Arkansas Valley Super Ditch update

Arkansas Valley Conduit Comanche North route via Reclamation
Arkansas Valley Conduit Comanche North route via Reclamation

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Lease-fallowing plan so successful, no one notices

After all of the fireworks that accompanied creation of the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch, the actual operation has attracted little notice.

By design.

“We put enough water into the ponds so that no one on the river knows this is happening,” Jack Goble, engineer for the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, told the board Wednesday.

Goble gave an update on the Super Ditch pilot program that is providing water to Fountain, Security and Fowler from farm ground dried up on the Catlin Canal near Rocky Ford. The water is accounted for on a dayto- day basis, with deliveries to the cities each month. The response of all participants has been enthusiastic.

“With crop values down, they want to fallow more farms,” Goble said.

But under [HB13-1248], passed by the state Legislature in 2013, that can’t happen. The law limits 30 percent of the farmland enrolled in the program to be fallowed in any given year, and each farm can be dried up only three years in 10.

This year, only 26 percent of the 900 acres on six farms in the program were fallowed and so far have yielded more water than at the same time last year. Through the end of July, the program yielded 239 acre-feet (78 million gallons). That’s on track to beat last year’s yield of 409 acre-feet.

But that depends on what happens the rest of this irrigation season, Goble said.

Water not used on fields is channeled into recharge ponds, which mimic the runoff and seepage that would have occurred if the farms had been irrigated. The ponds also cover their own evaporative losses. Recharge stations measure the flows on the ditch each day.

Those numbers are plugged into formulas that compute the consumptive use — the amount of water crops traditionally grown in the fields would have consumed.

On a monthly basis, the consumptive use equivalent is transferred, on paper, from Lower Ark accounts to Security and Fountain accounts in Lake Pueblo, where it is transported through the Fountain Valley Conduit.

For Fowler, the water is moved to Colorado Water Protective and Development Association accounts to augment the town’s wells.

“We need to let the water community know, ‘Hey, this works,’ ’’ said Peter Nichols, attorney for the Lower Ark district and Super Ditch.

Participants have had to overcome skepticism, opposition and even lawsuits since 2012 to achieve results that have been favorable to everyone involved, he said.

Leah Martinsson and Megan Gutwein, of Nichols’ Boulder Law office, are writing articles about the success of the program for national water and legal journals. Nichols also suggested presenting a report on the progress of Super Ditch to Colorado Water Congress and the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

“We’ve done a pretty incredible job,” added Lynden Gill, president of the Lower Ark board. “The first year, it seemed like there were nothing but roadblocks. It’s absolutely incredible, the progress we’ve made.”

Lower Ark board meeting recap

Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters
Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Improving irrigation efficiency in the Lower Arkansas Valley could improve water quality and save farmers money.

Those are conclusions reached by Tim Gates, a Colorado State University- Fort Collins engineering professor who has overseen 17 years of a large-scale study of salinity of area farms.

“It’s designed to address the problems facing agriculture and the environment in the valley,” Gates told the Lower Ark board at its monthly meeting this week.

Those problems include shallow groundwater tables, or waterlogging; excessive salt buildup; crop yield reduction; and buildup of selenium, uranium and nutrient concentrations.

Studies began in 1999 to track the rate of increase and develop strategies for dealing with the problem. Those studies have been funded by state and local sponsors, including the Lower Ark district.

A new project, under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will address changes in irrigation that can improve conditions.

“This will make recommendations for pilot programs throughout the Arkansas Valley that will be tested,” Gates said.
Board chairman Lynden Gill asked Gates what some examples of pilot projects would be.

Gates responded that several have already been proven, including:

  • The Super Ditch lease-fallowing program. Letting some ground recover periodically can improve its productivity over time.
  • Improving technology, such as adding sprinklers or drip irrigation.
  • Sealing canals with PAM, which can reduce seepage by 30-80 percent.
  • Management of fertilizer to avoid excessive amounts.
  • Improving riparian corridors, which can act to filter out contaminants.
  • The district has a new goal of improving water quality in the Lower Arkansas Valley. This could improve crop production and wildlife habitat. It also might fend off future legal challenges by Kansas over water quality.

    Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District board meeting recap

    View of runoff, also called nonpoint source pollution, from a farm field in Iowa during a rain storm. Topsoil as well as farm fertilizers and other potential pollutants run off unprotected farm fields when heavy rains occur. (Credit: Lynn Betts/U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service/Wikimedia Commons)
    View of runoff, also called nonpoint source pollution, from a farm field in Iowa during a rain storm. Topsoil as well as farm fertilizers and other potential pollutants run off unprotected farm fields when heavy rains occur. (Credit: Lynn Betts/U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service/Wikimedia Commons)

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

    A district formed in 2002 to keep water in the Arkansas Valley is turning its attention toward the quality of that water.

    “We cannot stick our heads in the sand,” General Manager Jay Winner told the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District board Wednesday. “There’s going to be a paradigm shift to water quality.”

    Winner’s comment followed an assessment of how state regulations on nutrients in water will shift in the near future by Peter Nichols, the district’s attorney and a former chairman of the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission.

    Nichols explained that four large dischargers in the Arkansas River basin — Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Fountain and Security — are headed toward state standards that will require them to further treat discharged wastewater to meet numeric standards for nutrients by 2022.

    In addition, there will be more limits on nonpoint source pollutants, those which do not have a defined source. While the state enforces water quality, the directives are issued by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

    “What they’ll look at is whether the levels are protective to uses downstream,” Nichols said.

    That would affect the largest user of water in the basin: large-scale, commercial irrigated agriculture.

    “This is a very large problem,” Nichols said. “The state has taken an incremental approach to fund projects to get (the numbers) under control.”

    The Lower Ark has taken an active role in flood control on Fountain Creek and the Arkansas River in the past, Winner said. It will now be more concerned about projects that improve water quality as well.

    There also is concern that regulations for irrigators on water quality could tighten, and the Lower Ark’s Super Ditch program, which fallows some land so water can be leased, would benefit water quality, according to ongoing studies by Colorado State University- Fort Collins.

    The Lower Ark also is developing a pilot project on 2,000 acres to see how improvements like sprinklers or drip systems could improve water quality. This would complement past studies that show water quality gains by changing irrigation patterns.

    Arkansas River Farms denies it has plans to move water to cities — The Pueblo Chieftain

    Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters
    Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

    An attorney for Arkansas River Farms told the Fort Lyon Canal board Monday that the partnership’s plans do not include selling water to Front Range communities.

    “That’s not what this program does,” attorney Steve Sims said, referring to suggestions in a recent Chieftain editorial that the $50 million purchase of farms on the Fort Lyon Canal were a first step toward permanent dry-up.

    Sims explained afterward that the plan to shift some of the water into well augmentation plans and dry up other acres is a way to make the farms more valuable in the future.

    “It’s really just moving into corporate farming,” Sims said.

    Karl Nyquist, who talked in 2011 about moving Lamar Canal water to the Front Range, issued a statement to the board that his company, C&A, has invested in the area for 20 years and is now working with the Syracuse Dairy in Kansas to supply forage from 10,000 acres of farm ground.

    He also said his new partners, Resource Land Holdings, are interested in investing another $15$20 million in developing the Fort Lyon land and working with other farmers to create more valuable dairy or vegetable farms.

    Not everyone was convinced.

    “I think there’s going to be a demon in the shadows,” said Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, who was among about 75 people, mostly shareholders, who attended the hearing. “Nyquist said he was going to move the water off the farmland, and this is just a parallel path. A leopard can change the color of his spots, but he’s still a leopard.”

    The Lower Ark will wait until a water court case is filed to formalize its objections to the ARF plan, Winner added.

    Arkansas River Farms asked the Fort Lyon board to initiate bylaw changes and approve an operating agreement to change the timing of irrigation as part of a plan that would dry up 6,400 acres in order to improve irrigation on 6,200 acres clustered near Las Animas.

    The board plans at least another day of hearings to answer more questions.

    Fort Lyon shareholders were invited to attend the daylong public meeting at St. Mary’s School, and to question the engineers and partners in the Arkansas River Farms about the perceived effects. The partnership requested the meeting at last year’s annual meeting as a way to iron out canal company issues before a case is filed in water court to change 7,500 shares of the 17,413 shares ARF owns from agricultural to well augmentation.

    The board’s concern is whether the plan leaves enough water in shared laterals to properly serve remaining shareholders and how canal drains, the way water is returned to the Arkansas River, would be affected.

    “I’m scared to death of what will happen on the drains, where they could do anything they want,” said Don McBee, who farms near Lamar.

    The amounts of water ARF suggests for mediation for laterals are not measurable and longterm impacts on water quality 10 years down the road are unknown, McBee said.

    “If they get an agreement, what will the next guy to buy these farms get away with?” he asked.

    2016 #coleg HB16-1228: Aurora tells judge legislation hurts ability to take Ark Valley water– The Pueblo Chieftain

    Colorado Capitol building
    Colorado Capitol building

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

    Aurora has filed a water court challenge to its 2009 agreement with the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, claiming legislation the city itself backed could hurt its ability to remove water from the Arkansas Valley…

    HB1228, the latest version of flex water rights legislation Aurora, Colorado Corn and Ducks Unlimited began promoting in 2013, was signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper in May. The current bill is titled “Alternative Transfer Mechanism for Water Rights” rather than flex legislation.

    During committee hearings, lawmakers tiptoed around saying the bill set up a flex water right. But some members of Colorado Water Congress jokingly called it “Son of Flex” during the process.

    The bill allows water to be transferred from farms to other uses five years out of 10, but only within the basin of origin under a new type of court decree. It also requires the Colorado Water Conservation Board and state engineer to approve and develop rules about how to implement transfers on an annual basis.

    Aurora’s lobbyist, Margy Christiansen, registered in support of the bill in March. Also in March, Lower Ark officials testified before the CWCB that Arkansas Valley Super Ditch would have no interest in using the legislation because it was too cumbersome.

    Lower Ark proposed a different method that has yet to be introduced as legislation.

    In a court filing Friday, Aurora’s attorney John Dingess asked Division 2 Water Court Judge Larry Schwartz to limit Super Ditch’s used of HB1228, claiming it would reduce the amount of water available to Aurora to take out of the Arkansas River basin.

    One of the provisions of the 2009 agreement between Aurora and the Lower Ark was that Aurora would first attempt to lease water, if needed, from the Super Ditch.

    In his filing, Dingess argues that Super Ditch would not be able to lease water to Aurora because the city is outside the Arkansas River basin. He also argues there would be less water available to Aurora because the new bill would make leases available five years out of 10.

    In the Super Ditch pilot program, leases are available only three years in 10 from any farm.

    Aurora is constrained by its 2003 agreement with the Southeastern District to take water only three years in 10 until 2028. Aurora could lease water in seven years out of 15 until 2043 under the agreement. Aurora is limited to leasing 10,000 acre-feet of water (3.26 billion gallons) annually and only in drought-recovery years.

    Finally, Dingess questions the constitutionality of HB1228 because it promotes speculation.

    “The change frees up to half the yield of the water right from the anti-speculation doctrine in that neither the type of use nor place of use need be specified in the change decree,” Dingess wrote. “Suspension of the anti-speculation doctrine presents constitutional questions.”

    Arkansas River Basin storage administration

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

    To look at the numbers, you’d expect to see otters frolicking everywhere in the Arkansas River basin.

    Then you realize that the nearly 10,000 storage vessels in Southeastern Colorado are spread over more than 28,000 square miles in mostly arid or semiarid areas. Then consider that many of the reservoirs are seldom full. Finally, the vast majority are pond-sized, not lakes.

    Still, someone has to keep an eye on them all, because water stored in them rightfully belongs to someone else. In the past 10 years, there have been 79 orders issued by the state in relation to improper storage practices.

    “The Arkansas River is a big basin, and there’s a lot of complexity in the basin,” Assistant Division Engineer Bill Tyner told the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District last week. “We put our emphasis on the top 200 structures.”

    Tyner then walked the board through the different types of reservoirs that are known to exist. Even that can be a problem to determine, because reservoirs are man-made, while natural features such as lakes, ponds or wetlands on a creek might show up in aerial photographs.
    There are more than 1,500 decreed structures in the Arkansas Valley, although some may not be in use or are restricted.

    Of those, only 20 hold more than 10,000 acrefeet (3.25 billion gallons), and another 169 hold more than 100 acre-feet.

    The rest are there, legal to use, but subject to water rights administration. In other words, they cannot store water if a user with a senior appropriation right is calling for the water downstream.

    The largest reservoirs are John Martin Reservoir, which was built for flood control and to settle interstate compact differences between Kansas and Colorado, and Lake Pueblo, which was built as part of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project for water supply, flood control and recreation.
    There are nearly 1,800 erosion control dams, which must be under 15 feet in height, store less than 10 acre-feet and can be drained in 36 hours. They have to be dry 80 percent of the time.

    “There are a lot of these at the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site to mitigate vehicle damage,” Tyner said.

    As would be expected, erosion control dams are found in the hilly areas of the basin in the Upper Arkansas, El Paso County and the Spanish Peaks area.

    There are more than 5,400 livestock tanks, which fall under a specific state statute that has the same criteria as erosion dams, but also sets a chronological priority within the same drainage.

    “Livestock ponds have a seniority system, but it’s not as formal as a decreed right,” Tyner said.

    Gravel pit ponds are a different category. There are about 750. The ponds intercept groundwater because of activities by humans, so must be augmented to replace evaporation losses. Those are most common on the Eastern Plains, where gravel mining is prevalent.

    There are roughly 140 head stabilization ponds, which are limited to storing water up to 72 hours, by state policy, primarily to reduce sediment for sprinkler or drip irrigation.

    Aside from the known reservoirs, there are unknown storage systems including post-wildland fire facilities, stormwater detention ponds and unregistered ponds used for erosion control, livestock or head stabilization.

    Fountain Creek cleanup projects on hold until fall

    Fountain Creek flood debris May 2014 via The Pueblo Chieftain
    Fountain Creek flood debris May 2014 via The Pueblo Chieftain

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

    Projects to clean up Fountain Creek will resume this fall, after danger of flooding has subsided.

    At least two projects are anticipated. One would remove debris from the channel between Eighth Street and Colorado 47, while the other would reconstruct the access road and embankment on a side detention pond behind the North Side Walmart.

    “Getting debris out of the channel is the first priority,” said Jeff Bailey, Pueblo stormwater manager. “The debris that gets in there can cause havoc, and it’s the reason we lost the embankment.”

    Work will have to wait until water goes down and there’s less danger of flooding.

    “We’re in the flood season, and you don’t want to have equipment sitting in the creek if something happens,” Bailey said. “Also, in the summer, the vegetation is thick and your equipment can overheat. We’ll wait until the flows go down.”

    The city has started cleaning up debris north of the Colorado 47 bridge, in order to reduce the chances that the detention pond could be further damaged. Some of the trees obstructing the Eighth Street bridge also were removed, although sediment still is clogging portals under the bridge.

    The dredging will get a boost from a $279,000 project funded by Pueblo County, the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Pueblo County and the Lower Ark are chipping in $100,000 each; Fountain, $74,000; and the state $5,000.

    The project is the brainchild of Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Ark district, and is similar to a project at North La Junta on the Arkansas River. The idea is to temporarily clear the channel at relatively little cost.

    “It shouldn’t cost millions of dollars for routine maintenance,” Winner said. “What we will find, if we can get rid of the debris, is that we will pass the water through more quickly without flooding and get the water downstream to farmers.”

    Long-term projects can be more costly, such as the Army Corps of Engineers’ $750,000 project to fortify Fountain Creek at the railroad tracks near 13th Street. That project rebuilt an earlier $500,000 project that began to wash out during last year’s floods. The detention pond and a sediment collector that were installed in 2011 as demonstration projects cost $1.5 million and are not working well.

    Bailey is not sure how $3 million in payments over three years from Colorado Springs Utilities would be used. Under the April stormwater agreement between Colorado Springs and Pueblo County, the money is available if it is matched by the city of Pueblo. Pueblo can use $1.8 million previously paid to the county by Utilities for its share of the match.

    “I have a pretty good idea of the types of projects: to recertify the levee, and for removal of debris, vegetation and silt,” Bailey said. “I want to make darned sure we’re using it for the purposes it was intended for in the right way.”