— Aspen Journalism (@AspenJournalism) March 4, 2015
From The Grand Junction Free Press (Hannah Holm):
The three-evening water course, organized by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in February, focused on water for agriculture for three primary reasons: 1) agriculture is the historical foundation of western Colorado’s largest communities; 2) it remains an important feature of our economy and landscape; and 3) as the largest consumer of water in a water-short region, significant transfers from agriculture to urban areas are expected in coming decades.
The course examined the climate and legal context for agriculture, how water is used currently, and factors affecting the future of agriculture in Colorado and the rest of the Colorado River Basin. Growing urban demands and the potential for reduced supplies due to climate change are two of the primary factors affecting the water that will be available for agriculture in the future.
Irrigated agriculture accounts for about 89 percent of the water consumed in Colorado and 70-80 percent of the water consumed in the Colorado River Basin as a whole. However, that does not mean that farmers and ranchers themselves account for all that consumption. All of us who eat Colorado-grown beef, sweet corn, onions and peaches and drink Colorado wine, beer and spirits claim a share of Colorado’s consumption, and wearing Arizona-grown cotton and eating California-grown winter lettuce increases our share of Colorado River water use.
Nonetheless, since farmers are the ones whose livelihoods are dependent on access to irrigation water, they are the ones that feel the greatest unease when eyes are cast in ag’s direction to meet growing urban needs, improve flows for the environment, or to prop up water levels in Lake Powell.
East of the Continental Divide are many examples of the devastation that occurs when agricultural water is moved to cities through a simple “buy and dry” process. Once a critical mass of farmers has sold out, it’s tough for those remaining to stay in business, and weeds take over abandoned fields. Just about everyone involved in debates about the future of Colorado water agrees that this is undesirable.
As a result, there’s been lots of talk, and some legislative action, on “alternative transfer methods” that attempt to move water from farms to cities on a rotating, temporary basis that provides additional income to agriculture and keeps land and communities in agriculture over the long term. Such methods are discussed extensively in Colorado’s draft water plan.
While seen as preferable to “buy and dry,” one farmer participating in the water course noted that the acronym “ATM” was a little unsettling, and wondered if cities would really be willing to give back “temporarily” transferred water if commodity prices made using water on the land more appealing than selling it on the market.
Increasing irrigation efficiency, through methods such as drip and sprinkler irrigation and lining and piping ditches, has also been lauded as a way to help balance supply and demand and benefit the environment.
Reducing diversions can certainly benefit stream health, both by keeping flows up and reducing contaminants from agricultural runoff. Several speakers pointed out, however, that more efficiently moving water to exactly where plants can use it will not necessarily lead to an overall reduction in water use. It could instead lead to increases in the total volume of water consumed, as each plant in a field can finally get the water it needs to grow to its full potential. And reducing the amount of water that slowly seeps back to streams from fields can reduce late-season stream flows.
Another complication with agricultural efficiency measures is that they are expensive, and not every method is equally suitable to every crop and soil type — and sometimes it takes awhile to figure out what will really work well. Every mistake can cause a big hit to a farm’s productivity and income.
The silver lining behind the urgency of balancing supply and demand in the Colorado River Basin is that significant brain power and financial resources are being devoted to figuring out how to optimize the use of water in both urban and agricultural areas, and how to wring multiple benefits from every drop. Farmers are getting financial and technical assistance with testing strategies to improve the health and water-holding capacity of their soils, as well as new water delivery strategies. Multi-stakeholder groups are debating the legal and financial mechanisms for how to more flexibly move water around to enhance the resiliency of the whole basin. It’s a time for both wariness and optimism, skepticism and creativity.
To see slides presented at the water course, visit http://www.coloradomesa.edu/watercenter/2015WaterCourse.html.
This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at http://Facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or Twitter at http://Twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.
