Continental Dam update: $4.6 million renovation of the spillway and dam complete

Continental Reservoir behind Continental Dam, Hinsdale County. Photo via Tom C.
Continental Reservoir behind Continental Dam, Hinsdale County. Photo via Tom C.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

Irrigators in the San Luis Valley may get a boost thanks to the completion of a $4.6 million overhaul of a high country reservoir near Creede.

The Santa Maria Reservoir Co. completed the renovations on Continental Reservoir and its spillway last fall, making the reservoir eligible to have storage restrictions lifted later this summer should it pass muster from state inspectors.

The Continental was completed in 1928 and has a capacity of 27,000 acre-feet.

But seepage through the reservoir’s dam spurred the imposition of state restrictions in the late 1980s that have limited storage to about 15,000 acre-feet, reservoir company manager Jay Yeager said.

An acre-foot is roughly 326,000 gallons of water.

The added water would be a boost to the company’s 250 shareholders who irrigate on 70,000 acres on the valley floor.

“It helps the stockholders have more options to store more water for other entities and they can store more for their needs,” Yeager said.

While the Continental is not a large reservoir — less than a tenth of the size of Pueblo Reservoir — the added storage is significant given the small amount of storage on the Rio Grande’s headwaters.

The Continental is only one of four reservoirs whose combined storage amounts to just under 130,000 acre-feet.

The repairs to the reservoir included the layering of sand and gravel on the dam’s exterior designed to filter out sediment from the seeping.

While it won’t stop the seep completely it eliminates the sediment’s potential to make that seepage worse.

The project also included the repair of the siphon and canal system that connects the Continental to the Santa Maria Reservoir, which was also under state restrictions.

But full capacity might not be reached this season.

“It could take several years before it could really be full unless Mother Nature kicks in,” Yeager said.

San Luis Valley: Talks continue on new groundwater rules — The Pueblo Chieftain

Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle
Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

Although a trial for new groundwater regulations in the San Luis Valley isn’t set until January 2018, State Engineer Dick Wolfe said his staff is working toward settlements to avoid that court date.

Wolfe told a Thursday meeting of the Rio Grande Compact Commission that efforts to compromise with the 30 objectors in the case have been underway for a few months.

“I’m very optimistic we’re going to be successful working through those issues with those other objectors in hopes to reach stipulation with all of those objectors and hopefully avoid going to trial,” he said.

Wolfe’s office submitted rules to the valley’s water court in September.

They were the first attempt by the state to issue comprehensive groundwater rules for the valley since the 1970s, when a previous effort never reached implementation.

The rules governing the roughly 4,500 highcapacity irrigation wells that tap into the valley’s two large aquifers require users to join a subdistrict, have an augmentation plan, or at least a temporary water supply plan.

The aim of the rules is to mitigate the impact of groundwater pumping on the valley’s streams and rivers, which are hydraulically connected to the aquifers in varying degrees. The objections to the rules cover a number of issues but many question the use of the state’s Rio Grande Decision Support System, a computer model that’s used in the calculation of stream loss caused by pumping.

But even if the rules do end up at trial, working toward settlements now can still pay off, Wolfe said.

“Even if we don’t ultimately get to an agreement with all those objectors we hope to at least limit the number of objectors so ultimately that would have to go to trial and the number of issues we would have to litigate,” he said.

#ColoradoRiver: Difficulties arise in efforts to save water for Powell #COriver

From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Hannah Holm):

A recent Bureau of Reclamation report projects that Western river basins, including the Colorado Basin, are likely to experience a 7-27 percent decline in spring streamflows during this century.

The bureau’s 2016 SECURE Water Act Report to Congress, which can be found at, is just the latest to warn of reduced streamflows in our region as temperatures climb.

The Colorado River Basin has already experienced more than a decade in which more water has been pulled out of rivers and streams for farms and cities than has come back in through rain and snow. As a result, water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell have begun to approach critical levels. For Mead, that means dropping too low to reliably meet demands. For Powell, that means dropping too low to generate hydropower and meet downstream obligations.

One of the efforts to head off this looming crisis is the System Conservation Pilot Program, which pays for voluntary, temporary water use reductions. This program, funded by major cities and other water suppliers that rely on Colorado River Basin water, was initiated in 2014 to test the feasibility of voluntary, compensated measures to curtail water use in order to prop up water levels in lakes Powell and Mead. Details on the program can be found at

Farmers and ranchers in western Colorado are among those who have participated and are considering participating in the program. Agricultural approaches tried so far include foregoing irrigation for part of a season, fallowing ground, leasing water and converting to lower water use crops. Some of these farmers recently met with program funders, researchers and supporters to discuss how the program is working.

