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Getting a better bead on soil moisture in the Yampa Valley

Eight additional soil-moisture monitoring stations will be installed in the Yampa Valley, the result of $860,000 in funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Colorado River District, and the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District.

The impetus for this comes from the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council.

“We’re filling data gaps,” said the council’s Madison Muxworthy. “As part of our two-year process leading up to this, we did a basin analysis where we had talked to some key local stakeholders in the basin to identify their needs for water management and where they saw gaps.”

“Our snow-to-flow patterns have been changing considerably in recent years, and monitoring soil moisture data is an important step toward a better understanding of how water in our basin is changing due to changing climate,” said Michelle Stewart, executive director of the sustainability center.

Marty Ralph, director of the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes, calls soil moisture the “fourth reservoir” in water planning, the missing piece of the puzzle in addition to snow, rivers, and reservoirs.

“The network will be critical to establishing a baseline for long-term monitoring of new trends in soil moisture expected due to greater evapotranspiration—the cumulative transfer of moisture from soils and plants to the atmosphere— related to warming as climate changes,” he said in a release from the sustainability council.

Colorado River District talks up water demand strategies, but there is some hesitation

Kathleen Curry, who represents Gunnison County on the board of directors of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, the primary policy organization for most of the Western Slope, reported to her constituents about efforts to enlist agricultural producers in demand-management programs.

The System Conservation Pilot Program, a federally funded effort, is offering $125 million for projects that reduce historic consumptive use. The district is also spearheading a pilot program for demand management for storage in reservoirs, in this case at Blue Mesa, according to the Crested Butte News .

Declining levels of Lake Powell and the prospect of a potential compact curtailment – whereby Colorado and other upper-basins states are required to take less water from the river—are driving this.

What is the uptake? Sonja Chavez, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, said that ag users are “not jumping up and down to participate in a program like this.” She said it can take three to six years for ag production to return to former levels of productivity.

Also of note, according to the CB News report, is a survey of Gunnison Basin users that shows increased concern about water availability for ag fisheries and water quality and somewhat decreased concerns about water for recreational purposes since the last survey in 2016.

Allen Best
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