The State of the Colorado River |

The State of the Colorado River

Things are looking relatively good this summer for the upper Colorado River Basin though the seemingly good news is tempered by the broader view of water levels and droughts hampering much of the American west as well as a sobering outlook at what lies ahead. Officials from the Colorado River District, along with representatives from Denver Water, Northern Water, Grand County Water Information Network and local conservationists like Kirk Klancke, President of the Grand County Chapter of Trout Unlimited, outlined the current state of the rivers, streams and tributaries in Grand County as well as broader discussions of the overall state of the Colorado River Basin at a recent State of the River meeting held at Mountain Parks Electric in Granby. General Manager for the Colorado River District Eric Kuhn cut right to the point during his presentation saying, "In Colorado conditions are okay to wet with full reservoirs, decent stream flows and few supply problems." The broader picture is not so rosy though. "Basin wide system storage is declining. Lower Basin states are facing shortages and Upper Basin states are planning for them." It is a tale of two separate realities with the Upper Basin and Lower Basin experiencing significantly different conditions. According to Kuhn's presentation Colorado and the Front Range area of the State have been wet for the last two-and-a-half-years. The relatively high amounts of precipitation seen on the eastern side of the continental divide, including deluges in the fall of 2013 that caused significant road damage, have kept reservoirs and water storage sites east of the divide fairly full. This has kept transmountain diversions of water through places like the Alva B. Adams Tunnel and Moffat Tunnel to a minimal level. The Lower Basin region however is dealing with a structural deficit and several portions of the basin are dry. Much of the structural deficit felt in the Lower Basin comes down to simple math. According to figures provided by Kuhn Lake Mead receives roughly 9-million-acre-feet each year in inflows from the Colorado River and other local tributary inflows while releasing roughly 9.6-million-acre-feet per year. Additionally Mead loses roughly 600,000 acre-feet per year to evaporation, leaving the lower Basin with a structural deficit of about 1.2 million-acre-feet annually. In layman's terms this means that each year Lake Mead's storage level declines by about 12 feet. Looking at the math for the entire Colorado River Basin shows use levels at around 16 to 17.5 million-acre-feet annually. The structural deficit of the Lower Basin is made additionally concerning by two factors: intense droughts that have plagued the western US and southern California especially leading to depleted ground water and diminished aquifers, and historic weather trends where significant droughts have followed behind El Nino weather systems. El Nino is the term for a regularly occurring weather system affecting the Pacific Ocean marked by warm ocean currents and often resulting in higher than average precipitation. El Nino events typically last multiple years at a time and recur every few years. We are currently in an El Nino cycle that is expected to end this year. In 2000 when Colorado began experiencing a significant drought that lasted several years the drought immediately followed a wet El Nino cycle in the late 1990s. Similar trends have occurred historically and officials who oversee the flow of the Colorado River are additionally concerned because of the already diminished storage levels in the River's reservoir storage system. The Colorado River Basin can hold a total of roughly 60 million-acre-feet of water among all the large Bureau of Reclamation Reservoirs such as Mead and Powell, which together have a capacity of 50 million-acre-feet. The 60 million-acre-feet storage capacity does not take into account smaller local reservoirs such as Granby and Wolford Mountain. During his presentation Kuhn explained how not a single drop of water from the Colorado River has reached the ocean for the last 18 years. If historic weather patterns hold and predictions come true the next few years could prove troublesome for the Colorado River Basin, and the entire western US as a whole.

State water plan: New Colorado River diversion possible

Western Slope water interests still reeling from the Gross Expansion Project may barely have enough time to catch their breath before they're again summoned to the bargaining table. The Colorado Water Conservation Board presented the first full draft of its 2014 Colorado Water Plan to Gov. John Hickenlooper on Wednesday, Dec. 10, and the document identifies an additional trans-mountain diversion as a possible solution for growing demands on the Front Range. The water plan is the result of a 2013 executive order from Hickenlooper, which sought to establish a cohesive plan for the state's future water use in the face of a growing population. Regarding another diversion, the plan "seeks to find a path forward that considers the option of developing a new (trans-mountain diversion), while addressing many of the concerns expressed by the Colorado Basin roundtable and others." The threat of another trans-mountain diversion has loomed behind the development of localized basin implementation plans for each of Colorado's eight largest river basins. The South Platte/Metro Basin roundtables have called for new Colorado River water supplies since their draft plan was released this summer. The state water plan outlines seven "points of consensus" for a new diversion, one of which states that the Eastern Slope isn't seeking firm yield from a new diversion, and that it "would accept hydrologic risk for that project." But Grand County Manager Lurline Underbrink Curran said many of those points are overly vague. "What does risk mean?," Curran said. "What does a new (trans-mountain diversion) mean? What does that mean when you have millions of people relying on it? The devil is in the details." Grand County has been active in the Colorado Basin Roundtable, which has actively opposed any new trans-mountain diversion from the Colorado River. Jim Pokrandt, chair of the Colorado Basin Roundtable, said in an email that the Western Slope basin roundtables would probably draft an official response at their Dec. 18 meeting in Grand Junction. Pokrandt did provide a list of points from a November discussion, in which the Colorado Basin Roundtable calls it "premature" to include the seven points in the state water plan. "We need to recognize that there may come a point where we cannot back down," the document states, "where we will need to take a stand for the sake of the West Slope and Colorado as a whole." In past discussions, Pokrandt has maintained that any additional diversions from the Colorado River could trigger a compact call, in which junior water rights holders must stop diverting to supply Lower Basin states with water. A compact call could impact municipal and other users on the West Slope, including the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. Each basin will submit its final basin implementation plan to the Colorado Water Conservation Board in April 2015. The board will submit its final state water plan to the governor in December 2015. To view the draft state water plan, visit

Colorado health plan a model for United States

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Monday that Colorado is a model for expanding health care for children after the state successfully enrolled 67,000 more children in Medicaid and children’s health programs. Now the federal government wants to expand the program to other states with $40 million in grants. Sebelius said the federal program will include state and local government programs, church outreach groups, child care centers, schools, community centers and American Indian tribes, and provide from $25,000 up to $1 million for programs that prove successful. She said over the next four years, more than $100 million will be available for outreach efforts. “The grants come at a very important time. Unemployment in this country has now reached 9.5 percent and when parents lose their jobs, they often lose health coverage for themselves and their children, so covering America’s children has never been more important,” Sebelius said in a conference call with Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and reporters. Sebelius said the grants help support President Barack Obama’s new Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act, which is aimed at ensuring millions of currently uninsured children across the country get the health care they need. Ritter said Colorado reached out to families with uninsured children, even though the state is facing a serious budget crisis. To pay for the program, Ritter recently signed a bill imposing new fees on hospitals that will be used to get federal matching dollars for a total of $1.2 billion a year. The money will be used to expand the number of people covered by Medicaid and the state’s health insurance program for children. It will also be used to increase payments to hospitals that treat the uninsured. “We’ve made covering kids a top priority in Colorado. Working in partnership with community-based organizations like schools, childcare centers and faith-based groups, we have dramatically increased outreach and enrollment efforts and those efforts are paying off,” Ritter said. Cindy Mann, a Medicaid director who will oversee the grants, said states have been effective in enrolling over 30 million children in Medicaid and more than 7 million children in child health programs, but there are still millions of uninsured, low-income children who are not enrolled in the programs even though they are eligible.

Middle Park snowpack remains above average as spring runoff begins

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Kremmling Field Office snow surveyors endured 60 degree days and burning sun to take the May 1 snow survey measurements during the last days of April. This is the final snow survey of the year, as the spring runoff has begun. Snowpack in the high-elevation mountains above Middle Park now ranges from 30 percent to 169 percent (average 123 percent) of the 30-year average. This is the highest May snowpack since 1996 and 1997, and considerably more than last year when it was 24 percent to 113 percent of average on May 1. Year-to-date precipitation in the Upper Colorado River Basin is 118 percent. Irrigators and river runners can look forward to above average spring runoff, which is now governed by temperature, wind, and possibly a few late spring storms. Today’s storm confirms Mark “Doctor” Volt’s thesis that “the only trouble with spring in this country is that winter is just around the corner.” Snowpack at low- to mid-elevation in Middle Park has been above average all winter, but is melting fast and is already gone at the lowest elevations. Deer and elk remain on their winter and early spring ranges, foraging on south and west slopes melted or blown clear of snow. Snow density is averaging 38 percent, which means that each foot of snow contains 4.5 inches of water. Statewide, snowpack is average to above average, with the highest snowpack in the Arkansas, Gunnison, and Colorado River basins. Reported readings for the major river basins in Colorado are as follows: – The upper Colorado River Basin averages 119 percent – Gunnison River Basin, 122 percent – South Platte River Basin, 101 percent – Yampa and White River Basins, 112 percent – Arkansas River Basin, 125 percent – Upper Rio Grande Basin, 109 percent – San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan River Basins 109 percent – Laramie and North Platte River Basins, 107 percent of average for this time of year. Most of the snow courses around Middle Park have been read since the 1930s. Snow course readings are taken at the end of each month, beginning in January and continuing through April. March is historically the snowiest month, and the April 1 readings are the most critical for predicting runoff and summer water supplies, as most of our high country snowpack peaks around that time. For further information, visit

Colorado State Water Plan topic of Granby meeting

GRANBY — Experts from Audubon Rockies will be on hand Wednesday night, Aug. 12, at the Inn at Silver Creek in Granby to discuss the pending Colorado Water Plan and its effects on Granby. This is an opportunity for local residents to hear about and comment on the state's first-ever water plan, and the recommendations already in it, including those that could affect the area's national ecosystems, wildlife, rafting, fishing, tourism and recreational economies. The Colorado State Water Plan is in its second draft and the public has limited time to make their voices heard before the final plan is presented to Gov. Hickenlooper. The plan will impact how Colorado manages its resources amid a significant population expansion statewide, ongoing drought and increasing demand for water. "Communities like Granby have much at stake with the water plan, because rivers that run through here are priceless habitats for fish, birds and many other animals," said Abby Burk, Western Rivers Outreach Specialist, Audubon Rockies. "Our call is for the plan to identify funding for healthy flowing rivers so we can protect wildlife and help support our $9 billion-a-year outdoor recreation economy." Colorado rivers are under stress because of reduced flows due to many out-of-stream uses. Among other things, Audubon experts will assert the plan should include dedicated funding toward meeting environmental and recreational needs to ensure residents and wildlife of Granby are not harmed by the long-term effects of the plan. To learn more about the Colorado State Water plan, visit or

Pueblo joins plan to tap Colorado River

PUEBLO (AP) – The Pueblo Board of Water Works is joining other Front Range water providers in hiring a consultant to study a plan to bring water from the Colorado River over the Continental Divide.The Front Range Water Council began meeting about three years ago after the state renewed studies of Colorado’s entitlement of water under the Colorado River Compact.The council represents Denver, Aurora, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Twin Lakes Reservoir & Canal Co., the Northern Water Conservancy District and Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District.According to the Pueblo Chieftain, the council was formed after the Colorado Water Conservation Board began studying how the state would deal with shortages if there was a call on the river by California, Arizona and Nevada.

