Documentary: “Killing the #ColoradoRiver,” Thursday, Aug. 4 — Discovery Channel #COriver

From The San Francisco Chronicle (David Wiegand):

Water is politics — you’ll hear that phrase used in the often-fascinating Discovery Channel documentary “Killing the Colorado,” airing Thursday, Aug. 4.

The film teams five award-winning directors to explore what happens when people alter the course of waterways such as the Colorado River. The impact of diverting, damming or otherwise interfering with how water flows can be felt far beyond the area immediately around the water. And in many cases, it has led to environmental fatalities…

California fostered the growth of its major metropolitan areas by taking more than its fair share of water from the Colorado River, whose watershed extends minimally into the state, but enough to make it perhaps too readily available…

As water has become scarce, the demand for it has increased along with the population. That’s simple math, but deciding who gets water and how they’ll get it is anything but simple. Water has become so valuable that several interview subjects declare that water is to the current century what oil was to the last.

In fact, the soaring value of water has sparked the rise of several companies that buy and sell water as they do with other commodities such as gold and pork bellies. Firms such as Water Asset Management have made the water business a billion-dollar industry.

The film is kind of a patchwork of chapters overseen by different directors, including Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt”), Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County: USA”), Jesse Moss (“The Overnighters”) and Alan and Susan Raymond (“Doing Time: Life Inside the Big House”).

“Killing the Colorado” is based on an investigation of water issues published through ProPublica by Abrahm Lustgarten, who appears with useful insight and commentary at various points in the film.

The film offers a detailed example of the implications of water diversion when it looks at a proposed project for the Gila River in Arizona. The river is the subject of a squabble between Arizona and New Mexico, which wants to use a greater share of the water. A diversion plan is in the works, but given how precious water is, especially in the American Southwest, opponents haven’t given up trying to block it…

The plan is going to be costly but will only benefit a relatively small number of people. At least that’s what folks on the Arizona side of the border argue.

We also see what happens when a community with water tries to make a buck off of it. In the case of Crowley, Colo., a lot of bucks. The town sold so much of its water that it decimated its own economy and went from being one of the state’s better-off areas to one of its most impoverished…

Farmers have always been either victims or scapegoats in water issues. They are often blamed for water shortages because they are by far the dominant consumers of water in this country. Yet, to get an idea of how little clout farmers have with regard to water decisions, just drive along Interstate 5 in California, especially as it cuts through the Central Valley. You’ll be greeted by signs along the road expressing outrage at Congress for leaving farmland high and dangerously dry.

Alfalfa, for example, is one of the best ways of feeding cattle. If farmers can’t grow alfalfa, it affects dairy farming and the beef cattle industry. Yet they are targeted for growing a plant that needs a lot of water to thrive.

However, if we think of water as a regional problem for the West, we’re missing an important point. Much of the food Americans consume is grown in California, which is slowly emerging from a drought. The Imperial Valley, in the southeastern part of the state, is part of the Colorado watershed. If someone in New York complains about the cost of a fresh kale salad, they can direct their irritation at the scarcity of water in the West.

“Killing the Colorado” is very good. It isn’t comprehensive, though, and parts of it are so clogged with arcane information, it’s sometimes hard to follow. Or swallow, as it were.

Nonetheless, the film is an eye-opener, even for those who think they already know how serious the country’s water problems are.

#ColoradoRiver: The July 2016 Northern Water E-Waternews is hot off the presses #COriver

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Reservoir Storage in Great Shape
Colorado-Big Thompson Project reservoir levels are in great shape. As of July 1, total C-BT Project reservoir storage was approximately 99 percent of capacity. On the West Slope, Lake Granby had 536,061 AF in storage, while on the East Slope, Carter Lake and Horsetooth Reservoir held 108,383 AF and 154,386 AF in storage, respectively.

The relatively high storage volumes in July were partially due to low water deliveries. From the beginning of the water year through July 1, only 39,602 AF was delivered, including quota, carryover and Regional Pool Program water. Deliveries have increased in the past two weeks as a result of agricultural users requesting more water to meet peak irrigating season demands.

