USGS: Evaluation of Groundwater Levels in the South Platte River Alluvial Aquifer, Colorado, 1953–2012

May 29, 2015
South Platte River Basin via Wikipedia

South Platte River Basin via Wikipedia

Here’s the abstract from the United States Geological Survey (Tristan P. Wellman):

The South Platte River and underlying alluvial aquifer form an important hydrologic resource in northeastern Colorado that provides water to population centers along the Front Range and to agricultural communities across the rural plains. Water is regulated based on seniority of water rights and delivered using a network of administration structures that includes ditches, reservoirs, wells, impacted river sections, and engineered recharge areas. A recent addendum to Colorado water law enacted during 2002–2003 curtailed pumping from thousands of wells that lacked authorized augmentation plans. The restrictions in pumping were hypothesized to increase water storage in the aquifer, causing groundwater to rise near the land surface at some locations. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Colorado Water Institute, completed an assessment of 60 years (yr) of historical groundwater-level records collected from 1953 to 2012 from 1,669 wells. Relations of “high” groundwater levels, defined as depth to water from 0 to 10 feet (ft) below land surface, were compared to precipitation, river discharge, and 36 geographic and administrative attributes to identify natural and human controls in areas with shallow groundwater.

Averaged per decade and over the entire aquifer, depths to groundwater varied between 24 and 32 ft over the 60-yr record. The shallowest average depth to water was identified during 1983–1992, which also recorded the highest levels of decadal precipitation. Average depth to water was greatest (32 ft) during 1953–1962 and intermediate (30 ft) in the recent decade (2003–2012) following curtailment of pumping. Between the decades 1993–2002 and 2003–2012, groundwater levels declined about 2 ft across the aquifer. In comparison, in areas where groundwater levels were within 20 ft of the land surface, observed groundwater levels rose about 0.6 ft, on average, during the same period, which demonstrated preferential rise in areas with shallow groundwater.

Approximately 29 percent of water-level observations were identified as high groundwater in the South Platte River alluvial aquifer over the 60-yr record. High groundwater levels were found in 17 to 33 percent of wells examined by decade, with the largest percentages occurring over three decades from 1963 to 1992. The recent decade (2003–2012) exhibited an intermediate percentage (25 percent) of wells with high groundwater levels but also had the highest percentage (30 percent) of high groundwater observations, although results by observations were similar (26–29 percent) over three decades prior, from 1963 to 1992. Major sections of the aquifer from north of Sterling to Julesburg and areas near Greeley, La Salle, and Gilcrest were identified with the highest frequencies of high groundwater levels.

Changes in groundwater levels were evaluated using Kendal line and least trimmed squares regression methods using a significance level of 0.01 and statistical power of 0.8. During 2003–2012, following curtailment of pumping, 88 percent of wells and 81 percent of subwatershed areas with significant trends in groundwater levels exhibited rising water levels. Over the complete 60-yr record, however, 66 percent of wells and 57 percent of subwatersheds with significant groundwater-level trends still showed declining water levels; rates of groundwater-level change were typically less than 0.125 ft/yr in areas near the South Platte River, with greater declines along the southern tributaries. In agreement, 58 percent of subwatersheds evaluated between 1963–1972 and 2003–2012 showed net declines in average decadal groundwater levels. More areas had groundwater decline in upgradient sections to the west and rise in downgradient sections to the east, implying a redistribution of water has occurred in some areas of the aquifer.

Precipitation was identified as having the strongest statistically significant correlations to river discharge over annual and decadal periods (Pearson correlation coefficients of 0.5 and 0.8, respectively, and statistical significance defined by p-values less than 0.05). Correlation coefficients between river discharge and frequency of high groundwater levels were statistically significant at 0.4 annually and 0.6 over decadal periods, indicating that periods of high river flow were often coincident with high groundwater conditions. Over seasonal periods in five of the six decades examined, peak high groundwater levels occurred after spring runoff from July to September when administrative structures were most active. Between 1993–2002 and 2003–2012, groundwater levels rose while river discharge decreased, in part from greater reliance on surface water and curtailed pumping from wells without augmentation plans.

