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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

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Water Education Colorado

Lost: Historic Call Found: Creative Solution

Story by Peter Roessmann

In the early morning hours of June 20th, 2007, a 98-year-old section of penstock gave way, unleashing a torrent of water on the Shoshone Power Plant in Glenwood Canyon. The penstock, a riveted steel tube directing diverted Colorado River water into the plant's turbines, was a victim of undetected corrosion.

The breakdown knocked out the largest senior water right on the Colorado River and could have destroyed the summer recreation-based economy.

The welfare of four endangered fish species—the focus of a multi-million dollar recovery program—impelled a collaborative solution and rescued recreation and agriculture downriver.

Without the penstock, Shoshone could not call for water just as the spring runoff was beginning to recede. This is the time of the year that the Shoshone water right keeps river flows up, calling out junior water users or forcing them to replace the water they take with reservoir storage.

The problem wasn't so much that owner Xcel Energy couldn't produce power. The crisis was that for a host of water users, a force on the river was lost.

‘The Colorado River is heavily administered and it all revolves around Shoshone,’ says Dave Merritt, chief engineer for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. ‘Shoshone is the one constant in an equation of variables that balance the river.’

In short, the Shoshone water right is king of the river. It dates back to 1902. The plant started operations in 1909, sending some of its first juice upriver to power gold dredge boats working the Swan and Blue rivers in Summit County.

Under the prior appropriation system of water use in Colorado and much of the West, ‘first in time, first in right’ governs who gets to draw water when the river runs short. But there's another rule in the state's system of water law. Since Shoshone was off line, it could not call for water since its ‘beneficial use’ was out of commission.

Shoshone is not confined to the irrigation season, as are many other senior rights. Thus it can call for water if flows diminish, no matter the season, which makes the water right even more important.

Above all of its attributes is the fact the Shoshone water is not consumed. Just about every molecule goes back into the river at 1,250 cubic feet per second. In contrast, an irrigation right returns about 50 percent to the river, and that is over a much longer period of time.

After Shoshone passes water through its two turbines and generates up to 15 megawatts of clean electricity, the water is immediately available for downstream users. Boaters get the first crack at it at the Shoshone put-in. As the water flows by nearby Glenwood Springs, downriver communities and irrigators begin to exercise their water rights on top of Shoshone's unconsumed water.

And then there are the endangered fish—the Colorado pikeminnow, bonytail chub, humpback chub and razorback sucker. Shoshone flows contribute mightily to flow targets established by the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, an outgrowth of the Endangered Species Act. The flow targets are aimed at what is known as the 15 Mile Reach, a segment of the river in the Grand Valley between Palisade and the confluence of the Gunnison and the Colorado rivers.

The fish could not express their worries after the Shoshone disaster. The rafting industry could—and did. Companies that depend on Shoshone said their season would be sunk if flows fell below 1,100 cfs, the borderline between an exhilarating experience and a tame, less attractive float trip.

As water managers heard the human concerns about the economic risks, they were really calculating how to sustain the fish that faced lower flows as the dog days of summer approached. The trick was care of the fish, save recreation and improve water quality.

When Shoshone runs, dilution flows are high and water quality is better, aiding the municipal water supplies for the towns of Silt, Rifle and Clifton, as well as peach growers and vintners in the Grand Valley.

It was the worst of times
it was the best of times

On paper, the Shoshone loss could have been catastrophic, especially had the headwaters reservoirs such as Green Mountain, Williams Fork, Dillon and Wolford Mountain been as depleted as they were following the dire 2002 drought year. Another factor was summer precipitation. In the arid West, summers can be dry throughout. Or they can start wet and end up dry, or vise versa.

Nobody was sure about summer rains, but they were sure of one thing. The reservoirs were in great shape going into the runoff season and the winter snowpack in the headwaters had been a healthy one.

Still, one dynamic was at work. Reservoir owners are hesitant to give up water storage when a senior water right is not calling them out. That is the power of Shoshone. Ordinarily, Shoshone calls out the likes of Denver Water, the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, Aurora, and Colorado Springs as well as a host of West Slope municipalities and industrial users. When the Shoshone call is on, they are subject to replacing the water they are diverting with water stored in reservoirs.

But another power was at work, too—the Endangered Species Act. The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program is a cooperative regional, state and federal plan to recover the fish. Water users participate in this proactive plan to recover the fish while their use and development of water continues.

The Recovery Program has worked to date to prevent judicial actions from cutting off water users, such as the debacles regarding water use and endangered fish that have occurred on the Klamath River in Oregon and just this year in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Among the tools in the Recovery Program's basket is a program to augment flows. The nonconsumptive, senior Shoshone water right is an important factor in balancing water user needs with flows to support endangered fish.

Anything that threatens the Recovery Program threatens water users who know all about Klamath and what happens with environmental lawsuits.

Talks began to figure it out with an optimistic bent.

‘When Shoshone went off this year the Blue River had a really huge year in snowpack, so we were looking at a full Green Mountain and a full Dillon reservoir. We had all this water up there,’ says Kara Lamb, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. ‘The Blue River had something like 123 to 125 percent of average for snowpack this year. It was one of the highest snowpack rates in the entire West.’

