Some might think the upcoming state water plan is a recipe book for an elegant 10-course dinner.
Turns out something else is on the menu.
You know, that old tale where a boiling rock becomes a tasty, fulfilling and nutritious dish as everyone adds a little something to the mix.
That’s the upshot of a three-day meeting of the Colorado Water Congress where the water plan served as the centerpiece of discussion. Gov. John Hickenlooper ordered up the water plan in 2013, a tumultuous weather year that featured drought, huge wildfires and floods. The document is expected to be completed in December, but even then will serve more as a cookbook than rule book or guidebook.
“The early discussion was, is this a textbook or a novel?” said Travis Smith, a Rio Grande basin member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board that is writing the state water plan.”We provided the textbook. I was interested in the novel that told the stories (of water).”
The plan has to be digested one bite at a time, Smith said. He advised Water Congress members to pick a chapter that interested them and read it, then add their own comments to the stew.
John McClow, who represents the Gunnison River basin on the CWCB, picked the section that discusses a collaborative framework for interbasin transfers — an idea that few from the Gunnison basin would have discussed 10 years ago.
The Interbasin Compact Committee still is seasoning that portion of the plan, so the current set of instructions already is outdated, he said. When it’s done, it will remain only a suggestion.
“We’re close to finding consensus about how a transfer could occur,” McClow said. “But it’s not a rule. It spells out the obstacles.”
Those obstacles are finding the balance among municipal water needs, protecting the Western Slope environment and satisfying Colorado River Compact needs with downstream states.
Patti Wells, representing Denver on the CWCB, dug through the ingredients already tossed in the pot and didn’t really like the taste.
While most of the people in Colorado have chosen to live in cities, their use of water — particularly for outdoor watering — has been described in terms of a problem, rather than a benefit, Wells said.
She pointed out that lawns and gardens reduce urban heat islands, improve water quality, increase property value and provide a place to play.
“That’s not to say we can’t use water wisely, but there is a value to people using water for outside uses,” she said.
By couching everything as a problem, it could be tougher to find solutions.
“Instead of trying to avoid the train wreck, we’re trying to figure out where to build the field hospitals,” she said.
Arkansas River Basin Water Forum to Give Away Two Scholarships
The Arkansas River Basin Water Forum (ARBWF) is excited to relaunch our scholarship program and would like your help in distributing the application to graduate students (or others as you see fit). The application materials can be found on the main page of the ARBWF website.
The scholarship application package will be due September 1st, 2015.
In general, the applicant must demonstrate how their work may potentially have a positive impact on a water issue facing the Arkansas River basin. However, the students work does not need to be taking place within the basin, but simply must demonstrate its application to an Arkansas basin issue.
Please contact Blake Osborn at (719) 545-1845 with any questions. Completed application materials can be sent to 830 N. Main St. Suite 200 Pueblo, CO 81003 or emailed to email@example.com.
The series for this season looks great and they are screening “The Great Divide” in November. I’ve attended many of the events over the past few years and I’ve learned a lot from the speakers — highly recommended.
Click here for all the inside skinny for this season. Click here to go to the State of the Rockies home page to learn more about this important work.
They’re supposed to be part-time legislators, but the Interim Water Resources Review Committee has been spending a lot of time on the road lately.
“We are committed to good water policy,” state Sen. Ellen Roberts, RDurango, and committee chairwoman, told Colorado Water Congress, meeting for its summer convention. “We have a robust statewide presence.”
The committee annually meets throughout the summer and fall months to develop water legislation that should move forward. A supermajority of the 10-member panel is required, but other bills are introduced through other routes, Roberts said.
The committee has given itself extra work this year with listening sessions on the state water plan, and many of those have been conducted. It heard a morning’s worth of testimony this week in Vail.
“There is a huge concern about storage, particularly if we can get to the point where we can finance storage,” Roberts said.
Highlights of the tour included discussion of multipurpose storage in the Arkansas River basin, efficiency in the Rio Grande and an overall desire to streamline regulation.
“One of the things I heard over and over is that there needs to be more collaboration with partners,” said state Rep. Ed Vigil, D-Fort Garland, who is vice chairman of the committee.
Vigil said it is important to promote agriculture and assure water is available for farms.
“There are lots of challenges,” Vigil said. “I’m glad we’re able to get out there and talk to people. When we make laws, we should do no harm.”
Speaking at the Colorado Water Congress’ summer meeting in Vail on Wednesday, U.S. Senator Michael Bennet said it would take an “all-of-the-above” strategy to meet Colorado’s future water needs.
“The bottom line for me is that we’ve got to look at water a little bit like we look at energy in Colorado,” said Bennet, a Democrat who was elected in 2010. “We need an all-of-the-above strategy that includes storage and conservation and efficiency. The reality is that we will need to make the best use of the water we have for the rest of our lifetimes.”
The need for additional water storage facilities — new dams and reservoirs — is a consistent message heard at the Water Congress meeting and at water-supply planning meetings around the state.
Bennet acknowledged the time and effort that many attendees at the event have spent developing a statewide water plan, which is being prepared by regional “roundtables” and the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
The plan is to be submitted to the governor in December and comments on the second draft are due Sept. 17.
“I know that a lot of you here already have contributed many hours and days, and even years, and even, really, lifetimes to the effort,” Bennet said. “The water community, the environmental groups, utilities, local governments and agricultural users have all been involved in the drafting of that plan.”
He added, “Whatever comes out in the final plan, it’s clear that action will be necessary to address the challenges that Colorado will face in the coming decades.”
In his opening remarks, Bennet was highly critical of the gridlocked nature of the U.S. Congress and said he’s tried very hard not to spend “one second over the last six years contributing to the dysfunction that’s there,” but instead has worked to find “bipartisan solutions to real challenges that we have.”
He spoke of a week-long tour of the wheat fields of eastern Colorado that he took recently with Republican U.S. Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, and how the two of them also agreed to travel to Durango together in the wake of the Gold King Mine spill that discolored the Animas River on Aug. 5.
“It is fun, people see a Democrat and a Republican working together, and they wish they were seeing that in D.C.” Bennet said.
In response to a question, Bennet said he was exploring a Colorado-only version of “Good Samaritan” legislation, which would shield individuals and organizations that want to work to clean up old hard-rock mines from inheriting the full liability for the mine.
“If we could figure out a way to develop some sort of pilot legislation — we’ve been talking to Congressman Tipton’s office about that — that would allow us to do what needs to be done in our state, that would be a good step forward,” Bennet said, noting there are “thousands” of old mines in Colorado that need to be cleaned up. “Being stuck in this stasis of not being able to address it guarantees exactly what happened the other day, and I don’t think we ought to have our state have to confront something like this again.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on the coverage of rivers and water. The Post Independent published this story on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015.
People are “bored and frustrated” by what is going on in Washington, D.C., so U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet was very happy to be in the Colorado mountains Wednesday…
Although there is gridlock in the nation’s Capitol, Bennet has recently toured the state with his Republican counterpart Sen. Cory Gardner. Common ground most often has been found on water issues.
In his opening remarks, he noted that his first legislation was a bill to provide a funding mechanism for the Arkansas Valley Conduit, and among his most recent was creation of the Browns Canyon National Monument.
“We take water seriously in Colorado,” Bennet said. “We know that it is a limited resource that is fundamental to every aspect of our economy and our way of life.”
Bennet hit the key points that are driving Colorado to develop a water plan by December: agriculture, recreation, the environment and continued urban growth.
“Water sustains our agriculture industry.
It sustains the rivers, wildflowers and wildlife that bring in $13.2 billion in outdoor recreation spending every year. Water fuels the existence and growth of businesses throughout the state that have helped us build one of the strongest economies in the country,” Bennet said.
His message on this year’s ample rainfall was mixed.
“We are thankful for the rain we’ve had this year in Colorado. It’s helped our economy and decreased the threat of catastrophic wildfire,” he said. “But we know we are part of a much larger water system. We know that the Colorado River basin as a whole remains in a record drought.”
Lake Powell is just 53 percent full, and inflows will be about 88 percent of normal this year. Lake Mead is only 38 percent full.
“It’s incredible to think that the water level in Lake Mead has dropped by about the height of a 15-story building since 1983 over the surface of the lake. That’s about 18 million acre feet of water, potentially enough for 70 million families for a year,” Bennet said.
Bennet supports working with other states in the Upper Colorado River basin (New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) as the lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada) continue to rely more heavily on the Colorado River.
“We need to stay ahead of this continuing drought,” he said. “Colorado River security is not a west slope issue or an east slope issue — it’s a Colorado issue.”
Fountain Creek isn’t the only area of the state where storm control and water rights have collided, the Colorado Water Congress learned Wednesday.
But it is unique in being the only area omitted from SB212, state legislation that allowed stormwater to be stored for up to 72 hours or 110 hours in an exceptional storm. That decision was applauded by some, but derided by one water attorney as “Monkey Business.”
As in the Marx Brothers classic movie.
Law-makers have overstepped their responsibility and subjected water law to “death by a thousand small cuts” by passing SB212 and HB1016, said Alan Curtis, a water lawyer with White and Jankowski.
Curtis lampooned the bills, along with failed legislation to allow rain barrels (SB1259) by showing video clips from “Monkey Business” — including Harpo’s antics in the crowded cruise ship cabin, jumping out of line in port and roiling the lemonade by splashing his legs in it. He ended by asking “which Marx Brother are you?” He declared he is Groucho and those who passed the legislation are more like Karl. Curtis’ point was that the new laws that passed, like the rain barrel bill that did not, jump some water rights ahead of others that have been in line for 150 years of water law, amounting to a taking of property rights. They also put the responsibility to prove damage on the party who is injured, which is the opposite of most water law, which requires proof of no injury or mitigation.
Engineer Jim Wulliman and Alan Searcy, of the Colorado Stormwater Council, argued that stormwater retention ponds are useful both to enhance water quality, by settling water, and to restore channel flows to pre-development conditions.
Wulliman detailed how paving urban surfaces sets up a scenario for damage to waterways as more water drains more quickly, causing erosion.
Finally, Steve Vandiver, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, said the state Legislature moved too fast to pass the stormwater bill, saying junior water rights holders could be injured.
“I’d just like to slow the process down,” Vandiver said. “The science is not exact.”
Fountain Creek has been struggling with the stormwater control/water rights issue for years. It was removed from SB212, with the exception of Colorado Springs, which has a stormwater discharge permit.
This year, a preliminary study by the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District attempted to quantify the damage at certain flows and suggested ways to mitigate the damage.
Pueblo County has hired Wright Water Engineers to quantify the damage caused by development in Colorado Springs to Fountain Creek.
Irrigation season on the Carpenter Ranch normally begins in early May and continues until September. The ranch is located along the Yampa River in northwestern Colorado, about 20 miles west of the ski town of Steamboat Springs. Water from the river is used to grow fields of waist-high timothy, clover, and other types of grasses that, after being cut, provide hay for cattle.
This year, the seasonal cycle was disrupted. Irrigation on four of the fields, totaling 197 acres, was suspended on July 1. Instead, the water has been allowed to flow down the Yampa River 100 miles to Dinosaur National Park. There, it joins the water of the Green River coming down from Wyoming, which in turn joins the Colorado River in Utah. The comingled waters then flow into Lake Powell.
Powell is one of two giant reservoirs on the Colorado River, the other being Lake Mead, near Las Vegas. Together, the two reservoirs can hold 16 times the annual flow of the Colorado River—on average. But the river and its many tributaries have been flowing below average most years since 1999. Even after torrential rains and heavy snows in the Colorado Rockies in May, the inflow into Lake Powell this year is just 88 percent of average. It’s part of a long-term trend of declining reservoir levels in a river basin that provides water for 25 to 34 million people. (Estimates vary).
These reservoir declines have instilled a sense of urgency in Jim Lochhead, chief executive of Denver Water. His agency provides water to 1.3 people in metropolitan Denver, with half the water arriving in the city from the Fraser, Blue, and other tributaries of the Colorado River.
“One of the things we have learned in this drought is that it just seems to keep going and going and going,” says Lochhead. “We are really in uncharted territory right now in terms of where the (reservoir) levels are. The levels are the lowest since these dams have been constructed.”
Lake Mead, formed in 1936 as a result of Hoover Dam, is now at 37 percent of capacity. Lake Powell began forming in 1963 as a result of construction of Glen Canyon Dam and is at 54 percent of capacity.
Lochhead and other architects of the Colorado River System Conservation Program want to be ready in case an even more severe drought revisits the Colorado River Basin. Fresh in mind is 2002, when the Colorado River carried only 25 percent of its normal flows, and 2003 wasn’t much better. Should drought of that severity return, Lake Powell could even shrink to something called a dead pool. That’s when there’s too little water to generate electricity. The electricity is distribu ted broadly across the West to towns, cities, and farms. Revenues from sales are used to fund programs designed to protect endangered fish on the Colorado River.
Lake Powell also has another vital function for Colorado and other headwaters states: It is used to me et commitments of water deliveries to the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada, and California as specified by the Colorado River Water Compact of 1922. Denver’s water rights from the Western Slope of Colorado are mostly junior to the compact. If drought persisted, it’s conceivable that Denver and other water users with more junior rights—including many in the mountain resort community—would have to curtail their diversions in order to comply with the 1922 compact.
To forestall this apple cart from being upset, Denver and several major water providers that tap the Colorado River Basin last year joined with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to begin exploring how water can temporarily be shifted from traditional uses and allowed to flow downstream. The Carpenter Ranch along the Yampa River is the first pilot project announced in this Colorado River System Conservation Program.
The ranch is owned by The Nature Conservancy, one of several partners from the environmental community working with Denver and other water providers. The non-profit in turn sublets the land to ranchers, says Geoff Blakeslee, the Yampa River project coordinator for the organization. Taking water off the hay meadows reduces harvest and it will also reduce the number of cattle that can graze the meadows in autumn. About 90 percent of agriculture on Colorado’s Western Slope is, like the Carpenter Ranch, used to produce hay.
Joe Brummer, an associate professor of forage science at Colorado State University, has studied effects of water curtailment in small plots at the Carpenter Ranch as well as other farms. Hay production continues if irrigation ceases, but only in small quantities. The second year, after irrigation has resumed, production lags 50 percent, he says. Even in the third year, again after full resumption of irrigation, production at the Carpenter Ranch test site was 8 to 9 percent below average.
This year, the experiment is different: a split season.
Nine other pilot sites have also been identified, five of them in Wyoming and four in Colorado. They are being funded at a total cost of $1 million. A larger program on the Colorado River involving lower-basins states has a cost of $11 million. Other water agencies providing money, in addition to Denver, include those serving metropolitan Las Vegas and Los Angeles, along with the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, and the Bureau of Reclamation.
Taylor Hawes, Colorado River program director for The Nature Conservancy, says the overarching goal of the pilot program is to learn as much as possible about how water can be shared in time of crisis.
“It’s complicated to move water around,” she says. “These are property rights. Many farmers are unsure how it will impact their water rights if they participate in a project like this. So the point of these pilots is to learn as much as we can right now, so that if a crisis does hit, we will have good information so that we can design a program that allows us to share water in a drought.”
How close is crisis? Too close for comfort, she says. “If this were your savings account and it was continuing to drop, you would be concerned,” she says.
Hawes also sees another, even more dramatic analogy. “I think we were on the edge of the cliff, and depending upon whether it’s a good year or bad year, we take a step forward and backward. The California (drought) situation has highlighted impacts that we will have if we don’t have a plan in place.”
Some say that the Colorado River actually is in worse shape over the long haul than California. New evidence finds that warming temperatures in the Southwest may be causing evaporation and [transpiration] that alone can explain declining reservoir levels.
“The fact that the Colorado River Basin drought is more a product of the heat than any drop in precipitation is a frightening prospect, because that heat is not going to go away,” says Doug Kenney, research associate at the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado. In fact, because of increased locked into the atmosphere because of accelerating greenhouse gas emissions, all climate models forecast brisk increases of heat in future decades in the basin.
Denver’s Lochhead says the 2002 drought forced the seven states in the Colorado River Basin to consider how to share impacts of drought. Upper Basin states can move water from smaller reservoirs near the headwaters, such as Flaming Gorge in Utah and Navajo in New Mexico, down into Powell. Water can also be allowed to flow downstream through projects such as are being tested at the Carpenter Ranch.
Water providers in the Colorado River program want to work out kinks so that, if crisis occurs, curtailments can be scaled. But many questions remain, such as how to protect water users through the process, to ensure their water rights remain valid. “It’s really the first step,” says Lochhead, and there will be many follow-up questions.
Lochhead is sensitive about how the program is perceived. It is not, he stressed, a grab by cities for agricultural water. The transfers are intended to be temporary and provide compensation to water-right holders. He also points out that it need not be just farms and ranches. One of the pilot programs involves a city on Colorado’s Front Range, he says, but declined to identify the city, because negotiations have not been completed.
“We’re trying to take the perception of winners and losers off the table,” he says. “In this program, everybody wins because the system wins.”
What’s also of note is the extent to which environmental groups have waded into this program. Hawes says The Nature Conservancy wants to work with farmers because, when the river system gets taxed, agriculture and the environment are usually the first to lose. “We need to work to find partnerships,” she says.
Trout Unlimited has also been a major partner. It has property in the Pinedale-Green River area of Wyoming participating, and the organization has also enlisted a small farm along the Gunnison River near Delta, Colo. Cary Denison, project coordinator for Trout Unlimited in the Gunnison Basin, says the farmer will fallow the land for one year then, in the second year, plant a lower consumption crop. Corn, the current crop, takes two feet per acre. Winter wheat only requires a foot.
“Our role is very limited. I am looking at this is a way of participating in an interesting pilot project that looks at consumptive use of different crops.”
While some farmers already knew about the pilot program, he says, others needed to understand the motivation.
Some ratepayers in Denver also wanted to know why Denver Water would be paying farmers to let water flow downstream toward California. That question gets to the heart of the great complexity of water and the Colorado River Basin, points out Doug Kenney, research associate at the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado.
Denver itself is outside the basin, of course. Cheyenne, Albuquerque, and Salt Lake City, plus Phoenix and Tucson, Los Angeles, and San Diego are similarly outside the basin—but also depend upon Colorado River water.
For such a relatively small river, it pulls a heavy load.
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