What I learned at Water Fluency: Part 1

By Rebecca Callahan
Originally Published on Currents: Water Sage’s Blog on Water Rights and Water Data

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The 2017 Water Fluency Class had a barbecue outside the Colorado River District offices in Glenwood Springs with participants, speakers, as well as other experts and friends nearby.

[In early May], I had the distinct pleasure of spending time with more than 30 other Coloradans who, whether for work or for fun, felt the need to learn more about water in our State. The Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s Water Fluency course is in its third year. It’s a 3-month education program complete with in-person lectures, site visits, homework assignments, online lectures, quizzes, and group discussions. Attendees run the gamut of the water resources community: engineers, fly fishermen, city/town officials, regional board members, “river-huggers” and me, a corporate marketer. Attendees were there for as many reasons as there are ways that water flows. We were there to learn from the experts; to better understand the state of water in the State of Colorado; to better understand different points of view from different walks of life so we could go back to our personal and professional lives and make informed decisions.

And, wow, what a success it has been so far. Several of us even joked it should be a pre-requisite for the 1,000-new people moving to Colorado each month. Below is a quick snapshot of what I’ve learned so far. I have 2 more in-person events to attend and lots of homework to do between now and the end of July. I’m surprisingly excited about that, having been out of school for over 15 years.

#1: Onions are our friend

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The 2017 Water Fluency class met in Grand Junction in early May.

Walking in the first morning, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would I understand what people were talking about? Was I going to be bored? Overwhelmed? Given my background in marketing in the travel industry, switching to the water resources industry has been a big leap. It’s been a vertical ramp up and while I’ve learned an enormous amount in the past 6 months, I wasn’t sure how much I’d like talking about water for two days. And, when I looked at the class roster, I got concerned—public servants and engineers and conservationists? Would I have anything in common with them?

But then we did an ice breaker where we went around the room and introduced ourselves. And I kept hearing analogies of peeling onions—even those who were water resource professionals felt the same as I did—that every time we learned something, we realized how little we knew. And throughout the two days, I realized it wasn’t just talk. Folks were as engaged and questioning as I was. I’m confident when I say everyone came away learning something.

Oh, and my concern about talking about water for two days? Not a problem. There were a few times where things got a little too technical for me, but overall I was riveted because of the amazing speakers with incredible insight and historical knowledge.

#2: Colorado is the best
wf_2We had a chance to do site visits to rivers and water sanitation stations in the Roaring Fork Valley. It’s an area I’ve gone to since I was a kid but I’ve never looked at it the way I did that day. And it wasn’t just that it was a bluebird day with Mt. Sopris in the background. It was getting up close and personal with the Crystal River and the surrounding habitat and seeing how it directly impacts the farm lands it irrigates. It was listening to the Roaring Fork Conservancy discuss how it’s trying to define what a “healthy” river is while trying to bring other stakeholders (recreation, agriculture and municipalities) to the table to discuss the best way to manage this finite natural resource. It was visiting Carbondale and learning that their open ditch system provides free water for landscaping for anyone who lives by the system and wants to build a pump. And how much money that system is saving the town. And that the ditch system was built over 100 years ago to supply the agricultural community that first settled there. There is so much history and ingenuity in this state, all with the goal of ensuring stakeholders get their fair share of water.

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Justice Hobbs speaks to the Water Fluency Class.

We had the opportunity to listen to Justice Hobbs speak about the history of Colorado. He described the way water shaped the development of this state that people are flocking to. He made history come to life. Amy Beatie from Colorado Water Trust did the same with water law and instream flows. Never have I thought law was so interesting … she brought it to life because she is passionate about what she’s doing. I have a newfound respect for the forethought on how water is managed in Colorado.  All the experts in the room agreed that while it may not be perfect, the government regulations for managing water and the legal procedures for how water conflicts are resolved are well thought out, fair, usable and flexible. These are all things you hope for in your government and legal system. It’s a structure other states in the West can look to as a model to follow.

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Colorado Water Trust’s Amy Beatie speaks about instream flows.