The group included representatives of Denver Water, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado Division of Water Resources, the Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, the Colorado River District, Colorado State University and Colorado Mesa University.

On the positive side, being paid to temporarily fallow land or reduce water use can provide money and time to upgrade aging headgates or other irrigation infrastructure, improve soil health or explore alternative crops.

Some farmers are hoping to use the program to receive income while transitioning ground from conventional to certified organic production, a three-year process that can lead to long-term economic benefits for the farmer. Farmers also like the opportunity to take the lead in figuring out how they could get by with less water, since there is concern that they may have to do so in the future. State law provides that participants in approved conservation programs will not have their water rights diminished as a result.

On the other hand, the first year of the pilot revealed many logistical hurdles to increasing flows into Lake Powell by paying farmers and ranchers to use less water. One major problem is how to ensure that saved water makes it to Lake Powell without being picked up by another water user that was previously short.

A related issue has so far hobbled attempts to lease water under the program. How can you lease water to an undefined recipient for an undefined use? According to some interpretations, this doesn’t square well with Colorado water law.

How to recognize the full value of agricultural water was also discussed. In addition to the need to compensate producers for forgone crop sales, concern was expressed about the impact of reduced production on farmworkers, implement dealers and the community at large. And how can you make sure that temporary water use reductions to get through a crisis really stay temporary, and don’t just permanently transfer that use elsewhere, from farms to cities? The fact that some cities are also participating in the program by reducing their water withdrawals or treating and returning wastewater helps address this concern, but doesn’t eliminate it.

The amount of water saved through the system conservation program so far is miniscule in relation to the amount needed to significantly reduce the risk of the reservoirs hitting critical lows. With all the issues involved with implementing the program and the growing demand for water, a major concern is whether this mechanism will ever be able to move enough water to really make a difference. Meeting participants noted that resolving the legal and logistical challenges, as well as building community understanding and acceptance of the program, are preconditions for scaling it up.

Avoiding critically low levels in Lakes Mead and Powell will require either significantly more action to reduce water demands or a lot more snow in the mountains. As of March 1, the 2016 water year inflows into Lake Powell were forecast to be 83 percent of average. That’s not terrible year, but it’s also not good enough to take the pressure off water users to control demand.


CWCB/DWR: The next Water Availability Task Force meeting is March 24

From email from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Ben Wade):

A Joint Water Availability & Flood Task Force meeting will be held on Thursday, March 24, 2016 from 9am-12:00p at the Colorado Parks & Wildlife Headquarters, 6060 Broadway, Denver in the Bighorn Room.


The Lower Ark files 2 Rule 10 plans to comply with surface irrigation rules

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Group plans that will help resolve water issues for more than 160 farms were filed this week with the Colorado Department of Water Resources by the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District.

Called Rule 10 plans, they give farmers a way to comply with surface irrigation rules put in place in 2010 as a response to on-farm improvements such as sprinklers and drip irrigation. The state went to court to implement the rules to head off future challenges of the Arkansas River Compact by Kansas.

The state must approve the plans and comments are open on them until April 11.

The Lower Ark district filed two plans, one for farmers on the Fort Lyon Canal, the largest ditch in the Arkansas Valley, and another for farmers on other ditches.

The Fort Lyon plan covers 62 farmers and 99 farms. It projects a credit of 639 acre-feet, but because of monthly accounting, will have to provide some replacement water, said Jack Goble, Lower Ark engineer.

The non-Fort Lyon plan covers 46 farmers and 62 farms on 11 ditches: Amity, Baldwin Stubbs, Bessemer, Buffalo, Catlin, Fort Bent, High Line, Holbrook, Lamar, Las Animas Consolidated and Rocky Ford. It projects a credit of 315 acre-feet, but some recharge and replacement water will be provided on a monthly basis.

Among sources of replacement water for the two plans are Lower Ark storage at Lake Pueblo, Fryingpan-Arkansas water, ditch return flows and leased water from Pueblo Water.

Most of the improvements involve sprinklers fed by ponds, and the Lower Ark district sponsored a study over the past three years which showed leakage from ponds is twice the value originally presumed by the state. The new figure, about four inches per day, is incorporated into both plans.

All of the farms are on ditch systems, since water is generally used in rotation.

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

CWCB: The February 2016 #Drought Update is hot off the presses

Colorado Drought Monitor February 16, 2016.
Colorado Drought Monitor February 16, 2016.

