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How humans start most of Colorado’s wildfires — and get away with it

The East Troublesome Fire is seen from Cottonwood Pass looking north on Oct. 21, 2020, as the fire ripped across Grand County.
Andrew Lussie/U.S. Forest Service

DENVER — A hunter spots a plume of smoke in the forest and calls 911 to report fire nearby. Though he may have been the first witness to the start of the East Troublesome Fire — the costliest wildfire in Colorado history — that Texas man has never been interviewed by the U.S. Forest Service.

A backpacker hears a gunshot, sees smoke in the distance and uses satellite tracking to note his location. He keeps a detailed log recording the first days of what would become the Cameron Peak Fire — the largest wildfire by acreage in state history. But more than a year later, investigators still have not heard his account.

Though both these 2020 wildfires are believed to have been started by humans, their exact causes remain unknown.

In Colorado, that’s not unusual.

Investigators determined what created the initial spark in fewer than half of the large, human-caused fires in Colorado between 2000 and 2018 — the worst rate of any western state. More often than not, investigators in other states — whether with local, state or federal authorities — are able to rule with certainty on whether large human-caused fires were started by unattended campfire rings, power lines, gunfire, arson or other ignition sources.

Working group outlines possible logistics for Colorado wolf reintroduction

A gray wolf is pictured July 16, 2004, at the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake, Minnesota. Earlier this month, a working group released a report with recommendations about the capture, care and release of wolves in Colorado.
Dawn Villella/The Associated Press archive

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A working group outlining logistics for Colorado’s wolf reintroduction favors capturing animals already in the Northern Rocky Mountains and quickly releasing wolves in areas of the state with broad expanses of public lands and low populations of humans and livestock.

Based on other reintroduction efforts, wolves could be present in most of the state as soon as 10 years after the first release, the group estimates.

Earlier this month, the Technical Working Group — composed of elected officials from the Western Slope, Colorado Parks and Wildlife personnel and wolf experts involved in previous restoration efforts — released a report with recommendations about the capture, care and release of wolves in the state.

The recommendations come about a year before gray wolves are required to be reintroduced as outlined by the ballot initiative approved by voters in 2020. The measure’s language states that the wolves need to be released by the end of 2023.

The working group is one of two helping shape the plan for reintroduction, with the other looking to get a wide range of stakeholder viewpoints through a series of meetings across the state. The Stakeholder Advisory Group has already reviewed the technical group’s recommendations, but neither group has any final decision-making power. Instead, they are meant to guide the process.

“Restoration logistics is just one of the topics that these two groups are providing perspectives on throughout the next several months,” said Eric Odell, species conservation program manager for Parks and Wildlife and lead biologist in the wolf reintroduction effort.

A gray wolf, a member of the Nez Perce pack, seen north of Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, on March 31, 2002.
Adam Messer via AP)

The stakeholder group will take a larger lead when exploring questions about managing wolves once reintroduced, how to handle livestock conflicts and other issues that have a larger social component. But Odell presented recommendations from the more technical of the two groups last week in a meeting of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission in Lamar on Colorado’s east side.

The preference of the technical group would be to get wolves from Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, or a mix of all three, which would be logistically easier. Wolves already seen in Colorado are likely to be from Wyoming.

The next preference would be wolves from Washington and Oregon. Getting wolves from Great Lakes states like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan would be considered only if other options are not available.

Getting wolves from the Southwest, known as Mexican Wolves, would be the least desirable option, as Colorado was never part of those animals’ original range.

One factor that could be considered when sourcing wolves could be proximity to Colorado because wolves may try to return from where they came, potentially making Wyoming wolves less desirable.

The group recommends using helicopters to dart or net wolves before quickly transporting them to Colorado. Any age of wolf works, as long as it wasn’t born that year, and the group also doesn’t recommend any specific color of its coat.

It was also recommended that officials study the reputation of wolves they relocate, avoiding animals that have killed livestock in the past and favoring wolves that have not been exposed to livestock, generally from the deep wilderness of Idaho. Still, the tendencies of depredation likely also have to do with the landscape they live in and not just the wolves themselves.

Once the wolves are secured, it is suggested they should be kept in simple kennels for as little time as possible, likely just 24-48 hours, Odell said, which would limit any feeding needs. “Wolves don’t necessarily need to eat every day,” Odell said.

Each wolf should also have a collar when released, a recommendation Odell said was unanimously agreed to by the group. The hope is data from the first release of wolves can inform future releases and help avoid releasing wolves where a pack is already established.

“There is no justification for not placing a collar on an animal that is handled for the reintroduction,” the report says. “Too much money and resources will have been invested in each translocated animal, and monitoring the success of reintroduced animals is fundamental.”

A GPS collar could be beneficial because it is best in a remote situation, but a radio collar is more durable. Radio collars also force researchers into the environment, which the group sees as beneficial.

When it comes to actually releasing the wolves in Colorado, there are two main methods used previously. Officials in Yellowstone National Park used a soft release method, where wolves were acclimated to the area in kennels before being let go. In Idaho, they simply released the wolves, known as a hard release.

The group finds that both methods work, but simply releasing the wolves has shown to be more effective for setting up packs and for survival of the wolves, which is why it favors that option. A soft method can help establish packs faster and closer to the release point, but it is more cost intensive.

When released, the group favors an even mix of males and females. More females can increase the success of them forming a den, but males tend to disperse wider. Wolves are monogamous, so the group says having more of one gender isn’t likely to affect reproduction rates.

The group favors releasing wolves at a medium pace, with 10 to 15 animals each year for three to five years. The preferred option would make releases until there are about 30 to 40 total wolves and then pause to assess the population and whether it will be able to reach a self-sustaining level.

The report does not directly address the much-anticipated question of where wolves should be released, instead generally describing the ideal habitat. Large areas of contiguous public land — not necessarily federal land — are best.

Wolves are not expected to remain where released, so the group recommends any release site be at least 75 miles from a state or tribal nation border. The populations of humans, livestock and prey should all be considered when picking a release site, and it is possible the same release site could be used multiple times.

The group did consider looking at results of the 2020 ballot measure about wolves to inform where they should be reintroduced but, ultimately, did not recommend doing so. Still, public support for wolves will likely be considered when choosing release sites.

“Wolves can succeed anywhere with adequate habitat where there is social acceptance,” the report reads. “Where wolves settle may be far away from the release location.”

Investment water speculation bill clears state committee

DENVER — Colorado lawmakers are advancing a bill aimed at outlawing water investment speculation, even as they acknowledged their attempt to address the complex problem is an imperfect one.

Last week, members of Colorado’s Water Resources Review Committee voted to put forth a bill in the 2022 legislative session that aims to prohibit a buyer of agricultural water rights from profiting on the increased value of the water in a future sale. The measure is an attempt to prevent out-of-state investors from making a profit off a public resource that grows scarcer in a water-short future driven by climate change.

The draft bill gives the state engineer at the Department of Water Resources the ability to investigate complaints of investment water speculation and fine a purchaser up to $10,000 if they determine speculation is occurring. Those making a complaint could also be fined up to $1,000 if state officials deem a complaint frivolous. A second section of the bill also directs the board of directors of mutual ditch companies to set a minimum percent of agricultural water rights for one purchaser to hold that would trigger the presumption that they are engaging in investment water speculation.

Western Slope state Sens. Kerry Donovan, D-Eagle County, and Don Coram, R-Montrose County, and Rep. Karen McCormick, D-Boulder County, are sponsoring the bill.

At the beginning of Wednesday’s discussion, Donovan vented her frustration with what she called mixed messages from water managers. Most seem to agree that stopping investment water speculation is important, but no one can agree on the best way to do that.

“There was a general agreement that investment water speculation was an important issue to work on, so much so … that we invested taxpayer dollars in order to turn out a report,” she said. “We have put resources into addressing this issue and now the feedback is ‘don’t do anything, slow down.’”

Donovan was referring to a report released in August by a work group that was tasked with exploring ways to strengthen the state’s current anti-speculation laws. The group, made up of water managers and policy experts from across water sectors, came up with a list of concepts on how to prevent water investment speculation. But they did not give clear recommendations to legislators because they could not come to a consensus on which concepts to implement.

Legislators are now saddled with the complex task of figuring out how to protect Colorado’s water from profit-seeking investors without infringing on private property rights.

The lack of consensus points to the varied, sometimes opposing, interests of the work group members. Some municipal water providers may want to see tighter regulations on investment water speculation because as the state continues to urbanize and water moves from agriculture to growing cities, they see speculators as middlemen who have the potential to drive up prices. And although some agricultural water rights owners recognize there could be negative impacts to their communities if water is sold to investors, they also don’t want the state making the process of selling their ranch harder, placing restrictions on who they can sell to or limiting their ability to make a profit.

Bill opposition

District 58 Rep. Marc Catlin, a Montrose County Republican who also serves on the board of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, voted against advancing the bill, which he said still needs more work. He told the committee it needs to be sensitive to the concerns of the people the bill is trying to protect.

“I don’t like speculation, but one of the things we’ve got to think about is the people that are selling,” he told Aspen Journalism after the committee meeting. “If you can’t make money, you can’t make a living.”

Although the organization doesn’t take a formal position on legislation until it’s introduced in the next session, which starts Jan. 12, the Colorado Farm Bureau also has concerns about the bill and submitted comments to the committee. The organization’s comment letter urges the committee to slow the conversation down and not approve the proposal.

Molina rancher Carlyle Currier is the president of the farm bureau and has a seat on the Colorado Basin Roundtable. He said changing Colorado’s already-strong anti-speculation laws could do more harm than good and lead to unintended consequences for agricultural producers. He added that it was troubling that the committee advanced a bill even though the task force did not recommend any changes to policy.

“To set up a task force and ask them for recommendations and then to basically ignore their work because they didn’t like the results of what the task force came up with is, to me, a little troubling,” Currier said.

Speculation conversation

Speculation has been a hot topic of discussion on the Western Slope recently, especially in the Grand Valley, where a New York City-based private-equity firm has been acquiring irrigated farmland. Water Asset Management is now the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association, which provides water for farmers in the valley. But under Colorado water law, as long as WAM keeps putting the water to “beneficial use” by keeping the land in agricultural production — which it appears to be doing — it doesn’t count as speculation.

For all the talk about water investment speculation, there is little evidence it’s happening on a large scale on the Western Slope. In some ways, the effort at trying to stop speculation is really a conversation about a broader fear: the loss of agricultural land, and with it, a way of life and a part of Colorado’s history, culture and identity. The work group identified the large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands as the No. 1 risk from speculators.

“Every other week, I get a story of someone whose land just got bought up, and they are no longer growing hay, they are no longer running cattle,” Donovan told the committee.