Map of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project via Northern Water
Map of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project via Northern Water

Dolores River: Balancing streamflow forecast and boating releases from McPhee

Dolores River near Bedrock
Dolores River near Bedrock

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

A sporadic 12-day boating release from McPhee dam into the Dolores River in June was hampered by uncertain runoff forecasts after a late-season snowfall, reservoir managers said at community meeting Tuesday in Dolores.

Boaters faced on-again, off-again announcements of whitewater releases from the dam, which complicated their plans for trips down the river. It was the dam’s first whitewater release since 2011.

A 22-day rafting season was forecast as possible in March when snowpack registered at 130 percent of its median normal. A two-month dry spell erased the advantage, and the release was adjusted to five to 10 days of boating for late May. The forecast then dropped to a three-day release in early June, and after it was confirmed days later, hundreds of boaters flocked to the Dolores as it filled below the dam.

“Small spills are the most difficult and tricky to manage,” said Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which manages the reservoir.

But on the fourth day, managers said they realized the volume of river inflow was more than the reservoir could handle, and the dam release was extended nine additional days.

“The second spill was highly under-utilized,” said boater Kent Ford, who added that the lack of notice “killed a lot of multi-day trips.”

Vern Harrell, of the Bureau of Reclamation’s office in Cortez, attributed the uncertainty to the narrow margin of runoff expected to exceed reservoir capacity.

The runoff forecast has a margin of error of 10 percent, “and this year, the spill was within that 10 percent,” Harrell said.

Decisions about dam releases rely on forecasts from the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center, which depends on Snotels that measure snowpack in the Dolores Basin.

When there is possibility for a small spill, managers don’t have the tools to give a lot of notice, Harrell said, so decisions are made day-to-day based on river inflow and reservoir levels.

“By May, all the Snotels are melted out, and we are in the blind,” he said.

In small spill years, managers said they err on the side of caution when announcing the number of days available for boaters. They want to ensure that the reservoir remains full, but they don’t want to end a dam release prematurely.

“We have to be careful we don’t leave boaters stranded on the river,” Harrell said.

Ken Curtis, an engineer with Dolores Water Conservancy District, said the priority is to fill the reservoir, and if there is excess water, it is managed for a boating release.

It was especially difficult to forecast runoff into the reservoir this year, he said, because much of the late-season precipitation came as rainfall.

“In May, we called off the spill because we were not reaching our reservoir elevation,” he said. “Then the forecasters bumped us up by 30,000 acre-feet,” enough for a small spill.

At the end of a five-day release, the forecast center showed a dip in river inflow, “so we started to shut the gates, but the river inflow was hanging in there,” and the spill was extended several days.

Managers acknowledged that they were rusty managing the release. They’d faced many dry winters that hadn’t filled the reservoir, and the unusual winter of 2015-16 complicated the matter.

Sam Carter, president of the Dolores River Boating Advocates, said boaters and the reservoir managers cooperate on potential spills, and this year was a learning experience.

Silverthorne: Developer donates 1.833 cfs diversion right to the town

Silverthorne via City-Data.com.
Silverthorne via City-Data.com.

From the Summit Daily News (Elise Reuter):

Local developer Gary Miller donated a total of 1.833 cubic-feet-per-second (cfs) in water rights to the town, the rough equivalent of 13.71 gallons per second, or 1,185,000 gallons per day.

Sawmill Gulch is diverted from Willow Creek, within the Eagles Nest Wilderness, Linfield said. The diversion, appropriated in 1918, was originally intended for irrigation.

“I’ve owned this water for a long time,” Miller said. “I think the town of Silverthorne has done such a great job. I thought, ‘I’ve got the water; they’ve got a lot of people moving into the town.’ I thought the best thing for me to do was to give it to them.”

