#NPRH2O: NPR’s “Michel Martin Going There” tackles “The Future of Water”

NPR panel discussion of The Future of Water at CSU May 24, 2016. L to R: Patty Limerick, Roger Frugua, Melissa Mays, Paolo Bacigalupi, Kathleen Curry, and host Michel Martin.
NPR panel discussion of The Future of Water at CSU May 24, 2016. L to R: Patty Limerick, Roger Frugua, Melissa Mays, Paolo Bacigalupi, Kathleen Curry, and host Michel Martin.

What a hoot at Colorado State University last night. NPR and KUNC collaborated to host a national conversation about The Future of Water.

The panel included, Patty Limerick (Colorado State Historian), Kathleen Curry (Former state legislator from Gunnison County), author Paolo Bacigalupi (The Water Knife), Melissa Mays (Resident from Flint, Michigan), and Roger Fragua (Spiritual leader form the Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico).

Ms. Martin asked pointed questions and kept the discussion on track. She had done her homework about the Colorado River Basin and water issues in general.

The event turned into a national Twitter fest using hashtag #NPRH2O. Click here to view all the Tweets. (If you don’t have a Twitter account you can still view them. After you click the link, click the “Live” button at the top of the page. Scroll down to the bottom and read upward since Tweets are posted in reverse chronological order.)

Reading the Tweets will give you an understanding of the conversation. I observed entries from coast to coast. It was a great example of social media enabling folks to interact with each other.

Colorado water law and prior appropriation are under scrutiny nowadays. Kathleen Curry risked the enmity of some by asserting that, “I don’t have a lot of sympathy for newcomers. This [Colorado water law] is how it works here.”

She understands that senior water rights mean a lot to food production and that Colorado has the most active water market in the US. She also cautioned that forcing efficiency on the ag sector would lead to higher prices at the grocery store. She touched on the need for wise use of changed ag water rights by the urban areas. She also mentioned the 800 pound gorilla of water management — land use and growth management.

Curry also said, “I’m not overly optimistic that things will change. Water follows money,” and, “We’re taking a fixed amount of water and reallocating it here in the West.”

Patty Limerick always finds a way to get at the heart of issues. She warned, “Whenever you get a simple position it means you haven’t thought enough.”

She also mentioned rhetorically, “Maybe conventional agriculture wasn’t the best idea for the West.”

Paolo Bacigalupi was more direct, saying, “We’ve done magical things because of our engineering prowess but populations exist where they should never have been.”

Ms. Limerick expanded on that theme when Melissa Mays asserted that Flint’s problem was a national problem. Patty defended water providers in general countering Mays claim with, “I’m a friend of many water managers. I know that there are dedicated people that are in our camp. We need them.”

“In the US we like to address our natural world in terms of commodities,” said Bacigalupi, “The value of water is infinite since we will pay almost any amount to survive.”

He summed up the importance of the evening saying, “We need to become more comfortable with abstract thinking and wonky subjects like water quality.”

Click through to the Tweet stream cited above. I guarantee that it is safe for work and of course I believe that learning and talking about water issues is the most important thing you can do.

Farmers express concerns about a Fountain Creek dam — La Junta Tribune-Democrat

Report: Remediation Scenarios for Attenuating Peak Flows and Reducing Sediment Transport in Fountain Creek, Colorado, 2013
Report: Remediation Scenarios for Attenuating Peak Flows and Reducing Sediment Transport in Fountain Creek, Colorado, 2013

From the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District (Norman Kincaide) via The La Junta Tribune-Democrat:

At a work session held Wednesday, May 18, 2016, the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District (LAVWCD) board members listened to farmers’ concerns about the possibility of a dam to be built on Fountain Creek. All board members were in attendance except Melissa Esquibel. First on the agenda was Cindy Lair, Colorado Department of Agriculture. Lair reported on salinity and nutrient pollution in the Arkansas River, stating that agricultural users are not big polluters compared to municipalities. Regardless of historically high levels of salinity in the Arkansas it is likely that the salinity issue will have to be addressed in the future. This means that agricultural users will have to address the issue along with municipalities. How and by what means salinity in the Arkansas will be remediated remains to be seen but funding for remediation may come from NRCS or the Colorado Water Quality Control Department. Regardless of the means and funding, Kansas wants to see Colorado users moving in the right direction by 2022.

