2015 Colorado legislation: HB15-1167 (South Platte River Mainstem Storage Study)

February 17, 2015
South Platte River Basin via Wikipedia

South Platte River Basin via Wikipedia

HB15-1167 is up for hearing tomorrow in the House Agriculture, Livestock, & Natural Resources committee. The bill is the brainchild of J. Paul Brown representing District 59 down in southwestern Colorado. It would direct the CWCB to study the feasibility of new mainstem storage on the South Platte River downstream from Greeley. It also directs the CWCB to utilize existing studies of the possibility of pumping water from the Missouri River Basin back to Colorado. I suppose he’s talking about the USACE’s alternative to Aaron Million’s pipeline from the Green River or the Kansas Aqueduct project.

The bill calls out the Narrows Dam Project (650,000 AF) that was authorized by the US Congress but never built for a number of reasons, most of which would be faced by any new mainstem project.

Senator Sonnenberg shows up as the Senate sponsor.

Here’s what Representative Brown had to say on the subject in the Pagosa Daily Post:

My time in the legislature is challenging and exciting. I am working hard on my bills as well as keeping up on my committee bills and the bills that come to the floor. I actually have a little advantage over other legislators in that my apartment is half a block from the Capitol, so all of my time, when I am not sleeping, showering, or attending receptions, is spent reading and preparing for action on bills.

My number one issue is water storage and primarily storage in the South Platte drainage in Colorado. Why on the South Platte? Because that is the one drainage on the eastern side of Colorado that regularly has water that leaves the state that can legally be stored and used in Colorado. When I was in the legislature in 2011 and 2012 I started paying attention to the water in the South Platte Basin that was leaving the state. There were two years in particular where over 1,000,000 acre feet per year were wasted, another where 600,000 acre feet left the state, and even today there is excess water running out of the state that could be used to augment other water needs in Colorado. If we could store that water, it would help to satisfy the demand on the Front Range and relieve the need to send water from the Western Slope to the more populated Eastern side of the Continental Divide.

For the past many years I have been learning all I can about water, water law, water compacts with other states, and everything else related to water that I could possibly learn. I started at a young age when my parents were paid to measure the water at the Colorado/New Mexico state line on the La Plata River South of Hesperus, Colorado. On most early mornings before I caught the bus for school I would measure the amount of water in the river. That information was then relayed to the water authorities in both states where ditches were closed or opened depending on their priority. I have monitored Governor Hickenlooper‚s „water plan‰ and have attended as many Water Roundtable meetings as I could possibly make. I have attended the Colorado Water Congress meetings amongst the most knowledgeable water lawyers and providers in Colorado.

I still have much to learn.

Everywhere I go I have asked folks about storage on the South Platte. The more I have learned, the more it became evident that all of the information needed to make good decisions on where and how to store water was scattered in many different places. I decided that it was necessary to pull all of that information together and that the easiest way to do so is to run a bill. That bill is HB15- 1167. It will be heard in the House Agriculture, Livestock, and Natural Resources Committee upon adjournment on the 18th of February.

More 2015 Colorado legislation coverage here.


Southern Delivery System update: Damages awarded to rancher vacated by Colorado Supreme Court

February 12, 2015
Southern Delivery System route map -- Graphic / Reclamation

Southern Delivery System route map — Graphic / Reclamation

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The Colorado Supreme Court vacated a Pueblo District Court order that would have required Colorado Springs to pay Pueblo County rancher Gary Walker more than $500,000 in costs in a legal dispute over Southern Delivery System.

The order, issued last week, throws out former District Judge Victor Reyes’ Dec. 4 decision to award Walker Ranches $387,000 plus 8 percent annual interest since 2011 for costs leading up to a trial that has been postponed several times. That amounted to about $509,000.

Reyes retired at the end of last year.

Reyes issued a supplemental order that the payment was binding because of Colorado Springs’ 1041 land-use agreement with Pueblo County that prevents “undue financial burdens” for Pueblo County residents affected by SDS.

The state Supreme Court directed Pueblo District Court to determine costs after a trial to determine the value of the easement for SDS across Walker Ranches. The trial is scheduled to begin in April.

Colorado Springs had argued legal costs should not be negotiated until after the trial concluded, while Walker’s lawyers said costs were incurred even as Colorado Springs sought delays for trial.

