Robbing our groundwater savings accounts for today’s needs — The Mountain Town News

December 16, 2014

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Dick Wolfe, Colorado’s state water engineer, recently defined “sustainable groundwater supply” as one that is managed so that recharge matches withdrawals in a way to avoid long-term depletion of the aquifer.

By that definition, Colorado is not, for the most part, using its aquifers sustainably. Nor, for that matter, is most of the nation or world.

That much was made clear at a conference on Dec. 4 that was conducted by the American Ground Water Trust. Andrew Stone, the organization’s executive director, said 14 percent of all water used to irrigate crops in the United States comes from mining groundwater aquifers. This started slowly, but picked up as pumps and cheap energy became available around the end of World War II. The extraction by farmers and cities of water above the rate of recharge is now close to 400 cubic kilometers.

“We are robbing our savings account,” he said.

Driven by population growth and the uncertain effects of climate change, pressures on these subterranean savings accounts will only worsen, he said. This is not inevitable. He cited Los Angeles, which after World War II turned to groundwater exploitation to satisfy growth. “In the 1960s, it was pretty clear that the LA Basin was cruising for big trouble,” he said. But unsustainable exploitation has ended.

Problems of groundwater exploitation are common in many areas of the country, but solutions must be forged locally, “aquifer by aquifer, region by region,” said Stone.

Sobering statistics

The day was littered with fascinating statistics. Jeff Lukas, of the Western Water Assessment, explained that of the 95 million acre-feet that falls on Colorado, only 14 million acre-feet end up as runoff in our streams and rivers. The remainder, 80 million acre-feet, evaporates or gets drawn back into the atmospheric through transpiration. Together, the two are called evapotranspiration, or ET.

This rate of ET will almost certainly rise as the atmosphere warms. In the last 30 years, temperatures have ratcheted up 2 degrees Fahrenheit. Climate models forecast another increase of between 2.5 to 5 degrees by mid-century in Colorado. By mid-century, the hottest summers of the last 50 to 100 years will become the norm.

Too, everything from corn to urban lawns will need 5 to 30 percent more moisture during the longer, hotter summers—assuming precipitation does not increase.

How much precipitation will change as the result of elevated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere remains a mystery. Unlike temperatures, average precipitation in Colorado has not changed appreciably in the last three decades. Climate models have been clear about increasing temperatures, but precipitation remains a flip of the coin.

However, warming alone will drive changes, “pushing both the supply and demand in the wrong direction,” said Lukas. Increased evapotranspiration will reduce runoff and the amount of moisture available to percolate into soils and down into aquifers. Spring runoff has already accelerated and will come one to three weeks earlier.

Bottom line: Hotter temperatures will drive farmers to suck up more subterranean water. If anything, aquifers will recharge more slowly.

Wolfe, in his turn at the microphone, had even more statistics: Of Colorado’s 16 million acre-feet, 10 million acre-feet flow out of state, mostly as a result of compacts governing the Colorado and other rivers.

“That leaves us about 6 million acre-feet in Colorado to use,” he said. This surface water provides about 83 percent of water used in Colorado, and the other 17 percent comes from aquifers, which are tapped by 270,000 wells.

Of this groundwater, 85 percent goes to agriculture, for more than 2 million acres, but there’s also a strong urban component. One in five Coloradans get their water from wells. Most prominent are Denver’s southern suburbs in Douglas County.

Denver’s South Metro

South Metro has been a poster child for living in the moment. It’s affluent and rapidly growing. Served almost exclusively by wells, the residents of Castle Park, Parker and adjoining areas comprise about 6 percent of Colorado’s population but command 30 percent of income. Today’s population of 300,000 residents is projected to grow to 550,000 by mid-century.

Wells have been dropping rapidly, five feet in just one year in Dawson, one of the aquifers.

Eric Hecox, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority, explained that it was always understood that wells would not last forever. The area had hoped to benefit from Denver’s Two Forks Dam, which was to have been filled primarily by expanded diversions from the Western Slope.

Two Forks was sunk by environmental concerns in the early 1990s. Inconveniently, Douglas County surged in population, routinely landing in the top 10 of the nation’s fastest-growing counties, a distinction that only lately has abated.

Other projects have also nudged the South Metro area off its exclusive dependence on groundwater, but even collectively they do not provide the answer. Hecox called for continued efforts to pinpoint needs while creating a new generation of partnerships and infrastructure.

Can South Metro’s needs for sustainable water supplies be answered by building a giant pipeline from Flaming Gorge Reservoir, on the Utah-Wyomng border? That idea was proposed in 2006 by entrepreneur Aaron Million, and then echoed by Frank Jaeger, the now-retired director of Parker Water and Sanitation District.

Hecox said the Bureau of Reclamation study about water availability from Flaming Gorge has not been completed. That study will provide the 14 members in Hecox’s South Metro coalition “base information on which to decide whether we want to pursue it any further,” he said.

Two key agriculture areas

Two agriculture areas in Colorado that rely upon aquifers are in arguably worse shape. The San Luis Valley has an area called the Closed Basin. With the arrival of electricity to farms in the 1950s, large-scale pumping began and, for a number of years, all went well, said Steve Vandiver, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

Despite earlier hints of problems, the magnitude of over-pumping started becoming apparent in 1998. One million acre-feet had been pumped from the aquifer above the amount of recharge. Figuring out what to do took time and negotiation. “There have been rocks thrown from every quarter,” he said.

The plan now in place has cut pumping by 30 percent during the last three years. The amount of irrigated acreage has declined from 175,00 to 150,000 acres. Water use on those remaining acres has been reduced in some cases by planting different, less water-intensive crops and also by using different irrigation methods.

Up to 300,000 cubic feet per second of water continues to be pumped on the fields in the Closed Basin on hot summer days.

And the Ogallala….

The Ogallala Aquifer is perhaps America’s best-known story of groundwater depletion. It extends over parts of eight states, from Texas to South Dakota, and the aquifer has declined at a shocking rate in several of those states, but more slowly or not at all in places, especially the Nebraska Sand Hills.

The Republican River Basin of northeastern Colorado is emblematic of many. Farmers working with local districts and the state government have been shifting the paradigm. Whether they’re shifting rapidly enough is an open question.

The river and its tributaries originate on the high plains, gaining no benefit from mountain snowpack. Yet this region had 480,000 irrigated acres in an area where annual precipitation is only 17 inches a year.

The key: mining the Ogallala. In the late 1970s, Colorado began taking action to slow the unsustainable over-pumping, but more radical measures were triggered by the need to comply with the interstate compact governing the river shared with Nebraska and Kansas. Colorado was forced to release more water downstream.

It did this partly by abandoning Bonny Reservoir, eliminating the evaporative losses. At greater expense, the district constructed an expensive pipeline and now pumps water—ironically from wells—to release into the Republican River at the state line. The total cost of the pipeline and the purchase of water rights was $48 million.

Much is being done to steer the Titanic away from the iceberg of exhausted aquifer water, but Deb Daniel, general manager of the Republican River Water Conservation District, suggested the magnitude of the challenge when she said: “Sustainable, that’s a scary word where I come from.”

(For a story I recently wrote about the Ogallala in Colorado, see the Headwaters Magazine website).

Wells along the South Platte

Unlike everything else said in the day, several speakers argued that not enough pumping has been occurring along the South Platte River. Their solution: more reservoirs and also more acreage returned to production.

Robert A. Longenbaugh, a consulting water engineer, pointed to 400,000 acre-feet average annually flowing into Nebraska above the compact requirement. “I call that a waste of water,” he said. At the same time, he and others pointed to reports of basements in Weld County getting flooded because of rising groundwater levels.

Even in the 1960s, a Colorado law was adopted that formally recognized that aquifers and surface streamflows comingled waters . In other words, if you have a well a quarter-mile from the South Platte River at Greeley and pump it, that might mean less water in the river as it flows toward Fort Morgan.

The drought of 2002 forced the issue, and in 2006 the state put well irrigators into the priority system. In 2012, a hot and dry year, many wells had to be shut down and corn and other corps left to dry up. Longenbaugh called for changes.

“Strict priority administration of ground and surface rights does not maximize the beneficial use,” he declared. Instead, he wants to se a “real-time management of the South Platte, to monitor surface and ground water and “make short-term decisions” looking out six months ahead while still maintaining the priority-appropriation doctrine that is the bedrock of Colorado water law.

A panel of state legislators later in the day acknowledged varying degrees of agreement with Longenbaugh’s statement. Sen. Mary Hodge, a Democrat from Brighton, described a pendulum that went from “too lax” to now one of being “too stringent.”

Sen. Vicki Marble, a Republican from Fort Collins, described the situation as deserving of an “emergency measure.” She later added: “We should let people self-regulate,” while suggesting that the wells should be allowed to pump. “It’s their right,” she said.

More groundwater coverage here.


The Special District Association of Colorado recognizes Parker Water and Sanitation for collaboration

October 2, 2014
Rhode Island Hotel 1908 Parker via Best of Parker

Rhode Island Hotel 1908 Parker via Best of Parker

From the Parker Chronicle:

The Parker Water and Sanitation District is one of three special districts to be given a collaboration award this year.

The award was given by the Special District Association of Colorado during an annual conference Sept. 10-12 in Keystone. The collaboration award is given to districts “that have effectively and efficiently partnered with other entities and local governments” to benefit water users, according to a news release.

The PWSD joined with the Rampart Range and Sierra Ridge metro districts on a sewer system for the RidgeGate development in Lone Tree, which is served by Parker Water. The joint effort resulted in reduced infrastructure costs for citizens and an award for all three districts.

Ann Terry, the executive director of the Special District Association, said the project is a “true testament to the success that can be achieved through partnerships.”

More Parker coverage here and here.


“…we have a lot of communities on a diminishing aquifer” — Eric Hecox

May 11, 2014

rueter-hessplans

From The Denver Post (Steve Raabe):

The shimmering surface of Rueter-Hess reservoir seems out of place in arid Douglas County, where almost all of the water resources are in aquifers a quarter-mile under ground.

Yet the $195 million body of water, southwest of Parker, is poised to play a crucial role in providing water to one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the U.S.

As recently as a few years ago, developers were content to tap the seemingly abundant Denver Basin aquifer to serve the thousands of new homes built each year along the southern edge of metro Denver.

But a problem arose. As homebuilding in Douglas County exploded, the groundwater that once seemed abundant turned out to be finite. Land developers and utilities found that the more wells they drilled into the aquifer, the more grudgingly it surrendered water.

“Now we have a lot of communities on a diminishing aquifer,” said Eric Hecox, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority, a consortium of 14 water suppliers that serve 300,000 residents.

As water pressure in the Denver Basin steadily declines, developers and water utilities that rely on the aquifer are being forced to drill more wells and pump harder from existing wells.

Enter Rueter-Hess. The massive storage facility — 50 percent larger in surface area than Cherry Creek reservoir — aims to help developers wean themselves from groundwater by shifting to other sources.

The reservoir anchors a multifaceted water plan for the south metro area that includes the purchase of costly but replenishable surface water, reuse of wastewater and a greater emphasis on conservation.

Douglas County, long a magnet for builders enticed by easy access to Denver Basin aquifers, is taking the water issue seriously.

A new proposal floated by the county government would give developers density bonuses — up to 20 percent more buildout — for communities that reduce typical water consumption and commit to using renewable sources for at least half of their water.

“In the past, the county had not taken an active role in water supplies because groundwater was sufficient,” said Douglas County Commissioner Jill Repella. “But we understand that we cannot continue to be solely reliant on our aquifers. What we’re doing today will help us plan for the next 25 years.”

Parker Water and Sanitation District launched construction of Rueter-Hess in 2006 and began gradually filling the reservoir in 2011, fed by excess surface and alluvial well flows in Cherry Creek.

Partners in the project include Castle Rock, Stonegate and the Castle Pines North metropolitan district. Parker Water and Sanitation district manager Ron Redd said he expects more water utilities to sign on for storage as they begin acquiring rights to surface water.

The chief source of new supplies will be the Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency partnership, or WISE, in which Denver Water and Aurora Water will sell an average of 7,250 acre-feet a year to 10 south-metro water suppliers beginning in 2016. Most of them are expected to purchase storage for the new water in Rueter-Hess. An acre-foot is generally believed to be enough to serve the needs of two families of four for a year

Parker Water and Sanitation also is exploring ways to develop recreational uses at the dam — including hiking, camping, fishing and nonmotorized boating — through an intergovernmental agreement with other Douglas County entities.

Even three years after opening, the reservoir’s stored water has reached just 13 percent of its 75,000-acre-foot capacity. Yet Rueter-Hess is the most visible icon in Douglas County’s search for water solutions.

At stake is the ability to provide water for a county that in the 1990s and early 2000s perennially ranked among the fastest-growing in the nation. The number of homes in Douglas County has soared from 7,789 in 1980 to more than 110,000 today, an astounding increase of more than 1,300 percent.

The building boom slowed after the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009. Growth rates that had reached as high as 10 percent to 15 percent a year during the 1990s ratcheted down to about 1 percent to 2 percent.

But as the economy has begun recovering, Douglas County is once again “seeing high levels of demand” for new residential development, said assistant director of planning services Steve Koster.

One of the biggest Douglas County projects in decades is Sterling Ranch, a proposed community of 12,000 homes south of Chatfield State Park.

The 3,400-acre ranch sits on the outer fringes of the Denver Basin aquifer, making it a poor candidate for reliance on the basin’s groundwater.

As a result, the project developer will employ a mixed-bag of water resources, including an aggressive conservation and efficiency plan; surface-water purchases from the WISE program; well water from rights owned by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz; and a precedent-setting rainwater-collection program.

Sterling Ranch managing director Harold Smethills described the Rueter-Hess concept as “brilliant,” even though his development has not yet purchased any of the reservoir’s capacity.

“You just can’t have enough storage,” he said.

More Rueter-Hess Reservoir coverage here and here. More Denver Basin Aquifer System coverage here.


Communities Protecting the Green is keeping a watchful eye on the Colorado-Wyoming Coalition #ColoradoRiver

September 27, 2013
Conceptual route for the Flaming Gorge Pipeline -- Graphic via Earth Justice

Conceptual route for the Flaming Gorge Pipeline — Graphic via Earth Justice

From The Green River Star (David Martin):

According to Don Hartley, a member of [Communities Protecting the Green], an organization known as the Colorado Wyoming Coalition is finishing a feasibility study involving the transfer of water from the Flaming Gorge. The coalition was originally known as the Parker Group, after the community in Colorado initially proposing the project, before it rebranded itself. According to a 2011 document titled “Flaming Gorge Investigation Status Report,” the municipal governments in Cheyenne and Torrington, along with the Laramie County government, are involved the coalition’s study to move water from the gorge to eastern Wyoming and northern Colorado.

The document states more than half a million people living in both states would be served by the project.

“It’s kind of slow right now, but things could get interesting once that study is completed,” Hartley said.

Hartley believes the study could be completed within a matter of weeks and said they need to be vigilant with the group because they pose the biggest threat to the river.

Hartley said the second issue on the horizon involves a state water plan under construction within the Colorado state government. One of the key issues Hartley and others at Communities Protecting the Green are watching involves the augmentation of the river to provide water to communities in Colorado.

More Flaming Gorge Pipeline coverage here and here.


Reuse: The WISE Partnership gets approval from the Denver Water Board

August 20, 2013

prairiewaterstreatment.jpg

From the Denver Business Journal:

Denver Water last week approved the WISE partnership agreement that clears the way for the utility to delivery treated water to the area’s southern suburbs.

Approval of WISE, which stands for Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency, formalizes the regional cooperative water project. The agreement calls for the permanent delivery of 72,250 acre-feet of treated water from Denver and Aurora to members of the South Metro Water Supply Authority (SMWSA).

SMWSA was formed in 2004 from the banding together of smaller water utilities in south Denver.
With the agreement now in place, some of the water that currently flows down the South Platte River and out of the state would be recaptured by Aurora’s 34-mile Prairie Waters Pipeline and pumped back to the Peter D. Binney Water Purification Facility near the Aurora Reservoir. There, the water would be treated and piped to the southern suburbs.

The water delivery will begin in 2016. Members of the SMWSA must have infrastructure in place to move the water from the purification facility. The cost of the water and infrastructure for its delivery is estimated at $250 million over the next 10 years. Each member will independently determine how to finance their share of the project.

The participating members of SMWSA are the town of Castle Rock, Dominion Water & Sanitation District, Stonegate Village Metropolitan District, Cottonwood Water & Sanitation District, Pinery Water and Wastewater District, Centennial Water & Sanitation District, Rangeview Metropolitan District, Parker Water & Sanitation District, Meridian Metropolitan District and Inverness Water & Sanitation District.

More WISE Partnership coverage here.


Parker signs on to the WISE project for future supplies

June 27, 2013

parkerrhodeislandhotel1908bestofparker.jpg

From the Parker Chronicle (Chris Michlewicz):

Parker Water joins nine other members of the South Metro Water Supply Authority that have signed on to WISE, or the Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency agreement. The June 13 approval by the PWSD board of directors adds another source of water for the area’s long-term needs, said district manager Ron Redd.

Parker Water pulls much of its water supply from the Denver Basin Aquifer, but it also captures an average of 5,000 acre-feet annually off Cherry Creek. The WISE agreement will have Parker piping 12,000 acre-feet of recycled water from Aurora and Denver every 10 years for an indefinite period of time.

Water rates will likely go up 1 percent to 2 percent incrementally because of WISE, although any increases will not occur until a thorough rate analysis is conducted, Redd said. The results of the analysis will be released in mid-2014.

The PWSD will start receiving the first trickles of water in 2016 and get full delivery of 1,200 acre-feet starting in 2021. The district hopes to use an existing pipeline along the E-470 corridor to transport the water and is in the process of negotiating with the East Cherry Creek Valley Water and Sanitation District. If an agreement is not reached, the district would have to build its own infrastructure at a steep cost…

The supply coming from Denver and Aurora is water that has been used and treated. The district will again reclaim the water, meaning the average of 1,200 acre-feet coming in each year will actually measure close to 2,400 acre-feet, Redd said, adding there is a possibility that Parker Water might purchase more WISE water in the future…

Rueter-Hess Reservoir, which the PWSD built for storage, contains around 6,000 acre-feet. By the time the new water treatment plant off Hess Road opens in 2015, the reservoir will contain 15,000 to 20,000 acre-feet. It has the capacity for 72,000 acre-feet.

More Parker coverage here and here.


Parker Water and Sanitation District board is evaluating joining with Aurora and Denver in the WISE project

April 29, 2013

parkerrhodeislandhotel1908bestofparker.jpg

From the Parker Chronicle (Chris Michlewicz):

The Parker Water and Sanitation District board of directors will hear a presentation later this month from new manager Ron Redd, who will recommend that the district enter into WISE, the Water, Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency project. Six members of the South Metro Water Supply Authority, including Pinery Water and Wastewater, the Cottonwood Water and Sanitation District and Stonegate Village Metropolitan District, committed to WISE by signing intergovernmental agreements in late March. The agreements will bring nearly 7,000 acre-feet of recycled water to the south metro area…

The Parker Water and Sanitation District board asked Redd to examine the possibility of buying 500, 1,000 or 1,500 acre-feet through the WISE project. He was expecting to receive the results of a cost analysis on April 5 to determine the possible financial impacts. Any rate hikes on customers would likely be implemented incrementally and equate to about 2.5 percent to 3 percent per year, Redd said, cautioning that those figures are preliminary. The cost of WISE water increases annually over an eight-year period.

It would be relatively easy, Redd said, to move the reclaimed WISE water from Aurora to Parker if the district can come to an agreement to use a pipeline along E-470 owned by East Cherry Creek Valley Water and Sanitation District. If the board gives approval, the intergovernmental agreement would be signed by late May…

Rueter-Hess Reservoir, which contains 5,700 acre-feet of water and was built to store 70,000 acre-feet, will be paid off by the time the Parker Water and Sanitation District takes on more debt to build pipelines to transport the water that will be needed for the future.

Meanwhile, Centennial has inked an IGA with the WISE Partnership. Here’s a report from Ryan Boldrey writing for the Highlands Ranch Herald. Here’s an excerpt:

Centennial Water and Sanitation District was one of six members of the South Metro Water Supply Authority to sign an IGA this past week committing to more renewable water by way of the Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency Partnership. Through the agreement, Aurora Water and Denver Water will provide roughly 7,000 acre-feet of fully treated water annually to participating SMWSA members and deliver it in phases, starting in 2016. As part of the IGA, the participating South Metro WISE entities have agreed to fund new infrastructure that will move the water from Aurora’s Binney Water Purification Facility to its end locations. “A region-wide water solution makes more sense than having each water entity fending for themselves to source, treat and deliver renewable water to customers,” said Eric Hecox, executive director of SMWSA. “We’re excited about the progress we’re making through WISE towards transitioning the region from nonrenewable groundwater to renewable water.”

Hecox said that the agreement helps provide SMWSA with about a third of the necessary water that participating entities will need long-term. From here, work will continue on the Chatfield Reallocation Project as well as of other options and alternatives to bring more water to the region…

For Centennial Water specifically, it’s another step toward cementing a long-term supply and not relying as much on groundwater or leased water. “We’ve got many years of full supply, but some of that full supply comes from leases that are not long-term,” said Centennial Water and Sanitation District General Manager John Hendrick. “We want to add to our portfolio with long-term or near-permanent surface water sources…

Other SMWSA members committing to the project at this time are Cottonwood Water, Meridian Metropolitan District, Pinery Water, Rangeview Metropolitan District and Stonegate Village Metropolitan District. Hecox said he expects Dominion, Inverness, Castle Rock and Parker water districts to sign the IGA by the end of April. SMWSA members not expected to take part in the IGA include: Castle Pines Metro, Castle Pines North, East Cherry Creek Valley, and Arapahoe.

More WISE coverage here.


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