The Runoff, a monthly newsletter from Aspen Journalism's Water Desk

Welcome back to The Runoff, our monthly newsletter featuring insight and news from our Water Desk you won’t read anywhere else, plus additional context and updates on our most recent reporting. Once again we are taking the place of the normal edition of The Roundup, which will return next week.

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Experts believe we are in the midst of a Western “mega drought” that is the worst in 1,200 years, evidenced by the ring of exposed rock, once underwater, above the surface at Lake Powell. The latest federal projection has the reservoir’s surface elevation dropping to 3,515 feet by December, just 25 feet above the minimum level needed to make hydropower at the Glen Canyon Dam.
Photo by Pete McBride. Credit: Photo by Pete McBride
The Briefing

Drought Response Operations Plan for 2022 released
Last week, the Bureau of Reclamation and Upper Colorado River Commission released their Drought Response Operations plan for water year 2022, which is part of the upper basin Drought Contingency Plan. It outlines how the upper basin Colorado Storage Project reservoirs will be operated to prop up Lake Powell and protect the ability to make hydroelectric power. According to the most recent 24-month study by Reclamation, 6.31 million acre-feet is the most probable inflow forecast at Powell and the upper basin’s largest reservoir could dip to 3,515 feet elevation by December. In March, Powell fell below a critical threshold of 3,525 feet, and as of last week was just 23.7% full, its lowest level since filling. The operations plan calls for 500,000 acre-feet to be released from Flaming Gorge Reservoir between now and April 2023, while Navajo and Blue Mesa will be spared in 2022. Combined with the 161,000 acre-feet released from upper basin reservoirs last year, which negatively impacted the recreation economy in Gunnison County, the upper basin will have contributed 661,000 acre-feet to keep the whole system from tanking. “The Upper Basin states are doing our part to protect the Colorado River system,” CWCB Director and Colorado representative to the UCRC Rebecca Mitchell said in a prepared statement.

Aerial of Bullfrog Marina on Lake Powell taken in April 2022, as the nation’s second-largest reservoir continued to drop to its lowest level since filling. Preventing Lake Powell from dropping so low that the turbines below Glen Canyon Dam can longer function is driving unprecedented basin-wide management decisions.
Photo by Pete McBride. Credit: Photo by Pete McBride

Roaring Fork Conservancy Watershed PenPals program
Pitkin County Healthy Rivers approved a $33,000 grant request from the Roaring Fork Conservancy for a Watershed PenPals program, which connects students at Basalt Middle School with students at Vista Peak Exploratory in Aurora. Since water from the upper reaches of the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers is diverted through the Continental Divide to Front Range cities, the fifth graders in both places share the same headwaters. Through good, old-fashioned letter writing, the pilot program aims to create relationships that help students understand why it’s important to value, conserve and protect rivers. In an email, RFC Director of Education Megan Dean said, “This program is an invaluable opportunity to shape and create river stewards on both sides of the Continental Divide, showing through communication and positive relationships that conservation is essential in water use.”

Colorado Airborne Snow Monitoring program expands
The Colorado Airborne Snow Observatory secured a nearly $1.9 million Water Plan grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to expand the program. Northern Water is acting as the fiscal agent. Using flights equipped with remote-sensing LiDAR, this method can accurately measure the snow-water equivalent of the snowpack, especially in areas where there are no SNOTEL sites or when the lower-elevation SNOTEL sites have already melted out for the season. Flights for this season started in April and a LiDAR-equipped plane flew the Blue River watershed — a critical headwaters for Denver Water — last week.  “I think the value only grows at aggregate scales,” said program founder Jeff Deems. “We are improving our snow monitoring and knowledge of snowmelt. Those kinds of benefits aggregate for upper basin and interstate impacts, but we are also looking at how climate change impacts our snow.”

American Rivers calls Colorado River “most endangered” of 2022
Conservation group American Rivers releases a report every year ranking the most endangered rivers in the country. The Colorado ranks #1 this year because the climate crisis and outdated water management put the water supply for 40 million people, the regional economy and river health at risk, the report says. In a live webcast video on Tuesday announcing the most endangered rivers, Daryl Vigil, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation and the Nation’s water administrator, said water is a sacred element that gives life. “What I would say to state and federal policy managers is wake up,” he said. “We all know the perilous situation we are in now. We can’t build on the past; the past got us to where we’re at.”

Horseshoe bend
Iconic Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River, just downstream from Glen Canyon Dam and Page, AZ. Conservation group American Rivers has named the Colorado River the most endangered of 2022.
  Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Grand Valley Water Users Manager Mark Harris is planning to retire after nine years with the organization. Harris moved to the Grand Valley with his family in 1958, spent two years of his college education at Mesa State and still lives in the farmhouse he grew up in. Before GVWUA Harris ran an agriculture business specializing in grain storage and seeds. “I’ve been one of the lucky ones who has been able to stay in agriculture in an area that’s changing dramatically,” Harris said.

GVWUA is one of the biggest agricultural water providers in the valley, operating the Cameo diversion dam, the 55-mile-long Government Highline Canal and provides irrigation water to 23,000 acres of land. It is also one of the most important and influential agricultural water organizations in western Colorado. Under Harris’s leadership, it participated in a pilot project in 2017 that paid irrigators to use less water and has been the center of a controversial water speculation hoopla. Harris gave credit to his board for not flinching from difficult topics. “The way our organization and the river is changing, I have to give them a lot of credit to have some space to look at those scary things, to look at the future,” he said in an interview with Aspen Journalism. “It’s no longer business as usual.” Harris hopes his replacement will be chosen by the end of the year and to complete the transition to a new manager by early 2023. See the job description here.

Mark Harris, General Manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, checks on the entrance to Tunnel 3, where water in the Government Highline Canal goes through the mountain to Palisade, continuing to the Grand Valley. Harris plans on retiring around the end of 2022.
Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism. Credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

Ouray County opposes instream flow
As promised, Ouray County is opposing the state’s filing on an instream flow right on Cow Creek, which is designed to preserve the natural environment to a reasonable degree. The county, along with the River District, want to develop the Rams Horn reservoir and pipeline project on upper Cow Creek, which the CWCB opposes. The county had asked the CWCB to delay the ISF filing until the opposition to the water right for the Rams Horn project was worked out; the CWCB declined to grant this request. The state says the complicated three-pronged project, which is a holdover from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Dallas Creek project from the 1950s, could have impacts to fish and environmental flows. Confused yet? In a nutshell, the state opposes the county’s plans and the county opposes the state’s plans on the same stream.

Ouray County Water Users Association wants to build Ram’s Horn Reservoir on the upper reach of Cow Creek, shown here. Ouray County has opposed the state’s instream flow filing in water court.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

University of Utah symposium soundbites
On March 17 and 18, the University of Utah hosted its Stegner Center and Water & Tribes Initiative Symposium: The Colorado River Compact: Navigating the Future. There were lots of quotable moments from water managers, most notably from Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger, who borrowed a line from the movie The Princess Bride when he said, “The future of the Colorado River is pain. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.” Whoa.

Bob Adler from the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law gave an address that advocated for the rights of nature. A local example of this is when the town of Ridgway recently granted rights to the Uncompahgre River. While the move is largely symbolic, it represents the recognition that nature has inherent legal rights. Adler said current laws are a reflection of the values of past generations, which generally involve money and property. The law of the river reflects who has power and what their interests are in a particular era. But as society’s values change, the laws should evolve along with them. The law of the river, Adler said, should be modified to give the river the rights it deserves and expand the definition of beneficial use. “It’s worth more than money and we should modify the law of the river to reflect that,” he said.

Jay Weiner is attorney for the Quetchan Indian tribe of the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation, but he made sure to say his words are his own and don’t represent the views of his clients. He had some interesting things to say on one of the symposium’s panels. When and how the Colorado River basin’s 30 tribes will develop their water rights — many of which are pre-compact and senior to other water users — is a huge cause of uncertainty for future river management. And there is a tension between the basin’s need to live with a smaller water budget and the tribes’ need to benefit from their water rights, Weiner said. A main way basin states have incentivized less water use (and the way they continue to talk about it in a potential future upper basin demand management program) is through paying for conserved consumptive use, which means paying water users to not use their water. But since many tribes are not yet using their water, that strategy cuts them out of this incentivized system. Weiner said a better concept would be compensated forbearance: States would pay tribes not to develop their water so they could still reap some monetary benefit while not adding to the crisis by taking more water out of the river.

Big thanks to Morgan Neely and Carbondale’s public radio station KDNK for having me on the monthly public affairs show Get Out! to talk about these recent topics in water news. You can listen to the recording here. Our last question got cut off, but still a super fun conversation on live radio!

Lawmakers suspend attempt at legislative fix for water speculation funded
Senate bill 29 failed to gain traction with agricultural water users

Heather Sackett | April 23, 2022

Orchard Mesa ditch
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

After failing to gain traction among the very constituency it was aimed at protecting — agricultural water users — Senate Bill 29 is all but dead. This ends a multi-year attempt from lawmakers to address water speculation, a saga we covered every step of the way, including through two collaborations with former KUNC water reporter Luke Runyon. (Read those here and here.) Story update: Bill sponsor Kerry Donovan, who responded to Aspen Journalism after press time on Friday evening, said she voted against her own amendment to symbolically show the process was frustrating. But with both her and Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg on the Water Resources Review Committee, she suspects they will revisit the issue this summer. “I hope that Colorado will continue to work on investment water speculation because it is important to our new normal of water scarcity,” she said in a text to Aspen Journalism. “The Senate hearing reflected years and years of work by lawmakers from the West Slope and agriculture and clearly many of us are frustrated that we didn’t find partners trying to find a solution.”

Spring runoff forecast looks better than last two years
Many reservoirs still depleted, may not fill

Heather Sackett | April 13, 2022

ConfluenceRF and CR
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Spring runoff usually tracks closely with snowpack numbers, but for the past two years incredibly dry soils have sucked up a lot of the snowmelt before it made it to streams. A near-normal snowpack throughout the upper Colorado River basin translated into a dismal 34% of normal inflow into Lake Powell. This year, forecasts, especially locally in the Roaring Fork valley, look a bit better, if still slightly below normal. But we aren’t out of the woods yet: Depleted reservoirs around the Western Slope are not expected to fill and could take multiple seasons to recover.

Glenwood Springs secures water right for whitewater park
Agreements with opposers allow for future water development

Heather Sackett | April 6, 2022

Two Rivers whitewater park location on the Colorado River
Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

After nine years in water court and negotiating settlements with numerous opposers, the city of Glenwood Springs secured a recreational in-channel diversion to build three potential whitewater parks (although the city plans to build just one for now) on the Colorado River. Although it’s a win for river recreation, Glenwood had to make allowances for future water development, underscoring the fact that water for recreation is still not on par with more traditional water uses. 

Ruedi Reservoir at lowest level in two decades
Water managers waiting to see if spring runoff is enough to fill depleted storage buckets

Heather Sackett | March 25, 2022

Ruedi Reservoir on the Fryingpan River
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

At the end of March Ruedi Reservoir on the Fryingpan River was at its lowest level in nearly two decades. Managers think it will still be able to fill this year, but just barely. Story update: This year water managers have decided to fill the “April hole” with water from Green Mountain Reservoir on the Blue River instead of using water from Ruedi. Although Grand Valley irrigators have not placed a call yet this year, water managers still decided to release some water from Green Mountain to boost levels for endangered fish in the 15-mile reach.

Heather Sackett is the managing editor at Aspen Journalism and the editor and reporter on the Water Desk. She has also reported for The Denver Post and the Telluride Daily Planet. Heather has a master’s...