Walker has not made a request for payment under the 1041 agreement from Pueblo County commissioners, and the county is not a party to the dispute over payment, said Ray Petros, special counsel for Pueblo County.

Walker and Colorado Springs are miles apart on the value of the SDS pipeline easement. Colorado Springs contends it is worth $100,000, while Walker’s attorneys filed documents indicating damage to the ranches as a whole from the pipeline is $25 million.


Is An Aqueduct A Practical Answer To Western Kansas’ Water Crisis? — Heartland Health Monitor

January 5, 2015

From KCUR.org (Bryan Thompson):

Western Kansas is heavily dependent on the Ogallala Aquifer. But since 1950, that ancient supply of underground water has been rapidly depleted by irrigation. That irrigation produces corn, which is fed to livestock to support the beef and, more recently, dairy industries, which are the foundation of the western Kansas economy. But water levels have dropped so low in parts of more than 30 counties that irrigation pumps can no longer be used there. That’s why rivers in western Kansas are little more than dry stream beds.

Mark Rude is tracking the depletion of the aquifer for a groundwater management district in the heart of the affected area.

“We’re only 9 percent sustainable with that 2 million acre-feet that we use in southwest Kansas,” Rude says. “And 9 percent sustainable is a very formidable number, because you can’t conserve your way out of that.”

In other words, 91 percent of the water currently being pumped would have to be shut off just to keep the aquifer from declining any more. But if the water doesn’t come from the aquifer, where could it come from? The 2011 flooding on the Missouri River gave Rude and others an idea about how to answer that question. While devastating to those along the river, the flood looked like an opportunity.

“Folks who realize the deep value of water in western Kansas looked at that and go, ‘Wow, if we only had a couple days of that flow we could fill the aquifer, and we’d all be happy,’” Rude says.

Rude looked into that idea, and rediscovered the 1982 study proposing a system to capture excess water from the Missouri River and store it in a huge, new lake near White Cloud in the northeastern corner of the state. It would then be pumped uphill through an aqueduct to western Kansas. There it would be stored in another new lake — by far the largest in the state — for distribution.

The cost was estimated at $1,000 per acre-foot of water delivered. With that price tag, the concept was dead on arrival. But recently, the Kansas Water Office told the committee charged with updating the old study that the cost is now closer to $500 per acre-foot. The savings are due to lower interest rates. Cost is a concern for committee member Judy Wegener-Stevens, but it’s not the only reason she’s opposed to the project.

“I don’t feel an aqueduct should be built,” Wegener-Stevens says. “I feel that people in western Kansas have been pumping water unconditionally, without any rules, for 40 years, and they have not used their resource very well.”

Wegener-Stevens, who lives in White Cloud, said the nearby Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska would fight a proposed aqueduct. They have rights to water in the Missouri River and are working to quantify those rights. There might also be objections from other states, even though the idea is to take only “excess” water. Throw in anticipated battles over property rights and environmental concerns, and some committee members say the aqueduct still doesn’t appear realistic.

But committee member Clay Scott isn’t willing to give up on the idea. Three generations of his family raise cattle and grow irrigated corn and wheat near Ulysses, in southwest Kansas. Scott points to an Arizona aqueduct called the Central Arizona Project as proof that a Kansas aqueduct is feasible. He says a reliable source of water is vital to the future of his family’s farm.

“I’ve got three boys that are looking to maybe come back to the farm, but, you know, it takes a lot of acres in western Kansas to support a family — especially coming through these last three years of drought,” Scott says. “It’s a challenge to tell your boys that there’s an opportunity. There’s a future for you here.”

Scott and other members of the advisory committee say the first priority should be some sort of compact with other states and Indian tribes to secure rights to Missouri River water. Then they can worry about all the other obstacles to the project. Earl Lewis, the assistant director of the Kansas Water Office, agrees with that approach.

“Moving forward and investing considerable time and funds into pursuing a project that doesn’t have the legal security of a water right or some kind of compact doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Lewis says.

Even if the Missouri River doesn’t pan out as a water source, Lewis says there may be other options. State law could be changed to make it easier to transfer surplus water to western Kansas from other parts of the state. And Kansas may be able to get some financial help from Colorado, in exchange for providing water to ease shortages on the Front Range. But it will be up to others to explore those options and others. The advisory committee’s charge was solely to update the aqueduct study and make recommendations. Those recommendations are due by the end of January.

More Ogallala Aquifer coverage here.


Southern Delivery System: 1 mile bore under I-25, Fountain Creek, and the railroad should be completed 1st quarter

December 28, 2014
Southern Delivery System route map -- Graphic / Reclamation

Southern Delivery System route map — Graphic / Reclamation

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Monica Mendoza):

A giant teeth-gnashing machine is boring its way 85 feet under Interstate 25, two sets of railroad tracks and Fountain Creek. The machine is cutting a 1-mile long tunnel about 20 miles south of downtown Colorado Springs for a section of a massive pipeline project that will carry millions of gallons of water from the Pueblo Reservoir to Colorado Springs. It is the most complicated and dangerous part of the 50-mile stretch of the Southern Delivery System project, said Brian Whitehead, Colorado Springs Utilities project manager. If all goes as planned the tunnel should be completed in the first quarter of 2015.

“This is the last section of the pipe to be constructed and the most complex part,” Whitehead said. “There are risks – it’s not something anyone can do.”

Construction on the biggest Utilities project in its history began in 2010. The Southern Delivery System project was envisioned as the way for the city to handle future growth, said Jay Hardison, Colorado Springs Utilities water treatment plant project manager. It took years to plan and receive the proper permits from federal, state and county officials. The plan also was reviewed and approved by the Federal Aviation Administration because the new water treatment plant and holding tank off Colorado 94 are in the flight line near Colorado Springs Airport.

SDS cost, water rates

– Project cost: $841 million.

– Utilities customers’ water rate increased by 12 percent in 2011 and 2012 to cover cost of project.

– Utilities customers’ water rate increase by 10 percent in 2013 and 2014.

Southern delivery system timeline

2009: Final approvals and permits secured.

2010: Construction started.

2011: Construction began at Pueblo Dam and on the raw water pipeline.

2012: Pueblo Dam connection complete.

2014: Raw water pipeline construction complete.

2015: Raw water pump stations expected to be complete.

2016: Water treatment plant and finished water pump stations expected to be completed and SDS delivers water to Colorado Springs, Fountain, Security and Pueblo West.

2020-2025: Phase 2 could begin to expand capacity at the water treatment plant

Source: http://www.sdswater.org

More coverage from Monica Mendoza writing for The Colorado Springs Gazette:

At the start of the economic recession in 2008-09 work slowed at the Northwest Pipe company, which manufactures pipe in Denver. Then in 2010, the contracts for the massive $841 million Southern Delivery System project started dropping, said John Moore, Northwest Pipe operations manager. Colorado Springs Utilities was building a 50-mile pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir to Colorado Springs.

“When it dropped, we went from hanging on, hibernation mode, to Pueblo and production,” Moore said. “At the apex, we had 235 people employed working two shifts. For us it meant business was up.”

Utilities has hired 380 businesses in Colorado to plan and build the pipeline and water treatment plant, spending an estimated $489 million on contracts in the state. Of that, Northwest Pipe won $110 million in work.

The company made four to five pipes a day. In all it manufactured 7,000 pieces of pipe for the project. Beyond the direct contracts, there was a ripple effect, Moore said.

“Anytime you have a project this size, you are coordinating with suppliers and trucking companies,” Moore said. For example, during peak production, as many as 25 trucks a day left Northwest Pipe’s manufacturing facility. “We used local suppliers – the truck company was local.”

“The other thing that might be missed in the number is that most of the people who work on these crews putting the pipe in, there is a lot of inspection required, people making sure they are doing things right,” Moore said. “We have reps coming in, there is a huge travel industry associated with this project in rental cars, hotels and air travel.”

There is about one mile of pipeline left to complete in the project. Then Northwest Pipe will be done and moving on to water projects in Texas and other states, Moore said. The company has nine manufacturing plants across the country.

“Across the country, water infrastructure is getting old – water pipes are getting old,” Moore said.

More Southern Delivery System coverage here and here.


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

December 27, 2014

From the Grand Junction Free Press (Hannah Holm):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.


Draft conceptual diversion deal presented to West Slope water interests — Aspen Journalism

December 23, 2014
Informational graphic screen shot December 18, 2014 via Aspen Journalism

Informational graphic screen shot December 18, 2014 via Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

A draft seven-point framework that lays out conditions for a potential new transmountain diversion in Colorado was explained Thursday in Grand Junction to the members of four Western Slope water-planning roundtables.

