Colorado communities worried about glacier water supplies — The Pueblo Chieftain

Big Thompson River near RMNP
Big Thompson River near RMNP

From the Associated Press via The Pueblo Chieftain:

Colorado communities that rely on water from dozens of glaciers and glacier features in Rocky Mountain National Park are concerned because the glaciers are shrinking as temperatures climb and winter snowfall becomes more uncertain.

Water from the Poudre, Colorado and Big Thompson rivers get meltwater from dozens of glaciers and glacier-like features around the park.

Park glaciers always vary in size depending on the seasons, but low snowfall amounts could keep them from being replenished. A change of a few degrees when temperatures are near the freezing point can turn snow into rain.

Between the 1990s and 2005, the glaciers started to shrink at an increasing rate. Rocky Mountain National Park’s glaciers were already small by comparison.

The biggest glacier in Rocky Mountain National Park is about 31 acres (13 hectares), according to a study in 2007.

A two-year study is underway to find out how the glaciers have changed in area and volume since 2005. Scientists will be using historic maps, climate records, photographs and measurements to better understand what’s happening.

Scientists will also study how glacier melt influences rivers, by measuring streamflow and collecting water samples to see how much water glaciers contribute to rivers…

Even a small loss in the snow and ice that feed rivers in northern Colorado could have a big effect on water supplies to Fort Collins and other nearby communities.

Paul McLaughlin, an ecologist at the park’s Continental Divide Research Learning Center, said changes in the amount of water and temperatures could also damage delicate river ecosystems.

The #Colorado Water Trust comes up with dough for wet water for the #YampaRiver once again

Yampa/White/Green/North Platte river basins via the Colorado Geological Survey
Yampa/White/Green/North Platte river basins via the Colorado Geological Survey

Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Trust (Zach Smith, Kelly Romero-Heaney, Kevin McBride):

Today, Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District began releasing water purchased by the Colorado Water Trust and its partners to bolster flows in the Yampa River from Stagecoach Reservoir through the City of Steamboat. The purchase of 264 acre-feet, to be released at a rate of 10 cfs for 13 days, provides a gap measure between other local entities’ efforts to keep the Yampa flowing in this dry late summer.

The Yampa River, although forecasted to run at normal streamflow levels this summer, began dropping in the late summer and remained well below average, impacting fish, recreationalists, and water quality. Noting dropping water levels, the City of Steamboat began releasing water from its 552 acre-feet pool in Stagecoach on August 19th to improve water quality – the first time the City has used its water in Stagecoach in such a way. When that water ran out on September 14, Upper Yampa maintained that 10 cfs release by generating hydropower as part of a winter drawdown of Stagecoach it performed earlier than normal to coordinate with this purchase. The Water Trust’s purchase will continue adding water to the Yampa until the Catamount Metro District lowers levels in Lake Catamount to prepare for the winter sometime in early October.

“Watching the local community now lead the streamflow restoration effort on the upper Yampa River is the best outcome for the work the Water Trust has accomplished in the Yampa valley since 2012,” said Zach Smith, staff attorney for the Water Trust.

“A healthy Yampa River is important to our community on so many levels,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney. “The City was fortunate to be able to release its Stagecoach Reservoir water this year to improve water quality in the river.”

The Water Trust’s partners, The Nature Conservancy, the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Tri-State Generation & Transmission and the CAN’d Aid Foundation funded the $10,000 for the 2016 purchase and costs related to the transaction.

In 2012, 2013, and 2015 the Water Trust purchased water out of Stagecoach for release to the Yampa River to help maintain healthy stream flows and water quality.

As always, the project wouldn’t be a success without the help of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Catamount Development, Inc., Catamount Metropolitan District, and other cooperative water users.

From Steamboat Today (Tom Ross):

…the Colorado Water Trust has joined the city of Steamboat Springs, Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and the Catamount Metropolitan District in ongoing efforts to boost the Yampa’s flows deeper into autumn.

The river was flowing at 60 percent of its median flow for Sept. 23 Friday morning, but it would have been lower this week if not for the fact the city and Upper Yampa Water have been adding flows of 10 cubic feet per second from water stored in Stagecoach Reservoir since August. The city, for the first time ever, began releasing water from its 552-acre-foot pool in the Yampa Aug. 19, and when that ran out Sept. 14, Upper Yampa continued the 10 cfs release by accelerating its seasonal timetable for drawing down the reservoir to accommodate 2017 spring runoff.

