Colorado lawmakers are expected to consider legislation next session aimed at providing project permits while still protecting wetlands, which were left vulnerable after a U.S. Supreme Court decision in May.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act has protected the “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) since 1972. But exactly which wetlands and water bodies fall under the definition of WOTUS has long been the subject of litigation and policy that changed with each presidential administration. In Sackett v. EPA, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the definition of WOTUS did not include wetlands adjacent to streams. Only wetlands with a direct surface water connection to a stream or permanent body of water are now protected under the Clean Water Act.
While it is not always clear whether a wetland has a direct surface connection to a qualifying stream, experts say the decision removed federal protections from at least half of Colorado’s wetlands. The ruling also excludes from protection many ephemeral streams that run only seasonally during spring runoff or summer monsoons.
The state will have to decide how to protect the wetlands that now fall outside the purview of the Clean Water Act, which water policy experts are calling “gap waters.”
According to a policy brief by Andrew Teegarden, a water fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado Boulder, “the Supreme Court’s decision in Sackett created a gaping hole in Colorado’s program for protecting and regulating discharge and fill activities and the current state of the law in Colorado is inadequate to fill the gap.”
“Sackett was more devastating than anyone envisioned it being,” said Alex Funk, director of water resources and senior counsel at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Basically, if it’s not a continuously flowing stream or interstate river, it’s no longer protected.”
The main way many wetlands had federal protection under the Clean Water Act in the past was through a permitting process with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Developers and property owners had to get a 404 permit — also known as a dredge-and-fill permit — if they wanted to undertake certain projects that involved wetlands. The corps applied guidelines and criteria for making sure the project would not destroy or degrade the waters.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is now expected to present to lawmakers a state-level permitting process that would step in to fill the regulatory gap left by Sackett v. EPA. Last summer, CDPHE enacted a new policy that requires notice of discharge into state waters and allows the agency to take enforcement actions when unpermitted discharges of dredge and fill materials takes place. This policy was intended to be temporary while the state comes up with a permanent program.
CDPHE has also been meeting with and taking input from stakeholders — including environmental groups, agriculture interests and water providers — to explore creating a more permanent regulatory program to protect Colorado’s streams and wetlands to the same extent they were protected before the Sackett v. EPA decision.
In August, Trisha Oeth, CDPHE’s director of environmental health and protection, told lawmakers at a meeting of the Water Resources and Agriculture Committee that the agency has been hearing from stakeholders that any program should have a clear scope and also avoid permitting delays. She said stakeholders want to maintain the status quo and do not have an interest in developing a program that goes beyond the scope of what was federally protected prior to Sackett v. EPA.
“We are going to need to be creative here in Colorado to address those concerns about balance — preserving the status quo with having an efficient program,” Oeth said. “We’ve also been hearing it’s really important to protect source waters.”
Fens could be at risk
One example of those source waters is a type of sensitive, high-country wetland now potentially left vulnerable: fens. These are groundwater-fed wetlands that form peat over thousands of years, are home to rare plants and insects, and cannot be easily restored if destroyed. Fens are sometimes isolated with no stream as an outlet.
“All of our groundwater-fed wetlands are outside of the Clean Water Act regulation now,” said David Cooper, a senior research scientist at Colorado State University and a fen expert. “In the San Juan mountains, we did a project and I think we estimated there were about 10,000 fens, and most of them, because of the Sackett decision, would not be considered adjacent to navigable waters.”
Cooper said most of the water that feeds streams in Colorado goes through fens in the highest part of watersheds, which remove sediment and pollutants. They are also a key piece of the ecosystem that support biodiversity, he said.
“Fens occupy a 10th of 1% of our landscape, but they support probably 25% of species in Colorado,” Cooper said. “Their importance greatly exceeds their tiny presence on the landscape.”
Aaron Citron, a senior policy adviser for The Nature Conservancy, said any new state program should provide regulatory certainty, redirect development to less environmentally sensitive areas and be consistent with the best available wetlands science.
“Every presidential administration has kind of redefined the scope of the 404 program,” he said. “And that’s not good for regulated entities; it’s not good for the natural environment. It just makes everything more complicated. So, one of the goals is to just set a standard and decide that Colorado knows what’s best for Colorado waters.”
This story, a collaboration of Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism, is part of a series that examines the intersection of water and urban landscapes in Colorado.
by Allen Best
Heather Brubaker had a sprawling yard of Kentucky bluegrass at her home in Longmont. Mowing the turf took her more than two hours. During summer, her monthly water bill jumped to $400.
To what good purpose, she asked herself. “It’s not really doing anything for anybody. And the grass is not native to Colorado,” she said.
Three years later, the lot at the corner of a cul-de-sac has not shrunk. Most of it remains in grass. But in increments, Brubaker has started replacing the thirsty turf with waterwise landscaping, also called xeriscaping or Coloradoscaping.
Cactuses and rocks do not define this new front yard. Colorado’s Front Range has a semiarid climate, but it’s not in the Mojave Desert. The result has spurred Brubaker’s neighbors to inquire as to her landscaper. “I tell them that my children and I have done most of the work,” she said.
Brubaker’s front yard is part of a broad and accelerating shift in Colorado’s towns and cities. Many homeowners and some businesses have started replacing lawns of Kentucky bluegrass and other varieties of thirsty cool-weather turf with vegetation that needs less water.
Outdoor water use constitutes roughly half of the water used in Colorado’s towns and cities. Many water utilities have offered rebates for these water-saving landscape shifts, reasoning that more-efficient use of existing water supplies will be far cheaper than development of new sources to meet growing populations. This reduced demand can also insulate them from the extremes posed by a changing climate.
Kentucky bluegrass and other cool-weather grasses are imports from wetter climates. Philadelphia, for example, gets 44 inches of annual precipitation. Even Oklahoma City gets 36 inches. Denver averages 15.6 inches. Bluegrass requires between 24 and 29 inches of water in the metropolitan area. Waterwise landscapes can reduce outdoor water use by half and, depending upon choices, even more.
Change, however, can be hard. There’s the sod itself. Once established, it is very difficult to remove. For most homeowners, that’s the most arduous task in a landscape conversion. Deciding what to plant in place of the thirsty grass can also be perplexing.
Brubaker started in 2021 with a narrow 100-square-foot strip along her front porch. She had volunteered for research being conducted by a team from Colorado State University that wanted to see how well pollinator-attracting plants would grow along the dripline of her front porch without supplemental irrigation. She now has many more buzzing visitors.
Emboldened by that success, Brubaker then applied for grants offered through Longmont’s municipal water provider. In two sequences, each involving sod removal and then plantings, she replaced other and larger portions of her front yard. The new section will need only half the water of before. She also created a place for whiling away languid summer evenings around a fire pit.
After rebates, she has spent $1,500, which will be recouped in time with reduced water bills.
Crucial to the success of Brubaker’s transformation was Boulder-based Resource Central. Spawned by the 2002 drought, the nonprofit’s first and still most popular program is called Garden In A Box. Designed with the aid of landscape architects, these do-it-yourself kits include quart-size perennial plants, plant-by-number maps, suggestions for seasonal maintenance and recommendations for water.
You want variety? This program has it. Consumers have at least six choices based on preferences for colors, full sun or shade, and whether attracting pollinators is a goal. Each box also delivers instructions about spacing and soils. Too sandy? Too much clay? How can it best be amended? Orders are made in March for May and June plantings, and again in June for August and September plantings.
“Everything a person needs to get started is included in their packaging, and it’s laid out very simply about what plants to put together and how to maintain them,” said Brubaker. “If you’re a novice, you can still do it easily with all the education that they put into the Garden In A Box program. It really made me want to try it.”
Making it easy to conserve
Neal Lurie, executive director of Resource Central, said the nonprofit seeks to meet people where they are. Often, they are pressed for time and not fully knowledgeable. Learning about how to transform landscapes can be overwhelming.
“If you make it easy to conserve water, they will do it,” he said. “If you make it really difficult, then they will come back to it when they have time. That is the reason that so many people continue with their current landscaping year after year. It takes time to make changes.”
Resource Central this year expanded Garden in a Box offerings by 30% — and still sold out in just four weeks. This year, the nonprofit distributed 13,000 boxes while working with 47 municipal and other partners for its various programs from Fort Collins to Pueblo. It secures its plants from local nurseries who agree to grow the sets without aid of chemicals that will harm pollinators.
Those ordering can pick up their choices at central distribution locations. For example, volunteers and staff quickly delivered the boxes to cars and pickups that made their way through a queue in the parking lot of the Westminster Municipal Building on a Saturday in August. Customers arrived when they wished. Waits at fast-food restaurants are often longer.
Turf removal is among Resource Central’s newer programs, a result of focus-group research that in 2019 found it was a key reason that even more people didn’t convert their lawns. Sod can be removed in several ways. All have challenges or difficult choices.
Convinced this was a needed service, Resource Central reached out to more than 30 landscape firms but found no potential partner. “The reason is that landscape service companies are in the business of mowing lawns, not removing lawns,” said Lurie.
Undeterred, Resource Central launched the service and this year removed 600 lawns, among them the plot at Brubaker’s house. This relieves homeowners of the hard part, leaving them with the fun of planting and creating. The removed turf is composted by A1 Organics and other companies.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board in September awarded Resource Central $1.6 million for turf replacement and removal. The two overlapping grants were the largest for water conservation ever awarded by the state agency. The terms require Resource Central to expand its water-conservation programs to new participants and communities. The Western Slope is one of the targeted regions.
“Our vision is to help make beautiful waterwise yards the new norm in Colorado,” said Lurie.
In many ways, Brubaker is typical of those wanting to shift their landscapes in that she hopes to be part of the answer to the West’s water limits. “I know we have a water crisis, and we have to conserve water,” Brubaker said.
She also wanted to provide “places for the bees.” In that, she has much company. Concern about pollinators ranks third among motivations for Resource Central customers, up from seventh a few years ago. Native vegetation does that.
Once established, maintenance of native grasses can be far easier. Other low-water landscapes, though, can still require considerable work.
There’s also this: The goal of a lawn is to grow something that, once harvested, is promptly thrown away. To some, that amounts to silly.
Attracting pollinators and reducing water use motivated Lois Witte. A retired water attorney, she decided last year that with her kids on their own, it was time to replace plants in her front yard with plants mostly native to the region.
Plant species with flowers from elsewhere, such as the East Coast or Europe, may attract bees and insects, said Witte. But plants native to the region will attract far more insects. After all, they evolved together.
To kill the grass, she and her husband, Scot Kersgaard, began in the late summer of 2022 using what is called a lasagna method. First came cardboard, then wood chips, followed by horse manure that a friend with a barn full of it was only too happy to share. On top of that were more wood chips, then dirt and pea-size gravel, called squeegee. Nine months of this method killed the grass — but not the bindweed.
By late this past summer, Witte’s work was enough to spur praise from neighbors out for evening walks. Little water will be needed once the new plants are established. Until then, however, they can take more water.
So, what spurred Witte and her husband? “In general, it’s a good idea, living in a semiarid environment,” she said of low-water landscapes. “We shouldn’t just be throwing water on the ground.”
When chaos can be good
In south Denver during August, a street corner proved to be an ideal place to meet women — and a few men, too — who loved talking about birds and bees. They were on a tour organized by the Front Range chapter of the Wild Ones, a national organization devoted to the transformation of outdoor places to habitats for native species.
“We’re not going to save the world, but we’re going to do our part,” said Vicki Saragoussi Phillips. After she and her husband, Rick Phillips, began converting their Kentucky bluegrass lawn, water use dropped from 45,000 gallons a month to 15,000. They expect even less water use once the garden becomes fully established.
Vicki described her yard as a place of chaos. Vegetative chaos, she believes, is good. Most front yards in their upper middle-class neighborhood, near South Colorado Boulevard and Interstate 25, suggested a different aesthetic. They were deep green, possibly the result of chemical treatments. They were also mowed with the care that a shirt might be pressed to eliminate wrinkles.
A young woman from the neighborhood, pushing her baby in a stroller, confided to the couple that when she rounded the corner to see their yard, she felt liberated.
Resource Central classifies most of its customers as early adopters. The nonprofit hopes to see their enthusiasm for alternative landscapes expand to create a paradigm shift. And if that helps save water — well, so much the better.
“Just say no to lawns and exotics,” Leslie Klusmire said in response to a Facebook post. She lives in Monte Vista, where she now has a yard in its third year of restoration to native plants. If some neighbors were skeptical about the weeds of spring, later they were admiring her wildflowers.
“If you look at my meadow now, it’s alive,” she said in early October. “It’s full of butterflies and bees and everything. That’s the point, to create an environment for everything.”
This is not new for Klusmire. Her father, a landscaper for Caltrans, the transportation agency in California, talked frequently about how imported grasses wasted water. Studying landscape architecture at Cal Poly Pomona in the 1970s, Klusmire got the same message.
For many homeowners, finding a contractor can be a challenge. It was for Lakewood resident Rebecca Cantwell.
Cantwell grew up in Denver during the 1950s, a time of drought that resulted in Denver Water going forward with its boring of the Roberts Tunnel and the damming of the Blue River, creating Lake Dillon. Denver supplies water to Lakewood, a city of 157,000, and about half of that water comes from the Blue and other Colorado River tributaries.
“The crisis in the Colorado River is waking up a lot of people, but our long-held assumption that everyone deserves a bluegrass lawn is just not really OK anymore,” she said.
Cantwell knew she didn’t want rock and juniper bushes to replace the grass. “That’s a false choice,” she said. “I wanted something beautiful.”
She finally found a landscape contractor to execute her vision, but it took awhile.
In another part of the metropolitan area, professional landscaper Kevin Cox has been eager to help homeowners and businesses shift to what he calls “sustainable landscaping.” That generally involves eliminating all cool-weather, high-water turfs except in areas where specifically needed.
His company, Centennial-based Professional Landscape Services, has a dozen large commercial clients, a few dozen medium to smaller commercial accounts, and 80 to 90 residential homes across the metro area, including Castle Rock, Aurora and Denver.
Mowing bluegrass is part of what Cox’s company does. But he also suggests landscape alternatives. When he does, he sometimes gets pushback.
“Everyone still wants their green grass. They say, ‘I don’t want it to look like Arizona.’ I’ve heard that a thousand times,” said Cox. “The other thing I hear is the amount of money it costs to rip out grass. They say, ‘That buys a lot of water.’”
Pay now or pay later, Cox tells them. Water will only get more expensive over time.
Beyond money, Cox sees what he calls low-water landscapes being the moral high road. “It just starts with ethics. Water is a finite resource,” he said.
Although a good case can be made for keeping some cool-weather grasses, such as for ball fields and places where toddlers play, Cox finds much of it wasteful.
“I mean, some of this grass nobody even looks at. We’re the only ones that look at it. It’s just there for us to mow, especially in some of these people’s backyards. They’re not even there half the year.”
The best way for Front Range cities such as those where his customers live, Cox said, is to do it right the first time. When new homes and business parks are developed, they should create landscapes that use less water. Led by Aurora and Castle Rock, more jurisdictions are deciding that it’s better to get it right first instead of correcting later. And in early 2024, legislators are almost certain to hear a bill that would make that state policy.
Next in this series: Aurora, Castle Rock and other municipalities in Colorado have aggressively limited new water-thirsty turf. Should the state have a broader role? Legislators in January will take up a bill that would impose restrictions on new water-thirsty turf everywhere. Expect a lively debate about state vs. local control.
…when it finally freezes, [Ruedi Reservoir’s] surface becomes an ephemeral world all to itself. Al Beyer, an Old Snowmass-based architect who has been skating Ruedi’s winter surface since the 1990s, sees the ice as dynamic and complicated. Beyer said a person can even notice the ice forming its own kind of tectonic plates, which press and warp one another in a slow drama.
“It has tension and compression to it,” Beyer said.
The lake chatters, whistles and peals as vibrations run for miles across the lake. The sound of the ice is almost entirely unique — something between the sound of wind against high-tension bridge cables and a whale’s song.
“The whole thing starts moving and creaking with these really crazy sounds when you’re out on it. It’s a sound show,” Beyer said.
“At the Department of the Interior, I believe we have a unique opportunity to make our communities more resilient to climate change and to help lead the transition to a clean energy economy.” — Secretary Deb Haaland
President Biden’s Investing in America agenda is delivering historic resources to make communities more resilient to climate change. Combined, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act represent the largest investments in climate resilience in the nation’s history and provide unprecedented resources to support the Administration’s comprehensive, all-of-government approach.
As the climate crisis disproportionately affects underserved communities, the Department of the Interior is supporting the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to tackle the climate crisis and put environmental justice at the center of its mission. Because decision-making often overlooks the disparate and cumulative impacts of the climate crisis on Black and brown communities, we are charting a new and better course —listening and learning from affected communities — as part of a whole-of-government approach to address the climate crisis.
In doing so, we are working to build a modern, resilient climate infrastructure and clean energy future that will create millions of good-paying union jobs, while protecting the communities, natural, and cultural resources on which we rely.
The Climate Action Plan demonstrates the Interior Department’s commitment to use science as the foundation for decisions, recognizing that the Department’s approach to adaptation should evolve as science informs an understanding of climate change risks, impacts, and vulnerabilities.
November 7, 2023: In what’s been described as “the largest aquatic habitat connectivity project ever undertaken in state history,” crews successfully tested the new Colorado River Connectivity Channel (CRCC) at the end of October. The new channel around Windy Gap Reservoir hydrologically and ecologically now reconnects two segments of the Colorado River for the first time in approximately 40 years.
Northern Water staff were joined by Grand County officials, Windy Gap Project Participant Representatives, Colorado Parks and Wildlife representatives and others to watch the first flows go through the long-awaited channel. This new video captures the historic day and includes comments from the project participants and stakeholders who were present to witness the occasion.
