Category Archives: Colorado River

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

Grand Valley Farmers Participate in Drought Planning Effort

Drought conditions in the Colorado River Basin will continue to be a focus at the Colorado River Water Users Association Annual Conference which runs tomorrow through Friday, Dec. 14-16, 2016 in Las Vegas. The conference will feature expert speakers, panelists and discussions and is regularly attended by key decision makers from Colorado River Basin states. Review the agenda and learn more here.

By Hannah Holm, Coordinator, Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University

It’s been very dry in Colorado’s mountains this fall.  It’s still early, and the snowpack could catch up to “normal,” but when I flew over those mountains on November 15, they were brown. Just the barest dusting of white covered the highest ridges and north-facing slopes.

This delayed onset of winter has provided a sobering backdrop to ongoing discussions about what to do if the Colorado River Basin slips back into severe drought with Lakes Powell and Mead, the two largest reservoirs in the basin, already half-empty.

Efforts to protect the Colorado River system and those who depend on it

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Water intakes on Lake Mead. Credit: Bureau of Reclamation

If Lake Mead drops too low, farms and cities in the lower basin that have become accustomed to steady water supplies will have to drastically cut back. If Powell drops too low, Glen Canyon Dam will be unable to keep generating power or maintain sufficient releases to honor the 1922 agreement between the states that share the river. No one knows exactly how upstream water users would be affected in that scenario, but if it’s a crisis reaction, it’s unlikely to be pretty. The environment could take a hit as well: low lake levels would make it impossible to conduct periodic high releases designed to mimic historical floods in order to benefit habitat conditions in the Grand Canyon.

In the lower Colorado River Basin, discussions among Arizona, California and Nevada have centered around who will cut their water use, by how much, and at what “trigger” levels in Lake Mead. This is necessary even without an intensified drought, because lake levels keep falling even with normal water deliveries from Lake Powell. The degree of drought just ratchets the urgency up or down.

In the upper Colorado River Basin, which straddles Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, there is no single outlet at the top of the system that can be cranked up or down. Instead, there are thousands of drainages feeding into the Colorado River, with widely dispersed ranches, farms and communities taking sips and gulps along the way, including some sizeable straws pulling water across the Continental Divide to Colorado’s Front Range.

A recent modeling effort coordinated by the Colorado River District concluded that if we were to experience another drought like the one of the early 2000’s, with reservoir levels as low as they are now and without any additional conservation, Lake Powell could essentially be drained in just a few years.

Efforts are underway to figure out how to craft a demand management system that can entice upper basin water users to voluntarily dial back their consumption, and get paid for it, in order to keep Powell from falling to critically low levels.

As it turns out, that’s complicated. For an agricultural demand management system to work for farmers, it needs to provide adequate compensation, not impede long-term operations, have simple paperwork, and not put water rights at risk. For irrigation providers, it needs to pay its own way, be easy to manage, and not put water rights at risk. And for such a system to work for communities, you can’t have large swaths of fields left brown and unkempt, supply dealers left without customers, and farmworkers left jobless.

Grand Valley activities

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Credit: Grand Valley Water Users Association

A pilot project in Western Colorado’s Grand Valley is testing an approach to cutting back agricultural water use that seeks to work for everyone.

The location, just east of the Utah state line, is significant. About half of the water that flows into Lake Powell flows through Colorado’s Grand Valley first, some of it flowing through the river, and some detouring through irrigation ditches and farm fields before returning. Much of the water diverted does not return, of course, instead getting transpired through leaves of alfalfa, corn, or grass, or plumping up peaches and wine grapes.

The Grand Valley Water Users Association (GVWUA), the biggest irrigation provider in the valley, is managing the pilot project to reduce that water consumption. At an October meeting to explain the pilot program to other regional water managers and irrigators, GVWUA manager Mark Harris said that the potential for future water shortages is driving the organization’s participation in the pilot.

