Digital Journalism

How do dams affect downstream river ecology?

Study on two southwestern Colorado rivers provides answers

The San Miguel and Dolores rivers are both southwestern Colorado waterways that begin high in the San Juan Mountains near Telluride. Both carve through narrow, red sandstone canyons and eventually merge with the Colorado River in eastern Utah. But there is one major difference: the Dolores is dammed at McPhee Reservoir near Cortez while the San Miguel is one of the last free-flowing rivers in the West.

A study of plant traits on these two rivers may provide clues about how riparian habitats respond to climate change. Researchers from Colorado State University recently completed a two-year study on the Dolores and San Miguel rivers, the results of which were presented at the Upper Colorado River Basin Forum in Grand Junction in early November.

The study compared two sites on the Dolores (Rico and Bedrock) with two sites on the San Miguel (Placerville and Uravan) by documenting different plant traits at each of the four sites. A “trait” is simply a measureable feature of a plant, like leaf area, root depth and height. The more diverse these traits are, the higher something called “functional diversity.” For both of the upstream sites, Placerville and Rico, functional diversity was higher than it was at the downstream sites, which scientist expected because the downstream sites receive less rainfall. But the Bedrock site, because it is downstream from McPhee Reservoir, had a much lower functional diversity than Uravan.

San Miguel River

“Dams really do have a huge impact on the downstream ecosystem and it’s not always talked about,” said Erin Cubley, one of the researchers on the project and a PhD candidate in ecology at Colorado State University. “Dams hold sediments and seeds, they change the flow, they change the processes that are essential in maintaining these ecosystems.”

The McPhee dam near the town of Dolores is the fifth biggest reservoir in the state and holds back about 381,000 acre feet of water from the Dolores River. McPhee Reservoir supplies the agricultural irrigation needs of farmers and ranchers in the area. The resulting decreased flow below the dam has big impacts on the downstream ecology, Cubley said. A smaller river channel cuts deeper, not wider, and this lowers the groundwater that riparian plants depend on to survive.

Dolores River

“Riparian species have a big taproot and can access water a few feet down, but if they can’t access groundwater they die,” Cubley said. “That is what we are seeing at Bedrock.”

Another way dams alter the natural flow of the river has to do with spring runoff. Many dams are managed solely with maximum storage capacity in mind, says David M. Merritt, a riparian ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service National Stream and Aquatic Ecology Center. There are easy tweaks water managers can make that will not compromise the power or storage needs of the dam that can also improve the ecological functioning downstream.

For example: one of the most important components of river health is peak flows and flooding with spring runoff. Some species, like the cottonwood tree, time the release of their seeds to coincide with peak flows. The fluffy white fibers use the river to carry them downstream to hopefully take root in the riverbank. But when dams control the river and don’t allow for this peak flow to happen, it can have a negative effect on the whole downstream ecosystem.

“If you are a dam operator, it might be easy for you to time a spike that coincides with that historic timing,” Merritt said. “The timing of peak flow is reliant on temperatures with a little variability annually. A dam operator would have tremendous flexibility on when that would occur.”

And how does Cubley and Merritt’s research translate into predicting what the future ecosystem will look like with the effects of climate change? Assuming that the future of the American West will be warmer and drier than it currently is, the research team can model what a future ecosystem might look like: At what point will more drought-resistant plants move in? If you change the flows of a river how will the vegetation respond? What would happen if water managers changed dam operations?

“What if climate change is twice as bad or what if it’s not as bad?” Merritt said. “We are scientists who predict change… We will be able to show predictions of what the vegetation will look like. It’s a model and a technique that can be used on any river anywhere.”


A Budd-ing politician: Cyclist Eric Budd runs for Boulder City Council

Three years ago Eric Budd took what some would call a drastic measure to reduce his carbon footprint.

He got rid of his car and made a commitment to only biking or using public transportation to get around Boulder. It was not a decision he arrived at quickly. It took five years from when Budd first starting bike commuting the two miles to and from work every day to when he finally sold his car. In the meantime, he was making incremental changes in his life to wean himself from a vehicle. It was his background in economics that finally pushed him to make the leap.

“I had a pretty hard winter getting through that first year,” he said. “But it wasn’t like it was unmanageable. I figured out, ‘ok, I can actually do this.’ A lot of it is the fact that living in Boulder it is a lot easier to do.”

Budd has since taken his passion for a vibrant, bike-friendly community and turned it into the bedrock of his campaign platform for Boulder City Council. He is one of 14 candidates vying for just five spots in this year’s crowded field. He has pledged to work on Boulder’s notorious housing crisis and transportation challenges.

Budd grew up in the sprawling suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, a place he says didn’t much value protecting the environment or having a city center. He is the oldest of three kids and his family still lives in the mid-west. His love for cycling as well as the outdoors fueled his move to Colorado 10 years ago. Since then, Budd has worked as a software developer, gotten involved in community and civic organizations like the Community Cycles Advocacy Committee, the Better Boulder Steering Committee, the City of Boulder Landmarks Board and raced in an Ironman Triathlon.

Budd became even more involved with local politics last year when he worked as a campaign project manager for Angelique Espinoza. Espinoza lost a close race for House District 10 to Edie Hooton by just under 200 votes. Now a political consultant, Budd describes Espinoza as one of his mentors. She describes him as compassionate and possessing a rare combination of both traditional and emotional intelligence.

“He’s a compassionate person and he’s fully committed,” Espinoza said. “When he commits to something, he commits all the way. And he is genuinely interested in listening to what other people have to say.”

Committed is right. Budd decided that 2017 would be the year he did something big. So he quit his job as a software developer a few months ago after he saw that working was not going to be compatible with running a robust city council campaign. He saved up a bit of money and says he has been living cheaply while he dedicates his time to meeting with Boulderites and hearing their concerns. He is on the hunt for a new job, but for the next week he is focusing on finishing the horserace.

“I have a lot of respect for someone who cares enough about the city to put himself in not as strong a financial position,” said Budd’s campaign manager Raffi Mercuri. “Eric is a young person who is not independently wealthy and is making a big sacrifice to make a better city for people and I wish more people knew that.”

In the last few days before the election Budd is trying to knock on a many doors as possible and make sure young people vote. It’s part of a strategy that aims to engage different demographics in different ways: young people through social media (he has built up more than 4,000 Twitter followers) and older people through phone calls and ringing thousands of doorbells.

On this year’s ballot is issue 2L, which asks voters to approve a $17 million tax over five years to fund the continued efforts to municipalize Boulder’s energy and move away from current provider Xcel. Boulder has already spent millions on the effort through a 2011 ballot measure. Although Budd supports efforts to move the city’s energy to renewable sources, he no longer believes funding municipalization is in the best interest of the city. He arrived at his nuanced decision from the point of view of a pragmatic economist.

At 36 years old, Budd is on the cusp of the millennial generation. As he and his contemporaries want to begin settling down and starting families, many of them leave Boulder because they can’t afford to live in a city where the median home price surpassed $1 million last year. That’s a problem he wants to help fix.

“Boulder has really been in an affordability crisis,” he said. “And a lot of it is because we have a strong economy and a great city in a place people want to come to. There are so many people who work in Boulder who can’t live here… I want to take those things to the city council and represent the younger group of people in Boulder.”


Most of Boulder’s rental housing on track to meet SmartRegs deadline

With the clock ticking toward the 2018 deadline, the vast majority of property owners have begun the process of upgrading their rental units to meet the City of Boulder’s SmartRegs requirements. But some property owners still face challenges to compliance.

According to city numbers, as of the end of June 92 percent of residential housing units had at least had an initial evaluation for energy efficiency, which is the first step in the SmartRegs program. Seventy-six percent of units were compliant. Boulder Sustainability Coordinator Elizabeth Vatsatka says those numbers have creeped up in the past couple months and are now at nearly 95 and 80 percent, respectively. She said the city is happy with compliance progress so far.

