A look at the current southwestern Colorado #drought #ColoradoRiver

March 1, 2015
Colorado Drought Monitor February 24, 2015

Colorado Drought Monitor February 24, 2015

From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):

Years of drought and overgrazing have dried out the fields in southwestern La Plata County. Dust easily blows away in the wind.

Last year, from March until May, dust storms caused problems for students, drivers and farmers, and without enough precipitation, the dirty storms could return…

The area from Breen into New Mexico and west of Black Ridge to the La Plata County line was hit hard last year by dust, said Sterling Moss, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Durango.

The recent snowfall earlier this week dumped about a foot of snow near Breen and Kline, and more snow is expected to accumulate this weekend.

“This is a huge blessing, but we are still way far from being out of the woods,” said Trent Taylor, owner of Blue Horizons Farm Inc.

The entire river basin, which includes the Dolores, Animas, San Juan and San Miguel rivers, would need to receive 218 percent of historical snowfall to get back on track, said Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District.

“I don’t think we’ll make it to normal snowpack this year,” he said.

A long dry spell in January and February left local conservationists and farmers nervous. In mid-February, Moss dug down to test soil moisture as wind dried the field of winter wheat all around him.

In southwestern La Plata County, snow should have blanketed the field near County Road 119 for weeks. But instead, Moss didn’t even find enough moisture in the soil to support the wheat through harvest.

“I’ve never seen a February like that,” Taylor said.

The newly fallen snow could ease the situation. If it melts slowly, it can soak deeper into the soil than rain does.

But re-establishing healthy fields is key to preventing dust storms through the spring winds.

Moss and his office have been working with landowners to plant grass in areas dedicated to conservation reserves to keep the top soil from blowing away. These areas are dedicated to wildlife habitat, and landowners receive a government subsidy for not working the land. This helps farmers survive in the worst drought years, Taylor said.

But it has been challenging.

“A lot of grass has been planted that hasn’t been established yet,” Moss said.

The stands of grass are key to keeping valuable topsoil in place. An inch of topsoil can take 100 years to accumulate, he said.

But without precipitation at the right time, the grasses won’t grow. This year, Moss might recommend planting grass or another cover crop in mid-summer in hopes the monsoons will come.

In the past few years, fall rains have brought most of the moisture for the year.

Leaving the stems from last year’s crop in place also can prevent wind and rain erosion and keep the soil cooler, said Abdel Berrada, a soil scientist with Colorado State University.

This stubble helps conserve soil, but it also provides habitat for pests, like cut worms that may require herbicide, Taylor said.

Planting trees as wind breaks or setting up snow fences can help keep the dust down. But trees can’t thrive when there’s very little water…

“Growing plants on bare bones soil with little to no water can be an uphill challenge,” said Darrin Parmenter, county extension agent for Colorado State University.

San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan Basin High/Low Graph February 25, 2015 via the NRCS

San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan Basin High/Low Graph February 25, 2015 via the NRCS


Rio Grande now largest source of ABQ water — the Albuquerque Journal #RioGrande

January 13, 2015
New Mexico water projects map via Reclamation

New Mexico water projects map via Reclamation

From the Albuquerque Journal (John Fleck):

Albuquerque’s effort to wean itself from unsustainable groundwater pumping took a major step forward in 2014, with Rio Grande water for the first time in history meeting more than half the needs of the metro area’s largest water utility.

In a year-end report to the state, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility reported that 60 percent of its water came from its diversion dam, which intercepts Rio Grande flows near Alameda at the north end of town. Groundwater, pumped from deep layers of sands and gravels beneath the city, made up the other 40 percent of supply. The water utility serves a population of more than 600,000 in Albuquerque and neighboring areas of Bernalillo County.

The shift from groundwater to river water is critical to maintaining the long-term viability of Albuquerque’s water supply, said University of New Mexico water expert Bruce Thomson. “The groundwater is our drought reserve, so we need to preserve that,” Thomson said in an interview Monday.

