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Welcome back to The Runoff, Aspen Journalism’s newsletter featuring insight and news from our water desk editor, Heather Sackett. Here you will find insider news and water-related updates you won’t read anywhere else, plus additional context and updates on the most recent reporting from our water desk. Once again, we are taking the place of the normal edition of The Roundup, which will return next week.

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The Briefing

Floating the San Juan

Boater on the San Juan River looking at cliffs
Boater on the San Juan River in May 2023. CREDIT: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

It’s spring in the Rockies and that means rivers are cranking. Two weeks ago I was fortunate to tag along on a three-day float down the San Juan, one of the rivers where permits are notoriously hard to get. The chocolate-milk-colored water was running at about 3,500 cfs while I was on it; releases from Navajo Reservoir bumped that up to about 5,000 cfs in the following days; the river at Bluff, Utah, is currently running even higher at around 8,000 cfs. A major tributary of the Colorado River, the San Juan begins near Wolf Creek Pass and drains the southwest mountains of Colorado and northwest corner of New Mexico, flows through the canyon country of southeastern Utah and into Lake Powell. It’s flanked by the Navajo Nation on the south; camping on river left requires a special permit from the tribe. The river was moving fast enough that we could have easily done the 27-mile section from Bluff to Mexican Hat in just one day. With few rapids, it was a speedy-yet-calm float and perfect for the six kids in our group to get a taste of a multi-day trip without anything too scary or challenging. We saw some wildflowers, Ancestral Puebloan ruins and petroglyphs, cool geology (the San Juan flows through Comb Ridge and many layers of uplifted rock) and wildlife: great blue herons, egrets, lizards and some kind of mammal — opinions differed on whether it was a raccoon or ringtail cat — roaming the cliffside above our campsite. The most impressive part of the trip was fitting everything needed for two people (including dry bags, a cooler, an aluminum dry box, camping gear and a 16-foot boat, which is 120 pounds when deflated and rolled up) into a Subaru Crosstrek. Yes, it can be done. No, I would not recommend it. Have I converted to a full-fledged river rat after three days on the silt-laden San Juan? Not quite yet. But I’m glad I got the opportunity to experience the remote and beautiful landscape of one of the Colorado River’s most important tributaries. 

Lower basin states reach a deal

Lake Mead intake
This photo from December 2021 shows one of the intake towers at Hoover Dam. Federal officials said basin states must conserve 2 to 4 million acre-feet to protect reservoir levels in 2023. CREDIT: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Many news outlets reported this week that California, Arizona and Nevada reached a deal to cut 3 million acre-feet of water use over three years. Here’s how this announcement fits into the big picture: Last June with reservoirs plummeting to new lows, Bureau of Reclamation officials told the basin states they needed to cut 2 to 4 million acre-feet per year to safeguard the hydropower operations of Lake Mead and Lake Powell and the integrity of the system. Deadlines came and went without much being done; California was the lone holdout on a deal. Then in April the feds proposed two options (ok, really it was three, but the obligatory “no-action” alternative which preserves the status quo isn’t much of a viable way forward): Cuts according to the strict prior appropriation system in which junior water rights holder Arizona loses big time and California as the senior rights holder remains protected, or across-the-board cuts in which each state contributes equally (RIP prior appropriation). This was apparently enough to push the states into coming up with their own counter proposal: 3 million acre-feet of cuts over three years, which will cost the federal government $1.2 billion. It’s worth noting that this is substantially less water than Reclamation called for last year and will probably not be enough to save the system. It may, however, be enough of a stopgap measure to slow the bleeding until the end of 2026 when the states renegotiate the 2007 guidelines on how reservoirs will be operated and shortages shared in the future. Also note: Although it was reported this way in some headlines, the lower basin states’ proposal is not a done deal; the feds must still sign off on it.

Peak runoff

The Roaring Fork River seen here on May 24, 2022 near the Catherine Store Bridge in Carbondale. Due to fluctuating high temperatures, local rivers saw what amounted to a double peak last year, with spiking flows around May 20, and then again between June 10-12. In past big snow years, rivers peaked as late as July 1. CREDIT: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

It’s approaching peak runoff on the Western Slope and rivers should hit their high points for the year in the coming weeks. When exactly that might happen can be tricky to predict. Last year, for example, fluctuating high temperatures meant we basically had two peaks about three weeks apart. According to historical USGS river gauge data, in the last two big snow years of 2011 and 2019, the Roaring Fork River at the Glenwood Springs confluence with the Colorado peaked at 9,220 cfs and at 8,960 cfs, respectively, both on July 1. For the Colorado River at the Utah state line, 2011 peaked at 47,000 cfs on June 9 and 2019 peaked at 37,000 cfs on June 10. The Crystal River just above Avalanche Creek peaked at 3,790 cfs on June 25, 2011 and 3,140 cfs on July 1, 2019. It will be interesting to see how this year compares. Peak streamflow timing can be affected by many things, including cold snaps, heat waves and dust on snow. With big temperature swings between the daily highs and lows, we can expect to see that diurnal cycle in the hydrograph with flows increasing every afternoon and receding every night. The runoff watch is on! 

Legislative roundup

San Juan River as seen from an overlook in Goosenecks State Park near Mexican Hat, UT. CREDIT: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism. Credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Three water-related bills that Aspen Journalism reported on passed into law this session, or are awaiting the signature of Gov. Jared Polis — although some of them ended up looking very different than what proponents had introduced. House Bill 1257, which creates a water quality testing program for all of the state’s mobile home parks and was sponsored by District 57 Rep. Elizabeth Velasco, passed. A bill that would have made it easier for process-based river restoration projects to clear red tape technically passed, but only after being gutted and its scope reduced, much to the chagrin of environmental groups and the Department of Natural Resources, and to the relief of prior appropriation hardliners. A bill crafted with the help of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District that requires labeling certain disposable wipes that have a propensity to clog pipes and wreak havoc on wastewater treatment systems as “Do Not Flush” was signed into law in April. 

Drought Task Force bill

Gov. Polis made an appearance in Glenwood Springs on Saturday to sign a bill into law creating the Colorado River Drought Task Force, which will make recommendations on the best ways for the state to conserve water or respond to a downstream compact call. The April 26 Senate hearing on this bill makes for very interesting listening, revealing areas of disagreement between water users around the state. Many people representing a wide swath of water interests testified at this hearing, and Front Range water providers brought out the big guns: Denver Water’s Jim Lochhead, Aurora Water’s Marshall Brown and Northern Water’s Brad Wind (each the directors of their respective agencies). With the recognition that the burden of any demand management or system conservation-type program will likely fall on Western Slope water users, the original version of the bill was slightly skewed that way with nine of the 15 members coming from west of the Continental Divide. Front Range water providers argued that there was a lack of representation of municipal interests on the task force and that creating a task force at this particular time could sew (and/or highlight) discord among Colorado water users and take the focus off the stance that the Colorado River crisis is caused by overuse in the lower basin. The amended version of the bill that Polis signed added a sub-task force for tribal issues and restores some political power to Colorado’s population centers along the Front Range, with seats now guaranteed for the Southeastern Water Conservation District, Northern Water and a Front Range municipal water provider that diverts from the Colorado River.

Will Ruedi fill?

Ruedi reservoir with sign saying "John Ruedi Recreation Area White River National Forest"
The reservoir on the Fryingpan River is projected to fill, according to a Reclamation hydrologist. CREDIT: Christin Kay/Aspen Journalism. Credit: Christin Kay / Aspen Journalism

The May forecast for Ruedi Reservoir, the Reclamation-operated project on the Fryingpan River, says Ruedi should see 99% of average inflow. Tim Miller, a hydrologist with Reclamation, predicts the reservoir should be at 85% full by June and full in early July or maybe a little bit earlier. “I’m trying to shoot for that first week of July, last week of June. It’s kind of hard to pin it down,” Miller said. “We still have a lot of snow left, that’s the kicker.” Ruedi is currently 77% full with 77,784 acre-feet of water. 

Wolf Creek reservoir project

A map shows the location of the proposed Wolf Creek reservoir in northwest Colorado.
This map shows the location of the proposed Wolf Creek reservoir in northwest Colorado. The Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District has secured $330,000 in funding from the Colorado River Water Conservation District for the permitting phase. Credit: Laurine Lassalle/Aspen Journalism

Representatives from the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District, which is seeking to build an off-channel reservoir on the White River between Meeker and Rangely, fielded questions from Meeker’s Board of Trustees in April. Town of Meeker trustees agreed to be a cooperating agency on the project, the permitting process for which is being led by the BLM, but not before peppering conservancy district general manager Alden Vanden Brink and a consultant with questions. Concerns included a lack of transparency and what trustees said were inflated and unrealistic sales tax estimates that recreation associated with the new reservoir is supposed to bring in. Trustees also asked about nearly $4 million in stolen County Capital Improvement Trust Fund money that was earmarked for the project. Vanden Brink said the district has already recovered two installments of the funds, which were stolen in an apparent wire transfer fraud scheme. He wouldn’t say anything more about the situation, which is being investigated by the FBI. “We are fully confident we are going to recover these funds,” he said. The district secured the water right for the reservoir in 2021 after a water court battle with the state engineer, who said the project was speculative. 

Colorado River at Mountainfilm 

Fifty miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border, the Colorado River Delta and its once-rich estuary wetlands are now typically as parched as the surrounding Sonoran Desert. Only rare floods or cancelled farm orders allow the river to reach the Gulf of California. CREDIT: Pete McBride/From his 2021 book “Seeing Silence: The Beauty of the World’s Most Quiet Places.” Credit: Pete McBride

With the Colorado River crisis dominating the zeitgeist, it only makes sense that it’s a topic of discussion at this year’s Mountainfilm Festival in Telluride, which takes place this weekend. A panel on Saturday called Innovating Our Way Out of a Water Crisis will feature Durango-based conservationist and TikTok creator Teal Lehto aka Western Water Girl; Pulitzer Prize finalist and ProPublica journalist Abrahm Lustgarten; Southern Ute Indian Tribal member and new Colorado Water Conservation Board member Lorelei Cloud; and photographer, conservationist and Aspen Journalism board member Pete McBride. I will also be participating in a panel discussion called Water is for Fighting, a more informal, free, coffee-talk-format event on Sunday morning. So if you find yourself in Telluride and want to scratch that Colorado River itch, both these events promise lively conversations with Q&A sessions. 

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:

Water saved through upper-basin program unlikely to move needle in Powell

By Heather Sackett | May 12, 2023

The effort shows that upper-basin water managers are willing to do their part to prevent the system from crashing, but that part is small compared with the cuts they say are needed in the lower basin.

Stream restoration bill watered down

By Heather Sackett | May 3, 2023

After amendments removed language referring to projects like beaver dam analogs, the bill now only includes minor stream-restoration activities such as bank stabilization or restructuring a channel to recover from wildfire or flood impacts.

Community summit kicks off talks on how best to protect Crystal River

By Heather Sackett | April 28, 2023

Although there may not be imminent, specific threats of dams or diversions on the Crystal, Wild & Scenic proponents say that doesn’t mean there won’t be threats at some point.

Drought task force to consider conservation programs

By Heather Sackett | April 21, 2023

Demand management has many skeptics, especially in western Colorado where some worry that temporarily compensating irrigators to use less could be a slippery slope toward “buy and dry,” stripping communities of their water.

Record March snow fueling above-average spring runoff forecasts

By Heather Sackett | April 14, 2023

Fueled by a deep snowpack that hit record highs in some areas, spring streamflow is forecasted to be well above average across the Western Slope.

Bill aims to address water quality at mobile home parks

By Heather Sackett | April 7, 2023

Water quality in mobile home parks is an environmental-justice issue for the Latino community.

Little information released on conservation-program proposals

By Heather Sackett | March 31, 2023

In addition to redacting the applicants’ personal identifying information, nearly everything else has been blacked out as well: the location of the projects, such as which streams and ditches are involved; details of the water rights involved; and how much the applicants are asking to be paid for their water.

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...