The latest issue of “The Current” newsletter from the Eagle River Watershed Council is hot off the newsletter is hot off the pressesMarch 5, 2015
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
CALL FOR VOLUNTEERS!
Each year the Watershed Council partners with Colorado Parks & Wildlife to survey fish populations in the Eagle River. This is part of an ongoing effort to monitor the effects of the remediation work at the historic Eagle Mine site south of Minturn. It is a fun way to get out on the water and a great way to give back to the river we all love! Click here to learn more about the electrofishing process.
This year the fish surveys will take place on Wednesday, April 1st & Thursday, April 2nd. Those wishing to participate in the fish surveys must help with at least one day of ice breaking on either Saturday, March 28th or Sunday March 29th. For more information or to volunteer, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (970) 827-5406.
More Eagle River watershed coverage here.
A showdown over how transmountain diversions are calculated is brewing in the Colorado Supreme Court — Chris WoodkaMarch 3, 2015
From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):
A showdown over how transmountain diversions are calculated is brewing in the Colorado Supreme Court.
At issue is last year’s ruling on a change of use case filed by Aurora in water court in Pueblo.
Division 2 Water Judge Larry C. Schwartz ruled that Aurora is entitled to export an average of 2,416 acre-feet (787 million gallons) annually, even though Aurora waited more than 20 years to change the use of the water from agriculture to municipal.
Aurora shares Busk-Ivanhoe with the Pueblo Board of Water Works on the system that formerly was operated by the High Line Canal. It brings water into Busk Creek above Turquoise Lake from Ivanhoe Lake through the Carleton Tunnel, which once was a train passage and later an automobile route across the Continental Divide.
Pueblo Water has a 1993 decree changing its water rights from its 1971 purchase of its half of Busk-Ivanhoe. Aurora purchased the other half from High Line shareholders beginning in 1986, but did not file for a change of use until 2009.
Western Slope groups and the state Division of Water Resources are arguing that Aurora’s claim to water should be reduced by 27 percent because the city misused the water after purchasing its share of the Busk-Ivanhoe system.
They claim that Schwartz should have counted the 22-year period as zeros when calculating the historic use of water from the Busk-Ivanhoe system. Schwartz determined that the years where the water was used improperly should not count in the calculation, but said the amount of Aurora’s diversion should be recalculated separately from the amount awarded to Pueblo in 1993.
Aurora’s share is slightly less than Pueblo Water’s (2,634 acre-feet average annually) as a result.
Supporting Schwartz’s decision are the state’s largest municipal water providers, including Denver Water, Colorado Springs, Pueblo Water, Northern Water and the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, all of which bring water across the Continental Divide.
They argue that water courts serve to prevent injury to other water users, not penalize inappropriate historic uses.
“It’s not very likely to have a direct impact on any of our existing rights,” said Alan Ward, Pueblo Water’s resource manager. “We appreciate the court did not see a need to be punitive. That could be an issue with other water rights in the future.”
The Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District also supports Schwartz’s position because of its own pending change case on the Larkspur Ditch, which it purchased from the Catlin Canal and uses to bring water over from the Gunnison River basin.
Schwartz ruled in favor of Aurora in the case (09CW142) in May, and it was appealed by multiple Western Slope groups in October. Reply briefs in the case are due March 21, after which the court could hear oral arguments.
More water law coverage here
The Colorado River District, et. al. appeal May 2014 Aurora Busk-Ivanhoe diversion water court decisionMarch 2, 2015
From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith) via the Glenwood Springs Post Independent:
A water court case in Pueblo over the size of water rights from the upper Fryingpan River delivered through the Busk-Ivanhoe tunnel to the East Slope has now blossomed into a Colorado Supreme Court case full of powerful interests opposing each other across the Continental Divide.
A bevy of West Slope entities, including Pitkin, Eagle and Grand counties, the Colorado River District and the Grand Valley Water Users, Association are arguing against a May 2014 water court decision that gave Aurora the right to use 2,416 acre-feet of water from the Fryingpan for municipal purposes in Aurora instead of for irrigation purposes in the Arkansas River valley.
