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State officials draft bill regulating stream restoration

Colorado officials have drafted a bill aimed at addressing a tension between stream restoration projects and water rights holders. 

The draft clarifies that restoration projects do not fall under the definitions of a diversion, storage or a dam and do not need to go through the lengthy and expensive water court process to secure a water right. 

But before a project begins, proponents would have to file an information form with the state Division of Water Resources showing the project will stay within the historical footprint of the floodplain before it was degraded and doesn’t create new wetlands, the draft bill proposes. These forms would be publicly available, and anyone could then challenge whether the project meets the requirements by filing a complaint, which would be taken up by DWR staff. 

If stream restoration projects were required to secure a water right and spend money on an expensive augmentation plan, in which water is released to replace depletions it causes, it could discourage these types of projects, something the state Department of Natural Resources wants to avoid.

“We are trying to make it clear that stream restoration projects do not fall under the definition of diversion,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, the state’s assistant director for water policy. “However, we put limits on what a restoration project is or isn’t and the restoration project has to fall within the historical footprint of the stream system.” 

Slowing the flow

A beaver dam on Maroon Creek near Aspen. The state of Colorado has a draft bill to resolve tension between stream restoration projects that mimic beaver activity and downstream water rights holders.| Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Restoration projects on small headwaters tributaries often mimic beaver activity, with what are called beaver dam analogues. These temporary wood structures usually consist of posts driven into the streambed with willows and other soft materials woven across the channel between the posts. The idea is that by creating appealing habitat in areas that historically had beavers, the animals will recolonize and continue maintaining the health of the stream.

The goal of process-based restoration projects like these is to return conditions in the headwaters to what they were before waterways were harmed by mining, cattle grazing, road building and other human activities that may have confined the river to a narrow channel and disconnected it from its floodplain.

In these now-simplified stream systems, water, sediment and debris all move downstream more quickly, said Ellen Wohl, a fluvial geomorphologist at Colorado State University. 

“Natural rivers have all these sources of variability,” Wohl said. “They have pools and riffles, meanderings, obstructions like wood and beaver dams. All those things can help slow the flow, which leads to less bed and bank erosion. It allows sediment to be deposited gradually along the channel, and you increase biological processing and recharge of ground water and soil moisture.”

Although these projects benefit the environment, improve water quality and create resiliency against wildfires and climate change, keeping water on the landscape for longer could potentially have impacts to downstream water users. Under Colorado’s system of prior appropriation, the oldest water rights — which nearly always belong to agriculture — have first use of the water. 

Some are concerned that if the projects create numerous ponds in the headwaters, it could slow the rate of peak spring runoff or create more surface area for evaporation, meaning irrigators may not get their full amount of water. 

John McClow is an attorney for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and is chair of a Colorado Water Congress sub-committee studying the bill, which will make suggestions to the bill’s sponsors. He said there have been wet meadow restoration projects in the headwaters of the Gunnison River that have harmed water rights holders.

“We had some examples of well-intentioned but poorly designed projects,” he said. “In each case we worked with water rights holders and removed the obstruction so their water rights were not impaired.” 

McClow said he would like to see the bill set a standard to avoid problems at the outset of projects. 

This beaver dam analogue, with posts across the creek and soft, woody material woven across, was built by environmental restoration group EcoMetrics, keeps water on the landscape by mimicking beaver activity. Some water rights holders worry that these types of projects could negatively impact them.| Photo by Jackie Corday

State Sen. Dylan Roberts, who represents District 8 and is chair of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, is one of the bill’s sponsors. He said part of the bill’s urgency is so that Colorado can take advantage of unprecedented federal funding for stream restoration from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.

“If we can demonstrate to the federal government that we have a streamlined process for stream restoration projects, then we will make Colorado significantly more eligible for those federal funds,” Roberts said. “We are trying our best to position our state to receive the resources that we deserve.”

Roberts, a Democrat whose Western Slope district includes Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Routt and Summit counties, expects the bill to be introduced later this month.

Romero-Heaney said the state’s system of water law works well because it is adaptable to the evolving needs of Coloradans. The stream restoration legislation aims to reduce barriers to projects while still protecting water rights.

“We are at that moment where we need to make a decision: Do we want to have a future with healthy streams that are providing all those environmental services, or do we want to make that future pretty difficult to achieve?” she said. “It’s a soul-searching conversation for the water community.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times. For more information, go to www.aspenjournalism.org.

$7.5 million park-and-ride project gets matching federal, local funds

The number of paved parking spots at the Brush Creek park-and-ride lot will double to approximately 400 this summer with the projected completion of a $7.5 million project being supported by federal and local money. 

Preliminary site work starts in April and comes after a yearlong delay to break ground, Pitkin County officials said last week. The first bidding round in December 2021 drew two applicants with bids more than twice the project cost’s initial estimate. A second bidding process, conducted by the Federal Highway Administration last fall, attracted one applicant with an offer that also exceeded the project budget. 

“The federal lands access program folks do intend to mobilize the middle of April and to break ground shortly thereafter,” Brian Pettet, the county’s director of public works, told commissioners at a meeting Wednesday, Jan. 25. “And they will be surveying, clearing and grubbing and will start the process of completing the project, so we do hope to get it done this summer.”

To lower the cost, the Elected Officials Transportation Committee, or EOTC, at a late October meeting opted to eliminate the bathroom facility and traffic-flow improvements from the project plan. A general contractor based in Rye agreed to supervise the construction, Pettet told the board.