While water is now running through the new channel, there is still construction work to be done. Crews will continue putting the finishing touches on the project’s new dam embankment, diversion structure and other elements before winter weather brings activity to a stop in the upcoming weeks. Construction is expected to resume
next spring and wrap up later in 2024. Vegetation establishment along the channel will continue into 2025 and 2026, before the area is anticipated to open for public recreation in 2027.
The new channel will enable fish and other wildlife to move freely upstream and downstream around what is now a smaller Windy Gap Reservoir. Meanwhile, the reservoir will continue providing a diversion point on the Colorado River for the Windy Gap Project during the high flows of spring and early summer.
The CRCC is part of a package of environmental measures, valued at $90 million, associated with construction of Chimney Hollow Reservoir, which is ultimately where Windy Gap Project water will be stored once reservoir construction is completed.
A wet summer 2022 was followed by a wet winter/spring. But summer 2023’s monsoon was underwhelming. 5.6% of the Basin was in drought on July 18, 2023. It’s increased almost every week since to 39.1%. https://drought.gov/watersheds/colorado…
On Tuesday, the town trustees approved a 5% annual rate hike for 2024-2028 that would cost the average ratepayer and extra $5.37 per month in winter and $12.45 in summer, when more water is used to water lawns. New rates will go into effect Jan. 1. Trustees also approved an increase in capital investment fees paid by developers from $10,437 for water and $9,742 for wastewater per single-family home to $10,959 and $10,229, respectively. The 2024 base water rate will go from $49.71 to $52.20 and the usage rate will go from $11.70 to $12.29 for the use of 4,000 to 7,000 gallons.
This is not a new problem for Wellington, which raised water rates and impact fees in 2020 to pay for an expansion of its water and wastewater treatment plants, imposed water restrictions and limited new residential building permits until the expansions are complete. Once the water and wastewater treatment plant expansions are completed, they should accommodate additional growth for 20 to 30 years, which would generate more building and tap fees, allowing the water and wastewater funds to show a profit.
Currently, however, the water fund will be in a $593,000 hole in 2026 and the sewer fund $700,000 short…Trustees also approved transferring the maximum amount from the general fund to the water and wastewater enterprise funds to reduce the impact to residents. Enterprise funds may only receive up to 10% of the revenue received in the fund from taxpayer transfers through the general fund under the Colorado Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, known as TABOR. The total transfer will reduce the general fund by $935,000 in 2023 and an estimated $1.06 million in 2024.
This U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) week saw some minor expansion of drought across areas of the West (Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming) and Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Missouri), while conditions improved on the map in drought-affected areas of the South (Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas), Southeast (Alabama, Carolinas, Florida, Virginia), Northeast (Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania), High Plains (Kansas), and the West (Montana, New Mexico). For the week, cooler-than-normal temperatures prevailed across most of the conterminous U.S. with the largest departures observed across areas of the Intermountain West, central and southern Plains, and Texas where temperatures were 6 to 10 degrees below normal. In terms of precipitation, light to heavy snowfall accumulations (2 to 36 inches) were observed across areas of the central and southern Plains, Upper Midwest, and the Northeast with the heaviest accumulations falling in the Northeast. In areas of the South, Southeast, and Mid-Atlantic, light to heavy precipitation accumulations (1 to 4 inches) were observed leading to targeted improvements in drought-affected areas on the map. Out West, moderate to heavy snowfall accumulations were observed in the mountain ranges of central Utah and western Colorado as well as in northern portions of Arizona and New Mexico. The heaviest accumulations (up to 36 inches) were observed in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. Overall, early-season snowpack conditions across the West have been below normal apart from some drainage basins (6-digit HUCs) in the Great Basin, Lower Colorado, and Rio Grande basins. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) SNOTEL network (11/28), region-wide (2-digit HUCs) percent of median snow water equivalent (SWE) levels were as follows: Pacific Northwest 53%, Missouri 62%, California 39%, Great Basin 62%, Upper Colorado 59%, Lower Colorado 100%, Rio Grande 53%, and Arkansas-White-Red 55%. In the Hawaiian Islands, locally heavy showers and thunderstorms associated with an ongoing Kona Low system are bringing much-needed moisture to drought-affected areas of the island chain this week…
On this week’s map, some minor improvements were made in areas of Kansas in response to improving conditions during the past 30-60 days, including beneficial snowfall observed over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Elsewhere, degradations were made in areas of eastern Colorado where drier-than-normal conditions have prevailed during the past 30-60-day period. In the Dakotas, conditions on the map remained status quo. In terms of snowpack conditions, the NWS NOHRSC reports the Upper Midwest Region (which includes the Dakotas and eastern portions of Montana) is currently 3.1% covered by snow as compared to 66.3% last month. Average temperatures for the week were below normal (2 to 8 degrees F) with the greatest departures observed in the plains of Colorado and Wyoming as well as in Kansas…
On the map, improvements were made across areas of the Southwest and Pacific Northwest including New Mexico, Oregon, and Montana. In northern New Mexico, areas of Extreme Drought (D3) were reduced in response to recent precipitation (past 14-day period) including high-elevation snowfall in the Nacimiento and Sangre de Cristo ranges. In Montana, a mix of improvements and degradations were made on this week’s map, including the removal of an area of Moderate Drought (D1) in north-central Montana where conditions have improved across various metrics during the past 60-day period. In northeastern Oregon, areas of Moderate Drought (D1) were trimmed back around the Blue Mountains where Water-Year-to-Date precipitation (10/1) has been above normal. In south-central Colorado, areas of Severe (D2) and Extreme (D3) drought expanded slightly in areas where month-to-date precipitation has been well below normal. Overall, the West has gotten off to a slow start in terms of snowpack conditions across the region except for some basins in the southern tier of the region. In California, the California Cooperative Snow Surveys reports statewide snowpack conditions at 30% of normal for the date (11/29). For the week, average temperatures were below normal across most of the region with areas of the Intermountain West experiencing departures ranging from 4 to 10 degrees F below normal…
In the South, precipitation during the past 14-day period led to improvements on the map in isolated areas of Mississippi, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Texas. However, significant precipitation deficits remain across areas of the region including along the Gulf Coast regions of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi where 6-month shortfalls range from 8 to 20+ inches. According to the latest U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) Weekly Weather and Crop Progress Bulletin (11/26), the percentage of topsoil in Louisiana rated short to very short was 72%, while neighboring Mississippi was rated 66% short to very short. In Texas, statewide reservoir conditions were at 68% full (11/29), according to Water Data for Texas. Moreover, the best reservoir conditions (% full) were observed in the East Texas (86.6%), North Central (84.1%), and Upper Coast (84.9%) climate regions while the poorest conditions were reported in the South (21%), Edwards Plateau (31.1%), and High Plains (36.9%) regions. Looking at streamflow conditions in Louisiana and Mississippi, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is reporting numerous streams and rivers with flows below the 10th percentile (11/29). In terms of drought-related impacts during the past 30 days, there has been a significant decline in the number of impact reports coming into the NDMC CMOR system…
The NWS Weather Prediction Center (WPC) 7-Day Quantitative Precipitation Forecast (QPF) calls for moderate-to-heavy precipitation accumulations (including heavy snowfall) ranging from 3 to 10+ inches (liquid) across the Olympic Mountains, Cascades of Oregon and Washington, Klamath Mountains, and Coast Ranges of northwestern California. Further inland, lesser accumulations (1 to 3 inches liquid) are expected in areas of the Northern Rockies, northern Great Basin, and ranges of the Intermountain West. In the South and Southeast, moderate to heavy rainfall accumulations (2 to 5 inches) are forecasted while light accumulations (generally <1 inch) are expected in eastern portions of the southern Plains, Lower Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and the Northeast. The NWS Climate Prediction Center (CPC) 6-10 Day Outlooks call for a moderate-to-high probability of above-normal temperatures across the western two-thirds of the conterminous U.S. in an area extending from the Midwest to the West Coast, while near-normal temperatures are expected across most of the eastern tier. Conversely, below-normal temperatures are expected across Florida. In terms of precipitation, below-normal precipitation is expected across much of the southern tier of the conterminous U.S. as well as the central and southern Plains, lower Great Basin, and the central and southern Rockies. Meanwhile, above-normal precipitation is forecasted for the Pacific Northwest, northern California, northern Great Basin, northern Rockies, Mid-Atlantic, and the Northeast.
Myriad proposals to tap lithium deposits in southeastern Utah are progressing from the conceptual to the exploratory phases. But they are running up against a familiar obstacle in these arid parts: concern about how the projects might affect diminishing water supplies in the Colorado River Basin.
Lithium is the primary ingredient in lithium-ion batteries, which power everything from cell phones to electric vehicles to grid-scale energy storage. Demand for the stuff has shot up tremendously over the last decade, which has also elevated prices. That, in turn, has sparked interest in developing a domestic lithium industry, with projects sprouting in Nevada, at the Salton Sea and Great Salt Lake, in southern New Mexico, and in the Paradox Formation in the Four Corners Country.
The Paradox Formation (or Basin), stretching from the northwestern edge of the San Juan Basin up to the town of Green River, Utah, contains oodles of lithium (along with potash and bromide and so on). That’s because some 300 million years ago a sea covered the area, then evaporated, then flooded the area, then evaporated, repeating this cycle about 29 times over the course of 15 million years. The process left behind thick deposits of salts and other materials. Over the ensuing millennia, rock piled up atop the salt, squeezing it into fault lines, where the salt was pushed up into domes that shaped the overlying landscape. Those salt deposits contain lithium.
Companies have poked around in the Paradox Formation in search of potash for years. Now they’re going after lithium in a big way, with several firms staking claims in the Lisbon Valley and beyond.
Anson Resources’ Paradox and Green River Projects are probably the furthest along (if investor presentations are to be believed). The Australian company and its subsidiaries — A1 Lithium, Blackstone Minerals, and Blackstone Resources — have been staking claims fervently among the sandstone formations northwest of Moab between the Green and Colorado Rivers over the last several years, amassing more than 1,000 federal mining claims. They also acquired private land surrounding the Department of Energy’s uranium tailings disposal site on the southern edge of the town of Green River as well as securing leases on Utah state land.
Conventional lithium operations pump mineral-filled water to the surface, put it in shallow ponds, and allow the water to evaporate, concentrating the lithium and associated materials. Potash is extracted like this, as well — a complex of potash evaporation ponds near Moab have gone viral as instagram targets due to their vivid colors. This method not only requires a lot of land for the ponds, but also is water-intensive, with as much as 200,000 gallons of water evaporating for each ton of material produced. Plus, the process can produce a lot of waste and takes a long time.
Anson plans a different approach. They say they will partner with China-based Sunresin and use that firm’s patented direct lithium extraction, or DLE, method. Anson would drill a well (or redrill an old oil and gas well), pump the brine to the surface, and use resin beads to extract the lithium from the water, without evaporation ponds. After the lithium is extracted, the water is injected back underground. That, in theory, makes it a non-consumptive use of the water, meaning it shouldn’t have as much of an effect on water supplies.
But direct lithium extraction is a largely unproven technology, and it’s not clear that it will work in the Paradox Basin. The technique may require fresh water to be injected into the lithium deposits before pumping it to the surface, since the minerals may not be adequately saturated. In the 1950s and 1960s, a couple of facilities in Moab pumped up brine for use in the Atlas uranium mill; they had to pump fresh water into the subterranean salt beds, first, in order to dissolve the salts. Plus, any time you drill deep into the earth and remove or inject water, you’re potentially screwing with the hydrology — and even the geology.
This has been shown in the oil and gas fields, where “produced water,” or wastewater left over from the drilling and extraction process, is often reinjected deep underground. The process has induced seismic activity, or triggered earthquakes, in the Permian Basin and elsewhere. During the coalbed methane drilling boom in the San Juan Basin in the 1990s, all sorts of weirdness occurred, from methane flowing from water taps to a freshwater spring suddenly becoming hotter — all likely the result of pumping billions of gallons of water from the coal beds to “liberate” the methane, and then shooting it back into the ground. And in the Paradox Basin, a project that captures salt before it can enter the Dolores River and then injects it 16,000 feet underground (to keep Colorado River salinity levels in check) also triggered tremors in western Colorado.
In other words, while direct lithium extraction could be a “game changer” for the industry, making it feasible to commercially extract lithium from geothermal brines under the Salton Sea, for example, many unknowns remain about the technology in general and this proposal specifically.
What we do know is that Anson is looking to secure a bunch of water for its operations. Their water right applications seek:
19 cfs (13,755 acre-feet or 4.5 billion gallons per year) from wells located on Utah state land north of Dead Horse Point state park. The brine presumably would then be piped to a processing plant near the Colorado River, the lithium would be extracted, and the wastewater injected back underground. Intrepid Potash, the National Park Service, and a coalition of environmental groups protested the application, in part for its lack of detail and because, well, there really isn’t any extra water available.
Another 19 cfs from several 8,000- to 9,000-foot deep wells on the south end of Green River adjacent to the uranium tailings depository. After extracting the lithium from a plant on this property, they would inject the wastewater into 5,000- to 7,000-foot deep wells. The Bureau of Reclamation protested this application because of its close proximity to the Green River and the potential to affect surface water supplies and quality. They also worry about direct lithium extraction, writing: “Data shows the success of DLE is hard to predict, consumes both freshwater and brine water, contaminates aquifers, reduces the groundwater table, hurts wildlife, worsens soil conditions …” Ooof.
And they leased 2,500 acre-feet (814 million gallons) per year from the Wayne County Water Conservancy District. This water may be used for processing, but it’s not clear where, yet. Anson has indicated it could have processing facilities in Green River and on the Colorado River below Moab, neither of which is near Wayne County (home of Hanksville). Perhaps they also plan on having a processing plant there.
The water rights applications are still pending.
For more information, check out John Weisheit’s post for FarCountry.org, the website of the Canyonlands Watershed Council.
Click the link to read the article on the USFS website (Randy Moore):
November 24, 2023: In January 2022, we launched our Wildfire Crisis Strategy. This strategy provided a vision for what it will take to meaningfully change how people, communities and natural resources experience risk from wildfire. Its implementation to this point has been funded by the historic down payments Congress made through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act.
I’m pleased to report that we have made significant progress in implementing this daring and critical strategy.
We are focusing our initial efforts on the 250 highest risk firesheds in the West, which account for roughly 80% of the wildfire risk to communities. Our employees and partners have now collectively treated more than 1 million acres within the 21 Wildfire Crisis Strategy priority landscapes. This initial accomplishment is commendable, and I am incredibly proud of our agency. It has come as result of tremendous effort from thousands of employees across all parts of the agency. Our diligent work to reduce hazardous fuels and restore forest health in these landscapes directly translates to mitigating wildfire risk for 550 communities, 2,500 miles of power lines and 1,800 watersheds. In addition, we were able to exceed our national 4-million-acre fuels reduction target, including a record 1.9 million acres treated with prescribed fire. Going into this year, we know we must keep our focus and build upon this accomplishment. With more than 19 million acres still left to treat, this year we plan to exceed last year’s accomplishments as we realize the capacity we built throughout the past year.
This includes efforts by 148 unique partner organizations, including tribal nations, state agencies, non-government organizations, and finance and industry partners. Programs like the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program and Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership helped bolster these efforts in and around high-risk firesheds.
As you know, the number of acres treated represents just one piece of the larger effort to confront the wildfire crisis. We are assisting at-risk communities with planning for and mitigating wildfire risk through the new Community Wildfire Defense Grant Program. This year alone we’ve invested $197 million of Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding into projects spanning 22 states and seven tribes. In June, we invested more than $43 million in 123 projects nationwide through the Community Wood Grants Program and Wood Innovations Grant Program. These investments will directly support the strategy to reduce risk in the places where it poses the most immediate threats to communities.
While we strive to limit the severity of future wildfires, another agency priority is reforesting areas after our past wildfires. These two priorities go hand in hand—reducing risk of future wildfires and restoring areas impacted by the historic wildfires over the past years. We have identified 4 million acres of National Forest System lands in potential need of reforestation, which is key to long-term forest recovery and mitigating the effects of climate change. While this need is largely caused by wildfires, additional reforestation needs have also been created by insect infestations, diseases and drought.
To address this reforestation backlog, we released the National Forest System Reforestation Strategy in July 2022. This strategy outlines the goals and objectives that are necessary for successful reforestation, including robust framework to increase the pace and scale of reforestation, address existing needs, anticipate future events and meet the requirements of the Repairing Existing Public Land by Adding Necessary Trees, or REPLANT, Act of 2021.
Accomplishing this work has taken the dedication, time and energy of employees like you. It has required each of us to work in new ways. We have experienced growing pains and challenges, but we are already seeing meaningful results. I want to extend my sincere thanks and gratitude to all of you who have contributed to these efforts. You are making a difference for the American public whom we serve and the natural resources we manage.
We know that fully achieving the vision laid out by the Wildfire Crisis Strategy will require further investments and that those investments need to be sustained. In the coming years, continued funding will allow us to build upon the work we’ve already accomplished. We will continue ramping up the pace and scale of our hazardous fuel reduction and forest management treatments to confront the crisis, using every tool and authority at our disposal and growing the list of partners we work with.
Our goal is a great challenge, but one I know our agency and partners are up for.
Editor’s Note: Provide feedback about this column, submit questions or suggest topics for future columns through the FS-Employee Feedback inbox.
January–October 2023 ranked as the warmest such period on record, and there is a greater than 99% chance that 2023 will be the warmest year in NOAA’s 174-year record.
For the seventh consecutive month, global ocean surface temperature set a record high. Antarctica had its sixth consecutive month with the lowest sea ice extent on record.
Fifteen named storms occurred across the globe in October, which was above the 1991–2020 average of 12.
Globally, October 2023 was the warmest October in the 174-year NOAA record. The year-to-date (January–October) global surface temperature ranked as the warmest such period on record. October 2023 marked the fifth consecutive month of record-warm global temperatures. According to NCEI’s Global Annual Temperature Outlook and data through October, there is a greater than 99% probability that 2023 will rank as the warmest year on record.
This monthly summary, developed by scientists at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, is part of the suite of climate services NOAA provides to government, business, academia and the public to support informed decision-making.
Monthly Global Temperature
The October global surface temperature was 2.41°F (1.34°C) above the 20th-century average of 57.1°F (14.0°C) and ranks as the warmest October in NOAA’s 174-year record. This was 0.43°F (0.24°C) above the previous record from October 2015. October 2023 marked the 47th consecutive October and the 536th consecutive month with temperatures above the 20th-century average. The past 10 Octobers (2014–2023) have been the warmest Octobers on record.
South America and Asia had their warmest Octobers on record. North America, Africa and Europe each had their second-warmest Octobers, while October in Oceania ranked 15th warmest on record. October in the Arctic ranked fifth warmest while the Antarctic region had its sixth-coldest October on record. For the seventh consecutive month, global ocean surface temperature set a record high.
Temperatures were above average throughout most of North America, South America, western, southern and eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Arctic. Parts of Central and South America, Africa, Europe, northeastern North America and central Asia experienced record-warm temperatures this month. Sea surface temperatures were above average across much of the northern, western and southwestern Pacific as well as the northern Atlantic and the Indian Oceans. Record-warm temperatures covered nearly 11% of the world’s surface this October, which was the highest percentage for October since the start of records in 1951.
Temperatures were near to cooler than average across parts of Antarctica, southern South America, north-central North America, the Nordic countries, Greenland and northern Oceania. Sea surface temperatures were near to below average over parts of the southeastern Pacific Ocean, the eastern Indian Ocean and the southern Atlantic Ocean. Less than 1% of the world’s surface had a record-cold October.
Snow Cover and Sea Ice Extent
October 2023 set a record for the lowest global October sea ice extent on record. This primarily resulted from record-low sea ice extent in the Antarctic, which saw its sixth consecutive month with the lowest sea ice extent on record. Globally, October 2023 sea ice extent was 380,000 square miles less than the previous record low from October 2016.
The Arctic sea ice extent for October 2023 ranked as the seventh smallest in the satellite record at 2.46 million square miles, or 430,000 square miles below the 1991–2020 average. October sea ice extent in the Antarctic ranked lowest on record at 6.25 million square miles, which was 780,000 square miles below the 1991–2020 average. Eight of the first 10 months in 2023 have seen Antarctic sea ice extent at record-breaking low levels.
According to data from NOAA and analysis by the Rutgers Global Snow Lab, the Northern Hemisphere snow cover extent during October was 170,000 square miles below the 1991–2020 average. This ranks as a near-average Northern Hemisphere snow cover extent for October. Extent was slightly below average in both North America and Eurasia.
In general, rainfall anomaly patterns followed the current El Niño and Indian Ocean Dipole patterns, ranging from floods in eastern Africa to drought in Central and South America. Above-average precipitation in Europe somewhat alleviated drought conditions in the region, with floods affecting Italy and the United Kingdom. The mean global precipitation for this October set the record for this month with a value 6% above the long-term average, and the intensity of the global Intertropical Convergence Zone also set a record for October due to global warming and current El Niño conditions.
Global Tropical Cyclones
Across the globe in October, 15 named storms occurred, which was above the 1991–2020 average of 12. Nine of those reached tropical cyclone strength (≥74 mph), and seven reached major tropical cyclone strength (≥111 mph). Super Typhoon Bolaven in the West Pacific and Hurricane Otis in the East Pacific both reached Category 5 strength (≥157 mph). The global accumulated cyclone energy, which is an integrated metric of the strength, frequency, and duration of tropical storms, was about 34% above the 1991-2020 average for October.
Four recently announced federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law grants for water projects in the region all included one notable common denominator — they all got help in their application process through a special Colorado River District program made possible by a voter-approved tax measure in 2020…According to a news release from the Colorado River District, based in Glenwood Springs, four of the projects are in the district’s boundaries, and all four made use of the district’s Accelerator Grant program, which was established last year to help West Slope water users in navigating the time-consuming and often-expensive requirements for applying for the considerable funding available under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The assistance includes helping pay for feasibility analysis, design, preliminary environmental review and engineering costs. Altogether, through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Bureau of Reclamation is investing a total of $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects…
■ $746,423 to the Middle Colorado Watershed Council, which in partnership with Garfield County plans to install a fish barrier to prevent non-native fish migration, and upgrade a diversion structure, on Roan Creek outside De Beque.
■ Nearly $1.2 million to American Rivers, which, working with partners, plans to upgrade irrigation infrastructure and enhance aquatic and riparian habitats along a mile of the Uncompahgre River;
■ About $3 million to Trout Unlimited and the Middle Colorado River Agriculture Collaborative to upgrade, relocate or combine six diversion structures in order to remove instream barriers to fish passage along five miles of Elk Creek in the New Castle area.
■ Nearly $1.6 million to the Western Slope Conservation Center, which, in partnership with the North Fork Farmer’s Ditch Association, will modernize the Farmers Ditch diversion and headgate structures downstream of Paonia Reservoir to improve upstream fish passage, increase diversion efficiency and improve safety for boaters.
From email from the Arkansas River Compact Administration (Kevin Salter):
Click the links for the final notice and agenda for the upcoming Arkansas River Compact Administration Annual and Committee Meetings to be held on December 6thand 7th. Please note that the meeting dates and location were changed at the ARCA Annual Meeting held in December 2023. Also attached are the draft agendas for the ARCA committee and Annual meetings.
The ARCA Committee and Annual meetings will be held at the Jim Rizzuto Banquet Room, Otero College Student Center, 2001 San Juan Ave, La Junta, Colorado.
The 2023 Annual Meeting of the Arkansas River Compact Administration (ARCA) will be held on Thursday, December 7, 2023, commencing at 8:30 a.m. MST (9:30 a.m. CST). If necessary, the annual meeting may be recessed for lunch and reconvened for the completion of business in the afternoon. The public is invited to attend the Annual Meeting.
The Engineering, Operations, and Administrative/Legal Committees of ARCA will meet on Wednesday, December 6, 2023, starting at 2:00 p.m. MST (3:00 p.m. CST) and continuing to completion. The public is invited to attend the Committee meetings.
Meetings of ARCA are operated in compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. If you need a special accommodation as a result of a disability, please contact Stephanie Gonzales at (719) 688-0799 at least three days before the meeting.
The meeting announcement and draft agendas can be found on ARCA’s website:
If you have any questions please feel free to contact Andrew or myself.
Kevin Salter, Division of Water Resources, Kansas Department of Agriculture, 4532 W Jones Ave Suite B Garden City, KS 67846, Kevin.Salter@ks.gov, (620) 276 – 2901.
Andrew Rickert, Program Manager, Interstate, Federal, and Water Information Section, Colorado Water Conservation Board, P 303-866-3441 x 3249 | M 720-651-1918, 1313 Sherman St., Room 718, Denver, CO 80203, email@example.com.
November 15, 2023: A state commission that sets water quality standards in Colorado is declining for now to wade into a debate over murky water in Grand Lake.
The Colorado Water Quality Control Commission will instead continue to monitor concerns about the popular tourist destination as federal and state authorities pursue solutions, the commission said at its regularly scheduled meeting Monday.
The lake is considered a prime jewel in Colorado’s scenic landscapes. Located on the western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, it has been a tourist haven since the late 1800s.
But clarity deteriorated when the federal government began construction on the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, or C-BT, in the late 1930s.
The system gathers water from streams and rivers in Rocky Mountain National Park and Grand County, and stores it in Lake Granby and Shadow Mountain Reservoir.
From there it is eventually pumped up into Grand Lake and delivered under the Continental Divide via the Alva B. Adams Tunnel to Carter Lake and Horsetooth Reservoir on the Front Range to serve more than 1 million residents and hundreds of farms.
The pumping creates turbidity that clouds the lake during the resort area’s prime tourist season in the summer. Before the C-BT was built, the lake was clear to a depth of 9.2 meters, or roughly 30 feet. Now it is far less.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation plans to re-examine several options to fix the problem, including harvesting weeds and introducing aeration at Shadow Mountain, said Jeff Reiker, who manages the agency’s Eastern Colorado Area office. Reclamation owns the C-BT system, which is operated by Northern Water.
“We don’t have any major structural alternatives that have been identified as viable,” Rieker said. Some ideas considered previously involved things such as building a tunnel that would transport murky water from Shadow Mountain through Grand Lake, preventing the murkier water from mixing with Grand Lake’s.
“However, we are continuing our efforts to see if any structural alternatives need to be reconsidered. We want to focus on what can be done with our existing funding and authorities.”
The situation is complicated because it involves federal and state agencies, and any effort to redesign the massive system would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Early on locals had hoped the lake would be protected from damage caused by the project. A 1937 federal law, U.S. Senate Document 80, was approved in part to protect Grand Lake’s recreational and scenic values, and a 15-year-old state standard was designed to improve water clarity, setting a goal for clarity of 3.8 meters, or about 12.5 feet.
During the pumping process, algae and sediment from Shadow Mountain are carried into Grand Lake, clouding its formerly clear waters, causing algae blooms and weed growth, and harming recreation.
In 2008, the state water quality commission moved to set a clarity standard, but it has since been replaced with a clarity goal and the aim of achieving “the highest level of clarity attainable.”
Northern Water and others have implemented different management techniques, including changing pumping patterns, to find ways to improve water quality. In some years, Northern has been able to improve clarity, but not to historical levels.
The utility is getting better at managing clarity, meeting the 3.8-meter standard 50% of the time in recent years, up from 27% historically, said Esther Vincent, Northern Water’s manager of environmental services.
“We have made notable progress,” she said.
Grand Lake advocates did not object to the commission’s decision, but urged it to bolster efforts to improve water quality.
At the Nov. 14 Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) Board of Directors meeting, District Engineer/Manager Justin Ramsey announced that PAWSD received a $1 million grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) Energy/Mineral Impact Assistance Fund (EIAF) for construction on the Snowball Water Treatment Plant expansion. In an interview with The SUN, Ramsey explained that the grant funding will support the installation of “floating slabs” of concrete as part of the foundation for the expanded plant. He explained that the grant funding will help make up the gap be- tween the $38 million loan PAWSD acquired for the project and the final project cost of just over $40 million. PAWSD obtained “well over $6 million” in grants and principal forgiveness for the project in the last year, Ramsey highlighted.
The Farmers Union Canal and Headgate Improvement Project is going forward with a bump in funds from the Department of Interior. The multi-benefit project from the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project, in conjunction with the San Luis Valley Irrigation District and Colorado Rio Grande Restoration Foundation, will replace the diversion dam and headgates with new structures that divert water more efficiently and provide increased watershed health benefits, including improved fish and boat passage.
The old and ailing headgate, which bifurcates the Rio Grande into its north and south channels downstream of Del Norte, is in need of repairs. So a full replacement will be done instead. A new diversion dam and automated headgates will improve ditch operations, reduce maintenance, and protect and preserve the Farmers Union Canal’s full water rights in the future.
The diversion upgrade will provide safe boat passage and more efficiently deliver water to the Farmers Union Canal and Rio Grande #1 Ditch.
The new diversion dam will include fish and boat passage, connecting aquatic habitat and improving community safety. Adjacent streambank stabilization work will also be done along with the replacement of the headgate. This streambank work will protect the diversion infrastructure, reduce sedimentation in the river, improve water quality for downstream users, and enhance surrounding wildlife habitat. This work will include the installation of rock and root wad structures, along with streambed and aquatic habitat through improved sediment transport at the diversion structure.
By controlling flows into the North Channel, this irrigation infrastructure delivers water to the Farmers Union Canals’ 140 water users and nine other irrigation ditches, irrigating a combined 42,980 acres.
The Farmers Union Multi-Benefit Diversion Infrastructure Improvement Project was awarded a $1.27 million grant on Nov. 15 from the Department of Interior through the Bureau of Reclamation. Along with 30 other projects across 11 states, the funding is part of President Joe Biden’s Investing in America agenda. Colorado U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper wrote letters in support of the project.
The collaborative projects focus on water conservation, water management and restoration efforts that will result in significant benefits to ecosystem or watershed health.
“Adequate, resilient and safe water supplies are fundamental to the health, economy and security of every community in our nation,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. “The Interior Department is focused on ensuring that funding through President Biden’s Investing in America agenda is going to collaborative projects throughout the West that will benefit the American people.”
Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Bureau of Reclamation is investing a total of $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including rural water, water storage, conservation and conveyance, nature-based solutions, dam safety, water purification and reuse, and desalination. Over the first two years of its implementation, the Bureau of Reclamation selected 372 projects to receive almost $2.8 billion.
The WaterSMART program also advances the Justice40 Initiative, part of the Biden-Harris administration’s historic commitment to environmental justice, which aims to ensure 40 percent of the overall benefits of certain climate, clean energy, and other federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that have been marginalized by underinvestment and overburdened by pollution.
In the study, published in the journal Science, colleagues and I mapped how U.S. coal power plant emissions traveled through the atmosphere, then linked each power plant’s emissions with death records of Americans over 65 years old on Medicare.
Our results suggest that air pollutants released from coal power plants were associated with nearly half a million premature deaths of elderly Americans from 1999 to 2020.
It’s a staggering number, but the study also has good news: Annual deaths associated with U.S. coal power plants have fallen sharply since the mid-2000s as federal regulations compelled operators to install emissions scrubbers and many utilities shut down coal plants entirely.
In 1999, 55,000 deaths were attributable to coal air pollution in the U.S., according to our findings. By 2020, that number had fallen to 1,600.
In the U.S., coal is being displaced by natural gas and renewable energy for generating electricity. Globally, however, coal use is projected to increase in coming years. That makes our results all the more urgent for global decision-makers to understand as they develop future policies.
PM2.5 — particles small enough to be inhaled deep into our lungs — comes from several different sources, including gasoline combustion in vehicles and smoke from wood fires and power plants. It is made up of many different chemicals.
As a result, anyone downwind of a coal plant may be breathing a complex cocktail of chemicals, each with its own potential effects on human health.
Tracking coal PM2.5
To understand the risks coal emissions pose to human health, we tracked how sulfur dioxide emissions from each of the 480 largest U.S. coal power plants operating at any point since 1999 traveled with the wind and turned into tiny particles — coal PM2.5. We used sulfur dioxide because of its known health effects and drastic decreases in emissions over the study period.
We then used a statistical model to link coal PM2.5 exposure to Medicare records of nearly 70 million people from 1999 to 2020. This model allowed us to calculate the number of deaths associated with coal PM2.5.
In our statistical model, we controlled for other pollution sources and accounted for many other known risk factors, like smoking status, local meteorology and income level. We tested multiple statistical approaches that all yielded consistent results. We compared the results of our statistical model with previous results testing the health impacts of PM2.5 from other sources and found that PM2.5 from coal is twice as harmful as PM2.5 from all other sources.
The number of deaths associated with individual power plants depended on multiple factors — how much the plant emits, which way the wind blows and how many people breathe in the pollution. Unfortunately, U.S. utilities located many of their plants upwind of major population centers on the East Coast. This siting amplified these plants’ impacts.
In an interactive online tool, users can look up our estimates of annual deaths associated with each U.S. power plant and also see how those numbers have fallen over time at most U.S. coal plants.
Coal’s role in US electric power generation fell quickly Coal declined significantly as a U.S. source of electricity generation as natural gas and renewable energy increased over the past 15 years.
A U.S. success story and the global future of coal
Engineers have been designing effective scrubbers and other pollution-control devices that can reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants for several years. And the EPA has rules specifically to encourage utilities that used coal to install them, and most facilities that did not install scrubbers have shut down.
The results have been dramatic: Sulfur dioxide emissions decreased about 90% in facilities that reported installing scrubbers. Nationwide, sulfur dioxide emissions decreased 95% since 1999. According to our tally, deaths attributable to each facility that installed a scrubber or shut down decreased drastically.
Globally, however, the outlook for coal is mixed. While the U.S. and other nations are headed toward a future with substantially less coal, the International Energy Agency expects global coal use to increase through at least 2025.
Our study and others like it make clear that increases in coal use will harm human health and the climate. Making full use of emissions controls and a turn toward renewables are surefire ways to reduce coal’s negative impacts.
Lucas Henneman is an assistant professor of engineering at George Mason University. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
While the term may bring to mind the windswept sand dunes of the Sahara or the vast salt pans of the Kalahari, it’s an issue that reaches far beyond those living in and around the world’s deserts, threatening the food security and livelihoods of more than two billion people.
The combined impact of climate change, land mismanagement and unsustainable freshwater use has seen the world’s water-scarce regions increasingly degraded. This leaves their soils less able to support crops, livestock and wildlife.
In 1994, the UN established the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification(UNCCD) as the “sole legally binding international agreement linking environment and development to sustainable land management”. The Convention itself was a response to a callat the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to hold negotiations for an international legal agreement on desertification.
The UNCCD set out a definition of desertification in a treaty adopted by parties in 1994. It states that desertification means “land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities”.
So, rather than desertification meaning the literal expansion of deserts, it is a catch-all term for land degradation in water-scarce parts of the world. This degradation includes the temporary or permanent decline in quality of soil, vegetation, water resources or wildlife, for example. It also includes the deterioration of the economic productivity of the land – such as the ability to farm the land for commercial or subsistence purposes.
Arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas are known collectively as “drylands”. These are, unsurprisingly, areas that receive relatively little rain or snow each year. Technically, they are defined by the UNCCD as “areas other than polar and sub-polar regions, in which the ratio of annual precipitation to potential evapotranspiration falls within the range from 0.05 to 0.65”.
In simple terms, this means the amount of rainfall the area receives is between 5-65% of the water it has the potential to lose through evaporation and transpiration from the land surface and vegetation, respectively (assuming sufficient moisture is available). Any area that receives more than this is referred to as “humid”.
You can see this more clearly in the map below, where the world’s drylands are identified by different grades of orange and red shading. Drylands encompass around 38% of the Earth’s land area, covering much of North and southern Africa, western North America, Australia, the Middle East and Central Asia. Drylands are home to approximately 2.7 billion people (pdf) – 90% of whom live in developing countries.
Drylands are particularly susceptible to land degradation because of scarce and variable rainfall as well as poor soil fertility. But what does this degradation look like?
There are numerous ways in which the land can degrade. One of the main processes is erosion – the gradual breaking down and removal of rock and soil. This is typically through some force of nature – such as wind, rain and/or waves – but can be exacerbated by activities including ploughing, grazing or deforestation.
A loss of soil fertility is another form of degradation. This can be through a loss of nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, or a decline in the amount of organic matter in the soil. For example, soil erosion by water causes global losses of as much as 42m tonnes of nitrogen and 26m tonnes of phosphorus every year. On farmed land, this inevitably needs to be replaced through fertilisers at significant cost. Soils can also suffer from salinisation – an increase in salt content – and acidification from overuse of fertilisers.
Then there are lots of other processes that are classed as degradation, including a loss or shift in vegetation type and cover, the compaction and hardening of the soil, an increase in wildfires, and a declining water table through excessive extraction of groundwater.
The direct causes of desertification can be broadly divided between those relating to how the land is – or isn’t – managed and those relating to the climate. The former includes factors such as deforestation, overgrazing of livestock, over-cultivation of crops and inappropriate irrigation; the latter includes natural fluctuations in climate and global warming as a result of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
Then there are underlying causes as well, the IPBES report notes, including “economic, demographic, technological, institutional and cultural drivers”.
Looking first at the role of the climate, a significant factor is that the land surface is warming more quickly than the Earth’s surface as a whole. (Recent research shows that this is because the “lapse rate” – the rate that air temperatures decrease with height through the atmosphere – is experiencing larger decreases over the ocean than land. This results in smaller increases in surface ocean temperatures compared to the land surface as global temperatures rise.) So, while global average temperatures are around 1.1C warmer now than in pre-industrial times, the land surface has warmed by approximately 1.7C. The chart below compares changes in land temperatures in four different records with a global average temperature since 1970 (blue line).
While this sustained, human-caused warming can by itself add to heat stress faced by vegetation, it is also linked to worsening extreme weather events, explains Prof Lindsay Stringer, a professor in environment and development at the University of Leeds and a lead author on the land degradation chapter of the forthcoming IPCC land report. She tells Carbon Brief:
“Climate change affects the frequency and magnitude of extreme events like droughts and floods. In areas that are naturally dry for example, a drought can have a huge impact on vegetation cover and productivity, particularly if that land is being used by high numbers of livestock. As plants die off due to lack of water, the soil becomes bare and is more easily eroded by wind, and by water when the rains do eventually come.”
(Stringer is commenting here in her role at her home institution and not in her capacity as an IPCC author. This is the case with all the scientists quoted in this article.)
Both natural variability in climate and global warming can also affect rainfall patterns around the world, which can contribute to desertification. Rainfall has a cooling effect on the land surface, so a decline in rainfall can allow soils to dry out in the heat and become more prone to erosion. On the other hand, heavy rainfall can erode soil itself and cause waterlogging and subsidence.
“The main effect of climate change is through aridification, a progressive change of the climate towards a more arid state – whereby rainfall decreases in relation to the evaporative demand – as this directly affects water supply to vegetation and soils.”
As well as physical impacts on the landscape, climate change can impact on humans “because it reduces options for adaptation and livelihoods, and can drive people to overexploit the land”, notes Stringer.
That overexploitation refers to the way that humans can mismanage land and cause it to degrade. Perhaps the most obvious way is through deforestation. Removing trees can upset the balance of nutrients in the soil and takes away the roots that helps bind the soil together, leaving it at risk of being eroded and washed or blown away.
Forests also play a significant role in the water cycle – particularly in the tropics. For example, research published in the 1970s showed that the Amazon rainforest generates around half of its own rainfall. This means that clearing the forests runs the risk of causing the local climate to dry, adding to the risk of desertification.
Food production is also a major driver of desertification. Growing demand for food can see cropland expand into forests and grasslands, and use of intensive farming methods to maximise yields. Overgrazing of livestock can strip rangelands of vegetation and nutrients.
This demand can often have wider political and socioeconomic drivers, notes Stringer:
“For example, demand for meat in Europe can drive the clearance of forest land in South America. So, while desertification is experienced in particular locations, its drivers are global and coming largely from the prevailing global political and economic system.”
Local and global impacts
Of course, none of these drivers acts in isolation. Climate change interacts with the other human drivers of degradation, such as “unsustainable land management and agricultural expansion, in causing or worsening many of these desertification processes”, says Dr Alisher Mirzabaev, a senior researcher at the University of Bonn and a coordinating lead author on the desertification chapter of the IPCC land report. He tells Carbon Brief:
“The [result is] declines in crop and livestock productivity, loss of biodiversity, increasing chances of wildfires in certain areas. Naturally, these will have negative impacts on food security and livelihoods, especially in developing countries.”
Stringer says desertification often brings with it “a reduction in vegetation cover, so more bare ground, a lack of water, and soil salinisation in irrigated areas”. This also can mean a loss of biodiversity and visible scarring of the landscape through erosion and the formation of gullies following heavy rainfall.
“Desertification has already contributed to the global loss of biodiversity”, adds Joyce Kimutaifrom the Kenya Meteorological Department. Kimutai, who is also a lead author on the desertification chapter of the IPCC land report, tells Carbon Brief:
“Wildlife, especially large mammals, have limited capacities for timely adaptation to the coupled effects of climate change and desertification.”
For example, a study (pdf) of the Cholistan Desert region of Pakistan found that the “flora and fauna have been thinning out gradually with the increasing severity of desertization”. And a study of Mongolia found that “all species richness and diversity indicators declined significantly” because of grazing and increasing temperatures over the last two decades.
Degradation can also open the land up to invasive species and those less suitable for grazing livestock, says Michaelides:
“In many countries, desertification means a decline in soil fertility, a reduction in vegetation cover – especially grass cover – and more invasive shrub species. Practically speaking, the consequences of this are less available land for grazing, and less productive soils. Ecosystems start to look different as more drought tolerant shrubs invade what used to be grasslands and more bare soil is exposed.”
This has “devastating consequences for food security, livelihoods and biodiversity”, she explains:
“Where food security and livelihoods are intimately tied to the land, the consequences of desertification are particularly immediate. Examples are many countries in East Africa – especially Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia – where over half of the population are pastoralists relying on healthy grazing lands for their livelihoods. In Somalia alone, livestock contributes around 40% of the GDP [Gross Domestic Product].”
The UNCCD estimates that around 12m hectares [29,652,645 acres] of productive land are lost to desertification and drought each year. This is an area that could produce 20m tonnes of grain annually.
This has a considerable financial impact. In Niger, for example, the costs of degradation caused by land use change amounts to around 11% of its GDP. Similarly in Argentina, the “total loss of ecosystem services due to land-use/cover change, wetlands degradation and use of land degrading management practices on grazing lands and selected croplands” is equivalent to about 16% of its GDP.
Loss of livestock, reduced crop yields and declining food security are very visible human impacts of desertification, says Stringer:
“People cope with these kinds of challenges in various ways – by skipping meals to save food; buying what they can – which is difficult for those living in poverty with few other livelihood options – collecting wild foods, and in extreme conditions, often combined with other drivers, people move away from affected areas, abandoning the land.”
People are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of desertification where they have “insecure property rights, where there are few economic supports for farmers, where there are high levels of poverty and inequality, and where governance is weak”, Stringer adds.
Another impact of desertification is an increase in sand and dust storms. These natural phenomena – known variously as “sirocco”, “haboob”, “yellow dust”, “white storms”, and the “harmattan” – occur when strong winds blow loose sand and dirt from bare, dry soils. Research suggests that global annual dust emissions have increased by 25% between the late nineteenth century and today, with climate change and land use change the key drivers.
Dust storms in the Middle East, for example, “are becoming more frequent and intense in recent years”, a recent study found. This has been driven by “long-term reductions in rainfall promot[ing] lower soil moisture and vegetative cover”. However, Stringer adds that “further research is needed to establish the precise links between climate change, desertification and dust and sandstorms”.
Dust storms can have a huge impact on human health, contributing to respiratory disorders such as asthma and pneumonia, cardiovascular issues and skin irritations, as well as polluting open water sources. They can also play havoc with infrastructure, reducing the effectiveness of solar panels and wind turbines by covering them in dust, and causing disruption to roads, railways and airports.
Adding dust and sand into the atmosphere is also one of the ways that desertification itself can affect the climate, says Kimutai. Others include “changes in vegetation cover, surface albedo (reflectivity of the Earth’s surface), and greenhouse gases fluxes”, she adds.
Soils are a very important store of carbon. The top two metres of soil in global drylands, for example, store an estimated 646bn tonnes of carbon – approximately 32% of the carbon held in all the world’s soils.
Research shows that the moisture content of the soil is the main influence on the capacity for dryland soils to “mineralise” carbon. This is the process, also known as “soil respiration”, where microbes break down the organic carbon in the soil and convert it to CO2. This process also makes nutrients in the soil available for plants to use as they grow.
Soil respiration indicates the soil’s ability to sustain plant growth. And typically, respiration declines with decreasing soil moisture to a point where microbial activity effectively stops. While this reduces the CO2 the microbes release, it also inhibits plant growth, which means the vegetation is taking up less CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Overall, dry soils are more likely to be net emitters of CO2.
So as soils become more arid, they will tend to be less able to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and thus will contribute to climate change. Other forms of degradation also generally release CO2 into the atmosphere, such as deforestation, overgrazing – by stripping the land of vegetation – and wildfires.
“Most dryland environments around the world are being affected by desertification to some extent,” says Michaelides.
But coming up with a robust global estimate for desertification is not straightforward, explains Kimutai:
“Current estimates of the extent and severity of desertification vary greatly due to missing and/or unreliable information. The multiplicity and complexity of the processes of desertification make its quantification even more difficult. Studies have used different methods based on different definitions.”
And identifying desertification is made harder because it tends to emerge relatively slowly, adds Michaelides:
“At the start of the process, desertification may be hard to detect, and because it’s slow it may take decades to realise that a place is changing. By the time it is detected, it may be hard to halt or reverse.”
Desertification across the Earth’s land surface was first mapped in a study published in the journal Economic Geography in 1977. It noted that: “For much of the world, there is little good information on the extent of desertification in individual countries”. The map – shown below – graded areas of desertification as “slight”, “moderate”, “severe” or “very severe” based on a combination of “published information, personal experience, and consultation with colleagues”.
The GLASOD map, shown below, details the extent and degree of land degradation across the world. It categorised the degradation into chemical (red shading), wind (yellow), physical (purple) or water (blue).
Nevertheless, by the time the third WAD – produced by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission – came around two decades later, the authors “decided to take a different path”. As the report puts it:
“Land degradation cannot be globally mapped by a single indicator or through any arithmetic or modelled combination of variables. A single global map of land degradation cannot satisfy all views or needs.”
Instead of a single metric, the atlas considers a set of “14 variables often associated with land degradation”, such as aridity, livestock density, tree loss and decreasing land productivity.
As such, the map below – taken from the Atlas – does not show land degradation itself, but the “convergence of evidence” of where these variables coincide. The parts of the world with the most potential issues (shown by orange and red shading) – such as India, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Mexico – are thus identified as particularly at risk from degradation.
As desertification cannot be characterised by a single metric, it is also tricky to make projections for how rates of degradation could change in the future.
In addition, there are numerous socio-economic drivers that will contribute. For example, the number of people directly affected by desertification is likely to increase purely because of population growth. The population living in drylands across the world is projected to increaseby 43% to four billion by 2050.
Glossary: RCP4.5: The RCPs (Representative Concentration Pathways) are scenarios of future concentrations of greenhouse gases and other forcings. RCP4.5 is a “stabilisation scenario” where policies are put in place so atmospheric CO2 concentration levels… Read More
However, climate change will also affect rainfall patterns, and a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapour, potentially increasing both average and heavy rainfall in some areas.
There is also a conceptual question of distinguishing long-term changes in the dryness of an area with the relatively short-term nature of droughts.
In general, the global area of drylands is expected to expand as the climate warms. Projections under the RCP4.5 and RCP8.5 emissions scenarios suggest drylands will increase by 11% and 23%, respectively, compared to 1961-90. This would mean drylands could make up either 50% or 56%, respectively, of the Earth’s land surface by the end of this century, up from around 38% today.
This expansion of arid regions will occur principally “over southwest North America, the northern fringe of Africa, southern Africa, and Australia”, another study says, while “major expansions of semiarid regions will occur over the north side of the Mediterranean, southern Africa, and North and South America”.
Research also shows that climate change is already increasing both the likelihood and severity of droughts around the world. This trend is likely to continue. For example, one study, using the intermediate emissions scenario “RCP4.5”, projects “large increases (up to 50%–200% in a relative sense) in frequency for future moderate and severe drought over most of the Americas, Europe, southern Africa, and Australia”.
Glossary: RCP8.5: The RCPs (Representative Concentration Pathways) are scenarios of future concentrations of greenhouse gases and other forcings. RCP8.5 is a scenario of “comparatively high greenhouse gas emissions“ brought about by rapid population growth,… Read More
Another study notes that climate model simulations “suggest severe and widespread droughts in the next 30–90 years over many land areas resulting from either decreased precipitation and/or increased evaporation”.
However, it should be noted that not all drylands are expected to get more arid with climate change. The map below, for example, shows the projected change for a measure of aridity (defined as the ratio of rainfall to potential evapotranspiration, PET) by 2100 under climate model simulations for RCP8.5. The areas shaded red are those expected to become drier – because PET will increase more than rainfall – while those in green are expected to become wetter. The latter includes much of the Sahel and East Africa, as well as India and parts of northern and western China.
Climate model simulations also suggest that rainfall, when it does occur, will be more intense for almost the entire world, potentially increasing the risks of soil erosion. Projections indicate that most of the world will see a 16-24% increase in heavy precipitation intensity by 2100.
The UN has designated the decade from January 2010 to December 2020 as the “United Nations decade for deserts and the fight against desertification”. The decade was to be an “opportunity to make critical changes to secure the long-term ability of drylands to provide value for humanity’s well being”.
What is very clear is that prevention is better – and much cheaper – than cure. “Once desertification has occurred it is very challenging to reverse”, says Michaelides. This is because once the “cascade of degradation processes start, they’re hard to interrupt or halt”.
Stopping desertification before it starts requires measures to “protect against soil erosion, to prevent vegetation loss, to prevent overgrazing or land mismanagement”, she explains:
“All these things require concerted efforts and policies from communities and governments to manage land and water resources at large scales. Even small scale land mismanagement can lead to degradation at larger scales, so the problem is quite complex and hard to manage.”
The idea of LDN, explained in detail in the video below, is a hierarchy of responses: first to avoid land degradation, second to minimise it where it does occur, and thirdly to offset any new degradation by restoring and rehabilitating land elsewhere. The outcome being that overall degradation comes into balance – where any new degradation is compensated with reversal of previous degradation.
“Sustainable land management practices, which are based on the local socio-economic and ecological condition of an area, help to avoid desertification in the first place but also to reduce ongoing degradation processes.”
SLM essentially means maximising the economic and social benefits of the land while also maintaining and enhancing its productivity and environmental functions. This can comprise a whole range of techniques, such as rotational grazing of livestock, boosting soil nutrients by leaving crop residues on the land after harvest, trapping sediment and nutrients that would otherwise be lost through erosion, and planting fast-growing trees to provide shelter from the wind.
But these measures can’t just be applied anywhere, notes Akhtar-Schuster:
“Because SLM has to be adapted to local circumstances there is no such thing as a one size fits all toolkit to avoid or reduce desertification. However, all these locally adapted tools will have the best effects if they are embedded in an integrated national land use planning system.”
Stringer agrees that there’s “no silver bullet” to preventing and reversing desertification. And, it’s not always the same people who invest in SLM who benefit from it, she explains:
“An example here would be land users upstream in a catchment reforesting an area and reducing soil erosion into water bodies. For those people living downstream this reduces flood risk as there is less sedimentation and could also deliver improved water quality.”
However, there is also a fairness issue if the land users upstream are paying for the new trees and those downstream are receiving the benefits at no cost, Stringer says:
“Solutions therefore need to identify who ‘wins’ and who ‘loses out’ and should incorporate strategies that compensate or minimise inequities.”
“Everyone forgets that last part about equity and fairness,” she adds. The other aspect that has also been overlooked historically is getting community buy-in on proposed solutions, says Stringer.
Research shows that using traditional knowledge can be particularly beneficial for tackling land degradation. Not least because communities living in drylands have done so successfully for generations, despite the tricky environmental conditions.
This idea is increasingly being taken on board, says Stringer – a response to “top-down interventions” that have proved “ineffective” because of a lack of community involvement.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser this week expressed reservations about the Colorado River District’s proposal to acquire major senior water rights associated with the Shoshone hydroelectric power plant in Glenwood Canyon, voicing discomfort with the idea of a proposed instream flow right not being owned by the state. Speaking at a Colorado Water Conservation Board meeting, Weiser told river district General Counsel Peter Fleming that the ordinary structure in Colorado is for the state, through the state board, to own instream flow rights…
The proposal is for the river district to lease the acquired water rights back to Xcel for operation of the plant. The river district proposes that it and the CWCB would apply to state water court to get an alternate beneficial purpose of an instream flow added to the Shoshone water rights, to ensure the ability to keep the water in the river when it isn’t used for power generation, such as when the power plant is undergoing repairs. Although water entities already have agreed to generally keep water flowing as if the plant is in operation even when it is shut down, the river district and partners are seeking to protect those historic flows permanently, including in the case of the plant closing…
Fleming said the river district’s position is that the river district would assign the state the right to use the water rights for instream flows. He said that effectively the state would hold the right to use the water for instream purposes, but the only caveat is that Xcel wants to use the water for hydropower as long as the plant is operating, and the river district as the owner of the water rights would lease to Xcel the right to use the water…
Fleming said that although the CWCB ordinarily owns instream flow rights, state law also lets water users loan water to the CWCB for instream flows on a temporary basis, and other types of agreements also are in place. He said state law contemplates the state board using any means of acquiring the right to use instream flows, whether it be via loans, donations, acquisitions or obtaining “any sub-interest in the water right.”
Said Weiser, “What I don’t understand is why you’re talking at all about owning a title for something that’s use is in perpetuity and ordinarily managed by the state. That is not quite making sense to me as something that is outside of the way we tend to operate.” Weiser said the river district’s goal of getting to a status quo that’s sustainable for the Western Slope “seems to be accomplished by an instream flow right that is owned by the state and this body (the CWCB).”
The arrival of the winter snow season, which sustains the river and last year bailed out water users facing critically low reservoirs, brings new questions for water managers: Will El Niño conditions in the Pacific Ocean produce a wet winter in the Southwest and parts of the Rockies? And could a second straight wet winter wallop the region with above-average snowfall and again forestall more drastic conservation measures?
[Jack] Schmidt isn’t predicting the weather, but he has crunched the numbers on the drought or aridification patterns that plunged the Colorado into peril over the last 23 years and they aren’t pretty. Last winter was the second-wettest of that time, behind 2011. There have been a handful of high-snow, high-flow years in that span, but none was followed immediately by another. Each such winter has provided no more than a two-year arrest in the system’s downward slide. Without another one this winter, Schmidt said, the region will be back in crisis despite the states’ agreed cutbacks…And history shows that those who hope another wet winter will forestall tough choices risk disappointment…
Already, the region has used about a fifth of last winter’s windfall, Schmidt said. That’s enough to set water storage back where it was in June of 2021, a time that was better than last year, but still an impending disaster that sent water managers scrambling and forced central Arizona farmers to prepare for a cut off…Like Schmidt, federal forecasters and some water system managers are tamping down optimism for this El Niño…National Weather Service meteorologists reinforced the uncertainty in a Phoenix briefing this week. Their predictions for northern Arizona’s high country, which saw big snows in tandem with the Rockies last winter, amount to essentially even odds…Scanning moderate to strong El Niños in recent decades, [Ken Drozd] found that about half bring wet winters to the state, meaning snow in the north. About 30% are drier than normal, including the winter of 2015-2016. About 20% are near normal. At present, the Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center gives roughly even odds to all three possibilities: wet, dry and normal.
The Palisade Board of Trustees voted unanimously last Tuesday to raise its sewer rates in 2024 to $57.23 from the current single family residential rate of $35.37. The rate increase is intended to pay for a capital project to construct a pipe for Palisade’s waste water to the Clifton Sanitation Districts chemical plant and decommission its sewer lagoons. The rate increase was recommended through a rate study, which was completed and presented to the Trustees earlier this year. The rates will help pay back a $16.5 million loan from the United States Department of Agriculture, which was announced in late April. It also got around $5.6 million in grant funding from the USDA.
The new rates will also come with a new method for determining how much impact individual users have on the wastewater system. That method is called EQU. It is currently used by the Clifton Sanitation District. Palisade has had an EQU ordinance in place for years, but never implemented it, Town Attorney Jim Neu said…A single family home is considered one EQU, while a building with larger use, like a school, could be several EQUs. The Palisade rate in 2024 will be $57.23 per EQU.
46% of the continental US is short/very short, a 3% increase since last week. A band across the mid-Atlantic and central US dried out, with rapid drying in NJ, DE, VA, IL, MO, & IA. Much of the SE is still dry, but improved.
It was the first time the federal government had set aside land for its scenic value, and it created a model for U.S. national parks, which are themselves hallowed sites in American culture. Originally granted to the state of California, Yosemite formally became the third U.S. national park in 1890, joining a system of picturesque lands that hold spiritual and patriotic significance for millions of Americans.
At the same time, however, the establishment of national parks had severe consequences for Native American peoples across the continent. My research on the religious history of U.S. national parks illustrates how religious justifications for establishing parks contributed to the persecution of Indigenous tribes, a reality that the National Park Service has begun to redress in recent decades.
US civil religion
With more than 300 million annual visitors, the U.S. National Park System is a much-valued treasure. It encompasses stupendous scenery, opportunities for encounters with wildlife, outdoor recreation and commemoration of important places and events.
But the parks’ significance goes beyond this. The national parks, historic sites, battlefields and other sites of the National Park Service are sacred places in U.S. civil religion: the symbols, practices and traditions that make the idea of a nation into something sacred, seemingly blessed by a higher power.
First brought attention by sociologist Robert Bellah, civil religion flourishes alongside conventional religious traditions, like Christianity or Buddhism, with its own sacred figures, sites and rituals. In the U.S., these include George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr., the U.S. flag and Pledge of Allegiance, and national holidays such as Independence Day.
I have observed that many of the most sacred places of the nation’s civil religion are found in sites cared for by the National Park Service, from Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the Statue of Liberty in New York to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.
In addition, the National Park System is a testament to Manifest Destiny, a prominent feature of U.S. civil religion. This 19th-century notion held that Americans had divine blessing to expand the borders of the nation. As historian Anders Stephanson writes in his book about Manifest Destiny, it became “a catchword for the idea of a providentially or historically sanctioned right to continental expansionism.”
This westward expansion came at the expense of Native Americans and other groups that previously inhabited the territory. For many Protestant Christian Americans, the superlative scenery of natural sites like Yosemite and Yellowstone affirmed their belief that God intended for them to conquer and settle the American West in the decades following the Civil War – as I write about in my forthcoming book.
Products of Manifest Destiny
The earliest national parks were established as products of Manifest Destiny, amid the national push to bring land from the Mississippi to the Pacific into the United States, which many white Americans viewed as a mission to expand settled Christian society.
Westward expansion had severe consequences for American Indian nations, and the earliest national parks played a role in forcing their removal, as historian Mark David Spencehas documented. Transforming lands into national parks for visitors’ enjoyment meant dispossessing communities whose ancestors had valued those places for generations.
Following the creation of Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, a band of Shoshone people who had been there for generations – the Tukudika, or Sheep Eater – were relocated to a reservation in Wyoming. A similar situation involved the Nitsitapii, or Blackfeet people, whose treaty rights were abrogated with the establishment of Glacier National Park in 1910.
In contrast, the Yosemite Indians of California, who were mainly a band of Miwok people known as the Ahwahneechee, remained in Yosemite long after it became a national park. By 1969, though, they had been eliminated from the park through decades of onerous regulations, economic pressures and attrition.
The agency is a key contributor to the Interior Department’s recent initiative to facilitate tribal co-management of federal lands. Though much still needs to be done, national park managers are increasingly consulting and cooperating with tribal authorities on a range of issues.
Deb Haaland, the first Native American in U.S. history to hold a cabinet position, initiated a process to review and replace derogatory names on federal lands – one of her earliest actions as secretary of the interior. For example, she specifically identified the term “squaw” – a slur often directed at Indigenous women – as offensive, declaring that “racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands.” Within a year of her directive, 24 places in the National Park System had new names.
The city says the new application is unique because Thornton asked community members about what was most important when it comes to site selection and used that information to determine the preferred route…The application is not yet available from the Larimer County Planning Division, but the city of Thornton has posted some information and a map of the preferred route on a project website. The city also sent the Coloradoan its executive summary for the application…
Thornton says the new proposed route through the county is about 10 miles long, 16 miles shorter than what was first proposed in 2018. A pump station would be moved two miles north of where it was proposed to land owned by Water Supply and Storage Company…The new proposed placement affects 20 outside property owners, according to Thornton, whereas the last project crossed 40 properties, according to Todd Barnes, communications director for Thornton…The plan incorporates other changes the city proposed after commissioners told the city to go back to the drawing board in late 2018, like locating the pipeline along County Road 56 instead of through Douglas Road and aligning part of it with the proposed pipeline for the Northern Integrated Supply Project, a separate water project…Thornton says the new application provides precise locations for the pipeline and its parts so residents “can have a clear understanding of potential impacts from the project.”
In the new application, Thornton contends any concerns about how the project affects river levels is an issue outside of the county’s authority and is under the jurisdiction of a water court. The city also asserts that because of the court ruling, Larimer County may not consider Thornton’s potential use of eminent domain and “may not require (or criticize Thornton for not including) inclusion of concept of putting water ‘down the river.’ “
The graph above may look familiar; I used it in a post last summer (June 27, ‘Beyond 2026’). It illuminates a study by three ‘Colorado River elders’: hydrologist Jack Schmidt, retired river manager Eric Kuhn, and USGS scientist Charles Yackulic.
I personally think that every meeting convened on Colorado River issues should have this graph projected on the wall until we all grow to accept it as the reality of our past, present and future situations. Certainly it should be illuminating the meetings currently in process, as representatives of the seven Colorado River Basin states, and its 30 First People tribes, sit down to figure out how to ‘reoperate’ the river after the current ‘Interim Guidelines’ expire (guidelines now modified twice, with increasing urgency) in 2026.
The graph is a record of the flow volumes of the river over the past century-plus, from 1906 to 2022. The flyspecks all over the graph are the annual flows – illustrating a fundamental problem for river planning: the flows are literally all over the map, enabling those motivated more by politics than science to find evidence for any desired perception of bounty or paucity. The wavy black line is their ‘smoothing curve based on the locally weighted least squared error method for the nearest 15% of the data set’ – essentially an effort to sort a pattern out of the seemingly random behavior of the river. What the black line shows is a fairly clear downward trend in the averaged flows – but with upward loops that might inspire hope in anyone grasping for hope.
The brilliance of their study, though, lies in the three straight lines stepping down on the graph. They have broken the recent 117 years of flows – basically the period of our heavy involvement with the River – into three periods, divided around two extended dry spells:
The blue line shows the average of the river volumes from 1906 to 1929, since discovered through tree-ring studies to have been the wettest period in the river’s natural history going back many centuries. This ‘pluvial’ (very wet period) coincided with what I would call the early dawn of the Anthropocene Epoch, when we humans were beginning to really develop our technical abilities to fundamentally change the geological and ecological ‘nature’ of the planet, to better meet the needs of our swarming species. The Colorado River Compact was created in the middle of this first period; the seven states who divided the river in order to conquer it believed they were working with a river whose roughly measured annual flows averaged just under 18 million acre-feet (maf). Call it the Pluvial Period of our Colorado River. (I say ‘our Colorado River,’ the river which Euro-American civilization claimed as it own to do with as we will – as opposed to the Colorado River on which our river is an ephemeral, maybe one millennium, maybe less, overlay.)
The green line represents the average of flows for the period from a 1930s ‘wake-up’ dry spell to the end of the century – and the dry spell that began in 2001. The ‘smoothing curve’ shows that, for that 70-year period, the river only came close to the pluvial-period average briefly in the 1980s. The average flow for whole 70-year period was 14.3 maf, 20 percent below the pluvial average. The early 1930s saw the construction of Hoover Dam, and by the end of that period our river was fully developed, all the major structures in place for our various human uses, ranging from irrigation water for four or five million acres of desert land, to domestic water for 35-40 million people, to whitewater in the canyons affording the industrialized recreational opportunity to go risk your life. These changes have also been accompanied by unanticipated and unwanted collateral changes, worst of which are the climatic consequences of the substances that fueled all of our impressive development. Call this the Early Anthropocene Period of our Colorado River.
The red line represents the average of the river’s volume of flow since the dry spell at the turn of the century – 12.5 maf, 14 percent below the average flow of the Early period, and 30 percent below the average flow of the ‘Pluvial River.’ This period – like the pluvial period – is a short period in the scale of even human time, let alone geological time, but most scientists says it is probably the shape of the future we’ve shaped for ourselves; the red line is much more likely to gradually slope down than go back up, as we continue to pump carbon gases into the atmosphere. Call this the Woke Anthropocene Period – with a flip of the bird for those who wish to remain ‘unwoke’ about the situations we must try to address.
So – today we are working with a river that is roughly only about two-thirds the size of the river a century ago, when we began making plans for controlling and using the river.This being the case – is it unrealistic to suggest that maybe we should start from scratch with this new river we’ve created? Work out a new reality-based post-2026 management plan for our Woke Anthropocene River (the red line on the chart)?
I realize that probably sounds like I’m suggesting we throw out the revered Colorado River Compact, or at least do radical surgery on it. Well, yes, I am suggesting that. I am aware that numerous Colorado River water mavens have said that this is simply impossible, out of the question, but I’m going to argue that it is impossible not to at least seriously dig into it and make some major changes, for a number of very prescient reasons.
The first and most obvious reason is the fact that we have known since the drought of the 1930s and the anemic flows of the 1940s that the 17.9 maf Pluvial River for which the Compact was written was gone, which negated the ‘equitable division and apportionment’ specified in the Compact. When representatives from the four states of the Compact’s Upper Basin gathered in 1948 to create an Upper Colorado River Compact, they knew already that there might only occasionally be 7.5 million acre-feet (maf) of water per year for them, especially since the State Department had given Mexico 1.5 maf/year in 1944, on top of the 7.5 maf the existing Compact said the Upper Basin had to deliver on average to the Lower Basin.
So instead of apportioning 7.5 maf among themselves, they created percentages of whatever was left in the river after fulfilling the Compact and Mexican obligations: 51.75 percent for Colorado, 11.25 percent for New Mexico, 23 percent for Utah, and 14 percent for Wyoming. But X percent of what? That was a problem; estimates dropped from around 6 maf immediately after WWII to around 4 maf today, even as Upper Basin use was increasing. Nonetheless, that division into percentages of what’s actually there in the river, over a five or ten year rolling average, makes more sense than firm numbers devoid of real context.
Another serious flaw in the Compact is its failure to take into account system losses – evaporation, bank seepage, et cetera. For the free-flowing Pluvial River, when the Compact was created, these were relatively minor – maybe 5-8 percent or so of the flow. But as the reservoirs and long canals were added, the system losses increased to around 12-13 percent for the Early Anthropocene River (green line on the graph). And now in the warmer and drier Woke Anthropocene Period, system losses are closer to 16 percent of the total flow, maybe more. It’s hard to get good numbers for this because the science of measuring it, especially sublimation and transpiration, is still fairly primitive.
Being committed to deliver defined quantities to the Lower Basin and Mexico, the Upper Basin states absorb their system losses as part of their ‘whatever is left’ portion of the river’s water, but the Lower Basin states have never deducted from their 7.5 maf share the system losses from their several reservoirs (including the huge Mead Reservoir) and hundreds of miles of open canals. They have written it off as covered by ‘surplus flows’: Upper Basin water that made it past Lee Ferry or, since the 1960s, into Powell Reservoir, which the ever-accommodating Bureau continues to pass along as ‘surplus.’ This included roughly 10 million acre-feet of water since 2000 that the Upper Basin has no storage for above Powell (effectively Lower Basin storage), but that ‘surplus’ only made up about half of the Lower Basin’s system losses for the Woke period; the rest was drained from reservoir storage, creating most of the shortages in the 2020s. Real hydrology has to dominate distribution. [ed. emphasis mine]
Another Compact problem: The division of the Colorado River into two basins – hailed as a stroke of genius in the 1920s – was not a smart thing to do with a desert river. A desert river only exists because of a ‘water producing’ upland high enough to cool and condense precipitation from air forced up its slopes. At least 85 percent of the water in the Colorado River comes from snow and rain in the 10 percent of the natural basin above 8,000 feet elevation – a boundary that bears no relation to the geographically and ecologically irrelevant state boundaries that are the basis for the Compact division.
A desert river divides naturally into a ‘water producing’ region and a ‘water using’ region. Would it not make a great deal of sense for all of those in the water-using portion of the desert river to be directly involved in – and invested in – the care and keeping of the water-producing portion of the river?
But that is unthinkable under the Compact, which is based on those geographically irrelevant state boundaries, creating two geographically clumsy state-based ‘basins’ that are pitted against each other, the upper one mandated to pass a set amount of water to the other regardless of the climatic vagaries imposed on their mutual headwaters, conceivably having to eventually sacrifice some of its own uses of the waters to deliver the set quantities.
The state-based two-basin division was just a field-expedient solution to the problem that really drove the Compact Commissioners: how to persuade Congress that there was enough agreement among the seven states on the use of the river’s water to allow Congress to go ahead and fund the creation of a big control and storage dam on the mainstem. But the expedient solution has resulted mostly in a worsening antipathy between the state-based basin that includes both the river’s water-producing region and quite a bit of its water-using region, and the state-based basin that consumes most of the produced water and produces comparatively little.
An example of what this means can be seen in the recent ‘forest planning’ process for the Grand Mesa, Uncompaghre and Gunnison National Forests. These three National Forests are mostly above 8,000 feet in the Gunnison River Basin where 15 to 20 percent of the Colorado River’s water is produced. The forests shade and shelter the winter snowpack from sun and wind, but also cause the sublimation of an undetermined part of it through branch interception, and [then] drinking heavily from the water as the snowpack melts; there are probably a host of other more subtle and complex interactions affecting water production.
But the draft forest plan issued last summer did not even mention the Colorado River by name, let alone its water needs. Concerns expressed by probably more people than just me resulted in a couple paragraphs in the revised final draft plan about the river and its climate-related troubles, but there is still no sense that the plan requires forest managers to be as actively concerned about their organic charge to ‘secure favorable flows of water’ as they traditionally are about the companion charge to provide a dependable supply of timber. And which is more important for the Colorado River Basin: timber production (small and scraggly compared to the northern Rockies) or water production?
Yet an admittedly quick search of the hundreds of comments on the first draft and the objections to the final draft show no comments about this omission from any of the big water users downriver from the forests. And the Compact does not encourage what would be construed as interbasin meddling. We need to be one river.
A final reason why the Colorado River Compact should probably be scrapped and a new one created is the fact that the 30 First People nations overlaid on the seven states will no longer be covered (literally) and dismissed with a single sentence; they will be part of the new management regimen, and this alone mitigates for starting over. They have popular support that the representatives of the Great Father in Washington no longer enjoy, and will either be, in the immortal words of Lyndon Johnson, in the tent, or out of the tent pissing in.
In fact, a place to start the whole process of planning for the new Woke Anthropocene River might be for everyone involved to look at a document called ‘A Common Vision for the Colorado River System: Toward a Framework for Sustainability.’ This comes from a ‘Ten Tribes Partnership’ of desert First Peoples, most of whom have gone through, or are still going through, the ‘settlement’ process of negotiating for some portion of the water that should have been theirs since the creation of their reservations (see my last post). Its authors understand the patience, and the willingness to give a little (or a lot) to get a little, that will have to be present as we all figure out what to do beyond 2026 with a shrinking river. Many will find their vision statement naive, but at least they have an articulated and somewhat unified vision, which can hardly be said for the Compact states, where each state just wants, as one water leader said for Colorado, ‘for our state to come out stronger.’ Stronger than what, or whom, and how?
This story, a collaboration of Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism, is part of a series that examines the intersection of water and urban landscapes in Colorado.
Between 50% and 60% of Coloradans live in housing governed by homeowners associations, commonly called HOAs. Squeezing water devoted to urban landscapes must necessarily involve these neighborhoods.
It’s already happening but, so far, mostly on the edges. A case in point: a small HOA in Greeley called Bittersweet Pointe.
“We keep saying that all the other HOAs are pointless,” Sandy Bertch, president of the board of directors, joked as he led visitors to a hillside on the edge of the HOA’s commons area.
There, three-fourths of an acre of Kentucky bluegrass had been replaced this year by a mixture of blue grama and buffalo grass. With a summer of watering bills now in hand, Bertch estimates that the HOA needs 60% less water to irrigate that section. More turf replacement will occur on the HOA’s 2.5 acres of common ground, Bertsch promised, now that the efficacy of the native grasses has been demonstrated.
The HOA is among the smallest you’re likely to find. It has 11 duplexes, or 22 units altogether, all of whose residents are retired. It is self-managed, unlike most HOAs, which employ property management firms.
Ron Mettler, a retired electrical engineer, was president of the board when he brought up the subject of turf conversion. He got immediate pushback. “Don’t you touch that green grass. That’s why I am here,” said a resident, who has since died.
Finally, last year, consensus was achieved. Costs were crucial. The retirees will save money in reduced water bills and won’t need to mow the difficult hillside as frequently.
Making the decision easier was the city of Greeley’s incentive: $1 a square foot for removal of Kentucky bluegrass in addition to rebates for water efficiency.
Clinching the deal was the shared perception of growing water scarcity. Homeowners agreed that they needed to do their part in lessening demands.
“These two are poster children,” Ruth Quade, Greeley’s water conservation administrator, said of Mettler and Bertsch. “The key to a successful project is having one or two champions, and that is what these two are.”
Replacing Kentucky bluegrass and other cool-weather grasses with native grasses and other less-thirsty species will not solve all of Colorado’s water problems. Nearly 90% of water in Colorado goes to agriculture. Only 7% of the state’s water gets used within towns and cities, and roughly half of that goes to outdoor use for lawns, gardens and other urban landscaping.
So, why does it matter? For one thing, it’s very expensive, and politically fraught, for cities to develop new water sources, usually from distant locations. Treating that water to potable standards is expensive, too. Water used indoors, which is largely contained in pipes, can be recycled. Water engineers calculate that 85% of water used for outdoor landscapes is lost because of evaporation and other causes.
All of this has water providers looking to focus on water devoted to discretionary outdoor use in road medians, business parks, homes and common areas. Experts say this transition to less water-demanding landscapes in urban areas will take many years.
Clearings around castles
How did thirsty bluegrass become the landscaping default, the cultural norm in Colorado and elsewhere?
“Nowhere in the world are lawns as prized as in America,” Michael Pollan wrote in an essay published in The New York Times Magazine in 1989. “In little more than a century, we’ve rolled a green mantle of grass across the continent, with scarcely a thought to the local conditions or expense.”
In his essay, “Why Mow? The Case Against Lawns,” Pollan shared that when he was a child growing up on New York’s Long Island, his father defied convention and refused to mow the turf at the family’s tract house. The turf grew tall enough to flower and seed, something impossible with mowed lawns. “The lawn rippled in the breeze like a flag,” wrote Pollan.
Neighbors saw something else. Some instructed their children not to play with the young Pollan. Later, when he got a lawn himself, Pollan began mulling the purpose of lawns. In this suburban paradise, he concluded, such individuality was unacceptable.
Pollan and other writers have traced our modern idea of a lawn to the early 17th century. In at least one telling, aristocrats wanted clearings around their castles for defensive purposes. They either had animals graze it or dispatched servants with scythes to keep the grasses low.
“Turf War,” a 2008 essay by Elizabeth Kolbert published in The New Yorker, identifies Andrew Jackson Downing as a seminal influencer as the masses began to embrace lawns. In his 1841 book, “A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening,” Downing, based in New York, took aim at the dowdy rural landscapes of his familiarity. He equated personal self-improvement with gussied-up front yards.
“In the landscape garden, we appeal to that sense of the Beautiful and the Perfect, which is one of the highest attributes of our nature,” Downing wrote. Essential to that perfect garden, Downing wrote, was an expanse of “grass mown into a softness like velvet.”
Others spread the gospel. Frank J. Scott, in an 1870 book titled “The Art Of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of Small Extent,” wrote that “a smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house.” Frederick Law Olmsted deployed the broad lawns of Central Park and also planted grass in some of our first suburbs.
Technology also played a role. In 1830, a textile engineer in England adapted a carpet cutter to create the world’s first reel lawn mower. After an improved design in 1870, hand-pushed lawn mowers were produced by the tens of thousands annually. In 1893 came a patent for the first steam-powered mower. We were well on our way to the Saturday ritual many people know so well. “Over time,” wrote Kolbert, “the fact that anyone could keep up a lawn was successfully, though not altogether logically, translated into the notion that everyone ought to.”
Kolbert further identified the role of what farmers call inputs. To get potassium and other essential elements to spur growth, farmers over the ages had used everything from human dung to ground-up bones. In Europe, some robbed human graves for the skeletons. On the American Great Plains, bison were shot, their bones piled high and shipped to the East Coast.
Costs of waging war on weeds
In 1909 came an invention in Germany with profound but conflicting implications. Fritz Haber, a chemist who later won the Nobel Prize, figured out an economical way to synthesize ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen.
One result: explosives and gasses used to help run up the death toll in World War I to 20 million. Another: the ability to create fertilizer that, when applied to fields, enabled the world’s population to expand by several billion more than it probably would have otherwise.
This synthesized fertilizer could also be applied to turfgrass to counteract the seasonal cycle. By tricking the plants into putting out new growth, wrote Kolbert, fertilized grass could become ever-green. Other chemicals could quell the yellow blemishes of dandelions and every other shade of plant deemed a weed. That includes clover, which otherwise has value for fixing nitrogen in the soil. Such is the cost of having unadulterated grass.
By the time baby boomers were mostly toddlers, the idea of a perfect lawn had swept the country, even to the smallest of Colorado towns and cities. Along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, Abraham Levitt, the namesake for the Long Island town, declared that “no single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and locality as well-kept lawns.”
In “The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession,” Virginia Scott Jenkins pointed to the export of this idea to deserts of the Southwest and also to the Middle East. “Even the American community in Saudi Arabia has front lawns in the middle of the desert,” she wrote.
Perfection was possible — but at a well-known cost. Rachel Carson, in her 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” described the risk to human health posed by indiscriminate pesticide use. This, wrote Kolbert, inverted the calculation about the meaning of a well-tended, unblemished lawn. “Instead of demonstrating that a homeowner cared about his neighbors, a trim and tidy stretch of turf showed that he didn’t,” Kolbert wrote.
What then? If shaved lawns of green no longer represent civic virtue, what should take their place? That’s the question now being addressed in Colorado and many other places.
Perfect lawns also bump up against a hard hydrologic reality in Colorado. It is the nation’s seventh-most-arid state, and the story of the 21st century has been of a warming, drying climate.
Cities with growing populations exist in this shifting axis between supply and demand. They’re looking to conserve water in the most-cost-effective ways. To succeed, some of this must necessarily involve homeowners associations.
Homeowners associations have been described as private governments enforcing covenants among homeowners. Colorado as of 2022 had 10,510 HOAs with 2.4 million residents, according to the Community Associations Institute, a national organization. Most are managed by private companies. And, according to detractors, they tend to be stuck in their ways.
Perfection was possible — but at a well-known cost. Rachel Carson, in her 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” described the risk to human health posed by indiscriminate pesticide use. This, wrote Kolbert, inverted the calculation about the meaning of a well-tended, unblemished lawn. “Instead of demonstrating that a homeowner cared about his neighbors, a trim and tidy stretch of turf showed that he didn’t,” Kolbert wrote.
What then? If shaved lawns of green no longer represent civic virtue, what should take their place? That’s the question now being addressed in Colorado and many other places.
Perfect lawns also bump up against a hard hydrologic reality in Colorado. It is the nation’s seventh-most-arid state, and the story of the 21st century has been of a warming, drying climate.
Cities with growing populations exist in this shifting axis between supply and demand. They’re looking to conserve water in the most-cost-effective ways. To succeed, some of this must necessarily involve homeowners associations.
Homeowners associations have been described as private governments enforcing covenants among homeowners. Colorado as of 2022 had 10,510 HOAs with 2.4 million residents, according to the Community Associations Institute, a national organization. Most are managed by private companies. And, according to detractors, they tend to be stuck in their ways.
Before George Teal became a Douglas County commissioner, he was a member of the Castle Rock City Council for 6½ years. Because the city was heavily reliant on a large but unrenewable underground aquifer, it wanted to encourage low-water landscapes — what it calls ColoradoScapes.
Homeowners associations resisted, said Teal. He cited “just numerous examples” given to the City Council members each year of homeowners being told by their HOAs that they could not rip out their turf. That included his own neighborhood and HOA, Crystal Valley Ranch, one that he describes as consisting of mostly working middle-class people. A change would have required a 65% vote. He similarly cites another HOA, Woodland, which consists of more-affluent residents.
“It became kind of a rallying cry on the council,” Teal said in a recent interview. “What could we do to get HOAs to accept the more water-smart landscape methodologies that were being advocated by our water utility?”
The answer was nothing. Local governments did not have the power to curb HOA powers. It had to be done at the state level.
In 2019, Colorado legislators passed the first of four laws that do so. House Bill 19-1050stipulates that it is contrary to public policy for common-interest communities, such as HOAs, to “prohibit or limit installation or use of drought-tolerant vegetative landscapes, or require cultivated vegetation to consist wholly or partially of turf grass.”
The law did allow HOAs to adopt aesthetic guidelines.
In 2021 came another law, HB21-1229. It required HOAs to allow artificial turf in backyards and also solar panels, once again subject to “reasonable aesthetic guidelines.”
These steps were applauded by Jody Beck, an associate professor in the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Colorado Denver. “Extensive green lawns are almost never an appropriate expression of responsible citizenship in the arid West, if by responsible citizenship we mean the conscientious use of limited shared resources,” he said.
In 2022, legislators did not specifically target HOAs and water. Instead, HB 22-1151 instructed the state’s chief water agency, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, to develop a program for the voluntary replacement of turf in cooperation with local governments and appropriated $2 million for that work. After administrative expenses, $1.5 million has been awarded to more than two dozen local jurisdictions in Colorado.
Later that same year, legislators were advised that another law was needed to close a loophole in the 2019 law. At least some HOAs had used the clause that gave them aesthetic discretion in reviewing plans to effectively stall or even block turf-replacement projects proposed by owners of single-family homes.
Proponents have cited abundant anecdotal evidence. The most-direct evidence came from a survey conducted in 2021 by Western Resource Advocates in cooperation with the city of Greeley. The survey was intended to reveal the primary barriers keeping residents from replacing some or all of their grass with water-wise landscaping. Cost? Expertise? Aesthetics?
Nothing was asked by the survey about HOAs, but when allowed the opportunity to describe the challenges, 41 of the 720 who completed the survey cited their HOAs.
A step in the right direction
This year’s bill had bipartisan support. “In practice, we see barriers to people who want to replant their front yards with more water-conserving plants,” said state Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, a Democrat from Longmont, when introducing the bill, HB23-178, at a legislative committee hearing.
Another bill sponsor, Sen. Perry Will, a Republican from New Castle, who represents seven Western Slope counties, cited demands on the Colorado River. “This will not save all of Colorado’s water, but it is a step in the right direction.”
The bill requires that HOAs must select at least three preapproved water-saving landscaping templates that residents can follow. Residents and HOAs can choose to go for other designs, but at least three options must be preapproved. There’s no real excuse for saying no.
Part III. How bluegrass lawns became the default for urban landscapes Some Colorado HOAs have started moving the needle, while state legislators prod others into water-wise landscapes; plus, a history of how we arrived at a certain idea of landscape perfection.
Part IV coming. The outliers of the native grass movement. Some Coloradans have taken it upon themselves to remove their thirsty turf, and a non-profit is helping them do it.
Part V coming. Do we really need bluegrass in road medians? And Aurora, Castle Rock and Denver push for sharper limits on what can be installed in the first place.
The state’s most significant organization representing HOAs didn’t bother to show up to testify one way or another. The bill passed with minor opposition grounded in questions of local control.
Teal, who testified in both legislative committee hearings, said he would have preferred local control. But, given the sweeping powers of HOAs, he believed the state had to step in order to aid municipalities. “Water conservation and water reuse have become primary goals of the town of Castle Rock and, I think, soon will become one of our primary policy goals here in (Douglas) County as well,” he said.
Robert Greer, a Denver attorney, helped draft the bill that he says closed the loophole in the 2019 law that was big enough to “drive a solar system through.”
He was driven, he said, most powerfully by a desire to create urban landscapes that accommodate pollinators of the natural ecosystem. His sentiment is part of a broad and powerful undercurrent in Colorado’s push to replace Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass and other imported cool-season varieties. It’s not all about saving water.
Also testifying was Chris Marion, who began work in 2017 as a water conservation specialist. After getting a master’s degree in sustainability planning from the University of Colorado Boulder, he founded a company called 3.0 Management. It provides management for about 40 HOAs in metropolitan Denver.
Marion sees an opportunity for HOAs and other places with large expanses of turf to rethink their landscapes. Irrigation systems installed 40 to 50 years ago need replacement or updating, Some HOAs are poorly funded for replacement of leaking pipes and so forth.
“It’s not only the cost of water, but the associated maintenance costs of older grass,” he said.
Something else is going on, a shifting cultural norm. The impetus for expanses of Kentucky bluegrass that we see today was “simple, cost-effective landscaping, which was primarily bluegrass.” Now, said Marion, younger generations in particular have become at least aware of “the concept of personal ecological footprints.”
That shift in attitudes is now being integrated into governance of HOAs.
Lessons from Fort Collins
In Fort Collins, Colorado’s fourth-largest city, with a population of 170,000, residents of the Oak Ridge VII homeowners association were informed in 2018 that they would have to pay $18,000 more annually for water.
When the tap fee for the commons area owned by the 52 members of Oak Ridge VII and two other HOAs had been assessed several decades ago, it assumed a maximum volume of water. Water use for that commons area had been rising, exceeding the maximum. Homeowners had to figure out how to use less water or pay the greater fee.
The 10.1-acre commons area consists of expansive lawns interspersed with trees that turn bright with warm colors during the fall. It also has a soccer field and a 1.4-acre detention area designed to hold stormwater. Water can get 1 foot deep when it rains, as it did prodigiously this year. In previous drier years, though, Kentucky bluegrass required irrigation to maintain its well-coiffed look.
In 2019, HOA directors approved conversion of the bluegrass to buffalo and blue grama grasses. A survey of homeowners found that 80% supported the shift. Later, another problem area — a small south-facing hill that was difficult to irrigate and mow — was also replaced. Water use for the park has declined to 3.1 million gallons per year — the original projected need when the subdivision was created 30 years ago — from 4 million to 5 million gallons per year.
The full cost of the landscaping work of $86,000 was defrayed by $57,000 in grants from Northern Water, the bulk water provider, and the city of Fort Collins. “We never could have done it without the grants,” said Susan Gilbert, a homeowner who championed the shift.
“People have loved it,” said Gilbert during a walk through the park. A pollinator park along the concrete pathway, buzzing with bumblebees, has been particularly popular.
Weeds can be a problem in conversions, and this was no exception. The HOA had its landscaper apply herbicides in some spots.
“Everybody gets a little jittery when we do spraying,” said Milan Hanson, president of the HOA’s board of directors.
“During the first year or two, I think every native grass conversion looks pretty bad,” he added.
Tony Koski, a professor of turfgrass sciences at Colorado State University and described by many as the guru of water-wise landscaping in Colorado, condones the use of herbicides as essential in landscape conversions, but he counsels care and transparency.
The need for herbicides diminishes as the native grasses become dominant over the course of about three years. But homeowners planting native grasses should expect to see the new turf brown more quickly in the fall and green up more slowly in the spring.
Still, Oakridge residents have seen enough to think about converting other places to native grasses.
What caused the increased water use? It’s not uncommon, said Frank Kinder, water-efficiency manager for Northern Water. The agency distributes Colorado River water to providers along the northern Front Range.
“People are watering earlier and watering more during a year to keep up the appearance,” said Kinder. “The landscape may take up to 120% of the previous amount in order to keep looking like what people want it to look like.”
HOAs undertaking conversions can have different motivations: costs, concerns about climate change, a desire for landscape diversity or easier maintenance. “Bluegrass takes a lot of work to meet certain expectations,” said Kinder.
Key lessons from Fort Collins and Greeley HOAs are that turf replacements take time and are most easily accomplished with partnerships. Key in both cases, too, were grassroots champions.
Very likely, you will also begin to see more and more cool-weather turf converted to low-water landscapes in Colorado’s HOAs. That’s exactly what some of those who helped draft some of Colorado’s recent laws intended. Call it a grassroots movement.
Next: Colorado allows sales of only low-flush toilets to better conserve limited water. What role should the state have in reducing water use allocated to urban landscapes? A task force has been studying the state’s options and opportunities.
Allen Best, a longtime Colorado journalist, publishes Big Pivots, which tracks the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water, environment and community. This story is part of a five-part series produced in a collaboration between Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism. Find more at https://bigpivots.com and at https://aspenjournalism.org
Click the link to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
During much of the drought-monitoring period ending November 21, mostly dry weather dominated the country, aside from some downpours in Florida and environs. By November 20-21, however, a storm system crossing the central and eastern U.S. slowed a rapid fieldwork pace but delivered much-needed rain in some of the nation’s key drought areas, including the South. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. corn harvest was 93% complete by November 19, ahead of the 5-year average of 91%. On the same date, harvest progress numbers for sorghum (96% complete), peanuts (92%), and cotton (77%) were also ahead of average. Until the arrival of the late-period storm, precipitation was mostly confined to a few small areas—across the lower Southeast and from the Ohio Valley into the Northeast. However, parts of Florida’s peninsula received excessive rainfall (4 to 10 inches or more), as a non-tropical storm system grazed the region. Some precipitation also fell in the West, with many of the highest totals in portions of the Pacific Coast States. For the second week in a row, near- or above-normal temperatures prevailed nearly nationwide…
There were few changes in the drought depiction, despite some light to moderately heavy precipitation late in the monitoring period. By November 19, Kansas led the High Plains with topsoil moisture rated 68% very short to short, followed by Colorado at 64% and Nebraska at 55%. On that date, Kansas also led the U.S. with 32% of its winter wheat rated in very poor to poor condition, nearly twice the national value of 17%…
Generally light to locally moderately heavy rain and snow showers dotted the West. There were some additional improvements in the drought situation in the Northwest, and some slight further deterioration in the southern Rockies and environs. New Mexico led the West on November 19 with topsoil moisture rated 77% very short to short…
Precipitation fell in some areas both early and late in the drought-monitoring period. In Texas and environs, beneficial impacts from previous rainfall necessitated further improvement in the drought situation, in addition to last week’s changes. Farther east, heavy showers and locally severe thunderstorms overspread the Mississippi Delta and neighboring areas late in the monitoring period, with modest reductions in the coverage of exceptional drought (D4) in parts of Louisiana and Mississippi. On November 19, prior to the arrival of significant rainfall, pastures were rated at least 60% very poor to poor in Mississippi (69%), Tennessee (61%), and Louisiana (60%). On the same date, Mississippi led the region with topsoil moisture rated 82% very short to short, followed by Louisiana at 81% and Tennessee at 64%…
A low-pressure system crossing the Midwest will gradually weaken and drift eastward, while a trailing cold front will largely clear the Atlantic Seaboard by Wednesday. Additional rainfall across the eastern one-third of the U.S. could reach 1 to 3 inches, especially in the middle Atlantic States. Thanksgiving Day, November 23, will feature mild, dry weather across much of the country, although snow may blanket portions of the northern and central Rockies. The generally quiet pattern should last through the weekend after Thanksgiving, with most areas experiencing seasonable temperatures and minimal precipitation. In fact, negligible precipitation is expected during the next 5 days in much of the Mississippi Valley, as well as an area stretching from California to Texas.
The NWS 6- to 10-day outlook for November 27 – December 1 calls for the likelihood of near- or below-normal temperatures and precipitation across most of the country. Warmer-than-normal weather will be confined to southern Florida and areas along the Pacific Coast, as well as the nation’s norther tier from Washington to Montana. Meanwhile, wetter-than-normal conditions should be limited to the Deep South, from the southern half of Texas to the southern Atlantic Coast.
Western Water in-depth: Tribes hold key state-appointed posts for first time as their water rises in value
The climate-driven shrinking of the Colorado River is expanding the influence of Native American tribes over how the river’s flows are divided among cities, farms and reservations across the Southwest.
The tribes are seeing the value of their largely unused river water entitlements rise as the Colorado dwindles, and they are gaining seats they’ve never had at the water bargaining table as government agencies try to redress a legacy of exclusion.
The power shift comes as the federal government and seven states negotiate the next set of rules governing the river that flows to nearly 40 million people and irrigates more than 4 million acres of farmland.
The tribes stand to hold outsized sway in those discussions. Altogether, they hold rights to more water than some of the states in the Colorado River Basin, which stretches from Wyoming to Mexico. Tribes such as the Navajo Nation, Gila River Indian Community and Jicarilla Apache Nation also hold some of the most senior rights to the water, giving them first dibs on the precious flows before cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles.
But most tribes haven’t been using their full allotment because they lack the infrastructure to put their water to use or because their water rights remain unsettled.
Large volumes of water meant for the tribes flow downstream and are captured, stored and used by cities and farms that have far more developed networks of canals, pumps, reservoirs and water treatment plants. The water not used by tribes has helped to slow the decline of major reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead and spur growth in the arid Southwest.
Now, tribes are poised to use more of their water, straining an already oversubscribed river system that has been pushed to its limit by more than 20 years of sustained drought.
While some water users in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico are facing a third straight year of water cuts, tribes with ironclad water rights are reaping record amounts of federal infrastructure funding under the Biden administration.
“Downstream users have built a reliance on tribes and their unused or unsettled water,” said Lorelei Cloud, vice chair of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in southwest Colorado. “But our tribe plans to fully develop our water to support our economic development and the resiliency of our people.”
Once an afterthought, Basin tribes are gaining recognition and bargaining power. In the past five years, the tribes have seen significant advances:
Thirsty water users in states like Arizona and New Mexico are leasing water from tribes or paying them to leave water in the system.
The federal government began engaging directly with tribes alongside state representatives on the river’s future operating rules.
Some Basin states for the first time appointed tribal leaders to important negotiating posts.
“Tribes are very cognizant that [their unused water] is being used by others,” said Anne Castle, the federal appointee to the Upper Colorado River Commission and former assistant Interior Department secretary for water and science. “Political will has been shifting toward greater recognition of the need to address these inequities and to ensure that tribal rights and interests are protected in these ongoing discussions that are going to result in changes to the way the Colorado River operates.”
A Major Power Shift
For over a century, compacts, treaties, laws and drought plans were hatched among the federal government, Mexico and the seven Western states that use the river: Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California.
Missing from the decision-making tables were Basin tribes that hold rights to nearly a quarter of the river’s water.
In recent years, however, tribes have increasingly inserted themselves into broad discussions over the river’s management through a series of groundbreaking studies and water-sharing deals with Basin states.
The power shift can be traced back to at least 2018 when the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation and a tribal consortium known as the Ten Tribes Partnership issued a study that for the first time tried to quantify the Basin tribes’ current and likely future water uses.
A 2021 update by the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado Boulder, found that tribes hold rights to 3.2 million-acre feet or approximately 22 to 26 percent of the Basin’s average annual water supply. It also estimated the yet-to-be-settled amount of tribal water claims at 400,000 acre-feet. That’s more than the entire state of Nevada is allotted in a year.
The quantification made the enormity of the tribes’ water shares explicit and strengthened their bargaining power as the Lower Basin states and federal government were scrambling to devise a new system of water cuts. Guidelines for operating Lake Powell and Lake Mead were proving insufficient and the Basin states were locked in tense negotiations over new drought rules.
Discussions were particularly thorny for Arizona because, unlike California and Nevada, much of its allotted river water is reserved for tribes with land in the state. Under pressure to take significant water cuts, the state pitched a proposal that the Gila River Indian Community said could reduce the amount of water set aside for the tribe.
After the tribe threatened to sue, Arizona negotiated a deal to pay the tribe $60 million in exchange for 500,000 acre-feet of water through 2026. The state also paid the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) to leave some of its water in Lake Mead.
“The Gila River Indian Community really forced itself into that [negotiation] process,” said Jason Hauter, a water attorney and tribal member. “It ended up taking a leadership role because it had the most water at stake.”
The 2019 deal marked a turning point: The federal government and states have since routinely offered to pay tribes to conserve water and sought their advice on the shrinking river’s future.
In 2021, the Gila River Indian Community and CRIT agreed to preserve up to 179,000 acre-feet of water under the deal known as the 500+ Plan, a move that cushioned the blow of water cuts to urban and agricultural users in central Arizona.
Earlier this year, the Gila River Indian Community agreed to conserve up to 40 percent of its river allocation each year through 2025 in exchange for up to $150 million from the federal government. It also received money for a new pipeline to deliver recycled wastewater across the reservation for irrigation, which will further reduce its reliance on Colorado River water.
“Time and again, the Gila River Indian Community has demonstrated its deep commitment to strengthening our water future in the face of historic drought,” Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema said in a statement.
An innovative deal is also underway in the Upper Basin, as the Jicarilla Apache Nation is leasing nearly half of its annual river share to bolster New Mexico’s water supply and increase San Juan River flows to benefit endangered fish. Previously, the tribe leased the water supply to coal-fired power plants that are now facing closure.
Celene Hawkins, who heads The Nature Conservancy’s engagement with Basin tribes, said the Jicarilla-New Mexico deal could serve as a model for other multi-benefit water deals in the Upper Basin. The conservancy helped the two sovereign governments negotiate and implement the 10-year program, which released its first batch of water in June to support endangered Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker populations.
“It was the first time that we have seen an Upper Basin tribal nation and a state work together in this way,” said Hawkins, who advises the Water and Tribes Initiative, a group dedicated to enhancing tribal water resources. “Water leasing is a super-critical tool in the bigger toolbox that we’re going to need to handle the drought and water stress that’s hitting the Basin.”
Gaining Seats at the Table
It remains an uphill fight, but tribal nations are starting to gain ownership in the management of the Colorado River. Tribal members now hold a variety of positions at key agencies that decide river policy and for the first time are included in Basin-wide planning sessions.
“Attitudes have changed as we have progressed as a society, so generally there is more inclusion,” Hauter said.
Last year, Utah designated a tribal seat on its Colorado River negotiating board. The inaugural appointee, Paul Tsosie, an attorney and a member of the Navajo Nation, previously served as the Interior Department’s Indian Affairs head of staff.
This year, Colorado appointed Cloud of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe as the first tribal member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. And last March, California appointed Jordan Joaquin, president of the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe, to its Colorado River board.
The federal government is also doing more to court tribal perspectives under Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation this past summer held a pair of brainstorming sessions open to all Basin tribes and states. Some participants cast the meetings as “groundbreaking” and an important show of transparency from the federal government.
“They were historical meetings,” said Crystal Tulley-Cordova, principal hydrologist with the Navajo Nation. “Tribes had the opportunity to be able to engage in ways that haven’t occurred before.”
Reclamation officials say the meetings will continue as Basin water users negotiate a replacement for Colorado River operating guidelines that expire at the end of 2026.
Hauter, the Gila River Indian Community member and Water and Tribes Initiative advisor, said tribes historically have found out about new water policies after they became final. He said Reclamation’s “Federal-Tribal-State” meetings will give tribes insight into what the governments are considering and a rare chance to present their own solutions for the over-tapped river system.
The top negotiators for California, Nevada and Arizona echoed Hauter’s point, saying they look forward to continued collaboration with Basin tribes.
“Successful management of the Colorado River will depend on the support and participation of the tribes,” they wrote in a recent letter to Reclamation.
Reclamation officials declined to be interviewed for this story but issued a statement saying the federal government “continues to value the input of the tribes and stakeholders … and will continue to host meetings with this group throughout the post-2026 process.” The agency anticipates publishing a draft of its long-term river management strategies by the end of 2024, with a final plan approved in early 2026.
Drought Forces Change
Basin states and the federal government are paying more attention than ever to tribal water use. Federal tribal reserved water rights were recognized in the 1908 landmark Winters v. United States decision, in which the Supreme Court held that when the government established reservations for tribes it implicitly reserved water rights for them.
Resolved tribal water claims are included in the Colorado River allocations for the states in which reservations are located. For example, the Gila River Indian Community’s 653,500 acre-feet comes out of Arizona’s annual river share.
The effects of climate change – longer, more severe droughts, more extreme hot spells and more variable precipitation – are placing a premium on tribal water. The annual amount of reserved water is often more than some tribes can use. Tribes are rarely paid for what they can’t or don’t use. Their unused reserves stay in the river system, enriching users downstream.
Over the past two decades, dry conditions have cut flows from the Colorado River’s main tributaries, but water use across the Basin hasn’t dropped equally. The unused tribal water helped keep a stable supply for some of the river’s largest users. The cushion, however, is vanishing as demand outstrips supply: Average flows in the Upper Basin have already dropped 20 percentover the past century and increased tribal water use seems inevitable.
Meanwhile, water cuts have become a reality in Mexico and the Lower Basin states.
Reclamation declared water shortages on the river for the first time in 2022 and again in 2023. Though much of the Basin recorded above-average snowfall last winter, the agency said cuts will continue next year for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. With talks beginning on new river operating rules, there’s growing agreement among federal and state negotiators that an even more rigorous system of cuts needs to be implemented.
Castle, who chairs the interstate commission representing Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico, said Basin states are more concerned about the possibility of tribes maximizing their supply than they were in 2007 when the current set of guidelines was adopted.
“There’s a significant chunk of water that the tribes control that is not yet used and is a potential addition to the problem,” Castle said. “So, trying to get ahead of that problematic situation is part of the motivation.”
The 2018 Tribal Water Study estimated the Upper Basin tribes were using 670,000 acre-feet a year, or just 37 percent of their total reserved and settled rights. Castle said the commission is vetting those numbers with tribes and states to get a clear picture of how much more water tribes might develop in the coming years.
Infrastructure Problems Linger
For tribes, putting their Colorado River water to beneficial use remains a difficult proposition.
Those who have gone through the arduous process of settling and quantifying their water claims often lack the infrastructure for diverting water to farms, businesses and homes on rural reservations. Moreover, a range of laws and bureaucratic hurdles restrict how and where a tribe can use its water.
Basic projects, like expanding a water treatment plant or installing a new drinking water pipeline, can advance at a glacial pace, as tribes must deal with a variety of different federal agencies to get them approved. Even when funding is available, it can be difficult to launch projects as tribes often lack the resources to navigate the various regulations, fees and environmental reviews.
On the Navajo Nation reservation, which stretches across more than 17 million acres in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, approximately 30 percent of families live without tap water and rely on bottled or hauled supplies.
Cloud, who serves on the leadership team for the Water & Tribes Initiative, said her Southern Ute Indian Tribe uses only a quarter of its reserved water because of shoddy infrastructure. Most of the tribe’s farmers rely on a federally built system more than a century old with broken diversion structures, leaky canals and clogged ditches.
“The federal government says they don’t have the funding to fix their own infrastructure,” Cloud said. “We can’t use the water if the infrastructure is failing.”
The underutilized water supply gets chalked up as a missed economic opportunity. A North Carolina State University study this year found Western tribes collectively lose hundreds of millions of dollars each year due to their unused water.
Outstanding tribal water rights claims continue to complicate matters. Nearly a dozen of the 30 federally recognized tribes in the Basin have at least partially unsettled claims.
To tap into its reserved water, each tribe must negotiate with the state or states where it has land to quantify the size of its share. This process averages 22 years and can cost tribes millions of dollars in legal and consulting fees. There is an additional layer of federal oversight, as Congress must sign off on deals made between states and tribes.
Expediting the outstanding claims, most of which are in Arizona, is in the best interest of Basin water users as talks intensify over a new set of river guidelines, Castle said.
“It’s a burden on everybody to have this unquantified amount hanging out there,” she said.
Tribes as Part of the Solution
Tribal leaders and experts say being involved in the crafting of the next set of river management rules could benefit Basin tribes in a variety of ways, including compensation for their unused water.
Hauter, of the Gila River Indian Community, said one potential solution would involve paying tribes to not develop or increase their water use for a set period. These “forbearance” deals would suspend a portion of a tribe’s allotment and continue to allow non-tribal users to use the water.
Joaquin, president of the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe in California, said forbearance deals like the one the tribe negotiated with California water agencies in 2005, generate income for tribes for badly needed drinking water infrastructure and reduce the risk of new draws on the river.
“This is an opportunity that should not be squandered,” Joaquin said in a recent letter to Reclamation officials.
Additional support for tribal water infrastructure may also be on the horizon. By being in the same meeting rooms, tribal leaders will be able to convey the scope of their drinking water problems to the federal government and states’ top negotiators.
“It’s a straight-up issue of equity for American citizens,” Castle said.
While the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provided a “groundbreaking” amount of money for fixing and building new drinking water systems, Castle said tribes need additional assistance getting their projects shovel-ready. More money would help tribes with the design, engineering, permitting and other pre-construction stages.
With the demand for tribal water increasing across the Basin, tribes could press to level the playing field when it comes to profiting from their unused water.
Federal laws enacted more than a century ago, decades before any Southwest state was established, effectively bar tribes from sending water off their reservations. Marketing water to non-tribal users requires congressional approval, a difficult task to achieve for even the most well-resourced, politically connected tribe.
CRIT got the nod from Congress earlier this year to market some of its allotted Colorado River supply off-reservation. It plans to use the revenue to make its water delivery systems more efficient.
Streamlining the process would allow tribes to find new ways to share their water with farmers or cities.
The states and the federal government could also find new ways to support investment in tribal lands. Peter Culp, an attorney specializing in Western water law and policy, said tribes often do not have the means to undertake projects that could help reduce erosion, water pollution and wildfire risks.
“We need to think more broadly to solve the problem we face,” Culp said. “We’re not going to address the declining [water supply] without thinking about the significant investments that need to be made in tribal lands.”
Tribes entering the negotiations want the federal government and the states to give serious consideration to their visions for managing a shrinking river they have relied on for time immemorial.
“[Drought] is opening the eyes of people whose thoughts have been very restrictive of tribal water and haven’t wanted tribes at the table,” Cloud said. “This is an opportunity for us to be part of the solution.”
Oak Creek is preparing to move forward with important upgrades to a 68-year-old dam at Sheriff Reservoir…With the threat of a dam breach, the town worked with the engineering firm W. W. Wheeler & Associates to create a hydrology study to determine what repairs would be necessary. Completed this year, the report used updated high elevation hydrology formulas to anticipate how much water the dam and its spillway would need to handle in a maximum flood event. According to Torgler, the study found the spillway would need to be expanded from its current 32 feet to 55 feet across. Approved by the state’s engineer Monday, the study is key, the town administrator said, because it was originally believed the expansion improvement would need to be 330 feet across…
After completing work to replace the headgate on the dam, which sits close to the structures base on the reservoir side, the project will now turn to the completion of the design engineering for the spillway enhancements, Torgler said. To date, the town has spent $520,000 for design engineering for the headgate and the purchase and installation of operating equipment and $320,000 for final design work. Cost estimates for the spillway work will be ready by the end of the year.
Torgler said that without performing the dam improvements, there would be a significant reduction in the amount of water stored in the reservoir. He noted the reservoir provides recreational opportunities for locals and visitors, but it is also Oak Creek’s drinking water supply.
As Thornton filed its latest application for a water pipe permit with Larimer County on Monday, officials had hope that they would face less resistance this time…A no vote [from the Larimer County Commissioners] would jeopardize long-term growth plans in Thornton, Colorado’s sixth-largest city, for years to come by hampering the ability to access water it bought the rights for decades ago.
“Though it has been frustrating all these years, I firmly believe this is a better project with all the community feedback,” said Brett Henry, executive director of utilities and infrastructure for the city of Thornton. “It’s more clear about what to expect. There are less unknowns.”
Thornton says the pipe’s new proposed alignment through Larimer County holds several advantages over a route the county rejected in early 2019. It would take 16 fewer miles of pipe in the county than the original route called for, and the project’s western terminus would avoid a number of neighborhoods that had raised concerns around construction disruption. The city is also willing to move a proposed pump station well apart from homes. The station would be used to divert the water shares Thornton owns in the Poudre to a collection of reservoirs northwest of Fort Collins. The pipe would then traverse 22 properties in Larimer County before crossing into Weld County and turning south. City spokesman Todd Barnes said Thornton already has begun discussions with most of the landholders about obtaining easements for the pipe.
From the depths of the seas to snow on mountains and even the air above cities, microplastics are turning up increasingly often. Now, in ACS’ Environmental Science & Technology Letters, researchers have analyzed microplastics in clouds above mountains. They suggest that these tiny particles could play a role in cloud formation and, in turn, affect weather.
Microplastics — plastic fragments smaller than five millimeters — originate from a myriad of items used daily, such as clothing, packaging and car tires. As research in the field evolves, scientists are not only detecting microplastics in the atmosphere but also investigating how they may play a role in cloud formation. For example, a group of researchers recently detected plastic granules, which had water-attracting surfaces, in Japanese mountaintop clouds. So, to learn more, Yan Wang and colleagues set out to look for microplastics in mountain clouds, used computer models to figure out how they could have gotten there, and tested how the particles could have impacted — and been impacted by — the clouds.
Wang and the team first collected 28 samples of liquid from clouds at the top of Mount Tai in eastern China. Then they analyzed the samples and found:
Low-altitude and denser clouds contained greater amounts of microplastics.
Particles were made of common polymers, including polyethylene terephthalate, polypropylene, polyethylene, polystyrene and polyamide.
The microplastics tended to be smaller than 100 micrometers in length, although some were as long as 1,500 micrometers.
Older, rougher particles had more lead, mercury and oxygen attached to their surfaces, which the researchers suggest could facilitate cloud development.
To investigate where the plastic particles in the clouds originated, Wang and the team developed computer models that approximated how the particles traveled to Mount Tai. These models suggested that airflow from highly populated inland areas, rather than from over the ocean or other nearby mountains, served as the major source of the fragments. In laboratory experiments, the researchers demonstrated that microplastics exposed to cloud-like conditions — ultraviolet light and filtered cloud-sourced water — had smaller sizes and rougher surfaces than those exposed to pure water or air. Additionally, particles impacted by the cloud-like conditions had more lead, mercury and oxygen-containing groups. These results suggest that clouds modify microplastics in ways that could enable the particles to affect cloud formation and the fate of airborne metals. The researchers conclude that more work is needed to fully understand how microplastics affect clouds and the weather.
The authors acknowledge funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China.
Institute to be part of the Boulder-based Native American Rights Fund and likely will play a major role in the Colorado River Basin discussions
The Walton Family Foundation has committed $1.4 million during the next three years to create a Tribal Water Institute. The institute is to provide tribal nations the resources and training to advocate for their water rights and develop policy solutions.
It will be housed within the Boulder-based Native American Rights Fund, or NARF. The organization was established in 1970 and has provided legal assistance to Native American tribes, organizations, and individuals nationwide who might otherwise have gone without adequate representation.
This money for the Tribal Water Institute will double the Native American Rights Fund’s staffing devoted to water issues, allowing it to take on more casework. The goal is also to build a pipeline of new leaders and develop research and forward-thinking policy proposals.
“Addressing the West’s significant water challenges requires an all-hands on deck approach. Tribal Nations must be included in water decision-making,” said Moira Mcdonald, environment program director of the Walton Family Foundation.
“Tribal Nations often have the most senior water rights in the Colorado River Basin and throughout the West. But they are under-represented in federal and state policy discussions. That is unjust and unwise. We need to listen to their voices. More inclusive decision-making will lead to greater benefits for the environment and society as a whole.”
David Gover, managing attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, said the new institute will help fill a critical gap.
“It will provide legal support, train water attorneys, develop policy ideas, and educate state and federal decision-makers,” he said. “By increasing law and policy expertise within Tribal Nations, we can help Indian Country ensure water is available for generations to come.”
The Native American Rights Fund declares that its mission is to hold governments accountable. We fight to protect Native American rights, resources, and lifeways through litigation, legal advocacy, and legal expertise.
Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the University of Colorado Law School, welcomed the announcement.
“Tribal water rights and related interests are getting increased and much needed attention in the western U.S. and the Colorado River Basin in particular,” she observed. “It will be wonderful to have additional expert legal minds addressing these important issues with the practical and thoughtful experience NARF brings to bear.”
Castle was assistant secretary for water and science in the U.S. Department of Interior during the Obama administration.
The Walton Family Foundation, at its core, consists of three generations of descendants of the founders, Sam and Helen Walton, and their spouses. The foundation works in three areas, including protecting rivers and oceans. The foundation has become an important source of funding for many of the players in the Colorado River Basin during recent years. Many a conference has been underwritten, at least in part, by the Waltons. See more here.
As for how this new investment will be used, NARF identified five ways:
A fellowship program to train young attorneys to represent and advocate for tribal water law solutions.
Advocacy for tribal water rights. “To our knowledge, there is no national tribal organization or academic institution that focuses on tribal water rights or policy development,” says NARF. “The institute will help fill this gap and provide much-needed recommendations and other legal resources to guide tribal water policy.”
A semi-annual report detailing water-related legal information and opportunities. Included will be such details as case summaries, pending legislation, successful settlements, and related commentary.
Support for participation in the Ad Hoc Water Group; the group has been operated since 1981 by the Western States Water Council and NARF.
Continuation of a biennial Indian water settlement symposium that has been held since 1991.
RED MOUNTAIN PASS, COLORADO – On a sunny day in September, with the leaves starting to turn more than two miles above sea level, scientists and volunteers hauled metal stakes, tall measuring sticks and simple trail cameras into Colorado’s high country to seek answers to pressing questions about forests and the snowpack.
Surrounding them were bald peaks, some exceeding 13,000 feet, that would soon be buried in the seasonal accumulation of snow. The snowpack serves as the foundation of the state’s water supply and a critical water source for tens of millions of people in 18 other states and Mexico, plus millions of acres of crops.
Despite the snowpack’s importance in Colorado and elsewhere, scientists still struggle to accurately measure how much snow is out there–and how much water it contains–as climate change threatens to further diminish the frozen reservoir that so many rely on.
In a region with complex weather and roller-coaster topography, each storm dumps a unique pattern of precipitation, favoring some mountains over others, and leaving behind vastly different snow totals due to such factors as elevation and the wind’s direction.
But even in an area as small as a single backyard, how the snow accumulates on the ground–and how long it sticks around–can vary tremendously depending on the presence of trees, shade and other features, posing challenges for traditional monitoring approaches.
“Snow distribution is very heterogeneous, so that means it’s very different within small spatial scales,” said Jake Kurzweil, a hydrologist and associate director of water programs at the Durango, Colorado-based Mountain Studies Institute.
Kurzweil was in a sunny clearing next to a stand of conifers, taking a break as his colleagues arranged stakes and pounded them into the ground of the heavily shaded forest, the sound of clanking metal mixing with the incessant barking of a squirrel.
“If we just move 20 meters to our south here,” he said, “we’re actually going to have quite a different snowpack than where we’re standing right here.”
This corner of the rugged San Juan Mountains features a diversity of conditions even without human influences. But in Colorado and around the West, land managers are making their own mark on forests by pursuing projects that remove trees before a wildfire strikes, improve wildlife habitat and support scenic or recreational goals, all of which can affect the way snow accumulates and dissipates.
To understand how such treatments influence the snowpack, and to inform land-management decisions, researchers are looking to “snowtography,” an emerging approach that relies on automated trail cameras snapping repeated photos of the snow’s depth across a series of points on a straight line known as a transect.
“Snowtography is not a new technology but rather a novel application of fairly simple components,” according to a 2021 handbook produced by The Nature Conservancy, Western Water Assessment and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. The free publication explains how anyone can build and install their own snowtography equipment using materials from a hardware store and inexpensive cameras. (The handbook was funded by the Walton Family Foundation, which also supports The Water Desk.)
As Kurzweil and others set up the stakes for the measuring sticks along the transects, Haley Farwell, a graduate student at Northern Arizona University, scaled a ladder to gingerly fasten cameras to the trunks of trees with screw-in mounts and carefully adjust the angle of the lenses so they targeted the stakes.
“I have a climbing background, so it’s not so bad for me,” said Farwell, whose master’s thesis will use data from the site to study the connection between forests and the snowpack.
Parker Randles, a sophomore at Fort Lewis College in Durango who is working toward his Snow & Avalanche Studies Certificate, had another demanding job: using a post driver to jam the stakes into the ground, which was sometimes unforgiving due to buried rocks.
“There were some rough spots, but overall it went pretty smooth,” said Randles, a ski patroller who said he was interested in the project because “snow is super cool to me.”
Even if a transect is short enough for someone to throw a snowball from one end to the other, the depth of the snow along that line will be anything but uniform. In fact, the researchers have deliberately chosen sites where conditions change markedly over short distances so they can understand how this variability affects the snowpack.
“Our goals are, one, to improve our understanding of forest dynamics and snowpack, and that’ll help us improve our hydrologic modeling, which will help us improve our water forecasting,” Kurzweil said. “But really the primary goal is to understand and work with forest managers and land managers and the Forest Service to say, ‘Hey, if you’re going to do forest treatments, can we optimize the treatments to accumulate and retain snow?’”
The collaborative effort is meant to complement the existing network of more than 900 automated SNOTEL sites that are scattered across the West and run by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. These monitoring stations employ a “snow pillow” filled with antifreeze liquid that can calculate the weight and water content of the snow above. They also measure snow depth and climatic conditions, but the SNOTEL stations can only beam data on a single point, giving a useful yet very limited glimpse at snow conditions.
“Critically, that one location was almost never in the forest. So we had information about snow conditions in open clearings, and not just any open clearings, but usually SNOTELs were located in positions on the landscape where snow persisted for the longest,” said Joel Biederman, a leader in the snowtography effort at the Southwest Watershed Research Center, part of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. “Trees have all these effects, and the way that they’re arranged geometrically are what we would call the 3D forest structure. It matters.”
In addition to gathering images from the cameras, scientists will learn about changes in soil moisture and collect data on “snow water equivalent,” the key measure of how much water lies within the snowpack.
“We’re really accountants for water, if you will,” Kurzweil said. “By having these different data points, it really allows us to quantify how much of that snow is going into the ground, how deep into the ground is it going, versus how much is going into the sky versus how much might be running off.”
Researchers also want to understand what happens to snow at lower elevations as warming temperatures due to climate change threaten to decrease snow cover.
“Historically, a lot of good snow science has been done, but it’s been concentrated disproportionately in places that are cold, high-elevation, get lots of snowfall and have what we would call a stable seasonal snowpack,” Biederman said. “There’s an increasing prevalence as winters are warming of ephemeral snowpacks in places that used to have stable snowpack at kind of moderate elevations or lower latitudes, like here in Arizona.”
Across the West, scientists are employing and exploring a variety of technologies to improve the accuracy of snowpack monitoring, including shooting lasers out of planes and using satellites to aid in measurement. But even with a much clearer picture of how much snow is on the ground on April 1, a key date for the Southwest’s seasonal water supply, researchers and water managers still face challenges in predicting spring and summer streamflows, particularly in a place like Colorado where April and May can feature major snowstorms and highly variable weather.
“Even if we have perfect snow information and we could absolutely 100% quantify the snow at any time, we will still have runoff forecast uncertainty from the weather component alone. We don’t know on April 1st how the rest of spring is going to play out,” said Jeff Lukas, an independent climate researcher formerly at the University of Colorado Boulder who isn’t involved in the Colorado snowtography project.
While SNOTEL has limitations, it’s still the “essential backbone of snowpack monitoring and will remain so,” Lukas said. The Rio Grande Basin has been the “classic example in which SNOTEL has not worked as well” in predicting subsequent streamflows, Lukas said, possibly because the monitoring sites don’t capture the variability in the landscape. “Because of where they are and where they aren’t,” he said, “you can get a misleading picture in more years than in other basins where SNOTEL tends to work pretty reliably, at least at peak (snowpack).”
The nearly $250,000 in funding supporting the two new snowtography sites in Colorado, each with dozens of sampling locations, is comparable to the cost of building, permitting and installing a single new SNOTEL station, but the snowtography funding also covers two years of monitoring and scientific research.
Funding for the project comes from the Southwest Water Conservation District, The Nature Conservancy, Town of Silverton, Northern Arizona University, Colorado Water Conservation Board and San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership.
Other partners in the Colorado project include the Mountain Studies Institute, Fort Lewis College, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Dolores Water Conservancy District, Dolores Watershed Resilient Forest Collaborative, Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies and Western Water Assessment.
Researchers also have installed snowtography equipment in other Western states, including Arizona and Wyoming.
“Things are growing rapidly. We now have 15 snowtography stations averaging about 40 or 50 measurement locations. So daily snow depth at 40 or 50 points times 15,” said Biederman. “It’s our goal to get to where we’re actually informing management, but we’re not there yet.”
The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The Grand Canyon is magical in any season, but fall may take the cake for the perfect boating season on that stretch of the Colorado River. Cool mornings, warm days that are still long enough to dry out your gear after a day of getting hammered by huge waves, and starry nights that appear after the sun has dipped below the ramparts of rock in the distance. This year, canyon explorers are lucky to experience the additional gift of abundant sand from the High Flow Experiment(HFE) that was conducted in April, 2023.
I was on the river a couple of weeks ago, conducting survey activities alongside scientists from the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center (GCMRC). This is part of a long-running program to quantify impacts to various resources throughout the canyon from the construction of Glen Canyon dam in the early 1960s. Since the early 1990’s, scientists from GCMRC and Northern Arizona University have been using geodetic survey techniques to measure sand volume, in three dimensions, to a select group of around 40 beaches and sandbars from Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Creek. The changes are compared year over year and show trends of how these beaches shrink or grow based on Colorado River flow conditions over the year. These measurements are coupled with photographic evidence from cameras also placed throughout the canyon to observe these changes across an entire year or multiple years.
My observation? There is a lot of sand down there, with huge beaches the likes of which I have not seen in many years. The last time an HFE was conducted in the canyon was 2018, and the last time a spring high-flow was conducted was in 2008. Without these HFEs, the sediment-reduced water coming out of Glen Canyon dam actually erode beaches and sandbars, deteriorating conditions over time that impact not only beaches for recreation but allow greater encroachment of vegetation as well as the gradual uncovering of cultural resources near the river throughout the 277-mile corridor. Nearly every beach that was either surveyed, seen from a distance, or camped on was larger – much larger – than what I have seen before. And many of the beaches actually had two stages of sandbars; a lower, very large bench of flat sand, and a higher, more piled berm of sand behind it which formed a tall dune crest or back-bench of soft sand. The volumes we witnessed in places were surprising to say the least.
This configuration of sand was created by the flow regime that was the HFE itself as well as the summer flows that followed. When the HFE was conducted in mid-April, about 42,000 cubic feet per second of water (a very high flow!) was released continuously for 72 hours before the flows were brought back down to normal (~10,000cfs). That mobilized more than 1.5 million tons of sand that had been deposited by the Paria River (roughly 15 miles downstream) over the past couple of years – this is the sand that rebuilt the beaches and sandbars I saw on my trip. After the HFE, though, