State water board rules against Glenwood’s proposed whitewater rights — Aspen Journalism #ColoradoRiver

Upstream view of the Colorado River at the mouth of the Roaring fork River
Upstream view of the Colorado River at the mouth of the Roaring fork River

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

IGNACIO — The ongoing effort by the city of Glenwood Springs to establish a new water right for three potential whitewater parks on the Colorado River was dealt a setback Thursday by the directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

The CWCB board voted 8-to-1 to adopt staff “findings of fact” that the proposed water rights for a “recreational in-channel diversion,” or RICD, would “impair Colorado’s ability to fully develop its compact entitlements” and would not promote “the maximum beneficial use of water” in the state.

James Eklund, the director of the CWCB, and a nonvoting board member, was asked after the meeting what he would tell a kayaker in Glenwood about the board’s vote on Thursday.

“These are complicated issues,” Eklund said. “The CWCB values recreational water projects and takes very seriously its charge to strike a balance among recreational, environmental and consumptive uses. The proponent’s data and analysis weren’t able to demonstrate that the RICD as proposed struck this balance to the satisfaction of the CWCB.”

The CWCB board is required by state law to review all applications made in water courts for new recreational water rights, and to make a determination if the water right would prevent the state from developing all the water it legally can.

Colorado’s “compact entitlements” stem from the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which requires seven Western states to share water from the larger Colorado River basin.

The compact requires that an unspecified amount of water be divided between Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, and estimates of the amount of water Colorado can still develop under the compact range from zero to 400,000 acre-feet to 1.5 million acre-feet.

Mark Hamilton, an attorney with Holland and Hart representing Glenwood, told the CWCB board members Thursday that there would be “no material impairment” to the state’s ability to develop new water supplies.

“If the issue really is what’s the additional upstream development potential, we would point out that significant upstream development can still occur,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton also said that the recreational water right would be non-consumptive, meaning the water would stay in the river and simply flow over u-shaped, wave-producing concrete forms embedded into the riverbed.

Glenwood is seeking the right to call for 1,250 cubic feet per second of water to be delivered to three whitewater parks at No Name, Horseshoe Bend and Two Rivers Park, from April 1 to Sept. 30.

It also wants the right to call for 2,500 cfs for up to 46 days between April 30 and July 23, and to call for 4,000 cfs on five consecutive days sometime between May 11 and July 6 in order to host a whitewater competition.

Aurora and Colorado Springs, together as partners in the Homestake transmountain diversion project, are opposing Glenwood’s water rights application, which was filed in December 2013.

“We do not oppose reasonable RICDs, but we believe this RICD claim is extraordinary by any measure,” Joseph Stibrich, the water resources policy manager for the city of Aurora, told the CWCB board, which was meeting in Ignacio on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation.

“We believe that a water claim of over 581,000 acre feet will seriously impair full development of Colorado’s compact entitlement,” Stibrich said. “This claim will severely impact the state of Colorado’s ability to meet its future water needs.”

Stibrich also said “this RICD is going to shift the burden of water supply development to meet the future needs of the state to the Yampa, to the Gunnison, and to the Rio Grande basins, while promoting further dry-up of irrigated lands throughout the state.”

Denver Water is also opposing Glenwood’s water rights application.

As part of the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, Denver Water agreed not to oppose a RICD application from Glenwood, but only if Glenwood did not seek a flow greater than 1,250 cubic feet per second, which is the same size as the senior water right tied to the Shoshone hydropower plant.

Casey Funk, an attorney with Denver Water, said the utility stands by its agreement, but since Glenwood has asked for more than 1,250 cfs, it is opposing the city’s water court application. However, Funk said Denver Water is willing to keep negotiating with Glenwood.

The city made the case on Thursday that it was asking for more than 1,250 cfs on only 46 days between April and September, and it was doing so because the stretch of the Colorado from Grizzly to Two Rivers Park was more fun to float at 2,500 cfs than 1,250 cfs.

According to testimony Thursday, Glenwood also offered to include a “carve-out” in its water right to allow for 20,000 acre-feet of water to be diverted, stored and transported upstream of the proposed whitewater parks at some point in the future.

