Catching Colorado’s Rainwater

By Jan Tik (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jan Tik (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s one of the most common questions and concerns we hear from Coloradans interested in water “Why can’t we capture rainwater? Aren’t rain barrels illegal in Colorado?” (the barrels themselves are legal, and widely sold, it’s the rainwater storage that isn’t in most cases)… But that could change.

On Monday, Colorado’s House of Representatives voted in favor of H.B. 1259, which, if successfully passed by the Colorado Senate, would allow people to collect and store up to 110 gallons of rainwater from residential rooftops. The bill passed the House by a bipartisan vote of 45-20 and was amended to allow rainwater storage in two 55-gallon rain barrels (upped from a proposed combined storage maximum of 100 gallons).

Under Colorado’s prior appropriation system of water law, the water that falls on your roof already belongs to other downstream users. Because someone else already owns the right to that water, rainwater capture is not legal for most Colorado households. From the Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Law, on adjudicated water rights:

Adjudication of a water right results in a decree that confirms the priority date of the water right, its source of supply, and the amount, point of diversion or storage, type and place of use.

In times of water scarcity, those with older water rights can claim that water before those with more junior rights. As explained in the Washington Post:

During dry times, someone with a senior claim gets to suck down her full allotment. The people down the line might get nothing.

(In Colorado, she’s even entitled to the rain that falls onto her neighbor’s roofs. That rain, by law, must be allowed to flow unimpeded into the river for her to use.)

Although all precipitation belongs to this system of water rights, some studies estimate that only a small fraction of rain makes it all the way from rooftops to rivers, with most of it lost to evaporation. A 2007 Douglas Country study by Leonard Rice Engineers found that a maximum of about 15 percent of precipitation returned to the stream system. Bill sponsors said that an estimated 97 percent of water that falls on residential property never ends up in a river or stream.

After that 2007 study, Colorado’s rain barrel ban was loosened, when in 2009 SB-80 allowed some residents with private wells to begin rainwater harvesting. Through HB 09-1129, Colorado created a pilot program for harvesting projects administered by the Colorado Division of Water Resources, find guidelines for those pilot projects here. But those water catching programs aren’t available to the majority of Coloradans, including municipal residents.

… perhaps small-scale collection and storage of rooftop rainwater runoff wouldn’t have such a large affect on downstream water users. But opponents say that the principle behind rainwater harvesting can lead to much more. From the Durango Herald:

Republican Reps. Don Coram of Montrose and J. Paul Brown of Ignacio both voted against the measure. Coram said the bill serves as a literal slippery slope, suggesting that what starts as roof collection could end in allowing Coloradans to collect rainwater off their entire property.

“We keep nibbling away on the prior appropriation doctrine, and you know you eat an elephant one bite at a time,” Coram said, referring to the system in Colorado in which water rights are granted to the first person to take water from an aquifer or river, despite residential proximity. “I object more to changing the process.”

Others opposed are expressly worried about agriculture. From the Washington Post:

But the bill also signals that as Colorado’s cities grow, and as the political balance shifts, the legal custom of prior appropriation may be slowly renegotiated in favor of the urbanites. At the committee meeting last week, agriculture industry representatives strongly opposed HB 1259.

“It is a small step. And it’ll get bigger, and bigger, and bigger, until you dry up all of agriculture without buying it,” said Jim Yahn, a commercial water manager and farmer.

“At least the other way that we do it, farmers get compensated for the water that’s used. This is a small step in the wrong direction.”

While those in favor see water conservation and education as the major benefits of rainbarrels. From the Denver Post:

Rep. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge, countered: “It still goes into the same ground it would if it came down the gutter and straight into the ground.”

And rather than seeing that water be absorbed or evaporate, residents could replace the gardening water that comes from a spigot — saving water for those with downstream water rights, she said.

“While the amount of water saved is modest, having rain barrels in yards around the state will serve as an important tool to increase Coloradans’ knowledge of our limited rainfall and water supply,” said Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado. “This common-sense step should help people understand the need for smart water-conservation policies.”

Drew Beckwith with Western Resource Advocates further explained that concept in a letter calling for support:

We think that someone with a rain barrel begins to pay more attention to how much water it takes to water the lawn; they begin to question where their water really comes from beyond the tap; and that this leads to a greater conservation ethic in our residents. The bill places limits on rain barrel use to the extent that published research suggests there will be no discernable impact on downstream water users.

The legislation is now in the hands of the senate. Where do you stand?



Filed under Agriculture, Climate and Drought, Water Legislation, Water Supply

Animas River Stakeholders Group: An Unlikely Alliance for Watershed Health in the San Juans

By Samantha Wright

Gold King mine 3

The Red and Bonita mine near Silverton is a target of the Animas River Stakeholders Group’s work to repair water quality in the Animas River watershed.

For 21 years, an unlikely alliance of mining companies, environmental organizations, landowners, local governmental entities, and state and federal regulatory and land management agencies has converged faithfully on the third Thursday of almost every month in the tiny, isolated town of Silverton in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado.

Collectively known as the Animas River Stakeholders Group, the coalition’s mission is to clean up the unfinished business of previous centuries—the environmental damage wrought by abandoned mines—by improving water quality and habitats in the Animas River through a collaborative process.

As such, the group is a poster child for a key goal of the draft of Colorado’s Water Plan, which in Chapter 7 supports the development of watershed coalitions and watershed master plans, while emphasizing the ways in which stakeholders can work together to promote watershed health.

It is a critical mission. According to Trout Unlimited, more than 500,000 abandoned hard-rock mines remain across the western United States with an estimated cleanup cost ranging from $36-72 billion. In Colorado, heavy metals draining from an estimated 23,000 abandoned mines are a primary culprit in the state’s approximately 9,548 impaired river miles.

A toxic legacy

Hundreds of these abandoned and inactive mine sites dot the mountainsides of the upper Animas watershed surrounding Silverton, where metal mining was an economic mainstay from the 1870s through the early 1990s. In addition to their picturesque ruins and colorful histories, the mines bear the unfortunate legacy of metal-loading to alpine streams and creeks, adding to natural metal-loading that already occurs in this highly mineralized area.

The Animas River Stakeholders Group coalesced in 1994, just after the last mine in the area had closed, to fend off the specter of a Superfund designation in the upper Animas River Basin, and to come up with a process for determining attainable water quality standards in the basin.


The Animas River Stakeholders Group has operated for 21 years to convene concerned landowners, mine operators, experts from federal and state agencies, and members of environmental groups and local government in a collaborative, grassroots process.

In its first years of operation, the group sampled some 200 abandoned mine sites, then prioritized 33 in need of the most work. The group directly sponsored close to 20 mine remediation projects in the upper Animas River watershed and was indirectly involved in 40 more, considerably improving the water quality in several tributaries to the Animas River, including Mineral and Cement creeks. They also developed recommendations for a number of site-specific water quality standards that were ultimately adopted by the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission.

Because of the liability stemming from the Clean Water Act that is associated with directly treating polluted mine drainage, most of the Animas Stakeholders’ remediation projects have focused on prevention through isolation of reactive mineralized material from water, either by removing tailings and waste rock from a drainage (and in a few cases reprocessing it at a local mill), capping it with an impermeable material, or diverting water that previously fed into old mine workings and tailings piles to minimize metal-loading.

An unplugged tunnel at the Gold King mine in the upper Cement Creek drainage

An unplugged tunnel at the Red and Bonita mine in the upper Cement Creek drainage began leaking after the water table rose due to nearby installed plugs.

A turning point in the Animas River Stakeholder Group’s mission came after the last mining company to operate in Silverton, Sunnyside Gold Corp., built three massive bulkheads inside the vast underground workings of the Sunnyside Mine in the upper Cement Creek drainage starting in 1996 as part of an agreement with the State of Colorado that released the mine company from environmental liability.

The bulkheads were intended to act as corks, simply preventing water from draining out of the mine. The first one worked well, but when two more were added downstream in the tunnel six years later, the bulkheads collectively ended up functioning more as a bathtub plug, causing the water table inside the mountain to rise and eventually gush out of other mine adits—horizontal passages leading into a mine for the purposes of access or drainage—higher in the upper Cement Creek drainage.

Today, the volume of polluted water pouring out of a group of these adits, all on the same slope—the American Tunnel, the Red and Bonita, the Gold King, and the Mogul—is equal to the contributions of the 33 most-polluting mines the Animas Stakeholders group identified during its initial study 15 years ago.

Collectively, these leaky adits have created one of the largest untreated mine drainages in Colorado, a festering sore oozing a toxic cocktail of heavy metals including zinc, cadmium, copper, manganese, iron, aluminum and lead. Making matters worse, once it is exposed to the open air, the water draining from the mines becomes highly acidic due to the weathering of iron pyrites.

An open tunnel, or adit, of the abandoned Gold King Mine continues to leak acidic heavy metals into upper Cement Creek.

An open tunnel, or adit, of the abandoned Gold King Mine continues to leak acidic heavy metals into upper Cement Creek.

In short, all of the hard-won gains in water quality that the Animas River Stakeholders Group made in its first decade were washed away as the water quality of the Animas River below Cement Creek worsened between 2005 and 2010. Metal-loading in the stream killed off three out of four fish species as well as a host of bugs and insects that formerly lived there, and sent toxic levels of zinc as far downstream as Baker’s Bridge near Durango.

Seeking a solution

Today, the Animas Stakeholders group is primarily focused on finding a solution to this problem that is amenable to everyone at the table.

The most comprehensive—and expensive—fix would be to install a permanent limestone water treatment plant in the upper Cement Creek drainage, which would cost upwards of $17 million to build and at least a million dollars a year to operate in perpetuity. This solution would likely only be feasible if a Superfund site were declared, potentially putting Sunnyside and its parent Kinross Gold Corp., an international mining conglomerate that has generated billions in annual revenue in recent years, on the hook to help foot the bill.

Sunnyside has threatened legal action if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pursues a Superfund designation, and the community of Silverton is also largely opposed to the idea, fearing it would scare away tourists as well as prospective new mine operations, thus damaging an economy that is as already as fragile as alpine tundra.

Rather than squabbling over the politics of Superfund, the Animas Stakeholders (whose members include designees from both EPA and Sunnyside) are working to determine if it is possible to reduce the volume of water coming out of the leaky mines in the upper Cement Creek drainage by putting in new bulkheads, thereby perhaps eliminating the need for a permanent water treatment plant—and Superfund designation.

The EPA plans to install the first of these new bulkheads in the Red and Bonita Mine this summer.

“If you could get even a 50 percent reduction in the amount of metals coming out of there, that would be a big win,” said Peter Butler, one of three co-coordinators for the Animas River Stakeholders Group and former chair of the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission. “That would still be a lot cheaper than treating it.”

The group is also interested in finding alternative water treatment techniques that would cost less to operate than a full-scale water treatment plant.

Finding money…and success

In recent years, money for abandoned mine reclamation projects has become increasingly scarce due to state and federal cutbacks to two of the Animas Stakeholder’s primary funding sources.

Congress has steadily hacked away at the EPA’s Section 319 Grant Program, which was established by amendment to the federal Clean Water Act in 1987 to provide funding for efforts to reduce nonpoint source pollution. Making matters worse, the application process for 319 grants has become “much more cumbersome as the EPA keeps adding more and more requirements,” Butler said.

Meanwhile, the State of Colorado has lately taken to raiding its mineral severance tax revenues to balance the state budget, leaving less of those funds to pay for reclamation projects through the state’s Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.

“It’s getting harder and harder to find funding,” Butler said. “Fortunately, there are not many mine waste piles left that we want to address.”

The Animas Stakeholders’ ongoing operations expenses are paid for through a variety of sources including 319 grants, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Southwestern Water Conservation District, and Sunnyside Gold Corp.

Meanwhile, funding for the bigger problem of treating polluted mine drainage “is mostly nonexistent at this point,” Butler said, because of liability issues stemming from the Clean Water Act. “Those projects will be expensive and will have ongoing expenses over time.”


Meetings of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, pictured in early 2015, are held monthly in Silverton and are open to the public.

The structure of the Animas River Stakeholders Group is unique among the 85 groups listed in the Colorado Watershed Assembly’s 2014 Watershed Group Directory. It is not an incorporated entity, and it operates by informal consensus, thus sidestepping the hassle of determining which interest would have how many seats on the board of directors and how much say-so they would have.

“We just wanted to avoid that,” Butler said. “Particularly because initially there was a lot more contention between different people participating in the group.”

The sheer volume of water sampling and remediation projects that the group has executed over the past two decades has made it a role model for neighboring watershed groups, such as the recently incorporated Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership, which has embarked on its own journey to improve the water quality of impaired segments of the Uncompahgre River through passive remediation at abandoned mines on the other side of Red Mountain Pass.

What’s the secret to the Animas Stakeholders’ success? “We have a lot of very sharp, capable people,” Butler said. “Everyone is highly motivated, because the alternative is potentially having an outside government agency step in and take over.”

Samantha Wright mugshotSamantha Wright is an independent journalist based in southwestern Colorado. She is a founding member of the San Juan Independent (, a nonprofit online news source offering in-depth reporting on issues of importance in the western San Juan Mountains. Visit her online at


webwqcoverFor more information, read the Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Quality Protection. And consider attending The Mining Institute’s San Juan Mining and Reclamation Conference, which will be held May 28 and 29 in Telluride.

Leave a comment

Filed under Colorado's Water Plan, Environment, Water Quality, Watershed Groups

Climate & Colorado’s Water Future workshop — Colorado Foundation for Water Education

Colorado Foundation for Water Education:

Thanks to all who joined, spoke and sponsored CFWE’s 2015 Climate and Colorado’s Water Future Workshop. Read a recap of the day by Coyote Gulch’s John Orr:

Originally posted on Coyote Gulch:

Statewide annual average temperature 1900-1912 via Western Water Assessment Statewide annual average temperature 1900-1912 via Western Water Assessment

Over the past year two reports about climate change have made their way into the water resources planning discussion.

Jeff Lukas, Western Water Assessment was lead author for Climate Change in Colorado:A Synthesis to Support Water Resources Management and Adaptation. The report explains the science and the data that make up our current understanding of the effects of climate change on Colorado water resources.

The second report, Colorado Climate Change Vulnerability Study was produced by Western Water Assessment, CSU and CU. The report looks at the vulnerabilities of systems, and makes recommendations about building resilience. Mr. Lukas was also a lead author on the second report.

The Colorado Foundation for Water Education invited Mr. Lukas to address thsose subjects at their annual workshop and tour of the National Ice Core Lab.

By looking at the temperature record for Colorado…

View original 513 more words

Leave a comment

by | March 16, 2015 · 9:55 am

Colorado Water Trust working to marry instream flow protection and ranch production on Little Cimarron River

Colorado fall colors 10-13-11

The San Juan Mountains backstop this valley, home of the Little Cimarron River, to the south.

By Zach Smith

When standing on the ranch, you can’t quite see the river. If it’s a good autumn, the snowy peaks of the San Juan Mountains within the Uncompahgre Wilderness Area backstop the narrow valley to the south, and the tops of the turning cottonwoods peek out of a ravine to the west. Just standing there among the cow pies you’d suspect, and be correct, that the river nearby but just out of sight is renewed by those melting snows each spring. The cottonwoods betray the river’s path below the ranch.

During most springs, runoff on the Little Cimarron River that meanders through those cottonwoods fills each water right’s claim to its flows to the brim and then some. Water taken out at the McKinley Ditch headgate upstream winds along the steep slopes and eventually to this tableland, where acres irrigated since federal government patent and first appropriation in 1886 produce hay and cattle. Back at the river, water flows down the Little Cimarron to the Cimarron and eventually to the Gunnison River, upstream of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, and then, finally, to the Colorado River.

As the summer turns to fall, though, the Little Cimarron can often run dry for more than a mile as the mountains stop producing water and diversions from the river lap the very last drops from the stream. Fish, both upstream and down, lose passage or get trapped in pools in the middle.

The challenge is figuring out how to keep the cow pies fresh and the fish wet, the fields green and the rivers blue. Colorado is asking broad iterations of this question all over the state, boiled down to something short with no uniform answer: How can we get the most out of every drop of Colorado’s water?


This 214-acre ranch in the Gunnison Country, after being offered for purchase in 35-acre lots and eventually being lost to Montrose Bank, was eventually purchased, intact and from the bank, by Western Rivers Conservancy in partnership with the Colorado Water Trust. With Western Rivers specializing in conservation purchases of riparian lands in the West, and the Trust working to restore and protect flows using voluntary, market-based tools in Colorado, the project constitutes an ideal land and water conservation partnership. Included with the ranch purchase was more than 18 percent of the water decreed to the McKinley Ditch. Western Rivers sold those water rights, some very senior, to the Trust.

Shepardson property (m) 10-13-11

Western Rivers Conservancy bought this 214-acre ranch, then sold the attached water rights to the Colorado Water Trust. Under the arrangement the Trust is currently developing, the water rights will still be used to irrigate the ranch property but will also boost streamflows during dry parts of the year.

Now, with Western Rivers Conservancy and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Trust is using those water rights to build the first permanent agriculture and instream flow sharing agreement in Colorado. If successful, irrigation will occur on the ranch in most years until July or August, when the water use will switch to instream flow use by the CWCB. In Colorado, instream flows are the exclusive province of the CWCB, a state agency within the Department of Natural Resources.

In the driest of years, all the water may stay in the river for the duration of the season. In the biggest snow years, it may irrigate all season long. At the Gunnison, where flows are managed by releases from the Aspinall Unit’s Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal reservoirs, upstream of the Black Canyon, the Trust plans to re-market the water to a third, downstream use.


Instream flow projects of any kind do not happen in a vacuum. To add water to a river long-term, even under a shared contract as with this project, requires a two-meeting process with the CWCB’s board of directors. In September 2014, that board approved and agreed to pay for the inclusion of this water into its instream flow program under the sharing terms. The project then requires approval from Colorado’s water court system—an adversarial process designed to protect other water users from injury resulting from a new or changed water use. The Trust entered this process in 2014. There are also infrastructure challenges, such as measurement and delivery of flows. Additionally, the Trust is just one shareholder now among several. This year, for example, the ditch blew out and we paid our share of the repair cost like everyone else.

Little Cimmarron 10-6-11

A healthy section of the Little Cimarron River

The ecological benefits to the project are sizable, and will nearly connect two existing instream flows together. One stretches from just upstream of the McKinley headgate 16 miles up to the Little Cimarron’s headwaters—a reach managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife as Wild Trout Water. The other protects flows on the Cimarron River from its confluence with the Little Cimarron to the Gunnison River. These environmental protections were secured in 1984, 101 years after the first pioneer diverted water from the Little Cimarron.

Little Cimarron reach downstream of the McKinley Ditch intake structure

A dry reach of the Little Cimarron downstream of the McKinley Ditch intake structure

When used in-stream, the project’s water will add several cubic feet per second of flow to the driest reaches, but benefits will accrue to almost ten miles of river. As part of building the most complete project possible, the Trust has studied flows, fish and bugs in the river for two years to gain a good picture of the baseline conditions. When the project is implemented, we can track how those populations respond. This tracking is part of a formal Stewardship Program attached to all projects the Trust completes.

But even with all the effort put in already, there are still many unanswered questions, particularly about how the yearly operation of the project and ranch will work. We can’t truly answer that question until we have the legal right to use the water for both instream flow and irrigation. As we move forward, we will try to build enough flexibility into each step so that by the end we can manage the project according to what works, rather than what we told ourselves would work.

At that September 2014 CWCB board meeting, one board member told the Trust, “It takes gumption to irrigate.” We believe him whole-heartedly. And most importantly, we’re learning, sharing water in Colorado will require it, too.

