Fall 2015

Top Stories

Gold King Mine ‘Incident’

By now, most everyone has heard of the August 5, 2015 accidental release of more than 3 million gallons of acidic mine waste into the Animas River and Cement Creek above Silverton, CO. The mishap occurred at the Gold King Mine in San Juan County, approximately one hour north of the City of Durango, when a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) safety crew investigating possible alternatives for remediation at the mine triggered a large release of wastewater, which resulted in acidic mine water containing metals and sediment flowing as an orange-colored discharge downstream. The risk was inherent in the remediation process. According to Steve Fearn, a respected Silverton engineer familiar with the Gold King Mine, “the problem was that neither EPA nor their contractor took adequate precautions in removing the blockage at the portal and they did not have facilities prepared to minimize the impact in case they lost control of the discharge. They also did not have a plan for notification of downstream parties in a timely basis nor had they analyzed what the potential toxicity might be.” Much to their credit, the EPA has admitted all of this.

People & Organizations

Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs Steps Down

After almost two decades on the bench, Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs officially retired on August 31st. When Governor Romer appointed Hobbs to the state’s highest court in 1996, it was the realization of a career-long goal for the attorney. But Greg jokes a little about the day he learned he would be Romer’s pick. When asked why he should appoint Hobbs to the Court, Greg replied that he holds the institutional knowledge of the various panels that work on natural resources issues, he’s drafted bills for the Legislature, and he has worked collaboratively with citizens’ boards and commissions. That’s what Romer wanted—someone who knew how to get along with what was then a fractious group. Upon appointing him, however, Romer said “Get a tie—a real tie.” Twenty years later Greg is still known for wearing his characteristic bolo ties. “Like Sam did!” says Greg. While counsel for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District for 17 years, Greg worked closely with Frank “Sam” Maynes on many pieces of state and federal water legislation affecting the state.

U.S. Forest Service & Wildfires

According to a recently released report, costs to battle ever-increasing and massive wildfires have “decimated” the budget of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) charged with fighting the blazes. For the first time in its 110-year history, the USFS reports it spends more than 50% of its annual budget on firefighting at the expense of other programs to prevent the infernos.

CWCB Finalizes Dry Gulch Loan

The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) officially approved an agreement with the San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) to restructure the financing of the Dry Gulch water storage project. In 2002, after a severe drought and massive wildfires, the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) began working with the SJWCD to develop a water storage facility at Dry Gulch.

Mancos Water Conservancy District

At a September public meeting, the Mancos Water Conservancy District (MWCD) board continued discussion about obtaining title transfer of irrigation facilities from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR). At the meeting they heard from two out-of-state irrigation managers who benefited from title transfer. Invited guests were Gary Esslinger, Manager for the Elephant Butte Irrigation District in New Mexico, and Tom Knutson, retired General Manager of the Farwell Irrigation District in Nebraska. Both reported that the title process was time consuming and not easy but that it was worth it in the end for their districts.

Telluride’s San Miguel River Restoration Project

In July, the Town of Telluride Open Space Commission approved nearly $1 million in funding for a project to reroute the San Miguel River back to its original course on the Valley Floor. Approximately 125 years ago, the river was channelized, or straightened, to hug the southern edge of the valley and make transportation of goods down the waterway easier. In 2008, the town purchased the Valley Floor, and one of the main goals of that purchase was to restore the river to its original, meandering course across the conservation easement west of town.

Current Events

Water Emergency Staved at Lake Mead

With unusually high rainfall in May and June, the second-highest level of precipitation during that period in the past 108 years, trailing only 1983, Lake Mead water levels were boosted thereby averting a possible water emergency that would have triggered cuts in water allocations next year. Officials had warned as recently as June that there was a 33 percent chance of a “Tier 1” water shortage in 2016, which occurs when the water level in Lake Mead drops below an elevation of 1,075 feet. A Tier 1 declaration would result in a cut of 320,000 acre-feet to Arizona’s share of Colorado River water, about an 11 percent reduction. In August the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) reported that there would not be an emergency declaration. Lake Mead’s elevation was at 1,078.24 feet at the end of August. In addition to dropping the chances of a Tier 1 declaration to zero for 2016, the BOR lowered predictions for 2017 from the 75 percent chance it was looking at this summer to just 18 percent in the latest report. While the findings are good news for all seven states in the Colorado River basin, the drought is definitely not over but this will buy time to find more collaborative solutions.