The city of Aspen and the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority lease the 27.2-acre site from the Colorado Department of Transportation. The property is on the north side of the intersection of Highway 82 and Brush Creek Road. It provides free parking to visitors and commuters, and free RFTA bus rides to Snowmass Village and Aspen.

The project is receiving $3,766,672 from the Federal Lands Access Program, or FLAP, and a matching amount approved in the EOTC’s 2023 budget. The ETOC comprises elected officials who represent the Aspen, Pitkin County and Snowmass Village governments. 

The current 200 spots will be repaved with asphalt, and another 200 gravel spots will be layered with asphalt, Pettet said. Other enhancements include lighting and prepping for future charging stations for electric vehicles. Approximately 1,400 more vehicles can park in the unpaved, dirt areas of the lot. 

The The Pitkin County commissioners will hold a confirmatory hearing on the matter Feb. 8., which entails them entertaining an emergency resolution that would memorialize the county’s agreement with the Central Federal Lands High Division under FLAP.

“The emergency nature of this is to get the grant signed by the Board of County Commissioners so we can have the intra-governmental agreement authorized,” Pettet said. 

In 2016, the EOTC authorized acceptance of FLAP funds “to improve the Brush Creek Park and Ride by expanding parking capacity and implementing operational efficiencies, to encourage more motorists traveling to Aspen and Snowmass Village to park their vehicles and utilize transit or car pools to complete their upvalley journeys,” according last week’s emergency resolution that the county commissioners adapted on first reading.


California is lone holdout in Colorado River cuts proposal

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Six Western states that rely on water from the Colorado River have agreed on a model to dramatically cut water use in the basin, months after the federal government called for action and an initial deadline passed.

California — with the largest allocation of water from the river — is the lone holdout. Officials said the state would release its own plan.

The Colorado River and its tributaries pass through seven states and into Mexico, serving 40 million people and a $5 billion-a-year agricultural industry. Some of the largest cities in the country, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver and Las Vegas, two Mexican states, Native American tribes and others depend on the river that’s been severely stressed by drought, demand and overuse.

States missed a mid-August deadline to heed the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s call to propose ways to conserve 2 million to 4 million acre feet of water. They regrouped to reach consensus by the end of January to fold into a larger proposal Reclamation has in the works.

Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming sent a letter Monday to Reclamation, which operates the major dams in the river system, to outline an alternative that builds on existing guidelines, deepens water cuts and factors in water that’s lost through evaporation and transportation.

Those states propose raising the levels where water reductions would be triggered at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which are barometers of the river’s health. The model creates more of a protective buffer for both reservoirs — the largest built in the U.S. It also seeks to fix water accounting and ensure that any water the Lower Basin states intentionally stored in Lake Mead is available for future use.

The modeling would result in about 2 million acre-feet of cuts in the Lower Basin, with smaller reductions in the Upper Basin. Mexico and California are factored into the equations, but neither signed on to Monday’s letter.

John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said all states have been negotiating in good faith.

“I don’t view not having unanimity at one step in that process to be a failure,” he said late Monday. “I think all seven states are still committed to working together.”

California released a proposal last October to cut 400,000 acre feet. An acre foot is enough water to supply two to three U.S. households for a year.

JB Hamby, chair of the Colorado River Board of California, said California will submit a model for water reductions in the basin that is practical, based on voluntary action, and aligns with law governing the river and the hierarchy of water rights.

“California remains focused on practical solutions that can be implemented now to protect volumes of water in storage without driving conflict and litigation,” he said in a statement Monday.

Nothing will happen immediately with the consensus reached among the six states. However, not reaching a consensus carried the risk of having the federal government alone determine how to eventually impose cuts.

By not signing on, California doesn’t avoid that risk.

The debates over how to cut water use by roughly one-third have been contentious. The Upper Basin states of Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah have said the Lower Basin states — Arizona, California and Nevada — must do the heavy lifting. That conversation in the Lower Basin has centered on what’s legal and what’s fair.

The six states that signed Monday’s proposal acknowledged ideas they put forth could be excluded from final plans to operate the river’s major dams. Negotiations are ongoing, they noted, adding that what they proposed does not override existing rights states and others have to the Colorado River.

“There’s a lot of steps, commitments that need to be made at the federal, state and local levels,” said Entsminger of Nevada.

Monday’s proposal included accounting for the water lost to evaporation and leaky infrastructure as the river flows through the region’s dams and waterways. Federal officials estimate more than 10% of the river’s flow evaporates, leaks or spills, yet Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico have never accounted for that water loss.

The six states argued that Lower Basin states should share those losses — essentially subtracting those amounts from their allocations — once the elevation at Lake Mead sinks below 1,145 feet (349 meters). The reservoir was well below that Monday.

Reclamation will consider the six states’ agreement as part of a larger proposal to revise how it operates Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams — behemoth power producers on the Colorado River. The reservoirs behind the dams — Lake Powell and Lake Mead — have reached historic lows amid a more than two-decade-long drought and climate change.

Reclamation plans to put out a draft of that proposal by early March, with a goal of finalizing it by mid-August when the agency typically announces the amount of water available for the following year. Reclamation has said it will do what’s needed to ensure the dams can continue producing hydropower and deliver water.

Those annual August announcements have led to mandatory cuts for the past two years for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico in the river’s Lower Basin. California has so far been spared from cuts because it has some of the oldest and most secure water rights, particularly in the Imperial Valley where much of the country’s winter vegetables are grown, along with the Yuma, Arizona, region.

Without California’s participation, the six states’ proposal can only go so far to meet the hydrological realities of the river. Water managers in the Lower Basin say the scale of conservation Reclamation is seeking cannot be met without California, tribes and farmers who draw directly from the Colorado River.

Also unclear is how much Mexico eventually will contribute to the savings. In the best water years, Mexico receives its full allocation of 1.5 million acre feet under a treaty reached with the U.S. in 1944.

In the West, pressure to count water lost to evaporation

WASHINGTON (AP) — Exposed to the beating sun and hot dry air, more than 10% of the water carried by the Colorado River evaporates, leaks or spills as the 1,450-mile powerhouse of the West flows through the region’s dams, reservoirs and open-air canals.

For decades, key stewards of the river have ignored the massive water loss, instead allocating Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico their share of the river without subtracting what’s evaporated.

But the 10% can no longer be ignored, hydrologists, state officials and other western water experts say.

The West’s multi-decade drought has sent water levels in key reservoirs along the river to unprecedented lows. Officials from Nevada and Arizona say that they, together with California, now need to account for how much water is actually in the river.

The challenge is in finding a method that California also agrees to.

“It’s very hard to get consensus,” said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. She thinks it’s unlikely that states will reach an agreement on their own, without federal intervention.

Unlike Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico, the upriver or Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming — already take into account evaporation losses.

Now with a looming federal deadline for Colorado River basin states to say how they’ll use at least 15% less water from the river, there’s renewed urgency for Arizona, California and Nevada to factor in what’s lost to evaporation.

One proposal comes from Nevada: States at the end of the river would see their Colorado River portion shrink based on the distance it travels to reach users. The farther south the river travels, the more water is lost as temperatures rise and water is exposed to the elements for longer.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority estimates that roughly 1.5 million acre-feet of water are lost to evaporation, transportation and inefficiencies each year in Arizona, Nevada and California. That’s 50% more than Utah uses in a whole year.

Nevada and Arizona could be on board with this plan.

Nevada stands to lose the least under this plan since Lake Mead — the man-made reservoir from which Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico draw water — sits in its backyard.

Tom Buschatzke, director of Arizona’s Department of Water Resources, called Nevada’s proposal fair.

“Calculating the losses as Nevada has proposed is probably the most equitable and matches the real, physical world,” Buschatzke said. “The further you are, the more the losses are.”

But crucially, California disagrees. Officials there have said Nevada’s plan would likely run afoul of western water law. California has rights to the largest share of Colorado River water. Just as important, in times of shortage, water cuts come later than for other users, based on the so-called Law of the River, a series of overlapping agreements, court decisions and contracts that determine how the river is shared. Its senior water rights mean it has been spared from cuts so far.

California water managers have said evaporation and system losses should be accounted for based on this existing system. In a December letter to federal officials, Christopher Harris, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, said any other approach could “face considerable legal and technical challenges.”

For Arizona, that could mean shouldering losses so significant that some experts say the drinking water supply for Phoenix could be threatened due to diminished deliveries to the the Central Arizona Project, the 336-mile (541-kilometer) aqueduct system that delivers Colorado River water to that metro area and Tucson.

Under Nevada’s plan, California would pay a steep price. In addition to using more water from the river than any other state, its water travels some of the longest distances. California’s Imperial Irrigation District, the single largest of all users of Colorado River water, would lose about 19% of its share. The region grows many of the nation’s winter vegetables and alfalfa, and Imperial has said it disagrees with issuing water cuts according to evaporative losses at all.

Tina Shields, water manager for Imperial Irrigation District, said Arizona and Nevada — whose water rights are more junior than California’s — were advocating for the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s plan because it would benefit them to share the losses.

“When you have a junior, right, that’s what you do,” Shields said. “You try to share the problem with other users.”

According to John Fleck, a researcher at the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, Lower Basin states have avoided recognizing these losses for so long in part because there was no need to in decades past. Water was plentiful and some states didn’t take all the water to which they were legally entitled.

In many cases, the infrastructure needed to deliver water — vast canals, dams and waterways — did not exist.

“The problem goes back to when … no one needed to care about this issue,” Fleck said.”

The difficult politics involved have also made the issue somewhat untouchable, Fleck said.

“No one was willing to take it on,” Fleck said. “It all comes down to the same thing: you have to take less water out of the system.”

AP Exclusive: Emails reveal tensions in Colorado River talks

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Competing priorities, outsized demands and the federal government’s retreat from a threatened deadline stymied a deal last summer on how to drastically reduce water use from the parched Colorado River, emails obtained by The Associated Press show.

The documents span the June-to-August window the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation gave states to reach consensus on water cuts for a system that supplies 40 million people annually — or have the federal government force them. They largely include communication among water officials in Arizona and California, the major users in the river’s Lower Basin.

Reclamation wanted the seven U.S. states that rely on the river to decide how to cut 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water — or up to roughly one-third — on top of already anticipated reductions. The emails, obtained through a public records request, depict a desire to reach a consensus but persistent disagreement over how much each state could or should give.

As the deadline approached without meaningful progress, one water manager warned: “We’re all headed to a very dark place.”

“The challenges we had this summer were significant challenges, they truly were,” Chris Harris, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, said in an interview about the early negotiations. “I don’t know that anybody was to blame, I genuinely don’t. There were an awful lot of different interpretations of what was being asked and what we were trying to do.”

Scientists say the megadrought gripping the southwestern U.S. is the worst in 1,200 years, putting a deep strain on the Colorado River as key reservoirs dip to historically low levels. If states don’t begin taking less out of the river, the major reservoirs threaten to fall so low they can’t produce hydropower or supply any water at all to farms that grow crops for the rest of the nation and cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

The future of the river seemed so precarious last summer that some water managers felt attempting to reach a voluntary deal was futile — only mandated cuts would stave off crisis.

“We are out of time and out of any cushion to allow for a voluntary plan,” Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, told a Bureau of Reclamation official in a July 18 email.

As 2023 begins, fresh incentives make the states more likely to give up water. The federal government has put up $4 billion for drought relief, and Colorado River users have submitted proposals to get some of that money through actions like leaving fields unplanted. Some cities are ripping up thirsty decorative grass, and tribes and major water agencies have left some water in key reservoirs — either voluntarily or by mandate.

Reclamation also has agreed to spend $250 million mitigating hazards at a drying California lake bed, a condition of the state’s water users agreeing to cut their use by 400,000 acre feet in a proposal released in October.

The Interior Department is still evaluating proposals for a slice of the $4 billion and can’t say how much savings it will generate, Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau said in an interview.

The states are again trying to reach a grand bargain — with a deadline of Tuesday — so that Reclamation can factor it into a larger plan to modify operations at Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam, behemoth power producers on the Colorado River. Failure to do so would set up the possibility of the federal government imposing cuts — a move that could invite litigation.

Figuring out who absorbs additional water cuts has been contentious, with allegations of drought profiteering, reneging on commitments, too many negotiators in the room and an unsteady hand from the federal government, the emails and follow-up interviews showed.

California says it’s a partner willing to sacrifice, but other states see it as a reluctant participant clinging to a water priority system where it ranks near the top. Arizona and Nevada have long felt they’re unfairly forced to bear the brunt of cuts because of a water rights system developed long ago, a simmering frustration that reared its head during talks.

Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton’s call for a massive water cut in testimony to Congress on June 14 was a public bombshell of sorts. A week earlier, with a heads-up from the federal government, the Lower Basin states talked about collectively, with Mexico, cutting up to 2 million acre-feet during a meeting in Salt Lake City, the emails and interviews showed.

But as the weeks passed and proposals were exchanged, the Lower Basin states barely reached half that amount, and the commitment was nowhere near firm, the emails showed. Adding to the difficulty was not knowing what Mexico, which also has a share of the river, might contribute.

In a series of exchanges through July, Arizona and California each proposed multiple ways to achieve cuts, building on existing agreements tied to the levels of Lake Mead, factoring in the water lost to evaporation or inefficient infrastructure, and fiercely protecting a priority system, though it was clear negotiators were becoming weary.

The states shared disdain for a proposal from farmers near Yuma and southern California to be paid $1,500 an acre foot for water they conserved. Former Central Arizona Project general manager Ted Cooke responded by suggesting the farmers make it work at one-third of the price, which still was higher but closer to going rates.

In late July, Harris, of California, emailed a proposal to the Bureau of Reclamation outlining scenarios in the range of 1 million acre feet in cuts, saying it was imperative negotiators be able to “declare some level of victory.”

“Otherwise,” he wrote, “I genuinely believe that we are at an impasse, and we’re all headed to a very dark place.”

But ultimately, Arizona and Nevada never felt that California was willing to give enough.

“It was futile, it wasn’t enough. We did not trust that California was going to come through on their piece of it,” Cooke said in an interview.

By then, Reclamation privately told the states — but didn’t acknowledge publicly — that it backed away from the supposed mid-August deadline, officials involved in the talks said. Beaudreau, the deputy Interior secretary, said in an interview the deadline was never meant to create an ultimatum between reaching a deal and forced cuts.

But state officials said when it became clear the federal government wouldn’t act unilaterally, it created a “chilling effect” that removed the urgency from the talks because water users with higher-priority water rights were no longer at risk of harsh cuts, Arizona’s Buschatzke said in an interview.

“Without that hammer, there was a different tone of negotiations,” he said.

Today, the Interior Department’s priority remains ensuring Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam have enough water in them to maintain hydropower, and the department will do whatever is necessary to ensure that, Beaudreau said.

The Upper Basin states of New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado — which historically haven’t used their full supplies — are looking toward the Lower Basin states to do much of the work.

Reclamation is now focused on weighing the latest round of comments from states on how to save the river. Nevada wants to count water lost to evaporation and transportation in water allocations — a move that could mean the biggest volume of cuts for California — and some Arizona water managers agree, comment letters obtained by the AP show.

But disputes remain over how to determine what level of cuts are fair and legal. California’s goal remains protecting its status while other states and tribes want more than old water rights taken into account — such as whether users have access to other water sources, and the effects of cuts on disadvantaged communities and food security.

Reclamation’s goal is to get a draft of proposed cuts out by early March, then a final decision before mid-August, when Reclamation regularly announces how much — or how little — river water is available for the next year.

River District considers criteria for water conservation program

A Western Slope water conservation district has released a draft of the rules it plans to use to guide a program paying water users to cut back. 

The Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District Board of Directors discussed the policy at its quarterly meeting last week. In December, the Upper Colorado River Commission unveiled details of a rebooted water conservation program, which originally ran from 2015 to 2018 and paid water users to use less Colorado River water. 

Along with state officials, it will be up to the River District to approve or deny applications for the restarted program within its 15-county boundary, with the aim of preventing speculation and permanent damage to the Western Slope’s agricultural communities.