Geographic attributes of elevation and proximity to streams and rivers showed moderate correlations to high groundwater levels in wells used for observing groundwater levels (correlation coefficients of 0.3 to 0.4). Local depressions and regional lows within the aquifer were identified as areas of potential shallow groundwater. Wells close to the river regularly indicated high groundwater levels, while those within depleted tributaries tended to have low frequencies of high groundwater levels. Some attributes of administrative structures were spatially correlated to high groundwater levels at moderate to high magnitudes (correlation coefficients of 0.3 to 0.7). The number of affected river reaches or recharge areas that surround a well where groundwater levels were observed and its distance from the nearest well field showed the strongest controls on high groundwater levels. Influences of administrative structures on groundwater levels were in some cases local over a mile or less but could extend to several miles, often manifesting as diffuse effects from multiple surrounding structures.

A network of candidate monitoring wells was proposed to initiate a regional monitoring program. Consistent monitoring and analysis of groundwater levels will be needed for informed decisions to optimize beneficial use of water and to limit high groundwater levels in susceptible areas. Finalization of the network will require future field reconnaissance to assess local site conditions and discussions with State authorities.

More South Platte River Basin coverage here.


Major Construction Set to Begin on WISE Water Project — South Metro Water Supply Authority

May 29, 2015
WISE System Map September 11, 2014

WISE System Map September 11, 2014

From email from the South Metro Water Supply Authority (Russ Rizzo):

Construction is set to begin on a regional water project that is a significant part of the South Denver Metro area’s plan to transition to a renewable water supply.

Western Summit Constructors, Inc. has been contracted to oversee design and construction of major infrastructure for the WISE (Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency) project. Construction will begin in Juneand continue into 2016, when water deliveries will begin.

WISE is a partnership among Aurora Water, Denver Water and the South Metro Water Supply Authority to combine available water supplies and system capacities to create a sustainable new water supply. Aurora and Denver will provide fully treated water to South Metro Water on a permanent basis. WISE also will enable Denver Water to access its supplies during periods when it needs to. All of this will be accomplished while allowing Aurora to continue to meet its customers’ current and future needs.

“This is a significant milestone in our long-term plan to transition to a renewable water supply,” said Eric Hecox, executive director of the South Metro Water, which represents 14 water providers comprising most of Douglas County and a portion of Arapahoe County. “With construction agreements now in place, we will break ground in coming weeks to begin connecting water systems throughout the Denver Metro area.”

Aurora’s Prairie Waters system will provide the backbone for delivering water from the South Platte when Aurora and Denver Water have available water supplies and capacity. The water will be distributed to the South Metro Denver communities through an existing pipeline shared with Denver and East Cherry Creek Valley Water and Sanitation District and new infrastructure that will be constructed over the next 16 months.

“By working together, the three major water entities serving the Denver Metro area have put the southern communities of Denver on a more secure and sustainable path while delivering benefits to the entire region as well as West Slope communities,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper. “The approach is a model for us to replicate as Colorado’s Water Plan is implemented.”

When WISE begins delivering water in 2016:

●The South Denver Metro area will receive a significant new renewable water supply;

●Denver will receive a new backup water supply;

●Aurora will receive funding from partners to help offset its Prairie Waters Project costs and stabilize water rates; and

●The West Slope will receive new funding, managed by the River District, for water supply, watershed and water quality projects.

South Metro Water and its 14 water provider members are executing a plan to transition to renewable supplies. The plan focuses on three areas: investments in infrastructure; partnership among local and regional water suppliers; and maximizing efficiency of existing resources through conservation and reuse.

The South Metro region has made tremendous progress over the past 10 years, reducing per capita water use by more than 30 percent and adding new renewable water supplies and storage capacity that have significantly decreased reliance on nonrenewable groundwater.