Upper Yampa District Engineer Andy Rossi observed at the time: “We are flirting with historically low flows into Stagecoach Reservoir.”

The Yampa was flowing at 22 cubic feet per second just above the reservoir Friday. Based on 27 years of record, that compares to the lowest flow on record for Sept. 23 — 22 cfs in 2002.

However, water district general manager Kevin McBride said the reservoir his agency manages filled to capacity after a very wet spring, allowing the water district to advance its autumn timetable.

The Water Trust announced Sept. 22 that, together with its partners, it will spend $10,000 to purchase another 264-acre feet of water from Stagecoach Reservoir, enough to increase the flows in the Yampa by 10 cubic feet per second for 13 more days. The Water Trust’s purchase will continue adding water to the Yampa until sometime in October, when the Catamount Metro District lowers levels in Lake Catamount to prepare for winter.

Water Trust staff attorney Zach Smith said that the level of cooperation among water managers in the upper Yampa Basin is gratifying for his organization.

“Watching the local community now lead the streamflow restoration effort on the upper Yampa River is the best outcome for the work the Water Trust has accomplished in the Yampa Valley since 2012,” Smith said in a news release.

In-stream flow rights offer alternative to federal water claims — The Pine River Times

Vallecito Lake Weminuch Wilderness via
Vallecito Lake Weminuch Wilderness via

From The Pine River Times (Carole McWilliams):

Four streams in the San Juan National Forest, including Vallecito Creek, are being looked at as relatively non-controversial ways to promote this by acquiring junior in-stream flow rights to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which administers the in-stream flow program within the prior appropriation system.

The section of Vallecito Creek being discussed runs 17.7 miles from a high-elevation cirque lake south to the Forest Service boundary above Vallecito reservoir. The other creeks are Himes Creek in Mineral County, Little Sand Creek in Hinsdale County, and Rio Lado Creek, a tributary to the Dolores River.

The La Plata County Commissioners got an update on this on Sept. 13. The federal claims have been seen over the years as a threat to the state’s prior appropriation system and state administration of water rights – especially claims on lower elevation rivers and streams that could threaten upstream private or municipal water rights.

“We’ve come close to resolving this in District 7 (Water Court), but not quite,” said Bruce Whitehead, director of the Southwest Water Conservation District. “Right now it’s still an active case. Within the last year or two, the Forest Service and state started having discussions… The Forest Service was interested in how in-stream flow could help resolve the reserve rights. We looked at the streams the Forest Service was interested in. If we’re successful, it could be a great tool to resolve these outstanding cases without being litigated.”

He continued, “We’re looking for certainty, that they are state appropriated rights. We don’t want to expand the state in-stream flow program. We’re kind of in a wait-and-see mode.”

Forest Service staffer Anthony Madrid said, “In the 1990s, there was a big effort to work out a settlement. That stalled out. This past year, we’ve put more effort into it. We want free-flowing streams to support aquatic and riparian values. We’re really excited to engage in this new process.”

Jeff Baessler, director of the CWCB’s in-stream flow program, told commissioners that back in 1973, in-stream flow was not considered a beneficial use in state water law. State legislators passed SB 97 that year to make it a beneficial use and gave the CWCB authority to acquire those rights to ensure reasonable preservation of the natural environment and provide regulatory certainty for current water users under prior appropriation…

“Today I’m only talking about new appropriations. This new right probably would be January 2017,” Baessler said.

Whitehead added that the proposed in-stream right on Vallecito Creek won’t change anything. “It preserves the status quo,” he said.

The Forest Service came to CWCB in January this year with its recommendations for the four streams, Baessler said. He said before the nine member CWCB can make an in-stream flow recommendation, there has to be a determination that a natural environment exists, that there’s an “indicator species” to be protected, that the natural environment can be preserved with the amount of water available for appropriation, and that there won’t be injury to senior water rights.

The in-stream right will be “the minimum amount necessary” to serve the purpose, he said. “We have to quantify that amount. Sometimes people say, ‘I’ve seen this stream dry, so that’s the minimum.’ The minimum is the amount necessary to preserve the natural environment, such as the fishery. We look at median flow over time.”

Those studies are now happening on the proposed section of Vallecito Creek. Madrid said, “If the weather holds, we should have the data collection by the end of the month.”

