Gunnison Basin Selenium Management Program

 

photo: Mancos adobes near Montrose, Colorado
Mancos adobes near Montrose, Colo.

The Gunnison Basin Selenium Management Program is a private/public partnership of concerned parties working together to identify and implement solutions to reduce selenium concentration in the Gunnison and Colorado rivers. The goal of the SMP is to reduce adverse effects of selenium on endangered fish species in the Gunnison and Colorado rivers.

This goal will be achieved by incorporating and accelerating ongoing irrigation system improvement efforts and other programs in the Uncompahgre Valley and other portions of the lower Gunnison River Basin to reduce the amount of selenium entering the river.

A work group was established in December 2009 charged with developing a program outline and implementation plan aimed at meeting state water quality standards for selenium and protecting endangered fish. The success of the SMP will greatly reduce the chance of future conflicts between endangered species protection and small and large water users in the basin.

Partners of the program include: the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado River Water Conservation District, Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, the Shavano and Delta Conservation Districts, Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Bureau of Land Management, Natural Resource Conservation Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation.

 

Soils in the lower Gunnison Basin are naturally high in selenium and salts. When irrigation water from agricultural and non-agricultural sources (e.g. landscaping, ponds, golf courses, etc) infiltrates into these soils, selenium is mobilized, begins to move through groundwater systems, and eventually enters our local water ways where it can cause reproductive problems for aquatic life. The lower Gunnison and Colorado rivers and their tributaries currently exceed federal and state selenium levels considered to be safe for aquatic life.These rivers serve as critical habitat to four endangered fish species which have been adversely affected by reduced flows, diminished water quality, and other adverse changes in their habitat.

graphic: schematic of selenium pickup in irrigation water


There is potential for significant conflict between existing and future water uses and the Endangered Species Act. In the West, some major conflicts have been related to selenium and irrigation. However, stakeholders in the Gunnison River Basin believe that such conflict can be avoided through pro-active programs that emphasize both protecting existing and future water uses and the recovery of the fish. These programs are only successful if all stakeholders in the basin work together collaboratively and proactively.

Gunnison River Basin Selenium Management Program

photo: deformities in larval razorback sucker
Deformities in larval razorback
sucker

The Gunnison River Basin Selenium Management Program is a stakeholder partnership among federal, state, and local government agencies, water districts, and the public to identity and implement solutions to reduce selenium concentrations. The long term goal of the SMP is to sufficiently improve water-quality conditions to assist in the recovery of endangered river fishes. The success of the SMP will greatly reduce the chance of future conflicts between endangered species protection and small and large water users in the basin. Completion of the Gunnison Basin Programmatic Biological Opinion in 2009 for the entire Gunnison Basin has been a high priority for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado River Water Conservation District, Selenium Task Force, and other stakeholders. The PBO depends upon the success of the SMP, and the success of the SMP depends upon the participation of all Gunnison Basin stakeholders.

Programmatic Biological Opinion

A Programmatic Biological Opinion is an endangered species consultation or analysis written by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that addresses multiple actions for an individual resource program, land use plan, or other larger scale planning effort. For example, a PBO could address the effects of multiple water uses in an entire basin on endangered species. This is the case with the Gunnison Basin PBO. It is termed "programmatic" because it addresses a variety of public and private water uses in a comprehensive manner and provides ESA compliance for all the water depletions by water users in the Gunnison Basin.

The ESA provides a means for conserving the habitat upon which endangered species depend and to provide a program for the conservation of such species. The ESA directs federal agencies to participate in conserving these species and to evaluate any federal actions to ensure that their activities are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of species or adversely modify designated critical habitats. The FWS reviews these evaluations on federal actions and writes a biological opinion on the proposed effects of the actions on endangered species.

As part of this ESA consultation process, Reclamation and FWS evaluated the effects of reoperation and changed water releases from the Aspinall Unit (Blue Mesa, Morrow Point, and Crystal Reservoirs) on downstream endangered fish. During this consultation, the state of Colorado and the Colorado River Water Conservation District requested that the evaluation include all water uses in the Gunnison Basin and thereby complete ESA compliance for public and private water users throughout the basin. In 2009 the FWS prepared the PBO that provides ESA coverage for all water users in the Gunnison Basin.

The Gunnison Basin PBO also completed ESA compliance on the Dallas Creek and Dolores River projects.The FWS issued “jeopardy” biological opinions for both projects. A jeopardy opinion means that the project as planned would cause significant harm to the endangered fish. In order to avoid harming endangered Colorado River fish, other sources of water were sought to reduce effects of depletions in the Gunnison and Colorado rivers caused by the Dallas Creek and Dolores projects. In both cases, it was decided that the release water would come from the Aspinall Unit.

The Gunnison Basin PBO calls for re-operating the Aspinall Unit to provide higher or more natural spring river flows and moderate base flows. It also calls for developing a SMP to reduce selenium concentrations in the Gunnison River which are affected by the many water uses in the basin.

1)  Provides ESA compliance for existing and new private/public water users.

The Gunnison Basin Programmatic Biological Opinion recognizes that depletions of water and existing selenium concentrations harm endangered fish. The PBO provides Endangered Species Act compliance for existing public and private water user activities that harm endangered fish species provided that certain measures are implemented, including the SMP.

2)  Provides water security, environmental compliance and regulatory certainty in the Gunnison Basin.

The PBO greatly reduces the chances of major conflicts between the ESA and existing and new water uses in the basin.

3)  Provides ESA compliance for Upper Gunnison Basin subordination and compliance for depletions from new augmentation contracts throughout the basin.

Without the subordination, the water rights of the Aspinall Unit would hinder any new water developments in the upper Gunnison Basin.  With the subordination, the water user with a senior water right, in this case the Aspinall Unit, allows a junior water right to take water before the Aspinall Unit. Numerous existing and future small water sales and uses are now covered by the PBO and approval of these is now much simpler.

4)  Rather than requiring individual water users to address depletion impacts to endangered species, under the PBO the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program continues to address the depletion effects while the SMP addresses the water-quality effects.

The recovery program encompasses the entire upper Colorado River Basin and is designed to support existing and future water use while providing for the recovery of endangered fish species.  The recovery program does not address water-quality issues like selenium that affect endangered species, thus the need for a SMP in the Gunnison Basin.


5)  Allows existing and future water uses in the basin to continue while proactively assisting in the recovery of endangered river fishes.

Gunnison Basin stakeholders/water users can continue their water operations and their depletions (federal projects and non-federal projects) and have ESA compliance. Water users have ESA compliance when the SMP is showing progress in meeting selenium reduction goals.

6)  Helps connect water users with organizations that have information and funding for improving irrigation systems and crop production while helping the local economies; and may reduce operation and maintenance costs of irrigation systems and conserve water.

When irrigation system improvements are incorporated with other on-farm management practices, significant reductions in seepage and deep percolation can occur. In addition, studies show that when a producer incorporates irrigation system improvements in concert with enhanced irrigation water management, good soil health management practices, and good agronomic practices, the producer enjoys the benefits of improvements in crop quality, maximized yields, and reduced input costs which improves their bottom line [ Natural Resources Conservation Service and Colorado State University Extension, 2011 ].

photo: workers placing pipe as part of EF Lateral Piping Project
Crews place final section of pipe for the EF Lateral Piping
Project. - photo courtesy of: UVWUA

Improving Irrigation Systems: In high salinity areas, programs such as the Reclamation’s Basinwide Salinity Control Program can provide up to 100 percent funding for implementing off-farm best management practices such as piping irrigation delivery systems (often salt is found in high selenium soils - therefore two pollutants can be addressed simultaneously). A piped irrigation system means there may be potential for development of pressurized deliveries and conversion to sprinkler systems, reduced operation and maintenance costs, and better quality water being provided to the farm.  For more information about the Basinwide Salinity Program contact Reclamation’s Area Office in Grand Junction, Colo., (970-248-0600).

The Natural Resources Conservation Service has the Environmental Quality Incentives Program that provides incentive payments for on-farm improvements to qualifying agricultural producers.  Additionally, the state of Colorado administers the Basin States Salinity Program and provides incentive payments for on-farm and smaller off-farm projects that reduce salinity loading.  If you think you may have an eligible project contact your local NRCS office in Montrose (970-249-8407) or Delta (970-874-5726).

7) Facilitates ESA compliance for future Clean Water Act 404 permits, land use permits, or other regulatory approvals.

All federally issued permits require compliance with the ESA and obtaining permits is much simpler with the PBO in effect.

8) Improves water quality for many uses in Colorado and downstream.

By incorporating best management practices  which minimize seepage and deep percolation of water through Mancos Shale soils, selenium loading into our local tributaries and rivers is reduced.  Water-quality is improved for agriculture, fisheries, domestic needs and other uses.

 


1)  Provides ESA compliance for existing and new private/public water users.

The Gunnison Basin Programmatic Biological Opinion recognizes that depletions of water and existing selenium concentrations harm endangered fish. The PBO provides Endangered Species Act compliance for existing public and private water user activities that harm endangered fish species provided that certain measures are implemented, including the SMP.

2)  Provides water security, environmental compliance and regulatory certainty in the Gunnison Basin.

The PBO greatly reduces the chances of major conflicts between the ESA and existing and new water uses in the basin.

3)  Provides ESA compliance for Upper Gunnison Basin subordination and compliance for depletions from new augmentation contracts throughout the basin.

Without the subordination, the water rights of the Aspinall Unit would hinder any new water developments in the upper Gunnison Basin.  With the subordination, the water user with a senior water right, in this case the Aspinall Unit, allows a junior water right to take water before the Aspinall Unit. Numerous existing and future small water sales and uses are now covered by the PBO and approval of these is now much simpler.

4)  Rather than requiring individual water users to address depletion impacts to endangered species, under the PBO the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program continues to address the depletion effects while the SMP addresses the water-quality effects.

The recovery program encompasses the entire upper Colorado River Basin and is designed to support existing and future water use while providing for the recovery of endangered fish species.  The recovery program does not address water-quality issues like selenium that affect endangered species, thus the need for a SMP in the Gunnison Basin.


5)  Allows existing and future water uses in the basin to continue while proactively assisting in the recovery of endangered river fishes.

Gunnison Basin stakeholders/water users can continue their water operations and their depletions (federal projects and non-federal projects) and have ESA compliance. Water users have ESA compliance when the SMP is showing progress in meeting selenium reduction goals.

6)  Helps connect water users with organizations that have information and funding for improving irrigation systems and crop production while helping the local economies; and may reduce operation and maintenance costs of irrigation systems and conserve water.

When irrigation system improvements are incorporated with other on-farm management practices, significant reductions in seepage and deep percolation can occur. In addition, studies show that when a producer incorporates irrigation system improvements in concert with enhanced irrigation water management, good soil health management practices, and good agronomic practices, the producer enjoys the benefits of improvements in crop quality, maximized yields, and reduced input costs which improves their bottom line [ Natural Resources Conservation Service and Colorado State University Extension, 2011 ].

photo: workers placing pipe as part of EF Lateral Piping Project
Crews place final section of pipe for the EF Lateral Piping
Project. - photo courtesy of: UVWUA

Improving Irrigation Systems: In high salinity areas, programs such as the Reclamation’s Basinwide Salinity Control Program can provide up to 100 percent funding for implementing off-farm best management practices such as piping irrigation delivery systems (often salt is found in high selenium soils - therefore two pollutants can be addressed simultaneously). A piped irrigation system means there may be potential for development of pressurized deliveries and conversion to sprinkler systems, reduced operation and maintenance costs, and better quality water being provided to the farm.  For more information about the Basinwide Salinity Program contact Reclamation’s Area Office in Grand Junction, Colo., (970-248-0600).

The Natural Resources Conservation Service has the Environmental Quality Incentives Program that provides incentive payments for on-farm improvements to qualifying agricultural producers.  Additionally, the state of Colorado administers the Basin States Salinity Program and provides incentive payments for on-farm and smaller off-farm projects that reduce salinity loading.  If you think you may have an eligible project contact your local NRCS office in Montrose (970-249-8407) or Delta (970-874-5726).

7) Facilitates ESA compliance for future Clean Water Act 404 permits, land use permits, or other regulatory approvals.

All federally issued permits require compliance with the ESA and obtaining permits is much simpler with the PBO in effect.

8) Improves water quality for many uses in Colorado and downstream.

By incorporating best management practices  which minimize seepage and deep percolation of water through Mancos Shale soils, selenium loading into our local tributaries and rivers is reduced.  Water-quality is improved for agriculture, fisheries, domestic needs and other uses.

 


Public Meeting Schedule

       
      


SMP Work Group Meeting Minutes

 


Contact Us

For more information on the Gunnison Basin Selenium Management Program, please contact:

Bureau of Reclamation
Justyn Liff
445 West Gunnison Avenue, Suite 221
Grand Junction, CO 81501
Telephone: 970-248-0625
E-mail: jliff@usbr.gov

Last Updated: 4/17/17