Lawsuit Launched Over Fracking, Water, Climate Change in Colorado River Basin #keepitintheground

Here’s the release from The Center for Biological Diversity (Taylor McKinnon):

Lawsuit Launched Over Fracking, Water, Climate Change in Colorado River Basin

The Center for Biological Diversity and Living Rivers today filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to compel them to update invalid, outdated Endangered Species Act consultations on the impacts of climate change and expanded fracking in western Colorado on the Colorado River system and its four endangered fish. The challenge seeks to halt all new oil and gas leasing and development on federal public lands in the Upper Colorado River Basin of Colorado — including the White River and Grand Junction field offices — pending updated consultations.

Fracking near the White River in Utah, located immediately downstream of the Bureau of Land Management’s White River Field Office that is subject to today’s notice. Photo by Taylor McKinnon / EcoFlight.
Fracking near the White River in Utah, located immediately downstream of the Bureau of Land Management’s White River Field Office that is subject to today’s notice. Photo by Taylor McKinnon / EcoFlight.

“The Colorado River system’s endangered fish can’t handle more water depletions. The river system is already overtaxed, and declining flows because of climate change are making a bad situation worse,” said Taylor McKinnon with the Center. “It’s hard to imagine a more self-destructive policy for the Colorado River Basin than using scarce water to fuel more climate-warming fossil fuel extraction — but that’s exactly what the Obama administration is allowing.”

The notice asserts that a programmatic “biological opinion” study authorizing water withdrawals for oil and gas development on public lands in the Upper Colorado River Basin is outdated and invalid. The study fails to consider impacts to endangered fish from the drawing-down of large amounts of water that would be used for horizontal drilling, as well as the impacts of developing expanded estimates of Mancos shale gas deposits, existing and projected future climate-driven Colorado River declines, oil and other toxic spills, mercury and selenium pollution, and the failure of the federal recovery program to provide minimum river flows in critical habitat for the fish.

The notice challenges both agencies’ reliance on the study when they approved new land-use plans for the Grand Junction and White River field offices last year and other oil and gas development plans this year. Together the new land-use plans would allow nearly 19,000 new oil and gas wells in western Colorado. Yet the Fish and Wildlife Service has already conceded that any further water depletions from the Colorado River or its tributaries would jeopardize the four endangered fish — the Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, humpback chub and bonytail.

“Fracking in the Colorado River Basin comes at the peril of public lands, our climate, the river, its endangered fish, and tens of millions of downstream water users,” said McKinnon. “It’s backward public policy in face of a worsening climate crisis. Now’s the time for the Obama administration to align our country’s energy policies with its climate goals by ending new fossil fuel leasing on America’s public lands.”

Center for Biological Diversity attorneys Wendy Park and Michael Saul are staffing the case.

Download today’s notice here.

Background
On behalf of the American people, the U.S. federal government manages nearly 650 million acres of public land and more than 1.7 billion acres of the Outer Continental Shelf — and the fossil fuels beneath them. This includes federal public land, which makes up about a third of the U.S. land area, and oceans like Alaska’s Chukchi Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Seaboard. These places and the fossil fuels beneath them are held in trust for the public by the federal government; federal fossil fuel leasing is administered by the Department of the Interior.

Over the past decade, the combustion of federal fossil fuels has resulted in nearly a quarter of all U.S. energy-related emissions. A 2015 report by EcoShift Consulting, commissioned by the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth, found that remaining federal oil, gas, coal, oil shale and tar sands that have not been leased to industry contain up to 450 billion tons of potential greenhouse gas pollution. As of earlier this year, 67 million acres of federal fossil fuel were already leased to industry, an area more than 55 times larger than Grand Canyon National Park containing up to 43 billion tons of potential greenhouse gas pollution.

Last year Sens. Merkley (D-Ore.), Sanders (I-Vt.) and others introduced the Keep It In the Ground Act (S. 2238) legislation to end new federal fossil fuel leases and cancel non-producing federal fossil fuel leases. Days later President Obama canceled the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, saying, “Because ultimately, if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.”

Download the September 2015 “Keep It in the Ground” letter to President Obama.

Download Grounded: The President’s Power to Fight Climate Change, Protect Public Lands by Keeping Publicly Owned Fossil Fuels in the Ground (this report details the legal authorities with which a president can halt new federal fossil fuel leases).

Download The Potential Greenhouse Gas Emissions of U.S. Federal Fossil Fuels (this report quantifies the volume and potential greenhouse gas emissions of remaining federal fossil fuels) and The Potential Greenhouse Gas Emissions fact sheet.

Download Over-leased: How Production Horizons of Already Leased Federal Fossil Fuels Outlast Global Carbon Budgets.

Download Critical Gulf: The Vital Importance of Ending Fossil Fuel Leasing in the Gulf of Mexico

Download Public Lands, Private Profits about the corporations profiting from climate-destroying fossil fuel extraction on public lands.

