Change Trickling Through #ColoradoRiver Basin — UNLV

The Colorado River Basin is divided into upper and lower portions. It provides water to the Colorado River, a water source that serves 40 million people over seven states in the southwestern United States. Colorado River Commission of Nevada
The Colorado River Basin is divided into upper and lower portions. It provides water to the Colorado River, a water source that serves 40 million people over seven states in the southwestern United States. Colorado River Commission of Nevada

Here’s the release from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas:

As water leaders contend with unprecedented drought and demand, will the river people of the Colorado band together as regional citizens? Water policy expert Patricia Mulroy weighs in.

It’s 6 am. In Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Tijuana, someone is stumbling into the kitchen to grab that first cup of coffee. In the wide-open spaces of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Baja, and Sonora, a farmer is opening his head gate to water his field and tend his herd. In the depths of the Grand Canyon, a camper is emerging from his tent to marvel at the sight of an eagle winging across the chasm. Mechanics are adjusting enormous generators sending hydroelectric power to countless communities. And the birds of the Cienga de Santa Clara are heading out to find their morning meal. As distant and different as all this awakening life is, it shares one vital ingredient: water from the Colorado River.

It is a river steeped in legend and lore and often its mere mention induces competition and conflict. For most of the 20th century our competing interests have been in constant collision. Each has jockeyed to advance his needs over those of his neighbors. We quickly forgot the underlying premise of the Colorado River Compact of 1922: that the river was to be developed and managed by seven equal partner states outside the framework of traditional Western water law. Only in the last 25 years have we begun to realize that the framers of this river “constitution” were not as misguided as we thought and that cooperation and joint management of the system would be the only thing that would make a modern 21st century existence on this river possible.

Our supply is dwindling and the demand pressures are not subsiding. As science became more sophisticated and informed, we have come to realize that the amount of available water from this river is not as great as we once imagined it to be. Lawsuits and decrees over the decade further cut into what is reasonably available. And the beginnings of a fundamental shift in the climate conditions affecting the Colorado River Basin are reducing what we do have available even further. We have emerged from one of the wettest centuries in the region to the stark reality of a much drier future. At the same time global food demand is on the rise, urban populations are growing, and an ever-growing environmental ethic is demanding more resources be left in the system to protect the ecosystem.

This interconnected river community has, and continues to be, in an intense period of transformation. The fiercely defended individual water right is beginning to be moved aside by the notion of a shared responsibility and recognized interdependence. Attitudes are slowly changing as water leaders engage their communities in difficult conversations about doing more with less. These changes go right to the heart of how we see ourselves as communities and whether we can envision ourselves as part of a larger region. Yet to be born is the notion of living as the citizen of a river community, enjoying all the rights and responsibilities that accompany that privilege.

Editor’s Note:
Patricia Mulroy, a leader in the international water community, will present the University Forum lecture “Forging a Common Future: Becoming A Citizen of the Colorado River Basin,” at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 16, in the Barrick Museum Auditorium. As the general manager of both the Las Vegas Valley Water District and the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Mulroy helped guide Southern Nevada through an unprecedented period of growth and one of the worst droughts in the history of the Colorado River. She is now the Senior Fellow for Climate Adaptation and Environmental Policy as well as a Practitioner in Residence for the Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution at the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law.

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

Upper Colorado River Basin precipitation February 1 through February 7, 2016 via the Colorado Climate Center.
Upper Colorado River Basin precipitation February 1 through February 7, 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.

#AnimasRiver #GoldKingMine: New Mexico official — spill is a human health issue

From from the Associated Press (Susan Montoya Bryan) via The Durango Herald:

The head of the New Mexico Environment Department blasted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday during a legislative committee meeting, saying federal officials are downplaying the long-term effects of the Gold King Mine spill.

Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn told members of the House agriculture committee that the agency has been pressuring communities to get behind a proposal that calls for monitoring water quality for only a year.

Flynn also argued that the proposal would look at whether the water is safe for recreation rather than digging deeper into recurring spikes in the readings of heavy metals that state officials fear could affect crops, livestock and wildlife in the years to come.

The EPA has maintained that water quality returned to normal in the weeks following the Aug. 5 spill. Flynn disputed that, and he pointed to readings taken after a series of storms last fall.

“When storm events occurred, the sediment was remobilized, and we’re seeing the levels of lead and other metals in the river increase well above safe drinking water standards,” Flynn testified. “So the idea that: ‘Hey, everything is back to normal, we’re good,’ is just flat out false and that’s a problem.”

Flynn said the agency needs to treat the incident as a human health issue.

The EPA did not respond directly to Flynn’s criticisms, but noted that it has been working with communities in the region on a draft monitoring plan. Flynn is part of that working group, according to the agency.

“The work group’s goal is to finalize a plan based on broad stakeholder input that has support among the jurisdiction,” EPA spokeswoman Nancy Grantham said in a statement.

State, local government and tribal representatives met last week in Colorado to discuss steps forward, but the timing on a final monitoring plan remains unclear.

A “get well soon” balloon floats in the contaminated waters of the Animas River flowing through Durango on Monday afternoon August 10, 2015 -- photo The Durango Herald, Shane Benjamin
A “get well soon” balloon floats in the contaminated waters of the Animas River flowing through Durango on Monday afternoon August 10, 2015 — photo The Durango Herald, Shane Benjamin

The latest newsletter from the #ColoradoRiver District is hot off the presses

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

River District to funnel $8M to irrigation projects

The Colorado River District Board of Directors has agreed to act as a funding conduit for up to $8 million in federal Natural Resourc- es Conserva􏰀on Service (NRCS) funding to help fi- nance a series of water use efficiency projects in four federal irriga􏰀on projects in the Lower Gunnison Basin.

Last year, the River District was awarded $8 million of grant funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2014 Farm Bill that will leverage up to $50 million worth of work in coopera􏰀on with, and other funding from, the Bureau of Reclama􏰀on and the Colorado River Basin Salinity Program.

The Board approved a new type of financial coop- era􏰀ve agreement called an “Alterna􏰀ve Funding Arrangement” that enables the River District to act as an agent of the NRCS.

The Board directed staff to manage all of the NRCS funding for the benefit of the irriga􏰀on districts in the four focus areas..

The four beneficiary irrigati􏰀on project areas include the Uncompahgre Valley, Bostwick Park, the North Fork Valley and the Crawford Country. Deputy Chief Engineer Dave Kanzer and Water Resources Specialist Sonja Chavez have been the quarterbacks in the collabora􏰀tive effort to perform mod- erniza􏰀on and system op􏰀miza􏰀on ac􏰀vi􏰀es that will increase agricultural water use efficiency within the Lower Gunnison Basin.

Kanzer noted that the irriga􏰀on districts can lose more than 30 percent of their water to seepage and deep percolati􏰀on.

The Regional Conserva􏰀on Partnership Program (RCPP) funding from the NRCS will help minimize those losses by modernizing river diversions and water conveyance and deliveries for farm use. This work, combined with en- hanced management of reservoir releases, is projected to provide beneficial results related to increased agricultural produc􏰀on, improved stream flows, be􏰁er water quality, and improved river habitat that, among other benefits, will help threatened and endangered fish species.

“In my view, this has to be done for the future of our agricultural producers in the basin,” said Eric Kuhn, General Manager of the River District.

Marc Catlin, River District Director from Montrose County, said: “The future is here, and we have got to start doing these things if we are going to maintain agriculture on the Western Slope.”

He called for the program to work with younger producers to help them learn how to farm with new technology.

“This is a big deal,” said Dave Merri􏰁, Director from Garfield County. “This is the product of 20 years of work in the Gunnison Basin. It is a great way to go ahead and put good stuff on the ground.”

Gunnison County Director Bill Trampe urged that the program provide an economic analysis of projects to help educate others to the pluses and minuses of the modernisations.

Tom Kay, an organic agricultural producer from Hotch- kiss, who has already implemented irriga􏰀tion improvements, said his growing season has been lengthened due to be􏰁er water management that effec􏰀vely has stretched his water supplies. “Without Dave Kanzer and Sonja Chavez, this would be nowhere,” Kay said of the River District staff working on the project.

Gunnison River Basin via the Colorado Geological Survey
Gunnison River Basin via the Colorado Geological Survey

Push is on to give Deep Creek new protection — The Vail Daily

Deep Creek via the Bureau of Land Management
Deep Creek via the Bureau of Land Management

From The Vail Daily (Ryan Summerlin):

After 20 years in limbo, a stretch of canyon southeast of the Flat Tops Wilderness is getting a fresh chance for federal protection.

In 1995 the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service deemed Deep Creek eligible to be designated a Wild and Scenic River…

To be eligible for Wild and Scenic designation, the river in question must be free-flowing and have “outstanding remarkable values,” including particular ecological, scenic, recreational or geological characteristics.

Soon after the federal agencies found Deep Creek was eligible, an effort was begun to push for Wild and Scenic designation, said [Ken] Neubecker.

But other advocates wanted to shoot for wilderness designation, which was a complete nonstarter, running into a water rights battle with the Colorado River District, he said.

Last year White River National Forest released its finding that the area is suitable for Wild and Scenic designation, which is the last formal step before Congress could make the designation. Next, legislation would have to be drafted with the community’s involvement, Neubecker said.

“Deep Creek is a rare example of an ecologically intact, lower-elevation watershed that is worthy of permanent protection,” states the suitability finding by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service…

But while the BLM and Forest Service have found the land suitable for Wild and Scenic status, the agencies are prohibited from lobbying for the designation, Neubecker said.

The BLM, Forest Service and American Rivers have held public meetings about the effort in Edwards, Gypsum and Glenwood Springs.

A handful of ranchers with grazing rights in Deep Creek have come to the public meetings, though none in Glenwood Springs, to fend off any changes to their grazing rights.

Others worry that giving Deep Creek the designation would attract more tourists, but it isn’t the same at creating a national park or national monument, Neubecker said.

Wild and Scenic areas aren’t created to be tourist spots, and they’re not marketed on road maps, he said.

The designation is also a way to provide permanent protection of the land and river under federal law while keeping the water rights with the state, Neubecker said.

Among the qualities that make the canyon suitable for Wild and Scenic designation is the largest complex of caves in the Western U.S., he said. Its scenic qualities are obvious, at depths of 2,000 to 3,000 feet, prominent cliffs, large outcroppings and ledges. It’s one of the last truly pristine canyon environments left in the West, he said.

“And the area has one of the finest limestone deposits anywhere.”

Neubecker told a small crowd in Glenwood Springs that his major concern for the area is the potential for mineral development…

The community has the opportunity to be involved at a couple different levels, Neubecker said. First, the community can shape the language of the amendment granting the status. Unlike designating a new wilderness area, which takes a new act of Congress, a Wild and Scenic area is created through an amendment to the original act.

Second, the area would have its own resource management plan, which would be regularly revised.

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton and Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner will have to get on board for the effort to be successful. “And I know Tipton won’t support it unless it has the community’s support,” said Neubecker.

Supporters will have to work with the communities and governmental entities involved: Eagle County, Garfield County, Gypsum, Eagle, Glenwood Spring, Colorado River District, hunters, ranchers and recreationalists.

The next step in this process is to form work groups including the community and federal agencies, said Neubecker. The timing for future meetings has not been determined.

$5 million in the US budget for the Arkansas Valley Conduit

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

More funding for the Arkansas Valley Conduit has started flowing from the federal government.

An additional $2 million in discretionary funds will be shifted to this year’s conduit budget by the Bureau of Reclamation. Another $3 million is included in President Barack Obama’s 2017 budget, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., announced today.

Bennet worked with local officials, Reclamation and the administration to increase funding. The conduit already received $500,000 this year.

“We’ve been pushing the Administration and Congress to live up to the commitment it made more than five decades ago to communities in southeast Colorado,” Bennet said. “This funding will help move this project forward, and we will continue to fight to keep these additional resources in next year’s budget to ensure Coloradans in these communities finally have a reliable source of clean drinking water.”

Bennet will work with congressional leaders and the appropriations committee to try to ensure the money remains in the budget. Congressional gridlock in the past few years has kept funding at minimal levels.

“This was truly a bipartisan effort,” said Bill Long, president of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the local agency guiding the effort to build the conduit. “It’s certainly better to have $2.5 million than to work with than $500,000.”

The money will go toward engineering, legal work and land acquisition over the next three to five years that will allow construction of the pipeline to begin.

The goal is to raise about $5 million annually during that period. The Southeastern district is working with Reclamation to attempt to apply other revenues from the Fryingpan-Arkansas to move conduit work forward.

Once construction begins, it will take larger amounts of money to build the conduit, which is potentially a $400 million project. The conduit will bring clean drinking water to 50,000 people in 40 water districts from St. Charles Mesa to Lamar.

The plan is to filter the water at Pueblo Water’s treatment plant, then move the water to other systems via the conduit. Most of those systems rely on wells and are struggling to meet water quality standards.

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

#ColoradoRiver: “If the temperatures keep going up, we have problems” — Eric Kuhn

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Peering through a window on a flight from Denver to Los Angeles, you first see the Rocky Mountains, rich with forests and snow, here and there a ski area. Then, for the majority of the trip you see aridity, the soft greens of sagebrush steppes at higher elevations dissolving to harsh pigments of the Mojave Desert until you get to the exurbs of LA.

The Colorado River wends its way through southern Utah and, at Glen Canyon, is impounded into Lake Powell. Photo/Allen Best
The Colorado River wends its way through southern Utah and, at Glen Canyon, is impounded into Lake Powell. Photo/Allen Best

This is the American Southwest. Apart from its few rivers, it’s inherently dry, even parched—and, according to a new study conducted by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, getting drier as a result of less frequent storms.

“A normal year in the Southwest is now drier than it once was,” said Andreas Prein, an NCAR postdoctoral researcher who led a study published last week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. “If you have a drought nowadays, it will be more severe because our base state is drier.”

With less rain and higher temperatures, droughts will lengthen, they say. “As temperatures increase, the ground becomes drier and the transition into drought happens more rapidly,” said NCAR scientist Greg Holland, a study co-author.

Water policy officials in both California and Colorado said the study provides further evidence of the challenges they had already understood. Unlike other areas of North America, emerald green from plentiful rain, the American Southwest walks on a narrowing razor’s edge between supply and demand. This study finds evidence of less supply, even as climate models predict rapidly increasing temperatures—heat that will likely further reduce available water supplies.

Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, which is based in Glenwood Springs, Colo., echoed Holland’s emphasis on the twin drivers of drought: precipitation and heat. “Even if your precipitation goes up in winter months, like some of the studies have suggested, the overall net impacts of the increased warming in places like Lake Powell or (in the Colorado River) at Lee’s Ferry will be less water,” he told Mountain Town News.


According to a press release, the NCAR researchers analyzed 35 years of data to identify common weather patterns. “The weather types that are becoming more rare are the ones that bring a lot of rain to the southwestern United States,” Prein said. “Because only a few weather patterns bring precipitation to the Southwest, those changes have a dramatic impact.”

Most wet weather to the Southwest involves low pressure centered in the North Pacific just off the coast of Washington, typically during the winter. Between 1979 and 2014, such low-pressure systems formed less and less often. Instead, in recent years, there has been a persistent high pressure in that area. That has been the main driver of the devastating California drought.

These high-pressure belts can be found on both sides of the equator. They are created as the hot air that rises over the equator moves poleward and then descends back toward the surface. The sinking air causes generally drier conditions over the region and inhibits the development of rain-producing systems. Many of the world’s deserts, including the Sahara, are found in such regions of sinking air, which typically lie around 30 degrees latitude on either side of the equator.

Climate models have predicted that these zones will move further poleward, or farther away from the equator. Still, the scientists pointedly declined to link the changed weather of recent decades to longer-term human-caused changes in climate. Climate change is a plausible explanation, they said, but linking modeled predictions to changes on the ground is challenging.

The study also found an opposite, though smaller, effect in the Northeast, where some of the weather patterns that typically bring moisture to the region are increasing.

Jeanine Jones, deputy drought manager for the California Department of Water Resources, sees the study confirming what has been observed on the ground. “We’ve been seeing more dry years in the recent past,” she told Mountain Town News in an e-mail.

On website ClimateProgress, Joe Romm found the study’s refusal to link recent trends with climate change “overly cautious.” Romm underlined the potential for megadroughts, similar to but perhaps worse than the decades-long periods of below-average precipitation in the 12th and 13th centuries documented by tree rings in the Colorado River Basin.

Romm also emphasized higher temperatures along with less precipitation. “If a region gets hit by both of those, it will suffer an unusually extreme drought, such as we’ve seen in California in the last few years, or Australia in the previous decade,” he wrote. He also pointed out that the data examined by the scientists only went through 2010, excluding the severe drought in California of recent years.

From his office along the Colorado River in western Colorado, Kuhn said the study of the Southwest he awaits is the one that paints the big picture: higher temperatures, reduced rain, the increased need of irrigation water for crops, plus the effect of reduced precipitation and higher temperatures on natural landscapes, whether mountain forests, sagebrush valleys, or the already sparse, prickly vegetation of the deserts.

“Nobody has put it all together,” he said.

In the Colorado River, about 75 percent of the water comes from snowmelt. But rainfall matters greatly to streamflows. It also matters to how much agricultural crops must be irrigated, said Kuhn. “If the temperatures keep going up, we have problems.”

A field of produce destined for grocery stores is irrigated near Yuma, Ariz., a few days before Christmas 2015. Photo/Allen Best - See more at:
A field of produce destined for grocery stores is irrigated near Yuma, Ariz., a few days before Christmas 2015. Photo/Allen Best – See more at:

If it rains less in Los Angeles and San Diego, then the 18 million residents of southern California will rely more heavily on the Colorado River reservoirs, especially the largest ones, Mead and Powell. The flight path between Los Angeles and Denver slices between these two giant impoundments.

Much of the water stored in those reservoirs now gets used by farmers in Arizona and California. In the future, said Kuhn, those states will expand their transfer of water used for economically marginal crops to cities. This has been done through programs in which famers are paid to let their fields lie fallow for a period of time.

It probably doesn’t mean a barren selection at your local Safeway, though.

“My gut feeling is that you are going to see a change in the more consumptive crops like alfalfa and sudangrass before you see changes in carrots, lettuce and the (high-value) cash crops,” said Kuhn.