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.


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

December 27, 2014

From the Grand Junction Free Press (Hannah Holm):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at http://Facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or Twitter at http://Twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.


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

December 22, 2014
Basin roundtable boundaries

Basin roundtable boundaries

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More IBCC — basin roundtables coverage here.


“The #YampaRiver is a unique, irreplaceable resource” — Kristin Green #COWaterPlan

November 4, 2014


From the Craig Daily Press (Kristin Green):

Recently, over burritos and margaritas at Vallarta’s Restaurant, I was asked what the number one thing is that I should know about rivers in Colorado. Like a deer in the headlights, I sat in silence. His brusque follow up was, “the Yampa is the last wild river in Colorado, and it had better stay that way.” I quickly nodded in agreement.

The man is certainly not alone in his opinion. The Yampa has a dedicated following of boaters, anglers, sportsmen and conservationists who don’t want to see the heart of Northwest Colorado dammed and diverted. As Soren Jespersen, of the local group Friends of the Yampa, recently stated in a Steamboat Today article on the Colorado Water Plan, “The Yampa is one of the last major untamed waterways in the entire Colorado River system. If we were to start diverting its waters to the Front Range, we wouldn’t just be diminishing its flows; we’d be killing the very thing that makes the Yampa River unique.”

Unfortunately, there is good reason to be concerned about the future of the Yampa. In an era viewed by some as the last “water grab” in Colorado, attention is shifting towards the Yampa under the presumption of having water to spare. That opens up a debate about what qualifies as excess water. Anyone who has enjoyed a day on the Yampa will attest water left in the river is still water being put to good use, albeit a non-consumptive one.

It isn’t just about the quantity of water that places a target on the Yampa Basin. Colorado is a prior appropriation state, which means the seniority of a water right is everything. The older the date on a water right, the further towards the front of the line you get to stand. Some municipalities, such as Steamboat Springs, have junior water rights putting their ability to meet demand during drought conditions at jeopardy. Luckily the issue of a “call” from senior water rights holders on the Yampa is fairly rare occurrence, but in a warmer, drier future, things could get more complicated if we don’t have a plan in place.

So, to head off those problems here and to alleviate existing issues elsewhere, Colorado is in the process of crafting its first ever state water plan. This plan will shape how we manage water well into the future. Every interest group, from municipalities, agricultural producers, industries, outdoor recreation professionals and conservationists, is fighting for their interests to be protected within the plan.

Few would dispute that we need a Colorado Water Plan that protects agricultural, municipal and recreational needs — and the $9 billion economy river related recreation supports. However, when it comes down to how the water is managed, tensions rise quickly. The hot-button issues of cities buying agricultural water rights leaving an alfalfa field to wither and transmountain diversions creating huge reservoirs and pipeline systems to send water across the continental divide get most of the attention. The risks and consequences of both those ideas are just too great for rivers like the Yampa, so we need to look elsewhere.

The most obvious answer is to maximize the water we currently have available before looking to develop additional new supply. The idea of living within our means isn’t new, especially in a blue-collar town like Craig. Conservation is effective and costs significantly less than new, large pipelines and other projects. The bright new shiny thing might look good on paper, but the environmental damage and huge costs to taxpayers makes them a dream to developers and a nightmare for everyone else.

The Yampa is a unique, irreplaceable resource not just for the residents of northwest Colorado, but the nation. The last major free-flowing river on the Colorado Plateau deserves every bit of deference, because it’s the last of its kind. Many other parts of west slope and the west in general have their own “Yampa.” We’ve seen the Dolores turned into a trickle and the majority of the Fraser’s water sent over the divide, not to mention everything that has happened to the Blue, Eagle, Roaring Fork, etc.

With a draft of the Colorado Water Plan already in motion, it’s time to step up and protect local resources across our state. As Rep. Don Coram quipped at the closing of a CLUB 20 debate, “Empty your bladder before you go. No water leaves the Western Slope.” It drew a good chuckle from the crowd, but if we really want to protect our west slope rivers, we need to step up and make sure the plan prioritizes them too.

You can submit comments on the Colorado Water Plan at http://coloradowaterplan.com/.


Green River dams get little support in survey — @WyoFile

October 1, 2014

@CityofSteamboat starts to revamp stormwater maintenance program without busting its budget — Steamboat Today

September 24, 2014

Here’s an excerpt.

A year after the city was grappling with the potentially enormous cost of improving its aging stormwater system, the city has started to revamp its stormwater maintenance program without busting its budget or assessing property owners a new fee to help cover the cost.

The city also is earning kudos as it starts to adopt the recommendations of a much-praised citizen task force that spent more than 500 volunteer hours analyzing the city’s storm water infrastructure.

“We’ve historically maintained maybe a dozen culverts per year, and typically we’re just chasing problems and complaints,” Kelly Heaney, the city’s new water resources manager, said last week as she briefed the council on the improvements. “This year with the additional resources we were able to maintain 45 culverts in less than two months.”

Steamboat City Council members liked what they heard.

The biggest changes the city has made this year include hiring Heaney, increasing the streets maintenance budget and adding two seasonal employees dedicated to drainage maintenance.

All of the stormwater improvements in 2014 cost $302,000 and included $47,000 for capital improvements, according to Public Works Director Chuck Anderson.

The total cost of the improvements this year was far less than some of the multi-million dollar options the city was presented with last year for improving its neglected stormwater system.

Early last year, a Minnesota consulting firm that was paid $180,000 to study the city’s stormwater infrastructure, which includes bridges, culverts and dams, called for the city to possibly spend more than $10 million in new capital projects to upgrade its stormwater system and help manage future flooding and problems associated with annual spring runoff.

Faced with the high cost, city officials at one point floated the idea of assessing a fee to property owners to help pay for the improvements.

Before that, city officials were bracing for recommendations carrying a price tag even higher than the $10 million.

The city assembled the stormwater task force to look over the master plan and make recommendations for how to implement and fund it.

While several other communities in Colorado have turned to new fees on property owners to pay for expensive upgrades, the task force here recommended against that option at this time.

Instead, they called on the city to add more money in the annual budget for personnel to more proactively maintain the system.

More stormwater coverage here.


“If you look at the 14-year drought, Lake Powell has performed well” — Eric Millis #ColoradoRiver

August 25, 2014


From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Drought is nothing new to the arid West. It’s just never been witnessed by this many people. Vast swatches of Colorado burned in 2012-13, and California, Oregon and Washington are experiencing one of the worst fire seasons in history this year. In the Colorado River basin, Lake Mead is at the lowest levels since it first filled, while Lake Powell is approaching levels too low to generate power. So Western states, like Colorado, are emphasizing drought planning.

“What happens if the drought continues?” asked John McClow, president of the Colorado Water Congress.

To answer the question, water planners from other states in the Colorado River basin were invited to address the group’s summer conference.

“We have to come together as a basin to decide what happens after 2026,” said Tom McCann, assistant director of the Central Arizona Project. “The first thing is the lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada) need to reduce their use.”

CAP stands to lose one-fifth of its supply in a continued drought under temporary guidelines agreed to by states in 2007. To cope, Arizona has implemented conservation, underground storage and weather modification programs.

“We’ve been in a drought emergency since January,” said Tanya Trujillo, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, where more than 4,000 fires have occurred this year.

California voters will decide whether the state will issue $7.5 billion in bonds for water projects in this year’s elections. Already, the state has fallowed 800,000 acres of farm ground and imposed mandatory water restrictions statewide.

Utah is alarmed by the reduction in levels in Lake Powell that threaten power production, said Eric Millis of the Utah Department of Natural Resources. The state is contemplating a project that would build a pipeline from Lake Powell to serve municipal needs.

“If you look at the 14-year drought, Lake Powell has performed well,” Millis said.

But the downward trend in lake levels has continued after a brief spike in the record wet year of 2011.

In Wyoming, a cloud-seeding research program has been kept alive by donations from other states in the Colorado River Basin, said Steve Wolff, of the Wyoming engineer’s office.

The state is looking for the first time at using water from Fontenelle Reservoir — part of the storage system built to protect the obligation of upper states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) under the Colorado River Compact — as a protection against drought.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A three-year drought is nothing compared with the damage Los Angeles did to Mono Lake. But people are trying to fix that. Los Angeles expects to get just a fraction of the water it usually brings down off the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains this year, James Yannotta, manager of Los Angeles aqueduct system, told the Colorado Water Congress last week.

“We average 250,000 acre-feet,” he explained, adding that the city has other sources of water. “This year, it will be 40,000 acre-feet. This is horrible.”

The aqueduct system for the Owens Valley was completed prior to state environmental laws, and dried up agriculture in the area. But the extension to Mono Lake extension completed in 1940, 338 miles north of Los Angeles, became a lightning rod of environmental concern.

The level of the lake dropped 40 feet by 1989, and court cases and agreements in the 1990s required Los Angeles to restore it. The lake is three times saltier than the ocean, but Los Angeles captures the water from feeder streams in the closed system before it reaches the lake, Yannotta explained.

Half of the water Los Angeles used to take now stays in the Mono basin to address environmental needs. Formerly, 30,000-150,000 acre-feet annually were taken from Mono basin, but the level now is regulated by the level of Mono Lake. For the past few years, only 16,000 acre-feet have been pumped. That could be reduced to 4,500 acre-feet if the drought continues next year, Yannotta said. To make up for shortfalls in its traditional supplies, Los Angeles is looking at cleaning its contaminated groundwater supplies, reusing more water, capturing stormwater and conservation — strategies that will cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars.

Conservation efforts have kept water use steady, even though the population served grew by 1 million people in the past 20 years.

Meanwhile, Mono Lake is filling again, and streams in the Owens Valley below it are flowing as the giant city to the south reins in its thirst.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.


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