#3: The struggle is real
As a layman, I’ve heard about the push/pull between the Front Range and the Western Slope of Colorado. I’d heard the 80/20 rule – 80 percent of the population is in the Front Range with only 20 percent of the water. I’ve heard the phrase, “Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting.” And, I learned of a new phrase, “You can mess with another man’s wife but you can’t mess with his water.”

While all of this is said with a smile and a wink, there’s a lot of truth in it. We’ve come a long way from the wild west of sabotaging diversion points and headgates but people are still passionate about ensuring they get their fair share of water.

There’s a push/pull for different water uses. Land owners, ranchers and farmers want water to support their livelihood. Municipalities and utilities want water to support growing populations. Conservation organizations want to protect the environment and wildlife that depend on water. Tourism is a thriving industry for our state and relies on snowpack and instream flows.

wf_8This push/pull isn’t only limited to Colorado. Between the Upper Colorado River Basin (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) and Lower Colorado River Basin (Arizona, California and Nevada) interstate compacts had to be created to ensure each state (and Mexico!) received their fair share. Colorado is a headwaters state and everyone downstream from us also relies on that water for their livelihood. So, how do you ensure everyone has enough and no one has too much? It is possible, but it requires all stakeholders to agree to listen and discuss collaboratively. Colorado has become a model for how to manage this natural resource.

#4: Can’t we all just get along?
So, what brings people to the table to discuss these issues? In my mind, there are two uniting forces. 1) Passion: we all love where we live and want to sustain it 2) Necessity: water management and scarcity are here to stay. We live, work and play in “the Great American Desert.” We must come to the table. Enter Water Sage. We’ve developed this platform to be accessible, transparent and efficient to allow data-driven decisions to be the driver in water resource management for all stakeholders.

#5: Education is key
I’m only half joking about this course being a prerequisite for new Colorado residents. But, there is a lot of truth in it. The more people aware of all the issues and onion peeling that goes into water resource management, the better. The more we come to the table with creative solutions and open minds, the better.  That’s the goal of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to attend this class.

rebeccacallahanRebecca comes to Water Sage with almost 20 years of strategic marketing expertise. She received her MBA from Ross School of Business at University of Michigan in 2003. In her spare time, Rebecca can be found taking full advantage of everything Colorado has to offer with her husband, two kids and fur baby.

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Water Education Colorado 2017 President’s Award Reception

We had an exciting evening last night at our 2017 President’s Reception. Thanks to all who attended in support of water education and water leadership. And congratulations to Eric Kuhn and Drew Beckwith, the deserving recipients of this year’s awards.

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The Denver Art Museum was the location for The Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s President’s Award Reception yesterday evening.

Eric Kuhn received the Dianne Hoppe Leadership Award and Drew Beckwith was honored as an Emerging Leader.

Each year when I attend this event I am struck by the camaraderie shown by the water folks here in Colorado. Water really does bring us together to find solutions, and at the end of the day we have so much to agree on. Water for Ag, water to drive the economy, water for the fish and bugs. It takes a great number of people to meet the water needs of the Headwaters State, collaboration is key, and this event helps us to connect.

Jim Lochhead introduced Eric Kuhn and detailed his accomplishments while leading the Colorado River District. The Colorado River Cooperative Agreement and the Windy Gap Firming agreement were at the top of…

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by | May 13, 2017 · 10:17 am

Eric Kuhn, 2017 Diane Hoppe Leadership Award

TONIGHT, Friday, May 12th, the Colorado Foundation for Water Education will celebrate water education and water leadership at its annual President’s Reception.  Each year, CFWE honors the work of a Coloradoan who has a body of work in the field of water resources benefiting the Colorado public, a reputation among peers and a commitment to balanced and accurate information, with the Diane Hoppe Leadership Award. This year, CFWE will recognize Eric Kuhn with the Colorado River District with this award.

Register here to attend the President’s Reception tonight at 6 p.m. at the Denver Art Museum. We’ll enjoy refreshments, a fun evening with friends, and our first ever LIVE AUCTION. We can’t wait to see you there!

Eric Kuhn, 2017 Diane Hoppe Leadership Award Recipient

By Greg Hobbs

Eric Kuhn WEB 1Eric Kuhn, “big thinker, deep thinker,” is how his colleague Jim Pokrandt describes him. Thirty-six years ago, in the spring of 1981, Kuhn moved from southern California to join the Colorado River District’s staff as assistant secretary engineer. As an electrical engineer, he served as a Navy submarine officer, earned a master’s in business administration from Pepperdine University, and worked with Bechtel Corporation’s power group on the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

One of then-secretary engineer Rolly Fischer’s “greatest accomplishments” was hiring Kuhn, writes George Sibley in Water Wranglers a 75th anniversary history of the River District. “Whatever Kuhn might have lacked in water experience, he more than made up with a quiet and quick creative intelligence.” Another district colleague, Chris Treese, credits him with “maintaining harmony” in a 15-county district “naturally divided between tourism-dependent headwaters counties and more traditional ranching and mining counties.”

Harmony? Well, yes, maybe, for sure, and at times! The River District’s 15 board members are appointed by the boards of county commissioners representing a huge expanse of western Colorado, from west of the Divide to the Utah border, from the north slope of the San Juans to the Wyoming border. Differences are sure to arise given the changing needs and desires of sub-basins therein, but having common forums like the River District board is a good way to hash them out.

In 1937, just for such a purpose, the Colorado General Assembly created the Colorado River Water Conservation District together with the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Water Conservancy District Act. The River District’s statutory mission is to “safeguard for Colorado, all waters to which the state of Colorado is equitably entitled under the Colorado River Compact.” In my preface to Sibley’s book, I describe this legislative charge as “an unusual example of tucking the outside skin of the fruit into its core and exposing its flesh to potential consumers.”

On becoming the River District’s general manager in 1996, succeeding Rolly Fischer, Kuhn assumed the neck-wrenching duty of keeping one eye on six downstream states and the Republic of Mexico, while keeping his other eye roving up and down Colorado’s Front Range spotting opportunities to protect western Colorado water. When he’s at home in Glenwood Springs, he focuses both eyes on an early morning bike ride along the Roaring Fork River and the Colorado River.

It’s at the conjunction of waters Kuhn works best. As a young River District engineer, he constantly hit the road to becoming an intrastate and interstate water diplomat. As a member of the Western Slope Advisory Council, Kuhn helped former Governor Richard Lamm’s Metropolitan Water Roundtable examine possible alternatives to Denver Water’s proposed transbasin diversion, Two Forks Dam and Reservoir.

Parked in No-Go throughout the 1980s, one of the project’s alternates was an exchange of water up the Blue River through the West Slope’s more senior Green Mountain Reservoir (1935 priority) to Denver’s junior Dillon Reservoir (1946 priority), for transport through Denver’s  Robert’s Tunnel. After the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Two Forks veto in 1991, this exchange materialized as a separate project with construction of the River District’s Wolford Mountain Reservoir on Muddy Creek north of Kremmling, completed in 1996. Some of this water goes to protect the endangered Colorado River fish while some goes to Denver by exchange. Some is for West Slope use. Kuhn and former River District engineer Dave Merritt collaborated with Denver Water’s Manager Chips Barry, to get this joint-use project up and running.

The key to the deal was keeping intact the senior downstream Shoshone hydroelectric water right in Glenwood Canyon (1902 priority), in the face of Denver’s multidecadal, unsuccessful federal court effort to assert a domestic preference for the water over West Slope uses. Denver Water and Northern Water’s Municipal Subdistrict (in mitigation for the Windy Gap Project at the junction of the Fraser River and the Colorado) contributed funds to Wolford Mountain Reservoir’s construction and subsequent operation.

None of this was any more complicated than any other matter involving the Colorado River. Protecting Colorado’s water allocation under the 1922 Colorado River Compact requires an ongoing all-Colorado commitment to preserving Lake Powell’s water delivery equalizing function with Lake Mead, while implementing the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. Not to be forgotten in this milieu of water governance and politics is the cooperation of environmental groups, the Colorado Water Congress, the Bureau of Reclamation, the seven Colorado River Basin states, the Republic of Mexico, and the U.S. Congress. Healthy-as-can-be riparian habitat up and down the Colorado River, as it runs from Rocky Mountain National Park to the Sea of Cortez through Lake Powell and Lake Mead, is a goal worth pursuing. But achieving this in the midst of wicked drought, like the one we’ve just seen, is daunting.

Colorado’s new water plan, coordinated through the Colorado Water Conservation Board, nine local basin roundtables and a statewide Interbasin Compact Committee, aspires to many more collaborative agreements, like the Wolford Mountain agreement and the more recent Colorado River Cooperative Agreement that Denver Water, the River District and a score of others have entered into. When planning future projects, failure to take into account the risk of even greater droughts risks the state’s future.

This is why Kuhn rides his bike, gaining both a physical workout and thinking time. The Colorado River’s been good to him. He met his wife, Sue, in Glenwood Springs. They’ve raised their beloved daughters Hallie and Kenzie there. It’s a brainy, nuclear family composed of engineering, medical laboratory, bio-tech, climate change problem-solving geeks.

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Thanks for the Memories: A Farewell Message from Your CFWE Intern

logo_tagline_color_small copyToday is my final day as the Communications and Operations Intern for the Colorado Foundation for Water Education. Am I ready to leave? Not really—I want to stay forever. In the past when I got to the point of leaving a job, I really wanted to leave, so this is a new experience for me. Is it time for me to leave? Absolutely.

Is it time for me to leave? Absolutely.

diploma-152024_1280Not only am I graduating with my second bachelor’s degree on Friday, but I’ve also landed a fantastic full-time position as the Engagement Coordinator for the University Advancement/Alumni Relations Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver (Go Roadrunners!)! It is definitely time for me to settle into a non-school centric routine and allow another student to take advantage of the opportunities that I have had while working with the amazing women of CFWE.

I have learned so many things since I began working with CFWE last October—some about water, some about life. The blog posts that I have written during my time here reflect what I’ve learned about water, so for the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on the other lessons I learned during my time at CFWE.

RTD_TheRide_bus_6020,_route_0,_Englewood_StationOne of the biggest lessons was learning how to ride the bus. Laugh if you will, I’d never ridden the bus; my use of public transportation was limited to the lightrail. I know that it isn’t that difficult (now), but it felt intimidating none the less. Now, I can cross that off my “to do” list!

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Photo Credit: Nick Daws

I also learned that track changes can be a good thing. I spent many years being fearful of edits. Writing, even when informational or academic, is deeply personal. Something inside says that if you don’t like my writing, there must be something wrong with me. When a professor used to hand back a graded paper, I would look at the grade and quickly put it away, never exploring the possibility for improvement. This position forced me to face that fear and embrace a page full of red slashes and suggestions. With every acceptance of an insert or deletion, I better understood what I could do to make my writing stronger. I finally realized that, even when track changes make something look bad, it probably isn’t really that bad—like a lot of things in life.

Most importantly, I learned that the nonprofit/public sector is where I want to be—it gives me a feeling of purpose when the work I am doing is impacting someone or something in a positive way.

 

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Photo Credit: Sean MacEntee

So now, I pass the proverbial baton on to the next intern: You’ll cut your hands stuffing envelopes, stare at a screen filled with edits from Caitlin and suffer from writer’s block. In return, you will have the opportunity to speak with experts in the water field, write about topics that you are passionate about, learn things about water that you don’t yet know, publish your writing and support/be supported by a staff that cares about the future of Colorado’s water. I hope that you appreciate and enjoy the opportunity because it will be over before you know it!

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Photo Credit: CedricTheCat

Finally, I want to say “thank you” to everyone who has taken the time to read my blog posts and to those who took time out of their busy schedules to allow me to interview them so that I could write those posts. Writing them has been a fantastic experience. I have had the pleasure to speak with people in the water industry across the state of Colorado, to learn about topics that I knew virtually nothing about and to see how much hard work is being done to inform and educate the public about Colorado water.

I am eternally thankful to Jennie, Jayla, Stephanie and Caitlin for hiring me, for training me and for all of the time that was spent reading and editing my writing. I am so grateful that I got to be a part of your team! I am certain that I would not be where I am in my professional and personal life without your guidance and without this experience.

