Capturing the Eagle River’s last drops for those dry, hot summers ahead — The Mountain Town News

March 27, 2015

eagleparkreservoirviamountaintownnews

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Expansion of Eagle Park Reservoir and other storage options studied

The summer of 2002 was so hot and dry in Vail that when a rainstorm finally arrived in August, people violated the idiom about common sense and stood and then danced outside in the pouring rain.

In the offices of the local water provider, Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, Linn Brooks remembers worries that Gore Creek—the primary source of Vail’s water, via wells that draw from the creek’s alluvial aquifer—might disappear altogether. Droughts from the 20th century had never been as severe.

September rains in 2002 eased immediate concerns. But 13 years later, water district still seeks to steel itself from a return of drought that severe—or worse.

Twice, upstream reservoirs have been expanded modestly and wells were drilled downstream at Edwards at a cost of several million dollars.

Now comes discussion of a much more ambitious expansion of Eagle Park Reservoir, one of several ideas for increased storage of the final waters of the upper Eagle Valley.

Eagle Park Reservoir is along the East Fork of the Eagle River, near Frémont Pass, about 20 miles south of Vail. It was built in the 1960s to hold tailings from the nearby Climax molybdenum mine. Then, in the mid-1990s, it was cleaned up and converted to water storage beginning in 1998.

Expanded minimally in 2009 at a cost of $250,000, it can now store a maximum of 3,300 acre-feet of water. The idea now being reviewed would expand storage to between 6,000 and 9,000 acre-feet.

Brooks, now the general manager for the water and sanitation district, says the project would address future population growth in Vail and the Eagle Valley, provide water to meet minimum streamflow water rights and, somewhat more nebulously, deliver water to mitigate water quality problems and benefit the river ecosystem.

But the essential driver, says Brooks, is the potential for intensified drought. Before the drought of 2002, the worst year on record was 1977 and local water planners tried to plan for three years of consecutive drought of that magnitude.

Now, they’re trying to plan for three consecutive years as bad as 2002.

“I would say we are still reacting to 2002,” says Brooks.

But stacked up behind the fresh and concrete evidence of 2002 is the worrisome potential for even more intensified drought such as occurred around 800 to 1300 AD.

Tree rings in the Colorado River Basin—including some from trees near Eagle—provide evidence of those droughts. A recent study calculated that such droughts have a 66 percent chance of occurring in the 21st century.

naturalflowbouldercreeknearorodelltreeringsviamountaintownnews

On top of this comes the effect of accumulating greenhouse gas emissions. Climate models have drawn no clear conclusions about effects of precipitation in places like Vail, they are clear in warning of hotter, longer summers and, when it occurs, more intense drought.

Of course, river flows have always been variable on the Eagle and other river basins of the Southwest. Since the record-shattering drought of 2002, points out Brooks, Vail has also had a once-in-100 years runoff. Precipitation in the high Rockies, she points out, has “extreme variability.”

Memorandum of understanding

The Eagle River has three significant reservoirs at its headwaters:

• Black Lakes, located at Vail Pass, at the headwaters of Black Gore Creek, which can hold 750 acre-feet.

• Homestake Reservoir holds 14,000 acre-feet, but only 1,000 acre-feet can be used for Western Slope purposes. The rest is diverted for use by Aurora and Colorado Springs.

• Eagle Park Reservoir is the newest. In the early 1990s, water attorney Glenn Porzak, of Porzak, Browning Bushong, initiated discussions with Climax about converting assets of the mine to accommodate the growing needs of his clients in Vail for water storage. He represents Vail Resorts, and Eagle River Water and Sanitation District as well as the parallel Upper Eagle River Water Authority.

The consortium was expanded to include Eagle County, the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, and owner of the mine, which is now FreeportMorgan. Climax paid to clean up the reservoir at a cost of $12 million.

But Aurora and Colorado Springs also own substantial water rights in the basin. In the 1960s, they joined to build Homestake Reservoir. In the 1980s, they proposed to further expand the water collection system within the Holy Cross Wilderness Area. The project was called Homestake II.

Eagle County thwarted that ambition. Its 1987 denial survived court challenges and statehouse attempts to yank the legal rug from under the local government.

