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Water Developments

Column by John Orr

Water – November 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine


Groundwater is on everyone’s radar recently. Over in Colorado Springs the Arkansas Basin Roundtable sponsored a two day conference on recharge, which included sessions on water law, successful recharge efforts, groundwater science and engineering as well as on impediments to recharge efforts. Attendees even got a chance to hear state legislators and their views on recharge.

The early conference focus was on the problems facing Colorado with respect to sustainable water supplies. Harris Sherman, from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, spoke about the current state of over-appropriation in three of the four major river basins in Colorado: the Rio Grande, Arkansas and South Platte. He also mentioned the uncertainty concerning supply in the Colorado River Basin due to climate change and the pressure on the upper basin states to deliver to the lower basin.

Alan Hamel, from the Pueblo Board of Water Works, talked about the need for more storage. He’s still interested in expanding Turquoise Lake and Pueblo Reservoir but mentioned aquifer storage as an interesting concept worth pursuing.

One featured recharge project was in the San Luis Valley. As sprinkler irrigation has replaced flood irrigation, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District is using six ditches north of the river for recovery of the unconfined aquifer in the northern part of the valley.

It’s clear that state lawmakers do not have a consensus on the development of groundwater resources. Kathleen Curry (D – Gunnison) doesn’t see a need for a statewide policy or consensus on the use of groundwater resources. She told attendees that, “There needs to be respect between basins. Colorado is not a one-size fits all state.” She also disagreed with other panelists over the obligation of the state to develop unappropriated water.

Almost no one objected to the idea of using water for alluvial aquifer recharge for augmentation in a basin. But people started choosing sides when the discussion moved to using the alluvial aquifers for storage. Storage raises the thorny issue of taking water out of priority, something not legal under Colorado water law. Some of those present argued that since water does not stay in alluvial aquifers, it’s not possible to account for it accurately.

Tim Gates from Colorado State University mentioned that too much recharge can produce water quality and water loss problems. As the water table rises so does the salinity of the soils as water evaporates. He said that eventually the minerals and salts will find their way into the stream.

The Arkansas mainstem between Buena Vista and Salida is a good location for alluvial recharge, according to an engineering study commissioned by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The study looked for opportunities in both the South Platte Basin and Arkansas Basin.

As is often the case, eastern Colorado has the unbridled growth and therefore the need for more storage, but has no extra water. Two potential sources for recharge are water produced from oil and gas production, and recycled or reclaimed water from wastewater operations.

The Upper Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District is in the first stages of a study of groundwater management and availability. In their quest to understand the system they are considering a $5 million to $7 million study of groundwater to depths of 5,000 feet underlying the Upper Arkansas region in Chaffee, Custer and Fremont counties.

A 2003 USGS study found approximately 3,500 wells pumping 1,240 acre feet of water between Buena Vista and Salida. That total may increase by 5,000 wells by 2030. Even though that amount of use is small with respect to overall storage in the aquifer, the Upper Ark is hoping to learn enough to avoid impact to well owners, since underground water is distributed unevenly. The study is a necessary prelude to any recharge plans for augmentation purposes.

Fairplay Wastewater Treatment Plant

There seems to be no end to the confusion and acrimony over Fairplay’s new state-mandated wastewater treatment plant. Earlier this fall some area business owners hoped to rescind the $3.5 million bond issue that was narrowly approved in 2006. The business owners fear that the price tag of the new plant will bankrupt some of them.

After looking at a lagoon system instead of a mechanical system and comparing costs, the Sanitation District decided to go with an Integrated Fixed-Film Activated Sludge mechanical system. They hope to keep the costs between $3.6 million and $4.4 million, but good cost estimates are still up in the air awaiting a final design.

Now that the board has come to a decision on technology they can create a site application and negotiate costs. But they’re really under the gun since the state is requiring that construction start no later than March 2008.

Denver University Water Futures Panel

The recent Water Futures Panel held at Denver University gathered a host of government officials from both the state and local level along with business and agricultural leaders. Members of the panel touted the need for cooperation amongst all entities in order to solve water supply needs that may increase by a factor of three due to projected population growth combined with increased consumption by ethanol and oil shale projects. The panel issued nine recommendations for Colorado:

Embracing fairness, trust, respect and openness in water supply planning

Encouraging water conservation

Encouraging partnerships between urban and agricultural water users

Eradicating non-native phreatophytes

Streamlining the Water Court

Encouraging statewide perspective on water storage and infrastructure

Facilitating cooperation between river basins

Planning for potential climate change and drought

Maintaining healthy rivers and instream flows

A member of the panel, former State Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Kourlis, has been touring the state talking about streamlining the water court.

Governor Ritter’s South Platte River Task Force also recommended that the Colorado Supreme Court appoint a panel aimed at streamlining court procedures. Kourlis was quoted as saying, “This is not about substantive change in water law. This is about process.”

Rio Grande Basin Roundtable

At a recent meeting of the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable, members were treated to a presentation about the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project. Mike Gibson said that the restoration project takes a holistic approach to the river, with objectives that include improving the efficiency of irrigation diversions, improving riparian habitat and stream bank stability, and maintaining the ability to meet the Rio Grande Compact. He added that they are also interested in maintaining channel capacity and protecting floodplains.