And as the summer unfolded, it was so wet from rains in the headwaters that natural flows contributed as much to a Shoshone solution as did reservoir management.

Water Division 5 Division Engineer Alan Martellaro says timely rains decreased water demands and increased river flows during the irrigation season, effectively holding off water crises. But the rest of this success story involves the people who collaborated to ensure the river worked, despite the competition among them.

Setting the Table

For years, reservoir operators, water users and other interested parties have joined in a Wednesday telephone conference regarding flows in the Colorado River. The calls begin in late spring and mostly end when the irrigation season concludes in the Grand Valley in the beginning of November.

The goal of the phone call is to adjust reservoir releases against the Shoshone call and to add storage water specifically for fish habitat in the 15 Mile Reach.

Participants include Reclamation, owner of Green Mountain, Ruedi and Granby reservoirs; Denver Water, owner of Dillon and Williams Fork reservoirs; and the Colorado River District, owner of Wolford Mountain Reservoir. Other participants include Grand Valley irrigation interests such as the Grand Valley Water Users, the Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and the Grand Valley Irrigation Company. The Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, beneficiary of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, joins in as do representatives from local governments and Trout Unlimited.

The phone calls became particularly important during the 2002-2003 drought years when water was precious. The 2007 Shoshone crisis presented a different angle. Reservoirs had plenty of water but no calling right to bring it downstream.

‘What allowed us to jump right into those drought year discussions was the fact that we'd had a series of decent years leading up to that,’ says Merritt. ‘It's much better to establish those relationships in a non-crisis environment, and then, when you're pushed, you have some level of trust and respect for the other parties. You've worked with them before and know you'll have to work with them again.’

What Everyone Agreed On
The critical issue was to ensure adequate flows for endangered fish in the 15 Mile Reach.

The Recovery Program sets a range of target flow goals for the reach. The flows depend on how much water is available. In dry years, the minimum is 810 cfs. Target flows increase as river conditions improve. The target for 2007 was 1,200 cfs.

Water rights owners don't usually volunteer to give up what they are entitled to divert and store, yet that was exactly what reservoir operators and water users began to discuss. Keeping the Recovery Program on track proved compelling.

Four parties came up with 28,500 acre feet of water to stabilize the river flows. Reclamation contributed 20,000 acre feet of its Green Mountain Reservoir power pool. Denver Water agreed to use 5,000 from Williams Fork Reservoir. The Colorado River District put in 2,500 from Wolford Mountain Reservoir. And Northern's Municipal Subdistrict added 1,000 from the Windy Gap Project that was stored in Granby.

A combination of prior appropriation system strictures and federal operating policies threatened to sink these arrangements. Any water released or bypassed for non-decreed purposes becomes ‘system water’ available for the next in-priority diverter. By statute, the Colorado State Engineer could not protect water released from headwater reservoirs downstream to the Grand Valley, a three- to four-daylong transit.

Under the prior appropriation doctrine, the way water rights must be administered, doesn't ‘allow somebody to do the right thing and be generous with sharing their water with where there's a need,’ says Dick Proctor, manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association.

Reclamation could add water at its discretion because its Green Mountain Reservoir call was in priority.
Denver Water pursued a similar approach.

‘The division engineer determined he wasn't able to protect the releases made from Denver's facilities from downstream diversions for the endangered fish,’ says Marc Waage, a water resource engineer for Denver Water. Instead, Denver Water worked to make the water available when it was least likely to be diverted, when there were higher flows in the river. When the flows were lower, Denver Water ‘tried to arrange it so that we could use other water rights that would be protected’ and would benefit the endangered fish.

The Colorado River District was able to contract for delivery of its 2,500 acre feet from Wolford Mountain Reservoir directly with the Recovery Program to ensure its delivery to the Grand Valley.

Legal constraints forced Northern's Municipal Subdistrict into a more complicated arrangement. The subdistrict used a pool of water pumped up from the Windy Gap pumping station to Granby to contribute to the 15 Mile Reach.

‘The subdistrict leased water to the district, and the district turned around and leased that water for irrigation purposes to the Grand Valley Water Users Association,’ says Don Carlson, Northern's assistant general manager.
Explains Proctor, ‘The only way (Northern) could protect that water to the Grand Valley was to sign a contract with somebody’ for water delivery. The Grand Valley Water Users OK'd a lease agreement and accepted delivery to offset the association's demand on Green Mountain Reservoir. In turn, the 1,000 acre feet was then declared a surplus and released for the fish in the 15 Mile Reach.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Patty Gelatt notes the significance of water users who recognized the need to ‘step up to the plate and take some voluntary actions. That really showed their good intentions and their following through with these recovery agreements.’

The groups, she observes, implemented recovery actions when possible and worked together to meet the target flows in the 15 Mile Reach.

‘Technically under Colorado water law they didn't have to do that.’

Reservoir storage and Mother Nature really mattered in 2007.

‘We were blessed with very good storage this summer and that enabled us to contribute the 5,000 acre feet,’ says Denver Water's Waage. ‘And our reservoir storage is still in very good shape.’

And now the really good news: Xcel Energy is undertaking millions of dollars worth of repairs to the Shoshone power plant and expects it to be on line by spring 2008.

 

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