State of the River address reaffirms a new ‘water reality’ for Colorado
Coloradans and all those who rely on the Colorado River must begin to accept a new reality as reserves in the lower basin become more difficult to fill, that is according to Andy Mueller, who replaced Eric Kuhn as the Colorado River District’s general manager in December.
Mueller included those words in his keynote address last week during the Colorado River District’s State of the River presentation for Grand County at the Inn at SilverCreek in Granby. The presentation also featured updates on the Fraser Flats River Habitat Project and Windy Gap modifications, but reinforced the notion of a changing water “reality.”
“We have been in an 18-year period of what I would consider a new water reality,” said Mueller. “People will call it a drought, but the reality is that over the last 18 years we’ve seen the snowpack above Lake Powell drop to 59 percent, and the inflow is at just 42 percent of average.”
Colorado is under obligation to deliver 75 million acre feet of water to Lake Powell, which serves as something of a savings account for the river’s stakeholders in the lower basin, every 10 years according to the Colorado River Compact signed in 1929. But Lake Powell, located in Utah, hasn’t been filled since 1999, and data suggests there could be a long-term problem.
Agricultural uses on the western slope account for a majority of the water depletions in the Colorado River Basin, about 1.3 million acre feet, according to Mueller. Municipalities and industry on the eastern slope take the next biggest piece of the pie with more than 360,000 acre feet. East slope agriculture takes about 180,000 acre feet, and municipalities and industry on the western slope take just 77,000 due to its relatively small population.
This is important because agricultural users have senior water rights, which keeps water flowing west to support Colorado’s recreational activities like fishing and rafting. It also helps to support better wildlife habitats and scenic pastures that provide value to the quality of life in western Colorado.
“Often times we’re boating and fishing on someone’s irrigation water,” Mueller said. “We should be thankful for those farmers and ranchers who pull that water downstream.”
But the lack of water making it to Lake Powell is an issue.
Officials expect about three million acre feet of water to make it into Lake Powell between May and July, the biggest water quarter of the year. But three million acre feet is only about 42 percent of the historical average for that time period, and an extended drought that drops the inflow below the amount required by the compact could have dire economic consequences for the state.
“If we run into a situation where our deliveries drop below that required amount, we’re looking at a call from the Department of the Interior,” said Mueller. “Under federal law, according to the compact that our predecessors sign, they could curtail all of our post-compact water rights, and we could lose significant economic activity as a result.”
Continued shortages also raise concerns about speculative purchases of western farmlands by those looking to acquire water rights.
“We don’t want the municipal providers so insecure that they decide to come over and start buying agriculture on the western slope, in anticipation of that moment when they can dry it up and send the water down stream,” said Mueller.
So why is there a shortage, and what can be done about it?
While consumption numbers have remained relatively stable, scientists posit that low inflow numbers correspond with hotter summers, windier days, longer growing seasons, population growth and historical overuse in the lower basin. Estimates of flow sensitivity to temperature assume that by mid-century river flow will have decreased by 20 percent, and 35 percent by the end of the century if steps aren’t taken.
There are several possible solutions to address the issue, some more desirable than others. One possibility is simply demand management, a process that would essentially include everyone agreeing to a voluntary and temporary reduction in water consumption to assist in the creation and filling of a special pool in Lake Powell.
Mueller also brought up the possibility of cloud seeding, a literal weather modification process that increases snowfall numbers by vaporizing silver iodide particles into the atmosphere. But most importantly, we need to rethink our land use planning and the way we use water, according to Mueller.
“We’ve got to adapt to this new reality,” Mueller repeated. “We need to start rethinking our land use planning, put it in the forefront and take it on head-on. We believe there’s a lot of value in smarter urban landscaping.”
Fraser River health improving just one year after Fraser Flats project
Another topic of discussion at the Grand County State of the River meeting was the Fraser Flats River Habitat Project, a cooperative effort led by Grand County Learning By Doing and partners to rehabilitate a one-mile stretch of aquatic habitat along the Fraser River, re-vegetate the stream channel and open up a new section of public fishing.
Officials from Colorado Trout Unlimited, including Chapter President Kirk Klancke, and Jessica Alexander, an environmental scientist from Denver Water, reported notable improvements in the river’s health just one year after the project’s start.
Last May, more than 150 volunteers came out to help with the project, harvesting 4,000 willow stakes and planting cottonwoods on the banks of the project site. The river itself was also reshaped to be slimmer and provide deeper habitats that accommodate different levels of flow.
In the long-term, Learning by Doing is hoping the project will create mature riparian vegetation, natural bank stabilization and increases in the macroinvertebrate population. But short-term, the improvements are already paying dividends.
Fish populations rose dramatically in the area after the project. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the number of Brown trout rose from just 26 in 2016 to more than 110 in 2017, and the number of Rainbow trout rose from six to 16.
To celebrate, Learning by Doing is holding a dedication ceremony for the parcel at 4 p.m. May 16, at which point .41 miles of the river will open for public fishing. Learning by Doing and Trout Unlimited have already begun to plan their next project, the Ranch Creek Vegetation Project. They’re asking for volunteers to come out on May 19 to harvest willow stakes, and again on June 2 and 3 to plant them. Interested parties can go to coheadwaters.org to sign up.
Windy Gap Modification still in need of more funding
Ed Moyer, assistant county manager for Grand County, was also present at the meeting to provide an update on the Windy Gap Modification and Connectivity Channel, a project meant to address the reservoir acting as a barrier to aquatic organism and sediment flow, hopefully improving the overall health of the Colorado River downstream of the reservoir.
The project, a requirement of the Windy Gap Firming Project, will include moving the south dam north to a new embankment line, and creating a one-mile stream connectivity channel that will connect the river above and below the reservoir, easing transport for fish and sediment.
The project partners have managed to raise more than $11.5 million of the $15.4 million budget from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Municipal Subdistrict – Northern Water, CWCB and several others. The remaining $3.9 million must still be raised before the project can move forward, as well as an environmental assessment from the NRCS, which will take place mid-May.
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