#ColoradoRiver: “Killing the #Colorado” spotlights new solutions — American Rivers #COriver

killingthecoloradotrailerscreenshot

From American Rivers (Sinjin Eberle):

I have noticed a lot of chatter lately about the situation at Lake Mead. Dramatic overuse, prolonged drought, and the effects of increased temperatures have led to a historically low volume of water stored in the largest reservoir on the Colorado River. One of the most critical components of water in the west is less than 40% full. Yet while some people scramble for a quick fix or point fingers, others see the long game and note the optimism that working together for smart, sustainable solutions can bring. There is hope, there is a roadmap, and together we have the knowledge, skill, and foresight to make it happen.

Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam December 2015 via Greg Hobbs.
Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam December 2015 via Greg Hobbs.

The Discovery Channel recently produced a new documentary, Killing the Colorado, a made-for-TV version of the lengthy ProPublica series of the same name. The show is excellent, comprehensive, and features a number of voices that you may not expect to be featured in a film about the environment. Imperial valley agricultural producers, water managers, a red-state Senator and a blue-state Governor – all identifying problems facing the basin, and most putting forth an optimistic view that a human-caused predicament can be solved with human-inspired ingenuity.

One quote in particular is poignant – there is a scene with Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper in his office flipping through a binder full of historic water compacts. Upon his observance of the generations of water agreements, he remarks “The thing you realize when you go through these [water] compacts, is that everyone is in this together.” Given the situation facing Lake Mead, a growing chorus of voices around Lake Powell, the birth of the Colorado Water Plan, and a recognition that heathy rivers support healthy agriculture and sustainable economies, we truly are all rowing the same boat together in the Colorado Basin.

Lake Powell via Aspen Journalism
Lake Powell via Aspen Journalism

But, how can Lake Mead affect Colorado from a thousand miles downstream? Well, due to the Colorado River Compact of 1922, headwaters states like Colorado must send a certain amount of water to the Southwestern states of Arizona, Nevada, and California – it’s the law of the river, and the law of the land. And since when the Compact was developed, California was a fast growing destination, it has priority and can “call” for water if needed. For years, California has had the luxury to get much of the surplus of water that Colorado and Wyoming have sent downstream to be stored in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. But now with prolonged drought, a fast-growing population across the entire Southwest, and a substantial agricultural economy (especially in the Imperial Valley), the era of surplus water is over. As such, Lake Mead is directly connected to Colorado, whether we like it or not, and that connection is the Colorado River.

Killing the Colorado does a fantastic job over nearly an hour-and-a-half of highlighting a variety of colorful characters who have recognized that shortage and a lack of water will change everything in the future – that future is now. But while both the show and the written article are excellent at highlighting the situation, they don’t delve deeply into what I think is most important – that real solutions do exist, and we know how to implement them, it simply takes our collective will to get them moving. Solutions like urban and agricultural conservation and efficiency, like reuse and recycling, like innovative water banking and flexible management practices, like continuing the shift towards renewable energy (solar and wind don’t devour cooling water like natural gas and coal plants require). But while these efforts all seem daunting and out of an individual’s control, there are actions that each of us can take every day that together, make a huge difference. Like buying and installing your own rain barrel for your outside plants and flowers, like supporting your local farmer at the farmer’s market – small things that have a great impact, especially when we all do them together.

Solutions do exist, and as Arizona Senator Jeff Flake said “The drought over the past couple of years has awakened all of us to the future we have if we don’t do better planning. There are many things that are out of our control…Planning is so important. Conserving. Recharging. Water banking. Water markets. These are all important things that have to take place.

Let’s get started!

The Yampa River flows through the Carpenter Ranch. Photo courtesy of John Fielder from his new book, “Colorado’s Yampa River: Free Flowing & Wild from the Flat Tops to the Green.” -- via The Mountain Town News
The Yampa River flows through the Carpenter Ranch. Photo courtesy of John Fielder from his new book, “Colorado’s Yampa River: Free Flowing & Wild from the Flat Tops to the Green.” — via The Mountain Town News

Arkansas Valley Super Ditch update

Arkansas Valley Conduit Comanche North route via Reclamation
Arkansas Valley Conduit Comanche North route via Reclamation

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Lease-fallowing plan so successful, no one notices

After all of the fireworks that accompanied creation of the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch, the actual operation has attracted little notice.

By design.

“We put enough water into the ponds so that no one on the river knows this is happening,” Jack Goble, engineer for the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, told the board Wednesday.

Goble gave an update on the Super Ditch pilot program that is providing water to Fountain, Security and Fowler from farm ground dried up on the Catlin Canal near Rocky Ford. The water is accounted for on a dayto- day basis, with deliveries to the cities each month. The response of all participants has been enthusiastic.

“With crop values down, they want to fallow more farms,” Goble said.

But under [HB13-1248], passed by the state Legislature in 2013, that can’t happen. The law limits 30 percent of the farmland enrolled in the program to be fallowed in any given year, and each farm can be dried up only three years in 10.

This year, only 26 percent of the 900 acres on six farms in the program were fallowed and so far have yielded more water than at the same time last year. Through the end of July, the program yielded 239 acre-feet (78 million gallons). That’s on track to beat last year’s yield of 409 acre-feet.

But that depends on what happens the rest of this irrigation season, Goble said.

Water not used on fields is channeled into recharge ponds, which mimic the runoff and seepage that would have occurred if the farms had been irrigated. The ponds also cover their own evaporative losses. Recharge stations measure the flows on the ditch each day.

Those numbers are plugged into formulas that compute the consumptive use — the amount of water crops traditionally grown in the fields would have consumed.

On a monthly basis, the consumptive use equivalent is transferred, on paper, from Lower Ark accounts to Security and Fountain accounts in Lake Pueblo, where it is transported through the Fountain Valley Conduit.

For Fowler, the water is moved to Colorado Water Protective and Development Association accounts to augment the town’s wells.

“We need to let the water community know, ‘Hey, this works,’ ’’ said Peter Nichols, attorney for the Lower Ark district and Super Ditch.

Participants have had to overcome skepticism, opposition and even lawsuits since 2012 to achieve results that have been favorable to everyone involved, he said.

Leah Martinsson and Megan Gutwein, of Nichols’ Boulder Law office, are writing articles about the success of the program for national water and legal journals. Nichols also suggested presenting a report on the progress of Super Ditch to Colorado Water Congress and the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

“We’ve done a pretty incredible job,” added Lynden Gill, president of the Lower Ark board. “The first year, it seemed like there were nothing but roadblocks. It’s absolutely incredible, the progress we’ve made.”

2016 #coleg: Let it rain (in barrels) in Colorado — The Greeley Tribune

From The Greeley Tribune (Samantha Fox):

Gov. John Hickenlooper signed House Bill 1005 in May, and now it’s up to residents to buy and install rain barrels, as long as limitations are followed.

Most single-family homes and townhomes can use rain barrels to collect water, but homeowners can’t have more than two 55-gallon barrels.

Those who live in residences with homeowners associations shouldn’t buy and install rain barrels right away, though. Like the American flag, an HOA can’t ban the barrels, but it can implement requirements about how they’re used, since the barrels fall under an exterior change. Abby Bearden, office manager and architecture review committee manager for Greeley Community Management, LLC, said rain barrels should be approved prior to installment, that way there are no issues or unforeseen problems.

Once approval is given, rain barrels can be purchased in a number of hardware stores or online. Installation is relatively simple, but TreePeople, a Los Angeles company that disseminates information about rain barrels, said the water catching devices should be installed on a raised surface, attached to a gutter. A downspout will be needed to get downpour directly into the barrel. It’s also important to make sure the barrel is secure, in case of harsh weather.

Once the barrels start collecting rain, the water can’t be used for just anything. The new law allows for outside use on the owner’s property, so watering lawns and plants outside is OK, but greenhouses and indoor uses are not allowed.

Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute, said the barrels should be cleared about once a week during the summer, and should be disconnected during the winter.

It shouldn’t take too many storms before there is plenty of water gathered to use on lawns and gardens, Waskom said.

Waskom said he doesn’t anticipate too many people running out and buying rain barrels, but he said in other states, about 10 percent of the population actually uses them. That figure shouldn’t be enough to hurt water right owners, which is a big reason why the controversial legalization of rain barrels was finally approved.

The way Colorado’s water law works is similar to a first-come, first-serve model. It’s called prior appropriation. The first person to take and use the water for an agricultural, industrial or household reason got the first rights to that water. These are called senior water rights. Those who secured water rights later can use what was remaining after the senior water user took what they were allotted. These are called junior water rights.

There was concern that rain barrels can prevent runoff into the water sources people have rights to, which would hurt the non-senior holders first, but Colorado State University conducted a study that showed rain barrels shouldn’t hurt the water supply.

Not everyone was convinced, like Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling. He said the bill didn’t do enough to guarantee rain barrel users would be responsible in case their use of rain barrels does hurt in senior water rights holders. He was one of three legislators to vote against the bill.