The River District convened discussions that recognized that the water rights of the Front Range cities must be recognized—but, in developing the water, the Western Slope must benefit, too. The Eagle River memorandum of understanding inked in 1998 identifies 30,000 acre-feet of water in the Eagle River Basin to be developed in thirds: for Aurora, Colorado Springs, and the Western Slope.

Even if Eagle Park gets expanded, it’s unlikely to be the only project, says John Currier, chief engineer for the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

“It’s very likely that you can’t develop the water in the Eagle River MOU in one single project. I think it’s more accurate to say it’s one project with multiple components.”

gorecreekvailgolfcourse2002mountaintownnews

Another long-discussed idea is a small reservoir in the Homestake Valley near the Blodgett Campground. Still another is a holding facility, called a forebay, in the same valley, along Whitney Creek, that would hold water pumped back from Camp Hale. From this impound water could be further pumped up the valley to Homestake Reservoir. Yet a third idea is a small reservoir on Red Sandstone Creek, north of Vail.

Benefits of Eagle Park, says Currier, are that it already exists, it’s on private property, eliminating need for the high level of environmental review that other projects on public land would require, and the property has already been disturbed.

The latter is a persuasive argument to Ken Neubecker, a representative of American Rivers, a conservation group.

“Without looking at the details, I would think favorably of it. Eagle Park Reservoir was an old tailings pile to begin with. It wasn’t like ripping up an undammed valley like Blodgett Reservoir would. Adding onto it would be the best use of facilities we already have.”

Expanding Eagle Park, however, will likely be expensive. No cost estimates have been delivered, but Brooks says it’s something “we cannot do on our own. We would have to have partners in a project like that.”

Porzak says Aurora could benefit by storing water from the Columbine Ditch, a water diversion across Tennessee Pass, in the reservoir.

Energy use also is problematic. The reservoir has almost no upstream. Water would have to be pumped 150 vertical feet from the East Fork of the Eagle River, says Porzak.

A small reservoir at Whitney Creek would also require pumping water, says Currier. But for diversions to the Front Range, going farther down the Eagle River is even more challenging.

Scenario planning

Exactly what would best benefit the Vail Valley is still unclear. Brooks has turned to a tool called scenario planning that is used by Denver, Seattle and many other water planners. It tries to calculate a whole range of variables, including population growth and climate change. Expanded storage is only one of the responses. “Basically, conservation and optimization should be applied first,” says Brooks.
Expanded storage, however, will ultimately be necessary for a variety of purposes. “I don’t think we will ever be able to conserve our way out of needing an expanded Eagle Park Reservoir,” she says.

While needs of population growth can be met relatively easily, Brooks sees need to provide broader but somewhat more nebulous environmental and aesthetic benefits.

“It’s always been a little harder for our boards to wrap their heads around paying for the aesthetics in the streams,” she says. “They’ve certainly gone there in the past, paying literally millions to ensure the stream flows for health.”

Making that case is becoming easier. Water quality impacts from urbanization and other development impacts have become documented, and state water quality standards have tightened. As nutrients get washed into the waterways from stormwater, the capacity of the river gets whittled away, Brooks explains.

There seems to be no rush by anybody to build anything quickly. But there is a sense that the decisions made need to be very good. Unless the climate changes to produce more snow and rain, the upper basin will be without additional water to develop. Downstream, there could be more, but not at the headwaters.

“If it’s not the last drop, it’s darned close to the last drop in the Eagle, because you’re just physically constrained by what you can develop,” says the River District’s Currier.

Going farther downstream, as has been discussed with such “big straw” projects as the Yampa River pumpback or Flaming Gore pumpback, remains possible, adds Currier, but “at that point your energy costs are hugely significant.”

More Eagle River watershed coverage here.

Eagle River Basin

Eagle River Basin


The latest issue of “The Current” newsletter from the Eagle River Watershed Council is hot off the newsletter is hot off the presses

March 5, 2015
Eagle River Basin

Eagle River Basin

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

CALL FOR VOLUNTEERS!

Each year the Watershed Council partners with Colorado Parks & Wildlife to survey fish populations in the Eagle River. This is part of an ongoing effort to monitor the effects of the remediation work at the historic Eagle Mine site south of Minturn. It is a fun way to get out on the water and a great way to give back to the river we all love! Click here to learn more about the electrofishing process.

This year the fish surveys will take place on Wednesday, April 1st & Thursday, April 2nd. Those wishing to participate in the fish surveys must help with at least one day of ice breaking on either Saturday, March 28th or Sunday March 29th. For more information or to volunteer, please email info@erwc.org or call (970) 827-5406.

More Eagle River watershed coverage here.


A showdown over how transmountain diversions are calculated is brewing in the Colorado Supreme Court — Chris Woodka

March 3, 2015

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A showdown over how transmountain diversions are calculated is brewing in the Colorado Supreme Court.

At issue is last year’s ruling on a change of use case filed by Aurora in water court in Pueblo.

Division 2 Water Judge Larry C. Schwartz ruled that Aurora is entitled to export an average of 2,416 acre-feet (787 million gallons) annually, even though Aurora waited more than 20 years to change the use of the water from agriculture to municipal.

Aurora shares Busk-Ivanhoe with the Pueblo Board of Water Works on the system that formerly was operated by the High Line Canal. It brings water into Busk Creek above Turquoise Lake from Ivanhoe Lake through the Carleton Tunnel, which once was a train passage and later an automobile route across the Continental Divide.

Pueblo Water has a 1993 decree changing its water rights from its 1971 purchase of its half of Busk-Ivanhoe. Aurora purchased the other half from High Line shareholders beginning in 1986, but did not file for a change of use until 2009.

Western Slope groups and the state Division of Water Resources are arguing that Aurora’s claim to water should be reduced by 27 percent because the city misused the water after purchasing its share of the Busk-Ivanhoe system.

They claim that Schwartz should have counted the 22-year period as zeros when calculating the historic use of water from the Busk-Ivanhoe system. Schwartz determined that the years where the water was used improperly should not count in the calculation, but said the amount of Aurora’s diversion should be recalculated separately from the amount awarded to Pueblo in 1993.

Aurora’s share is slightly less than Pueblo Water’s (2,634 acre-feet average annually) as a result.

Supporting Schwartz’s decision are the state’s largest municipal water providers, including Denver Water, Colorado Springs, Pueblo Water, Northern Water and the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, all of which bring water across the Continental Divide.

They argue that water courts serve to prevent injury to other water users, not penalize inappropriate historic uses.

“It’s not very likely to have a direct impact on any of our existing rights,” said Alan Ward, Pueblo Water’s resource manager. “We appreciate the court did not see a need to be punitive. That could be an issue with other water rights in the future.”

The Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District also supports Schwartz’s position because of its own pending change case on the Larkspur Ditch, which it purchased from the Catlin Canal and uses to bring water over from the Gunnison River basin.

Schwartz ruled in favor of Aurora in the case (09CW142) in May, and it was appealed by multiple Western Slope groups in October. Reply briefs in the case are due March 21, after which the court could hear oral arguments.

More water law coverage here


The Colorado River District, et. al. appeal May 2014 Aurora Busk-Ivanhoe diversion water court decision

March 2, 2015

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

A water court case in Pueblo over the size of water rights from the upper Fryingpan River delivered through the Busk-Ivanhoe tunnel to the East Slope has now blossomed into a Colorado Supreme Court case full of powerful interests opposing each other across the Continental Divide.

A bevy of West Slope entities, including Pitkin, Eagle and Grand counties, the Colorado River District and the Grand Valley Water Users, Association are arguing against a May 2014 water court decision that gave Aurora the right to use 2,416 acre-feet of water from the Fryingpan for municipal purposes in Aurora instead of for irrigation purposes in the Arkansas River valley.

The new decree gives Aurora the right to divert up to 144,960 acre-feet of water over a 60-year period.

The other West Slope entities in the case are the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, the Ute Water Conservancy District and the Basalt Water Conservancy District.

On other side, a list of the most powerful water entities on the East Slope have filed legal briefs supporting Aurora’s positions, including Denver Water, Colorado Springs, the Pueblo Board of Water Works, the Northern Water Conservancy District and the Southeastern Water Conservancy District.

Pitkin County is specifically arguing that the water court judge should have counted Aurora’s 22 years of undecreed use of the water for municipal purposes — between 1987 and 2009 — when determining the historic lawful use of the water right, and thus, the size of the right’s “transferable yield” from irrigation to municipal use.

Instead, the judge set 1928 to 1986 as the representative sampling of years and excluded the 22 years of Aurora’s admittedly undecreed use.

Expert testimony in the case indicated that if Aurora’s years of undecreed, or “zero,” use were averaged in, the size of the transferable water right would be reduced by 27 percent — which is what Pitkin County believes should happen.

“When water rights have been used unlawfully for more than a quarter of their period of record, a pattern of use derived solely from the other three-quarters of the period of record will not most accurately represent the historical use of the rights at issue,” attorneys for Pitkin County told the Supreme Court.

The Colorado state water engineer and division engineers in water divisions 1, 2 and 5 are also arguing alongside Pitkin County that the judge should have included the 22 years of “zero” use in a representative sampling of years.

“This court should remand the case with instructions to determine the average annual historical use between 1928 and 2009, including zeros for years when Aurora diverted water through the Ivanhoe Tunnel solely for undecreed uses,” attorneys for the state and division engineers wrote.

The various East Slope entities are arguing in the case that the judge did the right thing by not counting Aurora’s 22 years of undecreed municipal use.

“The water court’s quantification of the Busk-Ivanhoe rights followed all of the rules for a change case — it was based on a representative period of lawful decreed use, it was not based upon undecreed use, and it employed several other factors endorsed by this court to determine a representative period,” Aurora’s attorney’s wrote. “The water court correctly determined it need not go any further, rejecting the appellants’ novel legal theory and finding it unnecessary to prevent injury.”

UNDECREED STORAGE

Meanwhile, other West Slope entities, including the River District and Eagle County, are arguing that Judge Larry C. Schwartz erred in his opinion regarding the right to store water on the East Slope without a specific decree to do so.

“The water court misinterpreted the law and erroneously looked beyond the record in the original adjudication to conclude that no storage decree was necessary and then included water stored and water traded to others within the amount of the changed right,” attorneys for the West Slope entities wrote.

But the East Slope entities support the judge’s conclusion regarding storage.

“The water court correctly interpreted prior case law and ruled East Slope storage was within the ‘wide latitude’ accorded importers of transmountain water provided such storage did not result in an expansion of the Busk-Ivanhoe water rights,” attorneys for Aurora wrote.

Attorneys for Denver Water also told the court that “it does not matter whether a decree specifically identifies storage in the basin of use of the imported foreign water” because “once imported, the foreign water can be stored wherever.”

Built between the early 1920s and 1936, the Busk-Ivanhoe water system now diverts about 5,000 acre-feet of water a year from Ivanhoe, Pan, Lyle and Hidden Lake creeks, all tributaries of the upper Fryingpan River.

The system gathers water from the high country creeks and stores it briefly in Ivanhoe Reservoir, which sits at 10,900 feet. It then sends the water through a 1.3 mile-long tunnel under the Continental Divide to Busk Creek and on into Turquoise Reservoir near Leadville.

From there, the water can either end up in the lower Arkansas River basin, or via pumps, end up in the South Platte River basin, where Aurora is located, just east of Denver.

The Pueblo Board of Water Works owns half of the Busk-Ivanhoe water rights, which have a primary 1928 decree date. In 1990, Pueblo received a decree to use its half of the water for municipal purposes, and that decision is not at issue in this case.

Aurora bought 95 percent of its half of the Busk-Ivanhoe water rights in 1986, and by 2001 had purchased 100 percent of the right, paying at least $11.25 million, according to testimony in the case.

INTO WATER COURT

Aurora came in from the cold in 2009 and applied in water court to change its half of the Busk-Ivanhoe water to municipal uses.

And it also applied for specific water storage rights, including in a new reservoir to be built on the flanks of Mount Elbert called Box Creek Reservoir.

After a five-day trial in Div. 2 Water Court in Pueblo in July 2013, which resulted in 1,075 pages of transcripts and 6,286 pages of exhibits, Schwartz ruled in May 2014 in Aurora’s favor.

West Slope entities filed appeals in October with the Colorado Supreme Court, which directly hears appeals from the state’s water courts.

Opening briefs in the case were filed by West Slope entities in December, and a round of “answer briefs” and “friend of the court” briefs were filed last week by various entities.

The West Slope entities now have until March 21 to file reply briefs in the case.

Once the case is set, oral arguments will be heard before the Supreme Court justices in Denver.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and water in collaboration with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.


Tomorrow: Source to Sea — Down the Colorado River with Zak Podmore #ColoradoRiver

January 14, 2015
Zak Podmore and Will Stauffer-Norris

Zak Podmore and Will Stauffer-Norris

From email from the Eagle River Watershed Council:

Tomorrow, Thursday the 15th
Source to Sea:
Down the Colorado River
with Zak Podmore

Donovan Pavilion
5:30 pm reception & 6 pm presentation
tickets free, $10 suggested donation, cash bar

More Eagle River watershed coverage here.


The latest issue of “The Current” newsletter is hot off the presses from the Eagle River Watershed Council

December 8, 2014
Eagle River Basin

Eagle River Basin

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

When we planted saplings at the Edwards Restorations site a few years ago, we encircled them with wire cages to protect them from local beavers. The trees are now outgrowing the cages but still aren’t quite big enough to withstand the industrious beavers.

A group of 7th and 8th graders from Stone Creek Charter School helped us to remove the beaver cages and paint the trees with a mixture of paint and sand. The beavers don’t like chewing on the sand, plus the paint is breathable and won’t hurt the trees as they continue to grow! Many thanks to Stone Creek Charter School for all their help!

More Eagle River watershed coverage here.


The latest “The Current” newsletter is hot off the presses from the Eagle River Watershed Council

November 5, 2014
Eagle River Basin

Eagle River Basin

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

Collaboration is Key for Water Solutions
by Kate Burchenal

Increasingly, water in Colorado (and around the West, for that matter) is becoming a fierce battleground with distinct lines drawn in the sand. We see environmentalists and recreationists squaring off against water suppliers; farmers duking it out with so-called “water grabbers”; and, unfortunately, the Front Range pitted against the Western Slope.

And it’s no wonder we see tension mounting with each passing year. We have a very finite amount of water at our disposal and seemingly innumerable ways in which we, as Coloradans, want to use that water. Drinking water, landscaping, agriculture, recreation, dust suppression, fire protection, industrial uses, snowmaking, power generation, environmental in-stream flows, and the list goes on. Each and every use is important in its own right, but finding the balance between these uses has proven to be extremely difficult.

Watersheds Conference

So one would think that when water professionals with various backgrounds get together in a room it would be all-out war, right? Wrong, actually. The Eagle River Watershed Council staff recently attended the Sustaining Colorado Watersheds Conference, an assemblage of water professionals from around the state, where that notion is shattered every year.

This was the ninth annual conference hosted by three nonprofit organizations: the Colorado Foundation for Water Education, the Colorado Riparian Association and the Colorado Watershed Assembly. Each of these organizations has a mission to better, in some way, the responsible use of water resources in the state of Colorado.

With nearly 55 speakers covering as many topics, there was no shortage of interesting subject matter to capture the attention of the 300 water professionals attending the conference. During the course of three days, we learned about groundwater, flood recovery, wildfires, resiliency, water quality, stream assessments and much more.

Collaborative Management

The session that most caught my attention was the one entitled “Collaborative Water Management.” Representatives from a municipality, a water utility and a nonprofit came together to speak about their experiences working with other entities to use water in non-traditional ways. One example was from the Front Range, others from the Western Slope, but the unifying factor was that these collaborations relied upon the strengths of various groups to use water in ways that benefited more than just the individual organizations.

Collaboration between entities, organizations and individuals on both sides of the Continental Divide is the answer to Colorado’s complex water issues. The conference highlighted this, perhaps unintentionally. People from around the state came together to learn from one another’s successes and failures, to network and to create partnerships that will help us to solve our problems, both locally and statewide.

Cooperative Agreement

There is always talk about the battle in the water world, but innovation and collaboration are abundant here, too, and it isn’t hard to find examples. Just look at the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, which brought Denver Water together with 42 Western Slope groups to draft a historic agreement that benefits water quality, the environment, recreation and water supplies on the Front Range and the Western Slope.

Or, for example, the Minute 319 agreement in which the U.S. and Mexico came together in an effort to reconnect the Colorado River with the Gulf of California, where river waters hadn’t flowed since the 1990s. This experiment also paid for infrastructure maintenance and ecosystem restoration in the mighty delta of the Colorado River; a great example of wide-ranging benefits stemming from one bilateral agreement.

As the same folks that attended the conference continue to draft a state water plan that protects their own water interests, it is important to reflect on these past successes in collaboration. Solutions most often lie in collective effort rather than in disparate fighting.

More Eagle River watershed coverage here.


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