The new decree gives Aurora the right to divert up to 144,960 acre-feet of water over a 60-year period.
The other West Slope entities in the case are the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, the Ute Water Conservancy District and the Basalt Water Conservancy District.
On other side, a list of the most powerful water entities on the East Slope have filed legal briefs supporting Aurora’s positions, including Denver Water, Colorado Springs, the Pueblo Board of Water Works, the Northern Water Conservancy District and the Southeastern Water Conservancy District.
Pitkin County is specifically arguing that the water court judge should have counted Aurora’s 22 years of undecreed use of the water for municipal purposes — between 1987 and 2009 — when determining the historic lawful use of the water right, and thus, the size of the right’s “transferable yield” from irrigation to municipal use.
Instead, the judge set 1928 to 1986 as the representative sampling of years and excluded the 22 years of Aurora’s admittedly undecreed use.
Expert testimony in the case indicated that if Aurora’s years of undecreed, or “zero,” use were averaged in, the size of the transferable water right would be reduced by 27 percent — which is what Pitkin County believes should happen.
“When water rights have been used unlawfully for more than a quarter of their period of record, a pattern of use derived solely from the other three-quarters of the period of record will not most accurately represent the historical use of the rights at issue,” attorneys for Pitkin County told the Supreme Court.
The Colorado state water engineer and division engineers in water divisions 1, 2 and 5 are also arguing alongside Pitkin County that the judge should have included the 22 years of “zero” use in a representative sampling of years.
“This court should remand the case with instructions to determine the average annual historical use between 1928 and 2009, including zeros for years when Aurora diverted water through the Ivanhoe Tunnel solely for undecreed uses,” attorneys for the state and division engineers wrote.
The various East Slope entities are arguing in the case that the judge did the right thing by not counting Aurora’s 22 years of undecreed municipal use.
“The water court’s quantification of the Busk-Ivanhoe rights followed all of the rules for a change case — it was based on a representative period of lawful decreed use, it was not based upon undecreed use, and it employed several other factors endorsed by this court to determine a representative period,” Aurora’s attorney’s wrote. “The water court correctly determined it need not go any further, rejecting the appellants’ novel legal theory and finding it unnecessary to prevent injury.”
Meanwhile, other West Slope entities, including the River District and Eagle County, are arguing that Judge Larry C. Schwartz erred in his opinion regarding the right to store water on the East Slope without a specific decree to do so.
“The water court misinterpreted the law and erroneously looked beyond the record in the original adjudication to conclude that no storage decree was necessary and then included water stored and water traded to others within the amount of the changed right,” attorneys for the West Slope entities wrote.
But the East Slope entities support the judge’s conclusion regarding storage.
“The water court correctly interpreted prior case law and ruled East Slope storage was within the ‘wide latitude’ accorded importers of transmountain water provided such storage did not result in an expansion of the Busk-Ivanhoe water rights,” attorneys for Aurora wrote.
Attorneys for Denver Water also told the court that “it does not matter whether a decree specifically identifies storage in the basin of use of the imported foreign water” because “once imported, the foreign water can be stored wherever.”
Built between the early 1920s and 1936, the Busk-Ivanhoe water system now diverts about 5,000 acre-feet of water a year from Ivanhoe, Pan, Lyle and Hidden Lake creeks, all tributaries of the upper Fryingpan River.
The system gathers water from the high country creeks and stores it briefly in Ivanhoe Reservoir, which sits at 10,900 feet. It then sends the water through a 1.3 mile-long tunnel under the Continental Divide to Busk Creek and on into Turquoise Reservoir near Leadville.
From there, the water can either end up in the lower Arkansas River basin, or via pumps, end up in the South Platte River basin, where Aurora is located, just east of Denver.
