Here’s the release from the Colorado River Water Conservancy District via Jim Pokrandt:
Two of the most important women in Western water leadership will be addressing the Colorado River District’s popular Annual Water Seminar in Grand Junction, Colo., that takes place Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Two Rivers Convention Center.
Headlining the event are Jennifer Gimbel, the Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, the U.S. Department of the Interior; and Pat Mulroy, Senior Fellow for Climate Adaptation and Environmental Policy at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas’ Brookings Mountain West, as well as a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program in Washington, D.C. She retired in 2014 as General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
Ms. Gimbel is well known in Colorado for her work as director at the Colorado Water Conservation Board before she moved to federal positions with the Department of the Interior that culminated with her ascendency to the post that oversees the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Geological Survey and Colorado River administration. Ms. Mulroy oversaw the Southern Nevada Water Authority for 21 years where she got results as well as headlines in positioning Las Vegas for growth in the face of limited water supply.
The theme of the seminar is: “Will What’s Happening in California Stay in California?” Cost of the seminar, which includes lunch, is $30 if pre-registered by Friday, Sept. 4, $40 at the door. Register at the River District’s website: http://www.ColoradoRiverDistrict.org. Call Meredith Spyker at 970-945-8522 to pay by credit card.
The day’s speakers will draw an arc of water supply and policy concern from the Pacific to Colorado, looking at the basics of climate and weather generated by the Pacific, dire drought in California and what that means to the interior West, the still-on-the-horizon planning to deal with low reservoir levels at Lakes Powell and Mead, and finally, an analysis of Colorado’s Water Plan, still in draft form.
Klaus Wolter, a pre-eminent analyst of El Nino-La Nina conditions in the Pacific will preview the growing El Nino conditions and what they will mean for snowpack this winter. He is a research scientist at the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory’s Physical Sciences Division in Boulder and world renowned in his field.
Also at the seminar, Colorado River District staff will speak to its policy initiative that new paradigm in Colorado Water Planning is how to protect existing uses, especially irrigated agriculture in Western Colorado, in the face of diminishing supplies and potential demand management necessities. Issues of planning for new transmountain diversion (TMD) remains a big focal point in Colorado’s Water Plan, but it is drought and reservoir levels that will command the system before a TMD can be honestly contemplated.
Other speakers will address irrigated agriculture’s role in water planning, efficiency and conservation planning and financing and more.
A milestone in state water planning was reached Tuesday as members of the state’s Interbasin Compact Committee unanimously endorsed the latest version of a “conceptual framework” to guide discussions between East and West Slope interests about any new transmountain diversion.
“It’s not perfect, but I think we’re in general agreement this is a good starting point, and if ever there is a transmountain diversion, there will be, no doubt, additional negotiations,” said John Stulp, chairman of the IBCC.
Today in Colorado, between 450,000 and 600,000 acre-feet of water is diverted each year from the West Slope to the more populous East Slope.
The latest draft of the framework, tweaked Tuesday regarding statewide water conservation goals, will now be forwarded to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for inclusion in the final Colorado Water Plan, which is to be delivered to Gov. John Hickenlooper by Dec. 10.
“I would be surprised if it would change significantly from where we’re at today,” Stulp said of the conceptual framework.
To help satisfy the concerns of some members of the IBCC, staff from the Colorado Water Conservation Board drafted an additional introductory paragraph – during a break in the meeting – about the conceptual framework to be included in the water plan.
“The intent of the conceptual framework is to represent the evolving concepts that need to be addressed in the context of a new transmountain diversion as well as the progress made to date in addressing those concepts,” the new introductory paragraph states. “The conceptual framework refers to several topics, including conservation, storage, agricultural transfers, alternative transfer methods, environment resiliency, a collaborative program to address system shortages, already identified projects and processes (IPPs), additional Western Slope uses, and other topics that are not exclusively linked to a new TMD, but are related to Colorado’s water future. The conceptual framework, like the rest of the Colorado Water Plan, is a living document and is an integrated component of the plan. Many of these topics are further discussed in more detail in other sections of Colorado’s Water Plan.”
The IBCC is made up of two members from each of the state’s nine basin roundtables, six governors’ appointees and two members of the Legislature.
Since 2013, the committee has been working on the seven core principles in the framework, which spells out under what terms a new transmountain diversion might be acceptable to the West Slope.
