Tag Archives: Instream Flow

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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Collaborative Watershed Management Highlights in the Roaring Fork Basin

By Chelsea Congdon Brundige, Public Counsel of the Rockies

In Colorado, everyone from irrigators and municipalities, law-makers and water districts, regulators and conservationists are scrambling to find ways to restore and protect the state’s over-tapped rivers. A top priority of the 2015 Colorado water plan is to balance the needs for water in agriculture, cities and industry with the need for water to protect healthy rivers and the iconic wildlife, recreation and alpine landscapes that sustain Colorado’s values, lifestyle and economy.

As director of the Water Program of Public Counsel of the Rockies, I have been working in the Roaring Fork watershed to design and implement projects that improve efficiency, accountability and collaboration in water management. Public Counsel brings strategic leadership to these projects, focusing on opportunities to leverage our local successes in the Roaring Fork watershed so they can serve as templates for efforts in other basins. I am thrilled that we will be able to share this work as part of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education’s Collaborative Water Management Tour on September 12, 2016  so that participants can learn what we are doing and can take some ideas home.

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Installing the gauge in Aspen.

Our projects address several “gaps” in Colorado water policy and management. For example, while the water plan prioritizes finding ways to balance the allocation of water between consumptive and non-consumptive uses, for the most part, stream flow gauges are not in place to record baseline flows or support administration of instream flows. Without accurate measurement, there is no way to know if instream flow rights are being met, how proposed water diversions might affect healthy baseflows, and how changes in flow are correlated to changes in stream health.

In Aspen, we partnered with Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) in 2014 to address the need for greater accountability and transparency in water management through better gauging and data collection. To this end, we helped site and install a prototype stream flow monitoring gauge on the Roaring Fork River in the heart of Aspen. The new gauge records and transmits data on flow, and captures pictures of the river corresponding to those flow levels. The data are accessed remotely and published by ACES. Plus, a City of Aspen interpretative sign at the river’s edge in the John Denver Sanctuary describes the issues of river health and benefits of monitoring flows.

This gauge is the first of several that can be installed as part of ACES’ Forest Health Index to collect data to support stewardship of our forests and watershed. Data from the gauge helps us correlate the condition of our rivers with the condition of our forest, and provides a baseline for resource management decisions. As importantly, the gauge is strategically located to allow water rights administration and water accounting for several imminent projects designed to deliver water to this distressed reach of the Roaring Fork to enhance instream flows. We have worked with many partners to bring this stream gauge prototype project to fruition including: ACES, City of Aspen, the Colorado Water Trust, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and the Colorado River District. Here is a link to the streamflow data.

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A reach of the Crystal River.

Colorado’s Water Plan identifies stream management planning as critical for 80 percent of priority river basins in the state, and identifies the need for greater stakeholder engagement around water management—but there are few examples to draw on. Beginning in 2012, Public Counsel began working with Roaring Fork Conservancy and Lotic Hydrological to plan, fund, and lead a state-of-the-art stream management plan for the Crystal River, from Marble to the confluence with the Roaring Fork. During drought years, the combined demands for water in irrigated agriculture and demands for water in the Town of Carbondale for municipal use and irrigation of parks and open space lead to water shortages for some agricultural producers and impairment of river and riparian health. This plan, completed in December 2015, provides a detailed, science-based assessment of the “health” of the river, meter by meter and reach by reach, based on dozens of metrics. Our team developed an Ecological Decision Support System (EcoDSS) to evaluate countless water management and restoration options (including costs) for restoring this river. Beginning in October 2015, Public Counsel launched and professionally staffed a collaborative process with all irrigators and other stakeholders on the Crystal to prioritize projects that can be implemented to restore the River.

This project is one of the first stream management plans in Colorado. Our approach, modeling and stakeholder process are serving as blueprints for planning efforts just getting off the ground in the San Miguel watershed, the Gunnison, the Upper Roaring Fork through Aspen, and the Upper Colorado River basin. Building on our work on the Crystal River, Public Counsel is poised to leverage our successes and “lessons learned” to advance stream management planning and stakeholder collaboration around water management. Find the Crystal River Management Plan here

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On the Crystal River.

Finally, Public Counsel has been working on behalf of the Snowmass Capitol Creek Caucus in a multi-decade effort to guarantee the maintenance of healthy stream flows in Snowmass Creek. Snowmass Creek supplies water for agriculture, municipal uses, domestic needs and snowmaking in two basins, the Snowmass Creek basin and the Brush Creek basin (where the Town of Snowmass Village is located). The history here is long, but in recent years, the caucus developed a sophisticated analysis enabling water managers to project future instream flows in the Creek as a function of growth, climate change and other factors.

This analysis has informed the efforts of the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District (in the neighboring Brush Creek basin) to operate Ziegler Reservoir and other components of their water infrastructure to help buffer Snowmass Creek from diversions during periods of low flow. The district has aggressively invested in leak detection and other measures to dramatically reduce treated water losses and increase water conservation. The caucus, in turn, has used the same analysis to develop water conservation guidelines for residents in the Snowmass Creek valley and has published a Water Users Guide for Protecting Flows in Snowmass Creek—find a link to the guide here.

On September 12, CFWE is hosting a tour so that participants can see and learn first-hand about these and other exemplary collaborative water management projects throughout the Roaring Fork watershed. I look forward to the opportunity to share these projects in person. Don’t miss it… come ready to learn, ask questions and discuss. Find the agenda and register here.

Learn more about collaborative work in the Roaring Fork watershed in August 2016 blog post, “A rancher, a scientist, an angler and a conservationist walk into a room.”

CCB on AJAX2 Chelsea Congdon Brundige is a water strategist with Public Counsel of the Rockies engaged in developing collaborative and innovative practices to improve the long-term stewardship of western rivers. Since 2012, Chelsea has been working in partnership with local watershed organizations and hydrologists to design highly visible and replicable projects in the Roaring Fork watershed that improve accountability and stakeholder engagement around water management. This work focuses on distressed river reaches in the Roaring through Aspen, on Snowmass Creek, and on the Crystal River. In December 2015, Ms. Brundige — working in partnership with Roaring Fork Conservancy and Lotic Hydrological — completed an 18-month stream management plan and stakeholder process to characterize the health of the Crystal River and prioritize restoration options.

Ms. Brundige’s work with Public Counsel of the Rockies draws on her 2 decades of professional experience as a water resource specialist with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in California and Colorado, and her work in communication as a writer and producer with First Light Films, an independent film and television company based in Snowmass, Colorado.

Chelsea graduated from Yale University in 1982, magna cum laude.  She earned a M.A. from the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California in Berkeley in 1989. Chelsea served as a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on the Future of Irrigation from 1994 to 1996. She currently serves on the Board of Trustees of Western Resource Advocates, Colorado Rocky Mountain School, and the Snowmass Capitol Creek Caucus.

 

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Water Lease Could Wet the Yampa River

Stagecoach Reservoir.

Yesterday, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District‘s Board of Directors reached an agreement, approving a water lease with the Colorado Water Trust and Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Instream Flow Program. As a Water Trust/Upper Yampa press release says:

CWT is leasing 4,000 acre feet of storage water owned by Upper Yampa in Stagecoach Reservoir, an on-stream reservoir on the Yampa River, to make strategic releases for hydropower and for streamflow benefits below the reservoir.

“We’re incredibly excited about moving this lease forward.  Getting the agreement in place and into the state approval process was the first and biggest step,” said Colorado Water Trust staff attorney Zach Smith.

The agreement comes at a needed time. “We know that this lease only provides a fraction of what the Yampa needs,” Smith said. “Flows on the Yampa through Steamboat fell below 50 cfs today, yet the mean flow for this day of the year at that gauge is 1140 cfs.  That story is similar around the state.  Obviously, we can’t provide that much water, but we can do our best working within the temporary instream flow statute and with the water available on the market to give it a boost.  Upper Yampa and CWCB have been tremendous partners in thoughtfully and carefully expediting this process.”

An article on the lease from Steamboat Today reports:

If the Trust were to release the water steadily, it is estimated it would generate a flow of about 26.5 cubic feet per second from July 1 through the middle of September — perhaps not enough to restore recreation in the form of tubing on the town stretch of the river, but enough to protect the resource.

Local officials closed the Yampa to commercial tubing last week, and issued a voluntary closure for fishing, swimming, kayaking and private tubing– low flows aren’t just putting the river in danger, they’re also affecting the economy, according to an article in the Denver Post. Continue reading

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Colorado Water Trust Employs New Tactics in Drought Response

The Colorado Water Trust just kicked off its pilot drought response water leasing program this year. Visit the CWT website or schedule a public informational meeting to learn more about leasing your water rights this summer.

Colorado Water Trust seeks willing water users interested in pilot water leasing program

Across the state, many Colorado water-users are preparing for drought conditions this year.  According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, streamflow forecasts indicate flows are likely to be below average to well below average in all basins across the state due to low snowpack combined with a dry spring and warmer than usual March temperatures.  This is creating concerns for Colorado’s water users and the state’s rivers, on which waterfowl, wildlife, fish, bugs, and plants depend.

This year, the Colorado Water Trust (CWT) intends to utilize Colorado’s short-term leasing statute for the very first time to put water back in the state’s rivers while compensating water users at fair market value for choosing to participate in the program.  Under the pilot program, CWT will be leasing water from willing water users to place into the State’s Instream Flow Program.  An instream flow water right is treated in Colorado’s water allocation system just like any other water right, but is decreed for nonconsumptive, in-channel use in order to preserve the natural environment to a reasonable degree.

“We intend to put this statute to work to make a difference both to water users facing what could be an uncertain summer if conditions don’t improve and to the state’s rivers,” says Amy Beatie, Esq., executive director of CWT.  The Colorado short-term leasing statute, created through widespread, bi-partisan support in 2003, allows water users to bypass the long “change of use” process in water court and temporarily loan their water to streams within a matter of weeks through a state administrative approval process. Continue reading

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