For the 2017 irrigation season, GVWUA will conduct the $1 million pilot with funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, The Nature Conservancy, and the Water Bank Work Group. The Water Bank Work Group is conducting long-term research on the viability of various demand management options and includes the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the Southwestern Water Conservation District, The Nature Conservancy, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, and the Front Range Water Council.

In 2017, 10 farm operators dispersed across the valley, each with 120 or more acres under irrigated cultivation, will participate in the GVWUA program. There are several options: full fallow, fallow until October, fallow until September, and fallow until August. The option of fallowing until October is popular because it allows establishing a winter wheat crop for the next year. This is particularly important when there isn’t certainty about whether the program will continue the following year. Full fallowing, if continued for multiple years, could provide the opportunity for farmers to transition fields to certified organic production and sell their products for higher prices.

The total reduction in water consumption achieved by the GVWUA pilot is predicted to be 3,200 acre feet: only a drop, but an important first drop to test the system. So far, the project appears to be on course to work well for the participating farmers and the GVWUA. There is adequate compensation, management isn’t too complicated, and water rights are protected. Research indicates that temporary fallowing is more likely to benefit soil fertility than harm it. And in order to ensure that producers renting land won’t be pushed off by landowners choosing program payments over farmers’ rental payments, the program was limited to people who were actively working the land.

Making the program acceptable for the rest of the community isn’t too complicated at this small scale, although some eyebrows may be raised at the odd brown field in the spring. If brought to sufficient scale to meaningfully benefit Lake Powell, however, this would become a more significant consideration.  Harris believes that the program would have to limit participation to no more than 25 percent of the acreage GVWUA irrigates in order to avoid unacceptable impacts to the community.

In the meeting about the GVWUA program, several people voiced concern that agriculture was being expected to shoulder the burden of bringing supply and demand back into balance in the Colorado River Basin. Some cities are, in fact, also participating in programs to cut diversions to protect the reservoirs, and most have made large strides in conservation in recent decades. However, there is still a feeling that they can do more, particularly in the area of integrating land use and water planning.

If snow piles up in the mountains at reasonable levels over the next few years, it will buy time to fine tune and gradually scale up programs like the one GVWUA is testing, as well as experiments underway in other settings and on other crops, like high mountain hay meadows. Bolstering administrative capacity to coordinate a broad suite of such programs and developing legal mechanisms to ensure that conserved water reaches Lake Powell without being intercepted by other users must occur before such programs can be effective at a large scale.

If a moderate amount of conserved water is sent to Lake Powell each year, or retained in upstream reservoirs, it will reduce the chances that more drastic cuts will be needed in any one year—avoiding the deepest impacts to agriculture and communities.

If the mountains keep staying brown late into the fall, however, the upper basin’s demand management efforts will have to accelerate significantly. Under that scenario, it will be harder to keep everyone happy.

 
hannahheadshot1-28-15Hannah Holm is the coordinator and co-founder of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, which promotes research, education and dialogue to address the water challenges facing the Upper Colorado River Basin.  Colorado Mesa University is located in Grand Junction, CO.

Hannah previously facilitated the Grand Valley and Lower Gunnison Wise Water Use Council, advocated for stronger drinking water protections with Western Colorado Congress, and served on her local watershed group board in Pennsylvania. In the late 1990’s, Hannah worked for North Carolina General Assembly, where she staffed committees on the Environment, Natural Resources, Sustainable Agriculture and Smart Growth.

Hannah has a joint Master’s degree in Community & Regional Planning and Latin American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin and a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from Macalester College in St. Paul, MN.

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Filed under Agriculture, Climate and Drought, Colorado River, Uncategorized

Colorado River District Annual Seminar Proceedings Now Available on Web

By Jim Pokrandt

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Pictured left to right at this year’s seminar: Anne Castle, Fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment; Don Coram, Colorado State Representative; James Eklund, Colorado Water Conservation Board Director; Jim Pokrandt, Colorado River District Director of Community Affairs

 

Videos and speaker summaries from the Colorado River District’s Annual Seminar held in September are now online and can be found at www.coloradoriverdistrict.org. The seminar’s theme was “Colorado River Waves of the Future: Fitting the West to the River’s New Normal.”