Colorado Division of Water Resources Division III’s Michael Sullivan, Division Engineer, was also on hand. He explained some of his strategy for dealing with the Rio Grande Compact. The late summer rainfall in the valley and the San Juans really helps since he can send 100% of the storm water downstream and not curtail irrigators as much.

This year the Rio Grande index flow will be approximately 700,000-710,000 acre feet, at the Del Norte gauging station. Colorado has sent around 146,200 acre feet downstream to New Mexico and owes another 209,000 acre feet, he said. He added that the Conejos River’s index flow should be around 208,000 acre feet this year and Colorado is required to send 94,400 acre feet of that downstream.

Since groundwater is on everyone’s radar it was nice to get a report from Sullivan about the long-term aquifer study results of the closed basin area of the San Luis Valley. He told the roundtable that the aquifer is down 1,000,000 acre feet from 30 years ago, mostly from over-pumping, but that it could be recharged in three years. This would require turning off every well — not an acceptable choice to most.

Short Takes

Water quality at the Summitville Superfund site should get a boost next summer from a proposed $3 million investment by the EPA. Most of the dough will go for extra capacity in the Wightman Fork Diversion channel. Officials are hoping to beef it up so that it can withstand a 100-year or 500-year flood.

Congratulations to the Gunnison Angling Society for finally getting rid of the fish unfriendly diversion dam near town. The Colorado Department of Wildlife did the design for a new structure that was completed earlier this year. The new structure is actually three separate smaller dams built mainly with large boulders.

The Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District has started to refill North Fork Reservoir. They widened the spillway and installed new gates, valves and vaults. The reservoir improvements include remote electronic monitoring gear as well.

The Coal Creek Watershed Coalition released their 2006 report on water quality recently. In short, Coal Creek’s water is safe to drink, and plant and animal life in the watershed are healthy.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy is seizing on a learning opportunity and funding scientific research to study conditions in the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork rivers in the wake of the August 6th flash flood of Seven Castles Creek.

Congratulations to Charles Griego and Richard Davie for being named to the board of directors for the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District.

State Representative Dan Gibbs (D-Lake County) has been appointed to the Interbasin Compact Committee by Kathleen Curry (D-Gunnison).

Eastern Fremont County will have an opportunity to vote on joining the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District in the November election. Proponents are hoping to pick up clout in the fight to keep the Arkansas River whole and prevent more out of basin transfers.

The journey made by Crested Butte town manager Susan Parker and attorney John Belkin to Washington D.C. earlier this summer has paid off. U.S. Representative John Salazar has pledged to co-sponsor H.R. 2262 — The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2007. Readers may remember that Mount Emmons near Crested Butte is right in the middle of the controversy over the need for modernizing the General Mining Act of 1872.

Aurora finally has a long-term lease for space in Pueblo Reservoir after signing their controversial contract with Reclamation in September. Next up is a lawsuit by the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District over the legality of the contract which authorizes the use of Fryingpan-Arkansas Project facilities for entities out of basin. Aurora plans to use the storage to move 10,000 acre feet of Fry-Ark water through the Otero pipeline in an exchange agreement with Reclamation.

U.S. Senator Ken Salazar’s plan to separate expansion of Turquoise Lake and Pueblo Reservoir from other parts of the Preferred Options Storage Plan is running out of time. He’s set a deadline of December 1st to work things out. He is attempting to increase storage without the entanglements from the many intergovernmental agreements that are in effect and proposed.

Be sure to check out the shiny new website from the Interbasin Compact Committee at

The Colorado Water Conservation Board is worried about the scope of an effort to designate hundreds of Colorado streams as Wild and Scenic. The board, along with irrigators and municipal providers, is keeping an eye on the effort, as it has the potential to effect the delivery of much needed water to cities and farms.

Our old friend La Niña is back. La Niña is the name for the periodic cooling of ocean surface temperatures in the central and east-central Pacific. La Niña generally portends drought for southern Colorado.

A cloud-seeding company working in Gunnison County claims that their efforts have resulted in an extra 88,000 acre-feet of water for the Gunnison basin at a cost of $1.05 an acre foot.

Environment Colorado released their report Water Under Pressure earlier in the fall. The report claims that the number of impaired streams in Colorado is rising. They recommend more inspectors for the Colorado Water Quality Control Division and better enforcement of laws along with more resources for remediation.

The Romero/Guadalupe channel rectification project on the Conejos River and efforts for stream bank restoration on the Alamosa River are to receive some dough from the Colorado Water Conservation Board ($83,700 and $104,000 respectively).

Congratulations to the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy of Colorado for scoring a permanent conservation easement for the Laughlin Gulch Property on Saguache Creek in the northwest part of the San Luis Valley. Funding came from Great Outdoors Colorado and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Congratulations to Gary Barber the new chairman of the Arkansas Valley Roundtable. Congratulations also to Jim Broderick (Southeastern Water Conservancy District) and SeEtta Moss (Arkansas Valley Audubon Society) who join Barber as vice-chairs and to Jay Winner (Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District) who will be the recorder.

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John Orr follows water issues at