For details on the WISE project as well as South Metro Water’s plan to transition to renewable water supplies, visit http://www.southmetrowater.org/smwsa-projects/.

More WISE Project coverage here.


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

May 29, 2015
Historical Colorado River between Granby and Hot Sulphur Springs

Historical Colorado River between Granby and Hot Sulphur Springs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RITSCHARD DAM

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

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

ENDANGERED FISH

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

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

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

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

WINDY GAP FIRMING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MOFFAT TUNNEL FLOWS

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

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

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

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

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

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.


WISE Project set to turn dirt in June

May 26, 2015
WISE System Map September 11, 2014

WISE System Map September 11, 2014

From the Parker Chronicle (Mike DiFerdinando):

Western Summit Constructors Inc. has been contracted to oversee design and construction of major infrastructure for the Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency project. Construction will begin in June and continue into 2016, when water deliveries will begin.

“This is a significant milestone in our long-term plan to transition to a renewable water supply,” said Eric Hecox, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority. “With construction agreements now in place, we will break ground in coming weeks to begin connecting water systems throughout the Denver metro area.”[…]

The group tasked with utilizing this water is the South Metro WISE Authority. The primary purpose of the authority is to reduce members’ dependence on nonrenewable Denver Basin wells and provide a reliable, long-term water supply for residents.

The WISE members are funding the new infrastructure that will move the water from Aurora’s Binney Water Purification Facility to its end locations, beginning in 2016. Water purchased by Douglas County entities, as well as by some of the other providers, will be stored at the Rueter-Hess Reservoir south of Parker.

prairiewaterstreatment

Prairie Waters Project schematic via Aurora Water

 

Aurora’s Prairie Waters system will provide the backbone for delivering water from the South Platte when Aurora and Denver Water have available water supplies and capacity.

The water will be distributed to the south metro communities through an existing pipeline shared with Denver and East Cherry Creek Valley Water and Sanitation District, plus new infrastructure that will be constructed over the next 16 months.

More WISE Project coverage here.


Watching the mouth of the Roaring Fork River — Aspen Journalism

May 24, 2015

railroadbridgeoverroaringforkrivermay2015viaaspenjournalismjeremywallaceaspentimes

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

As my raft floated under the railroad bridge at the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers last week, I was wondering just how much water would flow out of the Fork and into the Colorado this year.

Certainly less than average, given that the snowpack peaked in March and began melting off, I mused, taking a stroke to catch the big eddy that forms just shy of the mighty Colorado, where the Fork comes in across from Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs after draining 1,543 square miles of land.

Perhaps the wet and cold weather of late April and much of May will continue to forestall a sudden flash of melting snow, so what snow we still have in the high country will come off in a nice steady fashion.

But spinning around the eddy, I knew how easy it was, as a boater, to be wrong about water and weather. It is also, as it turns out, a tricky time of year for professional hydrologists to predict run-off, as data from low-elevation snow-measuring sites tapers off and daily weather conditions can play a big role in shaping how much water flows, and when it does.

In mid-March, which felt like summer already, a trip on the Green River starting April 12 seemed like a good bet this year to enjoy some warm weather. But a big storm swept in that week and blasted the river with freezing rain.

The same storm laid down 11 inches of snow on Aspen Mountain by Friday, April 17, making for a memorable closing weekend for some.

After warming up from that trip, I ventured optimistically out again during the first full week of May, this time on the Colorado River west of Loma. And I was soon engulfed in the downpours of May 5 and 6 that lead to river levels across the region jumping up.

Between May 5 and May 7, for example, the flow in the lower Fork doubled from a 1,000 cubic feet per second to over 2,000 cfs.

So when I went out on May 13 for my first trip of the season down the Roaring Fork from Carbondale to Glenwood, I wasn’t surprised that it started raining. It’s just been that kind of season so far — in fact, through May 19, total precipitation in the Roaring Fork River watershed was 204 percent, or double the normal amount of precipitation. according to the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

But the Fork was flowing that day at 1,110 cubic feet per second, which was enough water to have a perfectly nice float, especially as I did see some sun (and some red-wing blackbirds).

But will the river get much bigger this year, I wondered as I rowed toward Glenwood.

redcanyonfromroaringforkmay132015apenjournalimsjeremywallaceaspentimes

Below average flows

The Colorado River Basin Forecast Center in Salt Lake City forecast on May 19 that the Roaring Fork will most likely peak this year in mid- to late June at 4,300 cfs, as measured at Veltus Park, just above the Fork’s confluence with the Colorado.

That’s 73 percent of the Fork’s average annual peak of 5,920 cfs, which typically occurs between May 29 and June 23.

While this year’s likely peak flow of 4,300 cfs is certainly better than the lowest peak flow on record — 1,870 cfs on June 3, 2012 — it’s also way below the historic peak of 11,800 cfs on July 13 in 1995.

The forecast peak flow has increased given the cool and wet weather in May. So, if April showers bring May flowers, May showers are likely to bring better boating on the Fork in June.

“I would say it is very likely (the Roaring Fork) will see a below average peak flow this year,” said Brenda Alcorn, a senior hydrologist with the Forecast Center.

However, she added that what snowpack we do have “is in better shape than it was in 2002 and 2012, so I do not expect a record low peak.”

But just how much water comes, and when, is now weather dependent.

“Spring temperatures and precipitation play a significant role in the pattern of snowmelt runoff and consequently the magnitude of peak flows,” Alcorn said. “An extended period of much above normal temperatures or heavy rainfall during the melt period can cause higher than expected peaks, while cool weather can cause lower than expected peaks.”

On Friday, May 15, Julie Malingowsky, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said the period to at least May 25 looked cooler and wetter than normal, and longer-range forecasts indicate that the next several months could be wetter than normal.

(Also, see the Intermountain West Climate Dashboard of indicators at Western Water Assessment)

But probably not wet enough make up for the skinny snowpack.

“Even though it has been a wet month, we are still drier than normal,” Malingowsky said.

confulenceroaringforkcrystalriver05132015aspenjournalismjeremywallaceaspentime

Below average supply

Another view of this year’s water picture is available from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s “Colorado Water Supply Outlook Report,” which was published on May 1.

The report shows that the “most likely” amount of water to reach the bottom of the Roaring Fork between April and the end of July is 450,000 acre-feet, according to Brian Domonkos, a data collection officer with NRCS.

That’s below the 30-year average of 690,000 acre-feet flowing down the Fork for the period from April to August. (The Roaring Fork delivers, on average, 871,100 acre-feet of water to the Colorado River over a full year, according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources).

The water-supply report said that current conditions point to “a below normal streamflow forecast picture for much of the state heading into spring and summer of 2015.”

However, Gus Goodbody, a forecast hydrologist with NRCS, said the amount of water expected to flow out of the Roaring Fork is likely to increase from the May 1 forecast by five to 10 percent, given May’s weather so far.

“It’s going to go up,” he said.

Another indicator of potential run-off is the measure of the “snow water equivalent” at SNOTEL measuring sites in the Roaring Fork basin.

The average from the eight SNOTEL sites in the Roaring Fork basin was 108 percent on May 19, but that’s without complete data from four of the sites.

That number — 108 percent — has been climbing steadily since May 1, but it’s not an indicator that the snowpack has been growing. What it does show is that the cool and wet weather has slowed the run-off and moved the data closer to the historic average — which, again, bodes well for June boating. But in addition to the snowpack and the weather, there are other factors that dictate the flows in the Fork at Glenwood Springs.

lookingupthecoloradoriverconfluenceroaringforkaspenjournalismjeremywallaceaspentimes

Off the top

An average of 40,600 acre-feet of water a year is collected from the upper Roaring Fork River basin and sent through a tunnel under Independence Pass and into Twin Lakes Reservoir, destined for Aurora, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Pueblo West.