“While we didn’t come up with the idea of system conservation and certainly didn’t ever endorse the idea that $125 million should be made available for this particular system conservation program, we recognize that we need to act to protect our communities and our water supply here,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the River District.

According to the River District’s criteria, an applicant must prove saving water will not injure other water users. In a given year, no more than 30% of the land owned by a single person or entity can be dried up and no more than 30% of the irrigated land in any sub-basin can be dried up. 

The policy says that Front Range water providers — which in total take about 500,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water each year across the Continental Divide to growing cities and for agriculture — must also contribute their fair share of water. The River District will only approve contracts so long as there are no new transmountain diversion projects or expansion of an existing one — at all. 

“We are not going to ask our water users to cut back when what that means is essentially making room for new transbasin diversions,” Mueller said. 

The policy also recommends that if the farm operator is not the owner of the land, that 40% of the federal payments go to the operator. 

“Should all the funds go to landowners and not the farm operators, we may see families leave the area or be forced to switch professions,” Mueller said. “That’s a real potential negative of a program like this.”

The restarted System Conservation Pilot Program — which the River District is referring to as just the System Conservation Program, dropping the “pilot” since it’s no longer new — will pay water users a starting price of $150 per acre-foot of saved water. It will be funded with $125 million of federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act. The deadline to submit applications is Feb. 1 and the Upper Colorado River Commission expects to award contracts in March to begin conserving water during the 2023 irrigation season.

The goal of the System Conservation Program is to reduce Colorado River water use in the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) to lessen the impacts of long-term drought and depleted reservoirs. The program is one arm of the commission’s 5-Point Plan, released in July, which is aimed at protecting critical elevations at the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. 

Fueled by a two-decade drought and climate change, the reservoirs have fallen to historically low levels, threatening the ability to make hydro-electric power at the dams. Upper basin water managers have called on the lower basin (California, Arizona and Nevada) to bear the brunt of the cuts needed to sustain the system, given that the lower basin regularly uses its full annual appropriation of Colorado River water, while the upper basin uses far less overall.

River District board members will provide feedback on the policy and could approve a final draft at a meeting in two weeks. 

The original System Conservation Pilot Program saved about 47,000 acre-feet of water at a cost of about $8.6 million over four years. Upper Colorado River Commission officials have repeatedly said they cannot put a number on how much water they expect to be conserved in the new iteration of the program.

The the commission held a webinar on Wednesday to provide additional information to applicants and walk through the review process and timeline. According to the commission’s executive director Chuck Cullom, the webinar had more than 120 participants. 

Cullom said the Upper Colorado River Commission, which has just three employees, will be looking to contractors and state leaders to get the program up and running.

“In order to engage in something as regionally diverse as system conservation requires a team,” he said. “So we are engaging with a consultant who will provide technical and administrative support work as well as the leadership and work from each of the four states.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times. For more information, go to http://www.aspenjournalism.org

Scientists studying water supply focus on weeks following peak snowpack

Water managers in the Colorado River basin are gaining a better understanding that what happens in the weeks after peak snowpack — not just how much snow accumulated over the winter — can have an outsize influence on the year’s water supply.

Water year 2021 was historically bad, with an upper basin snowpack that peaked around 90% of average but translated to only 36% of average runoff into Lake Powell, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. It was the second-worst runoff on record after 2002. One of the culprits was exceptionally thirsty soils from 2020’s hot and dry summer and fall, which soaked up snowmelt before runoff made it to streams. But those dry soils are only part of the story.

A new paper from the Desert Research Institute, a nonprofit science arm of the Nevada university system, found that heat waves in April 2021 drove record snowmelt rates at about 25% of snow-telemetry (SNOTEL) sites looked at across the West. SNOTEL is a network of remote sensing stations throughout the West’s mountainous watersheds that collect weather and snowpack information. 

A heat wave that was concentrated over the Rocky Mountains on April 1-7 contributed to record snowmelt at 74 stations, including areas that feed the Colorado River. 

A few different agencies release monthly water-supply forecasts for April through July, including the National Resource Conservation Service, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. The April forecast is the first prediction of how streamflows will shape up for the year.

But according to the paper, in 2021, “rates of snowmelt throughout April were alarming and quickly worsened summer runoff outlooks which underscores that 1 April may no longer be a reliable benchmark for western water supply.” 

This SNOTEL site at the top of McClure Pass is one of hundreds of remote sensing stations throughout the West that monitor weather and precipitation data in mountainous terrain. New research shows that there are many more factors relevant to predicting water supply than just how much water is in the snowpack, a metric known as snow-water equivalent (SWE), which is measured by SNOTEL sites.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

The paper did not quantify what exactly the record melt speed meant for water supply, but paper author and associate research professor of climatology Dan McEvoy said it definitely contributed to the poor inflow into the nation’s second-largest reservoir in 2021. It also shows there are many more factors relevant to predicting the water supply than just how much water is in the snowpack, a metric known as snow-water equivalent (SWE), which is measured by SNOTEL sites.

“There was a combination of things that was contributing to this really low runoff in places like the Colorado River basin,” McEvoy said. 

Some of these other factors include very little April precipitation and warm nighttime temperatures, which didn’t allow the snowpack to get into the daily freeze-thaw cycle that’s common in the spring. Persistent high pressure kept skies clear and sunny, which meant that more of the snowpack sublimated, evaporating instead of turning into liquid.

“When it’s sunnier and warmer, you can lose some of that water directly to the atmosphere,” McEvoy said. “It doesn’t even get to melt and go into the runoff.” 

These rapid melting events could also help set up prime conditions for wildfires, he said, something he wants to continue studying. 

“When you have the snow disappear earlier there’s more time with the ground exposed, which contributes to drying out the vegetation in the spring and summer and an earlier onset to wildfire season,” McEvoy said.

After peak snowpack

Climatologists at Colorado State University are working on a similar study that looks at how factors such as precipitation after peak snowpack affect spring runoff. Their findings underscore how important the conditions of the six to eight weeks after peak snowpack are for predicting streamflows.

“One of the things we found that was crystal clear from the study was that one of the major sources of water-supply forecast error is what happens after peak snowpack,” said Peter Bennett Goble, a climatologist at CSU who is working on the study. “Just knowing how much uncertainty is still out there on April 1 or even April 15 probably allows water managers to be a little more cautious, maybe hold a little bit more back, especially if it looks like it’s going to be an early runoff.”

This graph shows the average snow-water equivalent reading recorded across the five SNOTEL stations of the Roaring Fork basin between December 2020 and July 2021. SWE at these stations declined by roughly 10% on average during the April 1-7, 2021 heat wave, a phenomenon across the West described in a study by the Desert Research Institute. 

Predicting whether reservoirs will fill — and therefore how much water to release to make room for the inflow — can be tricky. Some municipal water providers use the Colorado Airborne Snow Measurement Program — with its lidar-equipped planes — to more accurately measure snowpack. For example, Denver Water has used CASM to see how much snow is in the headwaters of the Blue River basin, which feeds Dillon Reservoir, its largest storage bucket. 

But aside from this technology, which is expensive and not yet available everywhere, water managers rely heavily on data from the SNOTEL sites to make streamflow forecasts. This method has limitations, providing just a snapshot of conditions at one location.

These limitations can be seen in recent years’ forecasts for Ruedi Reservoir, on the Fryingpan River. Initial forecasts in April 2021 projected Ruedi could probably fill to its entire 102,373-acre-foot capacity, but the reservoir ended up only about 80% full that year. In 2020, each of the three main forecasting agencies also overpredicted Ruedi inflow for the months of April, May and June. (An acre-foot covers 1 acre to a depth of 1 foot.)

Tim Miller, a hydrologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation who manages operations at Ruedi, said his models predicted a 2021 Ruedi inflow of 111,000 acre-feet, but only 77,000 acre-feet actually flowed in. That the models are based on historical SNOTEL data from past decades is a drawback as climate change progresses, but it’s the best we have, Miller said.

“It makes the assumption that what we have seen in the past is what we will see in the future, which is a really poor assumption when you’re in the middle of a change in the climate,” Miller said. “We will probably see events like we haven’t seen in the future and we are using what we’ve seen to predict them.”

Dave Kanzer, director of science and interstate matters for the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, said people often look for a single explanation when streamflows don’t match predictions. The River District owns and operates Wolford Mountain Reservoir, near Kremmling, and stores water in Ruedi Reservoir. But there is often a whole host of compounding factors that water managers will have to begin weighing more heavily as the climate warms. 

“It’s not just about soil moisture, it’s not just about solar radiation, it’s not just about temperatures, it’s not just about the winds — it’s everything,” Kanzer said. “In some cases, like 2021, you get what some people like to call the perfect storm.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times. For more information, go to www.aspenjournalism.org

First LGBTQ+ United Methodist bishop kicks off Gay Ski Week at Aspen Chapel

The United Methodist Church’s first openly-lesbian bishop, Karen Oliveto, will speak Sunday morning at the Aspen Chapel to kick off Gay Ski Week.

She will discuss what it means to be “perfectly imperfect,” while extending the church’s ideas unconditional love and acceptance to LGBTQ+ members in attendance, she said.

“I want them (LGBTQ+ individuals) to know that they are an exclamation point on the heart of God,” Oliveto said. “God made them. God delights in them. And, the world needs them.”

She serves as the leader of the Mountain Sky Area of The United Methodist Church, which consists of 378 congregations in Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and one church in Idaho, including the Roaring Fork Valley Methodist churches in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, Basalt and Aspen.

Before serving as the first openly gay bishop, she was the first to accomplish many things in ministry.

She was the first woman to serve as senior pastor at the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, a congregation with 12,000 members in San Francisco.

While in San Francisco, Oliveto became the first United Methodist pastor to officiate a legal gay wedding, back in February 2004. At the time, Gavin Newsom, then the mayor (now California governor), issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite California law that explicitly prohibited these unions, according to Mother Jones.

“You had to be in San Francisco to see these couples coming from all over the country to line up at City Hall. Days-long lines, and the whole city turning out. People showed up with pizza and doughnuts and flowers and cakes,” said Oliveto.

“The whole city felt like one big wedding reception,” she said. “God was palpable because love was so palpable.”

According to her, nine couples in her congregation asked her to officiate their same-sex unions. Although the United Methodist Church did not recognize same-sex marriage, Oliveto felt a moral obligation those in her congregation looking to build their lives together.

Bishop Karen Oliveto said she felt a moral obligation to officiate same-sex marriages in San Francisco when they were illegal.
Courtesy photo

“How can I say ‘No,’ even though the church was against it? How could I say ‘No’ to these people who I’m their pastor?” said Oliveto. “I work with them. I see their relationship. I see their desire to build a family, and it got me in a lot of trouble.”

Oliveto received a number of complaints from inside the organization, including a formal charge filed against her that was ultimately dropped. Within six months of her decision to officiate same-sex unions, The United Methodist Church “explicitly made performing of same-sex ceremonies a chargeable offense, after Oliveto’s action,” according to The Chicago Tribune.