For example, a new project should not increase the likelihood of a call from California for more water under the Colorado Compact, or preclude future growth on the West Slope.
And it “should avoid, minimize or mitigate adverse environmental impacts where possible” and address the concept of “environmental resiliency.”
“Nothing is perfect, but I think adding environmental resiliency into the water plan – which happened because we got it into the conceptual framework and now it’s also in the body of the plan in chapter six – I think that’s a big step forward,” said Melinda Kassen, who represents environmental interests on the IBCC, and was speaking during a break in the meeting.
“And I like the fact that it’s also combined and we have a much more robust commitment and description of what we need to do in regard to compact compliance,” Kassen said. “So I think there are a lot of things in the conceptual framework that we have to work on – triggers, collaborative water management program, environmental resiliency, conservation – those are the action steps for moving forward. I think we need to move on, but I think the conceptual framework is a pretty good deal and we should take it and move on. And not just in terms of the conceptual framework, but in terms of the whole water plan. It’s a plan, and now we have to ‘do.’”
“A bunch of hoops”
Bill Trampe, a rancher in Gunnison County and a member of the Gunnison River Basin Roundtable, also supports the framework.
“For future transmountain diversions to occur, according to the framework, the proponent is going to have to go through a bunch of hoops,” Trampe said. “If the proponent is willing to take the gamble that there is enough water to merit the expense of the project, then go for it.”
Trampe’s suggested that if a project proponent takes a hard look at a potential new transmountain diversion, and does so through the lens of the conceptual framework, they may find that there just isn’t enough water to make a project viable.
Principle three of the framework deals with “triggers,” or the amount of water available in the larger Colorado River system, that may or may not allow water to be diverted to the East Slope.
“Triggers are operating parameters that determine when and how much water a potential new TMD could divert, based upon predetermined conditions within the Colorado River System,” a recent draft of the framework states. “Such parameters include, but are not limited to, specific storage elevations in one or more Colorado River System reservoirs, projected inflows at key Colorado River System locations, actual reservoir inflows over specific defined periods, snowpack levels, predictive models – or combinations of these – which would trigger certain actions and prevent others.”
In a brief interview after the meeting, Trampe said the water trends do not favor a new transmountain diversion.
“If hydrology does not improve, then the issues on the Colorado River are going to become worse,” Trampe said. “Mead and Powell continue to go down. They are not stabilized. They are not rising. They continue to go down. So if a proponent of a project looks at all of that, and still thinks there is water available, I guess there is not much we can do about it, except go through step four, the collaborative process, where we identify the risks and the ways we go about alleviating those risks to the various parties, particularly on the West Slope.”
Step, or principle, four in the framework discusses a proposed collaborative program to manage water in the Colorado River basin, and points out such a program is needed regardless of whether a new diversion is built or not.
“The collaborative program should provide a programmatic approach to managing Upper Division consumptive uses, thus avoiding a Compact deficit and insuring that system reservoir storage remains above critical levels, such as the minimum storage level necessary to produce hydroelectric power reliably at Glen Canyon Dam (minimum power pool),” the draft framework states. “A goal of the collaborative program is that it would be voluntary and compensated, like a water bank, to protect Colorado River system water users, projects and flows. Such protection would NOT cover uses associated with a new TMD.”
Trampe also pointed out that the conceptual framework is only a first screen for a potential new transmountain diversion, as any project would still have to go through existing regulatory reviews at, potentially, the federal, state and county level.
“Even if you think you can get through this process, you still have to go through the normal legal channels and permitting that is in existence today,” Trampe said. “You’re still going to have the traditional things to go through, particularly if you’ve not adopted the principles within the framework.”
The conceptual framework is not legally binding, as Colorado water law still allows for a water provider to propose a new transmountain diversion without referencing the conceptual framework. But it is seen as a way for Western Slope communities to review a proposed diversion against publicly adopted parameters.
The conceptual framework has been discussed at various other roundtable meetings around the state in recent weeks.
“I think that this gives us protections that otherwise we don’t have,” said Karn Stiegelmeier, a Summit County commissioner, during a July 27 meeting of the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, shortly before that roundtable endorsed the conceptual framework.
But during the same meeting, Ken Ransford, who represents recreational interests on the Colorado Roundtable, voted against the framework.
“This agreement doesn’t have teeth,” Ransford said. “It’s not enforceable. It gives us no legal rights. And the Front Range has said they are still willing to come over here and purchase agricultural water rights as necessary to protect their existing diversions. So I keep asking myself, what are we getting out of this?”