But land changing hands or even changing water use from agriculture to cities — as long as it’s done with the approval of the water court — is not the same as investment water speculation.

“There are some outsiders buying, but they haven’t changed the use of those farms, so we can’t really say, ‘what are you doing?’” Catlin said. “We’ve got to be careful to not run from shadows.”

The committee voted 8-2 to advance the bill as a way to keep working on solutions. Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Democrat who represents District 26 in Arapahoe County, said legislators could always kill the bill if they can’t make it work in the next session.

“I’m inclined today to say ‘yes’ to his and immediately get to work,” he said. “I think we should move forward today with some kind of vehicle to continue this conversation.”

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with the Vail Daily and other Colorado Mountain News Media publications. For more, go to AspenJournalism.org.

Left-behind DIA luggage finds a second life at Denver Rescue Mission

Denver Rescue Mission's Ministry Outreach Center.
Denver Rescue Mission/Courtesy photo

The Denver International Airport (DIA) handles a massive amount of luggage every year. In 2019, 69 million passengers traveled through the airport with bags in tow. Some of those travelers left their empty bags behind.

Sometimes people will throw away their luggage because they want to consolidate their things to save on baggage fees. Or, maybe a wheel or zipper breaks and they leave a suitcase at the airport. DIA collects whatever is left behind.

“Once we find that luggage that is clearly being abandoned—being set next to a trash can—we don’t want that just to be thrown away in a central landfill, especially when there is […] a higher and better purpose that it can go to,” said Scott Morrissey, the vice president of sustainability for DIA.

Enter Denver Rescue Mission. The nonprofit organization works to create lasting change in the lives of people experiencing homelessness in Denver. Part of their mission includes the Ministry Outreach Center, located in the Park Hill neighborhood of Denver.

“One part is the warehouse, the home of all of our supplies. Any non-cash donation comes through the warehouse and is received here, stored here, sorted out, and then distributed from here,” explained Jesse Ludema, the director of the Ministry Outreach Center.

At the Ministry Outreach Center, the abandoned pieces of luggage get a new purpose. About every month or so, Denver Rescue Mission picks up a batch of empty suitcases and bags from DIA to distribute to the unhoused community it serves.

“For many people in the homeless community they have very few belongings,” said Ludema. “And so if you’re walking around and trying to get back on your feet, having something to store your possessions in is really important.”

This particular partnership with a focus on luggage donations between DIA and Denver Rescue Mission started about three years ago. In 2018, Morrissey said the airport donated 835 pieces of luggage and in 2019, it gave 719 pieces. Morrissey does say in 2020, that number was much lower, likely because the number of passengers who went through DIA dropped significantly due to COVID-19.

“Not a huge amount in the context of 69 million passengers. But they are bags that can go and have a second life and support the clients of the Denver Rescue Mission,” said Morrissey.

However, 2021 donations are still lower than at the start of the partnership, again with passenger numbers not quite at where they were pre-pandemic. But any donation can make a big difference in a person’s life.

“[It is] a need that we don’t often think of. We think of food, clothing, the essentials, but something to carry that in is critically important. So it is a need that is expressed often,” said Ludema.

And that need has grown even more in just the last year. The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative conducts a “Point in Time Count” to determine how many people are experiencing homelessness in the Denver area. This year’s count found the number of people experiencing homelessness for the first-time doubled from 2020 to 2021.

[Related:Study: First-time homelessness doubled in Denver area over the past year]

“I think anyone who has worked with the homeless community here in Denver has seen the need increase for more resources, for more items just overall,” explained Ludema. “It seems like we need to find a better way to help our homeless brothers and sisters in need.”

It seems now more than ever nonprofits like Denver Rescue Mission could use the help. Thankfully, Ludema says this luggage donation partnership is just one of many beneficial partnerships. Most major grocery store chains in Colorado donate leftover food, several food banks help out regularly, and different individuals or companies often come to Denver Rescue Mission with donations.

“There’s just probably hundreds of companies that may do drives every single year or twice a year, and may say, ‘Hey, we want to get our company together and collect coats, or we want to collect hygiene products, or what is it that you need us to collect?’” said Ludema, “I’m really blown away by people’s generosity to help.”

And that’s exactly how the relationship with DIA started. At first, it was donations of unused food from the airline flight kitchens as well as some food and beverage concessions. Then it grew into this new baggage partnership.

“You can have those conversations in real time to say, you know, ‘We have this product, is it something that can be beneficial to people?’ And they [Denver Rescue Mission] understand what those needs are,” said Morrissey. “It’s really important for us to find those opportunities to positively contribute to the community.”

“Just all across America in our world, there’s so many problems,” said Ludema. “And so to experience generosity firsthand, and to see people really are willing to give and help is certainly very encouraging.”

There’s probably only one wolf left in far northwest Colorado. Can the state protect it?

Karin Vardaman, the director and founder of Working Circle, examines wolf tracks near a spring-fed pond in Moffat County, July 12, 2021.
Sam Brasch / CPR News

On a hazy July afternoon, wolf expert Karin Vardaman returned to a spring-fed pond in Colorado’s northwestern-most corner. Enough rain had fallen to wet the ground around the watering hole. She tiptoed across the soft earth — careful not to disturb any impressions left by cattle and pronghorn antelope — until one track filled her with an almost overwhelming feeling of relief.

There, sunken into the mud near the Wyoming and Utah borders, was a broad wolf print.

“Maybe there’s one,” she said. “It gives hope.”

For nearly two years, Vardaman has visited the Moffat County rangeland every few months to track wolves for Working Circle, a nonprofit she founded to help ranchers live with the predators. The patchwork of public and private land is already a riot of animal life. Forested mountains overlook broad valleys, where elk and cattle scare badgers from their dens beneath the sagebrush.

In winter 2020, Colorado Parks and Wildlife announced the area also appeared to be home to the state’s first wolf pack in almost a century. The arrival marked a milestone in North American predator conservation. The pack’s rapid disappearance reveals the extent of Colorado’s challenge as it seeks to become a safe haven for the species.

Only months after its discovery, state wildlife officials learned hunters likely killed three members of the pack just across the border in Wyoming. The news came amid a rising tide of anti-wolf sentiment across the Rocky Mountain West.

In the past year, conservative states like Montana and Idaho have taken aggressive action to cut their wolf populations. Wildlife advocates anticipated the possibility, which is why many lined up behind a Colorado ballot measure to force the state to reintroduce the animals by the end of 2023. The proposition narrowly passed last November.

While Vardaman wants wolves to return to Colorado, she’s concerned the animals won’t succeed without a greater acceptance of the predators in rural communities. For years, her nonprofit has worked with ranchers in northern California and southern Oregon to protect livestock from predators. She’s now trying to adapt the model for Colorado.

“We got to be able to protect what we have before we should be bringing other critters in,” she said.

Her work has confirmed part of the task likely remains in Moffat County. A few weeks after she found the paw prints, a single wolf triggered one of Vardaman’s camera traps near the same watering hole. The device’s white flash lit the eyes of a silver wolf, possibly the lone survivor of Colorado’s first pack after an 80-year absence.

From eradication to reintroduction

The federal government is a central character in the story of the disappearance and return of wolves to Colorado.

In the early 20th century, hunters and trappers eradicated the species from Colorado and most other parts of the lower 48 states. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recorded evidence of Colorado’s last known native wolf, which the government captured and killed in Conejos County in 1945.

Fifty years later, the federal government led an effort to reintroduce the species in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. The packs bred and expanded across the northern Rockies over the next few decades, but the southbound journey to Colorado proved difficult.

Only a handful of lone wolves ever made it to the state, where survival was far from a guarantee. A driver killed one wolf on Interstate 70 in 2004. A hunter mistakenly killed another near Kremmling in 2015, thinking it was a coyote.

Signs of trouble in Moffat County

While it’s unclear exactly what happened to the Moffat County wolf pack, the first signs of trouble reached Colorado Parks and Wildlife in May 2020. As CPR News reported, that’s when a local resident told area wildlife manager Bill deVergie about killing two wolves just across the state border in Wyoming. The agency later learned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigated a third potential wolf killing in the same area.

Colorado wildlife officials declined to identify the hunter since the wolves were killed outside its jurisdiction. It’s also perfectly legal to hunt wolves in most of Wyoming, which has defined a “predator zone” outside the Yellowstone ecosystem where anyone can kill a wolf on sight.

The legal distinction meant the Moffat County wolf pack was never far from danger. In Colorado, anyone who kills a wolf faces a $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison. The federal Endangered Species Act also protected wolves in Colorado until earlier this year. Both protections disappeared if wolves wandered north across an invisible state line.


River District report highlights Western Slope concerns with state water-savings plan

These fields just south of Carbondale are irrigated with water from the Crystal River. The Colorado River Water Conservation District recently released a stakeholder report on a potential state program known as demand management that would pay irrigators to leave water in the river to send downstream to Lake Powell.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

The Colorado River Water Conservation District staff plans to present its own framework for a water-savings plan — separate from one the state of Colorado is developing — at its October board meeting.

The Glenwood Springs-based River District undertook its own investigation of a plan — known as demand management — that would pay water users to consume less and send the saved water downstream to Lake Powell. The Colorado Water Conservation Board is currently investigating the feasibility of such a program for the state, but the River District convened its own workgroup, made up of Western Slope water users, to look into the issue. Many of the workgroup’s stakeholders represented agricultural interests.

River District staffers will come up with their own market structure and rules for demand management to present to the board, according to general manager Andy Mueller.

“What we are presenting is not something we are necessarily as staff endorsing, but we are going to present more specifics than what the CWCB or our stakeholder group has come up with so far,” Mueller said.

The framework will incorporate some of the findings and recommendations of the River District’s stakeholder group, which were released in an August report. Among these was the unanimous recommendation that the state not rely solely on a demand-management program as a solution to water shortages in the Colorado River basin.

“It was recognized that demand management can’t be the only way in which the state successfully handles the impacts of climate change on the Colorado River,” Mueller said. “It may be a component of that, but the state needs to be really looking at conservation in all water segments.”

At the heart of a demand-management program is paying Western Slope irrigators on a temporary and voluntary basis to use less water in an effort to avoid a Colorado River Compact call. Instead of being spread across hayfields, the water would be sent downstream to a special 500,000-acre-foot pool in Lake Powell, which was established as part of 2019’s Drought Contingency Plan.


A compact call could occur if the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada) as required by a nearly century-old binding agreement. Colorado water managers desperately want to avoid a compact-call scenario, which could result in mandatory water cutbacks.

The participation of Western Slope agriculture is key to creating a workable demand-management program, but the report highlights several reasons this may prove challenging. Stakeholders expressed a strong distrust of decision-making and programs driven by state government and fear that Western Slope agriculture will be sacrificed to meet the Front Range’s and lower basin’s urban interests.

“Many do not view the state as representing the best interest of agriculture on the Western Slope and instead are making decisions that are driven by east slope and municipal interests,” the report reads.

These fields of the Crystal River Ranch outside of Carbondale are irrigated with water from the Crystal River. The Colorado River Water Conservation District released a report that recommends the state of Colorado not rely solely on a demand management program to address water shortages.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Other findings of the report are consistent with what River District and agriculture representatives have been saying since the state began its demand-management discussions in 2019: A program must not lead to the permanent dry-up of Western Slope agriculture, and additional diversions to the Front Range are in direct conflict with asking Western Slope water users to save water.

“The committee finds it inconceivable that under a demand-management program, the West Slope could work to conserve 25,000-50,000 acre-feet per year only to see the east slope simultaneously increase water diversions to the Front Range,” the report reads. “This situation would be antithetical to the goals of a demand-management program and efforts to prevent a future compact violation.”

The report says that transmountain diversions — in which Front Range water providers take water from the headwaters of the Colorado River and bring it under the Continental Divide to growing cities — are a driving factor in a potential compact violation. Most water managers agree that water rights that date to before the 1922 compact would be exempt from mandatory cutbacks in the event of a call. Post-1922 water-rights use would fuel a compact violation.

According to numbers from a previous River District study, 57% of Colorado’s post-compact water use is on the Front Range. Therefore, the report says, the Front Range should contribute 57% of the water to a demand-management pool.

“We don’t want to have West Slope water users conserve water and then see it go to the Front Range,” Mueller said. “Why would we save and conserve water for major junior users to start taking that water that was conserved?”

Front Range municipal water providers Denver Water, Northern Water and Aurora Water declined to comment on the River District’s report.

“We are looking at what’s going to come out of the state process, and we will plug into the process that emerges at the state level,” said Northern Water spokesperson Jeff Stahla.

These fields just south of Carbondale are irrigated with water from the Crystal River. The Colorado River Water Conservation District recently released a stakeholder report on a potential state program known as demand management that would pay irrigators to leave water in the river to send downstream to Lake Powell.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead has said publicly that the municipal water provider would participate in a demand management program using wet water and not just pay Western Slope agriculture to fallow fields.

Mueller presented the findings of the report to the CWCB board in August. According to Amy Ostdiek, deputy section chief for the CWCB’s interstate, federal and water information section, the River District’s report will help inform the CWCB’s decision-making process. At its September meeting, the board adopted a decision-making road map as the next step in its investigation into whether a demand-management program is right for Colorado.

The CWCB, a state agency responsible for developing and protecting Colorado’s water, is using the input from eight workgroups — composed of 74 water experts and managers from around the state — in the creation of a potential program framework.

The River District board is scheduled to meet Oct. 19-20.

Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with the Vail Daily. For more, go to AspenJournalism.org.

Blue Mesa Reservoir releases impacting lake recreation

This Bureau of Reclamation sign lists the statistics of Blue Mesa Reservoir, the largest of the three reservoirs that make up the Aspinall Unit on the Gunnison River. Emergency releasesfrom the reservoir have impacted late summer lake recreation.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

BLUE MESA RESERVOIR — In an effort to prop up water levels at the declining Lake Powell, federal water managers are negatively impacting recreation on Colorado’s biggest man-made lake.

That’s the message from Colorado water managers and marina operators at Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County. On Aug. 1, the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the reservoir, began emergency releases. By the time the releases are finished the first week of October, Blue Mesa is projected to fall to its second-lowest level ever, just 215,000 acre-feet, or 22.8% of its 941,000-acre-foot capacity.

As of Sept. 1, the reservoir was 37% full, which is about 68 feet down from a full reservoir, and a ring of muddy shoreline was growing. Parking lots and boat slips sat empty, and Pappy’s Restaurant was closed for the season. The dwindling water levels are first impacting Iola, the easternmost of Blue Mesa’s three basins. Iola is where the Gunnison River now cuts through a field of mud.

Eric Loken, who operates the reservoir’s two marinas (Elk Creek and Lake Fork), said he was given only nine days’ notice to empty Elk Creek Marina’s 180 slips. The dock system’s anchors, which are not built for low water, had to be moved deeper. He said about 25 people lost their jobs six weeks earlier than normal and the marinas lost about 25% of its revenue for the year.

“There are tons of people who would like to be out here boating and are very disappointed,” Loken said. “Normally on Labor Day weekend, you can barely find a place to park. So it’s definitely been a big hit to us as a business for sure.”

The Elk Creek Marina and restaurant are closed for the season, although the boat ramp is still open and is expected to be accessible through the end of the month. The Lake Fork Marina is open through Labor Day, but the boat ramp has closed for the season. The Iola boat ramp is restricted to small boats only and is scheduled to close after Labor Day.

“We are just trying to make it through the holiday weekend and then we will be shutting up this marina too,” Loken said.

Aspen Journalism

The Bureau announced July 16 that it would begin emergency releases through early October from three Upper Basin reservoirs: 20,000 acre-feet from Navajo, on the San Juan River; 125,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge, on the Green River; and 36,000 acre-feet from Blue Mesa, on the Gunnison River. The goal of the releases is to prop up water levels at Lake Powell to preserve the ability to make hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam. The 181,000 acre-feet from the three upstream reservoirs is expected to boost levels at Powell by about 3 feet.

The three reservoirs are part of the Colorado River Storage Project, and their primary purpose is to control the flows of the Colorado River; flatwater recreation has always been incidental. But the releases at Blue Mesa illustrate the risks of building an outdoor-recreation economy around a highly engineered river system that is now beginning to falter amid a climate change-fueled drought.

The boat ramp at Elk Creek Marina had to be temporarily closed so the docks could be moved out into deeper water. Colorado water managers are not happy that emergency releases from Blue Mesa Reservoir are impacting late summer lake recreation.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Timing concerns

Although the secretary of the Interior can authorize emergency releases without coordination from the states or local entities, Loken, along with some Colorado water managers, is not happy about the timing or the lack of notice from the bureau. Under normal drought-response operations, the federal government would consult with state and local water managers before making releases.

“We had very little time to handle this decision that was made that none of us have any power over,” Loken said.

John McClow, general counsel for the Upper Gunnison Water Conservancy District, said Colorado should make noise and complain about what he called a clumsy execution of the releases. McClow has also served on the Colorado Water Conservation Board and is an alternate commissioner on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

“There’s no reason they couldn’t have waited another couple weeks or another month to release that water from Blue Mesa to get it to Lake Powell,” McClow said. “It goes back to consultation and timing. Had they even asked, it would have been easy to say, ‘Hey, can you wait so you don’t kill our business?’”

The boat ramp at the Lake Fork Marina on Blue Mesa Reservoir closed on Sept. 2 because ofdeclining reservoir levels. Colorado water managers are not happy about the short notice they were given about emergency releases by the Bureau of Reclamation.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Last month at Colorado Water Congress’ summer conference — a gathering of water managers, researchers and legislators in Steamboat Springs — Rebecca Mitchell, CWCB’s executive director and the state’s representative to the UCRC, told the audience that the impacts of ending the boating season early at Blue Mesa trickle down to all Coloradoans.

“That means dollars in Colorado. That is who we are in Colorado,” she said. “It’s definitely had an impact in that local community when we talk about the recreation. That is heavy.”

Mitchell said water managers in the Upper Basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Utah) will be carefully monitoring the impacts of the reservoir releases and figuring out how to quantify those impacts, which she called devastating. The states will work with the bureau to develop a plan for how to send water to Lake Powell in future years, taking into consideration the timing, magnitude and duration of the releases, she said.

“Where can the states and the bureau make the best decisions to lessen the impacts?” she said.

The National Park Service operates the Curecanti National Recreation area, including the campsites, picnic areas, visitors centers and boat ramps that run the 20-mile length of the reservoir. According to numbers provided by the Park Service, Curecanti gets nearly a million visitors a year. The reservoir is popular among anglers for its trout and Kokanee salmon fishing. Blue Mesa is one of three reservoirs — along with the much smaller Morrow Point and Crystal reservoirs — on the Gunnison River, collectively known as the Aspinall Unit.

Gunnison Country Chamber of Commerce Director Celeste Helminski said her organization is planning an event later this month: the world’s largest snow dance. A big winter would help refill Blue Mesa.

“The water definitely has me concerned for the future,” she said. “We see a lot of summer recreationists who come and spend the whole summer at several of the campgrounds. It’s just going to take a lot to replace that water. It’s going to take awhile to get back to levels of what recreationists come for.”

Bureau spokesperson Justyn Liff could not provide any insight into how the timing decision for the releases was made, but pointed out that although lake recreation was impacted, downstream rafting and fishing in the canyon are getting a boost from the roughly 300 cubic-feet-per-second extra water that the releases provide. The Gunnison River below the Gunnison Tunnel diversion, which takes a large portion of the river’s outflow from the Aspinall Unit for delivery to downstream irrigators, was running around 600 cfs the first few days of September, according to USGS stream gauge data. This is a critical data point for boaters running the Black Canyon or Gunnison Gorge sections of the river, which are below the stream gauge. At 600 cfs, the river is flowing 11% above the median for this time of year.

“If we had waited six weeks, that would have been six weeks less of commercial rafting/guided fishing on the Gunnison River downstream from Aspinall,” Liff said.

The boat ramp at the Lake Fork Marina closed for the season on Sept. 2 due to decliningreservoir levels. The Bureau of Reclamation is making emergency releases out of Blue MesaReservoir to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydropower.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Hydropower production

Although the local impacts to recreation are acute, the impacts of not being able to make hydropower at Lake Powell would probably be much worse. The dams of the CRSP are known as “cash register” dams. The power they produce is used to repay the costs of building the project, maintain operations and provide power to millions of people.

The Western Area Power Administration distributes Lake Powell’s electricity, including to some power providers in Colorado. According to Water Education Colorado, electric costs will surge as Glen Canyon Dam struggles to produce hydropower because of declining water levels.

The bureau’s target elevation for Lake Powell is 3,525 feet, in order to provide a buffer that protects hydropower generation; if levels fall below 3,490, all power production would stop. Lake Powell is currently about 31% full, at 3,549 feet, which is the lowest surface level since the reservoir began filling in the 1960s and ‘70s. According to projections released by the bureau in July, Lake Powell has a 79% chance of falling below the 3,525 threshold in the next year. The emergency releases are intended to address this.

“A loss of power generation is a pretty significant issue compared to a few months of boating on Blue Mesa,” McClow said. “Locally, yes, it hurts, but in the big picture, I don’t know if you can make a fair comparison.”

As water levels at Blue Mesa continue to fall, Loken worries that this may be just the beginning of an era of empty reservoirs.

“(The releases) don’t solve the long-term problem,” Loken said. “We are just going to end up with an empty Lake Powell and a bunch of empty reservoirs upstream. I think the powers that be really need to put pencil to paper and figure this out.”

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

New CMC programs help meet rising need for addiction technicians and specialists

Luke Lubchenco, a student of CMC's new certified addiction technician program, is pictured Tuesday, Aug. 31, outside Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs, where he is a mental health advocate at the Youth Recovery Center.
Rich Allen/Post Independent

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — A pair of new Colorado Mountain College programs are turning around certified addiction technicians and specialists at a high rate as the need continues to grow.

The new programs launched Aug. 24 for a cohort of six individuals, the first of 15 weeks of coursework, which CMC officials said is the fastest in the state to fulfill classroom qualifications to apply for the two certifications. It also allows students to receive college credit as they train to begin or further careers in addiction treatment. They open the door to higher qualifications, which means higher wages, and further education like a master’s degree in an essential field that is only seeing demand increase.

“The more I learn about addictions, the more I see that it’s undervalued, underserved and extremely stigmatized,” said Luke Lubchenco, a student of the new program.

Lubchenco is a mental health advocate at the Youth Recovery Center at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs. He’s been there for nine months providing support for the kids and families going through the program. He was driven to be part of the solution after seeing addiction impact those around him growing up.

To Lubchenco, the new programs allow him to turn his desire to help into a legitimate career.

“In the short term, it will certainly open doors to greater compensation,” Lubchenco said about the certification. “It also sets up for the long term, applying for grad school. It opens a lot of doors to anywhere you want to go with addictions.”

Certified addiction technicians and specialists offer support and treatment for people who have substance use disorders and their families. A technician works at the entry level, including collecting screening data and providing education, while a specialist is a higher-level qualification that deals more directly with treatment. Both require classroom learning and field work.

The state of Colorado renamed the certificates last year and added a bachelor’s degree requirement in the areas of addiction, behavioral analysis or mental health for the specialist role. According to Colorado Mountain College Dean Anne Moll, the state wants people in these roles to be educated to a certain level, specifically on a trajectory for a master’s degree.

CMC, already laying the foundation for the program, had to adapt its programming some but ultimately found the changes to be “exactly what we want,” Moll said.

“We had planned it, but we had to adjust a little bit to build it out with the bachelor’s,” she added. “We wanted to support what the community needed, and now we get the opportunity to do that even more so because we were planning this bachelor’s all along.”

The idea is that earning a degree and putting students on a path to more education will help elevate them above minimum-wage support jobs, earn higher pay and increase quality of care for patients in recovery.

CMC began exploring the idea of creating a college program several years ago. Community members reached out looking for ways for their employees to be compensated through college credit for undergoing the training to be certified. Now, with the program underway, Moll said the program hasn’t had to advertise as more groups have approached the school with interest in sending employees or even duplicating the cohort model for their workers as demand in the field increases.

There are up to 250 open positions for addiction counselors in Colorado, Moll estimated. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the field will add up to 80,000 jobs nationally by 2029, a 25% growth from 2019.

In the wake of the pandemic, the need became immediately apparent. CMC counselor Chris Harnden said that following a huge flatline in counseling referrals during the shutdown, those referrals spiked once society started opening back up.

Many of those cases had a substance use aspect.

“People had sought comfort, in a time of uncertainty, in drugs and alcohol because that’s what they could get their hands on,” Harnden said. “Now they’re coming out of this, and they have no coping skills. They haven’t practiced them in over a year.”

In the coursework, the students are learning about ethics, counseling skills, culturally informed treatment and motivational interviewing. They are being taught to treat with compassion and understanding.

Harnden said other schools offer college credit for training to be certified, but CMC is the first to allow students to complete the coursework in a semester, shrinking the curriculum from two years down to four months. The students still have to complete 1,000 hours of clinical work before they can apply for the certification but can have the in-class aspect done at an accelerated pace.

He said no material was cut — students just meet for extended classes twice a week. Curricula for each certification have 11 courses, adding up to 12 to 15 credit hours.

Lubchenco lives in Carbondale and said two of his classmates are from Rifle and one is from Leadville. Moll said much of the interest came from the Silt-to-Rifle region. And through community outreach, she learned there is a demand for these solutions at the local level. The program incentives locals to pursue these higher levels of qualification and stay in the field.

“We need people who are from our communities, who will stay in our communities,” Moll said. “I think it gives us a great opportunity to really help and significantly put a dent in the needs of our communities.”

Grand County officials on high alert as the Black Mountain Fire burns northeast of Kremmling

A map of the Black Mountain Fire, shown in red, and the East Troublesome burn scar, represented by the shaded area. It would be unlikely for the Black Mountain Fire to continue burning in the Troublesome scar.
Incident Information System/Courtesy photo

KREMMLING — The Black Mountain Fire that is burning northeast of Kremmling — about 45 miles north of Summit County — showed little growth overnight Monday, Aug. 30, as fire crews are looking for rain later this week to help them get containment on the flames.

The fire had burned 170 acres as of Tuesday, Aug. 31, on the west side of Slide Mountain off County Road 2 in Grand County. Fire crews have been utilizing air and ground resources to battle the fire. A Type 3 Incident Management Team took over Monday.