Whitehead said that if CWCB supports a recommendation, it directs staff to file for the in-stream right in Water Court. Those can be contested. “At this point, we’re supportive of the whole process. Everyone is waiting to see the data, to make sure it’s reasonable,” he said. “Technically we’re still in litigation (with the Forest Service). We need to see where everything goes.”

Baessler acknowledged, “The in-stream flow program is controversial. There’s an impact we can have to other users, especially lower on the river. When senior users file for a change of use or something, we’ll file a statement of opposition if we think there’ll be harm to the status quo. That’s where it gets controversial.”

These four streams are high elevation on Forest Service land, he said. He doesn’t think they’ll be contested.

Whitehead added, “There are many counties that have contested in-stream flow because of impact on future growth. These shouldn’t be.” And the hope is they can become a model to resolve the federal reserved rights claims from 1973 within the state appropriation system, he said. “If they are successful, there may be other streams in the future to use this process. They are in areas that we hope will be the least controversial. This could be the start of what the Forest Service will do in the future.”

Acting San Juan National Forest Supervisor Russ Bacon said, “On Division 7 (Water Court), we haven’t used this process before. We’d prefer a local solution to a process that involves judges. The next big step is the data. There are still a lot of unknowns… We’re always looking for a better path than reserve water rights.”

Denver: 2100 acre-feet for South Platte environmental flows

The South Platte River typically all but vanishes as it passes through Denver’s industrial neighborhood north of downtown, downstream of the Burlington Ditch diversion, near the Cherokee power plant. Photo/Allen Best
The South Platte River typically all but vanishes as it passes through Denver’s industrial neighborhood north of downtown, downstream of the Burlington Ditch diversion, near the Cherokee power plant. Photo/Allen Best

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

The Denver Water and Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials said they’ve obtained 2,100 acre-feet of water that they will use strictly for environmental purposes…

“We’re trying to make the South Platte the best it can be for this city. … It’s not going to be like a Danube,” Denver Water manager Jim Lochhead said. “We can make it what it is, which is a plains river that creates an appreciation of the connection to water in this city. The city would not exist without that water supply.”

The idea is that putting more water into the Platte at the southwestern edge of metro Denver will mimic long-lost natural flows, to the extent possible given the channelization of the Platte after the 1965 flood that destroyed buildings in the floodplain. More water also would help a fish hatchery where state wildlife workers breed rainbow trout.

For more than two decades, Denver conservationists have worked at reviving the Platte corridor, building cycling-oriented pathways and riverside parks. It’s been complicated because metro Denver grew up around the river and, for more than a century, people exploited it as a sewer with industrial plants and discharge pipes draining into the water. Now as kayakers, surfers, skaters, waders and others flock to the river, city leaders face rising demands for more water, cleaner water and wildlife.
But just beyond Denver, farmers await every drop of the treated wastewater metro users put back in the Platte, water used to grow food. There’s so much demand for South Platte water across booming northeastern Colorado that parts of the river run dry.

By 2018, project leaders say, new environmental flows from Chatfield will keep that from happening — and create curves and pools favoring aquatic bugs and fish.

“Now we’ve got some water so that we can start to build the river back to being a natural-looking river. It is limited. The river won’t have access to the true floodplain. But we can build smaller floodplain ditches so that the river will look more like a sinuous river coming through Denver,” CPW senior aquatic biologist Ken Kehmeier said.

“The water will be used mostly during the low-flow times of the year,” the 65 or so days when water rights holders have the ability to dry up sections of the river, Kehmeier said.

“It will mean water stays in the river downstream of Chatfield, including the hatchery. That’s where the trout will come from. And brown trout in the river now, with this extra water, will be able to reproduce naturally.”

Lining up storage for the water proved crucial. Denver Water has committed to work with the Greenway Foundation to buy space for 500 acre-feet in an enlarged Chatfield Reservoir. This water adds to 1,600 acre-feet of water to be used only for environmental purposes that federal engineers required as “mitigation” for Colorado’s repurposing of the reservoir from flood control to water supply. The 500 acre-feet would be owned by the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District, a downstream agricultural entity, which agreed to pay annual operational and maintenance costs.

Storing water in Chatfield costs $7,500 an acre-foot, Denver Water officials said. They’ll spend $2 million to buy storage space, on the condition the Greenway Foundation does the same…

This push to put more clean water in the Platte through Denver coincides with broader environmental efforts. Federal, state and city engineers have been mulling possibilities for restoring other metro waterways, for which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has dangled possible funding.