The Twin Lakes diversion takes 40 percent of the water out of the upper Roaring Fork basin above Aspen, according to the 2012 Roaring Fork Watershed Plan.

Another 61,500 acre-feet is collected on average each year from tributaries of the upper Fryingpan River and sent east through the Bousted and Busk tunnels. That accounts for 37 percent of the water in the upper Fryingpan headwaters.

As such, there are many days when there are rivers heading both east and west out of the Roaring Fork River watershed, and the ones heading east can often be bigger.

For example, on May 13, while I was floating on 1,110 cfs at the bottom of the Fork, there was 136 cfs of water running under the Continental Divide in the Twin Lakes — Independence Pass Tunnel, which can, and does, divert up to 625 cfs later in the runoff season.

And the Bousted Tunnel, which transports the water collected from the headwaters of the Fryingpan River, as well as Hunter and Midway creeks in the Roaring Fork basin, was diverting 101 cfs on May 13.

Meanwhile, the gauge on Stillwater Drive on May 14 showed the main stem of the Fork was flowing, just east of Aspen, at 111 cfs.

Then there is the water diverted out of the rivers in the basin and into one of the many irrigation ditches along the Fork, the Crystal and other streams in the basin.

Ken Ransford, a member of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, estimates that the 12 biggest irrigation ditches on the Roaring Fork and Crystal rivers divert about 115,000 acre-feet of water a year.

Most of that water eventually finds its way back to the rivers, but the diversions also leave many stream reaches lower than they otherwise would be, and few tributaries are left untouched.

According to the Roaring Fork Watershed Plan, “flow-altered stream reaches include the Roaring Fork, Fryingpan, and Crystal rivers, as well as Hunter, Lincoln, Maroon, Castle, West Willow, Woody, Snowmass, Capitol, Collins, Sopris, Nettie, Thompson, Cattle, Fourmile, and Threemile creeks.”

Another factor shaping the flows in the lower Fork are decisions made by regional water managers, including irrigators near Grand Junction and municipal water providers in Denver, that can shape releases from reservoirs such as Green Mountain and Ruedi.

Who needs water, and when, can also dictate the size of that eddy at the bottom of the Fork. So for now, I’m just glad it’s big enough to float a boat.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times, the Aspen Times Weekly, and The Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of rivers and water. The Aspen Times Weekly published this story on Thursday, May 21, 2015.

More Roaring Fork River watershed coverage here.


Poudre RiverFest [May 30] restores, celebrates our local river — North Forty News

May 22, 2015
Cache la Poudre River

Cache la Poudre River

From PoudreRiverFest.org via the North Forty News:

Five nonprofit organizations are partnering to host Poudre RiverFest, a community festival, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on May 30 at Legacy Park in Fort Collins. Admission is free.

Save the Poudre, Sustainable Living Association, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, Synergy Ecological Restoration and Fort Collins Museum of Discovery are co-organizing the festival to restore, celebrate and educate people about the Cache la Poudre River, a significant natural resource in our community.

Poudre RiverFest will feature a variety of activities for people to explore the role of the river as an important habitat for wildlife, a recreation area and a source for clean drinking water. Educational and volunteer activities will take place throughout the day with a culminating celebration in the afternoon.

At this family-friendly festival, people can experience scientific research at a bird banding station, go on nature walks to learn about the Poudre River and its inhabitants, volunteer to enhance wildlife habitat through hands-on service projects, and learn about conserving the river through a photo scavenger hunt. In the afternoon, they can kick up their heels to live music from 12 Cents for Marvin, The Burroughs and Justin Roth, connect with local conservation organizations and enjoy kids’ activities, food, a beer garden and more.

This is the second year of this current iteration of Poudre RiverFest. In May of 2014, like-minded nonprofits launched the festival in the wake of the high floodwaters of 2013. More than 1,000 people attended the festival to learn about, restore and celebrate the Cache la Poudre River last year.

All proceeds from the festival support conservation and education nonprofits in Fort Collins.