I am confident that, together, we will create a bright future for Colorado water!

Best,

Lynne Winter

P.S. Future Intern: Don’t try to fold more than two pieces of paper in the letter folder—I promise you’ll regret it.

 

 

 

 

 

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Drew Beckwith, 2017 Emerging Leader Award

This Friday, May 12th, the Colorado Foundation for Water Education will celebrate water education and water leadership at its annual President’s Reception.  Each year, CFWE honors the recent work of a young Colorado professional with the Emerging Leader Award. This year, CFWE will recognize Drew Beckwith with Western Resource Advocates with this award.

Register here to attend the President’s Reception this Friday at 6 p.m. at the Denver Art Museum. We’ll enjoy refreshments, a fun evening with friends, and our first ever LIVE AUCTION. We can’t wait to see you there!

Drew Beckwith, 2017 Emerging Leader Award

By Greg Hobbs

beckwithphotoDrew Beckwith, water policy manager for Western Resources Advocates, devotes himself to Colorado’s water conservation future. His particular focus is municipal water conservation and land use planning. A member of CFWE’s Water Leaders’ class of 2013, Drew helped shape the Citizen’s Guide to Water Conservation, Second Edition (2016). This guide explores a wide range of water-saving innovations for use in homes and cities, commerce and industry.

Drew’s a scholar, author and outdoorsman with west-wide perspective and experience. Growing up in Oregon, he graduated from Colorado College, where his senior geology thesis took him to Alaskan glaciers for the study of landforms and sedimentology. Drew then went on to obtain a master’s degree in Environmental Science and Management from the University of California at Santa Barbara. In southern California, he collaborated on stormwater control and reduction strategies for two watersheds around the City of Santa Barbara.

In Colorado, he dedicates his efforts to “healthy rivers and growing cities that have the water supply they need.” Achieving both of these are leading components of Colorado’s Water Plan. Drew is a frequent and articulate participant in water conservation workshops up and down Colorado’s Front Range. He cooperated with Colorado legislators to pass the rain barrel bill as a way to educate homeowners about the value of Colorado’s scarce water supply.

He especially enjoys helping local land use planning and municipal water supply entities get to know and work closely with each other. For example, he has helped convene city council persons, city managers, planning staff, and water providers of Aurora, Arvada, Broomfield, Castle Rock, Commerce City, Lakewood, Parker, Thornton, and Westminster for conservation workshops. He sees water reuse, good landscaping choices, and private sector expertise woven together in the design of attractive water-conscious communities. The three member team he leads for Western Resources Advocates is also assisting the Colorado River Basin states and the Bureau of Reclamation with implementation of water conservation savings and reuse measures throughout the basin.

Drew is a skier, a rafter, and a volleyball player. His wife, Melissa, a ceramic artist, has her own graphic design business. They settled in Louisville to enjoy the life and views of a great small town with their two young children, Macy, who is six, and Miles, three.

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Preventing Water Pollution Starts in Your Backyard

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Photo Credit: USDA

Agricultural runoff is a prominent source of excess nutrients in water sources, but this nonpoint source of water pollution can originate with excess fertilizer being used on urban landscapes as well.

On April 13, 2017, the Colorado Foundation for Water Education was joined by Steve Lundt with the Barr Lake and Milton Reservoir Watershed Association for a webinar about cyanotoxins, algal blooms, public health and efforts to reduce nutrients in our water. 

“[BMPs] apply to your own lawn, just as they do on a corn field in Weld County,” says Lundt. “Don’t [fertilize] before a storm event and do soil testing—you may not even need phosphorus to grow your lawn.”

Sam DeLong

Photo Credit: Sam DeLong

So, what can an urban lawn owner do when they want to grow a vibrant, healthy, lawn without contributing to nutrient pollution? The following blog post by American Turf & Tree Care discusses ways that people can reduce phosphorous pollution in Colorado’s water sources by ensuring that the way they care for their yard benefits not only their lawn, but also the environment.