Here’s the update from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Colorado Division of Water Resources (Taryn Finnessey and Tracy Kosloff). Here’s an excerpt:

Statewide precipitation, as of February 16, is at 106% of average. January brought beneficial storms to the state but so far in February, Colorado has only experienced 77% of average precipitation. This recent lull in precipitation is not unusual at this time of the year. The spring months will be the key to determine whether or not the state has a good water year. National forecasts predict a wet spring for Colorado but also suggest a warm next few months. The February 16 US Drought Monitor map for shows 92% of Colorado is drought free and the remaining 8% of the state is experiencing D0 or abnormally dry conditions.

  • January was the 42nd warmest on record in Colorado with the Eastern Plains being the one region that has been above average temperature statewide. The temperature to date in February remains average to slightly above average for the east side of the Continental Divide while most of the western half of the state is below average. There are wildfire concerns in the southeastern corner of the state.
  • Statewide SNOTEL water year-to-date precipitation is 106% of normal. Statewide, January precipitation was 98% of normal and half way through February, precipitation is 77% of normal. The Southwest basins have the highest snowpack percent of median at 113%. The lowest snowpack in the state is in the Yampa/White & North Platte basins which are slightly below normal at 99% & 97% respectively.
  • The state experienced at least six spring storms in 2015 which eliminated drought conditions across the state. The state will need three to four storms this spring, especially in the South Platte & Arkansas basins, to keep drought conditions from reappearing this summer and beyond.
  • Reservoir storage statewide remains above normal at 110% which is the same as January. The Arkansas basin has the highest storage levels in the state; the Upper Rio Grande has the lowest storage levels, just slightly below normal. However, the Rio Grande levels have risen slightly since the beginning of the water year in October 2015. Water providers in attendance reported their respective systems are in decent shape at this time.
  • The Surface Water Supply Index (SWSI) as of February 17 is near or above average across the majority of the state, with the southern half of the state faring better than the northern half. The lowest SWSI value, -1.41 in the South Platte Basin, is due to the emptying of Antero Reservoir. At this time of year the index reflects reservoir storage and streamflow forecasts.
  • Streamflow forecasts are normal to above normal in most basins. Forecasts in the Yampa/White ranged from a maximum of 102% on the North Platte River near Northgate & the Laramie River near Woods to a low of 80% on the Little Snake River near Dixon. The highest streamflow forecasts are in the Southwest basins ranging from 108%-122%.
  • Seasonal drought outlook through May 31, 2016 via the Climate Prediction Center.
    Seasonal drought outlook through May 31, 2016 via the Climate Prediction Center.

    San Luis Valley: State Engineer hopes to settle new rules prior to trial

    Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle
    Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

    The Court for Water Division No. 3 is expected to set a trial date later this month for the proposed state groundwater rules in the San Luis Valley.

    That trial date may not come until 2017, according to a draft case management order filed with the court Friday, but a long window before the trial may help State Engineer Dick Wolfe with his goal of coming to an agreement with objectors before trial.

    To date, 29 parties have filed comments, although at least three of them did so in support of the rules.

    The rules would cover the roughly 4,500 wells that draw off either of the valley’s two major groundwater bodies.

    The unconfined aquifer is the shallower of the two and is recharged both by streamflow at the valley’s edge and by return flows from irrigation.

    The confined aquifer is recharged mainly by streamflows on the valley rim, sits beneath the unconfined aquifer and holds artesian pressure.

    Both are hydraulically connected, in varying degrees, to stream flows in the valley, meaning that groundwater pumping can injure surface water users.

    The rules are designed to protect surface water users and restore aquifer levels by requiring groundwater users to either join a groundwater subdistrict, create an augmentation plan, or create a substitute water supply plan.

    All three would require the mitigation of pumping impacts as determined by a staterun computer model that simulates the behavior of the valley’s groundwater.

    Comments were filed by 21 parties at the end of November, although the court extended the comment period because of problems noticing the rules in the north end of the valley.

    Many of those comments focused on whether the state’s groundwater model was sufficient for the rules.

    Since then eight others have also weighed in.

    As with previous objectors, there were two protestors among the latest group who argue that the rules only be approved to the extent that the groundwater model is accurate. Other objections focus on the proposed process the engineer’s office would use to set an irrigation season. The subdistrict operating under the Trinchera Water Conservancy District has also entered a protest, calling for the rules to allow it to submit a groundwater management plan. While the valley’s existing subdistrict and the four other proposed ones would all operate under a groundwater management plan, Trinchera is unique in that it is the only subdistrict not operating under the umbrella of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

    Trinchera is in Costilla County, which is not a part of the Rio Grande district.
    The state law that allows for the creation of conservancy districts does not make clear whether Trinchera can create a groundwater management plan.

    San Luis Valley via National Geographic
    San Luis Valley via National Geographic