The shift to river water, bolstered by water imported from the Colorado River Basin via the San Juan-Chama Project, began in 2008. At the time, excess groundwater pumping over more than a century had dropped the water table beneath Albuquerque by as much as 120 feet in some places. The use of river water has shifted that balance, with the water table rising 4 to 8 feet in the years since across Albuquerque, more in some places, said John Stomp, chief operations officer for the water utility. “The groundwater levels are continuing to rise in Albuquerque,” Stomp said.

“The fact that we’ve reduced the stress on our groundwater reserves has allowed them to recover fairly substantially,” Thomson said.

The results suggest the San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Project, a $500 million effort that included a new dam, water treatment plant and distribution pipes throughout Bernalillo County, is achieving its primary goal, Thomson said.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.


Lake Nighthorse: “This water would really help our future” — Manuel Heart

January 7, 2015
Lake Nighthorse via the USBR

Lake Nighthorse via the USBR

From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):

The Durango City Council signed a resolution Tuesday supporting the delivery of water from Lake Nighthorse to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

“This water would really help our future,” Chairman Manuel Heart said.

The resolution stemmed from a series of recent meetings between city officials and the tribe about the potential recreational use of Lake Nighthorse, City Manager Ron LeBlanc said.

The city likely will send the resolution to Colorado’s U.S. senators and House members to help support the tribe as it seeks funding for infrastructure to deliver water.

Lake Nighthorse was built to provide Native American tribes, including the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Navajo Nation and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, with water they are entitled to receive, said Justyn Hoch, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has water rights to about 31 percent of the water stored in the lake, but Congress has not funded infrastructure to bring it to the reservation, she said.

Congress has funded a pipeline to the Navajo Nation, which is nearing completion. It will deliver water to the Shiprock area. In addition, the Southern Utes could access water from Lake Nighthorse by releasing it back into the Animas and taking it out of a river diversion, she said.

However, the infrastructure for the Ute Mountain Utes was dropped from federal legislation in 2000, Heart said.

The tribal leadership already has met with U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R.-Cortez, and has plans to meet with U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R.-Colorado, this year to talk about the need to fund a delivery system.

The additional water would allow for greater economic development on the reservation, Heart said. The reservation covers about 600,000 acres southwest of Cortez and has one of the largest farms in Montezuma County.

Ute Mountain Ute Councilor Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk also voiced her appreciation of the resolution because the reservation currently has limited water resources. While securing water delivery is a priority for the tribe, she expects it to be years before the tribe receives an appropriation.

More Animas-La Plata Project coverage here.


Drying up our water, parts I & II, the Pagosa Daily Post

January 5, 2015
New Mexico water projects map via Reclamation

New Mexico water projects map via Reclamation

From the Pagosa Daily Post (Bill Hudson):

Politicians and engineers began designing plans to divert water from three tributaries of the relatively-unstressed San Juan River, in southern Colorado, into the Rio Grande valley. It took about 40 years to get the plans approved, and in December, 1964, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation began construction on the Azotea Tunnel, the primary diversion tunnel that would run from southern Colorado’s stretch of the Navajo River south to Azotea Creek in northern New Mexico.

The project would be called the San Juan-Chama Project, and would eventually allocate about 56 percent of its water — 48,200 acre-feet per year — to the City of Albuquerque. For comparison, the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) delivers about 1,300 acre-feet per year to Archuleta County customers.

Work began on the Blanco River Tunnel in 1966, and the following year, construction was started on Heron Dam, which would impound most of the diverted water for future uses in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and throughout northern New Mexico. The new reservoir was to be named Heron Lake.

The project supplied jobs for some of the men living in the small, economically challenged town of Pagosa Springs, twenty miles to the northwest. I’ve been told that one of the union organizers on the tunnel project was a young man named Ross Aragon.

The Bureau of Reclamation announced the completion of the project in 1978, but budget cuts had greatly reduced the extent of the project, reducing the amount of diverted water in the original project plans by more than 50 percent. Numerous auxiliary diversions that were supposed to deliver water to agricultural users in northern New Mexico never got built.

Heron Lake was one of the completed components, however, and it became not only a water storage reservoir but also a popular recreational boating site and the home of Heron Lake State Park.

