From The Pine River Times (Carole McWilliams):
The nightmare scenario for West Slope water nerds is a “call” on the Colorado River, meaning that Colorado, Wyoming, and Northwest New Mexico are not delivering a legally required amount of water to California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah.
If or when that happens, some water users in the three Upper Basin states will have their water use curtailed so that the Lower Basin states get their share. Water banking as a concept being proposed on the West Slope to minimize curtailment and huge water fights between holders of pre-1922 water rights, which would not be curtailed, and holders of post-1922 rights that would be curtailed.
Durango water engineer Steve Harris spoke to this at the Sept. 25 Water 101 seminar in Bayfield.
The idea started in 2008 with the Southwest Colorado Water Conservation District and the Colorado River Conservation District. Those two entities cover the entire West Slope, Harris said. The idea of water banking is “to provide water for critical uses in cases of compact curtailment.”
West Slope agricultural water users would voluntarily and temporarily reduce their water use and be compensated for it. The water would go to Lake Powell to satisfy the legal requirement for the three Upper Basin states to deliver 7.5 million acre feet of water each year (averaged over 10 years for a total 75 million AF) to the four Lower Basin states and avert curtailment…
All this is dictated by a water compact signed in 1922. It committed 15 million AF per year divvied up between the Upper and Lower Basin states. “Average flow now is around 13 million AF in the Colorado,” Harris said. The result has been continued draw-down of Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
“Right now we are at around 90 million AF versus the 75 million AF over 10 years,” Harris said. If the amount delivered goes below the 10 year requirement, perfected water rights before 1922 would not be curtailed. Most of that is West Slope ag water.
About half of Bayfield’s and Durango’s municipal water is pre-1922 rights, he said. More than 90 percent of the 1-plus million AF of pre-1922 West Slope water is used to grow grass or alfalfa hay.
Post-1922 rights include area reservoir storage, water for coal-fired power plants, a lot of municipal and industrial water, and 98 percent of West Slope water diversions to Front Range urban areas. “So they would be curtailed. But that’s not going to happen,” Harris said, because Front Range residents aren’t going to have their water supply cut to grow hay.
“We want to set up a water bank so the pre-1922 users would set aside water for the post-1922 users. Otherwise, pre-1922 rights could be targeted for acquisition by post-1922 users,” he said.
Water banking is still an idea at this point. “We don’t know if the water bank will work,” Harris said. Two studies have been done, one is under way, and a fourth will be conducted by Colorado State University to look at the impacts on eight small farms of full irrigation, reduced irrigation, and no irrigation.
Harris said 50,000 to 200,000 AF of West Slope pre-1922 water might be able to go into a water bank, based on land that could be fallowed. But there is concern that some other senior water right holder could take the water before it gets to Lake Powell. Also, he said, “It’s very hard to measure water saved through fallowing. Every year is different.”
In contrast, there is an estimated 55,000 AF of critical post-1922 municipal and industrial use on the West Slope and 295,000 AF of critical diversions to the East Slope. “The amount of pre-compact water that might be available is much smaller than the demand,” Harris said. He cited another local issue: “If you don’t irrigate on Florida Mesa, people don’t have water wells.”
An assortment of water entities in the Colorado River Basin have contributed $11 million to do demand management pilot projects to get more water to Lake Powell. Durango applied to change their water billing to “social norming,” meaning how much water you use compared to your neighboors. Harris quipped that he’d pull the norm down because he made a show of removing his lawn back in the spring.
State Sen. Ellen Roberts also spoke at the seminar. “Even though we are a headwaters state, there’s a limited amount of water, and if the population is going to double by 2040 or 2050, where will the water come from? … Every direction from Colorado, there’s a neighboring state that has a legal right to some of our water.”
Eighty-seven percent of the state population lives between Fort Collins and Pueblo, and they like their Kentucky blue grass, she said, adding, “Kentucky is a much better place for it. … On the Front Range, all they care about is does the water come out when they turn on the tap.”
She noted the heated reaction to the bill she introduced in 2014 to limit the size of lawns in new residential developments that use water converted from ag, leaving the ag land dry. Harris initiated that idea. Roberts commented, “To feed their lawns, they need our water.”
As with population, 87 of 100 state legislators also live betwween Fort Collins and Pueblo, she said. “If they don’t come out here to know our world, they don’t appreciate why water is so important. … Water is our future.”
Roberts gave an update on the Colorado Water Plan, which is intended to address the projected gap between water demand and supply. Community meetings on the plan were held around the state last year and earlier this year. “The number one thing we heard was the need for storage,” Roberts said. “If we can’t capture and hold the water we have, we are hurting ourselves.” The next question is how to pay for storage projects. “That’s where the fighting begins,” she said.
The water plan needs more specifics on recommended actions, Roberts said. And after the Gold King spill of toxic mine waste, it needs something about water quality threats from abandoned mines.
The 470-plus page plan is being done by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and is supposed to be presented to the governor by Dec. 10. It’s available on-line at http://www.coloradowaterplan.com.
