Dolores River: Southwestern Water files lawsuit over spring minimum flows

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

In September, the Colorado Water Conservation Board agreed to establish minimum in-stream flows up to 900 cubic-feet per second in spring on the Dolores River between the confluence of the San Miguel River and Gateway.

The new flow standards on the 34-mile stretch are intended to help river health, including three species of native fish: the flannelmouth sucker, bluehead sucker and roundtail chub.

Local water boards objected to the new standard, arguing that the flows were too high and could not be met in drought conditions. In addition, there was fear that water stored in the upstream McPhee Reservoir could be used to meet the standard.

But the CWCB denied their appeal, and the minimum flow plan for the Lower Dolores River was approved. In December, SWCD responded by filing a lawsuit in Colorado’s Division 4 water court in Montrose to try and overturn or modify the flow allocation.

Their lawsuit claims CWCB’s action on the Lower Dolores River exceeds the ISF’s statutory standard of “minimum stream flows to preserve the natural environment” and that it does not protect “present uses” of the water.

It further states that the new in-stream flow is inconsistent with CWCB’s statutory responsibility to develop water for beneficial and future use for state residents, and that the new standard is inconsistent with CWCB’s appropriation of an in-stream flow regime on the San Miguel River.

John Porter, SWCD board president, says it’s time to rethink the in-stream flow program so that some of it is reserved for future growth.

“A small amount, 1 to 2 percent of average in-stream flows, should be held by the CWCB for future domestic uses,” he said during a meeting with the Montezuma County commissioners. “We want to get people talking about the idea.”

The so-called “carve out” concept suggests tapping in-stream flow allocations to provide a more accessible water supply for unforeseen small development projects.

In defending the new Dolores River in-stream flows, CWCB was joined in the lawsuit by Western Resource Advocates, Conservation Colorado, and San Juan Citizen’s Alliance…

The new in-stream flows for Lower Dolores River begin below the San Miguel confluence are as follows: minimum flows of 200 cfs from March 16 to April 14; 900 cfs from April 15 to June 14; 400 cfs from June 15 to July 15; 200 cfs from July 16 to Aug. 14; and 100 cfs from Aug. 15 to March 15.

Montezuma County: Four States Agricultural Forum recap

La Plata Mountains from the Great Sage Plain
La Plata Mountains from the Great Sage Plain

From The Durango Herald (Jacob Klopfenstein):

The Yellow Jacket project’s lead researcher, Abdel Berrada, spoke last week at the Four States Agricultural Expo at Montezuma County Fairgrounds.

The research center received almost $250,000 from a grant to fund the study, which examines how cover crops can improve soil quality for dryland farmers.

Although Berrada said he and other researchers have a long way to go before they find out what works in the region, he told a crowd of about 25 people that cover crops can increase organic matter in the soil, suppress weeds and prevent erosion.

“Cover crops make sense,” Berrada said. “We’re looking at factors to see what works best for the area.”

As part of the study, five farmers in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah are administering plots of cover crops such as yellow clover, winter peas and others.

After three years, researchers hope to quantify the effects of cover crops on ground moisture, soil health and weed control, Berrada said. Another goal of the project is to determine which cover crops are most profitable. Those goals will help determine if cover crops can enhance the sustainability of farming in Southwest Colorado and southeast Utah.

Colorado State University Dolores County Extension director Gus Westerman said researchers will collect a second round of data in the next year. They’ll use data collected at the end of the three years to compare the effects of cover crops in the region with results from other areas, he said.

Westerman said more people in the industry are becoming aware of water issues.

But the study runs for only three years, and Westerman said that’s a short time in terms of soil science. He said the project hopes to extend the grant to get more time for study.

CSU Extension West Region Specialist John Rizza said there hasn’t been much research on cover crops in the region to date. Few studies have been done to examine which cover crops are most successful for dryland farmers, he said.

Rizza and Westerman said the level of interest in cover crops is increasing regionally. More farmers are participating and it’s now easier to show people how they work, Rizza said.

“We’re getting good momentum,” he said.

