Category: Water

Stories on rivers, dams, and water resources

A tribe wins rights to contested groundwater in court

A tribe wins rights to contested groundwater in court

Coachella Valley, California
(PascalSijen/ Flickr – Creative Commons)

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians have called the Coachella Valley, a desert that receives a paltry three to five inches of rain a year, home for centuries. And the tribe has been anxious about the state of the water supply for years. In 2013, the tribe sued the Coachella Valley Water District and Desert Water Agency to halt groundwater pumping. And in March 2017, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals delivered a major victory to the tribe. The court said the tribe has legal rights to the groundwater — a decision that could restrict housing and resort development and set a precedent for water disputes between tribes and utilities across the West.

The 9th Circuit’s ruling is “a big deal,” says Monte Mills, co-director of University of Montana’s Indian law clinic and one of 11 professors who penned a brief supporting the tribe’s claims. It’s the first time a federal appellate court has unequivocally recognized that tribes’ water rights extend to groundwater.

“A tribe wins rights to contested groundwater in court”

High Country News, April 5, 2017

Thousands of fish die in Colorado, amid flood recovery projects

Thousands of fish die in Colorado, amid flood recovery projects

Cars drive on County Road 43, in Larimer County, Colorado, past a road reconstruction project after the 2013 floods. Some bridge-building may have contributed to a fish die-off (Photo via Larimer Country Road 43 Public Infrastructure Project)

In March 2016, a resident of the small Colorado towns of Drake and Glen Haven — situated within northern Colorado’s Big Thompson River Canyon — reported noticing funky gray water in a side creek of the river and a murder of crows picking at a few dead fish. A few days later, March 7, a large plume of more cloudy water ran down the Big Thompson, leaving behind a massive fish kill. Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials now confirm that more than 5,600 fish, mostly rainbow and brown trout, died in the Big Thompson and its North Fork, and are blaming concrete from a bridge reconstruction project, part of the state’s massive recovery and reconstruction effort following the devastating September 2013 floods.

The die-off is alarming news for the Big Thompson, a popular fly fishing river among tourists and locals, which formerly generated an annual $4.3 million for the region. Larry Rogstad, Colorado Parks and Wildlife Area Manager, says the “iconic” fishery is also important as one of the only rivers in Colorado with wild rainbow trout free of whirling disease. The 2013 floods had already knocked back the river’s fish populations, and Rogstad estimates the recent incident killed more than half of the estimated fish within an eight-mile-long downstream stretch of river.

Jeff Crane, a consulting river hydrologist and restoration expert, says he’s surprised at the magnitude of the fish kill. But he adds that it’s also important to recognize the complexity and ambition behind recovery projects aiming to improve rivers’ natural functions and flood resiliency.

For instance, the previously straightened river now bends and courses through the middle of the canyon, while several new bridges are replacing buried culverts that typically get blocked or exceed capacity during flooding. “We’re actually ‘building’ a whole new river,” says Crane, a proponent of “natural channel design” that mimics natural landforms and uses less grouted rock, or riprap, than conventional flood-protection measures. Despite the fish kill, the local restoration should improve fish and aquatic habitat and reduce flooding damage in the long run, Crane says.

“Thousands of fish die in Colorado, amid flood recovery projects”

High Country News, April 26, 2016

Can leasing irrigation water keep Colorado farms alive?

Can leasing irrigation water keep Colorado farms alive?

The Arkansas River, swollen by heavy spring rains in 2015, in rural Crowley County, Colorado (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Colorado cities have siphoned more than 100,000 acre-feet of ag water — enough for about 200,000 homes — from the Arkansas River Basin alone since the 1970s. In Crowley County, farming has vanished, school-class sizes are half what they were 50 years ago, and tumbleweeds from dried-up fields pile up along fences and block roads. “That’s what they’re stuck with, because there’s no more water,” says John Schweizer, a farmer and rancher in neighboring Otero County. “It’s gone forever.”

Schweizer is president of the 35-mile-long Catlin Canal, which irrigates about 18,000 acres of farms. He’s hoping that the trial run of something called the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch will save the basin’s remaining communities and farms. The initiative is not actually a big ditch, but rather a scheme that allows six of the valley’s irrigation canals to pool their water rights and temporarily lease them to cities. Starting in March, five Catlin irrigators “leased” a total of 500 acre-feet of water, which would normally supply their fields, to nearby Fowler and the cities of Fountain and Security, 80 miles away. Under the agreement, communities can use the farm water to supply homes and recharge wells for up to three years out of every decade. During those years, the irrigators will have to fallow, or rest, some fields, yet will still be able to earn money from the water itself and farm the rest of their land.

Supporters believe the Super Ditch could eventually enable farms and cities to share up to 10,000 acre-feet of water. “We look at leasing water just like raising a crop,” says Schweizer, who is avoiding any potential conflict of interest by keeping his own farm out of the pilot. “It is a source of income, and anybody who’s doing that can have the water next year if they want to farm with it. And they are still in the valley, so the community stays viable.”

Statewide, cities have acquired at least 191,000 acre-feet of agricultural water, eliminating farming and ranching on millions of acres. Water managers estimate Colorado could lose up to 700,000 more acres by 2050. Like Schweizer, officials consider water leasing, also called lease-fallowing or rotational fallowing, a promising way to slow that loss while satisfying urban thirst, particularly since alternatives like new dams and other big water-development projects face regulatory hurdles and environmentalist opposition. Colorado’s draft water plan suggests the state could meet up to 50,000 acre-feet of its future water needs — and avoid more buy-and-dry — through such water-sharing deals.

“Can leasing irrigation water keep Colorado farms alive?”

High Country News, June 8, 2015

Life on Mekong Faces Threats As Major Dams Begin to Rise

Life on Mekong Faces Threats As Major Dams Begin to Rise

"Life by the Mekong River" by International Rivers (Photo from Xayaburi Dam site, October 2012)
“Life by the Mekong River” (Photo by International Rivers from Xayaburi Dam site, October 2012)

Seven upstream dams  have already altered flows, reduced fish populations, and affected communities along portions of the Lower Mekong River, which flows through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. But the impacts may soon get much worse as a new era of hydroelectric dam-building begins in the Lower Mekong Basin. Eleven major hydroelectric dams — mostly within Laos — and dozens of dams on tributary streams that feed into the Mekong have been proposed or are under construction.

River experts say that if a dam-building boom proceeds as planned, it could diminish essential flood pulses and decimate fisheries and riverside gardens that are dependent on variable flows and sediment. That, in turn, would affect the diets and livelihoods of 40 million people dependent on the Mekong, the “greatest inland fishery in the world,” according to Ian Baird, a geographer at the University of Wisconsin who lived and studied in Laos for 15 years.

“Life on Mekong Faces Threats As Major Dams Begin to Rise”

Yale Environment 360, February 20, 2014

Water projects stuck in regulatory limbo

Water projects stuck in regulatory limbo

Construction of Moffat Tunnel near Denver, 1936 (Denver Water)
Construction of Moffat Tunnel near Denver, 1936 (Denver Water)

In the past decade, Jeff Drager has watched his two daughters grow up, graduate from high school and college and start their first jobs. Yet he’s still stuck on the same project at work – winning state and federal approval to build a new water reservoir.

Begun in 2003 and scheduled to be up and running by 2011, the project, known as the Windy Gap Firming Project, like many others across the state, still is mired in regulatory delays.

Whether or when Windy Gap will be built is still unclear 10 years after the first regulatory review took place.

Three other major water projects face similar delays and uncertainty.

Similar delays and cost overruns have plagued nearly every other major Colorado water-development project that has sought regulatory approval since the 1990 defeat of Two Forks Dam.

After more than a decade of drought and a new wave of growth, water utility planners believe the project review system is broken and must be fixed. Legal experts and environmental watchdogs say the projects themselves are outdated in concept and that utilities need to rethink how they obtain, store and deliver water.

Drew Beckwith, a policy analyst with the Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates, compares large water projects to the lyrics of sad country-western songs: They’re always late and in need of money. They don’t live up to expectations and they’re risky. Beckwith said he believes the delays and overruns are more indicative of a planning issue than a process problem.

“It’s no surprise that the environmental-review process takes a long time,” he said. “These are big, complex projects that have lots of impacts on communities and the environment, and it’s appropriate to take a long hard look.”

“Water projects stuck in regulatory limbo”

BizWest (Northern Colorado Business Report), September 6, 2013

The Ever-Evolving Farmer

The Ever-Evolving Farmer

lamar hay crew 1912
Hay crew, Deeter Farm, Lamar, Colo., 1912 (

During a summer of drought, farmers, ranchers and agricultural researchers in Colorado are living with and adjusting to environmental changes and economic realities. I wrote on Colorado farmers’ adaptations and attitudes  during dry times (“The Ever-Evolving Farmer”) in the Fall 2012 issue of Headwaters Magazine.





Kinder, Gentler Dams?

Kinder, Gentler Dams?

“Off-channel” reservoirs – that don’t block river courses – are all the rage among would-be dam builders these days. In the September 9, 2008 issue of High Country News , I wrote an article, “A river runs near it,” examining two potential off-channel projects in Yakima, Washington (Black Rock Reservoir), and Fort Collins (Glade Reservoir, a.k.a. NISP, the Northern Integrated Supply Project).

Check out the full story at, but here’s a little taste of why environmental critics aren’t buying the hype:

Glade is “the same (as any dam) in terms of impact to the flow regime,” says Mark Easter, a spokesman for the Save the Poudre coalition. Although Glade is supposed to bolster low river flows, some worry that its diminishing effects on high flows could threaten plans for a new kayak park.

Easter is also doubtful about the agricultural benefits. A draft environmental impact statement says that constructing Glade would save 33,600 to 69,000 acres of farmland from development and the loss of water rights. But Easter calculates that the reservoir would make it possible to build at least 20,000 acres’ worth of new subdivisions and encourage breakneck growth so towns could repay their debts.

Up in Washington, the environmental benefits of Black Rock appear to pale in comparison with its costs. According to the draft environmental impact statement, the project would provide only about 16 cents in benefits to fish and farmers for every dollar spent. That doesn’t include regional economic growth and tourism, but the skewed cost-benefit ratio has united reservoir opponents.

Phil Rigdon, the Yakama Nation’s deputy director of natural resources, says the tribe is not opposed to a new reservoir. But his agency is skeptical about Black Rock’s potential for salmon restoration. More significant habitat improvements and new fish-passage devices on the existing dams would also need to be built before the release of water from Black Rock could help salmon, Rigdon says. “We’re saying you need a full package; otherwise, don’t sell it as a fish project.”