Our remarkably rainy spring and summer in New Mexico and southern Colorado has increased the allocation of San Juan-Chama Project water, which brings some of New Mexico’s Colorado River Basin water to the central part of the state. After a bad start to the year, flows have been above average basically continuously since the first of May…
The mid-June allocation was just half of a normal year supply, but that’s been steadily rising, and now is up to 85 percent, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. And that’s based on what we’ve got now. With the rainy season underway, that could continue rising, with 90 to 95 percent looking like a real possibility. That’s still a shortfall, for only the second time in the project’s 40 years history. But less of a shortfall, but by a significant margin, than water managers had feared.
The water provides supply to Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Both cities have buffers so a shortfall in any one year doesn’t have an immediate effect.
James Eklund, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, invoked his Western Slope heritage at a “Summit on the Colorado Water Plan” hosted Saturday in Rifle by the Garfield County commissioners.
“The mantra I grew up with in Plateau Valley was not one more drop of water will be moved from this side of the state to the other,” said Eklund, whose mother’s family has been ranching in the Plateau Creek valley near Collbran since the 1880s.
Eklund was speaking to a room of about 50 people, including representatives from 14 Western Slope counties, all of whom had been invited by the Garfield County commissioners for a four-hour meeting.
The commissioners’ stated goal for the meeting was to develop a unified voice from the Western Slope stating that “no more water” be diverted to the Front Range.
“That argument had been made, probably by my great-grandparents, my grandparents and my parents,” Eklund said. “And I know there are a lot of people who still want to make that argument today, and I get that. But it has not done us well on the Western Slope.
“That argument has gotten us to were we are now, 500,000 to 600,000 acre feet of water moving from the west to the east. So I guess the status quo is not West Slope-friendly. We need something different. We need a different path. And these seven points provides that different path.”
The “seven points” form the basis of a “draft conceptual framework” for future negotiations regarding a potential transmountain diversion in Colorado.
The framework is the result of the ongoing statewide water-supply planning process that Eklund is overseeing in his role at the CWCB.
Eklund took the helm two years ago at the CWCB after serving as Gov. John Hickenlooper’s senior deputy legal counsel, and he’s been leading the effort to produce the state’s first water plan, which is due on the governor’s desk in December.
The second draft of the plan includes the seven points, even though the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, which meets monthly in Glenwood Springs under the auspices of the CWCB, is still on the record as opposing their inclusion in the water plan. That could change after its meeting on Monday.
Not legally binding
The “seven points” seeks to define the issues the Western Slope likely has with more water flowing east under the Continental Divide, and especially how a new transmountain diversion could hasten a demand from California for Colorado’s water under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
“The seven points are uniquely helpful to Western Slope interests because if you tick through them, they are statements that the Front Range doesn’t necessarily have to make,” Eklund said in response to a question. “If these were legally binding, the Western Slope would benefit.”
Under Colorado water law a Front Range water provider, say, can file for a right to move water to the east, and a local county or water district might have little recourse other than perhaps to fight the effort through a permitting process.
But Eklund said the points in the “conceptual framework” could be invoked by the broader Western Slope when negotiating a new transmountain diversion.
As such, a diverter might at least have to acknowledge that water may not be available in dry years, that the diversion shouldn’t exacerbate efforts to forestall a compact call, that other water options on the Front Range, including increased conservation, should be developed first, that a new transmountain diversion shouldn’t preclude future growth on the Western Slope, and that the environmental resiliency of the donor river would need to be addressed.
“We’re just better off with them than without them,” Eklund said of the seven points.
A cap on the Colorado?
Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River District, which is based in Glenwood Springs and represents 15 Western Slope counties, told the attendees that three existing agreements effectively cap how much more water can be diverted from the upper Colorado River and its tributaries above Glenwood Springs.
The Colorado Water Cooperative Agreement, which was signed in 2013 by 18 entities, allows Denver Water to develop another 18,000 acre-feet from the Fraser River as part of the Moffat, or Gross Reservoir, project, but it also includes a provision that would restrict other participating Front Range water providers from developing water from the upper Colorado River.
A second agreement will allow Northern Water to move another 30,000 acre feet of water out of the Colorado River through its Windy Gap facilities, but Northern has agreed that if it develops future projects, it will have to do so in a cooperative manner with West Slope interests.
And a third agreement known as the Eagle River Memorandum of Understanding will allow Aurora and Colorado Springs to develop another 20,000 acre feet of water as part of the Homestake project in the Eagle River basin, but will also provide 10,000 acre feet for Western Slope use.
“So effectively these three agreements, in effect, cap what you’re going to see above Glenwood Springs,” Kuhn said.
The Moffat, Windy Gap and Eagle River projects are not subject to the “seven points” in the conceptual agreement, and neither is the water that could be taken by the full use of these and other existing transmountain projects.
“So when you add all that up, there is an additional 100,000 to 150,000 acre-feet of consumptive use already in existing projects,” Kuhn said.
But beyond that, Kuhn said Front Range water providers desire security and want to avoid a compact call, just as the Western Slope does.
“We’ve been cussing and discussing transmountain diversions for 85 years,” Kuhn added, noting that the Colorado Constitution does not allow the Western Slope to simply say “no” to Front Range water developers.
“So, the framework is an agenda,” Kuhn said, referring to the “seven points.” “It’s not the law, but it is a good agenda to keep us on track. It includes important new concepts, like avoiding over development and protecting existing uses.”
Vet other projects too?
Rachel Richards, a Pitkin County commissioner, told the attendees that she would like to see more water projects than just new transmountain diversions be subject to the seven points.
As part of the state’s water-supply planning efforts, state officials have designated a list of projects as already “identified projects and processes,” or IPPs, which are not subject to the seven points.
“We would like to see the same environmental standards, and community buy-in standards, applied to increasing existing transmountain diversions or IPPs,” Richards said, noting that the “IPPs” seem to be wearing a halo.
“They need to go through just as much vetting for concern of the communities as a new transmountain diversion would, and we’re probably going to see a lot more of them first,” she said.
At the end of the four-hour summit on the statewide water plan, Garfield County Commissioner Mike Sampson said he still had “real concerns” about the long-term viability of Western Slope agriculture and industry in the face of growth on the Front Range, but he offered some support for the seven points.
“I think the seven points is probably a good starting position,” Sampson said.
He also said Garfield County would make some edits to a draft position paper it hopes will be adopted by other Western Slope counties.
On Saturday, the draft paper said “the elected county commissioners on the Western Slope of Colorado stand united in opposing any more major, transmountain diversions or major changes in operation of existing projects unless agreed to by all of the county(s) from which water would be diverted.”
But Sampson was advised, and agreed, that it might be productive to reframe that key statement to articulate what the Western Slope would support, not what it would oppose.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times on coverage of rivers and water. The Post published this story online on July 25, 2015.
That theme of cooperation, including striking a balance between consumption and conservation, quickly rose to the surface Friday, as members of the whitewater, conservation and political communities met at Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs to discuss the future of state water policy.
“To the best of our ability, we don’t want it to be West Slope against East Slope, “ said Heather Lewin, watershed action director for the Roaring Fork Conservancy. “We want to be working together to understand where water comes from, and how to use it most efficiently … so that we can do the best we can for the people who live here and for the environment.”
Members of the environmental group Conservation Colorado hosted the confab, which was set to coincide with Colorado River Day. The discussion largely revolved around local water issues and the recent release of the draft Colorado Water Plan. As water levels dwindle throughout the West, Colorado is formulating its first state water plan…
A benefit of the state effort is that many interest groups have gotten together to discuss the issue, creating new partnerships that before may never have been possible, said Kristin Green, Front Range field manager for Conservation Colorado.
“I think it’s important to recognize the diversity of holders we do have in this state, particularly in this area, that feel very direct effects from how we are managing our rivers,” she said. “Now more than ever we need to make sure all those different voices are being heard.”
More than 24,000 comments have been made concerning the draft water plan, and the public comment period doesn’t end until Sept. 17, Green said.
She noted that the second draft of the water plan begins to delve into potential solutions, and suggests a conservation goal of saving 400,000 acre feet by 2050. It’s the start of establishing the criteria officials may want to discuss, she said.