Download the Center for Biological Diversity’s legal petition calling on the Obama administration to halt all new offshore fossil fuel leasing.

Download the Center for Biological Diversity’s legal petition with 264 other groups calling on the Obama administration to halt all new onshore fossil fuel leasing.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.1 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Two conservation groups say oil and gas leasing and development need to be halted on federal lands in the Upper Colorado River Basin until agencies can take the steps needed to protect endangered fish.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Living Rivers have notified the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that they plan to sue the agencies for failing to take into account new information in order to properly protect the Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, humpback chub and bonytail. This information includes the growing use of water-intensive horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to produce oil and gas from the Mancos shale formation, which holds a much larger developable resource than previously thought. The U.S. Geological Survey recently estimated that the Piceance Basin’s Mancos shale formation contains 40 times more recoverable gas than it previously had estimated.

The groups say the BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service relied on an invalid and outdated study authorizing water depletions for oil and gas development in the Upper Colorado Basin as the BLM approved land-use plans in the region, most notably plans involving the Grand Junction and White River field offices that combined allow for nearly 19,000 oil and gas wells…

The study, known as a programmatic biological opinion, was adopted in 2008, before the BLM recognized the potential for horizontal drilling and the associated water impacts, the groups say in their notice of intent to sue. The notice said while the BLM estimated that local wells drilled out directionally and then vertically into producing formations require an average of 2.62 acre-feet of water, nine local horizontal wells ended up consuming an average of nearly 69 acre-feet each. That largely was responsible for water consumption of nearly twice the projected annual total for oil and gas development for a sub-basin portion of the Colorado River, in violation of a depletion limit intended to protect the fish, the groups say.

The groups’ notice said difficulty meeting minimum recommended flows for the fish in a critical 15-mile stretch of the Colorado River in Mesa County strongly suggests the habitat there will be unsuitable for the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker in dry years, “and that flow depletions from oil and gas development will only exacerbate these unsuitable conditions and reduce these species’ chances of recovery.”

BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service spokesmen said Monday their agencies don’t comment on pending litigation.

Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance industry group said the legal action is another attempt by conservation groups to grasp at straws in their opposition to the industry. She noted a state estimate that fracking consumes less than a tenth of a percent of Colorado water.

“It’s a very small amount of water that is used for fracking and for oil and gas development in general,” she said.

She added that one horizontal well replaces several vertical wells, so the overall water use is actually lower. And she questioned how much impact energy development can be having on fish at a time of minimal drilling activity on the Western Slope.

The conservation groups single out in their notice water consumption by Black Hills Exploration & Production, but that company since has suspended local drilling.

Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program
Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program

Don’t take more than you need: wrangling wasted water on the Western Slope

Erin Light, center, and Shanna Lewis in a pasture with a mule while checking on the Meeker Ditch on July 11. Light has curtailed diversions into the ditch, which she determined was wasting water.
Erin Light, center, and Shanna Lewis in a pasture with a mule while checking on the Meeker Ditch on July 11. Light has curtailed diversions into the ditch, which she determined was wasting water.

MEEKER – The mule in a pasture east of Meeker along the White River seemed happy to see Erin Light, a state division engineer, and Shanna Lewis, a water commissioner, when they went to take a look at the amount of water flowing through the Meeker Ditch on July 11.

Lewis, who grew up on a Colorado ranch, praised the mule’s beautiful, deer-like coloring and said they’d become friends on her frequent visits to check the ditch.

But the warm equine reception the two enforcers of Colorado water law received differed from the response they sometimes get from ranchers in Division 6, which encompasses the Yampa, White and North Platte river basins, especially when they are visiting a ditch because they think its operator is diverting more water than they need through their head gate.

“I would say I’m more telling than I am curtailing,” said Light, who has been the division engineer based in Steamboat Springs since 2006. “There have only been a few situations where I’ve actually said, ‘That’s it. We’re curtailing you.’ And they’re very obvious situations where they’ve got a lot of water going down the tail end of their ditch, where you can’t argue that this isn’t waste.

“Where the problem becomes in determining waste is that I can go out to a piece of land and say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve got 6 inches of water on this land. There’s ducks swimming around. This is wasteful,’” she 
continued. “You can go to the landowner or the irrigator and say, ‘This is waste,’ and they’ll stare you right in the face and say, ‘The hell it is.’”

Division and state engineers working for Colorado’s Division of Water Resources, as Light does, are the only officials who have the authority to determine if waste is occurring on an irrigation system. And their primary response is to curtail wasteful flows at the head gate.

But determining if there is waste in a ditch is a case-by-case exercise. It’s site specific and time sensitive, and it can take time to understand how someone manages their ditch.

There’s no state definition of waste or written guidelines, but in the end it’s a fact-based analysis focused on how much water is needed to irrigate so many acres.

An allowance is also made for customary inefficiencies on a ditch system. Water leaking out of an old ditch, for example, is not considered waste. But beyond inefficiency, which is often a physical issue, there is waste, which is usually a water-management issue.