Colorado Water Congress’s 2016 Summer Conference recap

Photo by @BBerwyn via @COIndependent
Photo by @BBerwyn via @COIndependent

From The Colorado Independent (Marianne Goodland):

Coloradans are more concerned about water quality than about water supplies, and their awareness of the state’s looming water shortage has fallen sharply in the past three years.

Those findings are from a statewide survey on consumer attitudes about water by pollster Floyd Ciruli. The survey was commissioned by the Colorado Water Congress and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and conducted in June with 712 respondents. Ciruli discussed the results with the General Assembly’s interim water resources review committee, which met at the Water Congress’s summer conference last week.

Ciruli compared Coloradans’ current viewpoints about water to the results of a 2013 survey. Given the state’s rampant growth and looming water shortage, the results didn’t look encouraging.

Coloradans are less concerned about whether the state will have an adequate water supply than they were three years ago. In 2013, 62 percent said they expected an eventual water shortage in the state. This year, only 53 percent shared that view. The percentage of Coloradans who think the state needs to store more water is also down from 59 percent three years ago to 50 percent this year.

The public’s diminished interest in adequate water supplies could not come at a worse time. After a two-year planning effort, Colorado water leaders are preparing for the state’s water future – a future with less water and more people. A 2010 estimate says the state will be short 326 billion gallons of water annually by the year 2050, when the state’s population is expected to nearly double from 5.4 million to 10.3 million residents. About 100,000 people are moving to Colorado every year.

Every conversation about water should start with conservation, Gov. John Hickenlooper likes to say. But what the survey shows about public interest indicates most people aren’t yet listening.
More than half of Coloradans surveyed believe their water suppliers are doing a good job encouraging water conservation, but there’s room for improvement, the survey found. More Coloradans believe that conservation alone will solve Colorado’s water shortage than three years ago, although it’s a small group – 14 percent this year compared to 10 percent in 2013.
Most Coloradans, however, believe it will take a combination of water storage and conservation to solve the shortage, although fewer believe that now than in 2013.

The survey also gauged what people know about the Colorado Water Plan – the state’s first blueprint for water planning. The 540-page plan reports that Colorado will be short one-million acre-feet of water annually by 2050. It calls for conservation measures that would help close that gap by 400,000 acre-feet, a goal primarily tasked to water utilities and other water providers…

The state plan also calls for gleaning another 400,000 acre-feet in water storage, either by improving existing dams and reservoirs or building new ones. Several projects are already under way. They include an expansion of Gross Reservoir in Boulder County, which would triple its existing capacity of 41,000 acre-feet, and the Northern Integrated Supply Project, which would capture another 40,000 acre-feet of water that currently flows downstream to Nebraska, exceeding what’s required under a multi-state contract.

The state water plan was was ordered by Hickenlooper under an executive order in 2013, with a two-year window for completion. But the plan has been criticized for being less of a plan than a snapshot of where Colorado stood on water supplies last year, and more of a compendium of ideas than specific solutions to Colorado’s water woes in an era of growth, drought and climate change.

Some water experts claim that the plan, completed last November, is already gathering dust and isn’t moving fast enough.

Dennis Saffell, a real estate broker in Summit and Grand counties, penned an editorial in June that took the General Assembly to task for failing to address key recommendations in the plan, such as conservation and funding for healthy rivers.

“With so much at stake, it is essential that the plan be implemented to build on the momentum and interest generated during its development,” Saffell wrote. He was among the 30,000 Coloradans who submitted comments on the water plan during its two-year development. “The only difficulty now is lack of engagement — letting the plan just sit — and unfortunately that’s what is occurring,” he wrote.

The legislature did pass a bill this year to put $5 million annually into implementation of the plan, although the bill wasn’t specific about just what that $5 million would be spent on. That’s left to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which developed the plan in conjunction with nine state-directed water groups that focus on a variety of water issue.

The Ciruli survey found that very few of those polled are aware of the state water plan. Of those who were, only 4 percent knew a lot about the plan. Another 15 percent said they’d heard of it. For the rest, the plan is a mystery.

Coloradans strongly support keeping the state’s water in Colorado, the survey found. Eighty-nine percent agreed that the state should hang onto all the water it’s legally entitled to. Most respondents also were supportive of improving water conservation and building more storage, so long as it doesn’t impact the environment.

