Updates on new dam at river basin forum; dire weather predictions

RBC | Wednesday, April 4 Rangely hosted the State of the White River Basin Forum and Douglas Creek Conservation District’s annual banquet.

The presentations kicked off with an update on Douglas Creek Conservation District activities from Executive Director Callie Hendrickson. She touched on the financial situation the district was hit with last year when their budget was cut by 85 percent following the discovery that their mill levy had been collected incorrectly. Hendrickson celebrated Enterprise, Williams and XTO who could have requested a return of some funds and did not. She also thanked the county who helped fund the district during the crisis.

The areas of rangeland health and monitoring have heavily focused on the problems associated with excess feral horses. There are 10 western states with wild horse populations that can sustainably hold 27,000 horses. However, the current population is estimated at 72,000, with another 47,000 in holding facilities. The horses in holding cost $50 million annually for care. Hendrickson expressed frustration with Congress for failing to act on the problem and encouraged rangeland supporters to contact their representatives.

Hendrickson also addressed the Greater Sage Grouse plan, saying the district has worked with the BLM as a cooperating agency and continue to promote multiple use standards while protecting the grouse.

The district’s 2018 plan of work includes developing and implementing weed control, facilitating the White River Algae Technical Advisory Group, as well as continued work on wild horses and the county-wide Land Use Plan.

Hendrickson also updated the audience on the White River Algae Advisory Group’s work. In October the White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts were tasked with facilitating and administrating the local efforts to study the river algae and determine its cause. Hendrickson said the committee has no authority to implement any restrictions on landowners in relationship to the algae. They are entering an agreement with USGS to study the river starting in Meeker and working upriver. Areas of study will include run off levels, stream depth and water velocity, and chemical properties. The project cost for 2018 is $130,000 with USGS contributing $40,000. After a variety of other contributions the District still needs $25,000 for this year. The study is expected to last four years.

Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District Manager Alden VandenBrink provided information about the Yampa/White/Green Rivers Roundtable where he serves as the vice chair. The group is tasked with identifying water related issues and proposing solutions. The White River has an average annual flow of 500,000 acre feet until it meets with the Green River, making it the smallest of the three rivers in the table. The roundtable has established goals including protecting and encouraging agricultural uses, protecting the river from Colorado River Compact curtailment, and restoring water storage infrastructure.

VandenBrink said the White River does have some shortage for municipal and industrial uses and that the roundtable determined that it is, “critical to prevent the abandonment of pre-1922 Colorado River Compact water rights.”  Since the conception of the roundtable they have provided $1.99 million in direct and indirect spending supporting various water projects.

An audience question about Lake Avery was answered by a Colorado Parks and Wildlife representative who said they are currently exploring expanding the lake.

Danielle Hannes of WW Wheeler and Associates gave a presentation about the White River Storage Project which is focused on the potential Wolf Creek Dam. The project began in 2013 with a purpose and need evaluation, feasibility study, filing of water rights and location evaluations and is currently nearing the end of Phase II of the study.

The need for a new reservoir was based on expected increasing future water demands and the fact that Kenney Reservoir loses more than 300 acre-feet per year due to sedimentation, and is currently less than half of its initial capacity.

The Wolf Creek location was determined after screening 23 different sites. They also considered expanding Taylor Draw Dam and dredging Kenney Reservoir but both options were described as incredibly expensive and problematic.

Two Wolf Creek sites were considered; one on the White River and one off river. The off river site was determined the preferred site as it was deemed as having a better location and growth possibilities as well as less risk of future sedimentation limiting capacity.

A variety of dam and reservoir size options were considered for both locations.

The maximum size of the reservoir will be 1.6 million acre feet and 260 feet deep. Two smaller reservoir sizes are also being studied. Annual pump and fill costs for the large dam are estimated at $640,000. A gravity fill line canal system including an inverted siphon is also being considered.

The next steps for the dam include a public meeting this summer and finishing the engineering report which is scheduled for completion in September. The goal is to initiate project permitting in the coming year.

The final presentation of the evening came from the Colorado River District, who discussed the dire current snowpack and spring runoff predictions. The Yampa and White River Districts are currently at 81 percent of normal snow water equivalent, however the White River Basin is much lower. Projected runoff from April through July is 50 percent of median. Right now western Rio Blanco County is categorized in a severe drought situation.

Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller addressed attendees and said that the state gives priority for water usage to municipalities over agriculture. According to the Colorado River Compact, 7.5 million acre feet of water must be delivered by the Colorado River to Lake Powell each year. Mueller is predicting a large drop in Lake Powell levels this year as they anticipate very limited inflow. He said that he is concerned that a curtailment could occur and is unsure how the state would regulate that. He also expressed worry that Western Slope agriculture would bear the brunt of the curtailment.

Mueller cited warmer temperatures, which he said extend the growing season and thus the need for water, as well as limited snowpack and potentials causes for the decrease in river flows. By midcentury it is estimated there will be a 20 percent decrease in inflow into the Colorado River.

Mueller said he was worried about the potential of “buy and dry,” when agricultural water users are paid to stop producing permanently. He also said that the River District is working on a drought contingency plan which includes a reservoir reoperation, pulling water from a variety of reservoirs including Flaming Gorge, and possible cloud seeding.