Watching the mouth of the Roaring Fork River — Aspen Journalism

May 24, 2015

railroadbridgeoverroaringforkrivermay2015viaaspenjournalismjeremywallaceaspentimes

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

As my raft floated under the railroad bridge at the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers last week, I was wondering just how much water would flow out of the Fork and into the Colorado this year.

Certainly less than average, given that the snowpack peaked in March and began melting off, I mused, taking a stroke to catch the big eddy that forms just shy of the mighty Colorado, where the Fork comes in across from Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs after draining 1,543 square miles of land.

Perhaps the wet and cold weather of late April and much of May will continue to forestall a sudden flash of melting snow, so what snow we still have in the high country will come off in a nice steady fashion.

But spinning around the eddy, I knew how easy it was, as a boater, to be wrong about water and weather. It is also, as it turns out, a tricky time of year for professional hydrologists to predict run-off, as data from low-elevation snow-measuring sites tapers off and daily weather conditions can play a big role in shaping how much water flows, and when it does.

In mid-March, which felt like summer already, a trip on the Green River starting April 12 seemed like a good bet this year to enjoy some warm weather. But a big storm swept in that week and blasted the river with freezing rain.

The same storm laid down 11 inches of snow on Aspen Mountain by Friday, April 17, making for a memorable closing weekend for some.

After warming up from that trip, I ventured optimistically out again during the first full week of May, this time on the Colorado River west of Loma. And I was soon engulfed in the downpours of May 5 and 6 that lead to river levels across the region jumping up.

Between May 5 and May 7, for example, the flow in the lower Fork doubled from a 1,000 cubic feet per second to over 2,000 cfs.

So when I went out on May 13 for my first trip of the season down the Roaring Fork from Carbondale to Glenwood, I wasn’t surprised that it started raining. It’s just been that kind of season so far — in fact, through May 19, total precipitation in the Roaring Fork River watershed was 204 percent, or double the normal amount of precipitation. according to the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

But the Fork was flowing that day at 1,110 cubic feet per second, which was enough water to have a perfectly nice float, especially as I did see some sun (and some red-wing blackbirds).

But will the river get much bigger this year, I wondered as I rowed toward Glenwood.

redcanyonfromroaringforkmay132015apenjournalimsjeremywallaceaspentimes

Below average flows

The Colorado River Basin Forecast Center in Salt Lake City forecast on May 19 that the Roaring Fork will most likely peak this year in mid- to late June at 4,300 cfs, as measured at Veltus Park, just above the Fork’s confluence with the Colorado.

That’s 73 percent of the Fork’s average annual peak of 5,920 cfs, which typically occurs between May 29 and June 23.

While this year’s likely peak flow of 4,300 cfs is certainly better than the lowest peak flow on record — 1,870 cfs on June 3, 2012 — it’s also way below the historic peak of 11,800 cfs on July 13 in 1995.

The forecast peak flow has increased given the cool and wet weather in May. So, if April showers bring May flowers, May showers are likely to bring better boating on the Fork in June.

“I would say it is very likely (the Roaring Fork) will see a below average peak flow this year,” said Brenda Alcorn, a senior hydrologist with the Forecast Center.

However, she added that what snowpack we do have “is in better shape than it was in 2002 and 2012, so I do not expect a record low peak.”

But just how much water comes, and when, is now weather dependent.

“Spring temperatures and precipitation play a significant role in the pattern of snowmelt runoff and consequently the magnitude of peak flows,” Alcorn said. “An extended period of much above normal temperatures or heavy rainfall during the melt period can cause higher than expected peaks, while cool weather can cause lower than expected peaks.”

On Friday, May 15, Julie Malingowsky, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said the period to at least May 25 looked cooler and wetter than normal, and longer-range forecasts indicate that the next several months could be wetter than normal.

(Also, see the Intermountain West Climate Dashboard of indicators at Western Water Assessment)

But probably not wet enough make up for the skinny snowpack.

“Even though it has been a wet month, we are still drier than normal,” Malingowsky said.

confulenceroaringforkcrystalriver05132015aspenjournalismjeremywallaceaspentime

Below average supply

Another view of this year’s water picture is available from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s “Colorado Water Supply Outlook Report,” which was published on May 1.

The report shows that the “most likely” amount of water to reach the bottom of the Roaring Fork between April and the end of July is 450,000 acre-feet, according to Brian Domonkos, a data collection officer with NRCS.

That’s below the 30-year average of 690,000 acre-feet flowing down the Fork for the period from April to August. (The Roaring Fork delivers, on average, 871,100 acre-feet of water to the Colorado River over a full year, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources).

The water-supply report said that current conditions point to “a below normal streamflow forecast picture for much of the state heading into spring and summer of 2015.”

However, Gus Goodbody, a forecast hydrologist with NRCS, said the amount of water expected to flow out of the Roaring Fork is likely to increase from the May 1 forecast by five to 10 percent, given May’s weather so far.

“It’s going to go up,” he said.

Another indicator of potential run-off is the measure of the “snow water equivalent” at SNOTEL measuring sites in the Roaring Fork basin.

The average from the eight SNOTEL sites in the Roaring Fork basin was 108 percent on May 19, but that’s without complete data from four of the sites.

That number — 108 percent — has been climbing steadily since May 1, but it’s not an indicator that the snowpack has been growing. What it does show is that the cool and wet weather has slowed the run-off and moved the data closer to the historic average — which, again, bodes well for June boating. But in addition to the snowpack and the weather, there are other factors that dictate the flows in the Fork at Glenwood Springs.

lookingupthecoloradoriverconfluenceroaringforkaspenjournalismjeremywallaceaspentimes

Off the top

An average of 40,600 acre-feet of water a year is collected from the upper Roaring Fork River basin and sent through a tunnel under Independence Pass and into Twin Lakes Reservoir, destined for Aurora, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Pueblo West.

The Twin Lakes diversion takes 40 percent of the water out of the upper Roaring Fork basin above Aspen, according to the 2012 Roaring Fork Watershed Plan.

Another 61,500 acre-feet is collected on average each year from tributaries of the upper Fryingpan River and sent east through the Bousted and Busk tunnels. That accounts for 37 percent of the water in the upper Fryingpan headwaters.

As such, there are many days when there are rivers heading both east and west out of the Roaring Fork River watershed, and the ones heading east can often be bigger.

For example, on May 13, while I was floating on 1,110 cfs at the bottom of the Fork, there was 136 cfs of water running under the Continental Divide in the Twin Lakes — Independence Pass Tunnel, which can, and does, divert up to 625 cfs later in the runoff season.

And the Bousted Tunnel, which transports the water collected from the headwaters of the Fryingpan River, as well as Hunter and Midway creeks in the Roaring Fork basin, was diverting 101 cfs on May 13.

Meanwhile, the gauge on Stillwater Drive on May 14 showed the main stem of the Fork was flowing, just east of Aspen, at 111 cfs.

Then there is the water diverted out of the rivers in the basin and into one of the many irrigation ditches along the Fork, the Crystal and other streams in the basin.

Ken Ransford, a member of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, estimates that the 12 biggest irrigation ditches on the Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers divert about 115,000 acre-feet of water a year.

Most of that water eventually finds its way back to the rivers, but the diversions also leave many stream reaches lower than they otherwise would be, and few tributaries are left untouched.

According to the Roaring Fork Watershed Plan, “flow-altered stream reaches include the Roaring Fork, Fryingpan, and Crystal rivers, as well as Hunter, Lincoln, Maroon, Castle, West Willow, Woody, Snowmass, Capitol, Collins, Sopris, Nettie, Thompson, Cattle, Fourmile, and Threemile creeks.”

Another factor shaping the flows in the lower Fork are decisions made by regional water managers, including irrigators near Grand Junction and municipal water providers in Denver, that can shape releases from reservoirs such as Green Mountain and Ruedi.

Who needs water, and when, can also dictate the size of that eddy at the bottom of the Fork. So for now, I’m just glad it’s big enough to float a boat.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times, the Aspen Times Weekly, and The Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of rivers and water. The Aspen Times Weekly published this story on Thursday, May 21, 2015.

More Roaring Fork River watershed coverage here.


Southeastern Water board meeting recap: Lake Pueblo, swollen by 12,000 acre-feet of flood water

May 24, 2015
Fryingpan-Arkansas Project via the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District

Fryingpan-Arkansas Project via the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Water, water everywhere.

Not going to be a problem later in the year, right?

Hold on.

The Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District Thursday considered the possibilities of how water comes through the Boustead Tunnel into Turquoise Lake under the Fryingpan- Arkansas Project.

All signs are pointing toward a more-or-less normal year in terms of water supply. Lake Pueblo, swollen by 12,000 acre-feet of flood water, is 132 percent of average. The flood water already was being released on Thursday, raising Arkansas River levels in the wake of the flood surge.

Turquoise and Twin Lakes are above average in the upper reaches of the Arkansas River, while John Martin Reservoir has begun filling again to its highest level since 2010, about 82,000 acre-feet on Thursday.

Snowpack levels in the headwaters of both the Colorado and Arkansas Rivers are back to normal, but it’s late in the season and both basins fell short of peak moisture levels this year.

But very little transmountain water has come over so far, just 4,254 acre-feet of a projected 53,000 acre-feet for the season.

“It all depends on how it comes off,” said Roy Vaughan, Fry-Ark manager for the Bureau of Reclamation.

Cold temperatures are preventing the snow from melting at prime rates, as it does at this time of year in some cases.

“The tunnel hasn’t started to run at full capacity, so we’re behind,” Vaughan said.

If it warms up too quickly, the Fry-Ark structures won’t be able to capture it. And river levels have to be met on the Western Slope, Vaughan explained.

In the past decade, the Southeastern district has adopted new policies to avoid over-allocating water early in the season, so it holds back 20 percent of the allocation.

More coverage from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

Farms will get a boost in water supply, with nearly average allocations from the Fryingpan- Arkansas Project, but reduced requests from cities for water.

The Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District Thursday approved allocations from the project, based on snow forecasts, which have improved since projections of water supply were made May 1.

The district projects that 53,000 acre-feet (17 billion gallons) of water will be brought through the Boustead Tunnel into Turquoise Lake. That would mean almost 45,700 acre-feet available for allocation.

Of that, about one-third will go to cities and two-thirds to farms. Under the district’s allocation principles, the split would be closer to 53 percent municipal and 47 percent agricultural.

Initially, just 80 percent of the water will be allocated in case conditions change and imports are less than expected. The remaining 20 percent will be available when imports reach the target.

If more water above the target is brought over, there could be a second allocation.

Cost of the water is $9 per acre-foot for farms and $9.75 for cities.

Municipalities reduced their requests significantly this year.

The Fountain Valley Authority (Colorado Springs, Fountain, Security, Stratmoor Hills and Widefield) requested and received 7,216 acrefeet, but was eligible for 11,625 acre-feet.

The Pueblo Board of Water Works was eligible for 4,568 acrefeet, but requested and received no water, since Pueblo Water has ample water in storage this year.

Cities east of Pueblo took slightly less water than authorized, mainly because St. Charles Mesa Water District took just one-sixth of its share. Fowler, Crowley County and Joseph Water all took significantly more water than authorized, while most others were close to average.

Cities west of Pueblo took slightly more. All received the full amount requested.

Pueblo West and Manitou Springs, which get water that was redirected from agriculture when Crowley County farms were dried up by Aurora, will each get full allocations of about 155 and 160 acre-feet, respectively.

The net effect was moving about 9,000 acre-feet to the agricultural side of the ledger, said Garrett Markus, district engineer.

On the agricultural side, Fort Lyon Canal will received the largest allocation, with 10,653 acre-feet, and it will use 3,135 acre-feet of return flows under a pilot project that allows the ditch to use its own return flows for replacement water under state irrigation rules. Only 58,618 acres of the ditch are eligible for Fry-Ark water. The ditch irrigates 93,000 acres, but owners with more than 960 acres, including Pure Cycle (which has 14,600 acres) are not eligible.

As usual, requests for ag water far outpaced the available water.

Farmers asked for 106,570 acre-feet to cover 146,000 acres on 25 canals, ditches or farms. Only 30,024 acrefeet were allocated.

Another 7,431 acre-feet of agricultural return flows were allocated, 95 percent to the three major well augmentation groups in the Arkansas Valley.

More Fryingpan-Arkansas Project coverage here.


Sump pumps hooked directly to wastewater lines a headache in Colorado Springs

May 22, 2015
Colorado Springs circa 1910 via GhostDepot.com

Colorado Springs circa 1910 via GhostDepot.com

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Ryan Maye Handy):

…some incorrectly installed sump pumps in the Pleasant Valley neighborhood, around Colorado Avenue and 31 Street, have caused Colorado Springs Utilities’ wastewater lines to overflow with groundwater.

Utilities crews have worked for the last two weeks to remove some water from overloaded wastewater systems before the contaminated water overflows manholes and rushes into the street, said Utilities spokesman Steve Berry.

Pumps hooked up directly to the wastewater system are a problem for Utilities and homeowners.

“The number one risk is really for the customer,” Berry said Tuesday. “If the sump pump is hooked up to the wastewater system … then the biggest threat is really to your home.”

If excess groundwater gets pushed into the wastewater system, it could backfire and send water back into a home or a neighboring home, Berry said…

Sump pumps are supposed to discharge excess groundwater outside a home, typically through a pipe that dumps into a yard. But, particularly in older neighborhoods such as Pleasant Valley, sometimes the pumps are connected directly to a home’s wastewater line, which connects to Utilities’ wastewater main.

Homeowners own their wastewater lines and are responsible for maintaining them, and if damage on the private line affects the main Utilities line, homeowners could be liable, Berry said. He said homeowners should make sure pumps are correctly installed, although most will likely have to hire someone to check the system.

“These folks don’t even know, and it’s certainly not their fault, but now they need to,” Berry said.

More wastewater coverage here.


Colorado’s Water Plan and WISE water infrastructure — The Denver Post

May 19, 2015

WISE System Map September 11, 2014

WISE System Map September 11, 2014


From The Denver Post (James Eklund/Eric Hecox):

The Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency (WISE) project is a partnership among Aurora Water, Denver Water and the South Metro Water Supply Authority to combine available water supplies and system capacities to create a sustainable new water supply. Aurora and Denver will provide fully treated water to South Metro Water on a permanent basis. WISE also will enable Denver Water to access its supplies during periods when it needs to.

All of this will be accomplished while allowing Aurora to continue to meet its customers’ current and future needs.

Aurora’s Prairie Waters system will provide the backbone for delivering water from the South Platte when Aurora and Denver Water have available water supplies and capacity. The water will be distributed to the South Metro Denver communities through an existing pipeline shared with Denver and East Cherry Creek Valley Water and Sanitation District, and new infrastructure that will be constructed over the next 16 months…

WISE is a key element to this plan. With construction agreements in place, we will break ground in coming weeks to begin connecting water systems throughout the Denver Metro area. When WISE begins delivering water in 2016:

• The South Denver Metro area will receive a significant new renewable water supply;

• Denver will receive a new backup water supply;

• Aurora will receive funding from partners to help offset its Prairie Waters Project costs and stabilize water rates; and

• The Western Slope will receive new funding, managed by the River District, for water supply, watershed and water quality projects.

More WISE Project coverage here.


2015 Colorado legislation: Governor to sign SB15-212 (Drinking Water Fund Assistance Nonprofit Entities) today in Rocky Ford

May 19, 2015
Rocky Ford Melon Day 1893 via the Colorado Historical Society

Rocky Ford Melon Day 1893 via the Colorado Historical Society

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Nonprofit rural water districts will benefit from new legislation that will allow them to apply for state grants and loans.

Gov. John Hickenlooper is scheduled to sign the legislation into law this afternoon in Rocky Ford, at the offices of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District.

“The beauty of this is that it just doesn’t help water districts in our area, but throughout the whole state,” said Bill Hancock, manager of conservation programs for the Lower Ark District.

Hancock is part of the Eureka Water District, one of 28 water districts in Otero County, many of them private associations. Those districts sprang up during a time when rural households were switching from cisterns to water delivery systems that served multiple households.

Now, those districts are finding it difficult to make changes required by stricter water quality regulations or just the need to keep up with repairs.

The legislation, Senate Bill 121, amends the law for the drinking water revolving fund administered by the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority to make private, nonprofit entities eligible for loans or grants. It was sponsored by Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, and others.

“A lot of the companies are dealing with radionuclides or have aging infrastructure, which is very costly to fix, and they have no good way to finance improvements,” Hancock said. “In order to get government help, they had to be a governmental entity.”

Some of the private water districts in Otero County formed an association last year in an attempt to get state funds, but it was treated as a “pass-through” agency by the state, Hancock said. The Lower Ark district pushed for the new law that keeps the funding door open.

“We needed a legislative change,” he said.

The new law also will help agencies in the Arkansas Valley Conduit prepare for hooking into the new water delivery system from Pueblo Dam when it is built.

More infrastructure coverage here.


The 1st quarter Colorado River District board meeting summary is hot off the presses #ColoradoRiver

May 19, 2015

Ritschard Dam movement graphic Colorado River District

Ritschard Dam movement graphic Colorado River District


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

The Colorado River District owns and operates the Ritschard Dam forming Wolford Mountain Reservoir near Kremmling in Grand County. It is a clay-core, rock fill dam that has experienced settling beyond the amounts normally expected by designers for a dam of this type.

The dam is safe and will con􏰁nue to be safe in the future, according to the District’s engineering staff. Engineering consultants engaged by the Colorado River District to study the problem since 2009, as well as the Dam Safety Branch of the Colorado Division of Water Resources agree that the dam is safe and poses no danger.

To maintain that standard, after an aggressive five-year investigation that included installation and monitoring of sophisticated instruments to measure the movements, the Colorado River District will decide this year on a renovation and repair scenario.

Since the dam was constructed in 1995, it has settled near its center by about two feet, a foot more than anticipated. Along with this settlement, the crest of the dam has shifted downstream by about eight inches.

Engineering consultants engaged by the Colorado River District to study the problem since 2009, as well as the Dam Safety Branch of the Colorado Division of Water Resources say the dam is safe and poses no danger.

Out of an abundance of caution, Colorado River District Chief Engineer John Currier said enough informa􏰁on has been compiled to identify by mid-year the repair options and advise the Colorado River District Board of Directors on the proper one to choose.

Consultants from AECOM (formerly URS) and River District staff briefed the Board of Directors on the condition and analysis of the dam at its January quarterly in Glenwood Springs.

“We as a staff think it is incumbent upon us as an organiza􏰁on to really start moving this issue down the road,” Currier said. He noted that computer modeling of the se􏰂lement suggests that in future years, safety might be compromised, so a solution will be identified this year.

Although Colorado’s chief of dam safety has not placed an operational restriction on the dam, the Colorado River District will continue with the cautionary policy it began in 2014. Once the reservoir fills this spring, it will be immediately lowered by 10 feet in elevation. The lower water level has been shown by instrumentation to slow down settlement trends.

According to Currier, at that lower level, the Colorado River District can still meet its water contracting delivery needs, as well as obligations to endangered fish releases to the Colorado River.

Also still protected is Denver Water’s leasehold interest in a portion of the storage that it employs in dry years to compensate for water it stores in Dillon Reservoir out of priority over Green Mountain Reservoir. At 10 feet down, recreational use will not be adversely affected.

By the Board’s quarterly meeting in July, AECOM and staff will have repair scenarios to consider, including comparative costs.

AECOM engineers told the Board that the culprit in the settlement was a poorly compacted rock fill shell that surrounds the clay core on the upstream and downstream sides.

In such a dam, the clay core material is the impervious element in the dam. The rock fill shell supports the core. All dams, whether concrete or earthen, seep water.

At Ritschard Dam, filters meant to collect seepage are in excellent shape and are doing their job. Seepage does not show any effects from the settlement, Currier said.

More Colorado River District coverage here.


Have you ever wondered what happens to gravel pits? Most of them turn into water storage — @Coloradoan

May 18, 2015

From the Fort Collins Coloradan (Kevin Duggan):

The bodies of water once were strip mines where excavators and bulldozers roamed, pulling up rich deposits of gravel, sand and river rock. Noisy crushing machines sorted out the materials, which went toward building roads, bridges and buildings and decorating gardens.

In their wake, the mining operations left behind deep, gaping pits in the Poudre Valley landscape that over time were transformed into water-storage vessels and “natural” areas.

“There is not a natural lake on the Poudre,” said Rob Helmick, a senior planner with Larimer County. “All of those areas have been mined at some point. In many cases, it happened decades ago.”

A review of aerial photos of the river between Laporte and the Larimer/Weld county line near Windsor showed at least 30 permitted gravel-mining sites and about 70 ponds of various shapes and sizes, Helmick said. Many of the pits likely predate state and county regulations on gravel-mining operations.

A state law passed in 1977 put an end to the practice of abandoning spent gravel pits by requiring reclamation of mining sites, said Tony Waldron, mineral program manager with the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.

“It used to be a rape-and-escape mentality,” he said. “Operators moved on and left the mines behind.”

Today, an operator must post a bond with the state that is returned only after reclamation work, such as grading and planting native plants to re-vegetate a site, is completed and the permit closed.

The reclamation and treatment a pit receives depends upon its next use. The complexities of state law on water ownership also come into play…

The water volumes may be small compared to large reservoirs, but they matter to the districts, he said. The partnership expects to spend about $17 million on the project.

“We don’t have the return-flow obligations that Greeley has, so we are going for storage,” DiTullio said. “Every little bit helps. And it’s a natural use for those pits.”

State water law requires water managers to account for where their water comes from and where it goes, including evaporation. The pits are lined with clay or have “slurry walls” built around them to keep groundwater out of the facilities.

The state’s permitting process and testing requirements have strict standards, including the slope of a pit, Guggisberg said…

A mined-out gravel pit once was considered a liability by property owners, Waldron said. The pits were sold for low prices or given away to municipalities and counties to use as natural areas.

Attitudes started to change in the 1990s when water storage became a statewide issue and major reservoir projects, such as Two Forks Dam proposed west of Denver, became increasingly difficult and expensive to build.

A law passed in 1981 requiring owners of unlined pits that were connected to groundwater flow to account for evaporation and replace the lost water by was another complication.

Former pits became a viable way to store and release water to meet state regulations for augmenting water lost to evaporation, said Mark Sears, natural areas manager with Fort Collins. Being able to return water to the Poudre motivated the city’s Natural Resources Department to partner with Fort Collins Utilities to build Rigden Reservoir off East Horsetooth Road.

Some ponds are stocked for fishing by the Colorado Division of Wildlife and Parks. The river areas are highly popular, Sears said.

“Just from their scenic value, the river natural areas are great,” he said. “And they are wonderful habitat, especially around the edges, for a variety of species.”

More Cache la Poudre watershed coverage here.


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