Forecast calls for rafting on Dolores River — The Cortez Journal

Dolores River near Bedrock
Dolores River near Bedrock

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

McPhee Reservoir managers announced Friday that the forecast calls for a whitewater release below McPhee Dam.

“The forecast shows a 22-day whitewater season,” said Bureau of Reclamation engineer Vern Harrell. “But it is a 50-50 probability, so it is not guaranteed it will materialize.”

Based on this year’s impressive snowpack in the mountains, runoff forecasts show the reservoir will fill, and there will be 68,000 acre-feet available for a spill into the lower Dolores River.

Here is the plan if the snowpack holds:

On May 17, flows below the dam would be increased to 500 cubic feet per second. It would ramp up to 900 on May 18, then 1,300 cfs on May 19, and 1,500 cfs on May 20.

From May 21-25, the plan is to max out the flows at 2,000 cfs, then they will drop slightly to 1,800 cfs from May 26 to June 1 for the Memorial Day weekend.

On June 2 flows will be reduced to 1,400, cfs, drop 1,000 cfs on June 3, to 800 cfs on June 4 and 5, to 600 cfs on June 6 and 7, to 400 cfs for June 8 and 9, then 200 cfs for June 10 and 11.

Minimal rafting flows is 600-800 cfs, and for kayaks it is 300-400 cfs. Tubing could be done at 200 cfs.The boating community is excited, but cautious, said Josh Munson, vice president of the Dolores River Boating Advocates…

There has not been a whitewater release below the dam since 2011.

The surge of water into the lower canyon will benefit the natural environment, Munson said, and create an economic boon to the area as recreational boaters descend to the various launch sites.

CDPHE tags 105 miles of the Lower Dolores River as impaired

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

Colorado has listed 105 miles of the Dolores River between Slick Rock and the Utah state line as an impaired waterway because of high water temperature from chronic low flows.

The Water Quality Control Commission of the Colorado Department of Health and Environment ruled on the river’s impairment status during a hearing in December.

The section on the Lower Dolores River is “considered impaired because the temperature was greater than standards adopted to protect aquatic life,” said Meghan Trubee, media relations official with the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission. “We’re mostly concerned about the fish and macro invertebrates.”

[…]

“Because the stream is listed as impaired, the division is responsible for developing a plan to address the temperature impairment known as total maximum daily load (TMDL),” Trubee said. “The segment will remain on the 303(d) list until a TMDL is developed and approved by the EPA.”

A year’s worth of temperature data from a water-quality station at Slick Rock showed the river went above the daily maximum temperature standard 10 times – five in September 2013 and five in June 2014.
The separate readings went above daily maximum standard for March to November of 28.6 Celsius, or 83 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Warmer water has less ability to hold dissolved oxygen, which fish need,” said Jim White, a fish biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “The other reason is that higher base flows in the summer would create more habitat for growing invertebrates, the food relied on by native fish.”

The impaired section is below McPhee dam and reservoir and has not had a recreational whitewater release since 2011.

Water allocated for fish habitat, about 31,796 acre-feet, is held in McPhee reservoir and released throughout every year. In the winter, flows below the dam are 20-30 cfs. During summer, they reach 60-80 cfs if there is no whitewater release.

A series of low snowpack years have left the reservoir below full and only able to supply irrigation demands. A whitewater release occurs when there is more runoff than the reservoir can hold.

The Dolores Water Conservancy objected to the lower Dolores impairment listing, but wasn’t successful

Report: How Young Farmers and ranchers are essential to tackling Water scarcity in the arid West

NYFC15_water-report_Feb3_low cover

Here’s the executive summary.

The western United states is in the midst of a growing water crisis. extended drought, climate change, and a booming population are increasing demand for food and fresh water. in the U.s. colorado river Basin, a seven state region that produces around 85% of U.s. winter produce, demand for water is expected to significantly outpace supply by 2060. as more entities vie for this increasingly tenuous resource, agriculture is looked to as the primary sector to reduce the gap in water supply and demand.

