Tag Archives: Colorado’s Water Plan

Opinion: Bill Promotes Opportunities for Implementing More Aquifer Recharge and Recovery Projects in Colorado

By Ralf Topper

HB 17-1076 is currently making its way through the legislative process having passed the House and the Senate.  This legislation, concerning rulemaking for artificial recharge of nontributary aquifers, opens the door for opportunities to implement aquifer storage and recovery programs in nontributary aquifers outside of the Denver Basin.  Nontributary groundwater, as defined in Colorado Revised Statute 37-90-103 (10.5), is groundwater whose connection to any surface stream is so insignificant that it is considered isolated from the surface water for water rights administration purposes.

HB 17-1076 is a first step in creating some administrative certainty and legal framework for districts in other parts of the state to consider implementing aquifer recharge and recovery projects to meet their water management objectives, and should be endorsed by the water community.  The bill’s use of the term “artificial recharge” is unfortunate, as the use of that term is dated in scientific and engineering literature though still used in reference to older studies and legislation herein.  Aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) is designed to introduce water into and store water in underlying aquifers with a future extraction component when additional supplies are needed.  ASR is typically implemented through wells.

Increasing storage is an integral theme of Colorado’s Water Plan, published in 2015, and aquifer storage and recovery opportunities dominate the plan’s discussion regarding groundwater.  Subsurface water storage in aquifers can significantly reduce the financial, permitting, environmental, security, and socioeconomic hurdles associated with construction of new surface-water reservoirs.

In 1995, the State Engineer promulgated rules and regulations for the permitting and use of waters artificially recharged into the Denver Basin aquifers.  The Denver Basin is the only aquifer system in Colorado with specific rules regulating the recharge and extraction of non-native water for storage purposes and as such is currently the only area in Colorado with active ASR projects.  The promulgation of those rules has provided both opportunity and certainty for water districts to implement subsurface water storage projects.

  • Centennial Water and Sanitation District started ASR operations in 1994 and currently has 25 wells permitted and equipped to inject water into Denver, Arapahoe, and Laramie-Fox Hills aquifers. Through 2014, they have stored over 14,000 acre-feet of potable water.
  • Others districts that have implemented ASR operations include Consolidated Mutual, Colorado Springs Utilities, and Castle Pines Metropolitan.
  • East Cherry Creek is currently in the testing phase and implementation plans are moving forward in Castle Rock, Meridian, Rangeview, Inverness, and Cottonwood.
  • Denver Water has initiated a significant evaluation program and South Metro Water Supply Authority considers ASR a critical component of utilizing water supplies from the WISE partnership.

Subsurface water storage opportunities in bedrock aquifers in other portions of Colorado have been well documented.  In 2003, the Colorado Geological Survey produced a statewide assessment of subsurface storage potential opportunities for then-director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources Greg Walcher.  Published as Environmental Geology Series 13, that study identified 29 priority regional consolidated bedrock aquifers with potential storage capacities from 10’s of thousands to over a million acre-feet.  In 2006, Senate Bill 06-193 directed the Colorado Water Conservation Board to conduct an underground water storage study in the South Platte and Arkansas River basins.  That study  identified a number of areas for potential underground water storage in both basins with available storage capacities of tens to hundreds of thousands of acre-feet in most areas.

 Ralf Topper has recently retired with 16 years of service as the senior hydrogeologist in both the Colorado Division of Water Resources and the Colorado Geological Survey.  He has earned advanced degrees in Geology (BS, MS) and Hydrogeology (MS) from CU-Boulder and Colorado School of Mines, and has over 35 years of professional geoscience experience in both the private and public sectors.  He is a Certified Professional Geologist, a Geological Society of America Fellow, and an active member of both national and state groundwater societies.  Ralf has authored numerous papers and publications on Colorado’s groundwater resources including the award-winning Ground Water Atlas of Colorado.

 

 

 

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Filed under groundwater, Water Legislation, Water Supply

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

Go Time for Colorado’s Water Plan: meeting the plan’s conservation goals

 

By Nelson Harvey, excerpts pulled from an originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of Headwaters magazine

go time bugWhen Gov. John Hickenlooper triumphantly hoisted the final water plan at a mid-November ceremony in Denver, the hundreds of Coloradans who contributed to its formation paused to take a congratulatory breath. Yet even then, questions were swirling about how the voluntary plan would work—how the state’s utilities, businesses, advocacy groups and individual water users would internalize its recommendations and take responsibility for its goals—and whether they would, by the plan’s own measurement of success, be able to close the municipal water supply and demand gap without compromising other values.

Here, we turn those questions on one of the plan’s nine defined measureable outcomes: water conservation.

iStock_000079530373_SmallWater conservation: Stretch now to avoid strain later

The water plan sets an ambitious “stretch” goal of conserving 400,000 acre-feet of municipal and industrial water annually by 2050. That level of conservation would go a long way toward closing Colorado’s projected gap between water supply and demand—about 560,000 acre-feet per year in 2050 under a business-as-usual paradigm—and sharply reduce the need for new water supplies procured through controversial measures like new transbasin diversions or the dryup of irrigated agriculture.

Drew Beckwith, water policy manager for Western Resource Advocates, says achieving the goal will mean reducing per-capita water demand by about 1 percent per year between 2010 and 2050, so that each Coloradan’s demand 35 years from now will be 35 percent lower than it is today. “We’ve been achieving that rate of conservation over the last 15 years in Colorado, and water providers have told the state that they plan to continue doing it in the future, so there is lots of evidence that it’s possible,” Beckwith says.

Getting there will require long-term collaboration between state agencies and water utilities and their customers, whether those customers are motivated by their environmental ethos or a hefty water bill. To reach the goal, utilities will have to implement measures outlined in the “high conservation” scenario laid out in the 2010 Statewide Water Supply Initiative report by the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the agency that oversaw the water plan’s creation.

That scenario, which CWCB water conservation specialist Kevin Reidy calls “difficult but not impossible” to achieve, involves things like at least half of all utilities introducing individual water budgets for their customers, where water use targets are set and financial penalties imposed for above-average use. Other possibilities: Between 70 and 100 percent of municipalities might adopt conservation-oriented plumbing and building codes, and at least half of the water-hungry turf in the state might be replaced with low water-use plantings.

Much of the responsibility will rest on the shoulders of water providers and customers, but the water plan pledges that the state will also take steps to encourage conservation. One is to make comprehensive water resource planning by utilities a pre-condition of any state support of—or funding for—new water projects, thus requiring utilities to show they’re on track with conservation before receiving state funds. (Although utilities delivering at least 2,000 acre-feet of water per year are already required to submit conservation plans to the CWCB, the new mandate would require they integrate those plans with other aspects of their operations.)

“We believe that we can use incentives to push people in the right direction,” says Jacob Bornstein, CWCB program manager for the basin roundtables and Interbasin Compact Committee.

The water plan also recommends exploring a new state law that would require all outdoor irrigation equipment sold in Colorado to meet federal WaterSense efficiency standards.

Compared to the challenge of achieving the conservation goal, keeping tabs on progress will be relatively easy, thanks to a 2010 state law—House Bill 1051—requiring water providers (those that sell 2,000 acre-feet of water annually) to report their annual water use and conservation data to the CWCB to aid in water supply planning.

“Going forward we’ll have data that we can use to monitor our progress,” says Beckwith. “Also, if individual utilities are doing well with conservation we would expect them to publicize that. Maybe through a combination of record keeping and self-promotion, we will get there.”

 

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

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

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

By Samantha Wright

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

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

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

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

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

A toxic legacy

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

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

ARSG 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking a solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding money…and success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Colorado fall colors 10-13-11

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

By Zach Smith

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

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

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

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

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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.

Shepardson property (m) 10-13-11

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

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

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

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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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Filed under Agriculture, Environment, Instream Flow

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

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

By Greg Trainor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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