There is a provision in case there is a loss of water due to rain barrels, though. It was written into the bill that there can be a reexamination of regulation if there wasn’t enough runoff water getting to water sources.

“If everyone were to (buy barrels) there are the checks and balances in there so somebody can go back there and look on a regular basis to see if there is, indeed, an impact,” said Northern Water’s Brain Werner in May.

Escalating cost of ag water: “It’s not cheap, but you only pay for it once” — Melanie Calvert

South Platte River Basin via Wikipedia
South Platte River Basin via Wikipedia

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

Farm families in Western states like California and Colorado are increasingly under pressure to sell their water. It’s been coined “buy and dry,” as water is diverted from farm fields and instead used to fill pipes in condos and subdivisions.

Buy and dry deals are usually cut behind closed doors, in quiet, unassuming meetings. A city approaches a farmer, or a farmer approaches a city, and strikes a deal. But a recent public auction in Loveland, Colorado threw the doors wide open, bringing myriad bidders and interests into one room to duke it out. It gives a glimpse of the unique stresses and opportunities farmers face in parched portions of the West.

Bidders, some in cowboy hats, some in business suits, packed the room at the Larimer County Fairgrounds. Abuzz with a sort of nervous energy, audience members whisper about how high the prices might climb. Auctioneer Spanky Assiter takes the mic, and lays out what’s at stake.

“Today’s an opportunity to buy water,” he says.

“You see commercials on TV all the time, invest in gold, invest in silver, invest in natural resources. There’s nothing more valuable than water.”

An auction of this size — with hundreds of units of Colorado-Big Thompson water and more than a dozen shares of a local ditch company up for grabs — is rare. The Colorado-Big Thompson project moves water from the Western Slope through canals and tunnels to provide water for Front Range municipalities and farmers.

There’s also more than 400 acres of farmland, except that’s not the asset that packed the room. Even though the tracts sit just 40 miles from Denver, one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the country, the water that flows into the fields is worth way more.

Scotti Reynolds, who ran a cattle operation on the property with her husband, until his death in 2012, has been contemplating how and when to sell the property.

“The land and the water have become more valuable than the income from farming.”

One by one, water shares find new owners in the crowd. When all’s said and done the grand sum for the 400 acres, and the water rights, totals $12.6 million. The water rights, between the ditch shares and the units, alone went for close to $10 million. By far, the biggest spenders were cities — like Broomfield, a Denver suburb.

“It’s not cheap, but you only pay for it once. You buy it once and you get it forever,” says Melanie Calvert, who purchases water for the city.

At the auction she bid $3.2 million for 120 units of Colorado-Big Thompson water, each unit fetching $27,000. The city’s purchase continues a longtime trend. Increasingly, water is more valuable coming out of lawn sprinklers and bathroom faucets than growing sugar beets.

Broomfield’s been on a tear. The city’s spent $12.6 million since the beginning of 2016 on acquiring water, with another $2.6 million deal in the works. Hardly the only city buttressing water supplies by buying up agricultural water rights, they’re just following in the footsteps of Thornton and Aurora, other cities with reputations for buying lots of water.

The recently adopted Colorado Water Plan laments the fact that auctions like this even exist. It attempts to offer up alternatives, some of which are still theoretical because of the legal wrangling and economic conditions needed to bring them to fruition.

Denver Water CEO calls for more flexibility in water management — Aspen Journalism

The dam that forms Gross Reservoir, located in the mountains west of Boulder. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The dam that forms Gross Reservoir, located in the mountains west of Boulder. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Allen Best):

Jim Lochhead, the CEO and manager of Denver Water, said Tuesday that building new dams in the Colorado River basin is not at the top of his to-do list. Nor, for that matter, is drying up farms to provide water for Colorado’s growing cities.

But he says Colorado still needs to have hard conversations about how to flexibly manage its water. In particular, he wants farmers to be able to share water with Denver and other cities without worrying that they may lose their water rights.

Speaking at the annual Western Water Symposium at Colorado State University, Lochhead credited the 2015 Colorado Water Plan as being a useful “compendium of the issues” but said it highlighted relatively easy solutions without fully addressing the harder challenges.

“I don’t think the solution is $20 billion of new water projects for Colorado, but that’s an easy thing to go look for,” said Lochhead, head of the state’s largest water utility that supplies 1.4 million people, and stores nearly 40 percent of its water in Summit County’s Dillon Reservoir.

A coordinated plan is needed, Lochhead said.

“We’re not there yet with the state water plan to develop any kind of coordinated principle vision for the future, much less how to get there,” he said.

Lochhead, who took the helm of Denver Water in 2010, described Colorado’s historical approach to water as a zero-sum game where there had to be a winner and a loser.

That zero-sum game lost its moorings in the second half of 20th century as a result of new federal and state laws, court decisions and political fights, Lochhead said.

He said that two decades have brought more collaboration between diverse interests, including those on both sides of the Continental Divide, and it is reflected in such projects as Wolford Mountain Reservoir near Kremmling.

Both Denver Water and the Colorado River Water Conservation District have an interest in Wolford Reservoir, with Denver Water on track to soon own 40 percent of the water in the reservoir. The water has many benefits, among them providing late-summer water to meet needs of four endangered fish species in the Colorado River near Grand Junction.

Another collaborative effort has been launched in the Winter Park area. There, Denver plans to increase diversions from the Fraser and Williams Fork rivers, but is doing so with the blessing of local authorities, thanks to a collaborative “learning by doing” effort in Grand County that seeks to reduce streamflow impacts from both new and existing diversions.

But Lochhead believes Colorado must still dramatically change its water allocation methods as it faces population growth. Demographers project that Colorado’s 5.4 million population will double within a few decades. If we seek to provide the water for the additional residents the way we provided for the first 5 million, he said, “we won’t like the outcome very well.”

Gore Canyon rafting via Blogspot.com
Gore Canyon rafting via Blogspot.com

The river itself

A second challenge is the Colorado River itself, the fountain that supplies at least part of the water for 40 million people, from corn farms in northeastern Colorado to San Diego. And despite some good snow years, the two big reservoirs on the lower Colorado River, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, are both low enough to keep a ballroom full of water experts up at night.

It could get worse. And, according to projections of climate models, it likely will.

Laurna Kaatz, an in-house climate expert at Denver Water, recently told the Metro basin roundtable it’s still not clear if it will be hotter and drier, or hotter and wetter in Colorado in the future, but there is little doubt it will be hotter.

More major dams on the Colorado River are not the solution, Lochhead said. Evaporative losses would result in more loss than gain, he said, although he did allow for the possibility of relatively small dams.

Denver Water is, however, studying the potential for putting water into aquifers beneath the city, creating underground storage — storage that could, in theory, hold water from the Western Slope.

And Denver Water is looking to store up to an additional 15,000 acre-feet of Western Slope water in an expanded Gross Reservoir, southwest of Boulder. The $360 million project seeks to raise the elevation of the dam by 131 feet, which would increase the capacity of the reservoir by 77,000 acre-feet, bringing it up to 119,000 acre-feet.

Flexibility needed

Lochhead said that Colorado needs more flexible water management options that allow for greater sharing of the resource.

About 85 percent of water in Colorado is used by agriculture and ranchers and farmers tend to have the oldest and most senior water rights.

Water rights are private, said Lochhead, “but you can’t really do anything with that property right except what you are currently doing with it unless you go to water court. And by going to water court you put that entire water right at risk.”

In Colorado’s water courts, objections to changes in uses of water rights are often filed. The process can be lengthy and expensive for those seeking to make changes.

“You need a safe process where you don’t have to put your water right at risk, and you understand that you don’t have to spend years negotiating,” he said.

And Lochhead thinks Colorado also needs another conversation about conservation, where the emphasis is not about sacrifice but about innovation.

Denver Water intends to demonstrate what is possible as it redevelops its 35-acre headquarters campus along Interstate 25 near downtown Denver. There, planners think they can reduce demand for potable water by more than 50 percent.

In water reuse, said Lochhead, Colorado is “way behind the curve” as compared to some world cities, including Amsterdam and Sydney.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on the coverage of water and rivers. The Daily News published this story on Friday, July 29, 2016.

Broomfield purchases 120 shares of water for $3.24 million — The Broomfield Enterprise

Colorado-Big Thompson Project east slope facilities
Colorado-Big Thompson Project east slope facilities

From The Broomfield enterprise (Danika Worthington):

The auction room was packed with bidders, but only 13 — including the City and County of Broomfield — emerged from the Larimer County Fairgrounds with a piece of the Reynolds portfolio. Municipalities, developers and farmers all grabbed some units of Colorado-Big Thompson water, while developers and growers signed deals for land.

The auction was of high interest, given the land’s location in the path of northern Front Range development and the large amount of water attached to it.