And, from Part II:

I believe there are three intriguing aspects to Mr. Fleck’s article. One is his statement that this was the first time in 40 years that the “San Juan Water” had dried up. Another is the fact that he references a federal study warning us that “climate change would mean less reliable [water] supplies from the [San Juan-Chama] project as temperatures warm during the 21st century.”

And the third intriguing feature is the photograph that illustrated the article.

To relate this story properly, we need to view the Albuquerque Journal photo, published on December 29, 2014 and credited to photographer Eddie Moore.

The photo was accompanied by this caption: “Earlier this year, the New Mexico Sailing Club’s marina at Heron Lake was surrounded by grass and weeds due to the low water level of the lake. The lake, 6 miles west of Tierra Amarilla in Rio Arriba County, is the main storage reservoir of the San Juan-Chama Project.”

heronreservoirrioarribacountynewmexicosanjuanchama122014

We humans are often frustrated by failure — such as, for example, the failure of Mother Nature to provide enough water to fill a man-made reservoir that we took all the trouble to build, and to which numerous sailboat owners have become accustomed.

More San Juan River Basin coverage here.


Water Diversions, Part Five — Pagosa Daily Post

December 27, 2014

George Washington addresses the Continental Congress via Son of the South

George Washington addresses the Continental Congress via Son of the South


From the Pagosa Daily Post (Bill Hudson):

About halfway through the public portion of the November 25 meeting of the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) board of directors, board member Burt Adams was pleading with the other four directors — Mike Church, Glenn Walsh, Paul Hansen and Gordon McIver — to conduct their discussion openly, in public session.

“In this public offer that CWCB has made here — this public proposal — there are at least ten items in the offer that I believe would be detrimental to PAWSD. … So we have this public document here, and I believe our discussion should be held in public.”

Director Glenn Walsh responded to Mr. Adams.

“Well, I have maybe 15 points that I’m real pessimistic on. So, going into executive session is by no means a ratification of the deal that’s on the table.”

The PAWSD meeting had been publicized as an “executive session” .. meaning that the press and the public would be excluded from the meeting. A discussion of “the deal that’s on the table” would be held in secret, in other words.

The issue itself, however, was anything but secret. The current PAWSD board has publicly rejected the idea of building a $357 million reservoir in Dry Gulch — a project that had been approved by a previous PAWSD board of directors. PAWSD had signed an Letter of Intent to cooperate with San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) president Rod Proffitt, in offering PAWSD’s 90-percent ownership of the Running Iron Ranch to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) in exchange for some kind of “loan forgiveness” on the $9 million loan made to PAWSD by CWCB.

The CWCB staff had responded with a publicly-issued outline of a completely different agreement, seemingly aimed at getting Dry Gulch build anyway, even though — to my knowledge — no one anywhere has quantified a
the need for such a reservoir, ever since the bogus Steve Harris projections were rejected by the Colorado Supreme Court.

If you haven’t yet read the CWCB offer, you can download it here.

The Colorado Sunshine Law prohibits government boards from making decisions in secret. But the same law allows an executive session for the purpose of “instructing negotiators.” Is it possible for a board to give confidential directions to a negotiator… without making some decisions secretly? It’s a good question. In the end, four of the five PAWSD board members voted to make certain negotiating decisions in secret.

I have to give the PAWSD board a lot of credit for their lengthy discussion on November 25. I’ve witnessed a lot of local government boards go into executive session to argue very important public issues, without so much as a howdy-do. On November 25, the PAWSD board publicly argued at length — with one another and with the audience — the wisdom and ethics of discussing the CWCB offer in closed session. I’ve never witnessed a government board take an executive session vote so seriously.

However, the audience was never provided a copy of the CWCB proposal under consideration, so we were listening to a discussion that didn’t always make a lot of sense to us. It was clear, from the 51-minute public discussion, that different board members had different interpretations of the CWCB offer.

How much interest would be charged, exactly? What would happen to the $1 million SJWCD grant? How much would the balloon payment total?

More Pagosa Springs coverage 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.


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