“The SmartRegs program was developed to help create safer, more comfortable housing for renters and improve the quality of Boulder’s rental housing overall,” Vasatka said in an email. “With the program’s accomplishment to date, it’s exciting to see its vision and goals being realized.”

The program was first implemented in 2011 with the goal of improving energy efficiency in Boulder’s housing market and as part of Boulder’s 2006 Climate Commitment. At roughly 50 percent, Boulder has more rental housing than most other cities of comparable size. SmartRegs also aimed to correct a problem Vasatka called “split incentive.” People who rent a unit don’t typically want to put money into improving the space because they don’t own it and landlords don’t want to invest either because they don’t have to pay the utility bills. The result was that many rental units had not had energy efficiency upgrades in many years, or in some cases decades.

The deadline is Dec. 31, 2018 and property owners have a variety of ways they can come into compliance. The first step is an energy audit of the building by a licensed inspector, which will give owners a baseline number to start from. Properties need a total of 100 points on the Prescriptive Path Checklist to be compliant with SmartRegs. The initial inspection could show that a property is already compliant. But if it hasn’t met the 100-point requirement, owners can choose from (along with a few mandatory water conservation measures), ceiling or crawl space insulation, installing better windows, sealing ducts and boiler upgrades to name a few options. Points range from one for something like a programmable thermostat, up to 44 points for installing a solar array.

Crawlspace wall ins, Group photo, Exterior top plates etc.-2

If property owners do not become compliant by the deadline, they lose their rental license and could be subject to penalties and fines if they continue to rent a non-compliant property.

According to the city, the median number of points for non-compliant units to reach compliance is 13. It takes an average of two upgrades and $2,914. The most common upgrades are attic insulation, crawl space insulation and replacing or upgrading a gas furnace. Over the previous few years the city distributed much of the $12 million it received in federal stimulus better building grants to rental property owners for assistance with SmartRegs.

The program has been a boon to at least one local business. Larry Meeks, president and owner of Thermal Craft Insulation says SmartRegs accounts for at lease one-third of his business and expects that percentage to go up during the next year.

Exterior top plate sealing - Copy

“I would say it’s in the neighborhood of 35 percent,” Meeks said. “It tends to increase as time goes on because the closer we get to the deadline the more people are most definitely realizing they need to get that done. I expect in the near future it could climb up to 40 or 45 percent.”

Foamed attic floor (2)

After a two-year planning process that included community members and stakeholders, the city decided it would be fair to give rental property owners eight years to comply with the program. One of the organizations the city worked closely with was the Boulder Area Rental Housing Association, which represents the interests of the owners of more than 11,000 residential housing units in Boulder County.

BARHA President Cindy Angell says her organization does not take a stance on SmartRegs, but its goal is to ensure any new regulations make sense for property owners. Angell wants BARHA to be a source for owners to educate themselves about the regulations and the process for compliance. There are properties, however, that Angell says simply cannot become compliant because they have historical or other features that should grant them an exemption. BARHA is inviting city council members to tour one of these “difficult” properties later this month to get a better understanding of the challenges some property owners face.

“There are properties that cannot become compliant,” Angell said. “One multi-family unit needs a new boiler and it’s going to cost $40,000 and it doesn’t make sense. We are working with (the city) to be reasonable. They need to be cognizant of the technically impractical ones.”

But ultimately, in addition to improving efficiency for the sake of the environment, SmartRegs will also increase the value of properties for a relatively small investment from owners. That’s probably one reason Meeks has not heard many complaints about the regulations from his clients.

“All in all the city really is trying to do the right thing and I think everybody recognizes that,” he said. “Whatever you’re spending on the rental, it will be worth more the next day. It’s an improvement that goes directly to your place and you gain it in the equity… I think there are wins all the way around.”