[…]

Though the town has not assessed the value of the water rights, the fact that they are dated before the Colorado River Compact adds inherent value. An agreement formed in 1922 among seven U.S. states in the Colorado River Basin, the Colorado River Compact allocates water rights between the states.

“Water with earlier dates is not subject to that compact and the rules related to water use within the Colorado River Basin, including the Blue River Basin,” Linfield said.

Since the water remains untapped, the town would put in the necessary infrastructure once an appropriate use is determined.

“The town of Silverthorne has millions of dollars invested in our water rights portfolio and we work diligently to manage and maintain those rights,” Linfield said. “While we feel our water portfolio is strong, we are always looking for ways to improve and protect this valuable resource.”

Colorado-Big Thompson units average $27,356 per share in farm auction near Mead

Colorado-Big Thompson Project Map via Northern Water
Colorado-Big Thompson Project Map via Northern Water

From The Denver Post (Danika Worthington):

The auction of family-owned Reynolds Farm outside Mead raked in $12.6 million Thursday, as farmers, developers and five cities bid for land and the attached water and ditch rights.

The auction room was packed with bidders, but only 13 emerged from the Larimer County Fairgrounds with a piece of the Reynolds portfolio. Municipalities, developers and farmers all grabbed some units of Colorado-Big Thompson water, while developers and growers signed deals for land.

The auction was of high interest, given the land’s location in the path of northern Front Range development and the large amount of water attached to it.

Although the numbers are still preliminary, Hall and Hall Auctions partner Scott Shuman said 276 CB-T units brought in the largest chunk of money, about $7.6 million or an average of $27,356 each. The CB-T units, already trading for high sums, were expected to be the most pricey given their scarcity and the ability to use the water for uses such as agriculture, development and industrial processes, including oil and gas extraction.

But on a per-share basis, the 15.75 Highland Ditch shares stole the show, averaging $148,900 each for an estimated total of $2.3 million. All the shares were sold to farmers or investors.

#AnimasRiver: @EPA reimbursements for #GoldKingMine spill coming for local governments — The Durango Herald

The confluence of Cement Creek, at right, and the Animas River, left, as seen September 2015 in Silverton, Colo. This is where the plume of contaminated water from the Gold King Mine entered the Animas River. (Jon Austria — The Daily Times)
The confluence of Cement Creek, at right, and the Animas River, left, as seen September 2015 in Silverton, Colo. This is where the plume of contaminated water from the Gold King Mine entered the Animas River. (Jon Austria — The Daily Times)

From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

Environmental Protection Agency officials said Wednesday in a meeting with La Plata County and Durango city officials that funds will be awarded to the governmental entities within the next couple of weeks, though the precise amounts to each won’t be apparent until next week…

Reimbursement to businesses, such as local rafting companies, which took a hit last summer when the river was temporarily closed to recreation, is a separate matter, which Durango City Councilor Dean Brookie said will be in the spotlight next week on the spill’s one-year anniversary…

In other updates:

EPA officials said in the coming months, crews will be investigating polluted tributaries around the Bonita Peak Mining District and whether they have the potential to support fish habitat.
Dan Wall, an environmental risk assessor on the Superfund team, said these studies will be “more specific to the physical habitat” than data collection done in previous years by other entities, including the U.S. Geological Survey and the Animas River Stakeholders Group.

In the months ahead, Superfund site manager Rebecca Thomas said the agency is planning a process called an engineering evaluation cost analysis, which will determine the need for and feasibility of continued operations at the Gladstone water-treatment plant.

The plant is a temporary facility intended to operate until fall 2016.

On April 7,  2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear. Eric Baker
On April 7, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear.
Eric Baker

Weekly Climate, Water and #Drought Assessment of the Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin #COriver

Upper Colorado River Basin month to date precipitation through July 23, 2016 via the Colorado Climate Center.
Upper Colorado River Basin month to date precipitation through July 23, 2016 via the Colorado Climate Center.

Click here to read the current assessment. Click here to go to the NIDIS website hosted by the Colorado Climate Center.