However Ken Neubecker, the associate director of the Colorado River Basin Program for American Rivers, and the environmental representative on the Colorado River Basin Roundtable, supported the conceptual framework, arguing it gives the Western Slope more protection.
“They could come over for a new transmountain diversion and ignore all of this right now, that’s just the way Colorado water law is,” Neubecker told the roundtable. “What this does do, along with the water plan, is set a high bar that they really are going to have to look at and try and comply with if they want to have a smoother road rather than a rougher road toward that end. They still have to go through permitting processes with the local counties and with the state, and the counties and the state can all look at it and say, ‘Well, where are you with complying with this? Where is your plan with point number four, point number three, whatever?’ It does give us that element of a condition, while not legally required, is something that politically would be a good thing to pay attention to.”
After the August 25th meeting in Keystone, Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River District, which represents 15 West Slope counties, said the framework — if deployed correctly — could help protect West Slope interests.
“The West Slope is better off under the conceptual framework if, and it’s a big if, we follow through and have the discussions that are contemplated by the framework,” Kuhn said. “If it just sits on the shelf, it’s worthless for us.”
The first of the seven principles in the framework states “East Slope water providers are not looking for firm yield from a new transmountain diversion, and the project proponent would accept hydrologic risk for that project.”
That means that a Front Range water provider who proposes a new transmountain diversion must understand that there may not be water to divert every year, depending on snowpack, weather and the amount of water stored in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the latter because of legal minimum water guarantees for downstream states.
“It’s not just, is there enough water, it is whether there is enough reliable water,” Kuhn said of the core principle. “If you are a community, and you are providing water to people, it’s not good enough to have water three out of four years. People want water four out of four years.”
Which may mean, Kuhn said, that a big new diversion project is not worth pursuing.
After the meeting, Kuhn wrote a memo to the River District’s board of directors, in which he spelled out the divide evident at the Keystone meeting over the appropriate levels of water conservation that should be expected of municipal water providers.
“The IBCC met on Tuesday August 25th in Keystone,” Kuhn wrote. “The primary area of discussion (and conflict) was conservation. A separate IBCC committee on conservation developed what we now refer to as the stretch goal. Under the most simplified explanation, the ‘stretch goal’ is stretching the medium goal of 280,000 acre-feet of statewide conservation savings to 400,000 acre-feet. The goal timeline is 35 years, from now to 2050.
“The framework committee tried to incorporate this into the seven point framework in principle 6, but we did so in an awkward way,” Kuhn wrote. “The bottom line is that the South Platte and Metro roundtables are having second thoughts about the stretch goal. I heard three concerns: First, they could become part of the federal permitting process. Second, they’re not really attainable at this time. And third, they will undermine the ability to finance and operate new projects. The more our customers conserve, the less money they pay.
“We ultimately agreed to ‘soften’ the language, but the underlying tensions remain,” Kuhn wrote. “The West Slope roundtables remained united behind achieving the stretch goals, but expressed concern about smaller entities (which under the rules are not covered if they use less than 2,000 acre-feet per year).”
Clamoring for water
But to water interests on the Front Range, a new transmountain diversion is seen as an important tool to meet growing water demands, and getting the conceptual framework into the Colorado Water Plan is seen as a victory.
“It seems to me we’ve got a tremendous opportunity,” said Sean Cronin, the executive director of the St. Vrain & Left Hand Water Conservancy District in Longmont, during an Aug. 11 meeting of the South Platte Basin Roundtable in which he urged the roundtable members to endorse the conceptual framework.
“We have been clamoring for a transmountain diversion since the very first day of the roundtable,” Cronin said. “We now have a transmountain diversion framework sitting in a statewide water plan that’s nearly to the point of being approved and adopted.”
After Tuesday’s meeting in Keystone, IBCC member Wayne Vanderschuere, who oversees water planning for Colorado Springs Utilities, said a new transmountain diversion “needs to be in the cards,” especially to slow the practice of buying water from agricultural operations to meet growing municipal demands.
“The Colorado River has its own unique challenges irrespective of transmountain diversions, that everyone needs to take ownership of,” Vanderschuere said, referring to the state’s obligations under the Colorado Compact. “So we need to address that. But we also have an obligation to responsibly develop our portion of the compact entitlement, and to the extent we can do that, we should pursue that.”