From Steamboat Today:
Water Trust Staff Attorney Zach Smith said Upper Yampa began releasing 12 cubic feet per second from Stagecoach Reservoir on Monday, with the goal of boosting flows in the river up to the decreed instream flow amount of 72.5 cfs. The U.S. Geological Survey reflected that flows had quickly reached that level on Monday before declining slightly on Tuesday.
Smith reported Tuesday that the Lake Catamount Metropolitan District had agreed to pass flows below the Catamount Dam downstream from Stagecoach.
This summer’s water release comes later in the summer than it did in 2012 and 2013, when below average winter snowpack and early spring runoff left the river flowing below historic averages in early July. The hay harvest has been early in 2015 — months earlier, in some cases — than it was in 2014.
This summer’s purchase of 1,185 acre-feet of water is in contrast to 2012, when 4,000 acres was purchased from Stagecoach, translating into about 26 cfs for much of the summer.
The winter of 2014-15 was another low snow year, but above average rainfall has kept the upper Yampa Valley lush and the river at healthy flows through the end of July.
As recently as Aug. 4, the Yampa was flowing above median for the date at 180 cfs, but fell to 110 cfs on Aug. 9. It bumped slightly upward in downtown Steamboat on Tuesday.
The city of Steamboat Springs, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Tri-State Transmission and Generation and Catamount Development and the Catamount Metropolitan District also played a role in the latest conservation water release.
The Colorado Water Trust is a private, nonprofit organization that facilitates voluntary, market-based water rights transactions to restore and protect streamflows in Colorado to sustain healthy aquatic ecosystems. It also works on physical solutions and provides technical assistance on other projects.
From Steamboat Today (Lauren Blair):
Both legislators and members from the Colorado Water Conservation Board appointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper visited Craig on Wednesday to present information on the plan and listen to public input.
Northwest Coloradans have a major stake in the plan, which could allow for the eventual diversion of water from the Yampa River to the Eastern Slope to quench the thirsty lawns of a rapidly growing urban and suburban population.
Several local leaders from the water, agriculture and conservation arenas voiced their opposition to a trans-mountain diversion of Yampa waters.
“The state water plan has probably caused as much angst and apprehension as anything that’s happened in my lifetime,” said Ken Brenner, member of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District board of directors and also part of a third-generation ranch family in Routt County. “I am opposed to any new trans-mountain diversion. I don’t believe the water supply exists, and we are certainly having enough trouble meeting our compact obligations.”[…]
The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District board, which includes Brenner and eight other members, issued a letter Wednesday to the CWCB asking for “an equitable apportionment of the native flow within the Yampa,” relative to native flows used by other basins in the state that empty into the Colorado River.
The concern is that, because Colorado is only allowed to use a certain portion of its river flows, and because Northwest Coloradans have junior water rights relative to regions that developed earlier, the state may limit local use of water in the Yampa/White/Green Basin in order to meet its obligations downstream.
State water planners are seeking public comments on the plan through Sept. 17. The legislative Water Resource Review Committee is also currently juggling how to weigh in on the plan. Committee-sponsored bills are due in October, two months prior to the deadline for the final water plan’s completion.
“As legislators, myself included, we feel very strongly that the water plan will only be successful if we have widespread public input,” said Committee Chair, Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, District 6.
Roberts, who is one of a four-person Western Slope majority on the committee, hopes the visit to Craig and other locations will help better inform legislative water policy in the future.
“Getting them over here, driving our roads, seeing our forests and seeing that agriculture really is strong and viable. … They’re not necessarily aware of that if they live in the urban corridor,” Roberts said. “I think part of the value of the water plan … is to make urban dwellers more conscious of the tradeoffs that have occurred and that we live in a high altitude, arid environment.”
More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.
From Smithsonian.com (Heather Hansman):
We had come to the canyon that the Yampa carved through ancient Weber sandstone on a raft trip, to talk about the future of wild rivers, and rivers in general. Advocacy groups Friends of the Yampa and American Rivers decided that the best way to talk about water issues was on the water. So they pulled together 20 people who have been making decisions about water in Colorado, and in the West, for the past 30 years—the head of Denver Water, former Deputy Secretaries of the Interior, ranchers, power plant managers and environmentalists—and a few journalists like myself. They tempted them with the idea of running an untapped river, and then stuck everyone in boats for five days so they had to talk to each other.
The Yampa flows from the high country near Routt National Forest, past power plants and ranchlands, into Dinosaur National Monument where it joins the Green River at Echo Park. It hits the main stem of the Colorado just over the border in Utah. Even though it’s not dammed anywhere, it’s used by almost all the major groups who depend on river flows: farms, fish, cities, industry, recreation and power. The coal-fired Craig Power Plant is its major consumptive user. Endangered fish like the Colorado pikeminnow depend on its flow. Along the way it irrigates pasture lands and provides flows for kayakers. And, if it continues to run free—hence the flow-dependent bathtub ring—it can be a model for fish habitat and smart agricultural use…
On the river, as we floated through the folded geology of the canyon and stopped to scout rapids, we talked about those questions. At night, people pulled up chairs around the fire, cracked beers and tried to explain their priorities. We talked about risk management and sharing the burden of drought. The most heated topic was transmountain diversions of water across the Continental Divide, and how to avoid them.