The fire was first reported around 1 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 29. Its cause remains under investigation. On Sunday, the blaze was estimated to have burned about 150 acres. By Monday afternoon, that figure was up to 170 acres.

There are 10 structures in the area currently considered at risk, and two areas are under pre-evacuation orders.

The Black Mountain Fire burns in the Routt National Forest on Monday, Aug. 30. The fire has burned around 170 acres.
Incident Information System/Courtesy photo

The Routt National Forest has issued a closure area for the fire.

Routt National Forest Public Information Officer Aaron Voos said the fire mostly burned fuels in the area on Monday and didn’t make any big runs.

“It allowed us to get some of our resources in and develop a plan to approach this fire, so (there are) lots of positives with the way the fire behaved,” Voos said of Monday’s growth.

He added that getting aerial resources to drop fire retardant soon after the fire was reported has helped immensely to slow the fire’s growth. The majority of the fire is burning toward the south and southeast direction.

Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin said his office is working closely with fire partners to determine pre-evacuation and evacuation orders. Though the Black Mountain Fire started in a similar area to the East Troublesome Fire, Schroetlin noted that the two fires are behaving very differently at this point.

“The effects of the East Troublesome Fire are on the minds of all of us and we understand the community’s concern and … we’re diligently watching what’s occurring,” Schroetlin said.

The weather was hot and dry Sunday and Monday. Tuesday’s forecast called for similar conditions with rain moving into the area Wednesday, Sept. 1, and Thursday, Sept. 2. Voos said fire crews are hoping to take advantage of the precipitation and build containment lines.

On Tuesday, two helicopters, one hand crew and several fire engines were working the blaze. Terrain in the area is a mix of timber and downed trees, as well as sagebrush. Voos said if the fire continues to move south, the terrain becomes mostly sagebrush, which would allow for more direct firefighting.

The Routt National Forest issued an area closure for the Black Mountain Fire.
Incident Information System/Courtesy photo

The Black Mountain Fire is burning about two miles west of the East Troublesome burn scar. Voos said it would be unlikely for the fire to continue to burn if it reaches the Troublesome burn scar because of the lack of fuels in the area.

The fire is expected to be an extended-duration fire, meaning it will likely burn through the end of the season.

Polis calls on BLM to stop Sand Wash Basin wild horse roundup set to start Wednesday

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has called on the Bureau of Land Management to halt plans to round up as many as 80% of the wild horses in the Sand Wash Basin, which is set to start Wednesday.

In a letter Monday to U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and BLM Deputy Director of Policy and Programs Nada Wolff Culver, Polis said he is “extremely concerned” at the pace and the sheer number of horses that are planned to be removed.

“I have received an outpouring of letters and phone calls from Coloradans across the state, deeply concerned by the suddenness and scale of these roundups,” Polis said in the letter. “There remain legitimate concerns about the fate of gathered horses, and I believe that better collaboration with the state and advocates could improve assurances about their long-term well-being and the avoidance of any slaughter.”

In the letter, Polis proposes the BLM immediately institute a six-month moratorium on roundups, allowing for better stakeholder engagement in the process, which he said has been lacking.

“I remain extremely concerned with the historic scale and condensed time period of the BLM’s proposed roundup at Sand Wash Basin,” Polis wrote. “I believe that, through Colorado’s unique position as a state with a long history of innovation and care for our public lands and wildlife, we can work more collaboratively with the BLM to effectuate more scientific and humane outcomes to herd management.”

The BLM’s Little Snake Field Office in Craig announced it would start a wild horse gather in the Sand Wash Basin on Wednesday that would seek to remove as many as 733 of the estimated 893 horses that roam there. The BLM has deemed the appropriate management level for the Sand Wash Basin to be between 163 and 362 horses.

BLM officials say that drought and over population in the basin have forced their hand, requiring the emergency roundup. Horse advocates disagree. They point to water in the basin right now and horses that look to be of a healthy weight.

“The late rains didn’t allow the grasses to grow. Even though it is starting to green up a little bit now, that doesn’t mean there’s enough out there to sustain them through the winter,” said Chris Maestas, public information officer for the BLM’s Little Snake Office in an interview Monday.

On Tuesday, Maestas referred questions about the governor’s request to the state BLM office, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment. An email to the Department of the Interior did not receive a response.

Maestas said he was not aware of any plans to stop the horse roundup, and he was out preparing for the gather at the Sand Wash Basin on Tuesday.

Horse advocates like the Colorado Chapter of the Sierra Club also have called on the BLM to stop the emergency roundup, saying that it is livestock that are depleting the forage in the area and not the horses.

“As documented in the BLM’s own data, livestock grazing, not wild horses, has resulted in damage to the range that is both widespread and severe,” the Sierra Club said in a statement Monday.

Polis argues that a delay in horse gathering for the time being could allow for a more inclusive process that includes members of the public, like nonprofits, which he said play a crucial role in the adoption and care of these horses. Rounding up this many horses at once threatens to strain volunteer capacity and other support communities, he said.

The governor said in the letter he would be an advocate for more funding for the Horse and Burro Program in Congress, and he felt a delay and longer planning period now could help avoid more expensive outcomes in the future.

“It is my hope that the Bureau of Land Management will instead take a six-month timeout from further rounding up our state’s wild horses until there has been better engagement with stakeholders, concerned citizens and the state,” Polis said.

The gather is planned to start Wednesday morning and last for between 14 and 25 days.