And waste is a much bigger issue on the Western Slope than on the state’s drier eastern plains, where irrigators have long watched for anyone wasting water.

A field flooded with water from the Yampa RIver this year. Erin Light, the division engineer for Div. 6, said this is an example of diverting more water than is necessary.
A field flooded with water from the Yampa RIver this year. Erin Light, the division engineer for Division 6, said this is an example of diverting more water than is necessary.

Free river, or not

In 2014, Light served the Meeker Ditch with a written curtailment order, and she also told the big Maybell Canal on the Yampa River that they had to stop wasting water.

And she did so even though neither river was “under administration,” the term for the body of water being called out by senior downstream diverters, so both were considered in a “free river” condition.

Nor was there another water right that was being injured by either ditch’s diversions.

Just in the past 10 days, Light’s office has informed rancher Doug Monger that water is being wasted in the irrigation system he manages on his Yampa River Ranch three miles east of Hayden.

Monger is a Routt County commissioner, a member of the Yampa-White Roundtable, and a director on the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s board.

When asked Tuesday, during a break in a daylong strategic retreat at the River District, about Light’s belief that he was wasting water, he responded in a way that she has heard before.

“I don’t know what the hell difference it makes if I’m wasting water or not, it’s going back in the river,” Monger said. “Who the hell cares, if it’s a free river.”

“I know he is wasting water,” Light said Monday of Monger. “And he should be the poster child of what should be done, not what shouldn’t be done.

“About 10 days or so ago, our water commissioner approached a bunch of water users in the ditch system,” she explained. “There are several ditches that combine and co-mingle there.

“They were immediately going, ‘That’s Doug Monger’s responsibility, Doug’s the one controlling that,’ which I take as Doug is the one controlling the head gates,” Light said. “One of our water commissioners, Brian Romig, went to Doug and said, ‘We’ve got a problem here. You’re diverting too much water.’ From what Brian told me, Doug somewhat recognized it. He concurred that he needed to reduce his diversions.”

But Tuesday, Monger was not willing to go that far, saying he understood from the water commissioner only that he was still figuring out how Monger’s ditch works.

“I won’t acknowledge it,” Monger said of the allegation that he was diverting more water than he needs. “And if they start coming up with some scenario on it, we can always get our attorney. “

That was the same initial response that David Smith, the primary shareholder on the Meeker Ditch, had when Light curtailed his ditch in 2014.

But since then, and after spending $40,000 in legal and engineering fees, Smith has come around to see Light’s point.

“I would tell you that Erin and I started out on opposite ends on this thing, but both of us have kind of tried to work our way towards middle ground that we can both agree on,” he said.

Smith was busy this week bringing in hay on his well-tended fields along the White River just west of Meeker — the same fields his grandfather irrigated.

“I’ve had some disagreements with her, but Erin is an intelligent gal,” he said of Light, who has a master’s degree in civil engineering from Colorado State University with an emphasis in hydraulics and hydrology. “We’ve worked with her, and we’ve worked with the people that she has here, and at the end of the day it’s helped all of us, and I think we’re all better educated because of it.”

Well-tended fields along the White River west of Meeker irrigated by the Meeker Ditch. The ditch has been directed to divert less water at its headgate than it used to.
Well-tended fields along the White River west of Meeker irrigated by the Meeker Ditch. The ditch has been directed to divert less water at its head gate than it used to.
Shanna Lewis, a water commissioner in Div. 6, inspecting the Meeker Ditch's measuring flume. Lewis suggested it's easy for outsiders to critique how ranchers manage their water, but that there are a lot of factors, and experience, involved that are not always readily apparent.
Shanna Lewis, a water commissioner in Division 6, inspecting the Meeker Ditch’s measuring flume. Lewis suggested it’s easy for outsiders to critique how ranchers manage their water, but that there are a lot of factors, and experience, involved that are not always readily apparent.

Laying down the law

The Meeker Ditch has a water right dating back to 1883 to divert 20 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water and two other later and smaller rights that allow it to divert 25.95 cfs in all.

The ditch diverts water from the White River just east of Meeker, runs it through Meeker proper, and then to fields west of town. (See map).

In her August 2014 curtailment order, Light said the historic water rights held by the Meeker Ditch represent enough water to irrigate about 1,000 acres, but today only 153 acres are actively being irrigated. And engineers at Resource Engineering Inc. calculated that the Meeker Ditch only needed 6 cfs to irrigate the fields still served by the ditch.

Attorney Kevin Patrick of Patrick, Miller and Noto, a water law firm with offices in Aspen and Basalt, had hired Resource Engineering to analyze the irrigation ditch on behalf of a client who owned commercial property under the ditch.

Since 2004, the property had been intermittently subject to flooding by water leaking from the ditch.

Patrick sent the engineering report and a letter to Light. “The ditch is diverting unnecessary water which is merely being spilled” and “the excessive running of water, over that reasonably required for the reasonable application of water to beneficial use for the decreed purposes and lands, is forbidden” under state law, the letter says.

After investigating the matter, Light found the ditch had been consistently diverting about 20 cfs at its head gate, but was then sending much of the water out of the ditch and down Curtis Creek, Sulphur Creek or Fairfield Gulch, back toward the White River.

Light then curtailed diversions at the Meeker Ditch head gate, which she has the authority to do. And when asked to do so by Smith, she put the curtailment order in writing.

“Colorado statute clearly prohibits the running of water not needed for beneficial use,” Light wrote in her order, dated Aug. 15, 2014.

Light cited a Colorado statute that reads “it shall not be lawful for any person to run through an irrigating ditch any greater quantity of water than is absolutely necessary for irrigating his land, it being the intent and meaning of this section to prevent the wasting and useless discharge and running away of water.”

And she addressed the issue of water being released from the ditch and back to the river.

“Generally when water is being wasted off the end of the irrigated acreage, through waste gates, or at the tail end of the ditch, the head gate should be turned down to eliminate that waste of water,” Light wrote. “In this case it appears that water is being diverted at too great a rate for the lands that are being irrigated, and the rate of diversion is not being reduced to eliminate waste.”

Light’s stance on enforcing waste has the backing of her boss, State Engineer Dick Wolfe.

A photo from the Resource Engineering report documenting waste on the Meeker Ditch in 2014. Water from the ditch is being turned out into Sulphur Creek, while the main flow in the ditch continues through the pipe above the outfall.
A photo from the Resource Engineering report documenting waste on the Meeker Ditch in 2014. Water from the ditch is being turned out into Sulphur Creek, while the main flow in the ditch continues through the pipe above the outfall.

Use it or lose it?

Both Wolfe and Light served recently on a committee, convened by the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University, that issued a report in February on the widely brandished piece of advice to irrigators to “use it or lose it.”

The report is called “How diversion and beneficial use of water affect the value and measure of a water right” and is subtitled “Is ‘use it or lose it’ an absolute?”

The 11-page report ends with several declarative statements about waste that give further backing to Light’s approach, and that she might well wish to see chained to every head gate on the Western Slope.

“Water that is diverted above the amount necessary for application to a beneficial use (including necessary for transit loss) is considered waste,” states the report.

“Increased diversions for the sole purpose of maintaining a record of a larger diversion are considered waste,” it says, referring to the practice of diverting toward the full amount of a decree in order to bolster the future potential value of a water right.

And, “Wasteful diversions will either be curtailed, or will not be considered as part of the water right’s beneficial use.”

Wolfe, who recently gave a presentation to the Colorado Ag Water Alliance on the “use it or lose it” report, said that Light is not being overzealous in her enforcement of waste.

“She is not going out and as a division engineer purposely looking and being more assertive or aggressive about trying to find where waste is going on,” Wolfe said. “These are ones that just came to our attention.”

Alan Martellaro, the division engineer for Division 5, has not taken the same approach as Light when it comes to curtailing waste.

“To actually actively go look for waste is not something that’s historically been done unless there’s a call on the stream,” said Martellaro, who is based in Glenwood Springs and whose jurisdiction includes the Colorado, the Roaring Fork, and the Crystal river basins. “It just hasn’t been the mode we’ve ever been in.”

Kevin Rein, the deputy state engineer who also served on the “use it or lose it” committee, said issues vary from division to division.

“In Division 6, in the Yampa-White, we’ve had periods of free river without administration for a long time, because it hasn’t been over-appropriated,” Rein said. “That means not being water short. So very often people were just diverting whatever they wanted because, why not? But she’s really directing herself to getting people to measure their diversions and pay attention to duty of water. I think you choose what’s important in your division. That’s important in her division.”

“Duty of water” is essentially how much water someone needs to grow crops on a certain amount of land, without waste. In the Yampa and White river basins, the duty of water is generally held to be that it takes 1 cfs to adequately irrigate 40 acres of land.

After giving a presentation at a water workshop in Gunnison in June about the “use it or lose it” report, Rein was asked why the state doesn’t go around and curtail people who are over-diverting.

“We do, as resources allow,” Rein said. “It’s simply a matter of looking at our water districts where we, maybe, have one water commissioner and maybe a deputy. Maybe if they each had two or three more deputies, then we could do that.”

Light sounds like she could use some help.

“When it comes down to obvious waste,” she said, “I would say we have a tremendous problem with it. I had a long-standing water commissioner — he was with us for 40 years and grew up a rancher — tell me one day, ‘The problem with irrigators today is they don’t go out and move their sets. They just open the head gate wider.’”

“Sets” refers to how irrigators have set various control points, such as check dams and internal head gates, along their ditches.

