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.


Southeastern Water board meeting recap: Lake Pueblo, swollen by 12,000 acre-feet of flood water

May 24, 2015
Fryingpan-Arkansas Project via the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District

Fryingpan-Arkansas Project via the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Water, water everywhere.

Not going to be a problem later in the year, right?

Hold on.

The Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District Thursday considered the possibilities of how water comes through the Boustead Tunnel into Turquoise Lake under the Fryingpan- Arkansas Project.

All signs are pointing toward a more-or-less normal year in terms of water supply. Lake Pueblo, swollen by 12,000 acre-feet of flood water, is 132 percent of average. The flood water already was being released on Thursday, raising Arkansas River levels in the wake of the flood surge.

Turquoise and Twin Lakes are above average in the upper reaches of the Arkansas River, while John Martin Reservoir has begun filling again to its highest level since 2010, about 82,000 acre-feet on Thursday.

Snowpack levels in the headwaters of both the Colorado and Arkansas Rivers are back to normal, but it’s late in the season and both basins fell short of peak moisture levels this year.

But very little transmountain water has come over so far, just 4,254 acre-feet of a projected 53,000 acre-feet for the season.

“It all depends on how it comes off,” said Roy Vaughan, Fry-Ark manager for the Bureau of Reclamation.

Cold temperatures are preventing the snow from melting at prime rates, as it does at this time of year in some cases.

“The tunnel hasn’t started to run at full capacity, so we’re behind,” Vaughan said.

If it warms up too quickly, the Fry-Ark structures won’t be able to capture it. And river levels have to be met on the Western Slope, Vaughan explained.

In the past decade, the Southeastern district has adopted new policies to avoid over-allocating water early in the season, so it holds back 20 percent of the allocation.

More coverage from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain:

Farms will get a boost in water supply, with nearly average allocations from the Fryingpan- Arkansas Project, but reduced requests from cities for water.

The Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District Thursday approved allocations from the project, based on snow forecasts, which have improved since projections of water supply were made May 1.

The district projects that 53,000 acre-feet (17 billion gallons) of water will be brought through the Boustead Tunnel into Turquoise Lake. That would mean almost 45,700 acre-feet available for allocation.

Of that, about one-third will go to cities and two-thirds to farms. Under the district’s allocation principles, the split would be closer to 53 percent municipal and 47 percent agricultural.

Initially, just 80 percent of the water will be allocated in case conditions change and imports are less than expected. The remaining 20 percent will be available when imports reach the target.

If more water above the target is brought over, there could be a second allocation.

Cost of the water is $9 per acre-foot for farms and $9.75 for cities.

Municipalities reduced their requests significantly this year.

The Fountain Valley Authority (Colorado Springs, Fountain, Security, Stratmoor Hills and Widefield) requested and received 7,216 acrefeet, but was eligible for 11,625 acre-feet.

The Pueblo Board of Water Works was eligible for 4,568 acrefeet, but requested and received no water, since Pueblo Water has ample water in storage this year.

Cities east of Pueblo took slightly less water than authorized, mainly because St. Charles Mesa Water District took just one-sixth of its share. Fowler, Crowley County and Joseph Water all took significantly more water than authorized, while most others were close to average.

Cities west of Pueblo took slightly more. All received the full amount requested.

Pueblo West and Manitou Springs, which get water that was redirected from agriculture when Crowley County farms were dried up by Aurora, will each get full allocations of about 155 and 160 acre-feet, respectively.

The net effect was moving about 9,000 acre-feet to the agricultural side of the ledger, said Garrett Markus, district engineer.

On the agricultural side, Fort Lyon Canal will received the largest allocation, with 10,653 acre-feet, and it will use 3,135 acre-feet of return flows under a pilot project that allows the ditch to use its own return flows for replacement water under state irrigation rules. Only 58,618 acres of the ditch are eligible for Fry-Ark water. The ditch irrigates 93,000 acres, but owners with more than 960 acres, including Pure Cycle (which has 14,600 acres) are not eligible.

As usual, requests for ag water far outpaced the available water.

Farmers asked for 106,570 acre-feet to cover 146,000 acres on 25 canals, ditches or farms. Only 30,024 acrefeet were allocated.

Another 7,431 acre-feet of agricultural return flows were allocated, 95 percent to the three major well augmentation groups in the Arkansas Valley.

More Fryingpan-Arkansas Project coverage here.


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


Pueblo Reservoir winter operations update

February 23, 2015
Pueblo dam releases

Pueblo dam releases

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Water users are playing the annual guessing game of how much water will be in Lake Pueblo when it comes time to ensure enough space is left for flood protection.

While there could be a slight chance for a spill, the Bureau of Reclamation is working with other water interests to reduce the odds.

“The long-term forecast for this spring is for cooler temps and increased precipitation,” said Roy Vaughan, Reclamation’s local manager for the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project.

Right now the reservoir holds about 247,000 acre-feet, and at the current pace of filling would be at 267,000 acre-feet by April 15 — about 10,000 acre-feet above the limit for flood control.

Of the total, nearly 49,000 acre-feet is in “if-and-when,” or excess capacity, accounts subject to spill if there is too much water in Lake Pueblo. Fry-Ark Project water would be the last to spill.

However, the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District is again seeking a waiver to hold a little more water until May 1, the deadline for releasing about 14,500 acre-feet of holdover water.

At the same time, flows below Pueblo Dam are increasing to balance the winter water program, Division Engineer Steve Witte said.

“That’s not good news for the work that’s going on along the levee,” Witte said.

Some winter water also is stored in John Martin Reservoir, which is very low, or in reservoirs owned by ditch companies. Winter water storage ends March 15 and is running close to the 20-year average for the first time in years.


Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District 2015 budget update

November 30, 2014
Pueblo dam releases

Pueblo dam releases

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District board is expected to approve a $17.9 million budget at its next meeting, 11 a.m. Dec. 4.

The district last week reviewed the details of the budget and hosted a public hearing. No member of the public attended.

A mill levy of 0.94 mills is planned, the same as 2014. One mill is an assessment of $1 for every $1,000 of assessed valuation. The district covers parts of nine counties, including Chaffee, Fremont, Pueblo, El Paso, Crowley, Otero, Bent, Prowers and Kiowa.

The district also makes money through sales of water and grants.

More than $12 million will go toward repayment of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, including the Fountain Valley Conduit. The conduit serves El Paso County communities that pay a dedicated mill levy on top of the district mill levy.

The district will spend $2.34 million for its own operating expenses, and $3.5 million on enterprise, or business, activity.

Included in the enterprise fund are the Arkansas Valley Conduit, and an ongoing project to develop hydroelectric power at Pueblo Dam.

More Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District coverage here.


Souteastern Water winter water storage meeting recap

October 18, 2014

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Lower Arkansas Valley water users could face a different sort of challenge next year, especially if it’s a wet winter: Finding places to store the water. The possibility was discussed Friday at the annual meeting of the winter water storage program, hosted by the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

“I think the way we’re managing reservoirs is shifting a bit,” said Jim Broderick, executive director of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “We need to start planning. If one area gets full, you can’t move the water there.”

The winter water program is a court-decreed plan that allows most major ditch companies east of Pueblo to store water from Nov. 15 to March 15 each year. Rather than irrigating during the winter months, the companies can store the water for use later in the season.

But the storage is not all in one place.

About one-third of last year’s water was stored in Lake Pueblo, with the rest being stored by individual canal companies or in John Martin Reservoir.

Not all ditch companies have storage.

Lake Pueblo has more water than usual going into the winter water storage season because cities were able to beef up their storage in Fryingpan-Arkansas Project space this year. In addition, the Bureau of Reclamation is moving water from Turquoise and Twin Lakes to Lake Pueblo to make room for next spring’s transmountain imports.

If rainfall and snowpack are above average in the Arkansas River basin, Lake Pueblo could fill more. If it gets too full, some water would have to be evacuated, or “spilled,” next spring in order to leave space to contain potential floods.

It’s a problem the valley hasn’t really faced since 1999. In 2011, the Southeastern District got permission from the Army Corps of Engineers to delay releases of water from the flood pool by several weeks because of conditions at the time.

Roy Vaughan, Fry-Ark Project manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, said a spill is unlikely next year if weather conditions remain in the average range. But Lake Pueblo should be nearly filled to the flood pool level by next spring.


“I have been proud to work for years to ensure the [support for] the Arkansas Valley Conduit” — Sen. Mark Udall

July 25, 2014
Arkansas Valley Conduit Comanche North route via Reclamation

Arkansas Valley Conduit Comanche North route via Reclamation

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A draft federal energy and water funding bill includes an additional $90 million for projects such as the Arkansas Valley Conduit, U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, both Democrats, said Thursday. The Senate appropriations committee approved the bill, which contains a provision supported by both senators that explicitly makes data collection and design work eligible for funding through these accounts. It will help ensure the Arkansas Valley Conduit is eligible for these funds and sends a clear signal to the Bureau of Reclamation that the conduit is a priority project.

The board of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, conduit sponsor, was dismayed earlier this year when it learned only $500,000 was budgeted for the conduit next year. It is hoping to get at least $3 million for continuing data and design tasks that will lead to construction of the $400 million conduit.

The conduit is the final piece of the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project, authorized in 1962. When complete, the 130-mile pipeline will provide clean drinking water to 50,000 people in 40 communities east of Pueblo.

“For more than five decades, folks in Southeastern Colorado have been waiting for the federal government to fulfill its promise to build the Arkansas Valley Conduit.

That’s far too long for these communities to wait for a reliable source of clean drinking water,” Bennet said.

“I have been proud to work for years to ensure the federal government supports the Arkansas Valley Conduit. This funding brings the people of Southeastern Colorado one step closer to having a clean, safe and reliable source of water,” Udall said.

More Arkansas Valley Conduit funding here and here.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,209 other followers

%d bloggers like this: