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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

A Bonny Farewell?

By Dave Loftis

‘The current proposal to release 900 acre feet will have us going dry within one or two years,’ says Howard Paul, Bonny Lake State Park manager. ‘The dead pool will be around a 2- or 3-acre mud puddle.’

On clear, late-summer days, visitors to Bonny Lake State Park, north of Burlington, discover a prairie paradise.

With water approaching 70 degrees, Bonny Lake is a haven for water sport enthusiasts, and until 2000, this oasis saw an annual flow of some 200,000 visitors, swimming, water skiing, and fishing on the lake's 1,900 surface acres — equivalent to 3 square miles or 300 city blocks.

On a blustery, mid-winter day, visitors to the reservoir find birds. Lots of birds. Estimates from both the Colorado State Parks and the Audubon Society are that more than 35,000 migratory birds, including mallards, Canada geese and others, make the lake a part of their winters.

This haven for wildlife, however, is a central piece in the fight over water that has been a fixture in western life since settlers began to arrive. The fight intensified as the region exited a 30-year, abnormally wet climate cycle in the first years of the new millennium. It now appears that draining Bonny Lake may be a crucial piece in Colorado's compliance with its obligations, stemming from the Dec. 15, 2002, settlement agreement in the Republican River Compact case filed in the U.S. Supreme Court and approved May 19, 2003. Bonny Lake will likely be left an oversized mud puddle.

The problem: Groundwater irrigation is closely tied to surface flows

In 1998, Kansas, concerned about downstream rights and the impact of groundwater irrigation, brought suit against Nebraska. The suit contended that Kansas was being denied its rightful allotment of water from the Republican River. Kansas primarily blamed Nebraska groundwater users, pumping from the Ogallala Aquifer (also called the High Plains) within proximity to the river. Because the Republican River headwaters originate in Colorado and the state is party to the Republican River Compact, Colorado was brought into the suit in 2000, and the three states began working toward a settlement.

Three years and several degrees in advanced mathematics later, the experts, hydrologists, state engineers, and mathematicians managed to determine that Kansas was in fact being harmed by groundwater irrigation in the river basins. Groundwater and surface water are inexorably connected, although it sometimes takes years for the effects of aquifer depletion to be realized, the group determined. These determinations led to the development of complex mathematical models representing various types of consumptive use, which were used to re-examine the impact of groundwater usage on surface rights and compact obligations in the Republican River system.

Along the Republican, compliance has been a difficult issue. More than half a million acres in the river basin in

Colorado are irrigated farmland. The state estimates farmers must retire almost 30,000 acres to achieve compliance. In 2004, the Colorado General Assembly formed the Republican River Water Conservation District. Its mission is to promote water conservation and to assist the state in finding ways to help meet obligations under the 2002 agreement and the Republican River Compact. The district instituted a program by which a use fee is attached to all water use within its boundaries. The money is used to fund the voluntary retirement of wells and other water rights.

Farmers participating in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program will receive annually between $120 and $150 per acre dried.

‘It's making it very competitive to get someone enrolled in these programs,’ says Republican's general manager Stan Murphy of CREP and other pay-to-dry programs. They're important, though, because of ‘the long-term effect. The benefit will grow with time and it will work to prolong the life of the aquifer.’

These numbers appear generous in the short term, especially given calculations like those made by Dennis Kaan, a Colorado State University agriculture and business management specialist. Kaan estimated that in 2004, an acre of corn yielded a gross profit to a farmer of less than $19.

That's no longer the case. Ethanol demand has tripled, increasing pressure on the corn market. According to CSU Extension's 2006 numbers—2007 numbers have not been calculated yet—farmers net around $215 per acre of corn, based on a price of $3.25 per bushel. December prices ranged from $3.91 to $4.48.

‘Corn prices have gone way up and there are lots of folks who want a piece of that,’ says John Deering, CSU Extension's regional agriculture and business specialist for northeastern Colorado. ‘Ethanol demand for corn has tripled and that has put a lot more pressure on the corn market.’

CREP's goal to dry 30,000 acres of land within four miles of the river achieved limited success—approximately 228 acre feet toward compliance in 2007, according to estimates made by Jim Slattery, a water engineer the Republican River Water Conservation District retained in August.

‘Without the threat of curtailment, they're going to go for the corn,’ Murphy says.
In the meantime, researchers are focused on a different angle.

‘As input costs have increased, producers are trying to be more mindful and more efficient,’ Deering says. ‘CSU Extension is working hard to keep irrigation (to grow an acre of corn) to 16-20 inches a year.’

When considered against Colorado's excessive consumptive use as measured by Republican River Compact requirements—an average 11,350 acre feet per year since the 2002 settlement—what's been saved is a drop in the bucket. State and district water officials are scrambling to find ways Colorado can achieve compliance prior to the deadline dictated by the settlement's five-year running average, the last day of 2007.

Bonny Lake: Caught in the crossfire.
Bonny Lake was created in 1951 as a federal government flood control structure managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Beginning in 1966, the state leased the lake and surrounding area to use as a state park. Since then, it has become a unique habitat in Colorado, between the South Platte basin to the north, and the Arkansas Valley to the south.

The lake is a rare Colorado warm-water habitat for fish varieties including walleye, northern pike, white bass, channel catfish and tiger muskie. It draws a large number of anglers each year, including many who brave the cold for a quality winter fishing experience.

The water in Bonny is warm enough during the summer to be used as a prime, eastern Colorado water-sports destination. At capacity, the lake provides ample space for all types of boating, as well as for swimming and water skiing.