Although the numbers are still preliminary, Hall and Hall Auctions partner Scott Shuman said 276 CB-T units brought in the largest chunk of money, about $7.6 million or an average of $27,356 each. The CB-T units, already trading for high sums, were expected to be the most pricey given their scarcity and the ability to use the water for uses such as agriculture, development and industrial processes, including oil and gas extraction.

According to Pat Soderberg, finance director for Broomfield, the city and county placed a bid for 120 shares at $26,000 per share, plus a 4 percent processing fee.

That puts Broomfield’s purchase at $3.24 million, with a 10 percent down-payment of $324,480. The balance will be paid at closing, Soderberg said.

But on a per-share basis, the 15.75 Highland Ditch shares stole the show, averaging $148,900 each for an estimated total of $2.3 million. All the shares were sold to farmers or investors.

Although CB-T water got most of the attention prior to the auction, Shuman said the ditch shares provide more acre-feet of water than CB-T and are not limited to a specific geography. CB-T water, which is conveyed from the headwaters of the Colorado River near Grand Lake, can be used only within the boundaries of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

Western Water Symposium recap

From Colorado State University (Jim Beers):

The politics of water in the West was the theme of the second annual Western Water Symposium, held at the end of July at Morgan Library on the Colorado State University campus. More than 130 attendees heard from a series of water experts that the politics of water in the West transcends party affiliation — and there’s probably not a more divisive issue, even in this election year.

Pat Mulroy via The Earth Institute at Columbia University
Pat Mulroy via The Earth Institute at Columbia University

Among the speakers was Pat Mulroy, senior fellow at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, who said the federal regulatory system of water management in the West is “broken.” Mulroy said leadership and creative solutions are needed to “reform the federal regulatory rigidity.”

She focused much of her talk on the Lower Colorado River Basin, which stretches through Nevada and Arizona – and forms Lakes Mead and Powell – before running into southern California and supplying the thirsty Los Angeles and San Diego markets. Mulroy said it would be necessary for those in the Lower Colorado River Basin to “redefine their relationship to water, and do more with less in the future.” Otherwise, she said there will be nothing for the region but “hydrologic leftovers.”

Hank Brown
Hank Brown

Action, not inaction
Former Colorado U.S. Senator Hank Brown also addressed the gathering. Brown, who helped to negotiate the state’s only wild and scenic designation on the Cache La Poudre River west of Fort Collins, said the designation would not have come about had there not been compromises and the desire to develop a “great thing from action, not inaction.”

That inaction, according to Brown, comes at the federal level with numerous regulations, environmental impact statements and layers of bureaucracy. He said that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency primarily responsible for overseeing approval of water projects, should change its focus because “doing away with water storage has nothing to do with controlling growth,” especially along the fast-growing Colorado Front Range.

Instead, Brown said that preparing for future growth and infill should be a task that the state and communities coordinate and work together on now, so that plans could be made for preserving open space, creating dedicated traffic corridors, and planning for additional water storage.

Jim Lochhead -- photo via Westword (Alan Prendergast)
Jim Lochhead — photo via Westword (Alan Prendergast)

Water distribution is monolithic, linear

Colorado allocates its water through a complex scenario based on prior appropriation, decrees and interstate compacts. Jim Lochhead, CEO and manager of Denver Water, said the “first in time, first in right” approach creates some winners and some losers, and that the current system of distributing water in the West is “monolithic and linear, but politics is driving the system.” And that it will take “leadership to get past the ‘zero-sum-gain’ approach.”

Lochhead, like Brown, was wary of several federally enacted laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, but said these regulations served as a wake-up call to the water community. Water providers, such as Denver Water, were seeing not only the prohibition of new projects, but limitations being placed on expansion of existing projects.

He said confrontation was replaced with community building, reaching out to local groups and communities to create a level of trust. Lochhead said that has resulted in better relations between urban and rural water interests, Western slope and Front Range providers, and upper basin and lower basin users.

The Western Water Symposium also featured D.C. Jackson, a noted professor of history at Lafayette College, who provided a glimpse into the integration of dam engineering in the West and politics during the 1920s.

Symposium benefits Water Resources Archive

The symposium benefits the Water Resources Archive, a joint effort between Morgan Library and Colorado Water Institute. The Archive centralizes historically important water-related collections, documenting the role that water has played in the development of Colorado and beyond. In all, more than 100 collections related to water resources throughout Colorado, the Western U.S., and from around the world are housed there, with about 5 percent of the total holdings available online at http://www.lib.colostate.edu/water.