Tag Archives: Colorado Foundation for Water Education

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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Filed under Colorado Foundation for Water Education, Staff

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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The Runoff Conundrum

When a summer storm crosses the eastern plains, drowning farmlands in a deluge, more than water ends up flowing into Colorado’s rivers, lakes and streams.

On April 13, 2017, the Colorado Foundation for Water Education was joined by Troy Bauder, with Colorado State University Extension, for a webinar in which part of the discussion centered on nonpoint source pollution. Bauder focuses on working with agricultural producers to reduce nutrient losses on their fields.

Runoff, a nonpoint source, occurs when there is more water than the soil can absorb. Agricultural runoff carries a bit of everything it touches—excess fertilizer, animal waste, soil and more. Water that is not absorbed into the ground moves across the land, picking up whatever it can carry, and drains into surface water and groundwater sources.

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Photo Credit: Lynn Betts

“Ag nutrients—nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P)—are absolutely required for productive agriculture,” Bauder says. “Of course, we need good management to prevent the accumulation of too much N and P in our soils and to reduce the potential for movement to surface and ground water.”

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Photo Credit: Dr. Jennifer L. Graham

When nitrogen and phosphorus—two nutrients found in agricultural runoff—are deposited in excess in water bodies, it leads to algal blooms, reduced dissolved oxygen content, which is harmful to aquatic plants and animals, and can compromise drinking water supplies.

If rain falls on 30 farms, with 20 of them using fertilizers to supplement nutrients in the soil, and the excess of these nutrients finds its way into the runoff, who is to blame for compromising water quality? Who is responsible for nutrient pollution? Since no one farm can be blamed for the degradation of water quality, agricultural runoff is a challenging nonpoint source pollutant to manage and regulate.

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Photo Credit: USDA

Colorado’s Regulation 85, a nutrient policy passed in 2012, regulates point sources of nitrogen, phosphorous and chlorophyll a in surface water, setting discharge limits and requiring monitoring; however, Regulation 85 currently allows for a voluntary, incentivized, approach for reducing nutrient pollution that originates in nonpoint source pollution.

“We’ve partnered with CDPHE [the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment] to produce some resources and an outreach program called Colorado AG Water Quality,” Bauder continues. “The purpose of this outreach effort is to get the word out to growers about how Reg. 85 could potentially affect them.”

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Photo Credit: USDA

Taking ownership of nutrient pollution and implementing best management practices gives agriculture the opportunity to avoid stringent state regulations. In 2022, the current, voluntary, approach will be evaluated to determine if progress has been made with the implementation and adoption of best management practices (BMP) as they relate to nonpoint source pollution, agriculture and water quality. Additional regulations may be considered depending on the results.

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Conservation Tillage Photo Credit: USDA

Reducing nutrient pollution is achieved through the implementation of BMPs, including improvements in fertilizer management, conservation tillage, irrigation, manure handling and soil erosion. The adoption of BMPs by Colorado agricultural producers benefits agriculture, as well as water quality. When implemented successfully, not only will there be a reduction in nutrient pollution, but it will reduce the need for future regulation.

“We want to work with our growers on the agronomic and economic feasibility of these practices to help them understand how they can help their bottom line,” Bauder says.

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Nitrogen Application                              Photo Credit: Bob Nichols

BMP effectiveness depends on what is known as the 4 R’s: Growers need to use the right amount (rate), right placement, right timing and right source. Combined with improved irrigation management, these BMPs improve the efficacy of the nutrients and prevent the potential for movement, which often results in nonpoint source pollution. Irrigation management can include altering the method by which water is delivered with system upgrades, combined with scheduling watering at the right time of day and in the proper amounts to reduce runoff. Ultimately, implementing these BMPs will benefit the grower’s bottom line while simultaneously protecting water sources from being impacted by nutrients.

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Photo Credit: USDA

“It’s definitely important to engage growers early and often in the process,” Bauder concludes. “Not only the growers, but their representatives, commodity groups and the people who advise them.”

While nutrients are certainly necessary for successful and sustainable agriculture, the execution of BMPs will help mitigate nutrient loss and movement, and in turn, reduce nonpoint source pollution due to runoff. Providing incentives, tools and resources to growers is critical to BMP implementation and success, as well as keeping Colorado’s water sources clean and reducing the impact of nutrient pollution.

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Photo Credit: NOAA

Learn more about cyanotoxins, algal blooms, public health and efforts to reduce nutrients in our water when you listen to the recording of this 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. Hear about how municipal recreational lakes are monitoring and working to reduce algal blooms, discover how agricultural producers coming together and implementing best practices to minimize nutrient runoff and learn the basics of toxic algal blooms.

hw_fall_2016_final_coverFind further coverage about this topic in the Public Health Issue of Headwaters Magazine.

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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Filed under Agriculture, Colorado Foundation for Water Education, Environment, groundwater, Headwaters Magazine, Water Quality

CFWE remembers the legacy of founder Diane Hoppe

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Diane Hoppe receiving CFWE’s President’s Award from Justice Hobbs in 2012.

Colorado Representative Diane Hoppe passed away Saturday.

 

“A great leader for challenging times. Graceful in times of stress. Generous with her wisdom at all times.  Her enduring legacy, leadership by example,” says Justice Greg Hobbs, vice president of the CFWE board.

Diane helped found the Colorado Foundation for Water Education, served as board president from 2002-2007, and was awarded CFWE’s President’s Award in 2012. She was an extraordinary leader, visionary and great friend who championed CFWE’s inclusivity and balance. Diane touched and inspired all of us.

From an announcement released by the Colorado Water Conservation Board:

“Representative Hoppe’s contribution to the State of Colorado was substantial and the loss of her leadership and friendship will be felt by many statewide,” said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

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Diane Hoppe connects with friends at CFWE’s 2013 President’s Award Reception.

Diane was elected chair of the Colorado Water Conservation Board in 2015, and though she was so crucial to the start of CFWE, her work and accomplishments extend far beyond water education. She served in the Colorado House of Representatives from 1999 through 2006 and chaired the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee, the Water Interim Committee, and the Water Resources Review Committee. When Diane Hoppe received CFWE’s President’s Award in 2012, Justice Greg Hobbs wrote a short biographical article:

 

A third generation Sterling girl whose physician father delivered her, Diane Hoppe knows dry and the value of wet.  She and her former husband, Mike, were dry land farmers in Northeastern Colorado from 1975 to 1985.  “We had a cattle and wheat operation.  We prayed for rain a lot.”  They have two sons.  After their divorce in 1985, Hoppe moved back into Sterling and got her start in public life by “being the ears” for Congressman Hank Brown in his Northeastern Colorado district.  Brown, who forged the creation of the Cache la Poudre Wild and Scenic River Act in 1986, then became a Senator, bringing Hoppe along.  “Hank never had a bad thing to say about an individual.  He knew how to have a difference of opinion without thinking those who don’t agree with you are bad people.”

Thrust into the controversy over designation of new wilderness areas, Hoppe learned from Brown “how to keep a calm demeanor and take notes.”  Together Senators Brown and Wirth, of opposite parties, brought home a wilderness act protecting water and environmental interests.  “Hank believed Colorado’s Instream Flow Program could help resolve wilderness issues.  But, federal agencies didn’t trust the state to enforce the instream flow water rights once the Colorado Water Conservation Board got them.”

By careful boundary drawing, combined with legislative language disclaiming any intent to create a federal reserved water right, at least for those new wilderness additions, the Colorado Congressional Delegation obtained enactment of the 1993 Colorado Wilderness Act.  Two years later, emphasizing that the CWCB appropriates instream flow water rights in the name of the people, the Colorado Supreme Court held that the state has a “fiduciary duty” to enforce them.

Hoppe served in the Colorado House of Representatives from 1999 to 2006, succeeding fellow Republican Don Ament, whose political campaigns she had managed over the years.  In 2003, when the drought was at its worst and junior surface and tributary ground water rights in the South Platte Basin were being curtailed in favor of the most senior rights, she obtained the enactment of a provision allowing the State Engineer to approve substitute supply plans and temporary changes of water rights.  This provision allowed junior rights to receive water if they provided sufficient replacement water to the seniors and filed for a plan of augmentation in the water court. Continue reading here.

CFWE’s executive director Nicole Seltzer will miss Diane’s many words of advice.  “She was always willing to help  me understand others’ viewpoints, work with me to improve CFWE’s reputation and programs, and was a stalwart supporter of our work.  I will greatly miss the opportunity to rely upon Diane’s insight.”

 

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Filed under Colorado Foundation for Water Education, Water Leaders, Water Legislation

A Sustainable Water Future for South Metro Denver

Highlands Ranch, home to 93,000 people in south metro Denver, relies on a combination of South Platte River water and groundwater.

Highlands Ranch, home to 93,000 people in south metro Denver, relies on a combination of South Platte River water and groundwater. Photo used with permission from flickr, some rights reserved.

By Eric Hecox

In 2007, the Colorado Foundation for Water Education published its Citizen’s Guide to Denver Basin Groundwater, devoting particular attention to the south Denver metro region. The region had experienced rapid growth and was historically over-reliant on groundwater aquifers.

Water leaders throughout the South Metro area, which includes parts of Douglas and Arapahoe counties, recognized the need to secure a more sustainable water supply.

The South Metro Water Supply Authority had formed several years earlier, in 2004, bringing together water providers from throughout the region, and had begun to execute a plan to do just that. The pillars of the plan are efficiency, partnership and investment.

Fast-forward to 2015, and the water landscape of the South Metro region is vastly improved:

  • In little over a decade, we reduced per capita water demand across the region by 30 percent and are doing even more through regional conservation approaches.
  • Aquifer declines, although still occurring, have slowed significantly, from 30 feet per year to 5 feet per year, as we transition to a more sustainable water supply.
  • Under our current plan, we project the region’s water supply will be 55 percent renewable by 2020, a significant increase from just 10 years ago.

Despite this significant progress, there is more work to be done to put the region on a sustainable path.

Our Plan in Action: Efficiency and Reuse

Since 2004, South Metro Water Supply Authority and its 14 water provider members have followed the “all of the above” approach to maximizing existing supplies. The approach mirrors strategies in Colorado’s draft state water plan and continues to underpin our region’s approach to creating a secure water future.

Outdoor watering accounts for more than 50 percent of municipal water use in Colorado on average. Photo by Eric Sonstroem.

Outdoor watering accounts for 50 percent of single-family residential water use in Colorado on average. Photo by Eric Sonstroem, some rights reserved.

The approach begins with conservation. A few examples of efforts that have led to our 30 percent reduction in per capita water use since 2000 include:

  • Providers serving Highlands Ranch and Castle Rock are two of only three in the state to put water customers on a water budget that tracks water use by household.
  • Sterling Ranch is conducting the state’s first rainwater harvesting pilot study.
  • Inverness provides rebates for replacing turf with low water-use landscaping.

Recognizing conservation alone is not enough to meet long-term needs, our plan calls for maximizing efficiency of existing resources.

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Reuter-Hess Reservoir in Parker will store reuse and other renewable water in Douglas County. Photo by Mikal Martinez. 

Most of our members are approaching full use of their reusable supplies thanks to infrastructure investments and collaboration. Two of our members, serving Inverness and Meridian, are among the state’s earliest adopters of water reuse and today reuse 100 percent of collected wastewater. Last year, Meridian was honored as the “Water Institution of the Year” by the national WaterReuse Association.

New state-of-the-art treatment plants have also come online in recent years that significantly increase our region’s ability to reuse water.

We also are investing in studying and implementing Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR), which has great potential to convert our existing groundwater resources to a valuable drought supply, much like a savings account.

Collaboration and Investment

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The WISE Project is a collaborative project between Aurora Water, Denver Water and 10 members of the South Metro Water Supply Authority to share water supply and infrastructure.

Regional cooperation is another key tenet of the draft Colorado’s Water Plan that is playing out in the south Denver suburbs. Through local and regional partnerships, we are getting more use out of existing infrastructure and supplies.

The WISE Project is a first-of-its-kind partnership with Denver Water and Aurora Water that bolsters water supplies to the south Denver suburbs while maximizing existing water assets in Denver and Aurora. Similarly, Arapahoe County Water and Wastewater Authority and East Cherry Creek Valley partnered to complete a state-of-the-art water treatment plant in 2012 and are working with several other South Metro Water Supply Authority members to share capacity on the East Cherry Creek Valley Northern Pipeline.

These are only a few of the innovative efforts underway in the south Denver metro area.

Learn more about our plan by visiting our newly revamped website, southmetrowater.org, where you can sign up for updates and engage with us on social media. Let us know what you think.

Eric_Hecox_1Eric Hecox is the director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority, a regional water authority comprised of 14 water provider members that collectively serve more than 300,000 residents as well as businesses in the south metro Denver area. South Metro Water’s membership spans much of Douglas County and parts of Arapahoe County, including Castle Rock, Highlands Ranch, Parker and Castle Pines. Eric also serves on the board for the Colorado Foundation for Water Education.

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Filed under Colorado's Water Plan, groundwater, Water Supply

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

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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