Wolford Mountain Dam: ” The Consultant Review Board has emphatically emphasized that time is on our side” — John Currier

Wolford Mountain Reservoir
Wolford Mountain Reservoir

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

The Colorado River District has been given some breathing room for dealing with a problem dam at its Wolford Mountain Reservoir five miles from Kremmling.

A three-person outside team of dam experts has advised the district that the Ritschard Dam is safe despite the settling that has occurred there, no immediate action is required, and the district should be deliberate in determining how to address the problem.

“The Consultant Review Board has emphatically emphasized that time is on our side,” the district’s chief engineer, John Currier, said in a memo to the district board in advance of its meeting next week.

The recommendation comes as good news to the district, which has identified the dam as the most important issue it currently faces. It already has spent about $1.5 million to install sophisticated instruments to measure the dam’s settlement. Since its completion in 1995, the rock-fill, clay-core dam has settled near its center by about two feet. While earthen dams settle, in this case the drop was a foot more than expected. The dam crest also has shifted about eight inches downstream.

The three-person team, district staff and consulting engineers are now proposing that the district hold a workshop with the Dam Safety branch of the Colorado Division of Water Resources and Denver Water, which has a leasehold interest in the reservoir, to consider next steps.

“We were thinking that some kind of work would begin in 2016 or (20)17, to begin some kind of remediation program, but now we’re saying OK, let’s dig deeper into the issue based on this third-party finding,” district spokesman Jim Pokrandt said.

He said the finding means the district has more time to make sure it takes the right next steps regarding the dam. The most expensive repair would involve rebuilding the dam, which several years ago the taxpayer-funded district estimated could cost $30 million. Another approach could involve injecting concrete into the dam to reinforce it.

The original dam and reservoir project cost $42 million, including land acquisition, permitting, construction and other expenses…

The dam sits on Muddy Creek, a tributary of the Colorado River. The river district has consulted with the town council of Kremmling, which is downstream of the reservoir on the Colorado River, and Grand County commissioners. It also has held public meetings and kept emergency managers informed of the situation.

Bill McCormick, the state’s chief of dam safety, agrees that there is no reason for immediate concern regarding the dam.

“It is displaying some unusual behavior but (the findings of) all the analysis that’s been done to date is that it’s not creating unsafe conditions,” he said.

Still, he said he thinks everyone involved agrees there’s a long-term issue pertaining to continued settling, which requires a long-term solution.

“The long-term solution isn’t clear or obvious just yet but we’re continuing to work on it,” McCormick said.

Flexible water sharing [water banking] reduces risk in dry times — Jon Stavney

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Jon Stavney):

“Water banking” is an emerging term in western Colorado as water planners work on concepts to protect water supplies in the face of long-term drought, increasing demand and the uncertainties of a changing climate.

Simply put, water banking is a voluntary, market-based tool that could facilitate water transactions between willing sellers and buyers. Water right owners, who are willing to free up some of their water in a particularly dry year or years, would temporarily lease it to those who simply can’t afford to be without water.

Also known as water sharing, it is one mechanism that could address the needs and concerns of agriculture, cities and the environment in advance of a crisis. It can add predictability and certainty for users of Colorado River water in unpredictable times. It may also enable agricultural water right owners to realize the value of their senior rights without outright selling those rights.

Perhaps most importantly, water banking could be employed to avoid a crisis should declining Colorado River water supplies force a curtailment of uses either because of low reservoir levels at Lakes Powell and Mead, or under water curtailment requirements to meet Colorado River Compact obligations.

The elevation of Lake Powell is a critical indicator of water availability in the Colorado River Basin. The reservoir helps manage water deliveries to the Lower Basin and generates more than 4,200 megawatts of electricity. The reservoir elevation is now around 3,612 feet, just 53 percent full. “Minimum Power Pool” in the reservoir is about 3,500 feet of elevation. Below that level, Lake Powell can no longer generate hydropower.

Lake Powell elevations also impact the reservoir’s ability to release water downstream, which in turn may threaten the Upper Basin’s obligations under the Colorado River Compact to provide for a minimum delivery of water from Colorado and its sister Upper Basin states to the Lower Basin. Should continuing drought jeopardize our ability to meet that obligation, the Upper Basin states could be forced to cut off water uses in Colorado in order to honor our commitments under the compact. In the face of such scenarios, water banking allows us to manage our water more flexibly in advance of a crisis.