Yet another supply-demand gap looms that is equally urgent: the shrinking number of family farmers. currently, farmers over 65 outnumber those under 35 by a ratio of six to one. nationwide, over 573 million acres of farmland are expected to change management in the next 20 years. if we fail to recruit enough new farmers, we risk furthering the consolidation of our food system, increasing permanent losses of agricultural lands, and losing a generation of water stewards.

Young farmers are critical to addressing both our dwindling water resources and producer populations. in 2015, the national Young Farmers coalition surveyed young farmers and ranchers across the arid West. Most of these farmers are young enough to have never farmed outside of drought: over 15 years ago, when the current drought began, most had yet to begin a career in agriculture. and while western farmers have always wrestled with aridity, millennial farmers can expect the entirety of their careers to be influenced by the effects of a changing climate, forcing them to develop innovative solutions for hotter, drier times.

Following the charge of many farmers before them, more young farmers are managing their operations holistically, integrating economic, ecological, and social health into a working whole. conservation is embedded in the very way they do business. the problem is our policies, programs, and funding priorities lag behind these evolving values and practices.

Over the decades, massive water projects have been developed to bring water to population centers. these continue to be proposed today: take the recent $9 billion proposal to pipe water from Wyoming’s Flaming gorge reservoir to colorado’s Front range. But too often these projects come at the expense of working lands and the communities that connect them. imagine, instead, if we invested some of those dollars in conservation instead of concrete? can we tackle our water challenges with creativity while simultaneously upholding viable and resilient agriculture?

As a region and a nation we have a choice: to continue the status quo and risk losing the land, water, and knowledge with which a new generation of producers will grow food and conserve our shared water resources; or invest in the next generation of farmers as allies in finding solutions to water scarcity. this report illustrates the urgent need—and great opportunity—to pursue the latter.

From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

The survey, conducted by Fort Lewis College professors, polled 379 young farmers and ranchers in the arid West and held eight focus groups in four Colorado River Basin states. Most respondents, whose average age is 36, are in Colorado and California, are in their first 10 years of farming and did not grow up on ranches or farms.

According to the report, 82 percent of survey respondents cited water access as the top concern. Access to affordable, irrigated farmland came in fourth, at 53 percent, after drought and climate change.

Census data shows the average age of the U.S. farmer is rising, and La Plata County presents a two-fold predicament: land prices are steep, and land is dry if you can get it. The two factor heavily into the county’s dwindling agriculturists.

“For most farmers, if they’re ready to buy land, they leave La Plata County. They go to Montezuma County or get out of farming,” said Kate Greenberg, Western water program director for Young Farmers.

As a 20-something farmer, James Plate of Fields to Plate Farm can’t afford land in La Plata County. Instead, he’s taking advantage of the Old Fort Market Garden Incubator program, which allows farmers to temporarily lease land – with water rights – on the Old Fort campus in Hesperus.

“I was born and raised in Colorado and want to supply my state with local vegetables, but we are finding it difficult to get access to the proper acreage of land with water to supplement that space,” Plate said.

He and business partner Max Fields have looked at properties that range from $1.5 million to $100,000 with seasonal water rights. Cheaper land is often on the “dry side” of the county, which means farmers are confined to growing dry native crops such as corn and pinto beans.

“You can’t afford land with water,” said Tyler Hoyt, who owns a 72-acre farm in Montezuma County. “There’s plenty you can afford without.”

Hoyt, who participated in the coalition survey, purchased the farm for $330,000 11 years ago, citing the lack of affordable land in La Plata County as a reason for purchasing land in Montezuma.

“Water is definitely a premium in the West,” said The Wells Group real estate broker Thad Trujillo, who recently sold a 40-acre farm with water rights from March through July for $220,000.

Trujillo said while tracts in the southwestern part of the county may sell for under $150,000, prime parcels in North Animas Valley can go for $10,000 an acre at minimum. Apart from the valley, the most expensive (read: wet) farmland is along the river corridor and the “triangle” where the county’s three municipalities converge.

Forty-year-old Gabe French, on his third career, was fortunate to buy his Bayfield farm on County Road 509 three years ago. He grows vegetables and hay with May to October water rights from Pine River and Vallecito.

As much as 80 percent of water used by humans in the Colorado River Basin is devoted to agriculture, and much of the region’s water comes from reservoirs and is supplemented by snow-melt runoff. It’s not that the county is devoid of water – the Animas is one of the most under-appropriated rivers in the state – but getting and saving it is a different, costly story.

The analysis shows 94 percent of young farmers in the arid West practice water conservation in some capacity, but for many farmers, methods are either unknown or inaccessible. Of the 94 percent who said they conserve, just 20 percent received Natural Resources Conservation Services funding, a federal cost-share program to improve efficiency.

“It’s hard to invest money into efficient irrigation for hay,” French said.

But local farmers appear to be trying to work around their barricades with methods such as crop rotation, cover-cropping, rotational grazing and mulching to preserve the soil; drip and flood irrigation to water crops; and getting innovative in scouting usable land – like leasing property at second homes that would otherwise go unused.

Greenberg said failing to invest in the next generation of farmers will lead to land lost to fallowing, development and consolidation, which jeopardizes both water supply and food security. But until something shifts, the issues may continue to deter potential agriculturists in La Plata County.

“The water is there. The land is there,” Hoyt said. “The change has to be monetary.”

“We’re in a new territory for everyone where the BLM and public are gong to mix in [on oil and gas exploration]” — Nada Culver

Montezuma Valley
Montezuma Valley

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

A Master Leasing Plan doesn’t sound provocative, but bitter lines have been drawn as a result of the Bureau of Land Management planning the future use of its federal land in Southwest Colorado, 92 percent of which is open to gas and oil development.

Debate now lingers over whether the BLM should engage in such a plan to further analyze when and where new wells should be drilled.

Conservationists and recreationists in support of a master plan say the study will give natural resources and recreational uses the same level of priority as gas and oil development, which the BLM has historically favored.

Energy companies and those dependent on the industry argue the BLM already has protections in place, and the call for additional review is a cheap attempt by those who wish to see fuels remain in the ground.

The BLM falls somewhere vaguely in between.

Leveling the playing field

Around 2010, the Tres Rios BLM office estimated up to 3,000 new wells would be drilled over the next 20 years for federally controlled minerals in western La Plata County and eastern Montezuma County.

And within the 820,000-acre area of minerals, only 62,000 acres would be closed to drilling.

The plan caught the ire of some community members who felt the boundaries come too close and adversely impact naturally valued lands, including the corridors into Mesa Verde National Park and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, around the mountain biking destination Phil’s World and on the edge of two wilderness study areas.

In February 2015, the BLM released an updated Resource Management Plan, outlining guidelines for land use, including future exploration and development of new well pads in the region.

But environmentalists say the resource plan fell short of keeping oil and gas in check, leaving too many areas of discretion and loopholes for over-development.

Concerned with effects on wildlife migration, cultural resources, water quality and air quality, the groups pressured the BLM to consider a master plan, which could tighten restrictions in the two-county area.

“We’re not going to make the entire area on the map a park,” said Nada Culver, director and senior counsel for the Wilderness Society. “The idea is to get more balanced with oil and gas. (A master leasing plan) takes resources like wildlife, recreation, agriculture – and evens the playing field.”

Bringing together interests from across the board, the BLM set up and assigned an advisory committee to draft a recommendation on whether a master leasing plan is warranted. A sub-group of that committee is holding public hearings in Durango and Mancos on Thursday.

Delay tactics?

But not all are in favor of a second look at resources and interests on BLM lands.

“This is being done for political reasons,” said Eric Sanford, operations and land manager for SG Interests, which is representing the energy industry on the sub-committee…

BLM has final say

BLM officials pointed to the $247 million the state of Colorado received in 2015 from royalties for all federal minerals, including oil and gas, as well as the more than 22,900 jobs tied to the industry’s operations on public land.

The BLM Tres Rios Field Office will receive the advisory committee’s recommendation in August, but ultimately, the federal agency has the final say whether it will undertake a master leasing plan project.

“We haven’t taken a stance one way or the other,” said Justin Abernathy, assistant field manager for the BLM’s Tres Rios office. “We’re a multiple-use agency, and in my experience with BLM – the people, the employees really try to balance their approach on how we manage public lands we’re responsible for.”

The BLM ceased all gas and oil leasing on the area in question until the matter of a master leasing plan is resolved. Still, the federal agency has 35 previously authorized leases covering about 13,500 acres within the master plan’s boundaries.

Between the 3,740-square-mile area that covers La Plata and Montezuma counties, the most recent data show nearly 6,000 gas wells dot the countryside.

Throughout the mineral-rich San Juan Basin, the total number of drilling operations are hard to pin down, yet some reports reach into the tens of thousands.

And numbers like those make the battle for the landscape of the West worth fighting for, the Wilderness Society’s Nada said.

“This is a new culture,” Nada said. “The BLM has historically left it up to the oil and gas industry to decide when and where they drill.

“We’re in a new territory for everyone where the BLM and public are gong to mix in.”

Dolores River: Water Protection Work Group formed to protect ag and muni interests

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

From the Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

The newly formed Water Protection Work Group was created in response to a proposed National Conservation Area for the lower Dolores River.

The WPWG seeks to protect municipal and agricultural water supplies in Montezuma and Dolores counties from any consequence arising from NCA legislation.

Participants include Phyllis Snyder, Larry Don Suckla, Zane Odell, Doug Stowe, Greg Black, Don Schwindt, Drew Gordanier, Bernard Karwick, Bob Bragg, Keenan Ertel and Gerald Koppenhafer.

The recently released their minimum requirements and recommendations to David Robbins, a Colorado water attorney who has reviewed the NCA proposal.

“Prior public promises that the NCA ‘is not about taking water’ are appreciated and allow us to move forward with some assurance,” the group states in a memo. “Ambiguity and conflicting provisions must be left out of the NCA draft legislation.”

Some of the recommendations include:

The group wants the preamble of the NCA to be more specific about the Dolores River’s importance as the region’s sole water supply.

A proposed advisory committee in the draft NCA legislation requires more thorough definition.

The draft NCA bill must be written to explicitly prohibit any federal express or implied water rights on the Dolores River.

The draft NCA bill must release the Dolores River, upstream from the confluence with the San Miguel River, from consideration under the Wild and Scenic River’s Act. The recommendation also stipulates that no wild and scenic river portions below the San Miguel confluence can reach upstream water rights.

The NCA shall not affect the Dolores Project or the operation of McPhee Reservoir in any way.

The draft NCA bill has language prohibiting the building of large scale water projects. The WPWG recommends that large scale water projects be defined to exclude all existing projects, diversion, structures and water rights. Also, they recommend that the proposed NCA must not impact future projects under Colorado state water law that do not exceed 50,000 acre feet of annual use.

The group also wants written into any NCA legislation that management plans will not impact or influence releases or spills from McPhee dam, the water upstream from McPhee Dam, or the Dolores Project.

In April 2015, a legislative subcommittee of the Lower Dolores Plan Working Group released a draft bill that would designated a portion of the river an NCA and another portion a wilderness area.

In exchange, the river’s suitability status for a wild and scenic river below McPhee dam would be dropped.

The proposed Dolores River National Conservation Area would stretch from below the dam at Bradfield Bridge to Bedrock, Colo., and include the river and public land on both sides.

The draft bill also proposes to designate the Dolores Canyon Wilderness Area, a 30,119-acre swath of remote canyonlands that has been managed as a BLM wilderness study area for decades.

According to the draft, the Wilderness Area boundary would be located at the edge of the river, and no portion of the Dolores River will be included in it.

However, the draft bill shows the Dolores river would be part of the NCA, including where it runs through the wilderness area.

Dolores River Canyon near Paradox
Dolores River Canyon near Paradox