Zach Smith has been the staff attorney at the Colorado Water Trust since 2010. After college, he did a stint as a reporter in the newspaper business, writing for such publications as High Country News and the Santa Fe Reporter. A Denver native, Zach graduated from University of Denver Sturm College of Law where he focused on environmental and water law. During school, he interned with Denver Water and the Natural Resources and Environment Section of the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.  After graduation, Zach worked briefly as a water policy analyst for a San Diego City Council member before coming back to Denver to work at the Trust. He is a 2013 Colorado Foundation for Water Education Water Leader Alum and Vice President of the Colorado Watershed Assembly.

1 Comment

Filed under Agriculture, Environment, Instream Flow

From Reservoirs to Corduroy: Snowmaking at Winter Park Resort

By Fiona Smith

Skiers around the state (and world) enjoy the benefits of snowmaking.

During the 2013-2014 ski season, Colorado saw 12.6 million skier visits. The ski industry across the United States alone generated around $12.2 billion during the 2009-2010 season. What makes it tick? What lies beneath that fresh corduroy and is responsible for Arapahoe Basin’s October open dates? Snowmaking. According to Winter Park Resort’s Slope Supervisor, Ron Richard, “Every other year we wouldn’t be able to open the way we do without snowmaking.”

In 1976, Winter Park became one of Colorado’s first resorts to use snowmaking. The tool is credited with saving the resort during one of the driest winters ever seen in the region. Winter Park’s snowmaking infrastructure now covers 300 acres across the resort.

While many ski areas in Colorado use automated equipment for their snowmaking, Winter Park continues to operate a manual system. “We have some guns you could operate with an app on your phone,” says Bob Dart, Winter Park’s Mountain Maintenance Director, “but most of our guys like to check them manually anyway.”

Bob Dart and his team run their snowmaking operations from the second week in October until the end of December. 28 degrees Fahrenheit is the magic number that allows their guns to make water into snow. Dart’s eight employees, many of whom boast 20 years of seniority, work 24-7 shifts during peak snowmaking times to earn their season pass.

Bob Dart, Winter Park’s Mountain Maintenance Director, displays a map of the resort’s snowmaking system. Each dot on the map represents one of the hydrants which connects 80,000 feet of buried pipe.

Winter Park primarily uses air-water guns, which pressurize the water they spew with air that is adjusted from a control center low on the mountain. These guns pump water at 100 gallons per minute. One person manages the control room, turning on the water and adjusting the air pressure. The other seven work in groups of two out in the field, checking on and adjusting the guns. Through calculated gun placements, the team makes numerous piles of snow along the high-traffic trails. When they are big enough, a snow cat comes through and moves the snow wherever it needs to go.

“Our goal is to make snow as quickly as possible and have enough coverage to last all season in the high traffic areas.” –Bob Dart, Winter Park Mountain Maintenance Director

This control panel in the control center powers and adjusts the air pressure for all of Winter Park’s hydrants.

Every two hours, Dart’s team checks on the guns stationed around the resort- altering their position or changing the pressure of the gun. 80,000 feet of buried water and pipes wind under the snow around Winter Park and Mary Jane. Connecting those pipes are the hydrants, which are in turn connected to the hoses that run to the guns (some of which stretch 300 feet). As often as they are checked, it is inevitable that a hose will freeze. Dart explained, “The snow you want will bounce off your jacket. If you see its sitting on your coat, you know that something needs to be checked.” The only way to fix a hose is to haul all 300 feet of the culprit into the Control Center and let it thaw.

Winter Park’s total water consumption last year was 72 million gallons or around 220 acre feet of water. Most of this is pumped from the Vasquez Canal and returned to the canal when it melts at the end of the season. Through a series of agreements, including the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, Winter Park has an annual allotment of 550 acre-feet of water from Denver Water to use for snowmaking as long as all return flows can be returned to or recaptured by Denver Water’s collection system. This water is primarily reservoir yield from the Clinton Reservoir. Dart explains, “As long as I have three inches of water in the canals, we can pump at least 1000 gallons per minute.” 20 percent of the water is lost to evaporation but for the most part, the system is closed-what they take they return. The only situation in which Winter Park cannot use its full allotment of water for snowmaking, is in the event that Green Mountain and Dillon Reservoirs do not fill. Read more about the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, this transbasin diversion system and others in CFWE’s Citizen’s Guide to Colorado’s Transbasin Diversions.

While the equipment might be old-school, Winter Park’s snowmakers are looking toward improvements. They are currently in the process of replacing their piping, a project they must attend to at least every five years. Additionally, as a benefit of the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, the Resort has the opportunity to build a Fraser River pipeline that will allow recapture of more snowmaking water and a forty acre-foot holding pond on the resort. This will revolutionize the snowmaking schedule since they will no longer be solely dependent upon diurnal fluctuations.

The primary concern for the resort right now and an issue Bill Baum, General Counsel for Intrawest Colorado which manages Winter Park, has spent countless hours addressing, is that of the Federal Ski Area Water Rights Directive. This 2011 directive required ski areas applying for a permit to use Forest Service land, to assign or convey water rights to the Forest Service. The directive conflicts with Colorado’s Prior Appropriation system as it requires that private water rights be handed over to the federal government without just compensation. Since these water rights are crucial to maintaining the recreational and economic benefits of skiing in Colorado, this is an important and ongoing issue.

Attendees of the Colorado Water Congress POND Ski Day pose at the base of Winter Park Resort.

Supported by the Colorado Water Congress, Colorado State Senator Jerry Sonnenberg is sponsoring a 2015 bill (SB15-064), which would develop certain protections for ski area water rights against these federal taking claims. The bill was drafted and is primarily represented by the Boulder-based water law firm Porzak, Browning and Bushong LLP.  To learn more about SB15-064 please click here.

This post was written as a summary of the tour and presentations during the Colorado Water Congress Professional Outreach Networking and Development (POND) Committee’s 2015 Ski Day at Winter Park. For more information on the Colorado Water Congress and its upcoming events, please visit:

Fiona SmithFiona Smith is the Member Outreach and Relations Manager for the Colorado Water Congress, a membership organization established in 1958 to provide leadership on key water resource issues and serve as the principal voice of Colorado’s water community. Prior to moving to Denver in 2013, she taught environmental education in her native state of Washington and spent three years in Telluride. There, she lived a double-life, managing an energy conservation program and ski patrolling. She received her BA in Geology from The Colorado College.


next stepWant to learn more about snowmaking? Listen to this story focusing on snowmaking at Aspen and Snowmass produced in partnership with Rocky Mountain Community Radio stations and CFWE as part of our Connecting the Drops series.  Then read “Bring on the Snow” and “Nature’s Reservoir at Risk” in the Winter 2013 issue of Headwaters magazine.


Filed under Recreation, Water Supply

Call it a compact: Why examining the limits of Colorado River sharing is key to a successful state water plan


The declining water level of Lake Powell, shown in April 2014, is evidenced by the white bathtub ring on rock walls that were once underwater. Photo by Mike Jones

By Greg Trainor

As Colorado’s Water Plan moves forward through a year of revisions, there remains in the background a larger, most-worrisome issue of diminishing supply across the wider Colorado River Basin. This is evident from the dropping water levels of lakes Powell and Mead during the last 13 years. In 2014, these two major water storage reservoirs for the arid West reached all-time lows.

Colorado’s Water Plan is partially made up of eight individual river basin plans that hope to settle water supply allocations among themselves for various uses. However, like the interstate compacts that govern the use of Colorado’s rivers crossing state lines (there are nine such compacts between Colorado and adjacent states), the Colorado River Compact, on a larger, river-basin scale, already divided the waters of the Colorado River in 1922 among seven states that share the Colorado River Basin, and, in doing so, set the limits of water usage that those states have to live with in times of drought and short supply.

The Colorado River Compact of 1922 is an agreement among the states whose boundaries lie within the Colorado River Basin in the western United States. The idea for the compact was to insure water would be available for states experiencing slow economic growth even as other states were experiencing strong economic development. The water of the Colorado River, less a portion of water for Mexico, was divided in half—half going to the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico and parts of Arizona, and half to the lower basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada.

The 1922 Colorado River Compact divides the flows of the Colorado River Basin between the four upper and three lower basin states.

The 1922 Colorado River Compact divides the flows of the Colorado River Basin between the four upper and three lower basin states. The upper basin can not cause the annual flow measured at Lee Ferry, Ariz., to fall below 7.5 million acre-feet or 75 million acre-feet over a 10-year running average. 

Failure of the upper basin states to maintain the required volume of water to the lower basin could result in the lower basin states “calling” for their half of the water, with the upper basin being required to temporarily forego diversions. The volume required to reach the midpoint between the upper and lower basins at Lee Ferry, Arizona, is 7,500,000 acre-feet per year or 75,000,000 acre-feet over a 10-year rolling average.

To be more specific about the magnitude of the threat of little water, Colorado depletes about 2.5 million acre-feet annually from the Colorado River system, which equates to just under half the water used across the entire state. Of this amount, 1.1 million acre-feet is pre-1922 Compact water, while 1.4 million acre-feet, or 56 percent, is post-1922 Compact water. Post-1922 water would be the portion of Colorado’s water usage that would be most vulnerable in the event of a “call.” Ceasing those diversions would amount to a large reduction in use, not only on Colorado’s West Slope, but also along its Front Range, as water for transmountain diversions moving from west to east of the Continental Divide make up 43 percent of those post-1922 depletions.

It is certain that suspension of use would be mitigated or avoided if at all possible. However, long-term avoidance would have to be predicated on a rising supply and measurable reduction in demand across the entire upper Colorado River Basin, providing evidence that shortages would not be permanent.

In years of drought, the Compact minimum flow obligation poses a problem. A diminishing supply would have to be shared among not only upper basin users but also the lower basin users making the “call.” To thwart the contingency of the upper basin states having to cease or seriously curtail their water use, Lake Powell was constructed to store water in years of abundance and, then, in times of want, to supplement the 75,000,000 acre-foot requirement.

In the late 1990s, Colorado Basin water planners discussed the issue of how water surpluses could be shared and allocated. Then came the drought of 2002, and discussions changed focus to shortages. In 2005, the Secretary of the Interior directed the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to develop additional strategies for improving coordinated management of the reservoirs of the Colorado River system. In response, Reclamation initiated a process to develop operational guidelines that can be used to address the operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead during drought and low reservoir conditions.

Signed by the Secretary of the Interior and representatives of the seven basin states, the agreements were designated as “Interim Operational Guidelines” and included water level targets in lakes Mead and Powell to insure that various activities could continue unabated, such as the production of hydroelectric power. The parties recognized that as time marched on, the guidelines and their underlying hydrologic assumptions would have to be re-examined to account for changing climate, supply and demand conditions, and shortages.


Lake Mead, created by Hoover Dam, is a major storage supply on the Colorado River for the lower basin states. Shown in Feb. 2014, it was on its way toward reaching a historically low water level.

Simple observation of water levels in lakes Powell and Mead show us that lake levels are not “filling or spilling” but continue to drop. A conclusion? Current supply to the lower basin, and therefore the upper basin, is at risk. To date, the winter of 2014-2015 has produced snowpack at below-average levels. Additionally, as one attempts to look into the future by using past evidentiary data (paleohydrology), the conclusion is that future water supplies could be at risk as well. The evidence shows that it was common for drought to extend for decades.

Further complications arise. Colorado’s Water Plan is being developed today, in 2015. Review and modification of the Interim Operational Guidelines for Powell and Mead, affecting the Compact, are targeted for 2026-2030, 11 years hence. So how does one plan the wedding when the guest list isn’t drawn up until right before the ceremony? Or said another way, the review of the guidelines will include discussion of how to handle shortages of water, water that Colorado’s Water Plan may have already divided up. Envision the state policy makers and the guideline negotiators with their fingers in the same pie, each at their own party.

Ironically, the lower Colorado River Basin is the most vexing part of Colorado’s state water plan. Discussion of Colorado’s Interbasin Compact Committee (IBCC) and its conceptual criteria for the development of additional transmountain diversions from the state’s wetter West Slope to its urbanized East Slope addresses the Colorado River Compact in this way: “continued conversations and negotiations among the Basin States…are sensitive “ and “Colorado does not want to pre-judge the outcome of these discussions.” The developers of Colorado’s Water Plan know there could be sensitive interbasin outcomes in 2026 that are at cross purposes to the state water plan of 2015. The solution for now, it seems, is to kick the can down the road and hope that things “work out”—more water, less demand.

At least one basin roundtable has recognized the problem and is wrestling with the numbers, many numbers. This is a good sign that others are working on the problem. The 1922 Compact is not the only constraint on the Colorado River System. There are others that could restrict Colorado’s water usage. For example, how does Colorado measure up against the state’s percentage allocated in the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact of 1948, which divides the upper basin’s share between the four upper basin states? How does Colorado reconcile the Bureau of Reclamation’s determination of a 6-million acre-foot limit for the upper basin (compared with what was once assumed to be 7.5 million acre-feet)? What about depletion caps for recovery of endangered fish?

If we believe the data that reveals a future gap in Colorado’s municipal water supply of up to 538,000 acre-feet, should we not be including in Colorado’s Water Plan the most aggressive solutions to closing the gap? These could include the talked-about “insurance policy” to avoid the risk of Lake Powell dropping below minimum levels that would trigger a “call,” moving up re-negotiations of the Interim Operational Guidelines to gain more clarity of future requirements, serious discussion of importation of Mississippi River Basin water from beyond the state, desalination for fulfilling the U.S. Colorado River water obligation to Mexico, and land use mandates to decrease domestic water consumption to a certain maximum gallons per capita per day. Even legislative integration of a water component in local land use planning and development codes ought not to be dismissed as we look for solutions.

Until we see Powell and Mead water levels increase, the success of Colorado’s Water Plan rests on reduced demand. Decisive action is needed to solidify this policy. Increasing supply only works when climate favors us and water is available. Decreasing demand works both ways. In times of increased supply, decreased demand is a dividend and maintains water in storage. The rest of the time, decreased demand is the only way of staying within our ever-decreasing water supply.