Colorado’s water bank effort is being led by the Colorado River District, Southwestern Water Conservation District, Front Range Water Council, The Nature Conservancy, and the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The goal of this collaboration is to avoid agricultural dry up on the West Slope while minimizing risk for all Colorado River water users. The group seeks to develop solutions that strike a balance between urban, agricultural and environmental needs and sees water banking as an excellent tool to do that.

While we all hope for the best as the record drought in the Western states prolongs, there is an increasing urgency to be prepared for the worst. To be ready for whatever comes, we must consider all possible methods to prevent water shortages. Casting a wide net for solutions yields diverse and effective ways to meet the many possible challenges ahead of us and increases the likelihood that Colorado is prepared if a crisis similar to what California is currently experiencing occurs here. Whether it’s clean water for your kitchen tap, for your crops and animals, or for rivers and streams, this uncertainty affects us all.

To best address the water challenges before us, awareness is key. First, we must fully recognize the urgency at hand. A few months of welcome rain this year did not change the overall trajectory of the Colorado River supplies. Second, we must act in collaboration — communities, water managers, farmers and conservation groups developing solutions together. The best plans will benefit from input from a diversity of voices. Farmers and communities especially need to get involved to ensure that any new water programs are in their best interests. We all must be part of the solution.

We will need a smart range of options to reduce water use in the region on a temporary basis to help get through critical dry times. As we forge into an unknown future, water banking emerges as one of the most promising components in Colorado’s portfolio of options to better manage our limited water resources.

Jon Stavney is president of the Board of Directors, Colorado River District and a member of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Water Quality/ Quantity Committee.

Glen Canyon Dam -- Photo / Brad Udall
Glen Canyon Dam — Photo / Brad Udall

#COWaterPlan: Even with wording changes, the basin roundtables recommend that the CWCB not adopt the framework

Alan Ward stands at the Ewing Ditch headgate
Alan Ward stands at the Ewing Ditch headgate,

From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Brent Gardner-Smith):

Letters sent to the Colorado Water Conservation Board in September about the draft Colorado Water Plan reveal a range of opinions about potential new transmountain diversions and the merits of using a “conceptual framework” to evaluate them.

Various Front Range water providers and interest groups told the CWCB that the conceptual framework should not be included in the water plan, should not be a regulatory requirement, and should not apply to transmountain diversion projects already in the planning and approval stage.

“Even with wording changes, the basin roundtables recommend that the CWCB not adopt the framework as it is a work in progress that may be modified as dialogue continues,” wrote the S. Platte and Metro basin roundtables, two of nine regional water-supply groups that meet under the auspices of the CWCB, in a combined Sept. 17 comment letter.

But a number of organizations based on the Western Slope or that focus on the Colorado River basin say the framework is a good step forward.

Officials at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado Boulder, for example, gave an enthusiastic endorsement of the framework.

“This is a revolutionary document and a quantum leap forward in Colorado water history,” Lawerence MacDonnell and Anne Castle, both of the Getches-Wilkinson Center, wrote in a Sept. 17 letter to the CWCB. “The conceptual framework is a critically important part of the Colorado Water Plan and should be formally adopted in the plan and by the CWCB, not just monitored.”

The final water plan is expected to be approved by the CWCB board of directors at their meeting on Nov. 19 at the History Colorado Center in Denver.

The conceptual framework includes seven principles “to guide future negotiations between proponents of a new TMD and those communities who may be affected were it built.”

The concepts covered include a recognition that there may not be water to divert in dry years, that new diversions should not increase the likelihood of a compact call from California, that municipal conservation should also be pursued and that environmental needs must be addressed.

Brent Newman, a program manager in the water supply planning section of CWCB, said Friday that the framework is going to be included in the final water plan and will be called “Colorado’s Conceptual Framework.”

“Folks may not agree with every single principle, or even with discussing the concepts of a transmountain diversion out loud, but it represents a historic milestone in Colorado water policy that’s a long way from ‘Not One More Drop’ or ‘We’ll See You in Court,’” Newman said, citing the long-held positions of the Western Slope and the Front Range, respectively.


Comments on the second draft of the water plan were due Sept. 17 and water-focused organizations filed more than 50 substantive letters.