Those surveyed also responded favorably to the idea of a ballot measure in 2018 that would fund small and large storage, reuse projects and conservation programs. Coloradans were most supportive of funding long-term planning, improving water conservation programs, enhancing river habitat and developing “new water supplies,” and somewhat less enthusiastic about building new water storage…

Ciruli countered that, for most people, storage is a commonly-understood term. It’s even used in polling for environmentally-oriented groups, he noted…

Western Slope residents are concerned that the Colorado is already diverting more water than it could supply. The issue is radically different for the South Platte, which has been sending a million acre-feet of water to Nebraska each year for some time.

Respondents ranked conservation, water quality and water pollution as the top three water issues facing the state. Ciruli said the pollution issue has received greater attention in the past year due to the Gold King Mine spill in the Animas River near Durango, as well as national attention to the lead contamination in the Flint, Michigan drinking water supply. Water storage dropped from being the second most important issue in 2013 to fourth in this year’s survey.

There was tremendous support for conservation and considerable support for reuse, Ciruli said, “but the lynchpin is that respondents favored the state making a commitment to infrastructure,” in this case, water infrastructure.

The public is conscious about water and concerned about it, Ciruli said, but they want local providers to do something about it. “There’s momentum, but the public would be ill-served and not happy if the plan just goes on the shelf” and doesn’t address the problems, such as storage or maintaining agriculture, for example.

“People are ready” for the state to move on with implementing the water plan, he said.

Funding problems for Fountain Creek flood control project

The Fountain Creek Watershed is located along the central front range of Colorado. It is a 927-square mile watershed that drains south into the Arkansas River at Pueblo. The watershed is bordered by the Palmer Divide to the north, Pikes Peak to the west, and a minor divide 20 miles east of Colorado Springs. Map via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District.
The Fountain Creek Watershed is located along the central front range of Colorado. It is a 927-square mile watershed that drains south into the Arkansas River at Pueblo. The watershed is bordered by the Palmer Divide to the north, Pikes Peak to the west, and a minor divide 20 miles east of Colorado Springs. Map via the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District.

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Matt Steiner):

DOLA had awarded the county $945,000 in Community Development Block Grant money in late 2015 for a much-needed project along Fountain Creek near U.S. Highway 85/87 south of Colorado Springs, but in June, the county got some bad news:

The award would be much smaller than expected.

Federal guidelines cap at $250,000 the money that can be given out for projects that involve the Army Corps of Engineers – which is administering the work near 85/87 and Maxwell Street.

The project, necessary after torrential floods badly damaged the banks of the creek in September 2013, would shore up a 1,000-foot section of the creek, keep the highway safe and prevent eroded river banks from approaching a mobile home park during the next large flood event.

“Now we have a fear of losing this project,” Brian Olson of the county’s budget division said Friday. “If we don’t have the funding on this, they’ll take that money and use it somewhere else.”

The total cost of the work is estimated at more than $2.5 million, according to a May 2015 project overview. The Army Corps of Engineers will pick up three quarters of that tab, and the rest was expected to come from the money awarded to El Paso County, but the cap leaves the county short.

“We’re still trying to figure how we can fill that gap,” county Commissioner Sallie Clark said.

Olson said the project is doing feasibility analysis, a study that will cost the county $180,000. If the Army decides the project isn’t worth the cost, no grant money will be available at all, Olson said. The actual cost the county must pay will be determined after the feasibility study is complete.

While the county still has at least two months before the feasibility study is complete and the Army Corps’ determination on the value of the project is made, the county has shown urgency about finding alternate sources of money. They hope to receive some assistance in solving that problem.

“The state has got a lot on their plate,” Olson said. “They made an error on this. I’m hoping they’ll help us get through this thing.”

#ColoradoRiver: Aspinall Unit operations update #COriver — 1,000 cfs in Black Canyon

Sunrise Black Canyon via Bob Berwyn
Sunrise Black Canyon via Bob Berwyn

From email from Reclamation (Eric Knight):

Releases from Crystal Dam will be decreased from 2000 cfs to 1800 cfs on Wednesday, August 10th. July inflows to Blue Mesa Reservoir ended up being less than predicted and August inflow forecasts are also declining. The April-July runoff volume finished the season at 89% of average. The current content of Blue Mesa Reservoir is 757,000 acre-feet which is 91% full.

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. Flows are expected to remain 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 1050 cfs for August through December.

Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are around 1000 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 1000 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will still be at 1000 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon should be around 800 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.