More than 200 people attended the event, held in Grand Junction. Save the date for next year’s seminar: Friday, September 15, 2017, also in Grand Junction.

Viewers will be able to see presentations on funding issues for Colorado’s Water Plan; the effects of rising temperatures on the West; details of how the Lower Basin is trying to shrink its “structural deficit” between water supply and use; and Upper Basin State efforts to employ demand management in agriculture in response to low reservoir levels in Lake Powell.

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Retired Justice Greg Hobbs presented at this year’s seminar. 

Not to be missed is retired Justice Greg Hobbs’ spirited defense of Colorado water law and his views on “use it or lose it” and agricultural use of water. Hobbs’ energetic presentation was spurred by the lunchtime keynote by ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten, who detailed his observations from covering water use in the West.

The website includes a written synopsis of each presentation, as well as PowerPoints and video recordings for each speaker.

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Jim Pokrandt is the Community Affairs Director for the Colorado River District. 

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Filed under Climate and Drought, Colorado River, Colorado's Water Plan, Uncategorized

No Chico Brush: Collaboration for Colorado’s Water Future

 

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Official opening of the Gunnison Tunnel by President Taft at the west portal, Montrose, Colorado, September 23, 1909. Photo by Almeron Newman.

Before irrigated agriculture in the Uncompahgre and North Fork Valleys, there was chico brush. These woody desert plants covered vast swaths of land in southwestern Colorado until the late 1800s and early 1900s, when works like the Gunnison Tunnel diverted water that was used to transform these valleys into the agricultural hubs they are today—leaving chico brush on the dusty sidelines.

As water resources in the region have grown more stretched in recent decades, many stakeholders recognize the need to update operations to improve their odds in the face of future water scarcity. The Colorado River Compact of 1922 dictates that water from the Colorado River must be shared between seven Colorado River Basin states and Mexico. Further, this compact “obligates the upper basin states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) to not not cause the flow of the river at Lee Ferry, Arizona to be depleted below 75 million acre feet over any period of 10 consecutive years,” according to the Citizen’s Guide to Colorado’s Interstate Compacts. So far, this obligation has always been met.

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Lake Powell in Arizona. Photo by Wolfgang Staudt.

However, delivering this promised water may become much more difficult in the near future. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, two of the reservoirs that store water destined for lower basin states (Arizona, California, and Nevada) and Mexico, reached record low levels this year, highlighted by ominous bathtub rings in the lake sediments. This is indicative of how low the Colorado River has been recently due to steadily increasing demand for a variety of municipal, industrial, and agricultural uses. According to the Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Conservation, “the gap between water supply and demand for municipal and industrial uses alone could reach 560,000 acre feet by 2050 absent proactive measures…these future gaps in municipal and industrial water supply will likely be met by voluntary transfers of water out of irrigated agriculture, as lucrative offers are made by urban utilities and industrial operators.” If this economic pull were to slowly dry up agriculture in southwestern Colorado, it would deal a significant blow to the state’s economy and heritage, not to mention the cornucopia of delicious, Colorado-grown produce that we enjoy.  

“If we don’t do something then other people are going to think we aren’t taking this seriously and then the water will be gone,” says Tom Kay, a farmer and co-owner of North Fork Organics. Without irrigation water to cultivate crops and the agricultural lifestyle in the valleys, irrigators fear that nothing will be left but chico brush.

That’s why some of those folks in the Uncompahgre and North Fork Valleys came together in 2010 to form No Chico Brush (NCB), a farmer- and rancher-led group of interested citizens who are working together to look at future water availability and irrigation efficiency. The group consists of an array of interests including county commissioners; water organizations; special interest groups like The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited; citizens; and more , according to Steve Schrock, the coordinator of NCB.

John Harold holding a piece of the drip irrigation tape that gets laid in the field.

John Harold holding a piece of the drip irrigation tape that gets laid in the field. Photo credit: © Mark Skalny for The Nature Conservancy, 2013. (All Internal Rights, Limited External)

With diverse interests come diverse objectives. “I wanted to find ways to educate and encourage farmers to understand that we have to modernize irrigation practices because of the pressures on water,” says John Harold, one of the farmers who brought the group together. NCB aims to keep their lands for agricultural purposes (and thus, free of chico brush) far into the future by implementing more efficient irrigation practices, which will also increase in-stream flows to benefit recreational economies and wildlife habitat. This will ensure that local communities, crops, and ecosystems continue to flourish, even in years when little water is available. It’s a natural partnership between environmental interests like Trout Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy and local farmers and ranchers. However, not all of the farmers and ranchers in NCB agree on the necessity of updating irrigation infrastructure, pointing out that the current system has worked well for over a century. Having a diverse range of opinions within the group has helped to more accurately represent community needs and interests.

We don’t agree on everything but we have a lot of common goals,” says Aaron Derwingson with The Nature Conservancy. Given the sometimes unpleasant history between environmentalists and farmers, tensions were a bit high at first and the path toward partnership wasn’t easy. Despite their differences, these stakeholders do agree that working together is imperative. “(Collaboration) takes more time and more effort but for us it’s the only way we’re going to build a lasting conversation,” Derwingson says. “I think the main benefit is we can speak with a strong voice. People are going to listen to that more than any one of us individually.”

To facilitate greater adoption of water efficiency practices, the group is focusing on research on the Western Slope. Research has been done elsewhere in the state but NCB has emphasized the importance of collecting region-specific data. NCB partnered with Colorado State University and successfully acquired two grants that have helped fund this ongoing research

Sweet corn near Olathe, CO.

Sweet corn near Olathe, CO. Photo credit: © Mark Skalny for The Nature Conservancy, 2013. (All Internal Rights, Limited External)

Further irrigation efficiency financing has been hard to come by recently and current funding may not be enough to meet farmers’ needs in the future, Schrock says. However, some larger programs to incentivize the switch to more efficient irrigation systems are underway. In 2014, a group of municipal water providers throughout the Colorado River Basin, including Denver Water, partnered with the Bureau of Reclamation to address Colorado River water shortages and created the Colorado River System Conservation Program. This program has provided funding for water conservation pilot programs. One of these pilot programs is the Organic Transition Program, designed by Derwingson and Kay, which pays farmers to grow cover crops for three years, thereby using a third of the water they would otherwise. This also helps farmers get that land certified as organic, since one of the requirements is that the land “must not have had prohibited substances applied to it for the past three years.” Thus, farmers will save water and then be able to grow a higher value crop. “I’m looking for ways to help farmers expand their economic horizons and organic is a way to do that,” says Kay.

Fly fishing on the Gunnison River outside of Delta, Colorado.

Fly fishing on the Gunnison River outside of Delta, Colorado. Photo credit: © Mark Skalny for The Nature Conservancy, 2013. (All Internal Rights, Limited External)

All of us have a lot to gain when Colorado farmers and ranchers shift toward more water-efficient systems. By conserving what they can now, they are doing their part to ensure the continuation of agriculture in southwestern Colorado and the overall prosperity of our state. “Agriculture is a huge part of our heritage, economy, and history. We (in NCB) are preserving agriculture. real farms, real farmers, and not having our agricultural economy move toward hobby ranches and farms or subdivisions,” says Schrock.

Check out this Trout Unlimited video for more insight on the work of No Chico Brush.

CitizensGuideToColoradoWaterConservation2016 (1)Learn more about efficient water use in agriculture by reading CFWE’s new Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Conservation, now available to flip through or order here.