It’s not hard to pick up on the differing views in the letters about the framework, which was developed over the last two years by members of the Interbasin Compact Committee, which serves as an executive committee for the CWCB’s nine basin roundtables.

Those who don’t think new transmountain diversions are a good idea tend to support the framework. But those who see new diversions as necessary diminish the framework’s authority and reject its potential restrictions.

Castle and MacDonnell of the Getches-Wilkinson Center clearly support the framework, but they see big problems with taking more water from the upper Colorado River basin.

The pair told the CWCB that “development of significant new Colorado River supplies increases the risk of future curtailment to all existing, post-1922 Colorado River water users, reduces the production of renewable hydropower at Colorado River Storage Project reservoirs, and could ratchet up unwelcome and counterproductive political dynamics among the Colorado River basin states.”

But officials at Colorado Springs Utilities, while aware of potential issues with downstream water users in other states, see new TMDs as a likely necessity.

M. Patrick Wells, the managing engineer for water resource planning for CSU, told the CWCB in a Sept. 17 letter that the draft water plan “consistently overlooks the fact that one or more new TMDs will ultimately need to be constructed to address Colorado’s water supply gap.”

As such, Wells said the final water plan “should contain a definitive statement that a new TMD will be constructed, even if no formal concept has been proposed.”

Wells also said CSU has “a significant concern” that adhering to the framework will become a regulatory requirement of new water projects.

The utility “strongly requests” that language be added to the water plan to “make it abundantly clear that the conceptual framework is not a statement of state policy, and is not in any way to be interpreted or construed as a basis for any conditions or requirements in any water court case, state or federal permitting process, or contract negotiation.”

The members of the Front Range Water Council agree with Colorado Springs Utilities on this point.

In its Sept. 15 letter, the council pointed to recent remarks about the framework made by John McClow, a CWCB board member from the Gunnison River basin.

“As board member McClow stated in his remarks at the summer Colorado Water Congress convention, the framework has no regulatory force or effect. Rather, it is guidance, the implementation and use of which will depend on the positions taken by the parties who engage in good faith negotiations on the construction of future specific proposed projects.”

The council includes Denver Water, Aurora Water, Colorado Springs Utilities, Northern Water, the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., and the Board of Water Works of Pueblo.


A few organizations have told the CWCB that the framework should apply to both potential new transmountain diversions and the “firming” of existing transmountain water supplies.

Today, about 600,000 acre-feet of water a year is sent east under the Continental Divide and over 500,000 acre feet of that is diverted from headwaters in Grand, Summit, Eagle and Pitkin counties.

And another 120,000 to 140,000 acre-feet of water could be sent east after changes are made to existing transmountain diversion systems, according to the Colorado River basin roundtable.

Included in that 140,000 acre-feet figure is 20,000 acre-feet more from the Windy Gap project in Grand County, 18,000 acre-feet more from the Moffat Collection System above Winter Park, and 20,000 from the Eagle River MOU project, which potentially includes an expansion of Eagle Park Reservoir at the Climax Mine and a new dam and reservoir on lower Homestake Creek.

In addition to those, the water quality and quantity committee of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments told the CWCB that there are other projects in the works that could send more water east, including “future Dillon Reservoir diversions, firming in the upper Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers, and Colorado Springs Utilities expanded diversions from the upper Blue River.”

In the language of the Colorado Water Plan, these projects already on the books are called IPPs, for “identified projects and processes.”

The Pitkin County commissioners, in a Sept. 15 letter, told the CWCB that the county “wholeheartedly endorses” the framework but “strongly believes” the framework’s core principles need to be “expanded in scope to apply equally to the various IPPs that involve trans-basin diversions.”

The Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board, a tax-funded organization dedicated to leaving more water in the Roaring Fork River and its tributaries, feels the same way.

“The IPPs are the result of simple community canvassing to obtain information as to any potential plans or processes that are being contemplated around the state,” the board wrote in a Sept. 17 letter. “The IPPs have not been vetted and vary widely in size, impact and feasibility. “


Trout Unlimited, which has been paying close attention to the development of the water plan, said it supports the framework.

But it also gave the CWCB some plain-language criteria it thinks should be used to judge new TMDs.

“These transmountain diversions of water can cause severe economic and environmental damage to the areas of origin,” wrote Richard Van Gytenbeek, the Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator for Trout Unlimited, in a Sept. 17 letter to the CWCB.

As such, Gytenbeek told the CWCB it “should reject all new TMDs” unless the project proponent is already “employing high levels of conservation,” can show “that water is available for the project,” and “makes commitments that guarantee against environmental or economic harm to the basin of origin.”

The Colorado River District, which has board members from 15 Western Slope counties, said it supports the framework.

The river district’s general manager, Eric Kuhn, has been instrumental as a member of the IBCC in developing many of the framework’s key concepts.

“Admittedly, there are elements of the framework that we would prefer to edit but recognize there are others who would address those same edits in an opposite fashion,” the River District told the CWCB in a Sept. 17 memo.

However, the River District said the framework “represents a ‘way forward’ for constructive discussion about possible development of Colorado River basin water resources for out-of-basin use.”

Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Post Independent and The Aspen Times and on coverage of statewide water issues. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org…


1. East Slope water providers are not looking for firm yield from a new TMD and the project proponent would accept hydrologic risk for that project.

2. A new TMD would be used conjunctively with East Slope supplies, such as interruptible supply agreements, Denver Basin Aquifer resources, carry-over storage, terminal storage, drought restriction savings and other non-West Slope water sources.

3. In order to manage when a new TMD would be able to divert, triggers are needed. Triggers are operating parameters that determine when and how much water a potential new TMD could divert, based upon predetermined conditions within the Colorado River System.

4. A collaborative program that protects against involuntary curtailment is needed for existing uses and some reasonable increment of future development in the Colorado River System, but it will not cover a new TMD.

5. Future West Slope needs should be accommodated as part of a new TMD project.

6. Colorado will continue its commitment to improve conservation and reuse.

7: Environmental resiliency and recreational needs must be addressed both before and conjunctively with a new TMD.

Colorado transmountain diversions via the University of Colorado
Colorado transmountain diversions via the University of Colorado

#COWaterPlan: Front Range water providers defend their turf — Aspen Journalism


From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

A group of Front Range water providers have told the Colorado Water Conservation Board to stop denigrating lawns and civic landscapes in the Colorado Water Plan, while at the same time, Western Slope organizations are telling cities to use less water to grow grass.

“Urban dwellers are entitled to a ‘reasonable recreational experience’ in the environment in which they reside,” the Front Range Water Council wrote in a Sept. 15 letter about the water plan.

“This includes adequate irrigation supplies for yards, public parks, recreation fields, open space, etc.,” the council said. “Many urban citizens, including those of limited economic means or physical limitations, or those who simply are not kayakers, fisherman, backpackers or skiers, engage in enjoyable outdoor recreational activities ‘in their own backyard.’”

The members of the Front Range Water Council are Aurora Water, Colorado Springs Utilities, Denver Water, Northern Water, the Pueblo Board of Water Works, the Southeastern Water Conservancy District and the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.

The deadline for comments on the draft water plan was Sept. 17. The finished document is to be released Nov. 19 at a CWCB meeting in Denver.

Colorado Springs Utilities also sent its own letter to the CWCB, signed by M. Patrick Wells, the managing engineer for water resource planning for the utility.

“Many city dwellers value their city parks, ball fields, and backyards just as much as the scenic rivers or bucolic valleys, and they enjoy their urban environment far more often,” Wells said in his Sept. 17 letter.

But Ken Nuebecker, the associate director of the Colorado river program at American Rivers, walked across the Front Range’s lawn argument in his own comment letter to the CWCB on Sept. 14.

“While parks, ball fields and the urban forest have their place, we need to make sure that these engineered areas, which can easily be rebuilt, are not ‘protected’ at the expense of far more complex rivers systems which are not so easily ‘rebuilt,’” Neubecker said.

But lawns can lead people to nature, and to rivers, Wells told the CWCB.

“How can we expect current and future generations of citizens in urban areas to understand or appreciate the value of locally grown food in the lower Arkansas Valley or the importance of healthy rivers on the West Slope if they do not have healthy, sustainable outdoor spaces of their own to first make a connection with nature,” Wells wrote.

Wells also said “there remains too much focus on curbing outdoor water use” which “currently accounts for less than 4% of Colorado’s total water use.”

However, Andre Wille, the chair of the Pitkin County Healthy Rivers and Streams Board, suggested to the CWCB that healthy rivers may be a higher priority for many than lush lawns.

“Truly, no Coloradan believes our water supply should be satisfied by sacrificing our quality of life or the very natural environment that has brought so many of us here and supports at numerous levels our state’s vibrant and growing economy,” Wille said in an Sept. 15 letter to CWCB.

This sign, on the irrigated lawn outside the Aspen music tent, could well sum up how Front Range and Western Slope water organizations view each other.
This sign, on the irrigated lawn outside the Aspen music tent, could well sum up how Front Range and Western Slope water organizations view each other.

The dissing of summer lawns

Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead told the CWCB that the tone of the draft water plan was overly negative in regard to outdoor urban water uses.

“The assumption and tone of the plan that municipal use (particularly the roughly 3% of the state’s water use that supports urban landscaping) is somehow wasteful or less valuable than other uses of water needs to be removed and replaced with language that is respectful of all uses of water that are done in an efficient manner,” said Lochhead in a Sept. 17 letter.

Wells of Colorado Springs Utilities also said the tone of the first section of the water plan was “anti-growth and anti-city.”

“If the plan is to reflect the values of the citizens of Colorado, it must recognize and validate the values clearly espoused by the silent millions in the state who have voluntarily chosen the municipal lifestyle of single family residences with a reasonable amount of bluegrass lawn,” Wells wrote.

But the vision of a new wave of “silent millions” enjoying thirsty lawns on the Front Range creates apprehension on the West Slope.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy, which works to protect the heavily-diverted Roaring Fork River watershed, told that the CWCB that “outdoor water use is an area ripe for major conservation gains.”

“While Roaring Fork Conservancy doesn’t insist lawns are a thing of the past, local land use codes ought to mandate green infrastructure and water-efficient native landscaping in new development, and incentivize conversion for existing development,” said Rick Lofaro, the conservancy’s executive director, in a Sept. 17 letter to the CWCB.

And the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, which meets in Glenwood Springs under the auspices of the CWCB, took an even stronger stance on suburban lawns and civic landscapes.

“It has been said that municipal outdoor irrigation is but three percent of the state’s water use,’ the roundtable said in its Sept. 17 comments. “Outdoor water use, however, is roughly 50 percent of municipal demands in the irrigation season. In totality, it is the municipal gap – most often described as 500,000 acre-feet — that is driving the water plan. A high conservation level closes better than 90 percent of the gap.”

Denver Water’s Lochhead comes at it from the other side of the fence.

“Denver Water serves almost a quarter of the state’s population using less than two percent of all the water used in Colorado,” Lochhead told the CWCB. “Even if we eliminated all outdoor water use (approximately half of our total water demands), we would only make a one percent change in the State’s water usage.”

Meanwhile, the Colorado River District, which represents 15 counties on Colorado’s Western Slope, acknowledged the Front Range’s sensitivity about its lawns and civic landscaping.

“The River District does not wish to ‘demonize, lawn grass, the district told the CWCB in an unsigned memo on Sept. 17. “However, outdoor landscaping is by far the greatest, single consumptive use of municipal water supplies. Accordingly, the plan must include specific, measurable goals for turf-related conservation.”

Enjoying a recreational experience on grass.
Enjoying a recreational experience on grass.

Lawns aside, more water

And while Front Range water utilities tend not to intertwine their defense of lawns with a call for new water supplies, most of their letters do include direct calls for more water storage projects – new dams and reservoirs – and new transmountain diversions.

The Front Range Water Council told the CWCB that the water plan must “emphasize the need for ‘new’ storage as well as the expansion of existing facilities, and the state must advocate for policies that advance this end.”

Denver Water’’s Lochhead said that “conservation alone will not be enough to close the gap. Additional storage will be required to allow us to manage water efficiently and for multiple benefits.”

And Wells of Colorado Springs Utilities told the CWCB, somewhat deeper in its letter than the section about the virtue of lawns, that “the final plan should contain a definitive statement that a new transmountain diversion will be constructed, even if no formal concept has been proposed. Any plan that fails to include a section on new supply development … cannot be considered a comprehensive, strategic vision for meeting Colorado’s future water needs.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on the coverage of statewide water issues and the development of the Colorado Water Plan. The Post Indy ran a version of this story on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2015.

#COWaterPlan: “There is a lot of misunderstanding on water issues” — Leroy Garcia

Colorado Water Plan website screen shot November 1, 2013
Colorado Water Plan website screen shot November 1, 2013

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

One of the outcomes of the Colorado water plan has been to draw new voices to talk about a question that’s older than the state itself: How can a sparse resource be used to meet the needs of a growing population?

So, a group primarily concerned with the Colorado River recently reached out to Pueblo to gather perspective.

Nuestro Rio — “our river” in Spanish — invited Puebloans to talk about water on the last day for comments on the final plan recently.

“My concern was that people could become more familiar with it and to make sure Southern Colorado knew it has a voice,” said state Sen. Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, who helped set up the meeting.

About 50 people, ranging from elected o_cials to farmers, attended. Also present was state Rep. Ed Vigil, D-Fort Garland, a member of the Interim Water Resources Review Committee.

“One of the goals of Nuestro Rio is to remind people of the importance of the river but to also involve more young people,” Garcia said.

While Nuestro Rio formed to emphasize the importance of the Colorado River to Latinos, a series of statewide outreach meetings showed there are concerns common to all rivers in the state, said Nita Gonzales, Colorado director for the organization.

“The main thing we heard was that diverting water cannot be the only solution,” Gonzales said. “Rivers are critical to Latino families, and before we move to big projects, we have to ask how do you protect the rivers.”

That includes maintaining agricultural uses that are the foundation for the economic wellbeing of many Latinos, Gonzales said.

“The other thing we heard is that elected officials are not as involved in water, but it is so important to the communities to make sure it is addressed in policy and budgets,” she said.

Garcia agreed.

“My own colleagues have to see this as one of the most important issues in the state,” he said. “We talk about transportation, education and economic development, but none of those things happens without water.”

On the state water plan, Garcia said he favors some of its openended approaches.
“There is a lot of misunderstanding on water issues,” he said. “The plan is very basin specific.”

#ColoradoRiver District Annual Seminar recap: El Niño looks promising for southwest Colorado


From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Western Coloradans might consider keeping an umbrella handy this fall thanks to the development of a strong El Niño weather system.

Less clear is the degree to which snow-sport enthusiasts and those concerned with the adequacy of water supplies should count on a heavier-than-average overall snowpack this winter. But the weather trend is inspiring optimism among some.

“It looks like we’re going to have a heavier-than-normal snowfall this year, is what we’re hoping,” said Dusti Reimer, a Powderhorn Mountain Resort spokeswoman who noted that cooler-than-normal temperatures also are in the forecast.

“We’re definitely excited with those possibilities to make this pretty much an epic ski year.”

Klaus Wolter is a research scientist in Boulder with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory Physical Sciences Division. He said that while chances are good in western Colorado for above-average precipitation this fall thanks to El Niño, mid-winter is likely to be drier than normal in Colorado’s central and northern mountains. Southern Colorado, by contrast, is more likely to continue benefiting in mid-winter from the moisture El Niños typically deliver to the southwestern United States.

“Basically if you want to have a lot of snow this winter the San Juans (San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado) are the place to go,” Wolter said recently at the Colorado River District’s Annual Water Seminar in Grand Junction.

For western Colorado as a whole, whether it can finish the snowpack season with net above-average precipitation depends on whether there’s a wet enough spring, he said. The good news is that El Niños typically boost spring snowfall levels, and the fact that the current one is a strong one increases the likelihood it will still be around by spring, Wolter said.

It was late-season moisture during another strong El Niño season, in 1982-83, that threatened to cause Lake Powell to overfill that spring.

Jim Pokrandt, a spokesman with the Colorado River District, said that from everything he hears from Wolter and other experts, “Colorado is kind of a no-man’s land” when it comes to El Niño winters. El Niños tend to be a strong predictor of above-average snow in southwest Colorado, while only sporadically providing benefits farther north, he said.

“We’ve seen El Niños produce good winters and we’ve seen El Niños leaving people saying, ‘Hey, what happened?’ It’s just not as sure-fire a thing as it is for other parts of the country,” Pokrandt said.

Given the concern over the adequacy of snowpack levels in the Colorado River Basin in recent years, Pokrandt would be happy to see El Niño at least produce average snows in coming months, even if it doesn’t deliver a whopper of a winter.

“The way things are going, 100 percent of average would look like a good year and act like a good year. I’ll take average,” Pokrandt said.

“… I hope as skiers and water managers we get at least an average year, if not better.”

El Niños are associated with warmer-than-average surface water temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. Data to date suggests the current one could be one of the strongest since 1950.

For California and the Southwest, it should provide relief from drought, although possibly with negative side effects such as mudslides. El Niños also tend to result in below-average moisture for the Northwest and northern Rockies — making the current one bad news for places such as Washington state that already have been coping with wildfires and other effects of drought.

Predicting the impacts on Colorado is made difficult because of its location, somewhat on the border between the Southwest and the northern Rockies. While Interstate 70 is sometimes referred to as a typical rough dividing line between areas of above-average and lesser moisture during El Niños, Wolter more specifically puts it around Crested Butte and the Elk Mountains area.

If nothing else, the current El Niño looks promising for southwest Colorado, an area that has been particularly dry in several recent years.

“If this outlook pans out, that will be really good for the water supply situation in southwest Colorado,” said Jim Pringle, a warning-coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.

Wolter said that even if the mid-winter is drier in the central mountains, ski areas may benefit from having good conditions to open their seasons, and hopefully also good conditions come spring. That might bode well for spring break business and offer the possibility for pushing off their closing dates if the economics warrant staying open longer, he said.

Reimer said Powderhorn is scheduled to open Dec. 17 and close April 3, but those dates could be reconsidered if conditions warrant an earlier opening or later closing. She said the resort will further benefit from work this summer to expand its snowmaking coverage from 25 acres to 42 acres.

California Drought Monitor September 22, 2015
California Drought Monitor September 22, 2015

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

California’s water-supply problem is by default the problem of the entire Colorado River Basin, and basin states ignore it at their own peril, two speakers warned Thursday.

“You have to keep track of what’s going on in California. California affects the Colorado River and vice versa,” Jennifer Gimbel, principal deputy secretary for water and science at the U.S. Department of Interior, said during the Colorado River District’s annual water seminar in Grand Junction.

Pat Mulroy, retired general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, warned that Lake Mead is dropping ever closer to a point at which it would no longer be capable of releasing water for downstream uses. That will lead to panic and irrational behavior, she predicted, and federalization of a river system under which water is now governed and allocated by interstate compact.

“We will have all-out chaos,” said Mulroy, now senior fellow for climate adaptation and environmental policy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ law school.

California is coping with a severe drought, the effects of which have been amplified by the inability of varying interests there to build flexibility into water management, store water in wet years and otherwise prepare for dry times, Mulroy said.

“The story of California is the story of missed opportunities, and of the inability, the human inability, to find solutions,” she said.

Gimbel, former director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said part of California’s problem is a lack of sufficient in-state water storage capability to help it prepare for dry years, as opposed to the high-capacity storage provided by Lake Mead and Lake Powell on the Colorado.

“It’s quite honestly what’s saved our bacon over these last 15 years of the drought,” Gimbel said.

She said the heavy precipitation during what’s being called the “Miracle May” earlier this year helped stabilize water levels in Lake Powell. That has provided some breathing room for dealing with what’s an ongoing drought, and efforts to deal with it must continue, Gimbel said.

She said Lower Basin states have had “difficult discussions” in this regard, “and when things get bad people tend to go back to their positions.”

“… I think that we have to do better on this river. We cannot give up, and it means that when we get scared we cannot retreat to our corners and close the door. We can’t do it alone.”

She hopes that Colorado learns from California’s experience “about drawing lines in the sand, litigating and being unable to move forward.” She said as work began on Colorado’s state water plan, she worried about the rhetoric she was hearing, and about people falling back to their standard positions.

“You can protect what you want to protect, go after what you want to go after,” but everyone has to work together, said Gimbel, who praised the progress that since has been made on the plan.

Said Mulroy, “It is not easy to try to find a new balance point, it is not easy to try to understand your adversary’s position or your fellow stakeholder’s position.”

That is something that has yet to occur in California, she said.

Mulroy sees a need for people to view themselves as citizens of the Colorado River Basin. Everyone has to conserve water and participate in the management of the system, and water needs to be viewed not just as a right but a responsibility, she said.

“If we each take a little bit less in times when we can … and we set limits on how far we’re comfortable letting the system drop before we start recharging the system, then we won’t be sitting in front of dry reservoirs,” Mulroy said.

Asked about concern on the Front Range that conservation measures could mean fewer green lawns and reduced property values, she talked about the initial resistance in the Las Vegas area to efforts to have homeowners convert to more desert landscaping, before they realized it could be beautiful and also end the need to mow lawns.

“It is a real cultural shift, but people need to understand there is a need to conserve,” Mulroy said.

She said that in considering the challenges river basin states face in the years ahead, it’s important to keep in mind the “amazing transformation” that has occurred in connection with the Colorado River’s management over the last 20 years. Parties in Colorado and other states have overcome acrimony and finger-pointing to forge agreements that have drawn attention from people in other parts of the world who have river systems facing similar challenges.

“We need to look at the successes in order to keep the challenges that we face in perspective and not perceive them as insurmountable,” Mulroy said.

Are #ColoradoRiver Basin water users adapting to scarcity? — Hannah Holm

From the Grand Junction Free Press (Hannah Holm):

Since the early 2000’s, use of Colorado River Basin water has exceeded the amount of rain and snow that’s fallen into the basin — hence the famous bathtub rings at Lakes Powell and Mead, as their water levels dip ever lower.

The 2012 Colorado River Basin Supply and Demand Study led by the US Bureau of Reclamation indicated that the situation could get even worse in the future. The study compared the median of water supply projections (lower, taking into account climate change) against the median of demand projections (trending higher, if no action were taken to change how water is managed) to show an imbalance of 3.2 million acre feet/year by 2060.

Does this mean that we’re running out of water and destined for societal collapse, as imagined in The Water Knife, a new novel from Paonia-based writer Paolo Bacigalupi?

Not necessarily, according to longtime water journalist John Fleck, who is currently writing a book on the Colorado River called Beyond the Water Wars. Speaking at a September 10 seminar in Grand Junction organized by the Colorado River District, Fleck presented an updated version of the supply/ demand graph from that 2012 study, which shows that in recent years the supply and demand lines have come much closer together.

On the one hand, we’ve had a few decent water years, which have nudged the supply line up a little. On the other, the line showing actual water use has trended downward since right about the time the two lines crossed. Fleck argued that the forces bending down the demand curve include cooperation, in contradiction to the old saw that “whisky is for drinking, and water is for fighting.”

Fleck pointed to conservation and fallowing agreements between southern California farmers and cities as an example of how water scarcity can actually be a catalyst for collaboration. In addition, the agreement between water users and stakeholders in Mexico and the US to bring water back to the Colorado River Delta showed that the environment, as well as people, can benefit from efforts to make the Colorado River system work better for all parties.

Fleck also noted that in recent decades, there has been a “decoupling” of water use from economic activity. While in past decades, the two rose together, that’s no longer the case. Water use trends have sharply diverged from population and economic growth trends in Albuquerque, Las Vegas, and Southern California, and Arizona’s water use actually peaked in 1980 despite continued growth since then. Likewise, Imperial Valley farm sales have also gone up in recent years, while water use declined.

Despite these encouraging developments, the water use line on the graph is still higher than the supply line, and Lake Mead hit a historic low point this summer. The demand curve will have to continue going down to get the system back in balance and avoid letting the reservoirs get to truly critical levels.

Other speakers at the seminar discussed some of the measures that are underway to further control demand. These include additional work on fallowing, deficit irrigation and efficiencies in agriculture, as well as changes in homeowners’ notions about what kind of landscaping they need. Additional water re-use and de-salting were mentioned on the supply augmentation side.

Speaker Ken Nowak of the Bureau of Reclamation spoke of “silver buckshot” rather than a silver bullet in describing the multi-pronged effort to align supply and demand.

Speaker Pat Mulroy, former head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, encouraged us all to think of ourselves as citizens of the great, interconnected system of communities that rely on the Colorado River, and to do what we can to protect that system rather than each of our more narrow interests. She argued that we have the opportunity to do that now, but if we wait until the system is truly in crisis, what we’ll get is irrationality and chaos.

To learn more about the seminar, go to http://www.coloradoriverdistrict.org/district-business/annual-seminar/ 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 at http://www.Facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or http://www.Twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.

Colorado River Basin
Colorado River Basin