People are encouraged to get involved! Volunteers are needed to help with hands-on service projects and the festival itself. To volunteer or view the festival schedule, visit http://www.poudreriverfest.org

More Cache la Poudre River watershed coverage here.


Farmers Step Up To Solve Rocky Mountain National Park’s Pollution Problem — KUNC

May 20, 2015
St. Vrain River Rocky Mountain National Park

St. Vrain River Rocky Mountain National Park

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

For the past eight years, the biologist has spent most of his time thinking about how nitrogen pollution is changing the park’s forests, wildflowers, and alpine lakes. He’s also been looking for a way to stop it.

As Cheatham explains, it’s not that nitrogen is bad in and of itself. It’s that there’s too much of it in the park. Think about putting fertilizer, which is basically nitrogen, on your lawn or garden, he said.

“What if you applied that fertilizer — and that’s exactly what it is — at that rate — 15 times what’s on the label. Weird things are going to happen.”

Weird things are happening in the park’s alpine meadows and in the lakes nestled beneath its craggy peaks. Cheatgrass, an invasive weed, is making its way higher and higher into the park, buoyed by extra fertilizer, as are other weeds. Native trees are weakened by the extra nitrogen. Rivers are becoming more acidic…

Scientists are still investigating the links between the algae bloom and nitrogen, said Cheatham. Regardless of if the link is direct, they are sure of one thing: too much nitrogen is throwing off the park’s ecological balance. If nitrogen levels stay high, the park could look completely different in just a few decades…

That’s where Jon Slutsky comes in. He’s a dairy farmer in Wellington, Colorado, about 50 miles east of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Slutsky admits that at first it’s hard to make a connection between a dairy farm on Colorado’s Eastern Plains and biological in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Yet strange as it might seem, farmers on the plains are responsible for a significant amount of the extra nitrogen that’s falling in the park, as rain, or snow.

Other sources include automobiles, oil and gas operations, and other industrial activities from within Colorado. Some nitrogen comes from as far away as California, Nevada, Nebraska and Iowa, according to a 2009 report.

Spurred by a 2004 petition from Trout Unlimited and the Environmental Defense Fund, the Park Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment began to focus on reducing nitrogen in the park.

Pointing at a corral where a few of his 1,500 dairy cows were chowing down, Slutsky said this is where the problem starts.

“Ammonia is created out in the corrals — the cows are designed so perfectly, they provide everything — so the urine hits the ground and it creates ammonia,” Slutsky said.

Ammonia, which contains nitrogen, can come from a cow urine and manure reacting with the air. Ammonia is a gas, and it can be transformed into another type of particle, ammonium nitrate, that is small and easily carried on the wind.

Normally, wind comes from the west. So most of the nitrogen created at dairies like Slutsky’s, and other farms, is carried to places like Nebraska. A few times a year, though, the winds change.

“Not real often. But on occasion they do. Maybe a dozen times a year,” said Slutsky.

When that happens, the nitrogen gets carried up into the park. If it rains or snows, it falls on the park, providing fertilizer for weeds like Canada thistle and stressing out the park’s ecosystem.

Neither the park’s Jim Cheatham nor cattle feedlot owners want this to happen. That’s why the Park Service and other federal agencies are partnering with groups of Front Range farmers to use a novel alert system.

Slutsky and around 50 other farmers signed up for a voluntary program where they get an alert when the winds are blowing the wrong way, from the east, and a system is likely to move in and rain nitrogen down on the park.

The alert tells them how long the weather system will last, often two days or less. In response, the farmers can implement conservation practices that keep nitrogen out of the air. Slutsky might decide to move manure another day. Another farmer might postpone a fertilizer application.

Texas A&M University professor Brock Faulkner is a consultant for the project, which went through a trial run in 2014, sending out 10 warnings to Eastern Plains farmers.

“If we could shift the timing of those practices so that those emissions occur at a time when they’re less likely to cause detrimental environmental impacts, that would be fantastic,” said Faulkner.

More water pollution coverage here.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,214 other followers

%d bloggers like this: