The Runoff Monthly Newsletter from Aspen Journalism

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.

Thanks for going deeper with us and for supporting Aspen Journalism!

The Briefing

As we enter the dog days of summer, streamflows diminish, but irrigation demands don’t, leading to busy times for water managers. Calls are coming on and reservoirs are releasing water for the benefit of heat-stressed fish. The clock is ticking on the Bureau of Reclamation’s 2 to 4 million acre-foot challenge and water managers are feeling the pressure.

Reudi releases

An angler fishes the Fryingpan. Local entities teamed up to release water from Ruedi to help with high temperatures on the Gold Medal fishery. Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism Credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Several local entities that store water in Ruedi Reservoir (town of Basalt, Mid Valley Metro District, town of Carbondale, city of Glenwood Springs and the Colorado River Water Conservation District) collaborated to increase releases from the reservoir by 45 cfs for 7-10 days. The goal was to mitigate the impacts of high temperatures, low flows and increased recreational pressure to help the fish and aquatic life. The resident trout of the Fryingpan River Gold Medal fishery like it cold.

Cameo call comes on

Water for Grand Valley irrigators is diverted here at the roller dam. The Cameo call came on this week, calling out some big upstream transmountain diversions. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism Credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

One of the junior (1934) Grand Valley water rights placed a call on Aug. 1. As of Monday it was calling out everything junior to the Adams Tunnel, a Grand County diversion with a 1935 water right. Will the call deepen and will Twin Lakes tunnel, which diverts from the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River to the Arkansas basin and thirsty Front Range cities, be next to get called out? Hard to say, according to Division 5 Engineer James Heath. It depends on how much rain we get in the next week or so, with good monsoonal moisture probably delaying the call. “If the monsoon does not come back, I suspect they would be called out by the weekend,” Heath said. River lovers in Aspen like to see the Cameo call come on because it can mean boosted flows for the Fork when the Twin Lakes Tunnel is forced to shut off.

Gunnison River Reservoirs Project

The city of Grand Junction is hoping to convert two gravel pits along the Gunnison River to water storage reservoirs. The project would provide about 1,700 acre-feet of water storage for municipal, irrigation, environment and compact compliance uses. The project would include a pipeline that could deliver up to 20 cfs to the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District, which would reduce their diversions from the Colorado River to the benefit of endangered fish in the 15-mile reach. The city has applied to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for a $265,000 grant. They have also gotten letters of support from the Colorado and Gunnison basin roundtables. Former Gunnison basin roundtable chair and River District Board member Kathleen Curry voted against supplying a letter of support, saying there were too many unanswered questions about the project at this point.

River District’s ‘Big River Workshop’

Lake Mead intake
This photo from December 2021 shows one of the intake towers at Hoover Dam. The River District held a Big River Workshop at its quarterly board meeting in July, with presentations from state and federal officials. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

The Colorado River Water Conservation District’s third quarterly board meeting in July was a good one, featuring what they called a Big River Workshop on Tuesday of the two-day meeting. It featured presentations by State Engineer Kevin Rein, UCRC Director Chuck Cullom and Bureau of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin Assistant Regional Director Katrina Grantz, who then found themselves a little bit in the hot seat as board members peppered them with questions. There was no shortage of quotable comments. Here’s what Rein said in response to a discussion about the feds’ directive to the states to find 2 to 4 million acre-feet of conservation: “There’s nothing telling me that I should encourage people to conserve. If you have a beneficial use for water and you have a right to the water, the water is physically and legally available, then I’m encouraging people to use their water right.” One of Rein’s top jobs (at the direction of the UCRC as he likes to point out) would be to curtail Colorado water users in the event of a compact call. But that is not likely to happen for at least several years, according to his numbers. Rein seemed to be saying here that only the compact call trigger, and not a nebulous announcement from Reclamation, would result in him telling water users to curtail. 

Cullom, who used to work for the Central Arizona Project and so has a thorough understanding of the lower basin’s perspective, told board members the upper basin should prepare for compact curtailment based on the lower basin’s interpretation of the law, specifically Article III of the compact. The upper basin argument is that they must deliver 75 million acre-feet over 10 years to Lake Powell. The lower basin stance is that the upper basin must deliver 75 million acre-feet PLUS half the Mexican treaty amount, a total of 82.5 million acre-feet over 10 years. “The conflict about curtailment is unlikely to be on the terms of 75 over 10; it’s more likely to occur when the lower basin believes their argument has been triggered,” Cullom said. “I would encourage all of the upper basin states to think about how best to prepare for a potential conflict driven by the lower basin argument.”

River District General Manager Andy Mueller asked Grantz for clarification on where the 2 to 4 million acre-feet should come from. “How do we turn to our water users and ask them to conserve more if it’s really just going to go downstream to the lower basin who’s consuming so much more water than we are and… we are looking to you for some suggestions because honestly most of our water users are pretty tapped out,” Mueller said. 

But Grantz didn’t offer much in the way of specifics, instead sticking to the Bureau’s talking point that “everyone has to contribute some amount.” “Ultimately, the solution really does need to be across the entire basin across all sectors,” Grantz said. “We need to look broadly and we need to look creatively.”

Does the upper basin use less water in dry years?

In the course of Upper Basin vs. Lower Basin finger pointing on who’s to blame for the Colorado River crisis, a favorite argument of Upper Basin water managers is that water users in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming already suffer shortages and use less water in dry years. They say that unlike the lower basin states, which continue to increase their use because they have the benefit of two huge upstream reservoirs, the upper basin — especially agriculture users — must live within the limits imposed by Mother Nature. In fact, the Upper Colorado River Commission said in June that upper basin use had declined from 4.5 million acre-feet in 2020 to 3.5 million acre-feet in 2021. But a recent review of the data and blog post by Colorado River scholars John Fleck, Eric Kuhn and Jack Schmidt suggest the opposite is true. An analysis of Reclamation’s Consumptive Uses and Losses reports, finds upper basin water use is actually higher in dry years and lower in wet years. This makes sense intuitively since the more precipitation there is, the less water would need to be pulled from rivers. “If the Upper Basin’s argument was correct, we would see a decline in agricultural water use in the 21st century, because the river’s flow shrank during the aridification of the 21st century. However, use has not decreased,” the blog post reads. 

Upper basin’s 5 Point Plan

Lake Powell just upstream from dam
Water for Grand Valley irrigators is diverted here at the roller dam. The Cameo call came on this week, calling out some big upstream transmountain diversions. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

So far upper basin water managers’ strategy for a plan to conserve 2 to 4 million acre-feet by the August deadline has been mostly to insist the main responsibility lies with the lower basin to reduce its use. But the UCRC on July 18 did release a 5 Point Plan designed to protect the reservoirs. The five actions they are proposing are: reauthorizing the System Conservation Pilot Program; beginning early development of the 2023 Drought Response Operations Plan; considering an upper basin demand management program; enhanced measurement, monitoring and reporting infrastructure for water management; and continuing strict water administration under the doctrine of prior appropriation (Huh? Not sure I understand this one.) While the plan may represent a good-faith effort of the upper basin to put something on the table, it will do little to get the additional 2 to 4 million acre-feet into the system that Reclamation says is needed right now. “It’s more of a long-term strategy than addressing a particular problem next year or the year after,” said Colorado River author and former River District general manager Eric Kuhn. “I don’t see this as being any help next year in keeping Powell above minimum power.”

Fishing closures

With water temperatures heating up, some local streams have fishing closures. Colorado Parks and Wildlife may close a stretch of river to fishing when water temperatures get above 70 degrees Fahrenheit because the warm water, which holds less dissolved oxygen, stresses the fish too much. Here are the current closures. Keep in mind some closures are mandatory, some are voluntary, some are only in the afternoons, and the closures can be lifted or reinstated depending on changing conditions. The Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy asks local anglers to bring thermometers and stop fishing when water temperatures reach 68 degrees.

KBUT Headwaters 

Crested Butte’s community radio station KBUT has an original series on water in the upper Gunnison River basin called Headwaters. Stories explore access to clean drinking water, snow science, water quality, depleted reservoirs and the bedrock of water law: prior appropriation. Journalist Stephanie Maltarich takes listeners on a five-part journey through what it means to be a headwaters community in the Colorado River basin at such a critical time for water in the West.

Since the last edition of The Runoff, Aspen Journalism’s Water Desk has reported the following stories. If you are not already, subscribe to The Roundup to get our weekly rundown of new news and insights:

Open Ditch in Starwood
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Pitkin County officials said they were disappointed that the piping project, which was supposed to result in more water left in Hunter Creek, isn’t moving forward. Healthy Rivers Vice Chair Bill Jochems said the board had been enthusiastic about the project because it furthered the goal of maintaining and improving water quantity in the Roaring Fork watershed.

Bird's eye view of the Crystal River
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Since the Crystal flows through Gunnison County and the town of Marble, advocates say getting those residents and elected representatives on board will be key to moving the effort forward.

STORY UPDATE: Wilderness Workshop had a bit to add about their stance on the Crystal River’s Wild & Scenic campaign. This from Communications Director Grant Stevens: “Wilderness Workshop is deeply committed to a community-driven process, where all voices are heard, that results in conservation protections that are as special and unique as the Crystal River. We know people are passionate about protecting the Crystal as it is today and we look forward to the start of the upcoming Stakeholder process.”  

Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Cold Mountain Ranch owners Bill Fales and Marj Perry have inked a six-year deal with the Colorado Water Trust to voluntarily retime their irrigation practices to leave water in the Crystal River during the late summer and early fall, when the river often needs it the most. The program has the hallmarks of demand management, a much-discussed concept over the past few years at the state level: it’s temporaryvoluntary and compensated.

Glen Canyon dam view from airplane
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Due to this sedimentation, Lake Powell’s storage capacity at full pool decreased by 6.79% from 1963 to 2018, or a 1.83 million acre-foot loss. Between 1986 and 2018, it dropped by 4%, which represents a loss of 1.05 million acre-feet in 32 years.

Raymond Langstaff irrigates a parcel north of Rifle.
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

CWCB officials have released the second iteration of the Colorado Water Plan. Meeting projected supply-demand gaps will require hundreds of water projects throughout Colorado’s eight river basins, and carries a price tag of $20 billion. The plan is open for public comment through Sept. 30.

Lake Mead intake
Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton gave the states until Aug. 16 to figure out a path to conserve a whopping 2 to 4 million acre-feet before the feds would take unilateral action to protect the system. Chuck Cullom, the executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, said most of the water savings should come from the lower basin.

Confluence of Colorado River and Little Colorado Rivers - Bird's Eye View
Credit: Jane Pargiter/EcoFlight

As Lake Powell drops to historically low levels, the invasive smallmouth bass are likely to escape beyond Glen Canyon Dam, threatening endangered fish in the canyon, whose populations have rebounded in recent years. A voracious predator, the bass have wreaked havoc on endangered fish in other parts of the Colorado River basin.

STORY UPDATE: Biologists’ fears confirmed on the lower Colorado River The AP reported in early July that the fish are likely reproducing below the dam. Gulp.

Donations make this good reporting possible.

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...