“There definitely was more meat on the bones,” Green said of the second draft…
Roaring Fork watershed increases quality of the Colorado
Lewin said that while the Roaring Fork River may be a small component of the overall Colorado River Basin, it still contributes around 1 million acre feet of water to the larger river each year.
She said the quality and quantity of that water can be very significant farther downstream in both an ecological sense and for its value to industries, municipalities and agriculture. But diversions strain that resource.
“Having high-quality water in the Roaring Fork makes a big difference of the water quality overall in the Colorado,” Lewin said.
She added that the river’s gold medal fishing designation is a huge economic boost to the valley. That lofty standard is met when there are at least 60 pounds of trout per acre of water, including at least 12 fish that are 14 inches or longer.
“That’s a lot of fat fish,” Lewin said. “But [keeping] those fish growing fat, healthy and swimming doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”
These conditions occur when a river or stream consists of clean water, and is home to an abundant insect population and a healthy riparian area. Lewin said surrounding riparian areas provide shade to cool river temperatures; food for aquatic creatures; erosion control; and help to filter pollutants.
“As you increase development, and as we diminish stream flows, riparian vegetation becomes one of the first things to really suffer,” she said. “So it’s hard to regenerate cottonwoods without overbanking flows. Cottonwoods are a key part to that riparian vegetation piece.”
Lewin said the recent wet spring led to the term “miracle May,” a month with a huge amount of precipitation that helped make up for a dry and warm winter. The heavy flows also helped to clear out sediment that built up in areas of the Roaring Fork.
“One of the biggest transmountain diversions out of the basin, the Independence Pass Tunnel, was shut down for nearly two months,” she said (that was because the East Slope had ample water supplies). “It just started operations about a week ago or so. By closing down that tunnel we were able to really see the full effects of the spring flushing flow and the benefits to the river.”
Lewin added that old oxbows in the North Star Nature Preserve east of Aspen were again filled with water this spring, putting the wetland area in a more natural state.
The Roaring Fork Conservancy has also engaged residents in the Crystal River Valley to work on addressing low stream flows. That effort has focused on looking at best practices to manage diversions and return flows, and studying the area’s physical features.
“We’re trying to see if we can use all of those pieces together in cooperation with the people who live on and around the river, and use that water to do the best we can for the Crystal,” Lewin said.
Dean Moffatt, a local architect, inquired about efforts to bestow the federal “Wild and Scenic” designation and its protections on the Crystal River.
“As an organization, we’re certainly supportive of the process,” Lewin replied. “We think that it’s really important and has the potential to be really beneficial.”[…]
‘No more water to give’
Aron Diaz, a Silt town trustee, said there’s a lot of interest among local leaders in the Colorado Water Plan.
“We’re really in a unique position and have the opportunity to craft Colorado’s water policy at the larger state level,” he said. “But we need to keep in mind how that affects the Western Slope.”
Diaz said the biggest point of concern is that Front Range basins are still adding placeholders, indicating that they may need more West Slope water to meet demands.
“We’re pretty tapped out for the amount of water that we have available to us,” he said. “Both with our obligations to stakeholders along the Colorado and those environmental, recreational, agricultural, industrial, municipal needs … as well as our downstream obligations with the compact, we’re really at the limit.”
There’s a need to set “achievable, but very aggressive conservation goals” to assure every avenue is studied before looking at new diversions, Diaz said. He urged the public to visit westslopewater.com to sign a petition that will be delivered to Gov. Hickenlooper and Colorado Water Conservation Board director James Eklund. It requests that no new diversions of water be made to the Front Range…
“The Western Slope in Colorado has no more water to give. We, the undersigned western Colorado residents, strongly urge you to oppose any new trans-mountain diversion that will take more water from the Western Slope of Colorado, as you develop Colorado’s Water Plan,” the petition states. “We cannot solve our state’s future water needs by simply sending more water east.”
The latest draft of the plan sets strict guidelines for approving new diversions over the Rocky Mountains.
Underneath the surface of Colorado’s new water plan is an unspoken acknowledgment: the days of moving large amounts of water up and over the Rockies are probably done.
On July 7, the second draft of the statewide plan was released, the latest step in a decade-long process that will direct how Colorado’s water should be managed for years to come. The new draft sets a statewide water conservation target of 400,000 acre-feet and incorporates input from Colorado’s nine Basin Roundtables, groups of citizens and experts tasked with thinking about their region’s water needs. But the biggest addition is a revised set of guidelines for making decisions about new supply projects that could spell the end of any new big water transfers over the Continental Divide.
The guidelines acknowledge what for years seemed unthinkable to many Coloradans: there may not be any water left to develop, without cutting into the water rights already in use.
That admission represents a huge shift in what the state publicly acknowledges about Colorado’s water supply, says Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River District and one of the people who helped draft the guidelines. “Just a few years ago no one was questioning whether there was more Colorado River water to develop,” he says…
That new mindset, encapsulated in the guidelines, challenges a long-held assumption that the state can and should develop its full allotment of water from the Colorado River under the 1922 Compact. The law requires that the Upper Basin states send 7.5 million acre-feet annually to the Lower Basin plus an additional 750,000 acre-feet for Mexico before splitting the remainder among themselves. According to the most recent study by the Colorado Water Conservation Board on the availability of supplies in the Colorado River Basin, Colorado has anywhere from one million to zero acre feet left to develop — depending on which climate model plays out.
On the West Slope, home to 84 percent of Colorado’s water supply, that possibility is driving calls for “not one more drop” of water diverted to the Front Range. Even Denver Water, the largest municipal water utility in the state with 1.3 million customers, acknowledges that protecting existing supplies is paramount. Their comments on the second draft state: “Denver Water receives about 50 percent of its total supply from the Colorado River. Therefore avoiding a ‘Colorado River Compact Call’ is critical to our ability to meet our obligations to our customers.”
But the lingering uncertainty over just how dry or wet Colorado’s future will be means Denver Water is covering both bases. Another section in its comment letter maintains that “the ability to develop new projects should be protected.”
A pilot program that would leave some of Pueblo’s water on the Western Slope — for a fee — was approved by the Pueblo Board of Water Works Tuesday.
The program would pay Pueblo Water about $400,000 over the next two years to leave 600 acre-feet (195 million gallons) in the Colorado River basin. It’s part of an $11 million pilot project to test tools that could be part of a Colorado River drought conservancy plan.
The program is sponsored by the Upper Colorado River Commission, Bureau of Reclamation, Southern Nevada Water Authority, Denver Water, Central Arizona Water Conservation District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
About $2.75 million is set aside for conservation programs in the Upper Colorado states, which are Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Pueblo would contribute the water in a fairly painless way by shutting down the diversion of the Ewing Ditch, which brings water into the Arkansas River basin from Piney Gulch in the Eagle River basin.
The diversion is one of the oldest in the state, constructed in 1880 at Tennessee Pass.
The diversion ditch originally was dug by the Otero Canal and was purchased in 1954 by Pueblo Water. It delivers an average of about 920 acre-feet, but in wet years like this one, not all of the water is taken.
Pueblo’s storage accounts are full this year, with 52,174 acre-feet in storage, equivalent to two years of potable water use in the city. Pueblo’s total water use annually, including raw water leases and other obligations, is usually 70,000-80,000 acre-feet.
Typically, about 14,700 acre-feet would be brought across the Continental Divide, but this year, only about 5,760 acre-feet has arrived from all transmountain sources.
“There’s no place to put it,” Water Resources Manager Alan Ward told the water board this week. “It’s close to as much as we’ve ever had in storage.”
The Ewing Ditch contribution is about 37 percent of average this year, similar to Twin Lakes, which was shut down when the reservoir near Leadville reached capacity in May. Pueblo Water brought over 71 percent of its Busk-Ivanhoe water even though it was trying not to take any, Ward said.
Releases from Crystal Dam will be decreased from 3000 cfs to 2000 cfs, over the next 3 days. Releases will be decreased by 400 cfs on Wednesday, July 22nd, by 350 cfs on Thursday, July 23rd, and by 250 cfs on Friday, July 24th. This reduction is in response to the declining inflows to Blue Mesa Reservoir which have allowed the reservoir elevation to drop to 2 feet below the maximum water surface elevation. The current forecast for April-July unregulated inflow to Blue Mesa Reservoir is 710,000 acre-feet which is 105% of average.
Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1500 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.
Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1500 cfs for July and 1050 cfs for August.
Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are 2000 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be around 1050 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon should be around 1000 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.
The plan has been getting a lot of attention for addressing potential transmountain water diversion projects that would carry water from the Western Slope to the Front Range, including the Gunnison River. But local water experts say that’s one small part of a comprehensive document.
“One thing that’s interesting is the amount of attention that transmountain diversion has gotten in the Colorado Water Plan. That’s really just a page or two out of about 500 pages, but it has gotten more attention than the rest of the document combined,” said Frank Kugel, general manager for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District.
In fact, the plan doesn’t address specific project proposals for transmountain diversion. It provides a conceptual framework to guide the consideration of any future proposals—what Kugel calls sideboards for future discussions—including protection for local communities.
“There will be strict principles applied to any future transmountain diversion projects. The diverter has to accept the risk of that project and understand that if there is no water available, they are the first ones to be shut off,” Kugel said.
The full plan considers many other aspects of water management. As Kugel explained, “We’re facing the risk of having twice as many people [in Colorado] by the year 2050 and some 10 to 15 percent less water supply due to climate change. Those two paths are going in opposite directions, so we need to figure out how to serve more people with less.”
To do that, all nine of Colorado’s Water Basin Roundtables, the Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) and the Colorado Water Conservation Board have been providing input to the plan.
As the Water Plan website states, “The 27 members of the IBCC, representing every water basin and water interest in Colorado, have agreed that unless action is taken, we will face an undesirable future for Colorado with unacceptable consequences.”
The process has attracted a lot of attention from the public. Julie Nania, water director for High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA), says that more than 24,000 public comments were submitted on the first draft of the plan.
“As a plan itself it’s important, but it also facilitates a conversation, taking a closer look at the difficult water issues in Colorado… and how to move forward and protect natural resources while ensuring that communities have the water they need to thrive,” Nania said.
After an initial review of the second draft, Nania is encouraged by the progress that has been made: there are strong urban conservation goals; emphasis has been placed on the importance of healthy rivers, watersheds and watershed planning (including a recognition of the $2 billion to $3 billion needed to keep them healthy); and stringent principles have been developed to vet any future transmountain diversions projects.
“Two things HCCA will look at as we move forward are funding… and more robust criteria for projects before the state decides to fund them,” Nania said. While the plan acknowledges the cost of maintaining healthy rivers and watersheds, there is no funding mechanism identified for other types of projects.
“And we would always like to see stronger language against new transmountain diversions,” Nania continued.
FromThe Durango Herald (Peter Marcus) via the Cortez Journal:
The July 2 release of the plan marks a critical juncture for Colorado’s Water Plan, which has been hailed by Gov. John Hickenlooper as one of the most important pieces of policy facing the state. The draft was actually released about two weeks early…
Local and state water officials will hold a meeting July 20 at the Holiday Inn & Suites in Durango, where state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango; James Eklund, director of the Water Conservation Board; and Mike Preston, chairman of the Southwest Basin Roundtable, are expected to give an overview.
Preston said the plan represents an opportunity to frame the future of water in Southwest Colorado and throughout the state for the next 50 years…
Policymakers must balance the interests of rural Colorado – where water is precious for agricultural needs – with the needs of the rapidly expanding Front Range and suburban communities. One sticking point could be transmountain water diversions for Front Range communities. Front Range plans call for more transmountain water, but Preston questions the viability of such a strategy.
Officials must also preserve the state’s “prior appropriation” system, in which rights are granted to the first person to take water from an aquifer or river, despite residential proximity. Water rights often dominate policy conversations.
The Southwest Basin is complicated, flowing through two Native American reservations and including a series of nine sub-basins, eight of which flow out of state. Complexities exist with agreements with the federal government, which owns large swaths of land in the region…
Preston said he has a team currently combing through the second draft of the plan to determine what changes occurred from the first draft. He was not immediately able to comment on any updates to the plan.
“We’ve got a lot of substance, really a 50-year strategy in the plan, and then a bunch of unresolved issues on a statewide level,” Preston said. “So, we’re really going to press for broader community education and engagement from here forward.
“This is a living document,” Preston said. “We’re pretty serious about what’s in it, both in terms of trying to develop our own supplies for the future and how we need to participate in the statewide exercise.”