#Runoff news: Flaming Gorge Dam to Increase Water Releases Tuesday — USBR

razorbacksucker

From email from Reclamation:

Spring snowmelt runoff in the Colorado Rocky Mountains has triggered the spawning and emergence of endangered razorback sucker fish populations in the Green River downstream from Flaming Gorge Dam, Utah. Larval emergence in the river was observed on May 28, 2016.

To assist the survival of this endangered fish population, Bureau of Reclamation officials will gradually increase water released from Flaming Gorge Dam from the current flow of 800 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 8,600 cfs beginning Tuesday, May 31, 2016. The rate of release will reach 8,600 cfs on Friday, June 3, 2016, and will remain at that flow rate until further notice. However, Reclamation officials anticipate the release to remain at this rate for only 7 to 14 days beyond June 3.

At the highest rate, Flaming Gorge reservoir will release approximately 4,600 cfs through the Flaming Gorge Dam powerplant, allowing power generation to reach its full capacity of approximately 150 megawatts. Another 4,000 cfs will be released through the dam’s bypass tubes to reach the total of 8,600 cfs.

Projected peak flow on the Green River at Jensen, Utah, resulting from the combined flows of Flaming Gorge Dam releases and the Yampa River, will be approximately 22,000 to 24,000 cubic feet per second. These projections are close to flood stage and Reclamation officials urge caution while recreating or farming along the Green River during the next few weeks.

Scientists monitor critical habitat to detect the first emergence of razorback sucker larvae as a “trigger” for this type of release by Reclamation in cooperation with the State of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. A major purpose of the higher release is to transport as many larval fish as possible into critical nursery habitats located in the floodplains along the Green River, downstream of the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers. The increased releases from the dam, combined with the Yampa River flows, will provide the maximum possible flow of water to transport the larval fish.

Reclamation consulted with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources concerning possible impacts of the releases to the rainbow trout fishery below the dam. While releases during this period will make fishing the river more difficult, no adverse impacts to the fishery are expected.

Meanwhile, Granby Reservoir should fill and spill this year. Here’s a report from Lance Maggart writing for the Sky-Hi Daily News:

Things look to be shaping up nicely in terms of water levels for 2016. The Colorado River District recently hosted a “Grand County State of the River” meeting at Mountain Parks Electric in Granby. During the meeting representatives from the Federal Bureau of Reclamation informed attendees their prediction models indicate Granby Reservoir will physically fill again this year, sometime around the second week of July at which point those administering the water flows will begin bypassing additional water downstream.

Officials expect the massive reservoir to spill slightly, around 1,700 acre-feet of water, right at maximum flow times. Bureau of Reclamation representatives said that if Granby does spill they anticipate moving the excess water through the outlet works for the reservoir’s dam.

So far 2016 has been a fairly average year in terms of precipitation. Reservoirs along the eastern slope of the continental divide are mostly full and transmountain diversions will likely be diminished because of storage levels in places like Horsetooth and Carter Lake Reservoirs.

Willow Creek Reservoir, a relatively small reservoir located just a few miles directly west of Granby Reservoir has seen high levels of runoff already and officials anticipate pumping roughly 40,000 acre-feet of water from Willow Creek into Granby Reservoir this summer. Because of storage limits water from Willow Creek Reservoir is already being bypassed downstream.

Because of the high water levels anticipated for Willow Creek Reservoir and the rest of the Three Lakes Colorado River Collection System officials do not expect to pump any water up from the Windy Gap Reservoir, located west of Granby on US Highway 40 and downstream from Granby Reservoir.

Existing directives from the US Secretary of the Interior require at least 75 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water be released from Granby Reservoir throughout the summer. The Bureau of Reclamation will maintain releases of 75 cfs from Granby Reservoir through October this year as part of the ongoing Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.

Rebuilt Green River dam allows movement of boats, fish — The Salt Lake Tribune

Courtesy | Tim Gaylord The Natural Resources Conservation Service has completed reconstruction of the century-old Tusher Dam across the Green River, upstream from the river's Utah namesake town. The $7.7 million project includes fish ladders and a safe boat passage that river-running community has sought for years.
Courtesy | Tim Gaylord The Natural Resources Conservation Service has completed reconstruction of the century-old Tusher Dam across the Green River, upstream from the river’s Utah namesake town. The $7.7 million project includes fish ladders and a safe boat passage that river-running community has sought for years.

From The Salt Lake Tribune (Brian Maffly):

To the delight of river runners, federal authorities agreed to include a boat passage, as well as fish ladders, on the new Tusher Diversion, which becomes operational this week. Recreation advocates hope the project will enable more boaters to float the dozen miles upstream from the river’s namesake town and increase take-out traffic at Green River State Park.

However, the state Department of Natural Resources has concerns about the passage’s safety and wants to study how it performs before encouraging the boating public to run it, particularly at high water.

But melon growers and endangered fish don’t have to wait to benefit from the rebuilt dam, the fruit of a multi-agency collaboration covered mostly by federal dollars.

In a public ceremony Wednesday, the state and federal agencies behind the $7.7 million project will remove the coffers and dedicate the dam. The event is at 11 a.m. on the river’s west bank, accessed from Long Street, north of town.

“This dam will provide a secure supply of irrigation water for the many farmers, ranchers and secondary-water users in this area well into the future,” said Utah agriculture commissioner LuAnn Adams. “Water in the West can make or break a community, and this dam literally keeps the green in Green River, Utah.”

It will also keep the green in farmers’ wallets, since the river supports Grand and Emery counties’ $20 million agricultural industry. The Tusher Diversion waters 5,300 acres that produce many of the cantaloupes, casabas, honeydews, canary and other melons for which the Green River is known.

Settlers built the U-shaped rock-and-crib weir more than a century ago to divert some of the Green’s flow onto fields. But the low structure also obstructed the movement of boats and various fish species that have since come under federal protection. Most boaters had to portage the dam or take out at Swasey’s Beach, a few miles upstream. Intrepid boaters could run over the weir at certain water levels, but such a move was perilous, as the right side of the channel is littered with rebar-studded concrete and the left side is strewn with boulders disgorged from Tusher Wash.

High waters following the wet winter of 2011 hammered the aging dam, putting it a risk of a failure that would have dewatered the three canals exiting the river. The Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, targeted it for reconstruction under its Emergency Watershed Protection program, which has committed $93 million in recent years to fix and build dams and catch basins damaged in the wake of Utah’s wildfires, floods and other disasters.

The initial Tusher plan did not call for a boat passage and river runners quickly mobilized, lobbying for features that would enable boaters to replicate the Green River portion of the 1869 expedition led by John Wesley Powell.

Officials agreed a boat passage was warranted and the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands (FFSL) put up the $153,000 to help cover increased costs. As a result of such investments, the replacement diversion is far superior to the historic structure.

“That shows the benefit of taking time. It was over two years. Some might look at it as a downside, but the positive is it allows partners, community and interest groups to express their interests and allows us to incorporate it into our design,” said Dave Brown, the Utah conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“We showed up and participated in the discussion,” said Nathan Fey of American Whitewater. “The state advocated for boater safety. It was no longer an issue of fish versus boaters.”

An archaeologist monitored the historic dam’s demolition in an effort to document its construction and design for an exhibit proposed for Green River’s John Wesley Powell River History Museum.

The new design also features screens to keep fish out of the diversion canals, as well as three fish passages — one for upstream swimmers and two for downstreamers — equipped with readers to count fish that have been injected with tiny electronic tags. This aspect of the project was funded and designed by state and federal wildlife agencies hoping to recover native humpback chub, Colorado pike minnow, razorback sucker and bonytail.

The state secured water rights that should ensure that water passes through the 25-foot gap at a rate of at least 147 cubic feet per second.

Now that the project is complete, however, the passage does not appear to be functioning as hoped, according Jason Curry, spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.

“Something about the dam looks a little more treacherous than intended,” Curry said. “It doesn’t look like it’s 100 percent safe for all boats. We would like it to be negotiable for all traffic. The main thing was to make it safe. We will do test runs to see how the hydraulics work. … It might need some modifications.”

Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program
Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program

#ColoradoRiver: Bonytails reproducing in the wild — #Utah DWR #COriver

Wild bonytail chub
Wild bonytail chub

From the Utah Division of Wildlife via The Deseret News:

For the first time since work to recover bonytail started in the 1980s, they’re raising their own young in the wild, officials with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources say.

Bonytail are the rarest of the endangered fish that live in the upper Colorado River system.

“This finding represents a major step forward in recovering the species and ultimately getting it removed from the federal endangered species list,” Krissy Wilson, native aquatic species coordinator for the DWR, said in a statement.

In spring 2015, researchers with the DWR found adult bonytail in Stewart Lake near Jensen. The lake is a managed floodplain that’s connected to the Green River. When the floodplain was later drained in the fall, the researchers found 19 young-of-the-year native chub.

As the researchers analyzed their data, they expected the young-of-the-year chubs to be roundtail chubs. But they realized the size of the chubs did not fit with the timing of when the roundtail chubs would have spawned.

“That’s when the researchers got excited,” Wilson said. “Were the specimens they were examining the first documented evidence of bonytail reproducing in the wild?”

The researchers sent the preserved specimens to the Larval Fish Laboratory at Colorado State University. There, scale and body measurement analysis was done. Next, the specimens were sent for genetic testing. Both analyses confirmed what the UDWR researchers were hoping: the specimens were bonytail.

Wilson says the last wild adult bonytail were collected in the late 1990s. Since then, bonytail have been reared at the DWR’s Wahweap State Fish Hatchery at Lake Powell. The bonytail are reared to 12 inches long before being stocked in the upper Colorado River system.

Wilson says for the past four years, the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program and its partner, the Bureau of Reclamation, have coordinated spring releases from Flaming Gorge Dam to connect floodplain habitats along the Green River near Jensen. Connecting the floodplains provides important nursery habitat for the endangered Colorado River fish.

“So far,” Wilson says, “razorback sucker is the species that’s benefitted most from the releases. It’s exciting to see that the releases are also benefitting bonytail.”

Along with bonytail and razorback sucker, humpback chub and Colorado pikeminnow are the four fish the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program is working to recover. More information about the program and its work is available at coloradoriverrecovery.org.

Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program
Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program

Interior official looks toward Roan — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):

The Roan Plateau is high on Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s list of issues to be resolved in the remaining months of the Obama administration.

Jewell recently discussed the next 100 years of conservation and a “course correction” before the National Geographic Society.

The Interior Department has “some work left to re-examine whether decisions made in prior administrations properly considered where it makes sense to develop and where it doesn’t,” Jewell said. “Or where science is helping us better understand the value of the land and water and potential impacts of development. Places like Badger Two-Medicine in Montana, or the Boundary Waters in Minnesota, or the Roan Plateau in Colorado.”

Jewell’s comments, however, left some Colorado officials questioning whether they signaled a change in the direction of the management of the Roan.

The Bureau of Land Management is completing an environmental study of the area. BLM, industry and environmental groups and local governments in late 2014 reached an agreement to cancel 17 of the 19 leases issued on the plateau in 2008. The remaining two leases on top and 12 leases at the base of the plateau were to remain in place.

Jewell was referring to the plan now under study by the BLM, the Interior Department said…

The Roan Plateau was managed by the U.S. Department of Energy as an oil shale reserve until 1997, when President Bill Clinton signed legislation transferring the area to the BLM.

The act required the BLM to manage the area for multiple use and instructed the agency to begin leasing it for oil and gas development.

“We hope the secretary’s mention of the Roan Plateau bodes well for the future of the area,” said Luke Schafer, West Slope Advocacy director for Conservation Colorado, urging the BLM to complete the management plan “to protect the pristine lands, rare species, and remarkable habitat on the Roan.”

The directive to lease the area, however, remains, said David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

Jewell’s “policies may contribute to compliance with that law taking decades rather than years,” Ludlam said, “but for the benefit of future generations we will never stop advocating for the responsible development that must and someday will occur on the Roan Plateau.”

#Wyoming’s Role In Conserving #ColoradoRiver Water In Times Of Drought — @WYPublicRadio

From Wyoming Public Radio (Melodie Edwards):

“This river, the Colorado, can be turned on and turned off down to the last drop on orders from the Interior Secretary of the United States,” a voiceover tells us. “This was the first river on earth to come under complete human control.”

But where it starts in Wyoming as the Green River out of the Wind River Range, it is still wild, flowing down to feed an elaborate canyon ecosystem, not to mention several thirsty states.

But the question is, what’s the responsibility of headwater states like Wyoming to keep that river ecology healthy as the climate gets hotter and dryer?

Rancher Eric Barnes and his family live on Fontanelle Creek near Kemmerer in southwest Wyoming. It’s a ranch his father built in the 1950’s.

“It’s a really beautiful place because it’s kind of in the foothills of the desert.”

And it backs onto the mountains where the creek flows down to join the Green River in Fontanelle Reservoir. While droughts have devastated crops in the southwest over the last few years, Barnes was having the opposite problem.

“I had been needing to rebuild all my diversions because they’d been blowed out, just from high water in the last few years,” he says. “And I didn’t know how I was going to afford to do all these projects because all the diversions needed worked on.”

And those flood-damaged irrigation gates were expensive to replace. So he turned to Trout Unlimited who helped him turn his surplus irrigation water into a money maker. They helped him apply for a new multi-state pilot program through the Upper Colorado River Commission that pays water rights holders like Barnes not to irrigate.

Wyoming Trout Unlimited water and habitat director Cory Toye says while more flow in the stream will help droughts downstream, it’ll also help Wyoming’s wildlife that have suffered from the last 15-years of drought.

“There are tributaries where we’ve seen extended low flows over the last couple of years,” Toye says. “If there’s low conditions or tough habitat conditions in particular areas, the more we can do for trout to move around and find better habitat, the better we do.”

Lower Green River Lake
Lower Green River Lake

Upper #ColoradoRiver Endangered Fish Recovery Program update

Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program
Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program

From KUNC (Laura Palmisano):

It all started in 1988 when the federal government signed an agreement with Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, establishing what’s called the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program.

Endangered fish at various stages of development can be found at the Colorado River Fishery Project, a national fish hatchery in Grand Junction, Colorado. Right now, the hatchery is home to two species, the endangered razorback sucker and the bonytail.

“Back when I first started, pikeminnow were probably doing better,” said Dale Ryden, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “There were more big fish throughout the [Colorado River] basin. I had worked here for four years before I ever saw a razorback sucker out of the wild. They just weren’t around anymore. Same thing with bonytail. Bonytail were extremely, extremely rare.”

The recovery program includes federal and state agencies, environmentalists, hydropower associations and water user groups. Unlike some efforts to conserve other species, it hasn’t involved litigation.

“Working toward the same goal of recovering the fish, while allowing water development to continue… those two at first blush don’t seem to go together,” Ryden said. “But they actually work together very well.”

Just to the south of town on the Gunnison River, a tributary of the Colorado, sits a diversion dam built in the early 1900s. It blocked fish from traveling upstream for nearly 100 years, until Ryden said, they put a fish ladder on the dam.

“It goes up and around the Redlands Dam and provides upstream fish passage for native and endangered fish.”

The ladder is a selective passage. Biologists use it to trap fish traveling upstream. Then they hand-sort them so only native fish can continue up the Gunnison River. Two similar ladders have been installed along the Colorado and another is in the works on the Green River in Utah.

Fish ladder at the Redlands diversion dam via KVNF
Fish ladder at the Redlands diversion dam via KVNF

The ladders might help fish get to their upstream habitats, but water levels also matter.

Brent Uilenburg with the Bureau of Reclamation said there is some recognition that “the dams and canals we operate that take water out of the Colorado River Basin have contributed to the decline of the species.”[…]

The bureau is also the largest single source of funding for the conservation program. States, water developers, and hydropower associations also contribute, totaling more than $350 million over the past 25 years.

That funding helped the Grand Valley Water Users Association in Grand Junction optimize its system. Before, said Kevin Conrad, the association’s operations manager, they diverted more water than necessary.

“Whatever they weren’t using, it went out through spillways on the canal back to the river, but it was below a point where the fish couldn’t benefit from it.”

Conrad said the upgrades also help conserve water and keep it in place for the fish.

The ultimate goal of the recovery program is to remove the fish from the endangered species list. Biologist Dale Ryden said habitat restoration, water flow improvements, hatchery programs, and invasive fish removal are helping the fish rebound.

“Probably the biggest star in terms of recovery prospects is the razorback sucker,” said Ryden. “Bonytail are really doing much better with the really robust stocking program.”

Humpback chub seem stable, but Ryden said questions remain about the Colorado pikeminnow.

This story comes from ‘Connecting the Drops’ – a collaboration between Rocky Mountain Community Radio and the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. Find out more at http://cfwe.org.

#ColoradoRiver: Why Denver pays farmers in Yampa Valley not to irrigate this summer — The Mountain Town News

The Yampa River flows through the Carpenter Ranch. Photo courtesy of John Fielder from his new book, “Colorado’s Yampa River: Free Flowing & Wild from the Flat Tops to the Green.” -- via The Mountain Town News
The Yampa River flows through the Carpenter Ranch. Photo courtesy of John Fielder from his new book, “Colorado’s Yampa River: Free Flowing & Wild from the Flat Tops to the Green.” — via The Mountain Town News

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

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.

Jim Lochhead -- photo via Westword (Alan Prendergast)
Jim Lochhead — photo via Westword (Alan Prendergast)

“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.

Lake Powell, shown here in 2008, serves multiple purposes. Photo/Andrew Pernick, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation -- via The Mountain Town News
Lake Powell, shown here in 2008, serves multiple purposes. Photo/Andrew Pernick, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — via The Mountain Town News

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.”

A fishing pier stood distant from the receding waters of Lake Mead in December 2010. Photo/Allen Best - See more at: http://mountaintownnews.net/2015/08/20/letting-water-flow-down-the-yampa-to-lake-powell/#sthash.7tRYDEZj.dpuf
A fishing pier stood distant from the receding waters of Lake Mead in December 2010. Photo/Allen Best – See more at: http://mountaintownnews.net/2015/08/20/letting-water-flow-down-the-yampa-to-lake-powell/#sthash.7tRYDEZj.dpuf

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.

Water rights for the Carpenter Ranch date to 1881, the oldest on the Yampa River. Photo/ Mark Godfrey and The Nature Conservancy
Water rights for the Carpenter Ranch date to 1881, the oldest on the Yampa River.
Photo/ Mark Godfrey and The Nature Conservancy

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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