From Circle of Blue (Brett Walton):
A resolute effort in Arizona, California, and Nevada to reduce Colorado River water use is slowing the decline of Lake Mead and delaying mandatory restrictions on water withdrawals from the drying basin.
The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that oversees lake levels, forecasts that Arizona, California, and Nevada will draw less than 7 million acre-feet from the river this year, some 500,000 acre-feet less than they are permitted to consume and the lowest since 1992. (An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, enough water to flood an acre of land with one foot of water.) At Lake Mead’s current water level, 500,000 acre-feet equals slightly more than six feet in elevation — just enough water to tip the lake into shortage levels, if it had been used.
The savings have been building. Four major conservation programs since 2014 have added roughly 10 feet of water to Lake Mead since 2014, according to Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Office. These programs, collaborations between federal, state, and local agencies, pay farmers not to grow crops, line earthen canals with concrete to prevent leaks, remove grass from golf courses, or install more efficient irrigation equipment. The savings are banked in Lake Mead.
“These programs are working,” Davis told Circle of Blue. “These partnerships are working. They are making a difference.”
The August analysis of the basin’s hydrology, an assessment carried out every month by the Bureau of Reclamation, concluded that the water level in Lake Mead will be above 1,075 feet in elevation next January. Those dates are important because the August study determines how much water the Bureau will release from Lake Powell into Lake Mead the following year and whether there will be a shortage in the three lower basin states. A shortage, which has never been declared, happens when the August study shows that Lake Mead will be below 1,075 feet in January. That will not happen next year. The lake’s forecasted water level in January is 1,080 feet.
The benefits of conservation spread beyond next year. The risk of a shortage in the near-term will go down. The last time the Bureau ran the numbers, in April, the results showed a 56 percent chance of shortage for 2018. The updated calculations, which will be published next week, will show “greatly reduced odds,” Davis said.
Water managers in the basin say that conservation gains can be maintained and extended. “All of the programs are long-term, reaching out several decades,” Tanya Trujillo, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, told Circle of Blue.
More Challenges Still To Come
Even with the conservation success, hard decisions are close at hand. One, the basin must come to terms with the “structural deficit.” This is the term water managers use to describe a basic imbalance: in a year with average water releases from Lake Powell, the water level at Lake Mead will drop by roughly 12 feet because demand exceeds supply. James Eklund, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, called the structural deficit “a root discussion over the last several years” among all seven basin states.
Two, the risk calculations will change as the four states in the upper basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming — pull more water out of the basin.
Three, water managers and politicians alike must figure out what to do about the Salton Sea, a festering sore in the basin’s politics. The sea — in fact, a lake — was created in 1905 when the Colorado River burst through a dike and filled a desert depression that had no ocean outlet. In later years, the Salton, now California’s largest lake, swelled with farm drainage and grew saltier from evaporation.
The Salton has been shrinking since 2003, when a historic agreement between Imperial Irrigation District and state, federal, and tribal agencies resulted in a large transfer of water from farm to city, which reduced farm runoff. As part of the agreement, Imperial delivered water to prop up the lake, which is also an important habitat for birds migrating along the Pacific flyway. But those deliveries will cease at the end of 2017, after which the lake will go into a tailspin, shrinking rapidly and becoming several times saltier than the ocean. Pesticides, salts, and toxic dust on the seabed poses an immediate health threat to the people of the Coachella Valley, Imperial County, and Mexicali, a border city of 1 million people. A solution to the Salton Sea problem is inevitably tied to Colorado River issues upstream.
“Being one of the largest users on the river, it’s in our best interest to look out for and promote the health and welfare of the system as a whole,” Marion Champion, spokeswoman for Imperial Irrigation District, told Circle of Blue. “That said, we will need some reassurances from the state of California that it will live up to its restoration promises for the Salton Sea.”
Imperial has the largest allocation of Colorado River water — 3.1 million acre-feet, more than one-fifth of the river’s average annual runoff — of any user in the basin. Champion said that she expects Imperial to be a part of a basin-wide drought plan, but only if the Salton Sea is addressed, with either money or water, or both.
“That participation is contingent on a state led restoration plan and implementation commitment to ensure our community’s public health is protected,” she said.
From the Estes Park Trail-Gazette (T.A. Rustin):
Students from Estes Park High School teamed up with ecology experts from the Estes Valley Watershed Coalition on Wednesday to help rebuild the ecosystem along lower Fish Creek. That area was devastated by the flood in 2013, washing away vegetation, eroding the banks, destroying the utility infrastructure, and damaging homes.
The Coalition has been working for the last year to restore areas damaged by the flood. They selected this area of Fish Creek as their first project, according to Molly Mills, Coordinator of the Coalition. Nearly a year ago, she met with Chuck Scott, principal of the high school, and asked if the Coalition could work on restoring the river banks adjoining school property.
“I asked him for permission to work on school property,” she recalled, “and he said, ‘Only if you involve the kids and make this a learning experience,'” said Mills.
Mills agreed at once to the plan, and she took the responsibility for securing grant funding and obtaining legal permission to work on the river banks. That required several months, since there are numerous overlapping jurisdictions involved in the Fish Creek watershed.
With guidance from teacher Alex Harris, the high school’s Environmental Club began planning and recruiting their classmates for this event. Mills did some training with the students, teaching them about riverine ecology, and the proper techniques for planting trees. The students in the club then created training materials for the student volunteers.
“This has been a student-run project the whole way,” said Mills. “I brought the idea to them, and the funding; they organized the volunteers, mapped it out, and got the logistical support.”
Beginning early in the morning on Wednesday, students transported plants and supplies in pickup trucks to three areas along Fish Creek. More than 300 students arrived and split into teams to get to work on the riverbank. They began by pulling and bagging noxious weeks that have proliferated since the flood. They also cleared the banks of accumulated flood debris and trash.
The Coalition brought in 3,000 trees, provided by the Colorado State Forest Service. The specific species had been selected by Mills in consultation with ecology experts. They included river birch, alder, chokecherry, and cottonwood. Mills’s ecology consultants marked the locations for each tree. Working in teams, the students dug holes, planted the trees, and carried buckets of water from Fish Creek to water them.
Nearly the entire student body has been involved in this project, including the Culinary Arts class, which planned and prepared lunch for the students, teachers and volunteers. Students in the Film Studies are making a documentary to tell the story of the project. The faculty and administrators also supported the project…
Randy Mandel, representing the Colorado Water Conservation Board, walked among the groups of students. A water and ecology specialist, Mandel explained to the students how their efforts would improve the watershed. Mandel noticed a student struggling with the root ball of a tree. He bent down and guided her in the proper technique.
Gary Miller, President of the Coalition, said that the flood impacted Fish Creek more severely than any other area in the Estes Valley, and therefore was chosen as the first project.
“The Coalition was formed to bring together organizations interested in sustainable restoration of the flood damaged areas,” he said. The Estes Valley has seen three 500 year floods since 1979, and Miler predicted that we should expect more in the future. “We need to be prepared for the next huge event,” he said. He pointed out that this project has served to educate the students about the broader problem of environmental disasters.
Mills said that this is the first phase of the revegetation of the Fish Creek watershed. The next phase will be putting up fencing around the young trees to encourage the elk and deer to browse elsewhere.
“Otherwise,” she said, “they will eat everything we’ve planted.”
In the next few months, the Coalition will be mulching the area and broadcasting native grass seeds to improve the ground cover.
From the La Junta Tribune-Democrat (Tom Seaba):
The City of La Junta has received a $5,000.00 matching grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to help with the development and implementation of a Source Water Protection Plan (SWPP) for their drinking water intakes. The development of a SWPP involves identifying a source water protection area; creating an inventory of potential contaminants to the drinking water; and developing best management practices (BMPs) to help mitigate those potential contaminants.
Colorado’s Source Water Protection program is completely voluntary, and is designed to help public water systems take preventive measures to keep their sources of drinking water free from potential contaminants. This program does not impose any new regulations on the use of personal properties. Rather than developing new regulations to enforce, the main goal of developing the SWPP is to raise awareness within communities about the importance of source water protection. The program is founded on the concept that informed citizens, equipped with fundamental knowledge about their drinking water source(s) and the threats to it, will be the most effective advocates for protecting this valuable resource.
Kimberly Mihelich, a Source Water Specialist with the Colorado Rural Water Association (CRWA), will be helping with the coordination and facilitation of this process. CRWA is a nonprofit organization and receives funding from state and federal agencies to help communities with source water protection and other technical issues water systems face.
The planning process will take place during a one four-hour workshop on Thursday, Oct. 6, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the City Council Chambers of La Junta’s Municipal Building (601 Colorado Avenue, La Junta, CO 81050). Lunch will be provided. Interested community members are invited to attend. For further information please contact Tom Seaba (City of La Junta) at (719) 469-6636, Joe Kelly (City of La Junta) at 384-7358, or Kimberly Mihelich (CRWA) at (719) 248-9116.
From CBS Denver (Chris Spears):
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Denver’s northern and eastern suburbs have been added into a growing area of moderate drought, which now extends from Aurora to Fort Collins.
A second area of moderate drought was developing in east-central Colorado on the eastern side of the Palmer Divide.
Moderate drought means damage has been reported to crops or pastures and that water shortages are either developing or could be imminent.
A large part of northwest Colorado remains abnormally dry, or in pre-drought, along with some of the mountains in southern Colorado.
From the Sky-Hi Daily News (Lance Maggart):
The discharge is occurring at a location very near the Moffat Tunnel and is derived from a culvert located beneath a set of metal stairs that descend right to the banks of the Fraser.
The UPRR has a permit from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) officially allowing the discharge of the water, but correspondence between Grand County officials and representatives from the CDPHE indicates the current level of pollutants being released are not allowed under the existing permit.
In correspondence with state officials Grand County has stated the organic compounds found in the discharge are toxic and some are carcinogenic. Emails written by Grand County Water Quality Specialist Katherine Morris to officials from the CDPHE states, “the Railroad has classically discharged these organics, without disclosure to the state, in high concentration pulses which escape routine sampling. The existing and proposed permits do not currently include any organics, let alone include limitations for these.”
Emails sent by Morris to officials from the CDPHE on Wednesday Sept. 28 state, “I hope the CDPHE will have the opportunity to investigate this case further and address this specific source of contamination.” Officials have also sent photographs to the CDPHE of the point of discharge that show dark, black, almost opaque water flowing from the discharge culvert into the Fraser. The photos appear to have been taken on Sept. 14, 2016.
Notably, a letter sent on Sept. 19 by Morris to the State’s Clean Water Enforcement Unit, a division within the CDPHE, states, “The Railroad curtailed the polluted discharge by 5:00 pm on the same day that that we were notified of the pollution.”
Correspondence between Morris and CDPHE officials indicates the permit allowing the discharge of water into the Fraser by the UPRR has been in existence since 2007. Additional email correspondence between Morris and State water officials states, “UPRR has stated that this discharge is associated with annual maintenance activities, and the Railroad has declined to report the discharge as a spill. However, nothing in the permit indicates that pollution of this level is permitted, and it would seem to be a violation of their permit.”
A water treatment plant, to treat the water discharged into the Fraser by the UPRR, is currently under construction, according to a letter sent to the CDPHE by Grand County in late June regarding a draft permit for the UPRR’s Moffat Tunnel West Portal.
The letter goes on to state, “To the best of Grand County’s knowledge, there is and has been no treatment of this discharge prior to release to the Fraser River.” The letter also points out that state regulations state, “state water shall be free from substances attributable to human-caused point source or nonpoint source discharge in amounts, concentrations or combinations which are harmful to beneficial uses or toxic to humans, animals, plants or aquatic life.”
The letter goes on to state that the County, East Grand Water Quality Board and the Town of Winter Park conducted sediment and aqueous testing in Oct. 2015 but that such testing occurred too late after the August cleaning operations to, “indicate the presence of more than one volatile organic carbon (toluene) or significant concentrations of suspended or dissolved contaminants in the aqueous samples.” Samples were collected at sites 287 feet upstream from the discharge point and 2,138 feet downstream.
The letter does state the downstream samples, “indicate the presence of several semi-volatile organic carbons (SVOCs) and diesel range organics (DROs) that are either not present in the upstream samples (SVOCs), or are present at significantly higher concentrations downstream compared to upstream (DROs) indicating that their presence is a direct result of the tunnel discharge.” The letter noted the lab that tested the samples indicated the existing sediment matrix downstream from the discharge point was, “complex and likely to have a number of interferences.”
From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):
Each year, the Parks and Wildlife department conducts an annual survey of fish populations in different stretches of the Animas River. Recently, crews focused on the portion of the river from the bridge behind Durango High School to High Bridge, near the La Plata County Humane Society.
For more than a decade, fish populations in the Animas have been on a steady decline, attributed to a number of factors, including less water in the river, urban runoff, higher water temperatures and elevated levels of heavy metals.
As a result, Parks and Wildlife stocks about 20,000 brown and 20,000 rainbow fingerlings a year, which usually have a survival rate of 3 to 5 percent, about the state average.
Although White said this year’s count didn’t indicate a turning point for fish in the Animas, he did say certain population trends are encouraging.
“The good news is we captured twice as many fish of quality size – 14 inches or better – compared to last year, so that’s really good,” he said.
White said another positive sign was crews caught a lot of 2-year-old brown trout, which means more juvenile fish stocked last year survived winter.
“We haven’t seen that recruitment for a while,” White said. “We also saw a higher number of larger rainbow trout. We’ve seen lots of small fish over the years that don’t seem to make it through the winter, but this year we’re seeing a lot more relative to the past several years.”
White said it would take a couple weeks to generate a population estimate, but he expects that number to reach or be very close to the Gold Metal Standard the river currently holds on the 4-mile stretch between the confluence with Lightner Creek and the bridge near Home Depot that contains 60 pounds of trout per acre and at least 12 14-inch or larger trout per acre.