State of the Colorado River: An unusual year for snowpack, runoff

It's been a fickle season for snowpack, and runoff could go either way in this unusual water year. That was the message delivered by regional water managers at the Colorado River District's State of the River meeting on Tuesday evening, May 26, in Granby. During the meeting, officials from the Upper Colorado River Basin's biggest water interests including Northern Water, Denver Water and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spoke about some of the basin's biggest issues, including the state of runoff and snowpack in the region and the movement at Ritschard Dam on Wolford Mountain Reservoir. Though snowpack seemed to falter during what proved to be a rather dry March, it's been building steadily over the last three to four weeks, explained Don Meyer with the Colorado River District. The variations in snowpack have pushed the basin into "uncharted territory," he said. "I think the message here is think 2010 in terms of snowpack," Meyer said. Though he added that snowpack is not analogous to runoff, Meyer said 2015 "will likely eclipse 2010 in terms of stream flow." Victor Lee with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation echoed Meyer, adding that recent cold temperatures across the region have allowed snowpack to persist. Though snowpack is currently below average, it could linger past the point at which the average snowpack tends to drop. However, everything is still up in the air, Lee said. "I just want to stress that there's a lot of uncertainty with the snowpack," he said. If the current snowpack does translate into high runoff in Grand County, there may not be anywhere to put it, Lee said. Front Range reservoirs are full, and storage in Lake Granby is the highest it's ever been for this time of year, according to Lee's presentation. "We're way above what we've ever seen in the past," he said. The result will likely be higher flows from Lake Granby. Though it could be a good runoff year for Grand County, Meyer said that snow-water equivalent above Lake Powell is still well below average, making it a dry year for the Upper Colorado River Basin overall. Ritschard Dam Officials aren't sure when the settling and movement at Ritschard Dam will stop, but it poses no threat to safety, said John Currier with the Colorado River District. "We really are absolutely confident that we don't have an imminent safety problem with this dam," Currier said. The dam has settled around 2 feet, more than twice the anticipated depth, since 1995. Inclinometer readings from parts of the dam's core have shown one section moved around 7 inches downstream, Currier said. Problems are focused on the rock-filled shells that line either side of the dam's clay core, Currier said. Moisture control was not used during the construction of the shells, leaving them less dense than they needed to be, he said. The structural issues were discovered during routine maintenance work. As of now, there are no definitive plans on how to repair the dam, though Currier said he anticipated "some type of structural remediation." What kind of remediation or an approximate cost is currently unknown, he said. "I would like to say by this time next year we would have a very firm plan in hand of what we want to do with the remediation of this dam," Currier said. Some possibilities include removing the top of the dam and reprocessing the shell material before returning it in a more dense state, Currier said. To relieve some pressure on the dam, the district will operate Wolford Mountain Reservoir at 10 feet below full pool this year to reduce deformation, though Currier said that's not a sustainable resolution. "Our goal is to keep everybody apprised of what's going on and how it might affect you," Currier said. Endangered Fish The Bureau of Reclamation will increase flows from the Granby Dam to 1,500 CFS around May 29 and maintain those flows until around June 8, Lee said. The releases will be part of an endangered fish recovery program and will be coordinated with releases from other basin reservoirs to enhance peak flows in the Grand Valley where the plan is focused. Wolford Mountain Reservoir will also participate in the coordinated releases, Meyer said. The program hopes to re-establish bonytail chub, Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker and humpback chub populations to a 15-mile stretch of the Colorado River above Grand Junction. Windy Gap Firming After receiving its Record of Decision last year, the Windy Gap Firming Project's next major hurdle is acquiring a Section 404 permit from the Army Corps of Engineers for the construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir, said Don Carlson with Northern Water. The permit regulates dredged or fill material into water as part of the Clean Water Act. Northern Water hopes to acquire the permit this year, with construction possibly beginning in 2016 or 2017, Carlson said. The project seeks to firm up the Windy Gap water right with a new Front Range reservoir. The project currently stores water in Lake Granby. Because it's a junior water right, yield for the project is little to nothing in dry years. Northern Water also hopes to establish a free-flowing channel of the Colorado River beside the Windy Gap Reservoir as part of the Windy Gap Reservoir Bypass Project. The new channel would allow for fish migration and improve aquatic habitat along the Colorado River. That project still needs $6 million of its projected $10 million cost. Moffat Tunnel Flows Moffat Tunnel flows are hovering around 15 CFS as Denver Water is getting high yield from its Boulder Creek water right, said Bob Steger with Denver Water. The increased yield from that junior water right means flows through Moffat Tunnel will remain low through early summer, Steger said. "The point is we'll be taking a lot less water than we normally do," he said. Denver Water expects its flows through the tunnel to increase in late summer as its yield from Boulder Creek drops, Steger said. Williams Fork Reservoir, which is used to fulfill Denver Water's obligations on the Western Slope, is expected to fill in three to four weeks, Steger said.

Letter: Newberry has done much good for Grand County

To the Editor: These pages have seen so much vitriol hurled at James Newberry over the past few weeks that I wonder how the worst of it can actually be coming from Grand County. As Shakespeare wrote: "The evil that men lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones." We are all human; none of us is perfect. I understand the anger some people are expressing, but we should also not forget James' good work as county commissioner over 18 years, greatly improving Grand County and the lives of all of us who live here. I will not give a long laundry list of everything he has on our behalf (although I could), but instead focus on one issue of importance to most Grand County residents: Water. We all know that about 80 percent of the snowmelt in our county that makes it into the Fraser or Colorado rivers goes to be used, often wasted, in places like the Front Range or California. Most also know that the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, which James tirelessly spearheaded, is our single best protection against further water loss. (For those who don't, check out last year's Sky Hi News article: While I am pessimistic about the long-term fate of our county's water, this agreement gives our rivers legal protections they never had, and pushes the day that they dry out further into the future. In my opinion, for this reason alone, we owe this man a debt of gratitude many times larger than the few thousand dollars that some are obsessing about. I ask the haters: What have you done for Grand County over the last 18 years? If you really think it's more than James has done, then by all means continue your vicious attacks. (Those inclined will probably do so regardless.) For the rest of us, let's continue to love and enjoy the magnificent lakes and rivers of this place we call home, especially now that summer seems to have finally arrived. And let's not forget to treat our neighbors with respect. Rick Edelson Fraser

State of the River: Meeting notes action plan for ailing area waterways

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.

Guest Opinion: Gary Wockner

Last week Governor Hickenlooper unveiled Colorado's first ever water plan. After nearly two years of meetings and input, the ballyhoo of releasing the plan was heard from Yuma to Grand Junction. There's good and bad in the plan, and the on-the-ground result depends on which part of the plan the state decides to implement. The final plan is an "all of the above" water policy, and just like "all of the above" energy policies, there's plenty for everyone to love and hate. First, for the good news, the plan proposes to achieve 400,000 acre feet of water conservation in cities. This makes sense and is a smart move for Colorado – conservation is faster, easier, cheaper, and creates more jobs that spending billions of dollars on new dams and river-destruction projects. Second, for the bad news, the plan proposes to achieve 400,000 acre feet of new "storage" which is an Orwellian double-speak way of saying more dams, diversions, and river destruction. Colorado's rivers are already dammed and drained to the breaking point – there are over 1,900 dams in Colorado already, and more dams will only further devastate the state's rivers. Third, the plan proposes to transfer 50,000 acre feet of water from farms to cities using "alternative transfer methods." This is good news, but falls far short of what's needed – the goal should have been ten times more, 500,000 acre feet. "Alternative transfer methods" are proposals like water-sharing, short-term leasing, and rotational fallowing. In Southern California, hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water per year are transferred by this method, and Colorado needs to look there for leadership on this issue. Fourth, the plan proposes that 80% of "prioritized rivers" will have "stream management plans," and proposes a tiny amount of money to achieve the goal — $1 million per year. What's wrong here is that we don't need stream "management" plans, we need stream "protection and restoration" plans and we need a large amount of money to have any conceivable chance at actually protecting and restoring Colorado's rivers and streams. Fifth, the plan proposes to raise $100 million per year to achieve the four items above, which is a lot of money if it's spent on the right things – water conservation, planning for alternative transfers from farms, and stream protection. If it's spent on the wrong things – dams and diversions – it's a drop in the bucket because any single dam project can cost $500 million and only yield a tiny amount of water for the state. Sixth and finally, there's some rhetoric in the plan about "fixing the broken permitting system." Unfortunately, the plan misses the point on this issue and fails to fix anything. What's wrong with the permitting process is that the federal government purposely does not hire unbiased, peer-reviewed, scientists to do the work. Instead, they contract the "Environmental Impact Statement" (EIS) out to large multi-national engineering corporations that have a vested interest in seeing the project permitted, and thus grossly skew the analyses making a complete charade of the supposed "science" that an EIS requires. Thus, public comments are always extremely negative, and the federal government goes through iteration after iteration, taking years and millions of dollars. The Colorado Water Plan had a chance to make a consequential difference and to move the state forward into a 21st century water management paradigm. By creating an "all of the above" water policy that still promotes 19th century ideas like more dams, diversions, and river destruction, the state simply missed the opportunity at hand. If the state focuses on water conservation, sharing water with farmers, and river protection, environmental groups like mine will be cheerful participants in that process. On the other hand, if the state supports more dams and river destruction, it will create massive water fights, lengthy delays, and expensive court battles for decades to come. Gary Wockner, PhD, is Executive Director of two river-saving organizations, Save The Poudre and Save The Colorado. Contact: