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.”
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.
Colorado’s longtime ban on residential rain barrels has come to an end. Now most homeowners in the state are allowed to collect precipitation for later outdoor use.
Gov. John Hickenlooper recently signed House Bill 1005, which allows a maximum of two rain barrels — with a combined capacity of 110 gallons — are allowed at each household. The measure is to take effect on Aug. 10.
Rainwater collection, also called rainwater “harvesting,” is the process of capturing, storing and directing rainwater runoff and putting it to use. Water from roof gutter downspouts that is directed onto landscaped areas is not regarded as rainwater harvesting under this legislation.
The Colorado Legislature passed the bill last month after previously rejecting the measure in past sessions over concerns that household rain barrels would take water from the supply available to agriculture and other water-rights holders.
But a study conducted by the Colorado Stormwater Center, housed within the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Colorado State University, showed otherwise. Nearly all of the water would be absorbed in the ground by the downspout or in the ground in the garden, the CSU analysis indicated.
“We do not think any changes to the water cycle could be accurately quantified or measured,” said Chris Olson, a researcher and program manager at the Stormwater Center. “The water is going to be infiltrated or evaporated. The only difference is the timing, a day, maybe two, before the rain barrel is emptied.”
Colorado has been the only state with an outright ban on residential rain barrels and one of just four states that restrict rainwater harvesting.
Water law experts say rain barrels are only technically illegal, because proving they injure the water rights of other users is nearly impossible.
Collected rainwater may be used to irrigate outdoor lawns, plants or gardens. Untreated rainwater collected from roofs is not safe to drink.
Any container capable of collecting the rain shedding from a roof or patio can be used as a rainwater harvesting system. To comply with Colorado water law, the container must be equipped with a sealable lid. Rainwater collection systems vary from simple and inexpensive to complex and costly.
Typically, rooftop rainwater collection systems are simple — gutters, downspouts, and storage containers. Inexpensive rainwater storage systems commonly make use of an above-ground container such as a barrel or plastic tank with a lid to reduce evaporation and bar access for mosquitoes to breed. More sophisticated systems have “first flush” diverters that are recommended to exclude capture of the initial rain that might carry impurities from the roof.
Rain barrel use under HB 1005
There are several restrictions that are important to follow in order to use rain barrels legally in Colorado. These restrictions differ depending on your residential situation.
Under House Bill 1005, rain barrels can only be installed at single-family households and multi-family households with four or fewer units. A maximum of two rain barrels can be used at each household and the combined storage of the two rain barrels cannot exceed 110 gallons. Rain barrels can only be used to capture rainwater from rooftop downspouts and the captured rainwater must be used to water outdoor lawns, plants and/or gardens on the same property from which the rainwater was captured. Rain barrel water cannot be used for drinking or other indoor water uses.
“The capture and use of rainwater using rain barrels does not constitute a water right,” said Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute, part of CSU’s Office of Engagement. “HB 1005 includes language that could result in the State Engineer curtailing the use of individual rain barrels if a water-right holder can prove that those rain barrels have impacted their ability to receive the water that they are entitled to by virtue of their water right.”
Colorado State University Extension has created a fact sheet with additional details on rainwater harvesting.
It’s now legal for residents to collect rain water and use it to water their gardens — something most probably haven’t thought twice about.
Before Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a rain barrel bill into law Thursday, only well owners were able to utilize rain barrels legally. A similar bill died in the Legislature last year, but with the governor’s signature on House Bill 1005, anyone can collect rainwater in two 55-gallon barrels.
The bill is only a small aspect to the larger picture of water rights in Colorado — which rain barrel owners are not guaranteed.
The bill’s passage also means — at least for now — a pause on discussion around major changes to Colorado’s water laws. There have only been grumblings and some failed attempts to put water laws to a vote, but the slight change of legalizing of rain barrels is one that puts the conversation to rest — for now.
“For the first time we really have a situation in place where we can account for and make sure water rights are protected,” said Marc Arnusch, a farmer in Keenesburg.
Colorado’s water laws, in short give water rights to people on a first-come, first-served basis. The priority goes to senior water holders — those who got rights to use the water first. The trickle-down system puts junior rights holders are the lowest on the totem pole when it comes to using and taking water sources. But if the junior water rights holder takes more then their share, the senior holder can hold them responsible for damages to the supply.
That’s where the rain barrel discussion fits in. Even with rain water coming from clouds, Colorado’s water supplies rely on runoff water from storms. Rain barrel collections could reduce the amount of runoff water, but only when a large amount of water is collected from rain barrel owners.
Hesitation during the discussion of the bill was to protect the rights of the junior water rights holder. Legislators wanted to make sure junior holders weren’t held responsible for less available water due to a diversion into rain barrels.
Colorado State University researchers studied the effect rain barrels collections might have on downstream water from the rain and found there would be little, if any, change. This also plays into how many rain barrels will, realistically, be used. Arnusch said urban residents will most likely use the barrels, and Northern Water’s Brian Werner said a good utilization of the barrels would be if 10-15 percent of Colorado residents actually used the barrels. But even that might take time.
The CSU study didn’t convince everyone, though. Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, was one of three in the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy committee to vote against the bill. His disagreement came from a lack of solutions to make sure the barrels wouldn’t take water away from those who own it and how to keep the rights in check. There was talk of a statute that would hold rain barrel owners responsible if there was a deficit from water rights owners, but there was no consensus, as the CSU study said there would be little, if any noticeable change in runoff water.
Even though the study said there wouldn’t be much of a change, statutes to hold barrel owners responsible in case of a reduction were rejected.
“If there isn’t an impact, why would they be worried about a statue?” Sonnenberg said in March.
But there was a checks and balance system put in place in which state officials can check to see — if rain barrels prevent water owners from getting their full share — how that can be fixed and changed. Werner said the chance for a revisit, along with the results from the CSU study was a large reason why the bill passed this year, unlike past sessions.
“If everyone were to (buy barrels) there are the checks and balances in there so somebody can go back there and look on a regular basis to see if there is, indeed, an impact,” Werner said.
The impact comes down to whether there will be enough water when rain barrels are used. With water rights remaining as they are, Arnusch said the bill is a step in the right direction to keep the water rights structure as is.
The biggest overhaul talks have been about switching to a public trust doctrine system. Arnusch is on the Ground Water Commission for the Colorado Division of Water Resources and said talks about the public trust doctrine system would still be priority-based, but the priority would go to wherever need is seen, rather than water ownership. That could mean years with less agricultural priority, which is why farmers and ranchers oppose the system.
“If the public trust doctrine were to go into effect in Colorado, that would be just a catastrophe for agriculture,” he said.
While a change to the public trust doctrine isn’t favorable to agriculture, Arnusch said it’s still important to evaluate and make reasonable changes within the existing water use system. Rain barrels were one of those changes. Now, the micro-storage options have a place in Colorado’s complex priority system, he said.
But there is a difference between the use of rain barrels and who owns that water.
“At the end of the day, a rooftop doesn’t entitle you to a water right,” Arnusch said.
A plan to allow water to pass through Cucharas Reservoir until a new dam is built has been approved in a settlement of a legal case that has been drawn out for more than a year.
Two Rivers Water and Farming Co. filed an objection last August to a February 2015 state order to remove the dam, located 12 miles northeast of Walsenburg, claiming it still intends to build a new dam downstream. The Colorado Supreme Court returned the case to Division 2 water court, where a settlement was approved last month by Water Judge Larry Schwartz in lieu of a trial.
“The state and division engineers were very helpful in developing a common-sense plan for rebuilding the Cucharas dam,” John McKowen, Two Rivers CEO, said in a press release this week. “The plan will insure the public’s safety and increase the water efficiency inside the entire Huerfano River basin.”
Two Rivers is required in the next six months to remove the rock fill embankment of the entire length of the dam. It also must cut a channel allowing 150 cubic feet per second to pass through the reservoir and dam on the Cucharas River in Huerfano County. The Cucharas River merges with the Huerfano River before it empties into the Arkansas River.
Those remedies are more stringent than McKowen’s claim last year that the dam was safe because its crest had been removed and it was storing no water because the gates were locked open.
McKowen plans to build a new dam downstream that would allow storage at the site, which has been under restriction by the state since the old dam began leaking in 1987.
In the settlement discussions, McKowen talked with the state about using Two Rivers’ assets in the Huerfano River basin to address other water issues in the basin. Two Rivers owns all of the Orlando Reservoir in Huerfano County and canal system and 95 percent of the Huerfano- Cucharas Irrigation Co., which includes Cucharas Reservoir and farmland in Pueblo County.
While the settlement resolved issues with the state, there are still legal issues between Two Rivers and other water users in the Huerfano River basin.
As part of the settlement, Two Rivers would pay Huerfano County $100,000 if it fails to comply with the consent decree. The state has reserved the authority to evaluate compliance and to take further action, if necessary.
The major water bodies around Summit County and throughout most of the state are in strong shape after a slightly above-average winter season. However, the region is far from out of the woods on the matter of water in the West.
That was the thrust of speakers at Summit’s 23rd annual State of the River meeting on Wednesday evening, May 4 at the Silverthorne Pavilion — the first of six such meetings along the Colorado River Basin. With the Western Slope encompassing an average of 28 percent of the state’s water and spanning 15 counties, including Summit, this meeting of water wonks often sets the tone on consumption strategy and planning for rest of the year.
“There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth,” Troy Wineland, Summit County’s water commissioner, told the congested room, “there are only crewmembers. We’re all in this together.”
Wineland stressed that despite snowpack totals currently at about 115 percent of average above Dillon Reservoir — and with peak flows still to come around the first or second week of June once meltoff takes hold — circumstances are not as favorable. Other states in the country that also primarily rely on the Colorado River remain at near-critical shortages.
“While things are nice and rosy and wet and looking great here in the county,” he said, “you look throughout the entire Colorado river basin … not quite as rosy. The Lower Basin states right now are facing some very serious problems with access to water and need.”
Both Wineland and Denver Water’s Bob Steger were sure to discuss the present levels at Lake Powell during their respective presentations. Each noted how vital the resource is to every state along the Colorado Basin, even though water has already passed by many of them to arrive to Powell.
Aside from Powell functioning as the chief water supply for drinking, crop irrigation and recreation for 30-to-40 million residents in the region, the Glen Canyon Dam there also provides hydroelectric power. Besides contractual obligations of an annual average of 7.5 million acre-feet at Powell through that basin compact, of course, when water there gets below necessary levels, that has an impact back up to the Upper Basin states with increased electrical bills…
“(Lake Powell) is our bank account against accounts payable to the Lower Basin states,” re-iterated Wineland. “We’re probably within 20 feet of the critical threshold, at which point, Arizona and Nevada are going to have to make some hard decisions and really cut back on their water use.”
Despite the challenges even in what seems a healthy water year locally, all hope is not lost. The overall tenor of the meeting was mostly positive, with emphasis on how collaborative efforts across Colorado, as well as through such multi-state interdependence and agreements, proper attention on this limited resource is increasing.
Steger, Denver Water’s manager of raw water supply, brought encouraging news that the water from snowpack averages just a couple days ago are not only well above both the 20-year average on Dillon Reservoir (14.6 inches), but also ahead of 2015 (16.5 inches) as well. Current measures are 19.5 inches from this winter’s snowfalls.
On top of that, snowpacks on the South Platte River are also above normal for this time of year. That means Denver Water can most likely avoid pulling much water from Dillon Reservoir through one of its primary transmountain water diversion, Roberts Tunnel, this season for the South Platte and Denver’s consumption needs.
In fact, if that happens, that will continue a beneficial trend where 2014 and 2015 were actually the two lowest years within a 50-plus-year span for how much water has had to be removed from Dillon Reservoir through Roberts for the Platte and North Fork rivers.
“I attribute that partly to Mother Nature,” explained Steger to the audience, “because we’ve had good water supplies on the South Platte, but also our customers are doing a better and better job every year I think of conserving water. When our Eastern Slope supplies are good, that means we don’t have to take as much water from the Western Slope to the other side of the divide. That indirectly helps Lake Powell.”
Wineland also discussed how momentous the unveiling of Colorado’s statewide water plan — years in the making — in November is for the general conservation movement. To boot, regional endeavors like the recent $32,000 Colorado Water Conservation Board grant awarded to the Frisco-based High Country Conservation Center (HC3) for development and execution of a countywide water efficiency program are additional steps in the right direction. His parting words were of encouragement and optimism for the Colorado River Basin’s future.
“I just want to bring it back to the bigger picture,” he said. “We have leaders who are putting forth all this legislation and these cooperative efforts. But what we’re lacking are champions, and those champions, really, are you and I — everyone in this room. We need to take this legislation and work to the next level and implement these changes.”
Click here to read the latest board meeting summary from the Colorado River Water Conservation District. Here’s an excerpt:
The Colorado River District has found that there is no compelling safety reason to proceed with remediation of Ritschard Dam at Wolford Mountain Reservoir in Grand County, now or in the foreseeable future.
This conclusion comes after exhaustve study of the settlement and a failure-risk assessment of the rock-fill, clay-core dam put into service in 1995. The River District’s consulting engineers and a separate Consultant Review Board it commissioned, together with the State of Colorado Dam Safety Branch, have concluded that the dam remains safe.
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.