About 75 members of the four roundtables heard Bruce Whitehead, a member of the Interbasin Compact Committee, describe in relatively plain terms a “draft conceptual agreement” the committee reached in June on how to possibly move more water from the Western Slope to the Front Range.

“This is conceptual,” said Whitehead, who serves on the Southwest Basin roundtable. “We haven’t sold the ranch, and I don’t think, intend to. It was really to set up a dialogue about, yes, go ahead and say it, transmountain diversions. What are the pros? What are the cons? How do we meet Colorado’s gap in the future?”

Whitehead said the seven-point framework had moved the discussion about a new transmountain diversion past the water-planning euphemism “new supply.”

“The term ‘new supply’ had been used a lot,” Whitehead said. “And folks on the Western Slope, obviously, are a little sensitive about new supply. I’ve heard it stated that it might be new supply to somebody else but it’s not really a new supply.”

Sawyer Creek diversion via Aspen Journalism

Sawyer Creek diversion via Aspen Journalism

The 7-Points, in the draft water plan

The 27-member Interbasin Compact Committee serves as something of an executive committee for the nine basin roundtables. Its mission includes developing new water storage and providing a framework for negotiations between the roundtables.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board, the state agency charged with planning for the state’s water needs, oversees both the committee and the roundtables.

On Dec. 10, the agency presented a draft Colorado water plan to Gov. John Hickenlooper. The plan includes the committee’s seven-point “draft conceptual agreement.”

Whitehead explained that the committee members were polled at a meeting in June using a clicker system, and all of them endorsed the statement, “I agree that the draft conceptual agreement is ready to go the water conservation board for consideration while we continue to get feedback from our roundtables and constituencies and the public.”

“So it is not a done deal,” Whitehead said. “And I know there’s even been some things in the newspaper here recently that agreements have been cut, that a deal’s been done, and that’s not the case.”

Members of both the Colorado River Basin and the Gunnison River Basin roundtables recently expressed dismay that a perception had been created that an agreement on a new transbasin has been reached.

“Our last roundtable meeting in November was a very emotional, heartfelt meeting where we discussed the seven points,” said Louis Meyer, a member of the Colorado roundtable. “We are the donor basin. There are currently 15 major transmountain diversions diverting between 450,000 and 600,000 acre-feet out of our basin.”

At their November meeting, the Colorado roundtable members unanimously adopted a motion stating that “it would be premature and inappropriate” to include the seven points in the Colorado water plan.

“We’re not saying they don’t belong in Colorado’s water plan; we’re saying they are not ready yet,” Meyer said at Thursday’s meeting, which also was attended by another 75 or so members of the public and Colorado’s professional water community. “They need a lot more discussion.”

The first and perhaps most significant of the seven points states that “the eastern slope is not looking for firm yield from a new transmountain diversion project and would accept hydrologic risk for that project.”

“I think the (Interbasin Compact Committee) has acknowledged that in high-water years, and at high levels of storage, there is probably some water left to develop in the Colorado River system,” Whitehead said of the first point. “In very low years, as in the previous 14 or 15 years we’ve just seen, there may not be.”

Whitehead said the third point, concerning “triggers” that might force a new transmountain diversion to divert less water, was about managing a potential “compact call” from California and other lower-basin states. Such a call could force junior water-rights owners in Colorado and other upper-basin states to stop diverting water.

“If it looks like we’re going to be headed toward compact curtailment of some kind, then they shouldn’t divert and increase that risk,” Whitehead said of a new diversion. “What those triggers are hasn’t been fully defined.”

The fourth point calls for an “insurance policy” for existing junior water rights, and raises the question of how much more water should be diverted from the state’s west-flowing rivers in the face of a looming compact call.

“Obviously, any development is going to increase the risk,” Whitehead said. “In my mind, 2 acres of irrigation on the Animas River that has a fairly small depletion is a bit of a different animal than a 100,000 acre-foot diversion. So how do we handle that? Is there a de minimus amount that we could agree to that would allow for some future uses on the Western Slope while trying to minimize that risk?”

Most of the basin roundtables are set to meet in January, and the Interbasin Compact Committee, which has not met since June, is slated to meet Jan. 28. A final version of the Colorado water-supply plan is due in December 2015.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Times published this story on Monday, Dec. 22, 2014.

More IBCC — basin roundtables coverage here.


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.


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