditch.
In the late 1800s, when pioneers began settling Wrights Mesa, Rockwell said Ed Joseph — of the Joseph family, one of the first to settle the area — began construction of a reservoir east of the Lone Cone in the high country.
Some people disagree as to who later built the Gurley Ditch and finished the reservoir above it. Barrett said it was Naturita Land and Cattle Company. Regardless, whatever company worked on the project went bankrupt. One of the owners in that outfit was named Charles Gorley. Over time, the spelling of “Gorley” evolved into “Gurley,” which is used today.
To avoid losing the rights to use their water, local farmers and ranchers on the mesa decided to purchase the floundering company, buying it out of bankruptcy, and then established Farmer’s Water Development.
Now irrigation water runs from the dam through Beaver Park and to Wrights Mesa, mostly for agricultural purposes, but a small percentage is used for domestic water in town.
Barrett’s great uncle, Gordon Barrett, was one of the first workers to help dig the Gurley.
“They came in 1914, and they worked on the ditch in the fall. If you worked in the fall, you could get shares in the company,” Barrett said. “He was nominated to work on the ditch as part of the family so they could get more water.”
Recently, going through old paperwork, Barrett found one of the original invoices for equipment. He discovered a purchase order, sandwiched between old papers, for picks, boxes of dynamite, shovels and other tools that made the Gurley.
Without the ditch, Barrett said, Norwood would not have survived.
Most people probably don’t know that Ridgway almost didn’t survive. Years ago, in the 1960s, there were plans for a dam to be constructed just north of where Ridgway now sits. Had the original plans been executed, Ridgway would now be under water.
Some refer to it as “the town that refused to die,” and Ridgway lucked out when officials in the 1970s decided to move the dam farther north. Now, the Ridgway Reservoir, constructed in the late ‘80s, covers what was the old ghost town of Dallas.
Though Ridgway is situated on the Uncompahgre River, that stream is not the town’s source of water. Sometimes running yellow or orange, the Uncompahgre is known as a “dirty river” due to the minerals it contains. The town of Ridgway sourced its water in the late 1800s from Hartwell Lake, now Lake Otonowanda, below Mount Sneffels.
Ridgway completed a major expansion of its reservoir last summer.
Today, being on town water is a luxury most people probably don’t think much about. While just 100 years ago we were hauling water and digging ditches through the local mountains, most folks now just turn on the tap. Our pioneers have made it possible for us to have access to water even in places where water didn’t naturally occur.
Those who live further out in the country have other water issues, and real estate in many parts of Colorado becomes complicated when water rights enter the picture. Sometimes water rights are a part of landownership; sometimes they’re not. Water is overseen by water commissions and boards in various regions.
These days, one cannot simply dig a diversion ditch from an existing stream or take water from a manmade ditch. Now, water projects involve planning, permits, engineering work and financing. The Colorado Doctrine, a set of laws pertaining to water use and landownership, has been in place since the 1860s.
Some producers, especially the new farmers without water rights, have trouble wrapping their heads around the laws.
Last July Leila Seraphin, formerly of California, bought a property in Norwood that the Gurley Ditch runs through. She said she wishes she could use some of that water for her own farming and gardening, but she knows it’s against the law.
“We were told right when we moved here water was a big issue and taking from the Gurley was not allowed, and that all the water was owned,” she said.
Building a life as a new producer on Wrights Mesa, she has learned a lot about where her water comes from.
“It’s hard to imagine water being free to use, as every drop has a price tag,” she said.
Barrett said people living in this region should be grateful for their water.
“The water we have — 99 percent of it was done with a shovel and a pick. Without the pioneers, there would be nobody here,” he said.
He believes that is especially true for Wrights Mesa, as he said that before the Gurley ditch, life didn’t exist in Norwood.
“The early homesteaders had to go clear into the San Miguel River or into Naturita Creek with wagons and barrels to haul it to have any water at all,” he said. “I’d say for most people [this] is new information.”
From The Crested Butte News (Alissa Johnson):
“The final version of the Colorado Water Plan adds more clarity as far as the position on trans-mountain diversions,” said local water expert Frank Kugel. As general manager for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, Kugel said the plan makes it clear that, “The Front Range interests—if they pursue trans-mountain diversion—understand there’s not a firm supply. They would accept the risk of any project development that the water may not be there when they need it.”
In addition, Governor Hickenlooper made it clear that diverting more water across the mountains will be a last resort.