“That just blew me away,” Light said. “Here’s a longtime rancher living in the community of Meeker his entire life who is more or less telling me that his co-irrigators … just open up their head gate and don’t move sets anymore. To me, that’s where the inefficiency is. Go out, divert less water, and move your damn sets.”

Erin Light, after being asked to pose for a photo at the headgate of the Meeker Ditch. Light has curtailed diversions into the ditch to reduce the amount of water being wasted in the ditch system.
Erin Light, after being asked to pose for a photo at the head gate of the Meeker Ditch. Light has curtailed diversions into the ditch to reduce the amount of water being wasted in the ditch system.

Defending Light

After receiving Light’s written curtailment order in August 2014 on the Meeker Ditch, Smith appealed it to an administrative hearing officer, which was a rare move.

Wolfe said the appeal, which was addressed to him, “is the only curtailment order that I am aware of that has been appealed since I have been state engineer.” He’s been state engineer since since 2007 and has been with the Division of Water Resources since 1993.

An attorney for the Meeker Townsite Ditch Co., which owns the Meeker Ditch, told the state that Light was “attempting to restrict the diversion of water down the Meeker Ditch at a time when the White River is not under an administrative call and at a time when no other water rights owner is affected by the diversion.”

At that point, the state stepped in to defend Light’s curtailment order, and Philip Lopez, an assistant attorney general, prepared an answer to Smith’s appeal.

In his answer, Lopez cited a relatively straightforward statute that reads: “During the summer season it shall not be lawful for any person to run through his irrigating ditch any greater quantity of water than is absolutely necessary for irrigating his land, and for domestic and stock purposes, it being the intent and meaning of this section to prevent the wasting and useless discharge and running away of water.”

And he quoted the Colorado Supreme Court in Fellhauer v. People, where it said, “The right to water does not give the right to waste it.”

As to the matter of Light, or any other division engineer, not being able to curtail waste if there is not a call on the river, Lopez wrote “the division engineer has the authority to curtail [the Meeker Ditch’s] wasteful diversions at any time pursuant to [state law], regardless of whether or not the White River is under administration.”

Lopez did concede, though, that the water rights held by the Meeker Ditch still allowed it to divert water, as long as they did so “without waste.”

That’s an important distinction for Smith, who insists that he wasn’t technically curtailed, only that he can’t waste water when diverting.

“She hasn’t curtailed me to the amount of water that I can use,” Smith said. “All that Erin tells me is that whatever amount of water I have in the ditch, that she doesn’t want us wasting any water.”

Light has a different take.

“We curtailed them,” Light said. “We issued an order to stop wasting. They hired an attorney. They hired an engineer. It went to the hearing officer. They don’t waste anymore.”

The hearing officer in the case denied the ditch’s appeal, indicating it was a matter for water court. But Smith declined to go there.

“We kind of came to a working agreement that we were going to try to work with it, but as far as the laws, there was never a test case,” Smith said.

That may be, but on July 11, when Light and Lewis measured the flow in the Meeker Ditch, it was running at 6 cfs, not 20 cfs as it often used to.

The diversion structure for the Maybell Canal on the Yampa River east of Maybell. The ditch has been working to reduce diversions after the division engineer found it was diverting more water than it needed.
The diversion structure for the Maybell Canal on the Yampa River east of Maybell. The ditch has been working to reduce diversions after the division engineer found it was diverting more water than it needed.

The Maybell Canal

Light has also curtailed another irrigation ditch in Division 6, the Maybell Canal on the Yampa River near Maybell, which she found was similarly diverting more water than it needed.

The canal diverts water from the Yampa into a head gate located in a canyon on the edge of Little Juniper Mountain, about 30 miles west of Craig. (See map).

The Maybell Canal has a senior water right for 42.2 cfs that was adjudicated in 1923 and appropriated in 1899. It also has a junior right for 86.8 cfs that was adjudicated in 1972 and was appropriated in 1946.

The waste on the Maybell Canal was brought to Light’s attention by one of her water commissioners who’d visited the ditch. Light then verbally instructed the canal’s manager to stop wasting water. Mike Camblin, manager of the Maybell Irrigation District, wasn’t happy when he got the curtailment order from Light, but he’s now working to secure funding to make $197,000 worth of improvements to the irrigation system.

On July 13, the Yampa-White-Green basin roundtable approved a $108,000 grant of state funds to help fix several issues on the ditch system. One of those improvements is a modern, automated “waste gate” a mile below the head gate.

Camblin said such a remote-controlled system won’t work at the head gate, which is higher up in the canyon without cell phone service and prone to being washed out by high water.

But he is willing to use the automated gate to reduce sending more water than necessary out the bottom of the ditch, where the water returns to the Yampa River.

The arrangement for the new gate does not entirely please Light, however. She insisted that Camblin agree to send someone up to the head gate within three days after receiving information from the new automated gate that they are over-diverting.

An agreement to that end has been worked out and is poised for adoption, both Light and Camblin said.

“The whole goal is to not only help Erin out but to make us better at what we do,” Camblin told his fellow roundtable members on July 13.