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Filed under Agriculture, Climate and Drought, Colorado Foundation for Water Education, Colorado River

The Connector in Chief on the Colorado River

By Jim Pokrandt

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Pat Mulroy delivers the keynote address at the DU Water Law Symposium. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

Call her the connector in chief. That is, connector in chief of the dots. In her new role in academia and water policy, Pat Mulroy, the retired chief of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and now senior fellow for climate adaptation and environmental policy for The Brookings Institution, has poured it on in her speeches—connecting water issues across the world with relevance to the seven-state Colorado River Basin.

Is California’s drought a Colorado River Basin problem? For a state whose only reliable water sources is the Colorado River, you bet, as besieged as it is with long term drought itself. Is California’s issue with the delta smelt and inability to pump water from Northern California to the south through the State Water Project a Colorado River problem? Ditto. It puts more pressure on the Colorado River. See above.

How about Flint, Mich.’s lead-laden drinking water crisis? Is that a problem for the Southwest? Absolutely, said Mulroy. Why? “It’s not that they made a mistake, it’s that they did not say anything,” she says. That fact has eroded the public’s trust in drinking water providers.

“It is going to affect the way we manage water resources in this basin,” Mulroy said. With the decision making that still needs to be made in managing the Colorado River’s future, mistrust generated by Flint is not going to help.

patmulroyduMulroy brought these messages and more to the April 8 University of Denver Water Review forum entitled “Conflicts and Cooperation: the Past, Present and Future of Interstate Water Compacts.” Find a video recording of her presentation and others here.

Don’t mistake Mulroy for a pessimist. She believes that the Colorado River Compact of 1922 has over time created a model of cooperation and collaboration among the seven states in the basin and the federal government. While locals may wonder how true that is, Mulroy has seen the credence borne out by the international interest in how the Colorado River works. “When you compare the Colorado River Basin to other parts of the world, we are the most functional water community anywhere,” said Mulroy, who has hosted delegation after delegation.

The next generation of water leaders has been handed that “legacy,” she said. “You will need to continue that partnership to deal with the stresses coming to the Compact in the next 20 years.”

Jim PoJim_Pokrandtkrandt is the Community Affairs Director for the Colorado River District.

For another video presentation from Pat Mulroy and blog post from Jim Pokrandt, see his Nov. 2015 blog post “Not too late to catch Colorado River experts: Video presentations now available online.”

 

Learn more about the Colorado River Basin and compact through CFWE’s recent programs:

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Filed under Climate and Drought, Colorado River, Events, Water Leaders, Water Supply

Not too late to catch Colorado River experts: Video presentations now available online

By Jim Pokrandt

The Colorado River District’s Annual Water Seminar in September 2015 attracted more than 200 people to Grand Junction, Colorado, to hear discussions on the topic: “Will What’s Happening in California Stay in California?”

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John Fleck and Pat Mulroy talking Colorado River matters in September.

Pat Mulroy, former head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, told the audience the answer was absolutely not: California’s issues coping with dire drought conditions and water supply are everybody’s issues. She said that the Colorado River, as pressured as it already is, represents California’s firmest water supply, with the Sierra Nevadas providing so little snowmelt to the State Water Project for transport from northern to southern California this year.

“At the end of the day there are two major, major reasons that California matters,” she said. “One, the Colorado River and the Sacramento and San Joaquin Bay Delta are inextricably connected. And two, the story of California is the story of missed opportunities and the human inability to find solutions.”

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Attendees at the 2015 Colorado River District Annual Seminar talk to featured speakers Pat Mulroy and Jennifer Gimbel.

Everything is connected,” said Jennifer Gimbel, U.S. Interior Department principal deputy assistant secretary for water and science. “You have to keep track of what’s going on in California. California affects the Colorado River and vice versa.” Gimbel said drought and climate change have scrambled the jigsaw puzzle of water planning. She also noted that California has much less reservoir storage in the state than exists along the Colorado River system.

Eric Kuhn and Dan Birch, the general manager and deputy general manager of the Colorado River District, described a new paradigm in Colorado water planning that puts the focus on protecting existing water users under current hydrology. A new transmountain diversion is not the immediate threat, they said. Low reservoir levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead, along with continuing drought, are the much greater threats to water users and operations of the system.

Author John Fleck told listeners that the notions of conflict and doom he saw in the watershed book Cadillac Desert, which he called “a great book,” is wrong. “Myth No. 1 is that we are going to run out of water,” Fleck said. He left an optimistic message that the West will figure out its water planning and future.

Other speakers included the Bureau of Reclamation’s Ken Nowak, who gave a picture of trends in agriculture productivity and water use learned in the 2015 Moving Forward report of the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study process.

Climatologist Klaus Water briefed the audience on the big El Niño building for the winter but cautioned that Colorado might not see the hoped-for benefits of a big snowpack—or it might. That is the nature of long-term observations of how El Niño affects the state. It is in a middle zone of uncertainty.

You can see videos of each of these speakers and more at the Colorado River District’s website. Save the date for next year’s Annual Water Seminar scheduled to take place on September 16, 2016, in Grand Junction.

Also, check out CFWE’s newly released Fall 2015 issue of Headwaters magazine, which is focused on building resiliency on the Colorado River Basin, upstream and down. Find in-depth articles on the efforts of Colorado River water users, federal and state entities, NGOs, and scientists to face what many consider to be a defining moment on this “Great American River.” Hard copies will hit mailboxes next week.

Jim_Pokrandt

Jim Pokrandt is the Community Affairs Director for the Colorado River District.

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Filed under Climate and Drought, Colorado River, Headwaters Magazine

From Vine to Wine on tour in Palisade, Colorado

By Kelsea Macilroy

Here in Colorado, we all know where the best peaches come from: the Grand Valley. Enjoying some of the most temperate weather in Colorado, the Grand Valley of Western Colorado is one of the few places peaches and grapes can be grown reliably in abundance. For over a century viticulture has been practiced in the Grand Valley and the impressive variety of wines has been growing steadily with 80 percent of Colorado’s grapes grown here. Integral to the growth and continued vitality of both industries are the irrigation companies and management partnerships that deliver Colorado River water to support crop production.

Straight off, I should offer a disclaimer: I love wine and I love peaches. From the moment the announcement of CFWE’s Vine to Wine Tour arrived in my inbox, I knew I needed to attend. What could be better than learning about the various ways Colorado water is managed to bring people together around tasty, delicious things? Not only did this tour combine two of my favorite things, it also explored the intersections between managing water for multiple uses, irrigation efficiency, local agriculture and how they support our wine and orchard industry in Colorado.

Managing Water for Multiple Needs

Dale Ryden with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service teaches tour participants about the endangered fish species native to this reach of the Colorado River.

Dale Ryden with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service teaches tour participants about the endangered fish species native to this reach of the Colorado River.

Sitting under the outside pavilion at the Wine Country Inn with the sun warm on our backs and the promise of a beautiful day ahead of us, Dale Ryden of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started off educating us about the endangered fish species native to this reach of the Colorado River. Armed with a 6 foot long life-size cutout of a Colorado pikeminnow he was joined by Brent Uilenberg of the Bureau of Reclamation. Together they explained how, due to decreased river flows in the 15-Mile Reach of the Colorado River outside of Palisade, four native fish species—the humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow, and razorback sucker—were identified as endangered. With some historic collaboration among key water interest groups, the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program has assisted multiple projects designed to improve fish habitat and instream flows through the 15-Mile Reach, all while continuing to support local agricultural production. This includes modernizing the Government Highline Canal to reduce water diversions, installation of fish passages at dams and fish screens at turnouts. Acquisition of floodplain habitat has also been instrumental in providing fish nursery areas.

The Orchard Mesa Check Structure

The Orchard Mesa Check Structure

Guided by Max Schmidt of the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Mark Harris of Grand Valley Water Users Association, our next stop was a tour of some of the infrastructure that makes irrigation and fish recovery possible. In a massive coordinated effort among the reservoirs upstream of the 15-Mile Reach—called the Coordinated Reservoirs Operations—flow releases are timed to provide optimal flows for both fish and humans. These coordinated releases and “checks” in irrigation canal systems provide additional support of the Recovery Program and intentionally create surplus from the Historic Users Pool. In operation informally since 1926 and adjudicated in 1996, the Orchard Mesa Check Structure is part of a complex arrangement that dictates when and how the check is operated as well as other contingencies involving the Historic Users Pool in Green Mountain Reservoir. Orchard Mesa Irrigation District consumptively uses only 170 cubic feet per second of water, but withdraws more in order to operate their power plant. In order to most efficiently use water, the check structure diverts water that runs through the power plant to be released upstream of the Grand Valley Irrigation Company diversion, which is senior to the power plant.

Irrigation Efficiency & Local Economy

Over 18,000 people receive water to irrigate around 81,000 acres from one of six irrigation companies or districts in the Grand Valley. Riding through Palisade in our horse drawn carriage, the stark contrast between the lush, fertile valley floor and the dry, high mesas of the area made it clear how heavily the local economy and community depend on water. Perry Cabot and Horst Caspari both work for the Colorado State University Experiment Station in the Grand Valley searching for ways to increase irrigation efficiency and crop production—improvements in these areas mean a more efficient use of water and a better crop for producers.

During the tour, we had the privilege of visiting two farms. With peach harvest season just getting started, the Talbott Farms processing plant was humming with activity. Here, Bruce Talbott shared with us the importance of agriculture for the local economy as well as the large amount of peaches that go to waste because they are considered “imperfect.” Up to 40 percent of food grown in the United States never gets eaten. Much of that is due to marketplace demands that require food to be a certain size or weight and a particular appearance. The peaches that are culled never see the market, and Talbott Farms takes a hit as they still invested water, land, and time to those peaches. Fortunately, many of the tour participants were able to help prevent a few peaches from going to waste.

Red Fox Vineyard

Red Fox Vineyard

The day concluded with a stop at Red Fox Cellars, a family owned vineyard with a tasting room, where Scott and Sherrie Hamilton guided us through a selection of their delicious wines. Part of what makes Colorado wine unique is its terrior—the environmental effects of the place where it is produced. The way the sun shines on the valley; the quality and quantity of water applied to the plants; the particular composition of the soil; and the fact that Colorado wines are grown at the highest elevations in North America. All of these things come together to shape the particular taste of the wine.

After learning about all the passion and effort expended to support agricultural operations, endangered species habitat, and improvements in crop production and irrigation efficiency all I wanted was a glass of wine—I highly recommend Red Fox Cellars Bourbon Barrel Merlot. Here’s to Colorado water and all the people who work hard to meet the many demands for it. Cheers!

Kelsea is a PhD student studying Natural Resource and Environmental Sociology at Colorado State University where she prefers to read and write while sampling one of Colorado’s many delightful foods or beverages. She is currently working with the Colorado Water Institute on a project that engages with agricultural water use and the opportunities and barriers for conservation in the Colorado River Basin. Growing up in southern Arizona, attending Gordon College in Massachusetts where she studied history, and living in Alamosa for six years, gave Kelsea an interest in the ways water has been historically managed and how that has shaped its use today. In her free time Kelsea enjoys exploring parts of Colorado new to her with her husband and cross-eyed dog. She also really likes peaches.

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Filed under Agriculture, Colorado Foundation for Water Education, Colorado River, Environment, Instream Flow, Water Supply