The Pueblo Board of Water Works owns half of the Busk-Ivanhoe water rights, which have a primary 1928 decree date. In 1990, Pueblo received a decree to use its half of the water for municipal purposes, and that decision is not at issue in this case.
Aurora bought 95 percent of its half of the Busk-Ivanhoe water rights in 1986, and by 2001 had purchased 100 percent of the right, paying at least $11.25 million, according to testimony in the case.
INTO WATER COURT
Aurora came in from the cold in 2009 and applied in water court to change its half of the Busk-Ivanhoe water to municipal uses.
And it also applied for specific water storage rights, including in a new reservoir to be built on the flanks of Mount Elbert called Box Creek Reservoir.
After a five-day trial in Div. 2 Water Court in Pueblo in July 2013, which resulted in 1,075 pages of transcripts and 6,286 pages of exhibits, Schwartz ruled in May 2014 in Aurora’s favor.
West Slope entities filed appeals in October with the Colorado Supreme Court, which directly hears appeals from the state’s water courts.
Opening briefs in the case were filed by West Slope entities in December, and a round of “answer briefs” and “friend of the court” briefs were filed last week by various entities.
The West Slope entities now have until March 21 to file reply briefs in the case.
Once the case is set, oral arguments will be heard before the Supreme Court justices in Denver.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.
From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):
Years of drought and overgrazing have dried out the fields in southwestern La Plata County. Dust easily blows away in the wind.
Last year, from March until May, dust storms caused problems for students, drivers and farmers, and without enough precipitation, the dirty storms could return…
The area from Breen into New Mexico and west of Black Ridge to the La Plata County line was hit hard last year by dust, said Sterling Moss, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Durango.
The recent snowfall earlier this week dumped about a foot of snow near Breen and Kline, and more snow is expected to accumulate this weekend.
“This is a huge blessing, but we are still way far from being out of the woods,” said Trent Taylor, owner of Blue Horizons Farm Inc.
The entire river basin, which includes the Dolores, Animas, San Juan and San Miguel rivers, would need to receive 218 percent of historical snowfall to get back on track, said Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District.
“I don’t think we’ll make it to normal snowpack this year,” he said.
A long dry spell in January and February left local conservationists and farmers nervous. In mid-February, Moss dug down to test soil moisture as wind dried the field of winter wheat all around him.
In southwestern La Plata County, snow should have blanketed the field near County Road 119 for weeks. But instead, Moss didn’t even find enough moisture in the soil to support the wheat through harvest.
“I’ve never seen a February like that,” Taylor said.
The newly fallen snow could ease the situation. If it melts slowly, it can soak deeper into the soil than rain does.
But re-establishing healthy fields is key to preventing dust storms through the spring winds.
Moss and his office have been working with landowners to plant grass in areas dedicated to conservation reserves to keep the top soil from blowing away. These areas are dedicated to wildlife habitat, and landowners receive a government subsidy for not working the land. This helps farmers survive in the worst drought years, Taylor said.
But it has been challenging.
“A lot of grass has been planted that hasn’t been established yet,” Moss said.
The stands of grass are key to keeping valuable topsoil in place. An inch of topsoil can take 100 years to accumulate, he said.
But without precipitation at the right time, the grasses won’t grow. This year, Moss might recommend planting grass or another cover crop in mid-summer in hopes the monsoons will come.
In the past few years, fall rains have brought most of the moisture for the year.
Leaving the stems from last year’s crop in place also can prevent wind and rain erosion and keep the soil cooler, said Abdel Berrada, a soil scientist with Colorado State University.
This stubble helps conserve soil, but it also provides habitat for pests, like cut worms that may require herbicide, Taylor said.
Planting trees as wind breaks or setting up snow fences can help keep the dust down. But trees can’t thrive when there’s very little water…
“Growing plants on bare bones soil with little to no water can be an uphill challenge,” said Darrin Parmenter, county extension agent for Colorado State University.