In an interview this week, Camblin said, “At times we were probably taking more water than we need, but that’s what this whole process is about, to cut that down.” He said he is forging a productive working relationship with Light.

“I think it all comes down to communication, especially with Erin and the water commissioners,” he said. “If they get to know us and how our ditch can run better, and we allow them to do that, and we communicate, we can solve a lot of problems.”

Water diverted into the Maybell Canal enters a flume a mile below the headgate and crosses the Yampa River. A remote-operated outlet is to be installed just above the flume in an effort to reduce diversions into the ditch.
Water diverted into the Maybell Canal enters a flume a mile below the head gate and crosses the Yampa River. A remote-operated outlet is to be installed just above the flume in an effort to reduce diversions into the ditch.
The Maybell Canal, towards its end, below the town of Maybell, on July 13, 2016. The ditch is working to waste less water by reducing diversions from the Yampa River.
The Maybell Canal, toward its end, below the town of Maybell, on July 13, 2016. The ditch is working to waste less water by reducing diversions from the Yampa River.

Watch that stick

Dan Birch, the deputy general manager at the Colorado River Conservation District and a member of the Yampa-White basin roundtable, is supportive of the improvements that Camblin is trying make on the Maybell Canal.

“I think Mike’s really trying to do the right thing, and I think he wants to take a look at ways he can manage his diversions better,” Birch said. “I certainly don’t think he’s diverting just for the sake of diverting.”

Birch also cautioned against using a stick to beat back waste.

“You can’t go into a situation and say, ‘Hey, you guys are wasting water, I want you to reduce your diversions,’” Birch said. “You really have to be prepared to go into that situation and say, ‘Hey, look, here’s something that we’re seeing here. Let’s have a conversation. I’m interested in exploring what we might do to improve flow in the river.’”

But Light feels the Maybell Canal needed to be prodded into action.

“What has partially pushed the Maybell Canal to go the direction they have is us really putting our foot down that we’re not going to allow this waste to continue,” she said. “Again, the waste is so blatant. They were diverting about 54 cfs at the head gate, and we estimated about 18 cfs going out the tail end. It’s like, ‘No, you can’t do that.’”

Birch was asked directly if he thought the Maybell Canal would be making its proposed improvements without Light’s enforcement actions.

“That’s a fair question, and my immediate response is probably not,” he said.

While Light has been able to work with both Smith and Camblin, she knows she’s raising the hackles of ranchers in the Yampa and White river basins.

“I don’t think the irrigation community wants to be told they’re wasting,” she said. “I’d love to do more as far as waste, but I do have to tread lightly.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism, the Aspen Daily News and Coyote Gulch are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water. The Daily News published this story on Sunday, July 24, 2016

Battle lines form over oil shale — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

As my friend Ed Quillen once said, “Oil shale has been the ‘Next big thing’ in Colorado for over a hundred years.”

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):

The White River meanders through Utah on its way to joining the Green River, flowing slowly through land on which an energy company hopes to develop its oil shale holdings.

Opponents and supporters of the proposal by Enefit American Oil have drawn familiar lines in the sandstone of the Colorado Plateau.

Opponents contend that the project threatens the local environment and that development could unbalance the global climate.

Supporters say the project would prop up local economies in two states still reeling from the fall in oil prices that slowed production and put a virtual halt to exploration.

Enefit is seeking a right of way across federal land administered by the Bureau of Land Management, which listed the route as a preferred alternative in its environmental study of the request.

Oil shale development is a greater threat to the atmosphere than other fossil-fuel development, said John Weisheit of Living Rivers.

“It’s not a contribution to society,” Weisheit said. “It’s a detriment to society.”

More like a lifeline to struggling northwest Colorado and northeast Utah, said Lannie Massey, natural resource specialist for Rio Blanco County.

“This Enefit deal is a good deal for everybody involved,” Massey said. “It would lessen our dependence on foreign sources” of energy and pump new life into the moribund energy industry.

Enefit’s project has attracted an array of opposition, including the Grand Canyon Trust, Earthjustice, Western Resource Advocates, the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, as well as Living Rivers.

The northwest Colorado town of Rangely stands to benefit from Enefit’s project because of the town’s proximity. Rangely is about 30 miles from the area via Rio Blanco County Road 23, which could connect to Dragon Road in Utah, and then into the project site.

The project is expected to require about 2,000 jobs, which would be “a huge boost for this area and for this region, eastern Utah and western Colorado,” said Tim Webber, executive director of the Western Rio Blanco County Metro Recreation and Park District.

Bonanza, Utah, and Rangely are the nearest towns and they sit 20 miles apart as the crow flies, 28 miles apart by road. The rough-and-tumble territory in between is pockmarked with drillpads and Gilsonite mines that cut deep, straight-edge swaths into the earth.

Enefit’s oil shale project sits on private land as well as state land set aside for development to benefit Utah schools and other institutions.

Enefit is planning to mine oil shale under 27,243 acres, most it privately held.

The project under consideration by the BLM is a utility corridor over federal land that Enefit would use to extend utilities to serve the project, which projects production of 50,000 barrels of oil per day for as many as 30 years.

Enefit is planning to build three pipelines, expand an existing road and run a 138-kilovolt power line to the project area 12 miles southeast of Bonanza.

“I fly over that area a lot,” said Bruce Gordon of Aspen-based EcoFlight. The corridor land is “relatively pristine” with good habitat for animals, Gordon said.

The area is “pretty industrialized and disturbed already,” said Enefit Chief Executive Officer Rikki Hrenko-Browning.

Enefit could develop its private holdings without crossing federal land, but that would require a constant stream of heavy trucks and other heavy equipment, resulting in reduced air quality, the BLM said in its draft environmental impact statement.

The BLM needs to better understand the oil that would be produced by Enefit, as well as take into account the potential effects on water quality and of spent shale, said Anne Mariah Tapp of the Grand Canyon Trust.

The possible effects of a spill of oil into the White River or Evacuation Creek — and how to clean it up — have gone unstudied, Tapp said.

“Water quality is as important as water quantity,” Tapp said.

The BLM also should have a better idea of what will happen with 23 million tons of spent shale produced every year, Tapp said.

Spent shale — as the rock left over after the process is referred to — contains poisons, such as arsenic, as well as minerals, such as lithium.

Enefit is planning a “zero-liquid discharge” process in which all water to be used will be captured, treated and reused, said Hrenko-Browning. [ed. emphasis mine]

Plans also call for Enefit to have ongoing reclamation in areas of surface mining, Hrenko-Browning said.

Once the BLM completes its process, Enefit will seek permits from the state, including the state mining permit.

Rangely and western Rio Blanco County are working hard to diversify the regional economy, said Massey.

There is more at stake than that, however, Massey said.

Colorado, Utah and Wyoming contain the largest oil shale resources in the world.

“If we can get somebody to commit money and improve the retort process,” Massey said, “it would be a benefit to all of us in the oil shale region.”

Interior official looks toward Roan — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):

The Roan Plateau is high on Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s list of issues to be resolved in the remaining months of the Obama administration.

Jewell recently discussed the next 100 years of conservation and a “course correction” before the National Geographic Society.

The Interior Department has “some work left to re-examine whether decisions made in prior administrations properly considered where it makes sense to develop and where it doesn’t,” Jewell said. “Or where science is helping us better understand the value of the land and water and potential impacts of development. Places like Badger Two-Medicine in Montana, or the Boundary Waters in Minnesota, or the Roan Plateau in Colorado.”

Jewell’s comments, however, left some Colorado officials questioning whether they signaled a change in the direction of the management of the Roan.

The Bureau of Land Management is completing an environmental study of the area. BLM, industry and environmental groups and local governments in late 2014 reached an agreement to cancel 17 of the 19 leases issued on the plateau in 2008. The remaining two leases on top and 12 leases at the base of the plateau were to remain in place.

Jewell was referring to the plan now under study by the BLM, the Interior Department said…

The Roan Plateau was managed by the U.S. Department of Energy as an oil shale reserve until 1997, when President Bill Clinton signed legislation transferring the area to the BLM.

The act required the BLM to manage the area for multiple use and instructed the agency to begin leasing it for oil and gas development.

“We hope the secretary’s mention of the Roan Plateau bodes well for the future of the area,” said Luke Schafer, West Slope Advocacy director for Conservation Colorado, urging the BLM to complete the management plan “to protect the pristine lands, rare species, and remarkable habitat on the Roan.”

The directive to lease the area, however, remains, said David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

Jewell’s “policies may contribute to compliance with that law taking decades rather than years,” Ludlam said, “but for the benefit of future generations we will never stop advocating for the responsible development that must and someday will occur on the Roan Plateau.”

Wolf Creek Reservoir for the White River Basin?

From The Rio Blanco County Herald-Times (Reed Kelley):

While there are as yet no approvals, project advocates are looking at a site on Wolf Creek, approximately 20 miles east of Rangely just north of Highway 64 and the White River, an area that extends into Moffat County.

With a footprint of at least 1,500 surface acres and a holding capacity of up to 90,000 acre-feet of water, the reservoir would be the largest in the region. Costs are projected to be from $71 million to $128 million.

The reservoir would be expected to meet municipal and energy development needs with use to include all types of water recreation, including motorized activities that Better City claims are increasingly restricted in other places across the state. In addition, the facility would provide water management that would benefit endangered fish recovery in the White River and beyond.

Better City further states that the proposal has already received support from multiple interests, including water conservation agencies, environmental groups and recreation enthusiasts.