But that did not do much to sway the concerns of the CWCB staff.

“Staff is concerned with this provision, as it does not include water rights for transmountain diversions,” stated a July 15 memo to the CWCB board from Ted Kowalski and Suzanne Sellers of the CWCB’s Interstate, Federal & Water Information Section.

The CWCB staff memo also found that Glenwood’s recreational water rights would “exacerbate the call on the river and materially impact the ability of the state to fully use its compact entitlements because the RICDs will pull a substantial amount of water downstream.”

Peter Fleming, the general counsel for the Colorado River District, suggested the CWCB board give the parties in the case more time to continue negotiating before it ruled on its staffs’ findings.

The River District, which is also a party to Glenwood’s water court case, represents 15 counties on the Western Slope.

“We think that compact issues are effectively done,” Fleming told the board about Glenwood’s application. “We believe there is sufficient water above the RICD to develop.”

But the CWCB board did not take Fleming’s suggestion, and after relatively little debate and discussion, a motion was made to accept the staff’s findings that Glenwood’s RICD failed two of the three criteria the CWCB board was supposed to rule on.

“I think it is really unfortunate that the board took the approach they did,” said Nathan Fey, the Colorado stewardship director for American Whitewater, after the board’s decision against Glenwood.

American Whitewater and Western Resource Advocates are both parties in the water court case, and they are supporting Glenwood’s application.

“It is unclear what evidence the staff presented that shows it is of material impairment to developing our water, or maximizing use of the state’s water,” Fey said. “Those are significant concerns, but I don’t think the state made a very strong case on those points. And it sounds like we would prefer to see another transmountain diversion and some future use on the Front Range, rather than protect the current river uses we have in our communities, like Glenwood Springs, now.”

The board’s finding will now be sent to the Division 5 Water Court in Glenwood Springs, where the city filed its water rights application and the process is still unfolding.

And while the CWCB board’s determination is not binding on a water court judge, it has to be considered by the court as part of the ongoing case.

But Hamilton, Glenwood’s attorney, said after the meeting that the court would also need to consider additional balancing information presented by Glenwood.

It could be an uphill journey for Glenwood, though, as the CWCB staff has also been directed by the CWCB board to remain a party in the water court case and to defend its “findings of fact,” which includes more issues than were considered by the CWCB on Thursday.

Given the board’s vote on Thursday, Stibrich of Aurora said settlement discussions with Glenwood Springs are now likely.

“I’m certain they will make overtures to us and we’ll talk,” Stibrich said. “We’ll see if something can be reached or not.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times on coverage of rivers and water. The Post Independent published this story online on July 16, 2015.

More whitewater coverage here.

City of Glenwood Springs proposed whitewater parks via Aspen Journalism
City of Glenwood Springs proposed whitewater parks via Aspen Journalism

Aspinall Unit operations update: Releases from Crystal to be lowered to 2000 cfs #ColoradoRiver

Aspinall Unit
Aspinall Unit

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from Crystal Dam will be decreased from 3700 cfs to 2000 cfs between July 2nd and July 6th. Releases will be decreased by 200 cfs today, and then by 400 cfs each day over the next 3 days, with a final decrease of 300 cfs on the morning of July 6th. This reduction is in response to the continuing decline in runoff to the Aspinall Unit reservoirs. The current forecast for April-July unregulated inflow to Blue Mesa Reservoir is now 700,000 acre-feet which is 104% of average.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1500 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1500 cfs for July.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are around 1000 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are 2800 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be around 1000 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon should be around 1100 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

More Aspinall Unit coverage here.

Granby: “State of the River” meeting recap #ColoradoRiver

Historical Colorado River between Granby and Hot Sulphur Springs
Historical Colorado River between Granby and Hot Sulphur Springs

From the Sky-Hi Daily News (Hank Shell):

During the meeting, officials from the Upper Colorado River Basin’s biggest water interests including Northern Water, Denver Water and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spoke about some of the basin’s biggest issues, including the state of runoff and snowpack in the region and the movement at Ritschard Dam on Wolford Mountain Reservoir.

Though snowpack seemed to falter during what proved to be a rather dry March, it’s been building steadily over the last three to four weeks, explained Don Meyer with the Colorado River District.

The variations in snowpack have pushed the basin into “uncharted territory,” he said.

“I think the message here is think 2010 in terms of snowpack,” Meyer said.

Though he added that snowpack is not analogous to runoff, Meyer said 2015 “will likely eclipse 2010 in terms of stream flow.”

Victor Lee with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation echoed Meyer, adding that recent cold temperatures across the region have allowed snowpack to persist.

Though snowpack is currently below average, it could linger past the point at which the average snowpack tends to drop…

If the current snowpack does translate into high runoff in Grand County, there may not be anywhere to put it, Lee said.

Front Range reservoirs are full, and storage in Lake Granby is the highest it’s ever been for this time of year, according to Lee’s presentation…

Though it could be a good runoff year for Grand County, Meyer said that snow-water equivalent above Lake Powell is still well below average, making it a dry year for the Upper Colorado River Basin overall.

RITSCHARD DAM

Officials aren’t sure when the settling and movement at Ritschard Dam will stop, but it poses no threat to safety, said John Currier with the Colorado River District.

“We really are absolutely confident that we don’t have an imminent safety problem with this dam,” Currier said…

ENDANGERED FISH

The Bureau of Reclamation will increase flows from the Granby Dam to 1,500 CFS around May 29 and maintain those flows until around June 8, Lee said.

The releases will be part of an endangered fish recovery program and will be coordinated with releases from other basin reservoirs to enhance peak flows in the Grand Valley where the plan is focused.

Wolford Mountain Reservoir will also participate in the coordinated releases, Meyer said.

The program hopes to re-establish bonytail chub, Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker and humpback chub populations to a 15-mile stretch of the Colorado River above Grand Junction.

WINDY GAP FIRMING

After receiving its Record of Decision last year, the Windy Gap Firming Project’s next major hurdle is acquiring a Section 404 permit from the Army Corps of Engineers for the construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir, said Don Carlson with Northern Water.

The permit regulates dredged or fill material into water as part of the Clean Water Act.

Northern Water hopes to acquire the permit this year, with construction possibly beginning in 2016 or 2017, Carlson said.

The project seeks to firm up the Windy Gap water right with a new Front Range reservoir. The project currently stores water in Lake Granby.

Because it’s a junior water right, yield for the project is little to nothing in dry years.

Northern Water also hopes to establish a free-flowing channel of the Colorado River beside the Windy Gap Reservoir as part of the Windy Gap Reservoir Bypass Project.

The new channel would allow for fish migration and improve aquatic habitat along the Colorado River.

That project still needs $6 million of its projected $10 million cost.

MOFFAT TUNNEL FLOWS

Moffat Tunnel flows are hovering around 15 CFS as Denver Water is getting high yield from its Boulder Creek water right, said Bob Steger with Denver Water.

The increased yield from that junior water right means flows through Moffat Tunnel will remain low through early summer, Steger said.

“The point is we’ll be taking a lot less water than we normally do,” he said.

Denver Water expects its flows through the tunnel to increase in late summer as its yield from Boulder Creek drops, Steger said.

Williams Fork Reservoir, which is used to fulfill Denver Water’s obligations on the Western Slope, is expected to fill in three to four weeks, Steger said.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.

Watching the mouth of the Roaring Fork River — Aspen Journalism

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

‘Split season’ approach to water use could benefit state’s rivers, including the Crystal River — Aspen Journalism

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From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

An innovative deal put together by the Colorado Water Trust to leave more water in the Little Cimarron River, a heavily-diverted tributary of the Cimarron and Gunnison rivers east of Montrose, could serve as model solution to the low flows that often plague the Crystal River in late summer.

“Any new tool coming online that can help agriculture and the environment share water could be useful in the ongoing conversation about the Crystal River,” said Amy Beatie, the executive director of the Colorado Water Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring streamflows in Colorado.

The “new tool” is a recognition that under current state law an irrigation water right can be changed to also include a late-season instream flow right, at least if the Colorado Water Conservation Board has an interest in the water right.

Under such a “split season” approach, water can be diverted as normal to, say, grow hay in June and July. But in August and September, when river levels typically drop, water normally diverted for irrigation can be left in the river.

In the case of the Little Cimarron River, it will allow 5.8 cubic feet per second of water to flow past a diversion headgate in late summer down nine miles of river, including 3.3 miles of the Little Cimarron normally left nearly dry.

Rick Lafaro, the executive director of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, which is working to find solutions to low flows on the Crystal River, said he thought the Little Cimarron deal was “pretty exciting.”

And Beatie of the Water Trust said the concept has statewide application.

“If there is anybody who would be willing to forgo irrigation later in the irrigation season, and would be interested in a payment from us to do that, and then would allow us to take a water right through the water court process in order to protect it for instream flow, then it works anywhere in Colorado,” Beatie said.

But such arrangements can be complex.

“These water acquisitions all require a confluence of a lot of variables,” said Linda Bassi, the head of the CWCB’s instream flow program. “You have to find a water right that is available, and it has to be in a place where it will benefit a reach that needs water.”

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Streams dry from diversions

Sections of the lower Crystal River often run dry, or nearly so, in the late summer months, due in large part to a number of irrigation diversions on the river.

A similar situation has existed for years on the Little Cimarron River. It flows pristinely out of the Uncompahgre Wilderness but is often left nearly dry below the McKinley irrigation ditch.

In an effort to leave more water in the Little Cimarron below the McKinley Ditch, the Water Trust signed a contract on April 23 with the CWCB that allows for 5.8 cfs of water to be left in the stream in late summer.

“As a result, the Little Cimarron River is expected to remain a live stream during the irrigation season, and no longer experience dry-up conditions below headgates,” a memo prepared for the CWCB’s September 2014 board meeting states.

The memo also notes that the “split season use of the water is distinctive because it acknowledges and preserves the value of irrigated agriculture as well as the value of restoring flow to a local river.”

The water left in the Little Cimarron will also benefit a reach of the main Cimarron River, which runs into the Gunnison River below Morrow Point Reservoir.

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Deal took years

The Colorado Water Trust has been working on the deal since 2008, when John Shephardson contacted the Trust about buying his water rights.

Shephardson had subdivided his scenic 214-acre ranch along the Little Cimarron into 35-acre parcels and wanted sell the land and the associated water rights.

Shephardson owned 1.5 shares, or 18.75 percent, of the shares in the McKinley Ditch. His shares gave him the right to use 5.8 cfs of water to irrigate 194.5 acres of land, where he grew hay and raised cattle.

The McKinley Ditch as a whole has rights, with appropriation dates ranging from 1886 to 1912, to divert up to 31 cfs of water from the Little Cimarron to irrigate 947 acres of land.

Shephardson was ultimately not successful in developing his property and Montrose Bank foreclosed on it.

In 2012 Western Rivers Conservancy, which buys land to help preserve rivers, purchased both the property and the water rights from Montrose Bank.

In January 2014 the Water Trust bought the 5.8 cfs of water rights from the Conservancy for $500,000.

In September 2014 the CWCB board agreed to purchase a permanent “grant of flow restoration use” from the Water Trust for $145,640. The CWCB is the only entity under state law that can hold an instream flow right.

The state’s purchase price was based on an estimate of the loss of agricultural revenues that would come by leaving the water in the river in late summer.

“We’re purchasing a right to use the water that would have been used to produce a second cutting of hay,” said the CWCB’s Bassi.

littlecimarronrivercwt

The water court process

On Dec. 31, 2014 the CWCB and the Water Trust filed an application in Div. 4 Water Court in Montrose to change their water rights on the McKinley Ditch to add an instream flow right.

To date, only two statements of opposition have been filed in the water court case, and both are from neighboring landowners (David Taylor, Wayne Mauer) making sure their water rights are not injured by the change of use, said Beatie of the Water Trust, who believes the water court process will go smoothly.

Beatie said no part of Colorado water law needs to be changed to make the deal happen.

“All we’re doing is transferring a water right to instream flow purposes and making sure in our application that there isn’t injury to other water users,” Beatie said. “We took a customary transfer process and applied it to the outcome that we wanted, which was partial irrigation and partial flow restoration.”

Bassi, of the CWCB, said that creating a “split-season” use of water for both irrigation and instream flow has long been possible under Colorado water law, but such a use just hasn’t been applied for until now.

“This is the first time we’ve done it and we’re hoping it will create a template for more partnerships with agriculture and environmental interests,” Bassi said.

James Eklund, director of the CWCB, says the effort on the Little Cimarron is evidence of a “mindset shift” he’s seeing among irrigators, environmentalists and water regulators in the state.

“The idea that you can use a split-season concept exemplifies the potential for people to get over the perception that a water right can only be used for one thing,” Eklund said. “It is representative of a very big change that I think we’re going to need to see more and more of going forward.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of water and rivers. The Times published this story on Monday, April 27, 2014.

More instream flow coverage here.

“This project is a great new example of how water sharing can work” — Amy Beatie

Little Cimarron River via the Western Rivers Conservancy
Little Cimarron River via the Western Rivers Conservancy

From Steamboat Today (Tom Ross):

[The Colorado Water Trust] has collaborated with the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) to restore late summer flows to a 5-mile stretch of the Little Cimarron River in the Gunnison River Basin by sharing an agricultural water right.

Water Trust Executive Director Amy Beatie told Steamboat Today this week the agreement is the first of its kind, allowing agricultural water rights holders to use their water to raise a crop in early summer and then choose to be compensated for leaving it in the river in late summer and early fall. Compensation can be in the form of a lease or sale. It’s a model they hope to see replicated around the state.

“How to meet the ecological needs of streams while keeping water in agriculture is a discussion happening at every level of water policy in the state,” Beatie said Thursday in a prepared statement. “Agriculture is an essential part of Colorado’s economy. So are recreation and the environment. This project is a great new example of how water sharing can work on the ground within the state’s existing laws to bring together what are usually seen as incompatible uses.”

Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Linda Bassi/Amy Beatie):

The Colorado Water Conservation Board (“CWCB”) and the Colorado Water Trust (“CWT”) today finalized an innovative agreement under which the same water rights will be used to both restore stream flows and preserve agriculture in the Gunnison Basin.

The CWCB is the only entity in the state that can hold instream flow water rights to preserve and improve the natural environment to a reasonable degree. Under its Water Acquisition Program, the CWCB can acquire water from willing water rights owners by donation, purchase, lease or other arrangement to include in Colorado’s Instream Flow Program. The CWCB and CWT partnership has resulted in many significant water acquisitions for instream flow use.

Under the agreement, up to 5 cubic feet per second of water that was historically diverted by the McKinley Ditch out of the Little Cimarron River (a tributary to the Cimarron River and Gunnison River in Gunnison and Montrose counties) will continue to be diverted and applied to the historically irrigated ranch until mid-summer. At that time, the water will be left in the river for instream flow use by the CWCB on a reach of the Little Cimarron River that historically saw low to no flows due to water rights diversions, as well as on the Cimarron River.

“Our rivers and our farms are at the heart of what makes Colorado so special,” said CWCB director James Eklund. “This agreement is a model for future agriculture and conservation partnerships.”

The Little Cimarron River originates in the Uncompahgre Wilderness Area and is managed as a wild trout stream by Colorado Parks and Wildlife for several miles above the area where agricultural uses have occurred for more than 100 years. Restoring flows in the Little Cimarron will re-establish habitat connectivity, an important component of a healthy river.

“This permanent, split use of an instream flow is distinctive because it acknowledges and preserves the value of irrigated agriculture as well as the value of restoring flow to a local river,” said Linda Bassi, chief of the stream and lake protection section at CWCB.

Additional information on the CWCB’s Water Acquisition Program is available on the CWCB web site: http://cwcb.state.co.us/StreamAndLake/WaterAcquisitions/

More instream flow coverage here.