State of the River: Meeting notes action plan for ailing area waterways
May 18, 2017
It was a packed house for the annual Grand County State of the Rivers meeting Wednesday night for discussion related to the problems plaguing area rivers and to highlight remedies, ranging from weather modification to water sharing.
Anne Castle of the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment and former Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, delivered the keynote address to a crowd of engineers, biologists and community leaders at the Inn at Silver Creek in Granby.
"You don't have to be a hydrologic engineer to see that we've got a downward trend," said Castle, speaking to the lengthy history of decreasing water levels.
Castle said major problems have emerged over the last 16 years of extended drought in the Colorado River basin, measured through inflow and outflow of water through the Lake Mead Reservoir in Arizona and Nevada.
While the projected forecast this year has water levels at 123 percent of average, the projections are volatile.
Inflows and outflows are measured during a four month period from April to July, the peak runoff season. Because runoff outside of the peak season is fairly uniform from year to year, peak runoff statistics into Lake Powell and Mead serve as good proxies for the entire year, according to Castle.
The last 16 years have been the driest in the recorded history of the Colorado River, which dates back to the late 1800s, although tree ring studies allow for educated guesses farther back. This stems from a structural deficit wherein the demand for water outweighs the supply.
Lake Mead currently has about nine million acre feet (AF) of water per year in inflow, but releases 9.6 million AF and loses about .6 million AF in evaporation per year. This leaves a deficit of 1.2 million AF of water lost per year. One acre foot equates to 325,851 gallons. With the losses, Lake Mead loses about 12 feet of elevation every year.
The remedy includes the 2007 interim guidelines, drought contingency planning and minute 319.
The 2007 interim guidelines were a set of agreements between the Colorado River Basin states and the Department of the Interior that provided rules for operating Lake Mead and Lake Powell. It provided a plan for sharing water surplus and shortages for the lower basin states. This means that water deliveries to the lower basin can be reduced in times of drought.
Drought contingency planning includes weather modification, or cloud seeding, to increase rain or snow; drought operations, which is the relocation of water from reservoirs to lakes in danger of falling below critical levels; and voluntary demand reduction.
"That's pretty significant," commented Castle. "These are entitled water rights, but the owners of those water rights are agreeing to take less than they're entitled to benefit the entire system."
Minute 319 is a binational agreement between the United States and Mexico regarding guidelines for the Colorado River. The treaty expires at the end of this year and efforts are being made to implement a new plan called 32X. The new agreement would include a new water shortage sharing schedule between California, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.
Castle says that the issues facing the Colorado River serve as a macrocosm for Grand County.
"Let's bring this back to Grand County, because I think there's significant parallels," said Castle. "You, too, have voluntary agreements that have been hard-fought and hard-won, but are working now and benefiting all parties.
"But you've got more to be done."
Fraser River enters Restoration Project
Representatives from the Fraser River Restoration Project, a collaborative effort headed by a group called Learning By Doing and involving several other entities, is taking place near the Devil's Thumb road on the Fraser River.
The pilot project will focus on a one-mile stretch of the river, and is expected to cost about $200,000. Half will be restoration to private land on Devil's Thumb Ranch, which is investing half of the money, with the other half being funded by Denver Water, who will fund four tenths of a mile of restoration on public land.
"I'm looking forward in our lifetime to doing 20 miles or more of the Fraser River and its tributaries," said Kirk Klancke, president of the Colorado River Headwaters Chapter of Trout Unlimited and board member of the Grand County Water Information Network. "We have other sections that we're looking at that are just as important, but the science tells us to start here first."
The restoration was started to create better and more diverse habitats for fish and insects. Because of altering flows and a wide channel water in the Fraser Flats, it is very shallow and slow moving meaning the river lacks a variety of fish habitats.
The project will reshape the thalweg, the deepest part of the riverbed, so that the river will flow more smoothly and carry sediment without creating deposits in wide expanses. This will create deeper pools, curves and faster moving water which all promote growth in fish populations.
The other half of the project involves increasing vegetation along the riverbanks, with volunteers contributing to harvesting and planting willows.