Vanderschuere also praised the state’s existing array of transmountain diversions.
“The current transbasin diversions and the associated storage with them have done more to booster the economic, environmental, and environmental resiliency of Colorado than any other thing I can think of,” he said. “The storage, the flatwater recreation, the whitewater recreation, the environmental habitat, the economic benefits of having that water available, east and west, for recreation, for municipal and industrial – huge. Colorado would not be where it is today without those transbasin diversions that are currently in place. So we have to acknowledge that that’s been a huge success on all fronts.”
View from the CWCB
At a meeting on Aug. 21 in Vail of the Colorado Water Congress, John McClow, the general counsel of the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District, and a board member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, described the conceptual framework, and the “historic conflict” in Colorado over transmountain diversions, for a ballroom full of members of the state’s professional water community.
“The most pressing question I’ve heard throughout the Western Slope is ‘What are we going to do about new transmountain diversion?’ All of the Western Slope roundtables addressed it to some extent in their basin implementation plans,” McClow said. “The South Platte Roundtable, the Metro Roundtable, talked about it in their plans. But those collective comments still reflected what I believe was conflict on the issue. It is a historic conflict – east versus west – and it’s been going on before Colorado was a state. What I’m happy to report is that the IBCC took it upon themselves to try and find a solution to that conflict.
“That group worked for over a year putting together seven principles that would create a framework around which a new transmountain diversion could be developed. It is not an agreement, it is not a regulation, it is not mandatory, but it confronts reality on every aspect of what will be necessary to consider in the event that a proponent wishes to pursue a new transmountain diversion. It’s couched in terms of seven principles, and each of them addresses one element of it. Some go a little bit beyond the strict interpretation of a transmountain diversion.
“What’s most important to remember is that it is not a rule,” McClow said. “What it does is set forth the obstacles that would occur in the event that a proponent were considering one, that it is to say, the physical and legal availability of water in the basin of origin, which is addressed by Colorado water law. But it reaches beyond that to say that if the new development occurs within the Colorado River system, which is what we’ve always identified as our source of new supply, we have to look beyond the state boundary and look at the big river system because of our obligations to other states on the Colorado River.
“We have to be careful that in developing that additional water, we don’t overdraft our entitlement under the Colorado River Compact and Upper Colorado River Compact. This framework provides a process to address those issues. And further, to say we have to have some means of evaluating the possibility of diversions by this new project through triggers. And without defining the triggers, its says there are places you need to look to figure out when and how much water could be diverted by a new transmountain diversion.
“The principles go beyond that and look at issues such as West Slope – East Slope collaborative benefits from a single project, it talks about conservation standards for the proponent of a new transmountain diversion, it talks about environmental and recreational sustainability within the state.
“I hope that we, the conservation board, will adopt this framework and incorporate it into the water plan so that we can remove this controversy because Colorado can’t move forward in conflict, we’ve got to move forward with consensus,” McClow said. “And this is a burning issue, Front Range and West Slope, and I’m hoping that for once in our history we can sit down and say ‘We’ve agreed on how this can actually happen, should it be possible, as long as it is done reasonably and responsibly and reflects the reality of our circumstances at the time.'”
The seven principles b the draft conceptual framework:
1. East Slope water providers are not looking for firm yield from a new transmountain diversion (TMD) and the project proponent would accept hydrologic risk for that project.
2. A new TMD would be used conjunctively with East Slope supplies, such as interruptible supply agreements, Denver basin aquifer resources, carry-over storage, terminal storage, drought restriction savings, and other non-West Slope water sources.
3. In order to manage when a new TMD would be able to divert, triggers are needed.
4. A collaborative program that protects against involuntary curtailment is needed for existing uses and some reasonable increment of future development in the Colorado River System, but it will not cover a new TMD.
5. Future West Slope needs should be accommodated as part of a new TMD project.
6. Colorado will continue its commitment to improve conservation and reuse.
7. Environmental resiliency and recreational needs must be addressed both before and conjunctively with a new TMD.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on coverage of water and rivers. The Times published a shorter version of this story on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015, as did the Post.
The Independence Pass transmountain diversion system shut down for more than a month this year around the June peak runoff due to ample water supplies in the Arkansas River basin, only the fourth such time this has happened for these reasons since the 1930s.
Seeing rivers in this more-natural state has reinvigorated local interest in the health of the Roaring Fork watershed and how it is managed.
Recently, a group of more than two dozen interested locals and tourists met up at the Lost Man trailhead parking lot near Independence Pass to learn more about how water is diverted east from the watershed. The sold-out event was hosted by the Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy, and was led by both its employees and those of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., which manages water flows through the transmountain diversion system…
Medved noted that there are 24 major diversion tunnels in Colorado, and two of the five largest are in the Roaring Fork watershed.
The fifth largest is the 3.85-mile-long Twin Lakes tunnel, which diverts water from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River to the Arkansas River basin. It is a bit over nine feet wide and boring began in November of 1933, with the workers “holing out” in February 1935.
The Boustead Tunnel is the third-largest diversion tunnel and is located on the headwaters of the Fryingpan River. It stretches 5.5 miles, and empties into Turquoise Reservoir near Leadville.
Scott Campbell, general manager of the nonprofit Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., which is privately owned and based out of Ordway, has worked with water for about 40 years and explained that the Twin Lakes diversion was originally a supplemental water right in the 1930s. He added that when water from the Arkansas River was coming up short on the eastern side of the Continental Divide, Twin Lakes Reservoir water would help to fill the gap.
Each year, the transmountain diversion system collects water from the Roaring Fork River, as well as the Lost Man, Lincoln, Brooklyn, Tabor, New York and Grizzly creeks, and moves it through the Twin Lakes Tunnel into the Arkansas basin. From there much of it aids agricultural pursuits near Pueblo and Crowley counties…
The Twin Lakes Reservoir is owned and operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, but the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co. retains ownership of 54,452 acre-feet of space within to store water…
More storage on East Slope needed
When asked why Eastern Slope reservoirs aren’t being expanded to store more water, Campbell replied, “That’s a very good question.”
Alan Ward, water resources administrator for the Pueblo Board of Water Works, explained that many of the reservoirs on the Front Range are under federal purview, and changes would require an act of Congress.
“As it turns out, we’ve been trying to do that for almost 15 years,” he said. “It’s not easy to get Congress all together and actually passing legislation that would allow us to study the enlargement of that.”
Ward added that while some potential reservoir sites may be good from an engineering point of view, they don’t always make sense environmentally.
“It’s just a challenge to be able to find a spot that you can get permitted, that you can afford to build on, and that you can get permission to build on, if it requires an act of Congress,” he said. “But something I think is very much in the forefront of the minds of water planners on the East Slope, is where and how can we build more storage to be able to better manage the limited supply [of water] we have.”
Into the Styx
Following a bumpy Jeep ride up Lincoln Creek, care of Blazing Adventures, to see the opposite end of the tunnel through Green Mountain, Campbell concluded the tour by leading people on a subterranean descent into the Twin Lakes Tunnel.
The concrete “road” dropped down quickly into the darkness, and constant seepage water dripped from above, creating the feeling of being caught in an underground monsoon.
Campbell noted that the site’s caretakers, Kim and Glenn Schryver, use the underground route in the winter to reach the outside world while Independence Pass is buried under the snowpack.
He explained that the workers boring the tunnel converged on each other from either side and averaged just under 50 feet in progress a day. When they met up, the holes were six inches apart, Campbell said, adding that the route was determined with a line of mirrors shot over Independence Mountain.
Some might think the upcoming state water plan is a recipe book for an elegant 10-course dinner.
Turns out something else is on the menu.
You know, that old tale where a boiling rock becomes a tasty, fulfilling and nutritious dish as everyone adds a little something to the mix.
That’s the upshot of a three-day meeting of the Colorado Water Congress where the water plan served as the centerpiece of discussion. Gov. John Hickenlooper ordered up the water plan in 2013, a tumultuous weather year that featured drought, huge wildfires and floods. The document is expected to be completed in December, but even then will serve more as a cookbook than rule book or guidebook.
“The early discussion was, is this a textbook or a novel?” said Travis Smith, a Rio Grande basin member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board that is writing the state water plan.”We provided the textbook. I was interested in the novel that told the stories (of water).”
The plan has to be digested one bite at a time, Smith said. He advised Water Congress members to pick a chapter that interested them and read it, then add their own comments to the stew.
John McClow, who represents the Gunnison River basin on the CWCB, picked the section that discusses a collaborative framework for interbasin transfers — an idea that few from the Gunnison basin would have discussed 10 years ago.