Despite some within the church seeking to make officiating same-sex marriage a chargeable offense, Oliveto went on to work in a seminary as the associate dean of academic affairs.

She said the seminary told her: “You’re exactly the kind of leader we want our students to learn from.”

“Here I was with a complaint against me and my ministry, and I was invited to teach United Methodist history doctrine policy, the required courses for United Methodist pastors,” she said.

In 2016, she became the lead bishop for the Mountain Sky Area — a title she wasn’t sure she’d ever hold, and, furthermore, a title she was scared to hold.

“I didn’t know what God wanted next,” said Oliveto. “I didn’t think it was to be a bishop. But, a lot of voices were saying, ‘This is when we need you.’

Before accepting the nomination, she sought guidance from God and her spouse, Robin Ridenour, a deaconess in the church. When Robin quoted scripture, reminding her that “perfect love casts out all fear,” Oliveto felt the fear melt away, she said.

The day after she accepted the nomination to become bishop, she woke up to read about a shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. This tragic event is currently the second most deadly shooting in modern U.S history with 49 fatalities, according to Business Insider.

“Instead of the fear returning, it made me realize it’s time for an openly-LGBT person to be in leadership in the church,” said Oliveto.

According to Oliveto, she was unanimously elected on the 17th ballot. While the United Methodist Church elected her to this position, the church remains deeply divided about LGBTQ+ rights.

Following the announcement of her role as bishop, she said, she experienced overwhelming kindness from many, some telling her, “I’m alive because of you.” Still, the threat of violence also was overwhelming.

“The problem was the hate mail was really bad, to the point that I needed a bodyguard,” said Oliveto. “I was run out of one town, literally, under the threat of violence. So, it’s been hard.”

Despite the hardships, she said she knows she is carrying both the hopes and fears of many. Through her faith and the kindness of others, she pushed through.

“I’m aware that my presence in that position of leadership has changed hearts and minds, but, more than that, it saves some lives,” said Oliveto. “There are young people who are alive because they see what their life could be like.”

On Sunday, she will speak at Aspen Chapel at 9:30 a.m. and then head downvalley to the Carbondale Community United Methodist Church to speak at 5 p.m. during the church’s outdoor Aprés Ski worship service.

To reach Kristen Mohammadi, call 304-650-2404 or email kmohammadi@aspentimes.com.

Some Boebert backers urge her to ‘tone down the nasty rhetoric’

RIFLE, Colo. (AP) — Debbie Hartman voted for Lauren Boebert for Congress in 2020 and again in 2022, delighted by Boebert’s unequivocal defense of cultural issues that animate the Republican Party’s far right flank. But as Hartman shopped recently at a supermarket in this Rocky Mountain ranching outpost, she had one piece of advice for the Colorado lawmaker.

“Tone down the nasty rhetoric on occasion and just stick with the point at hand,” said Hartman, 65, a veterinary tech assistant.

That sentiment reflects Boebert’s challenge as she begins her second term in the House. In her relatively short time in Washington, she has built a national profile with a combative style embracing everything from gun ownership to apocalyptic religious rhetoric. Constituents such as Hartman in the Republican-leaning 3rd Congressional District laud Boebert for defending their rights, but cringe at her provocations, contributing to an unexpectedly tight race last year that she won by just 546 votes out of more than 300,000 cast.

“She tapped into what Trump was doing, and she maybe took it too far in some instances,” said Alex Mason, 27, adding that Boebert, whom he supports, is still more tactful than former President Donald Trump.

In an interview, Boebert said “this slim victory, it opened my eyes to another chance to do everything that I’ve been promising to do.”

To the congresswoman, that means being “more focused on delivering the policies I ran on than owning the left,” adding she hoped “to bring the temperature down, to bring unity.”

For much of past week, however, the temperature on Capitol Hill was only rising. Boebert was a leading voice among a group of lawmakers who refused to support Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s bid to become House speaker, a historic revolt against a party leader. McCarthy finally won the gavel early Saturday morning.

Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., talks with Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., after the 11th round of voting for speaker in the House chamber as the House meets for the third day to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Some of Boebert’s toughest words are increasingly aimed at fellow Republicans, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, another controversial Trump acolyte who was one of McCarthy’s most prominent conservative supporters.

“I have been asked to explain MTG’s beliefs on Jewish space lasers, on why she showed up to a white supremacist conference. … I’m just not going to go there,” Boebert said over the phone as she rode in a car winding through the high canyons near her hometown of Silt before the speakership vote. “She wants to say all these things and seem unhinged on Twitter, so be it.”

Boebert, 36, insisted that while she may try to pick fewer fights with the left, she’s not going to become a different person even after barely beating an opponent, Democrat Adam Frisch, who had targeted what he called Boebert’s “angertainment.”

“A lot of those on the left have said: ‘Look at your election, are you going to tone it down, little girl?'” she said. “I’m still going to be me.”

The slim margin has stirred discussion about whether she might be vulnerable in another race next year, with Frisch saying he has received encouragement from lawmakers in Washington to run again..

But, she said, she’s thinking more about what it’s like to be a member of the majority party.

“In the minority, all I had was my voice, the only thing I could do was be loud about the things I’m passionate about,” she said. Now, “We have to lead right now, we have to show Americans that we deserve to be in the majority.”

People in Boebert’s district, which runs from the ruddy red mesas in Grand Junction that stand sentry over rugged, high-desert terrain to the coal mining hamlets nestled in the Rockies, say the landscape promotes a kind of frontier libertarianism. To many voters, Boebert became a standard-bearer for a rural way of life and values that they feel are being both persecuted and forgotten.

Larry Clark, who spent 50 years tending to his family’s 160-acre ranch before his relatives sought cash for the land, points to one example. Many more liberal city-dwellers east of the Rockies voted to reintroduce wolves to the Western Slope, where the predators’ prey includes livestock that drives the local economy.

“They don’t understand what rural life is like,” said Clark, who only had encouraging words for Boebert, a staunch opponent of reintroduction. “Send the wolves to Boulder.”

Even if they’ve grown wary of her excesses, many of Boebert’s supporters say she’s amplified their concerns nationally and served as an an antidote to progressive Democrats such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

Raleigh Snyder, a retired aircraft mechanic in Grand Junction, said Boebert was America’s only chance against “endemic corruption” in Washington. Still, he said “she’s probably going to have to learn to temper her approach, but don’t change her goals.”

Outside Rifle’s City Market, Maryann Tonder said she doesn’t want Boebert “even to feel that she has to compromise principles to get stuff done.” But, she added, “you can do it in a way that is not over the top.”

Another Boebert supporter in Rifle, Julie Ottman, who was pushing a cart out of City Market, said, “sometimes you got to give a little bit in order to get.”

But others are pressing Boebert to stand firm.

“I don’t want her to bow,” said Mike Gush, 64, a coal miner from the small town of Craig. “I would stop supporting her.”


Jesse Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Western Slope representatives talk legislative priorities in first town hall of 2023

The 2023 Colorado legislative session begins on Monday, Jan. 9, kicking off 120 days of lawmakers introducing, modifying and passing bills that address our state’s most pressing issues.

Ahead of the opening session, four state representatives from the Western Slope — Senator-elect Dylan Roberts, Representative-elect Meghan Lukens, Representative-elect Elizabeth Velasco, and House Speaker-designate Julie McCluskie — convened for a virtual town hall meeting via Zoom to address some of the top policy priorities for the upcoming session.

Water rights and conservation were front of mind for all representatives, and, with Roberts serving as the chair of the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and Lukens and Velasco sitting on the House Agriculture, Livestock, and Water Committee, the Western Slope will have a prominent voice in determining water policy moving forward.

“Colorado will be a leader in this space,” McCluskie said. “We will work not only to protect the Colorado river basin, which is so near and dear to all of our hearts on the Western Slope, but think about the strategies for decades to come and how we protect this resource for the next generation.”

She emphasized that the state’s Joint Budget Committee has prioritized spending on the Colorado Water Plan, and that she expects a continued push for accessing federal resources to support planning processes. Roberts also mentioned that he would support the creation of a full-time position for an upper Colorado River commissioner to defend water rights in upcoming negotiations.

“We know our Colorado River negotiations and dealings with the other states is an incredibly serious and high stakes position right now, and so I think having a person focused solely on that is important and necessary,” he said.

Lukens, a former teacher who now serves on the House Education Committee, noted that lawmakers are looking at opportunities to retain excess state revenue to fund public education while searching for additional ways to support students and teachers, such as the Interstate Teacher Mobility Compact, which would reduce barriers for teachers to become licensed to work in other states.

The state also put $80 million towards special-education services in the last legislative session through the School Finance Act, and McCluskie said that lawmakers are entertaining a bill to invest more this year. In addition to funding special education, the state is looking at opportunities to alleviate the Medicaid waitlist for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, though this service gap goes beyond funding alone.

“I will say one of the challenges we have faced, certainly in Summit County and across some of our smaller rural communities, is capacity,” she said. “We have lost the individuals who provide these services to our IDD community members … we came up with some creative solutions for group settings, but it’s certainly something we need to continue to pay attention to.”

Velasco, a certified wildland firefighter who campaigned on her advocacy for emergency preparedness and environmental resiliency, talked about working on bills that will increase funding opportunities for local fire districts, making emergency information accessible to everyone, and removing barriers for volunteers to be able to participate in firefighting efforts.

“We just had the anniversary of the Marshall Fire that was the most destructive, most expensive fire for our state, so this is definitely something that’s very important at the legislature, and we are working together to bring the solutions for everyone,” she said.

Reproductive rights were also brought up in the town hall, with Lukens highlighting efforts to keep planning clinics accessible and operational now that the Reproductive Health Equity Act guarantees the right to abortion in Colorado.

“We’re looking at increasing state funding for family planning clinics to ensure that Coloradans can get access to comprehensive planning services and strengthen state coverage requirements for private health plans to ensure that Coloradans have access to preventative care, and that would include reproductive-health, oral-health, behavioral-health services,” Lukens said.

“Also, we are a desert — a lot of the states around us don’t have access to reproductive rights, so we are seeing the opportunity of supporting other states as well,” Velasco added.

On the topic of housing affordability, McCluskie talked about working on a property-tax reduction proposal, as well as potentially instituting tax credits for first-time home buyers.

Attendees at the town hall also asked about expanding the jurisdiction of physician assistants in Colorado, to which McCluskie responded that, if a statewide approach cannot be found, lawmakers will look into regional options for rural parts of Colorado, where access to care is such a critical issue. She encouraged physician assistants with questions or insight on this issue to reach out directly.

Roberts said that this was to be the first of numerous town halls, both virtual and in-person, that the legislators plan to hold over the span of the 120 days in session to keep constituents up-to-date with their progress.