The Yampa, and with it the state of Colorado, is a microcosm of river management. Colorado has to send almost half of the water that falls in the state downstream. To complicate things, the state’s water law is legally layered and hard to change. This spring, a bill that would allow Colorado residents to collect rainwater failed to pass, because it was argued that it could injure downstream water rights.
“It’s just like balancing a checkbook,” says Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “Based on the last 16 years, nature has provided a flow of about 13 million acre feet of water at Lee’s Ferry [just below Glen Canyon Dam], and our estimate is that we’re using about 15 million. Since then, we’ve overused the system by 30 to 32 million acre feet, which we know because we’ve drawn down storage by that amount. We started with 50 million in the bank, now we have about 18. The system is heading for zero.”[…]
Water rights are also based on a use-it-or-lose-it principle of beneficial use. In theory, or maybe in the 1920s, that sounds good, because it implies that if you’re using a lot you must need a lot. But now it means that senior rights holders—corporations, irrigation districts, water departments and others with earlier and higher priority rights that get their share of water first—are unlikely to use less water than they’re allotted, for fear they’ll never get it back. It makes conservation unappealing, because by using less, you could be selling your security blanket down the river.
“Everybody is trying to pressure dreams from the past,” says Jay Gallagher, from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, after the boats were pulled up on the beach one day. “They want security for today and something left over for tomorrow. That’s the root of the emotion around water, the fear of losing it.”
That’s particularly true on the Yampa, which feels like the last of a dying breed. The Colorado itself has been so allocated that it no longer flows to the Pacific, and other western rivers, like the Dolores, in southern Colorado, are considered dead, because only a trickle flows past the dam. The Yampa is the only one that has remained untouched despite proposals to siphon off or dam up its flow.
Conservation across all facets of the water system, from farming to lawn watering, could stanch the bleeding, but it’s tricky to ask people who have a legal right to a certain amount of water to give it up. To change both perspective and use patterns, you have to make the greater good also good for the individual. Kuhn says that basically comes down to money—you have to make it financially smart for water users to conserve…
Kuhn is trying to outline the clearest ways to make conservation financially appealing. There is talk of setting up a water market, where willing sellers and buyers can trade water rights. “Those plans are moving at a snail’s pace, but the conversations are happening,” he says. People on the trip are also working together on smaller, creative projects. Blakeslee is fallowing parts of the ranch he manages to try to conserve, while American Rivers is working with ranchers to create manmade riffles—small rapids where fish can find food—on streams to build trout habitats without diverting any water.
On the Yampa, despite the disparate intentions, there was more teamwork than infighting. “Overall the average amount of water we recieve each year is still below our needs,” Kuhn says. “What we need to figure out how to do is live within our means.”
One evening on the banks of the river, Matt Rice, the director of American Rivers’ Colorado River Basin Program, brought out a bottle of beer he’d been saving. “It’s called ‘Collaboration Not Litigation,’” he said. “And I think we should all have some.”
More Yampa River Basin coverage here.
From Steamboat Today (Tom Ross):
The city of Steamboat Springs and the Yampa Valley Housing Authority are advertising for bidders on a water and sewer project in Fish Creek Mobile Home Park that would combine replacement of the city’s sanitary sewer interceptor that happens to run through the park, while accomplishing a much needed replacement of water and sewer lines to park’s 67 mobile homes.
“Talk about a partnership — the city has been terrific,” Housing Authority Board Chairwoman Kathi Meyer said Monday. “The city’s departments that do the bid work and public works have been very helpful in putting this together.”
Combining the city’s sewer interceptor project with water and sewer line replacement for the homes in the mobile home park, which is owned and managed by the Housing Authority, represents an economy of scale, Meyer said. It will allow the successful bidder to stage the job site once for both jobs and avoid incurring the extra expense of disrupting homeowners’ driveways and retaining walls twice.
Replacement of the city sewer interceptor already was on its list of prioritized capital projects. Merging the two projects required multiple departments having the will to “figure out how do we do it?” Meyer added.
The city loaned the Housing Authority $954,000 in 2007 to help with purchase of the mobile home park from Bob and Audrey Enever, who had owned it for 33 years. The Housing Authority took out an additional bank loan of $2.58 million, counting on lot rent to cover the debt.
Everyone involved understood that the park’s infrastructure was aging and required frequent repairs, but the Housing Authority’s cash flow was tied up with debt service.
Three years ago, the Authority’s consulting engineering firm, Drexel Barrell, informed the board that it needed to replace the water and sewer lines.
“We knew it was original infrastructure. Some of the sewer lines run underneath the homes,” Meyer said. “Over the last eight years, there have been ongoing maintenance issues. We’ve been lucky that although breaks over the last few years have caused inconvenience to tenants, there hasn’t been a significant incident.”
Fortunately, prevailing lending terms allowed the board to refinance the original bank loan, this time with Alpine Bank, at a lower interest rate. The freed-up revenue stream allowed the Housing Authority to leverage a loan through the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority to fund the water and sewer work.
“The stars aligned,” Meyer said, securing an important source of workforce housing in the community for perhaps another 50 years or so.
More infrastructure coverage here.