The Interbasin Compact Committee still is seasoning that portion of the plan, so the current set of instructions already is outdated, he said. When it’s done, it will remain only a suggestion.
“We’re close to finding consensus about how a transfer could occur,” McClow said. “But it’s not a rule. It spells out the obstacles.”
Those obstacles are finding the balance among municipal water needs, protecting the Western Slope environment and satisfying Colorado River Compact needs with downstream states.
Patti Wells, representing Denver on the CWCB, dug through the ingredients already tossed in the pot and didn’t really like the taste.
While most of the people in Colorado have chosen to live in cities, their use of water — particularly for outdoor watering — has been described in terms of a problem, rather than a benefit, Wells said.
She pointed out that lawns and gardens reduce urban heat islands, improve water quality, increase property value and provide a place to play.
“That’s not to say we can’t use water wisely, but there is a value to people using water for outside uses,” she said.
By couching everything as a problem, it could be tougher to find solutions.
“Instead of trying to avoid the train wreck, we’re trying to figure out where to build the field hospitals,” she said.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
<blockquoteThe Northern Water Board of Directors set 2016 water assessments during an Aug. 6, 2015 public hearing. Assessments for open-rate irrigation contracts increased from $10.90 per acre-foot unit to $17.60, and assessments for open-rate municipal, industrial and multipurpose contracts increased from $30.50 per acre-foot unit to $35.90.
The Board followed its general rate-setting objectives, which are outlined in its 2014 forward guidance resolution. Among other objectives, the resolution proposed a 2-year step increase in assessments beginning in 2016, and moving irrigation assessments towards a cost-of-service based rate. Both of these objectives are represented in the 2016 assessments.
The Board will consider forward guidance that provides an estimated range for 2017 and 2018 water assessments at its Sept. 3 Planning and Action meeting.
For information on water assessments, please contact Sherri Rasmussen at 970-622-2217.
Irrigation season on the Carpenter Ranch normally begins in early May and continues until September. The ranch is located along the Yampa River in northwestern Colorado, about 20 miles west of the ski town of Steamboat Springs. Water from the river is used to grow fields of waist-high timothy, clover, and other types of grasses that, after being cut, provide hay for cattle.
This year, the seasonal cycle was disrupted. Irrigation on four of the fields, totaling 197 acres, was suspended on July 1. Instead, the water has been allowed to flow down the Yampa River 100 miles to Dinosaur National Park. There, it joins the water of the Green River coming down from Wyoming, which in turn joins the Colorado River in Utah. The comingled waters then flow into Lake Powell.
Powell is one of two giant reservoirs on the Colorado River, the other being Lake Mead, near Las Vegas. Together, the two reservoirs can hold 16 times the annual flow of the Colorado River—on average. But the river and its many tributaries have been flowing below average most years since 1999. Even after torrential rains and heavy snows in the Colorado Rockies in May, the inflow into Lake Powell this year is just 88 percent of average. It’s part of a long-term trend of declining reservoir levels in a river basin that provides water for 25 to 34 million people. (Estimates vary).
These reservoir declines have instilled a sense of urgency in Jim Lochhead, chief executive of Denver Water. His agency provides water to 1.3 people in metropolitan Denver, with half the water arriving in the city from the Fraser, Blue, and other tributaries of the Colorado River.
“One of the things we have learned in this drought is that it just seems to keep going and going and going,” says Lochhead. “We are really in uncharted territory right now in terms of where the (reservoir) levels are. The levels are the lowest since these dams have been constructed.”
Lake Mead, formed in 1936 as a result of Hoover Dam, is now at 37 percent of capacity. Lake Powell began forming in 1963 as a result of construction of Glen Canyon Dam and is at 54 percent of capacity.
Lochhead and other architects of the Colorado River System Conservation Program want to be ready in case an even more severe drought revisits the Colorado River Basin. Fresh in mind is 2002, when the Colorado River carried only 25 percent of its normal flows, and 2003 wasn’t much better. Should drought of that severity return, Lake Powell could even shrink to something called a dead pool. That’s when there’s too little water to generate electricity. The electricity is distribu ted broadly across the West to towns, cities, and farms. Revenues from sales are used to fund programs designed to protect endangered fish on the Colorado River.
Lake Powell also has another vital function for Colorado and other headwaters states: It is used to me et commitments of water deliveries to the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada, and California as specified by the Colorado River Water Compact of 1922. Denver’s water rights from the Western Slope of Colorado are mostly junior to the compact. If drought persisted, it’s conceivable that Denver and other water users with more junior rights—including many in the mountain resort community—would have to curtail their diversions in order to comply with the 1922 compact.
To forestall this apple cart from being upset, Denver and several major water providers that tap the Colorado River Basin last year joined with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to begin exploring how water can temporarily be shifted from traditional uses and allowed to flow downstream. The Carpenter Ranch along the Yampa River is the first pilot project announced in this Colorado River System Conservation Program.
The ranch is owned by The Nature Conservancy, one of several partners from the environmental community working with Denver and other water providers. The non-profit in turn sublets the land to ranchers, says Geoff Blakeslee, the Yampa River project coordinator for the organization. Taking water off the hay meadows reduces harvest and it will also reduce the number of cattle that can graze the meadows in autumn. About 90 percent of agriculture on Colorado’s Western Slope is, like the Carpenter Ranch, used to produce hay.
Joe Brummer, an associate professor of forage science at Colorado State University, has studied effects of water curtailment in small plots at the Carpenter Ranch as well as other farms. Hay production continues if irrigation ceases, but only in small quantities. The second year, after irrigation has resumed, production lags 50 percent, he says. Even in the third year, again after full resumption of irrigation, production at the Carpenter Ranch test site was 8 to 9 percent below average.
This year, the experiment is different: a split season.
Nine other pilot sites have also been identified, five of them in Wyoming and four in Colorado. They are being funded at a total cost of $1 million. A larger program on the Colorado River involving lower-basins states has a cost of $11 million. Other water agencies providing money, in addition to Denver, include those serving metropolitan Las Vegas and Los Angeles, along with the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, and the Bureau of Reclamation.
Taylor Hawes, Colorado River program director for The Nature Conservancy, says the overarching goal of the pilot program is to learn as much as possible about how water can be shared in time of crisis.
“It’s complicated to move water around,” she says. “These are property rights. Many farmers are unsure how it will impact their water rights if they participate in a project like this. So the point of these pilots is to learn as much as we can right now, so that if a crisis does hit, we will have good information so that we can design a program that allows us to share water in a drought.”
How close is crisis? Too close for comfort, she says. “If this were your savings account and it was continuing to drop, you would be concerned,” she says.
Hawes also sees another, even more dramatic analogy. “I think we were on the edge of the cliff, and depending upon whether it’s a good year or bad year, we take a step forward and backward. The California (drought) situation has highlighted impacts that we will have if we don’t have a plan in place.”
Some say that the Colorado River actually is in worse shape over the long haul than California. New evidence finds that warming temperatures in the Southwest may be causing evaporation and [transpiration] that alone can explain declining reservoir levels.
“The fact that the Colorado River Basin drought is more a product of the heat than any drop in precipitation is a frightening prospect, because that heat is not going to go away,” says Doug Kenney, research associate at the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado. In fact, because of increased locked into the atmosphere because of accelerating greenhouse gas emissions, all climate models forecast brisk increases of heat in future decades in the basin.
Denver’s Lochhead says the 2002 drought forced the seven states in the Colorado River Basin to consider how to share impacts of drought. Upper Basin states can move water from smaller reservoirs near the headwaters, such as Flaming Gorge in Utah and Navajo in New Mexico, down into Powell. Water can also be allowed to flow downstream through projects such as are being tested at the Carpenter Ranch.
Water providers in the Colorado River program want to work out kinks so that, if crisis occurs, curtailments can be scaled. But many questions remain, such as how to protect water users through the process, to ensure their water rights remain valid. “It’s really the first step,” says Lochhead, and there will be many follow-up questions.
Lochhead is sensitive about how the program is perceived. It is not, he stressed, a grab by cities for agricultural water. The transfers are intended to be temporary and provide compensation to water-right holders. He also points out that it need not be just farms and ranches. One of the pilot programs involves a city on Colorado’s Front Range, he says, but declined to identify the city, because negotiations have not been completed.
“We’re trying to take the perception of winners and losers off the table,” he says. “In this program, everybody wins because the system wins.”
What’s also of note is the extent to which environmental groups have waded into this program. Hawes says The Nature Conservancy wants to work with farmers because, when the river system gets taxed, agriculture and the environment are usually the first to lose. “We need to work to find partnerships,” she says.
Trout Unlimited has also been a major partner. It has property in the Pinedale-Green River area of Wyoming participating, and the organization has also enlisted a small farm along the Gunnison River near Delta, Colo. Cary Denison, project coordinator for Trout Unlimited in the Gunnison Basin, says the farmer will fallow the land for one year then, in the second year, plant a lower consumption crop. Corn, the current crop, takes two feet per acre. Winter wheat only requires a foot.
“Our role is very limited. I am looking at this is a way of participating in an interesting pilot project that looks at consumptive use of different crops.”
While some farmers already knew about the pilot program, he says, others needed to understand the motivation.
Some ratepayers in Denver also wanted to know why Denver Water would be paying farmers to let water flow downstream toward California. That question gets to the heart of the great complexity of water and the Colorado River Basin, points out Doug Kenney, research associate at the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado.
Denver itself is outside the basin, of course. Cheyenne, Albuquerque, and Salt Lake City, plus Phoenix and Tucson, Los Angeles, and San Diego are similarly outside the basin—but also depend upon Colorado River water.
For such a relatively small river, it pulls a heavy load.
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As if flooding on Fountain Creek weren’t bad enough, mountains of sand are stacking up north of Pueblo waiting to descend on the channel through the city.
Dealing with it will take cooperation from the north and decades to correct.
“It’s like a big anaconda eating an animal and moving it down,” said Ian Paton, part of the Wright Engineering team hired by Pueblo County commissioners to analyze the problem. Commissioners heard a status report on what will be an ongoing study on Friday.
The problem may be bigger than previously thought, Paton explained.
The net gain of sediment in Fountain Creek works out to about 370,000 tons a year between Fountain and Pueblo, causing the river to shift its flow in the channel as the increasing amount of material obstructs its path. It keeps piling up year after year as it eats away 20-foot cliffs.
And, it has become worse since 1980, when Colorado Springs started booming in population and major infusions of water from outside sources — Homestake, Blue River and the Fountain Valley Conduit — began putting more water into Fountain Creek.
Southern Delivery System, a 66-inch diameter pipeline from Pueblo Dam to Colorado Springs, could increase Fountain Creek flows 60-100 percent, while depleting the Arkansas River through Pueblo. Water quality will become an increasing concern as more sediment is churned up.
“Population is the driving factor,” said Andrew Earles, Wright’s top water resources engineer. “To have growth, you need water, and since the 1970s, you’ve been putting more and more water into Fountain Creek.”
Additional water has allowed more growth, and increased base flow threefold.
But the growth also has increased impervious surfaces — roofs, parking lots and streets — by 10 percent of the total watershed area upstream of Security, and caused base flows, high flows (the kind seen this spring) and big floods to become more intense at all times.
The Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires of 2012 and 2013 have caused storms to generate up to 100 times the damage that would have occurred prior to Colorado Springs’ growth surge, Earles explained.
“We can’t turn back the clock. We can’t put it back to the way it was in the 1950s and ’60s,” Earles said. “We can put it in better shape for the future.”
A big part of that will be developing ways to deal with increased flows into Fountain Creek at the source.
That would include detention of floods, bank stabilization and control of tributaries in ways that reduce damage on the main stream.
Wright Engineers evaluated Colorado Springs and El Paso County estimates of 454 flood control projects that could cost $723 million to complete for their benefit to Pueblo County. About two-fifths of the projects totaling $537 million would reduce destruction to Pueblo.
Colorado Springs officials are proposing $19 million annually to bring stormwater control back to the level it was before its City Council abolished the stormwater enterprise in 2009.
“So far we agree with their list,” said engineer Wayne Lorenz.
Lorenz said a dam between Fountain and Pueblo is “worthy of consideration,” but cautioned that such a oneshot solution could fail.
“A dam is more of a treatment for a symptom rather than a cause,” Lorenz said. “We can’t put all our eggs in one basket with a dam because it might not happen.”
Commissioners are also concerned that projects be maintained.
In Pueblo, the Fountain Creek levees are in need of repair in order to provide the same protection they were designed to give 25 years ago.
“The levee is badly silted and vegetated, and it would take $2 (million)-$ 5 million to bring it back to standards,” said Ken Wright, head of the engineering firm.
“The annual maintenance of the levee has been neglected.”
The fear is new projects on Fountain Creek could sink in the same boat.
“We need to make sure we’re not just building projects, but have the money to maintain them,” said Pueblo County Commissioner Terry Hart.