Better City suggests interested citizens look at the “White River Storage Feasibility Study” done for the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District in 2014. Further information can be obtained from the Conservancy District office at 2252 E. Main St., Rangely, or 970-675-5055…

Based on visitation data from other reservoirs in the region, the Wolf Creek impoundment is anticipated to attract 125,000 to 160,000 visitor days annually, generating direct expenditures in Rio Blanco County of $6.1 million to $7.8 million.
Such economic activity would be very beneficial to existing small businesses in the county and job creation—complementing development activities being recommended by Better City for Meeker and Rangely.

Alden VandenBrink, the new Conservancy District manager, said the project has the endorsement of the Yampa/White/Green River Roundtable and the Colorado Water Conservation Board. It is included in the recently released State Water Plan.
VandenBrink confirms that at least $400,000, including $25,000 from Rio Blanco County, have been invested by the Conservancy District in exploring the possibilities for the reservoir.

Yampa/White/Green/North Platte river basins via the Colorado Geological Survey
Yampa/White/Green/North Platte river basins via the Colorado Geological Survey

Introduction to the Yampa/White roundtable

Basin roundtable boundaries
Basin roundtable boundaries

From Steamboat Today (Mary Brown):

As the new chair of the Yampa-White-Green Rivers Basin Round Table, I’m writing today to give an update on some of the water issues being addressed both in Northwest Colorado and throughout the state…

Members are elected and/or appointed to their positions per the requirements of the statute, and the roster is filled with people who have a passion for preserving the water in our region. Officers are elected annually and must represent the Yampa and White river basins.

Jackie Brown and Alden Vanden Brink, from Routt and Moffat counties respectively, now serve as the vice-chairs. Jon Hill from Rio Blanco is the immediate past-chair. We have met consistently since our formation to identify, quantify and address challenges of water quantity and quality for the Yampa, White and Green rivers.

The Yampa-White-Green Rivers Basin Round Table one of nine basin round tables in Colorado. During 2014 and 2015 our Round Table was engaged fully with the development of our basin implementation plan. We have authorized studies that help us understand the agricultural, industrial and municipal, environmental and recreation needs of Northwest Colorado.

Many of our members serve on state and regional committees, task forces and modeling crews. All have attended countless meetings and volunteered incalculable hours to produce the basin implementation plan, which was used in the development of the Colorado Water Plan.

White River Conservation District’s annual meeting recap

White River via Wikimedia
White River via Wikimedia

From the White River Conservation District via the Rio Blanco Herald Times:

More than 100 people enjoyed the White River Conservation District’s annual meeting Friday at the Meeker Fairfield Center.

The District was recognized by Colorado State Conservation Board in 2015 as “District of the Year,” and Executive Director Callie Hendrickson received the Conservation Excellence Award by Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Don Brown, “for giving a strong voice to locally led conservation at home, in Colorado and nationally.”

Hendrickson highlighted the district’s’ natural resource priorities including rangeland health, wildlife, water and natural resource information and education…

Attendees were updated on the progress of the Land and Natural Resource Use Plan. Hendrickson asked all Rio Blanco County citizens to be prepared to review and comment on the plan in March. The district will publicize the exact dates of public comment meetings. The plan will then be applied to influence federal regulatory frameworks that govern the management of public lands.

The district recognized Rocky and Sparky Pappas and Travis Flaharty as Conservationists of the Year. President Neil Brennan highlighted the Pappas’ conservation accomplishments, including water development, grazing practices, weed control and community involvement. The Pappases and Flaherty manage first for wildlife and second for livestock.

The property they manage is leased to several local producers to graze sheep and cattle during the summer. The livestock are removed before fall to allow for rejuvenation for wildlife habitat. With the ongoing partnership with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Pappas’ and Flaherty reclaimed some farm ground in the Josephine Basin to provide critical winter range for mule deer and to improve the migration corridor for deer and elk.

They battle weeds through aerial applications and are experimenting with biological control such as beetles and pathogens for leafy spurge and thistles. They have improved water quality and quantity by converting manual pumps to solar, adding water tanks and installing pipelines to spread the water across the properties. In addition to their conservation efforts, the three volunteer on local boards such as the Historical Society, and the Flat Tops chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. They also sponsor youth hunts and help approximately 200 Colorado hunters with the Ranching for Wildlife program…

Keynote speaker David Ludlum, West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association’s executive director, addressed the audience regarding the various ways industries convey their purpose and message to the public. While industries think they are doing a good job by providing great detail about “how they do their work,” they miss the important message about “why they do their work.”

Ludlum showcased how individuals that “bash” industry and the general public need to hear “industry develops these resources simply to provide the tires for your bicycles, the concrete you walk on, the fiberglass on your surfboards, the polyester and nylon in your clothes, the polycarbonate in your sunglasses, the ethane used to make your artificial hips, the heat you enjoy on a cold night, the gas in your car, the fertilizer used to grow your food, etc.”

Ludlum expressed how important it is that our industries help people understand what they provide for your standard of living. Most people, he said, don’t care “how” you do it until they understand “why” you do it.