July 22: The 20,000-Foot-View

A River Runs Through It: The 20,000-foot View of the Upper Colorado River Basin

The poster child of an over-allocated resource, the Colorado passes through seven states and offers sustenance on many fronts: water for more than 30 million people and a significant portion of our nation's food supply; home to a handful of endangered fish and wildlife species; the basis of a $26 billion recreational economy. And yet, demand for water so outstrips supply that the river runs dry more than 100 miles before it reaches the coast. The group heard about the past, present and future of this embattled river, from Brad Udall, senior water and climate research Scholar at the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University; Jennifer Pitt, the Colorado River project director at the Audubon Society; and Doug Kenney, senior research associate at the  Getches-Wilkinson Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado.

 

 

July 23: Climate, Water Rights, Ranches & Fish

The First Straw: Front Range Water Providers

Through an elaborate system of reservoirs, tunnels and pipes that carry water over, under and through mountains, water utilities move as much as 20 percent of Colorado’s water from the Western Slope – where it falls – to the booming Front Range, which generates more than 80 percent of the state’s economic activity and tax revenue. The group visited the headquarters of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District in Berthoud for a primer on how water is stored, moved between basins, and used by the bulk of the state’s population. We also heard how science and research can help managers make savvy choices about water in the future. 

 

Top of the World: How Snowpack Drives the Water Supply

While much of the Colorado’s water is used downstream, it’s the winter delivery at the highest elevations that determines whether it’s a wet year or a dry one, as each drip drip drip of the melting snowpack heads downhill in a torrent or a trickle. Some climate models predict snowpack will decline, exacerbating drought, while others show that the Upper Colorado could see above-average moisture. Much depends upon getting it right. In the territory where the Colorado River originates, we heard from two scientists about current conditions, and what the future may hold.

River Dynamic: Bringing Back the Flows

High-elevation streams are designed to move large volumes of melting snow fast – and those cold, oxygen-rich waters are ideal habitat for trout and the invertebrates upon which they feed. But diversions and reduced snowpack are changing the nature of some high-elevation streams: rather than rushing and riffling, they’re slowing and warming, stressing fish, spreading disease and degrading water quality. A series of adaptive management projects are designed to work with the water that’s there to restore higher-quality habitat on a smaller scale. We met with some of the ranchers who are working alongside Trout Unlimited to implement these restoration projects, and see the results of some of their hard work.

July 24: Agriculture, Irrigation & Recreation

Running the River: Recreation, Reclamation and River Districts

In 1937, the Colorado General Assembly created the Colorado River Water Conservation District to manage the use, development and protection of the river and its tributaries. Representing 15 West Slope counties, the CRWCD’s mission is largely to make sure that the people and places it speaks for are getting a fair shake, and enough river water is staying in the basin. In Glenwood Springs, the river district - and the area’s recreation economy - are abetted by a small, unassuming hydroelectric power plant, originally built in 1886. Why would such a tiny diversion play such an outsized role? In a phrase - the doctrine of prior-appropriation. We learned all about water rights, in-stream flow, and the small-but-mighty Shoshone Power Plant, and heard from the recreation community about why their business is so important - to them, and to the state of Colorado. 

Plumbing for Plants: Agriculture and Irrigation in the Grand Valley

Unless you know to watch for them, you could easily overlook the hundreds of miles of canals, ditches, and laterals that crisscross the Grand Valley, siphoning water out of the Colorado to supply the region’s farms, orchards, ranches, and other needs.  These complex systems are the lifeblood of a generations-old industry in the valley, but some producers are fearful that growing demands elsewhere - both upstream and down - may threaten their most precious resource. We met with members of the Talbott family, who have been Grand Valley agriculturalists for over a century, as well as representatives of Kokopelli Produce, organic producers of fruits and vegetables. We also heard from an irrigation manager about how this labyrinth of pipes and straws actually works, and from the water users’ association about how producers are entertaining new ways to benefit from their long-held water rights - ways that may not having anything to do with growing food. 

July 25: Endangered & Invasive Species, Lake Powell

An Ecosystem Degraded: Human Impacts on Riparian and Riverine Systems

 Mighty though the Colorado may be, it certainly isn’t exempt from modern-day ecological issues.  Human activities have offered a toe-hold for invasive species such as tamarisk, a fast-growing shrub thatthrives along the river’s banks, forces out native flora, contributes to salinity issues, and has been the focus of region-wide eradication programs for decades. In the river itself, ecologists are on the lookout for invasive Quagga and Zebra mussels, aquatic invaders that have taken other parts of the country by storm.  Meanwhile, changes in flow and temperature mean that warmwater fishes - including some on the endangered species list - are struggling. We floated the river with fish biologists and riparian ecologists to hear what’s being done to restore habitat and populations.

Lake Powell: Backup Bathtub or Evaporation Station?

 Lake Powell, the nation’s second-largest reservoir, was built in 1963 as a backup to Lake Mead, to store enough water to provide a consistent water supply to Lower Basin states in times of drought. The Colorado River Compact stipulates that Upper Basin states must provide 7.5 million acre feet of water annually to the Lower Basin states, and Powell is intended to help make that possible. The reservoir is also host to a 2-million-visitor-per-year recreation industry. Now, however, the cumulative impacts of dry winters, evaporation, and seepage mean that both Mead and Powell are far below capacity. That has led some to argue for opening up the Glen Canyon Dam and draining Lake Powell -- a prospect that would have wide-ranging implications.

July 26: Tribal Water Projects, Ancestral Pueblo Peoples

Bringing Water Home: Tribal Water Rights and the Navajo-Gallup Pipeline

The Ten Tribes Partnership strives to provide a single voice to ten separate, distinct native nations whose goals and interests are as varied as they are and to bring indigenous communities to the policy table - a place where they have long been excluded. It took a massive lawsuit to bring the Navajo-Gallup Project online; now under construction, the infrastructure undertaking will bring clean water to the homes of the nearly 40% of the Navajo Nation who have had to haul their water; a portion of the Jicarilla Apache Nation that has been hampered by inadequate water supply as well; and the city of Gallup, New Mexico. But some wonder if such projects go far enough, or if they still neglect the argument that the tribes are the true senior water-rights holders on the river. We heard from members of the Ten Tribes Partnership, include Navajo and Jicarilla Apache representatives, as well as the Bureau of Reclamation. 

Coaxing Corn from Dust: Ancestral Pueblo Dryland Farming

On Monday we heard all about the mechanisms and large-scale infrastructure required to sustain the agricultural industry in the Grand Valley. But agriculture existed here in Colorado long before modern irrigation was invented. The Pueblo have been successfully farming in the Mesa Verde region for over 4,000 years. What can we learn from their methods and techniques, and what can archaeology tell us about the climatic and hydrologic history of this landscape? We heard from researchers at the Crown Canyon Archaeological Center about their ongoing research into these subjects. 

 

 

July 27: Archaeology, Mining & Superfunds

Chasing Water: Archaeology, Drought, and the Northern Chaco Outliers

Water played a pivotal role in both the physical and spiritual realms of ancestral Pueblo people. In a world where the presence or absence of rain could mean the difference between life and death, it makes sense that water would rank so highly in the cosmology. What can archaeology and geoarchaeology tell us about the ways that people moved and adapted on the landscape in response to drought? We met with archaeologists at Crow Canyon to learn about some of the artifacts they’ve unearthed over the years, and then venture out to the Haynie Site, an active archaeological dig of a thousand-year-old Pueblo village.

Gold in Them There Hills: Mining, Water, and Collaboration

In Silverton in 2015, EPA workers and contractors accidentally breached the wall of a retaining pond, sending 3 million gallons of wastewater and tailings (containing heavy metals and other toxic elements) cascading downstream to the Animas River. A year later, Gold King, along with 47 of its neighboring mine sites, were declared the Bonita Peak Superfund Site. But the story, as it often is with environment stories, isn’t so simple. What are the lasting impacts of the spill - ecologically, sociologically, economically and politically? What choices did the media make in covering it? And how had the various stakeholders within the Animas watershed already been working together to protect water - and what will that collaborative effort look like in the future?

 

 

July 28: Irrigation Technology & Ecosystem-level Restoration

Futuristic Farming: High-tech Solutions to Old-School Problems

Headgates, Old Model: A rancher drives out a two-track, cranks open the headgate and lets the water flow until it’s time to drive back out there and shut it down. It’s a time-consuming process in a world where time is at a premium, which means that often headgates are left open when they don’t really need to be. Headgates, New Model: Automated, (sometimes even) solar-poweredheadgates can adjust to demand in real time, providing water when it’s needed and shutting down when it’s not. The increased efficiency, paired with precision farming practices, leaves more water in the river. That improves habitat and can also pay off in rebates to water districts for acre-feet not used.

Grouse-plus: How Wet Meadows Enhance River Health

Past land use practices have promoted erosion and degraded wet meadows and riparian areas across the Upper Colorado basin. These habitats are critical to threatened Gunnison sage-grouse and many other species, but an effort to restore them provides much broader ecosystem benefits, especially to the region’s rivers. They serve as natural sponges that hold water in the soil, slowly releasing it after runoff events, ensuring continued base flows and maintenance of water tables throughout the growing season. Fellows had a chance to roll up their sleeves to move some rocks and form a dam that next spring will turn an eroded gully into a soaking, percolating grouse nursery!

 

 

 

 

July 29: Municipal Use & The Business of Water

Piecing Together a Plan: Aurora’s Multi-faceted Approach

Just last month, Aurora Water won the U.S. Water Prize from the U.S. Water Alliance for its forward-thinking approach to managing this precious resource on the front range. Their Prairie Waters project is an innovative recapture and filtration system that helps provide drought assurance, and also takes a long-range view of the water needs of this rapidly growing urban area.  Fellows, on their final morning, trekked to the Binney Treatment Plant at the edge of the plains to hear about the Prairie Waters Project, Aurora’s creative financing structure, and the future of the city’s water supply.

Boom Business: How Colorado’s Biggest City Aims to Get Even Bigger

Colorado’s population is expected to double by 2050, and much of that growth is expected on the Front Range. Denver Water, the state’s largest supplier, is looking hard at new water supplies, extensive conservation measures, and other ways to make sure the taps stay on. They’re also looking at ways to ramp up the amount of water they recycle and use again within the city. Meanwhile, Colorado's Water Conservation Board has developed a statewide plan for sustainability; we heard from the Board's new director, as well as some folks who are doing innovative work at the intersection of water and money - with an eye toward both the environment and economics.