According to the Denver Post, Hickenlooper stated that if water conservation is ramped up, water is incorporated into land-use planning and reservoir construction is done right, “the diversion of more water across the mountains won’t be necessary.”[…]
Kugel says that’s a good thing for the Western Slope.
“The other aspects of the water plan that are favorable for our basin are that there are other proposals [besides trans-mountain diversion] for meeting the gap between supply and demand,” he said.
They include reuse projects for the Front Range, limits to the permanent drying up of agricultural lands, opportunities to lease water rights and temporary fallowing of farmlands.
“The plan is a step in the right direction as far as providing for the future of Western Slope water. We certainly need to remain vigilant to guarantee that the protections laid out in the plan are followed through, but there has been a great deal of good work done to solve future water problems,” Kugel continued.
The plan also outlines projects for the local water basin, including about 130 projects to deal with decreasing water supplies. According to Kugel, climate change studies project that on a local level, warmer temperatures will lead to increased evaporation and transpiration and in turn a 10 percent to 20 percent reduction in water supplies by the middle of the century.
Droughts and shortages experienced in 2002 and 2012 could become more commonplace. In 2002, diversions on the East River and the Slate River completely dried up.
The projects outlined in the water plan will look at water consumption and shortages as well as environmental and recreation concerns. Stream management plans for Ohio Creek and the East River are already under way. While the projected population growth on the Front Range makes its water problems most noticeable, Kugel says that meeting water demand is a statewide issue.
“The shortages are state-wide. In the coming decades there are more acute projects for the Front Range because of growth… making conservation and other methods and efficiency efforts more important there. But as citizens of Colorado we all have obligations to maximize the use of water.”
More information on the Colorado Water Plan is available at http://www.coloradowaterplan.com, including an executive summary.
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
A strong upper-level low pressure system funneled Gulf of Mexico moisture into the central U.S. at the beginning of this USDM week, triggering widespread heavy rains and severe weather. Two to 5 inches of rain fell on November 17 from eastern Texas to Missouri eastward to Mississippi and Illinois. An inch or more of precipitation was observed from northwest Kansas to central Nebraska, across Iowa and Minnesota, and into the western Great Lakes. As the Low and cold front moved eastward on the next day, 1 to locally 3+ inches of precipitation fell across the Southeast, Tennessee Valley, and Upper Mississippi Valley. By the third day, the system had dropped an inch or more of precipitation along the East Coast. Meanwhile, another storm system brought rain and snow to the Pacific Northwest, with 1 to 3+ inches, and locally up to 5 inches, of precipitation measured in Washington and northwest Oregon west of the Cascades. Another system moved from the Pacific Northwest, across the Plains to the southern Great Lakes, leaving a blanket of snow in its wake, up to a foot or more deep in places. As a result, drought and abnormal dryness contracted over large parts of the country. The weather systems missed the Southwest and northern Plains. Virtually no precipitation fell across California to parts of Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, with a tenth of an inch or less widespread across the northern Plains. Temperatures averaged warmer than normal across much of the East to northern Plains, and in parts of the central Plains and Far West. Cooler-than-normal temperatures dominated from the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies to the southern Plains…
California and Great Basin
Parts of the northern coast of California received up to 2 inches of precipitation this week, and some northern sections of the Great Basin measured a few tenths of an inch, but most of California and the Great Basin received no precipitation. According to November 22 USDA reports, 85% of the topsoil and 85% of the subsoil in California was rated short or very short of moisture (dry to very dry). In Utah, 48% of the subsoil and 36% of the topsoil was short or very short of moisture. No change was made to the drought depiction in this region…
Great Plains to Mississippi Valley
This week saw a continuation of widespread heavy rains across much of the eastern Great Plains and Mississippi Valley. An inch or more of rain fell from the eastern portions of the Plains states – from Texas to the Dakotas – eastward to the Mississippi Valley and beyond. A band of 1-inch precipitation stretched from northwest Kansas into central Nebraska. Two inches to locally 5+ inches was observed from eastern Texas and Oklahoma to Mississippi, western Tennessee, and Illinois. Two-plus inches of precipitation were measured across parts of South Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota. This heavy precipitation effectively erased the D0 and D1 that remained from last week’s rains across southern and eastern portions of the region. D0 was removed from eastern Texas and southeastern Oklahoma. The rain in southeast Oklahoma contributed to Broken Bow and Hugo Lakes returning to near- to above-normal pool stage. D0-D1 disappeared from Arkansas and Mississippi, with only a small sliver of D0 remaining in northeast Mississippi to reflect longer-term precipitation deficits. D0 was removed from Missouri, southeast Iowa, southwest Tennessee, most of Illinois, and the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers area. The recent rains in Illinois have restored soil moisture and benefited winter wheat. D1 was removed and D0 shrunk in Minnesota and Iowa. Heavy snow sliced away at the D0 in northwest Kansas, southwest Nebraska, and northeast Colorado. At the other end of the state, precipitation eroded D0 and deleted D1 in southeast Nebraska and northeast Kansas.
In the northern Plains where precipitation was sparse this week, D0 expanded in southwest North Dakota and adjacent South Dakota. Below-normal precipitation for the last 7-90 days, coupled with windy and warmer-than-normal weather in recent weeks, continued to dry soils, with 23% of the topsoil and 28% of the subsoil moisture short or very short in North Dakota. In Wyoming, the storm system that blew through this week increased snow depth 4-12 inches at SNOTEL stations in the Big Horns. But even with this increase, snow depth was still less than a foot in this region, and snow water content and water year-to-date precipitation still ranked in the lowest 20th percentile to driest fifth percentile, so no change was made to the D0 in northeast Wyoming. November 22 USDA reports rated 44% of the topsoil and 46% of the subsoil in Wyoming short or very short of moisture. With low streamflows and precipitation deficits stretching over the last 2-12 months and longer, the drought impacts designator for the D0 and D1 in Kansas and north central Oklahoma was changed to SL to indicate both short- and long-term drought conditions…
Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies
Another round of precipitation in coastal Washington and northwest Oregon resulted in improvement to the drought depiction. Two to 5 inches, and locally more, this week added to the precipitation of last week to bring two-week totals to 15-20 inches, or more, in favored upslope areas. Streams were bank full and flooding in many areas west of the Cascade ridge line, especially in Washington. It should be noted that instantaneous streamflow observations are an important flash flood monitoring indicator, but they should never be used for drought monitoring; the base streamflow is best used for drought monitoring, and that is estimated by averaging over several days. The persistent heavy rains and swollen rivers in Washington improved reservoir levels. Seattle-Everett-Tacoma deactivated their water shortage response plans November 23 due to improving reservoirs.
Precipitation along and west of the Cascade Mountains was above normal for the last 7 to 90 days, and in some places above normal out to the last 12 months. The precipitation resulted in pullback of the D0 to the Cascade ridge line in Washington and contraction of D1-D3 in areas further north, and pullback of D0-D2 in northwest Oregon. But the weather systems producing this precipitation were embedded in a westerly flow, and areas in the rainshadow east of the Cascades continued to have below-normal precipitation at all time scales from the last 7 days to the last 36 months, so D2-D3 continued for Washington and Oregon east of the Cascades. The USGS 7-day, 14-day, and 28-day streamflow indicators show low streamflow in eastern Washington. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, November 22 reservoir statistics still showed low reservoir levels in the Yakima River Basin east of the Cascades, including Kachess and Cle Elum at 33% full each and Rimrock at 29% full. Kachess and Rimrock were well below average, even after the November precipitation. NRCS reservoir statistics are available on a monthly basis. The NRCS October 31 values for reservoirs east of the Cascade ridge line ranged from 30 to 70 percent of average and included 32% at Cle Elum Reservoir, 39% at Keechelus, 56% at Lake Shannon, 71% at Ross, 77% at Kachess, and 79% at Upper Baker.
Winter mountain snowpack is crucial to spring and summer water supplies. The Pacific Northwest experienced an abysmally low snowpack during the 2014-2015 snow season. The 2015-2016 snow season has started out with snowpack below average. In Washington, a handful of SNOTEL stations have 3 to 5 feet of snow in the northern Cascades, but most of the SNOTEL stations in the Cascades of Washington and Oregon had less than a foot of snow, even after the recent storm systems, and these are all at high elevations. This is still early in the snow season, but these values are less than 75% of normal, and in many cases less than 50% of normal. Snow depths ranged up to 2 feet in some of the higher SNOTEL stations in the northern Rockies of Idaho, but even many of these were still below normal for this time of year.
November 22 USDA reports noted that 18% of the winter wheat in Washington and 15 % in Oregon was rated in poor to very poor condition. In Washington, 38% of the winter wheat was rated in good to excellent condition, but this value dropped 3 percentage points compared to last week. More than half of the topsoil was rated short to very short of moisture in Oregon (55%) and Washington (51%), with 21% so rated in Idaho. Subsoil moisture conditions were even drier, with 76% short to very short in Oregon, 59% in Washington, and 38% in Idaho…
Half an inch to an inch of precipitation fell across eastern and northern parts of Colorado, with a few tenths in northern Utah and northeast New Mexico. But other than that, most of the Southwest received no precipitation this week. D0 was trimmed in northeast Colorado, where precipitation improved Standardized Precipitation Index values at several time scales. No change was made to the drought depiction in the rest of the region.
From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):
Colorado Springs is facing another federal lawsuit over stormwater violations, this time from the federal government.
The Environmental Protection Agency is considering litigation over violation of the city’s federal permit for discharging storm sewer water into Fountain Creek.
An inspection of the city’s stormwater system Aug. 18-19 found failure to meet standards or perform remediation of problems identified in a state audit in February 2013.
“I have to look at the report, but I think this highlights what we have been saying for years,” said Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District. “Colorado Springs has failed to meet its obligations and continues to dump on Pueblo and its other downstream neighbors.”
The Lower Ark district has its own federal lawsuit ready to go, but is holding it back as it waits to see if the city’s new leadership follows through on a commitment to fund stormwater at $19 million per year.
Colorado Springs City Council in 2009 voted to dissolve its stormwater enterprise, after it had been listed as a building block for approval of the Southern Delivery System in permits with the Bureau of Reclamation and Pueblo County.
The move was first protested in early 2010 by state Rep. Sal Pace, now a Pueblo County commissioner, to the Bureau of Reclamation, Corps of Engineers and EPA. All three agencies indicated at the time Colorado Springs was in compliance with SDS conditions.
In early 2012, Colorado Springs’ city attorney informed then-Mayor Steve Bach and City Council that they were obligated to fund stormwater projects as a part of the SDS approval. That resulted in a stormwater task force that failed to gain voter approval for a regional drainage authority.
Also in 2012, the Lower Ark began talking with Reclamation about stormwater commitments Colorado Springs made in order to obtain approval for SDS.
“It was very disappointing that the Bureau of Reclamation did not step in at that time,” Winner said. “We went to Washington to talk to (Interior Secretary) Ken Salazar and Ann Castle (assistant secretary for water and science) and got nowhere.”
After failing to interest either the Pueblo City Council or Pueblo County commissioners in pursuing the issue in 2012, the Lower Ark’s legal staff began working on a federal lawsuit, embarking on a detailed analysis of how stormwater protection was failing. The lawsuit first targeted Reclamation, but later shifted to naming the city of Colorado Springs as the potential defendant, based on violations similar to those cited by the EPA in August.
“I think this action by the EPA shows that it is not just our district that thinks Colorado Springs has not measured up,” Winner said.
Under Bach, Colorado Springs’ interest in stormwater protection centered on dealing with damage from the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires, which combined claimed 832 homes and scarred more than 32,000 acres.
But Bach actively opposed the regional drainage district.
Former Colorado Attorney General John Suthers was elected Colorado Springs mayor in May, and immediately pledged to work for $19 million in annual stormwater funding, a move fully endorsed by Colorado Springs City Council.
“I think the new leadership in Colorado Springs is addressing the problem, and the voters endorsed the mayor’s and council’s plan in the last election,” said Steve Nawrocki, president of Pueblo City Council. He said more meetings on the stormwater issue should occur early next year. Nawrocki also acknowledged that pressure from the Lower Ark district helped press the issue.
“I think it helped by making the new leadership (in Colorado Springs) more proactive.”
Pueblo County is in negotiations with Colorado Springs over its 1041 permit for SDS, and is unsure of the impact potential litigation with the EPA would cause.
Colorado Springs notified the county of the impending lawsuit Monday and commissioners expect to discuss it at today’s meeting “It sounds like it vindicates us for what we in Pueblo have been alleging for more than a decade,” said Commissioner Terry Hart.
Suthers was quoted in Tuesday’s edition of The Gazette as saying: “We would rather spend money trying to solve the problem. We’re hoping both Pueblo and the EPA have some realization that we have a council and mayor that realize you can’t kick the can down the road any farther.”