Following Lair’s report, Alan Frantz of Rocky Ford, gave a short slide presentation: Fountain Creek vs. Individual Water Rights. Slides showed graphs and data on Fountain Creek that from 1921 to 1965 (44 years) that there were 21 flows with less than 10,000 cfs and 10 flows higher with 13 years of data missing. From 1966 to 2014 (48 years) there were 36 flows less than 10,000 cfs and 7 flows higher with 5 years of data missing. This data came from the Fountain Creek Flood Control Study of Oct. 14, 2015. Frantz raised the question of: Is there really a problem? Speaking for ditch directors and shareholders of all the ditches, county commissioners, Ark Valley Ditch Association, well associations and others, they think there is not a problem with Fountain Creek and wanted some questions answered.

These groups want an independent engineering study to evaluate possible consequences of any type of structure on Fountain Creek, (whether it be a dam or holding ponds), an in depth assessment of historical precipitation versus stream flow and assess the validity of Duane Helton’s Fountain River study. Furthermore, a professional analysis and discussion on long term effects of structures on the whole river system was also desired. What was needed from LAVWCD was expertise and technical assistance.

Agricultural users want to form a committee consisting of 5 to 7 individuals, including farmers and ditch directors, a county commissioner or two, with Jack Gobel, District Engineer for LAVWCD, for technical support and funding from LAVWCD for completion of the study. Frantz asked if there are any valid reasons this study should not be pursued.

Farmers are concerned about the amount of press given to a Fountain Creek dam. A Pueblo Chieftain article published Tuesday, May 17, 2016, the opinions of two researchers, Del Nimmo and Scott Hermann, indicated that a dam on Fountain Creek would decrease erosion. Without mentioning the consequences to peak flow users and prior appropriations to agricultural users, Nimmo said: “A large dam could provide better understanding of what’s happening in the watershed, and be a good recreational benefit to the entire watershed of Fountain Creek.” The main reason for supporting a dam on Fountain Creek is to reduce erosion, which is the primary cause for selenium making its way into the water. Scott Hermann said: “A large dam on Fountain Creek would give us the flood control we need, but also provide recreational opportunities that are primary, with a pool of water as well as tailwater. So we have a fishery and fishing benefits from such a structure.”

Boulder County offers water tour of Left Hand Ditch system — the Longmont Times-Call

Above, left: This hand drawn map is one of the original documents of Coffin V Left Hand Ditch, at the Colorado State Archives. A few original documents from the Coffin V Left Hand case can be seen at the Colorado State Archives, filed under case #885, #1103 and #1203.  Above, right: The headgate of the Left Hand Ditch on the South St. Vrain, where the famous confrontation took place.
Above, left: This hand drawn map is one of the original documents of Coffin V Left Hand Ditch, at the Colorado State Archives. A few original documents from the Coffin V Left Hand case can be seen at the Colorado State Archives, filed under case #885, #1103 and #1203. Above, right: The headgate of the Left Hand Ditch on the South St. Vrain, where the famous confrontation took place.

From the Longmont Times-Call (John Fryar):

People can register to participate in a June 11 Boulder County Parks and Open Space water tour that’s to highlight the 150th anniversary of the Left Hand Ditch Company.

The 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. tour will begin at the Plaza Convention Center, 1850 Industrial Circle, Longmont, and start with presentations on water law, the orientation of the overall Left Hand basin and the history of the Left Hand Ditch.

Tour buses will then visit stops at sites in the Left Hand Ditch system before returning to the Plaza Center. The water tour, which will include a light breakfast and lunch, will cost $20 per participant.

For more information and to register online, visit http://www.bouldercounty.org/os/events/pages/agtours.aspx?utm_source=redirect&utm_medium=redirect&utm_campaign=POSRedirect or contact Vanessa McCracken at vmccracken@bouldercounty.org or 303-678-6181.

The 2016 Water Tour is supported by Boulder County Parks and Open Space, Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks, the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District and Left Hand Water District.

#Snowpack #Runoff news: Streamflow up as the basins melt-out

Arkansas River at Salida May 24, 2016 via the Colorado Division of Water Resources
Arkansas River at Salida May 24, 2016 via the Colorado Division of Water Resources

From Rocky Mountain PBS (Jim Trotter):

Spring snowmelt is already bringing fast-moving and rising water to the Arkansas River in Pueblo, according to the local Swift Water Rescue Team, and kayakers and fishermen alike are being urged to take caution.

The U.S. Geological Survey showed the Arkansas River spiking by 600 cubic feet per second on Monday through Pueblo, deepening one stretch by a whole foot. The river at the Moffat Street gauge was running at 1,440 cfs on Wednesday afternoon, making water in the city kayak course in particular a challenge, according to KOAA Channel 5.

“The kayak course … was designed for people who are used to kayaking or boating, who know what they’re doing and have more river experience,” Pueblo Fired Department engineer Ryan Moran told the news outlet. “This is not a place for just inner-tubing leisurely.”

From 9News.com (Colleen Ferreira and Blair Shiff):

Denver Water says, so far this year, their water supply is in good shape thanks to above-average snowpack levels in the local collection areas, nearly full reservoirs and continued efficient water use by consumers.

But what will it look like as the state heads into the hot, summer months?

Water conservation is not only needed in dry years. Colorado is a dry area, and water is finite. It’s vital for those who live in the state to conserve water in order for Colorado’s economy to thrive. Farmers and ranchers across the state rely on higher water levels. Wildlife and aquatic life in local rivers and streams need enough to live off of. Those who enjoy the recreational activities in the state want higher river and reservoir levels.


No matter what the conditions may be, Coloradans must use water efficiently. Denver Water has annual summer watering rules in place from May 1 until Oct. 1. The rules should reinforce best practices to help customers use water properly and when needed while still keeping landscapes healthy.

The biggest mistakes people make is with their irrigation controller settings. Sprinkler systems are not meant to be forgotten once they are set. It’s important that consumers adjust their settings depending upon the month and recent rainfall. That means, if it rains, and your system doesn’t have a rain sensor, turn off your irrigation system until your landscape needs water again.

#ColoradoRiver: “If you ask Congress to solve your problems, you’re usually asking for trouble” — Jeff Kightlinger #COriver

Arizona Navy photo via California State University
Arizona Navy photo via California State University

From The Los Angeles Times (Michael Hiltzik):

The last time two states went to war over water, it was 1934. The combatants were California and Arizona and the casus belli was the start of construction of Parker Dam, which would direct water from the Colorado River into California via the Colorado River Aqueduct.

The episode unfolded with a sort of Gilbert and Sullivan absurdity. Arizona’s governor, Benjamin Baker Moeur, dispatched a handful of National Guardsmen upriver in a ferryboat named the Julia B., which frontline correspondents dispatched to the river by The Times and other California newspapers happily dubbed the “Arizona Navy.” The “brave little Julia B.,” The Times reported, promptly ran into a sand bank and got worked free by bridge-building crews, after which a truce was dictated by the federal government.

The next water war may involve the same combatants, but may not be so amusing. Lake Mead, the main reservoir holding Colorado River water for California, Arizona and Nevada, has reached its lowest point since it began filling behind Hoover Dam in 1935. As of midnight Sunday, the lake reached 1,074.37 feet above sea level. It’s expected to keep falling until mid-summer, reaching 1,070 feet before seasonal agricultural demand falls off and it begins to fill again. Last year, the reservoir reached a low point of about 1,075 feet, but not until late June.