Colorado Water and Growth Dialogue

Whose job is it to worry if a city, town, or rural area's water supply is sustainable? Some believe it’s a planner’s obligation to consider the long-term security of water supply, while others contend that securing a sustainable water supply too overarching for a single planner and department. Complicating the issue is the fact that not everyone who deals in water supply and land use is on the same page. Land use planning is typically a local governmental concern, while water planning and allocation occur on multiple local, state, and federal levels. The traditional disconnect between planning and land use decisions and current and future water supply realities can preclude a sustainable balance between water supply and growth. To-these-ends, the Colorado Water Institute and the Keystone Policy Center have joined forces for a two-year project to tackle what they call the “dilemma” of water use in Colorado. The project, referred to as the Colorado Water and Growth Dialogue, is an attempt to explore and demonstrate how the integration of water and land use planning should be utilized to reduce water demand from the development and re-development associated with the projected population increases. This approach to planning aims to direct and incentivize smart, water-wise growth in lieu of allowing pure market conditions to guide how Colorado grows. 

Recreation Work at Lake Nighthorse

According to Ed Warner, Area Manager of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s (BOR) Western Colorado Area Office, the BOR is working with all the Animas-La Plata Project partners and stakeholders to reach consensus regarding development and management of recreation at Lake Nighthorse. Current recreation work includes: working on a recreation lease and annexation agreement with the City of Durango, developing a cultural resource management plan for the reservoir area in accordance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, preparing National Environmental Policy Act documents, and finalizing construction plans and contracts for the Lake Nighthorse entrance area and aquatic invasive species inspection station to be constructed this fall and winter. The proposed recreation concept plan prepared by the City of Durango, is available on the City’s website at http://co-durango.civicplus.com/DocumentCenter/View/4358.  

Water Quality / Conservation

Millennials: Target of Water Conservationists

Research indicates that many millennials, those born in the early 1980s to 2000s, in Colorado don’t understand the value of water or how it gets to their tap. That is why water conservation advocates in the state are targeting this group with a campaign that aims to educate them about the value of water. In June LoveColoradoWater.org was launched by Colorado WaterWise, a statewide group that advocates for water conservation. The website is part of the “Live Like You Love It” campaign, which aims at delivering a consistent message about the value of Colorado water and the need to conserve. LoveColoradoWater.org will serve as a hub for information on how to conserve and care for water. The website includes facts about how Coloradans receive their water, tips on conserving indoor and outdoor water, and pointers to protect water quality.

Global Water Quality

According to a recently released white paper by Veolia and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), global water quality is expected to take a plunge in the coming years. "This assessment reveals that levels of BOD, N, and P discharged into water bodies around the world are already alarmingly high. This situation is projected to worsen substantially over the next several decades as loadings of these substances will continue to increase, posing greater risks to aquatic environments and human health, especially in developing countries," the white paper said.

Water Law

Prior Appropriation System Test Projects

Colorado water rights owners are testing the state's prior appropriation or "use it or lose it" rule that penalizes those who divert less than their full allotment from rivers, thereby opening a potential path to cut water use as shortages continue throughout the American West. For 139 years, state enforcers have said farmers, cities and ranchers who don't use all the water they are entitled to could have their rights curtailed. Critics have said that discourages conservation. A first deal in the works, made possible by a 2013 law, lets a ranch owner near Granby leave water in Willow Creek, a tributary of the Colorado River, without facing penalties. A second deal would leave more water in the Roaring Fork River, another Colorado River tributary, in Aspen. Colorado Farm Bureau (CFB) leaders said they're watching to make sure water left in rivers by those who don't exercise their senior rights stays available to next-in-priority irrigators. "We're definitely taking a wait-and-see approach," CFB president Don Shawcroft said.

Robbins Urges Proactive Water Protection Legislation on the Dolores

According to a recent Cortez Journal article, David Robbins, a prominent Colorado water attorney, concluded that a proposed national conservation area on the Lower Dolores River is a good way to protect local water rights against perceived federal threats. Robbins analyzed and provided in a 14-page legal review, of the various federal risks to local water rights on the Lower Dolores River including a National Conservation Area (NCA), national monument, wilderness area, wild and scenic river, and the Endangered Species Act, plus others. “The challenge for (local counties) is not if additional federal land management actions will be proposed and occur, but when and in what form,” Robbins wrote.

Energy and Water

USGS Study Points to Fracking’s Thirst

A new study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in partnership with the American Geophysical Union, indicates that hydraulic fracking operations in the U.S. has skyrocketed in the last 15 years, consuming more than 28 times the water they did a mere decade and a half  ago.

WIP News

The Great Divide Film Debut and Southwest Colorado Showings

The debut of the much anticipated film The Great Divide occurred on August in Denver. There were more than 600 people in attendance and all proceeds went toward the purchase of a DVD copy of the film for every public library in Colorado. Understatedly, the film, with its wonderful cinematography and original music, was well received not only at the premier but with multiple viewings across the state. In southwest Colorado a showing on September 9th in Cortez yielded more than 100 attendees, September 10th in Durango nearly 200, and September 12th in Pagosa Springs over 100.

Water 101 Seminar

The 9th Annual Water 101 Seminar was conducted in Bayfield this year and was another success. Including presenters there were over 60 in attendance.

Pilot October 23rd Water and Land Use Planning Session (Durango, CO)

The pressures of reduced water supplies intersecting with increased population and the need for adequate housing are prompting a more urgent look at the water and land use planning connection. To these ends there will be a pilot water and land use planning work session for land use planners, water utility personnel, local government officials, and other interested parties on October 23rd from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm at the La Plata County Administration Building (1101 East 2nd Avenue in Durango).

Book Review: The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi, 2015

The following book review is provided by Laura Spann, with the SWCD:

What would happen if the American Southwest experienced a prolonged drought in the very near future? How would the metropolitan water managers of Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles respond? What does compact curtailment look like in a world where water is not just power but survival? From our distant worries, Paolo Bacigalupi extrapolates an apocalyptic future in which the Southern Nevada Water Authority “water witch” Catherine Case will do anything--including sending hitmen and air attacks on water treatment plants--to ensure no junior users get a drop more than their water rights dictate. Blue Mesa Dam is bombed by Lower Basin water magnates, annihilating the Aspinall Unit, flooding Delta, and sending the State of Colorado’s allocation downstream. Nothing is off limits.

WIP’s Participating Entity, SWCD, Update

At their June 9th Board meeting the following 9 grants were funded by the SWCD:

Water History

Colorado River History

The Colorado River was once called the Grand River, and nearly 100 years ago, on July 25, 2012, Congressman Edward Taylor helped to persuade Congress to officially change the river’s name to what it is now. As Taylor stated of the Grand River, it is "a meaningless misnomer because practically everything in Colorado is grand."

Miscellaneous Facts

What is Reservoir Turnover?

A turnover is when water basically flips in a body of water. Turnovers in reservoirs are from temperature stratifications and can cause taste and odor issues with the water. A turnover can be caused by high temperatures during the day and low temps at night, such as what southwest Colorado experienced in August at both the Vallecito and Town of Bayfield reservoirs. They also can take place later in the fall or early in the spring when air temperatures match the water temperature. When the surface temperature of the water cools below 50 degrees, the water on the top grows heavier, so it goes down to the bottom of the reservoir, and the water on the bottom rises to the top.