City ID Photos

Greg Trainor retired as the public works/utility director for the City of Grand Junction in March 2014. He was actively engaged in many water issues relative to his work: utility construction, endangered species, parks and trail development, storm water and sanitary sewage discharges, use of compressed natural gas as an alternative fuel for public works vehicles, water rights development, kayak park development, and active engagement in Colorado’s State Water Plan (2015). Greg has also been a member of the River Management Society for 15 years. He is the vice-president of the SW Chapter and has edited and authored submissions for the RMS Journal, organized and participated in the RMS Ranger Rendezvous, planned Chapter floats, and volunteered for the BLM in Desolation Canyon during the 2013 and 2014 river seasons. Greg served as town manager of the Town of Rangely in the late 1970s, worked on the development plans for the Battlement Mesa New Town with ARCO Coal Company’s community development group, and was project manager with the Colorado River Water Conservation District for the Taylor Draw Dam and Hydroelectric Plant, located on the White River in western Rio Blanco County.

waterplancoverwebCheck out the Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s newest issue of Headwaters magazine, covering the development of Colorado’s Water Plan, a roadmap for managing the state’s limited water resources in the face of drought, climate change and rapid population growth. And read up on the Colorado River Compact and the state’s other water-sharing agreements in CFWE’s Citizen’s Guide to Colorado’s Interstate Compacts.

1 Comment

Filed under Colorado River, Colorado's Water Plan, Headwaters Magazine, Water Supply

Colorado water education pilot project expands nationally

By Lydia Hooper

What does it take to empower today’s youth to change their watershed? An entire community, says Donny Roush, Director of Uncommon Collaboratives and Program Director for Keep It Clean – Neighborhood Environmental Trios (KIC-NET) at the non-profit Earth Force.

“Young people are natural problem-solvers,” he said. “To better support them, KIC-NET seeks to bridge and address the needs of both urban stormwater and STEM education. The kids do the rest.”

For the past four years, Roush has leveraged funding from the EPA’s Urban Waters program and partnered with Denver Public Works to develop this transferable urban watershed education program.

KIC-NET aims to fulfill the city’s water quality requirements while also engaging students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) learning and supporting them to become life-long stewards of the South Platte River and other local bodies of water.

Truman Middle School students begin a day of water quality testing at the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge by carrying waders into the Rio Grande bosque.

Truman Middle School students begin a day of water quality testing at the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge by carrying waders into the Rio Grande bosque.

KIC-NET has been so successful in Denver that the program is now expanding from 10 to 25 schools in the metro area – and it’s going national (read about the program’s beginnings in this 2012 post) . Last fall, KIC-NET was adopted in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where partners have empowered 300 students at five schools to take ownership of the Middle Rio Grande watershed.

From river conservation organization Amigos Bravos and the Valle del Oro Wildlife Refuge to the City of Albuquerque and Ciudad Soil and Water Conservation District, partners are collaborating to achieve the common goal of healthier waters and communities.

“The Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge strives to maintain the reputation of being an outdoor classroom for Albuquerque’s youth and the KIC-NET program is doing just that,” says Julia Bernal of the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge. “We love hosting Albuquerque’s young students and educators to promote environmental education and awareness.”

MSLA students by finished construction at Denver’s Huston Lake Park.

MSLA students by finished construction at Denver’s Huston Lake Park.

KIC-NET schools use nearby waterways and parks as outdoor teaching opportunities to both investigate and make plans to improve their neighborhood waters themselves. For example, last year fifth-graders at Math and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA), in Denver, CO, created and distributed brochures about a city water quality improvement project to neighbors in the watershed of their Huston Lake.

KIC-NET schools also benefit from utilizing the experts and resources provided by partnership. Educators receive training and an activity guide that provides 32 place-based lessons aligned to the Earth Force Process, a six-step instructional model that combines the best of action civics, service-learning, and STEM learning. Using the Process, students work together to design and implement a project that addresses an issue that they care about in their school or community.

Through KIC-NET, students begin to understand the importance of their role as a leader in their community. “I think [our KIC-NET project] was [important] because if we didn’t go door-to-door then maybe Huston Lake would have even more trash,” said Eric Montez, a student at MSLA.

KIC-NET is not only expanding beyond urban Denver to the suburban areas surrounding Cherry Creek and Bear Creek, but cities as far away as Youngstown, Ohio are interested in reaping the mutual benefits of this model.

“For the past three years, we have been sharing the concepts behind the KIC-NET model with the Colorado Stormwater Council and surrounding communities,” says Darren Mollendor, KIC-NET co-creator and engineer at Denver Public Works. “We are encouraging cities across the state to capitalize on existing assets and infrastructure to use them not just as a feature in the environment but as an environmental learning tool.”

Earth Force is hosting a free KIC-NET workshop for educators on March 11, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. Those interested can contact Program Coordinator Erika Rodriguez at You can find more information on KIC-NET here.

lydiahooperLydia Hooper has been a “Keep It Clean” communications consultant for Earth Force in partnership with Denver Public Works since 2012. As a freelance creative strategist, she helps mission-driven organizations connect and engage by creating strategic, meaning-rich content. With a multidisciplinary background and versatile skills, she specializes in presenting complex ideas and information in ways that create real impact.


Interested in water education? Check out the Winter 2014 issue of Headwaters magazine “The Fine (and Fun!) Art of Engaging People Around Water” and register for the Water Educator Symposium the afternoon of March 11, 2015 for more examples of successful educational programs and opportunities to collaborate with water educators around the state. If you aren’t a member already, look at the resources available and join the Water Educator Network here.



Filed under Events, Water Education and Resources