A look at the current southwestern Colorado #drought #ColoradoRiver

March 1, 2015
Colorado Drought Monitor February 24, 2015

Colorado Drought Monitor February 24, 2015

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.

San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan Basin High/Low Graph February 25, 2015 via the NRCS

San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan Basin High/Low Graph February 25, 2015 via the NRCS


Norwood: Lawn and garden irrigation project awaits CWCB funds for feasibility study

February 17, 2015
Lone Cone from Norwood

Lone Cone from Norwood

From The Norwood Post (Regan Tuttle):

At February’s Norwood town board meeting, trustees discussed the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s upcoming decision on a grant award that Norwood recently applied for. The funding would make possible a feasibility study that will determine whether or not Norwood should move forward with a lawn and garden raw water irrigation project, similar to that of Dove Creek.

Last month, town officials met with those of Dove Creek to learn the details of the project.

Town Administrator Patti Grafmyer said that receiving the grant would not mean that the irrigation project will automatically move forward.

“Norwood can evaluate the feasibility study,” she said. “We are just asking for the funding, but once that has happened, there will be a scope of work that will have to be signed with the town board.”

CWCB members will make the decision this March.

More San Miguel River watershed coverage here.


Montezuma County, et al., come out against a National Conservation Area — Lower Dolores River

February 16, 2015

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

The Montezuma County commission and San Juan Basin Farm Bureau have publicly come out against a fledgling proposal to create a National Conservation Area on the Lower Dolores River.

Citing concerns that the designation could result in additional water being released downstream from McPhee Reservoir, the commissioners voted 3-0 to oppose any such plan…

But others involved said it is too early to take sides because the bill is still in a draft form and has not been released to the public yet.

“I think there is some misunderstanding of the intent of the NCA,” said Al Heaton, also a member of a legislative committee. “Once it’s out, there will be significant time for the public to read the draft and weigh in on it. It’s good to air it out, because there’s room for discussion, clarification and negotiation.”

The Lower Dolores Plan Working Group has been researching legislation for an NCA on the Lower Dolores River below McPhee dam since 2010. A draft is near completion and is expected to be available for review in the coming weeks.

At Monday’s commissioner meeting, Suckla said a draft he saw was “disturbing.” He was critical of the balance of 15 organizations listed in a memorandum of agreement directing the NCA proposal.

“This list is so unfair as far as equal representation for citizens of the county,” he said. “As a commission, our job is to protect property and water rights in Montezuma County, and I only see five entities here that side with that. Where’s the mining interests, the farm bureau, the private landowner interests?”

A compromise

The Lower Dolores Working group, representing various stakeholders, has been studying the environmental and commercial needs of the river below the dam for over a decade.

One conclusion reached was that improving habitat for the native roundtail chub, bluehead sucker, and flannelmouth sucker on the Lower Dolores will help prevent them from being listed by the Endangered Species Act, federal intervention local officials want to avoid.

An NCA in the valley from below McPhee dam to the confluence with the San Miguel River was proposed because the designation is seen as a flexible management tool with more local control in finding negotiated solutions to problems.

As part of the deal, the section of Dolores River that runs through the proposed NCA would be stripped of its “suitability” status for a Wild and Scenic River, a highly protectionist federal designation. If Congress ever approved Wild and Scenic for the Dolores, it would likely come with a federally reserved water right, a situation opposed by local officials.

Proponents say an NCA is a good fit because it balances conservation with commercial uses, eliminates Wild and Scenic potential for that section of river, and offers more local control than, say, a national monument.

“The group reached consensus to pursue an NCA as a way to protect values in a way that doesn’t feel threatening to some stakeholders,” Amber Kelley, Dolores River coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said in an earlier interview. “The decision to develop an NCA as an alternative to Wild and Scenic suitability entails a compromise for everyone involved. A grass roots proposal is a far better option than having something imposed from the outside.”

But at the commission meeting some were skeptical of the NCA plan, and urged that the area continue under BLM management.

“I believe there is another way to protect fish without an NCA,” Suckla said.

‘Unintended consequences’

In a letter, the local Farm Bureau outlined its opposition, saying an NCA threatened the region’s water resources managed by the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company and the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which operates McPhee Reservoir.

“The proposal has conflicting requirements with respect to its description of water rights and could set the stage for serious litigation,” according to the letter. “Except for new storage, the only . . . water supply . . . is from either MVIC or DWCD. This legislative path would set up a community fight between MVIC shareholders and DWCD full-service farmers.”

The letter goes on to say that the NCA proposal “does not include a water right” but because of uncertainties in federal and state water law, an NCA may have “unintended consequences driven by political or judicial actions initiated by folks with interests different than our interests.”

“We must ask ourselves, ‘are we supporting actions that may expand the ability of those interests to use the legal process to acquire water we did not intend to be available for acquisition?’”

A crux of the issue is how to improve downstream flows to benefit native fish. State and federal fish biologists have long recommended increasing McPhee’s designated fish pool for release to the Lower Dolores to 36,500 acre-feet from it’s current allocation of 31,800 acre-feet. But where the additional 4,701 acre-feet will come from has been a long-running debate.

Farm Bureau spokesperson Linda Odell said the fear is that an NCA could force the Bureau of Reclamation to acquire the additional 4,701 acre-feet from existing users.

In a statement, Marsha Porter-Norton, a facilitator with the Lower Dolores Plan Working Group, urged the public to be take time to review the proposed legislation.

“This process has always been very open and responsive to concerns that have been brought forward,” she stated. “Everyone involved knows that any successful legislation requires community support. If there are adjustments to the proposal that can be made to ensure a comfort level on the part of water users, I believe the legislative subcommittee, which contains leaders from the water community, is open to discussing those ideas.”

More Dolores River coverage here.


Water Lines: Colorado Water Plan delivered, key dilemmas remain — Hannah Holm

December 27, 2014

From the Grand Junction Free Press (Hannah Holm):

Colorado lurched one more step towards resolving how to satisfy growing demands for water with stable-to-diminishing supplies when Governor Hickenlooper received the first complete draft of a statewide water plan on Dec. 10.

In compiling the plan, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) provided the latest information on current and projected water supplies and defined some “no regrets” actions that would help no matter what the future holds. These include achieving at least low-to-medium levels of conservation, completing already planned projects, implementing water re-use projects, and preserving the option of taking more water out of the Colorado River and its tributaries to meet both West and East Slope needs.

The CWCB stopped short of endorsing (or vetoing) any particular projects to meet future needs or taking a hard stand on the role conservation and land-use restrictions should play in meeting future needs. The draft plan maps the landscape, but doesn’t define the route.

The identification of specific projects was left to roundtables of water providers and stakeholders in each of the state’s major river basins. As anticipated, those basin plans conflict on the issue of whether East Slope basins can continue to rely on additional West Slope water to meet their growing needs. Approximately 500,000 acre-feet per year already flows east across the Continental Divide through ditches and tunnels that siphon off a majority of the natural flows from many headwaters streams. One acre-foot can meet the needs of two to three households for a year under current usage rates.

Seven-point draft conceptual agreement framework for negotiations on a future transmountain diversion screen shot December 18, 2014 via Aspen Journalism

Seven-point draft conceptual agreement framework for negotiations on a future transmountain diversion screen shot December 18, 2014 via Aspen Journalism

While the draft plan doesn’t say “yes” or “no” to additional transmountain diversions, it does incorporate a seven-point “draft conceptual agreement” on how to negotiate on future transmountain diversions. The draft discussion framework (there’s been a lot of push back on calling it an agreement) contains several new features in the many-decades-long debate between East and West Slope actors over transmountain diversions. It states that the East Slope is not looking for stable water deliveries each year from any such project, recognizing that it may only be able to divert in wet years and would have to use transmountain water in conjunction with non-West Slope sources, such as the Denver Basin aquifer and temporary transfers from agriculture.

The draft framework also notes the need for an “insurance policy” to protect against Colorado water users getting cut off in the event that we fail to let enough water flow beyond the state line to meet downstream obligations. Colorado and the other Upper Colorado River Basin states have never failed to meet their obligation to downstream states under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, but the margin by which we’ve exceeded it keeps diminishing. Additional use in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, plus continued drought, could push us over that threshold.

While the draft framework is a tiny part of the draft Colorado Water Plan, it’s likely to be at the center of debate between water leaders from each of the state’s major river basins as the draft Colorado Water Plan becomes “final” over the coming year. In a meeting Dec. 18, members of the four West Slope basin roundtables met in Grand Junction to work towards a common negotiating position in those discussions.

The four roundtables share extreme skepticism about the wisdom of any transmountain diversion, no matter the caveats; they also share a concern that any “insurance policy” to protect existing uses from curtailment under the 1922 Colorado River Compact would ultimately result in water being transferred out of West Slope agriculture, even if the transfer is voluntary and lower-impact than the wholesale “buying and drying” of agricultural water rights that has already devastated some East Slope farming communities.

Where the West Slope roundtables begin to diverge is over how additional Colorado River Basin development on the West Slope figures into the picture. Given that any new uses raise the risk of failing to meet downstream obligations, should new West Slope water projects be looked on any more favorably than new projects to send water across the Continental Divide? Where is the right line in the trade-off between protecting existing Colorado River water users and making the fullest use possible of the resource? And what place should “nonconsumptive” uses of water for the health of the environment and recreation play into these decisions?

This already complicated dilemma is made more complicated by the fact that the Yampa and White river basins have fewer dams and diversions on their streams than the other West Slope river basins, and therefore have a greater interest in new projects to provide greater security for existing users, as well potentially irrigate even more land and/or meet the needs of increasing energy development. Is the Yampa Basin bearing an unfair share of the burden of meeting downstream obligations, or would it be even more unfair for existing users in other basins to have to cut back in order to subsidize Yampa Basin growth?

In the quest to find common ground on this issue, participants in the Dec. 18 meeting called for better hydrologic data in order to better understand how much additional risk is created by different levels of additional use.

I don’t know if that’s possible, given the current state of scientific understanding of our region’s climate and hydrology, particularly when it comes to forecasting. What may bear fruit is the search for the right “triggers,” in terms of reservoir and/or streamflow levels, to indicate when more development, on either side of the Continental Divide, can proceed without posing unacceptable risks to the whole system. Don’t expect this dilemma to be resolved any time soon, no matter what deadlines exist on paper.

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.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.


Draft conceptual diversion deal presented to West Slope water interests — Aspen Journalism

December 23, 2014
Informational graphic screen shot December 18, 2014 via Aspen Journalism

Informational graphic screen shot December 18, 2014 via Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

A draft seven-point framework that lays out conditions for a potential new transmountain diversion in Colorado was explained Thursday in Grand Junction to the members of four Western Slope water-planning roundtables.

About 75 members of the four roundtables heard Bruce Whitehead, a member of the Interbasin Compact Committee, describe in relatively plain terms a “draft conceptual agreement” the committee reached in June on how to possibly move more water from the Western Slope to the Front Range.

“This is conceptual,” said Whitehead, who serves on the Southwest Basin roundtable. “We haven’t sold the ranch, and I don’t think, intend to. It was really to set up a dialogue about, yes, go ahead and say it, transmountain diversions. What are the pros? What are the cons? How do we meet Colorado’s gap in the future?”

Whitehead said the seven-point framework had moved the discussion about a new transmountain diversion past the water-planning euphemism “new supply.”

“The term ‘new supply’ had been used a lot,” Whitehead said. “And folks on the Western Slope, obviously, are a little sensitive about new supply. I’ve heard it stated that it might be new supply to somebody else but it’s not really a new supply.”

Sawyer Creek diversion via Aspen Journalism

Sawyer Creek diversion via Aspen Journalism

The 7-Points, in the draft water plan

The 27-member Interbasin Compact Committee serves as something of an executive committee for the nine basin roundtables. Its mission includes developing new water storage and providing a framework for negotiations between the roundtables.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state agency charged with planning for the state’s water needs, oversees both the committee and the roundtables.

On Dec. 10, the agency presented a draft Colorado water plan to Gov. John Hickenlooper. The plan includes the committee’s seven-point “draft conceptual agreement.”

Whitehead explained that the committee members were polled at a meeting in June using a clicker system, and all of them endorsed the statement, “I agree that the draft conceptual agreement is ready to go the water conservation board for consideration while we continue to get feedback from our roundtables and constituencies and the public.”

“So it is not a done deal,” Whitehead said. “And I know there’s even been some things in the newspaper here recently that agreements have been cut, that a deal’s been done, and that’s not the case.”

Members of both the Colorado River Basin and the Gunnison River Basin roundtables recently expressed dismay that a perception had been created that an agreement on a new transbasin has been reached.

“Our last roundtable meeting in November was a very emotional, heartfelt meeting where we discussed the seven points,” said Louis Meyer, a member of the Colorado roundtable. “We are the donor basin. There are currently 15 major transmountain diversions diverting between 450,000 and 600,000 acre-feet out of our basin.”

At their November meeting, the Colorado roundtable members unanimously adopted a motion stating that “it would be premature and inappropriate” to include the seven points in the Colorado water plan.

“We’re not saying they don’t belong in Colorado’s water plan; we’re saying they are not ready yet,” Meyer said at Thursday’s meeting, which also was attended by another 75 or so members of the public and Colorado’s professional water community. “They need a lot more discussion.”

The first and perhaps most significant of the seven points states that “the eastern slope is not looking for firm yield from a new transmountain diversion project and would accept hydrologic risk for that project.”

“I think the (Interbasin Compact Committee) has acknowledged that in high-water years, and at high levels of storage, there is probably some water left to develop in the Colorado River system,” Whitehead said of the first point. “In very low years, as in the previous 14 or 15 years we’ve just seen, there may not be.”

Whitehead said the third point, concerning “triggers” that might force a new transmountain diversion to divert less water, was about managing a potential “compact call” from California and other lower-basin states. Such a call could force junior water-rights owners in Colorado and other upper-basin states to stop diverting water.

“If it looks like we’re going to be headed toward compact curtailment of some kind, then they shouldn’t divert and increase that risk,” Whitehead said of a new diversion. “What those triggers are hasn’t been fully defined.”

The fourth point calls for an “insurance policy” for existing junior water rights, and raises the question of how much more water should be diverted from the state’s west-flowing rivers in the face of a looming compact call.

“Obviously, any development is going to increase the risk,” Whitehead said. “In my mind, 2 acres of irrigation on the Animas River that has a fairly small depletion is a bit of a different animal than a 100,000 acre-foot diversion. So how do we handle that? Is there a de minimus amount that we could agree to that would allow for some future uses on the Western Slope while trying to minimize that risk?”

Most of the basin roundtables are set to meet in January, and the Interbasin Compact Committee, which has not met since June, is slated to meet Jan. 28. A final version of the Colorado water-supply plan is due in December 2015.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on Monday, Dec. 22, 2014.

More IBCC — basin roundtables coverage here.


“Our agriculture water is the low-hanging fruit” — J. Paul Brown

December 22, 2014
Basin roundtable boundaries

Basin roundtable boundaries

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Protecting Western Slope agriculture appears to be one area of agreement as the region looks for ways of speaking with one voice on Colorado water issues. That was one takeaway from what was effectively a Western Slope water summit held [December 18] in Grand Junction with the goal of presenting some consolidated messages on the state’s newly drafted water plan.

Members of four roundtable groups — representing the Gunnison and Colorado river basins, southwest Colorado and the Yampa, White and Green river basins — already have developed their own plans that were incorporated into the newly completed draft plan. Representatives from all those roundtables gathered Thursday to talk about common themes that have emerged that they can be jointly voicing to the rest of the state as a final plan is developed.

In the case of agriculture, Colorado roundtable basin chair Jim Pokrandt said it’s important that the state not engage in poor water planning that forces farmers and ranchers out of business.

Said state Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, who works in agriculture himself, “Our agriculture water is the low-hanging fruit. It’s the easy water to buy and that’s exactly what’s happened.”

He talked about a need for more Front Range storage of its own water and alternatives like bringing in water from the Missouri River “so you’re not buying that agricultural water.”

Jim Spehar, a former Mesa County commissioner and Grand Junction mayor, agreed about the importance of considering agriculture in state water planning.

“If this discussion isn’t done by and for agriculture I think it will be done to agriculture,” he said.

Thursday’s discussion also turned to other areas including municipal and agriculture conservation. Gunnison County rancher Ken Spann said one thing those in agriculture need to know is where any water they might free up from conservation would go. He’d like to see it help fill Lake Powell to help states in the Upper Colorado River basin meet interstate compact water obligations.

But he worries that instead it could just end up supplying another new subdivision, or perhaps simply being offset by new water use being sought in the Yampa basin, which would mean no net increase in Colorado River water reaching Powell.

“The trade-offs (from conservation efforts) have to be identified and we are now at the point where we have to do that or people won’t play,” he said.

Western Slope water interests plan to continue talking about seeking a unified voice on water, including by addressing issues such as a somewhat controversial proposed framework for discussing any possible new diversions of western Colorado water to the Front Range.

“This is just the start of the West Slope conversation,” said Moffat County rancher T. Wright Dickinson, who also sits on Colorado’s Interbasin Compact Committee, a statewide forum for discussing water issues.

More IBCC — basin roundtables coverage here.


Localized climate change contributed to ancient depopulation — Washington State University

December 5, 2014

From Washington State University (Eric Sorensen):

Washington State University researchers have detailed the role of localized climate change in one of the great mysteries of North American archaeology: the depopulation of southwest Colorado by ancestral Pueblo people in the late 1200s.

In the process, they address one of the mysteries of modern-day climate change: How will humans react?

Writing in Nature Communications, WSU archaeologist Tim Kohler and post-doctoral researcher Kyle Bocinsky use tree-ring data, the growth requirements of traditional maize crops and a suite of computer programs to make a finely scaled map of ideal Southwest growing regions for the past 2,000 years.

Their data paint a narrative of some 40,000 people leaving the Mesa Verde area of southwest Colorado as drought plagued the niche in which they grew maize, their main food source. Meanwhile, the Pajarito Plateau of the northern Rio Grande saw a large population spike.

The plateau “also happens to be the place where you would want to move if you were doing rain-fed maize agriculture, the same type of agriculture that people practiced for centuries up in southwest Colorado,” said Bocinsky, who built the data-crunching programs while earning a WSU Ph.D. with support from a National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship.

People try to ‘keep on keeping on’

The dramatic changes in the Southwest took place near the end of the Medieval Warm Period, the warmest in the Northern Hemisphere for the last 2,000 years. The period had a smaller temperature change than we’re seeing now, and its impact on the Southwest is unclear. But it is clear the Southwest went through a major change.

“At a very local scale, people have been dealing with climate fluctuations of several degrees centigrade throughout history,” said Bocinsky. “So we need to understand how people deal with these local changes to generate predictions and help guide us in dealing with more widespread changes of that nature.”

Bocinsky, the paper’s lead author, said the study is particularly significant for modern-day subsistence farmers of maize, or corn, the world’s largest food staple.

“People are generally going to try and find ways to keep on keeping on, to do what they’ve been doing before changing their technological strategy,” he said. “That was something extremely interesting to me out of this project.”

Tree rings yield precipitation, temperature info

To get a more granular look at the changing climate of the Southwest, Bocinsky and Kohler used more than 200 tree-ring chronologies, which use the annual rings of ancient trees to reconstruct the area’s climate patterns over time. Pines at lower elevations will have their growth limited by rainfall, making their rings good indicators of precipitation. High-elevation trees get good rain but are susceptible to cold, making them good indicators of temperature.

The shifting patterns of rainfall and temperature let Bocinsky and Kohler isolate to a few square kilometers the areas that would receive just under a foot of rainfall a year, the minimum needed for ancestral maize varieties still farmed by contemporary Pueblo people.

The area in what is now southwest Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park ended up being one of the best places to grow maize, with good conditions more than 90 percent of the time. The Pajarito Plateau ended up being highly suitable as well, with slopes that would shed cold air and precipitation levels suited to rain-fed agriculture.

Large disparities in small areas

Such big climate differences in such a small area illustrates how some areas could be hit harder than others by the extremes of global climate change, said Bocinsky. He said it is telling that, when the Pueblo people moved, they moved to where they could preserve their farming techniques. He said that could be important to keep in mind as farmers, particularly subsistence farmers on marginal lands, face localized climate impacts in the future.

“When we are looking for ways to alleviate human suffering, we should keep in mind that people are going to be looking for places to move where they can keep doing their type of maize agriculture, keep growing the same type of wheat or rice in the same ways,” he said. “It’s when those niches really start shrinking on the landscape that we start having a major problem, because you’ve got a lot of people who are used to doing something in one way and they can no longer do it that way.”


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