 

Preventing Water Pollution Starts in Your Backyard

By American Turf & Tree Care

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Photo Credit: Jasen Miller

There are a number of reasons why Denver and surrounding cities are among the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country, but certainly, one draw is the immense natural beauty of Colorado. Beautiful mountains and flowing streams make our area an outdoorsman’s paradise—tourists and Colorado residents alike flock to the area for hiking, camping and a chance to take in the scenery.

With the uncertainty that accompanies recent EPA spending cuts and policy changes, many people in the area rightfully have concerns regarding sustainability and important environmental regulations that protect these natural resources. In light of this, it becomes ever more important for businesses and individuals to make responsible decisions about actions that may impact the future health and beauty of our area.

Mike Sinko

Photo Credit: Mike Sinko

Improper management of industrial waste, sewage and agricultural runoff are some of the worst offenders when it comes to pollution, but there are still a number of actions individuals can take to preserve Colorado’s water. Mindfulness, when it comes to the products you use in your backyard, can be a first step toward fighting pollution.

Phosphorus Pollution: Too Much of a Good Thing

Kevin Dooley (2)

Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley

Phosphorus is a natural ingredient found in soil that promotes root development and helps trees, shrubs and other plants mature and thrive. But if your lawn already has a sufficient level of phosphorus in the soil, fertilizer treatments can actually have a detrimental effect on the health of your grass and can lead to pollution.

Phosphorus works by attaching itself to soil particles, which are then absorbed by plants during their life cycle. When strong fertilizers are used in your lawn or garden, it can slow down the absorption process. In the meantime, heavy rains can wash phosphorus from your yard into ponds, streams, rivers and lakes nearby.

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Photo Credit: Dr. Jennifer L. Graham

Phosphorus contamination can kill fish, cause algae to grow at alarming and dangerous rates, turn water green and lower water quality, leach into drinking water and eventually contribute to “dead zones” in the ocean. The good news is that this pollution is largely avoidable, as most excessive phosphorus present in the environment is washed into natural bodies of water as the direct result of human activities.

Regulation Is Only the First Step

Boston Public Library

Photo Credit: Boston Public Library

The damage caused by phosphorus pollution is so severe that many states, Colorado included, have enacted laws to limit the use of phosphorus-heavy fertilizers. The Colorado Fertilizer Law, as enforced by the Colorado Department of Agriculture, regulates fertilizers and soil conditioners sold in Colorado for agricultural and residential use. The law requires that fertilizers be properly labeled with their tested nutrient levels – but these limitations only work if businesses and homeowners share a commitment to choosing fertilizers with low to no phosphorus.

“Pay attention to the three number label on the fertilizer you buy,” says Brad Woods, owner of American Turf & Tree Care in Greeley. The first number is nitrogen, the second is phosphorus, and the third is potassium. “You want to look for a bag where the second number is a zero or is low.”

How You Can Go Phosphorus-Free

You may not need additional phosphorus in your lawn. “Most lawn care providers offer complimentary soil testing and they can tell you what nutrients you need to restore balance to your lawn,” says Woods.

“One common mistake homeowners make is trying to fertilize dormant grass. When grass looks like it’s dying, but it’s just at the natural end of its growth cycle for the year, dumping fertilizer on top will actually do more harm than good,” says Woods. “If your soil is lacking phosphorus, a lawn care company can help you fix it in a way that is safe for your family and the environment.”

There are also some techniques you can use as part of your normal lawn maintenance routine to keep your yard naturally rich in phosphorus without the use of fertilizers, including:

  • NancyBeeToo

    Photo Credit: NancyBeeToo

    Composting: There is no better source of natural phosphorus than composted fruits and vegetables.

  • Tapping Organic Sources: If you need phosphorus and do not have access to compost, bone meal, manure, bat guano or soy meal will also do the trick! These materials are rich in nutrients and release phosphorus slowly, without the risk of contaminating water.
  • Mowing: When you mow your lawn in spring and summer, don’t bag the clippings! Grass clippings are high in phosphorus, and as long as they don’t mat the grass and block sunlight and oxygen from reaching your soil, they can be helpful in returning nutrients to the soil.
  • Don’t Overwater: Not only is overwatering bad for general lawn health, but it increases the risk of washing phosphorus out of your landscape.
Zach Dischner

Photo Credit: Zach Dischner

Don’t wash the natural beauty of Colorado down the drain! Water pollution is far-reaching, and contamination can hurt local wildlife, impact the health of you and your family, and disrupt the environment at large.

Being conscientious about the products you or your lawn care team uses in your yard is a simple way to fight back against pollution and protect your local ecosystem.

American Turf & Tree Care is a locally-owned company in Colorado on a mission to educate the local community on the impact their lawn care products have on the environment.  For more information about American Turf & Care, please visit http://www.americanturfandtreecare.com/.

Listen to the recording of the April 2017 webinar presented by the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and offered in partnership with Colorado Water Congress with support from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Read more about agricultural runoff as nonpoint source pollution in the CFWE blog post, The Runoff Conundrum.

hw_fall_2016_final_coverFind further coverage on these topics in the Public Health Issue of Headwaters Magazine and learn more about water quality in CFWE’s Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Quality Protection.

Not a Headwaters subscriber? Visit yourwatercolorado.org for the digital version. Headwaters is the flagship publication of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and covers current events, trends and opportunities in Colorado water.

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Change Brings Hope

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Photo Credit: Riverhugger

By the Colorado Water Trust staff

In October 2016, The Durango Herald carried a modest story sporting the headline, Trout Discovered in Creek Long Devoid of Fish.  In the southwest corner of Colorado, where abandoned mines and contaminated streams have long been a part of the otherwise magnificent mountain landscape, this is encouraging news—especially for a community that, just two years ago, saw the Animas run yellow.

The San Antonio Mine complex, north of Silverton, Colorado, has been a fixture on the flanks of Red Mountain Pass for over 100 years. While most active mining ceased in the 1940s, the spoil piles and orange drainage from the Kohler Tunnel remained, contaminating streams with high concentrations of copper, lead, cadmium and zinc, and eliminating the fishery resource in Mineral Creek.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, several entities joined together with the hopes of improving water quality and restoring the natural function of the watershed. The Animas River Stakeholders Group, whose mission is to improve water quality and aquatic habitat in the Animas Watershed, determined that drainage from the Kohler Tunnel contributed the largest amounts of metals to the upper Animas Watershed. As a result, the stakeholders group designated the tunnel drainage as its highest priority for remediation.

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Photo Credit: USGS

Hydrogeological studies and other research conducted by the stakeholders group identified the Carbon Lake Ditch as the likely source of water seeping into the mine and the Kohler Tunnel, impacting water quality. The 50-year-old irrigation ditch diverts from the upper Mineral Creek Basin and winds its way across the mine complex to deliver water to the other side of Red Mountain Pass. Winter ice buildup in the ditch and heavy summer rains caused occasional breaches, resulting in erosion and surges of mine drainage from the tunnel. The obvious solution was to eliminate the source of water infiltrating the mine, so the stakeholders group targeted their efforts on the ditch.

With a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Animas River Stakeholders Group purchased the entire 15 cubic feet per second (cfs) Carbon Lake Ditch water right from the owners who were willing to part with their water right in favor of reliable, local water supplies. The stakeholders group removed the physical structures from the streams, completed ecological restoration of the ditch and plugged the Kohler Tunnel to prevent future drainage into the stream.

Discontinuing diversions and removing the headgate did not guarantee that the restored flows would stay in Mineral Creek to benefit the environment—legally, that water would be free for other uses under Colorado’s prior appropriation system. The next challenge was to find a way to protect those restored flows. The Animas River Stakeholders Group and project partner the San Juan Resources Conservation and Development Council reached out to the Southwestern Water Conservation District and a local law firm where the attorney consulted was a former Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) member with a wealth of knowledge about Colorado’s Instream Flow Program.

Colorado’s Instream Flow (ISF) Program was the linchpin in the stakeholders group’s success. In the early 1970s, the Colorado Legislature pioneered protections for the water-dependent natural environment by creating the ISF Program.  An instream flow is a statutorily recognized type of water right that protects a natural stream from an upstream point to a downstream point. These water rights are administered like any other water right in the state, with a priority date confirmed by water court decree. At the time, the program provided the CWCB with the exclusive authority to appropriate or acquire water for instream flows to preserve the natural environment.

The CWCB can appropriate new junior instream flow water rights or acquire senior water from willing water rights owners for instream flow use. Under this acquisition authority, once an agreement is reached with the willing owner, the CWCB changes the water right through the water court change process to instream flow use. The water right is then legally protectable in the river with its original priority date. It is CWCB’s acquisition authority that the stakeholders group sought to secure instream flow protections for the newly-purchased Carbon Lake Ditch water right.

In March 2001, the Animas River Stakeholders Group and the San Juan Resource Conservation and Development Council presented the CWCB with an offer to donate the Carbon Lake Ditch water right to the Instream Flow Program to protect restored flows in Mineral Creek and two tributaries. However, in the course of conducting routine investigations, CWCB staff identified a significant program limitation. The original statutes passed in 1973 placed sideboards on the CWCB’s authority, limiting water appropriations and acquisitions to the minimum amounts required to preserve the natural environment. In the case of Mineral Creek, the amounts required to preserve the environment were determined to be between 2.5 and 6.6 cfs.  Yet, the Carbon Lake Ditch water right was decreed for 15 cfs, and under the existing law, there was no way to protect all of the restored water with an instream flow right.

CaptureAs highlighted in CFWE’s spring 2004 Headwaters Magazine issue, “Changing Times, Changing Uses”, societal values change. In 2002, the legislature passed Senate Bill 156, allowing CWCB to acquire water rights to preserve and to improve the natural environment. This amendment, the first significant change to the Instream Flow Program in more than 30 years, broadened the CWCB’s authority and created statewide opportunities to restore streamflow to dewatered streams and to improve existing environmental conditions. After the bill was signed into law, the CWCB clarified the water right donation and changed the full 15 cfs of the Carbon Lake Ditch water right for instream flow use to preserve and improve the natural environment. Roughly 15 years after the legislative change and the CWCB’s acquisition of the Carbon Lake Ditch water right for instream flow use, we see tangible results.

“This is the first time in recorded history of a report of fish existing in the headwaters of Mineral Creek,” said Bill Simon, retired coordinator for the stakeholders group, in the 2016 Durango Herald article. “We are a bit surprised by the great results so soon after remediation.”

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Mineral Creek     Photo Credit: Larry Lamsa

The presence of a resident brook trout population with diverse age ranges is indicative of the dramatic improvement in water quality within the reach where flows were restored and are now protected by the CWCB’s instream flow right. The Durango Herald reports an amazing 70 percent reduction in zinc and copper, and a 50 percent reduction in cadmium in Mineral Creek since completion of remediation and flow restoration.

“We knew that water quality in the upper part of Mineral Creek had dramatically improved,” said Peter Butler, Animas River Stakeholders Group coordinator, “but we didn’t expect it to support trout.”

The fantastic success story for Mineral Creek and the stakeholders group is a testament to the possibilities when local communities, state agencies and the legislature work together to solve problems. With CWCB’s ability to acquire water to improve the natural environment, this is a success story for the entire state of Colorado. The benefits achieved in Mineral Creek can, over time, be realized on many other streams, too.

Colorado’s ISF Program, now in its 45th year, operates statewide and the acquisition tool is available to any water right owner interested in donating, leasing or selling all, or a portion of, their water to preserve or improve the natural environment. The Colorado Water Trust, a nonprofit created in 2001 to restore flows to streams and rivers in need, works closely with the CWCB and can help facilitate temporary and permanent water transactions throughout the state.

Learn more about how to use water to benefit the natural environment by visiting the Colorado Water Trust and Colorado’s Instream Flow Program websites.

The Colorado Water Trust is a non-profit organization created in 2001 to restore flows to Colorado’s rivers in need.  The Water Trust uses voluntary, market-based tools to develop projects with water right owners to help keep Colorado’s rivers flowing. The Water Trust works closely with the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state’s Instream Flow Program to ensure flows are protected. For more information about the Water Trust or completed projects, please visit www.coloradowatertrust.org.

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Filed under Colorado River, Environment, Instream Flow, Water Legislation, Water Quality, Watershed Groups