Around the reservoir is a diverse ecosystem, supporting a large bird population varied enough to be considered an important bird area by the Audubon Society. Bird watchers can view blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, orchard and bullock's orioles and wild turkey. During fall and winter, the lake is home to a wide range of migratory species, including Canada geese and mallards.

According to Ken Strom, the Colorado Audubon Society's director of bird conservation and public policy, Bonny is an important fixture in the lives of migrating birds. ‘If you look at a map of the eastern plains of Colorado, Bonny Lake is the one big body of water between the South Platte and the Arkansas Valley. There isn't much to choose from. For migrating birds, Bonny is a real oasis.’

Until 2000, the park annually drew upwards of 200,000 visitors, including Coloradans, travelers along the Interstate 70 corridor, as well as tourists from across the globe. As pressure on Colorado water has increased, however, the park's visitor levels dropped along with the lake's water levels. Visitors are now down by 70 percent. Only 60,000 visitors were recorded in 2007.

The outlook is not something that park officials expect to improve. After inflow from the Hale Ditch was halted in 2002, the park found itself unable to replace water lost to evaporation and seepage. Today, the reservoir covers only 800 of the designed 1,900 surface acres. The storage in mid-November was approximately 8,300 acre feet, about 20 percent of the lake's 41,340 acre foot storage capacity at the top of the active conservation pool.

Bonny's future is further muddied by its consumptive use, primarily evaporation and seepage from the reservoir, estimated at around 4,800 acre feet each year. With Colorado nearly 11,000 acre feet out of compliance with the 2002 agreement, retirement of this much consumptive use represents a big step toward compliance.

The likely future of Bonny Lake includes a proposed 900 acre foot drawdown. Within two years, the lake would no longer provide an environment around which its currently robust ecosystem can be supported.

‘The current proposal to release 900 acre feet will have us going dry within one or two years,’ says Howard Paul, Bonny Lake State Park manager. ‘The dead pool will be around a 2- or 3-acre mud puddle.’

According to Colorado Division of Wildlife officials, fish salvage operations are likely, beginning with relaxed fishing limits, then expanding to include tanker relocation of Bonny fish.

Grady McNeill, CDOW's manager of resource support, puts it simply. ‘Walleyes and channel cats are holding their own for now. The tipping point will come, maybe, next spring, and we'll have to run a salvage operation.’
McNeill, however, is unsure where salvaged fish will go. ‘There are not too many options to move the fish—maybe John Martin, Pueblo Reservoir or Chatfield.’ McNeill also suggests the fish may need to be moved to Nebraska or Kansas.

The habitat for birds will likewise be devastated. Without substantial surface acreage, the area will cease to be a welcoming habitat. ‘This will not be a minor disruption for these birds. It will be a big change in their patterns of use,’ says Strom. ‘For migrating birds, the loss of Bonny will make their lives far more difficult.’

Loss of Bonny: Almost an inevitability
Based on the most recent research, a Bonny Lake drawdown appears almost inevitable. The Republican River Water Conservation District has not been successful at encouraging groundwater irrigators to voluntarily dry their lands, and the Bonny draw-down plan represents more than a third of the savings needed to bring Colorado into compliance with the 2002 agreement.

Based on predictions of the Slattery study, the state will reduce its consumptive use by 4,800 acre feet annually by draining the lake. This plan provides a foundation for compliance, but is still short.

Beginning in 2008, groundwater use along the Republican and Arikaree will need to be substantially reduced. The current incentive-based plans for reducing groundwater irrigation are netting the state a savings of approximately 425 acre feet each year. In 2008, the number must increase five-fold, to around 2,400 acre feet. By 2009, Colorado will need to dry almost 3,000 acres. Farmers along the rivers will feel the pinch, which will continue long after Bonny is a memory.

Despite all actions proposed by the Slattery study, the state could remain out of compliance by almost 2,000 acre feet per year, necessitating further measures.

Downstream pressure won't ease, either. Last fall, Nebraska's Upper Republican Natural Resource District was sued by a group of residents in the river basin. They claimed the natural resource district was not allowed to fix property taxes, which were used to fund a program like Colorado's CREP. The suit prevented payments to well owners from being made. Despite the Nebraska Supreme Court decision that the NRD had the authority to tax residents, it is apparent that compact compliance will remain a difficult issue for all involved.

Aaron Thompson, area manager for the Nebraska and Kansas Reclamation office, lists it as one of his office's top issues. ‘We want all three states to be in compliance,’ he says.

Thompson is also dismissive of claims made by Don Adams, of Nebraskans First, that Kansas is gaming the inflow numbers at the Harlan County (Kan.) Reservoir, where Nebraska's compliance is measured. ‘No one is making up numbers. Each of the states agreed on the formulas in use, and no one is making anything up,’ he says.

Thompson says there is a lot of uncertainty. ‘That's the million dollar question. What does happen? We won't have much of a wildlife area or a water use park. But, we're not giving up.’

McNeill summarizes the situation: ‘Unless we have a really wet winter and spring, we won't have the necessary inflows to sustain Bonny.’

Even that might not be sufficient, though. Colorado is in debt to states downstream on the Republican, and a plan to bring the state close to compliance is likely to be short. Colorado may need to send any water that could fill Bonny to Nebraska and Kansas, and filling it would increase consumptive use from seepage and evaporation.

The future looks bleak for this oasis on the plains. Within a couple of years, fish, birds, and tourists probably will have to look elsewhere for rest and relaxation, as Bonny State Park becomes just another puddle in eastern Colorado.

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