Herbert Hoover presides over the signing of the Colorado River Compact in November 1922. (Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation)
Herbert Hoover presides over the signing of the Colorado River Compact in November 1922. (Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation)

The long-term prospects for Colorado River supply are dire. Demand for its water among the seven states of the river basin–chiefly California and Arizona–hopelessly outstrips the supply, and has been almost since the seven states in its basin worked out an allocation deal in 1922. That interstate compact, brokered by then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, was based on an estimate of river flows that was flagrantly inflated and never has been met. Since then, the recognition of claims from Mexico and Southwestern Indian tribes has only increased demand. Climate change and drought are making the crisis worse.

So water officials from California, Arizona and Nevada have been meeting to work out a solution. Arizona faces the most pressing deadline: Under existing agreements, if the current Lake Mead level persists to the end of this year, the Central Arizona Project, which supplies Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson, will be required to give up roughly 13% of its allocation. Further cutbacks are mandated if the lake falls to 1,050 and 1,025 feet, at which point Arizona would lose 17% of its water. Each cutback would especially threaten the livelihood of farmers dependent on the Central Arizona project, who have the most junior rights to the water.


Nevada would also face cuts, though these would be relatively modest, since the state has the smallest allocation from the river.

The interstate talks are focused on maintaining the level of Lake Mead to avert a federal declaration of shortage triggering the Arizona and Nevada cutbacks. The idea on the table involves California’s taking a voluntary reduction of as much as 8% of its annual allocation of 4.4 million acre feet from the river if the level gets much lower. That would be an extraordinary concession, since existing interstate and federal agreements largely exempt California from any cutbacks as long as there’s water in Lake Mead to meet its allocation. The chief consequences for California of a continued decline in Lake Mead’s water level is that the date of a required renegotiation of water allocations, now set at 2026, would be accelerated by several years. (One acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons, enough to serve one or two average California households.)

But California officials know that working out an interstate deal to keep the reservoir level higher is the wiser option in the long run. “At the end of the day,” says Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, “once you get so low, California loses out.”

Among the risks is that federal officials could step in to impose a reallocation settlement among the three states. Arizona’s U.S. senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, already have hinted at trying to work a settlement agreement into federal legislation, a step that would probably provoke a donnybrook among the two states’ congressional delegations without resolving the underlying issues.

“If you ask Congress to solve your problems,” Kightlinger says, “you’re usually asking for trouble.”

Nor does anyone want the issue to land in court; the last major lawsuit over river water, the 1952-vintage Arizona vs. California, would last 11 years and go down in history as one of the longest, costliest and most complicated ever to come before the Supreme Court. Its outcome pleased neither party, for the justices ruled that federal officials, not the states, had the ultimate say on the river — “the life-and-death power of dispensation of water rights long administered according to state law,” complained Justice William O. Douglas in a furious dissent.

All the parties are under pressure to reach an agreement by the end of this year, before the current administration leaves office and the process has to start anew with new federal overseers. But the interstate complexities may pale in comparison with the difficulty of working out agreements among water users within each state. California’s Imperial Irrigation District, which has the largest entitlement of Colorado River water, has balked at any agreement to preserve water levels in Lake Mead without a parallel agreement to preserve the Salton Sea. That huge inland pond has suffered as a result of earlier multi-billion-dollar deals by which the Imperial Irrigation District transferred water to San Diego, the MWD and other users.

The shrinkage of the sea already is an environmental and public health disaster. Withholding more water in Lake Mead without a rescue plan would be unacceptable, Imperial Irrigation District General Manager Kevin Kelley said recently. “The Salton Sea has always been the elephant in the room in these talks,” he told the Desert Sun newspaper.

The real elephant in the room, however, is the prospect of a lasting shortage in Colorado River water supply. Says Kightlinger, “It’s no longer a matter of if, but when.”

Delph Carpenter's 1922 Colorado River Basin map with Lake Mead and Lake Powell
Delph Carpenter’s 1922 Colorado River Basin map with Lake Mead and Lake Powell

#Snowpack news: May 22 Basin High/Low graphs

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.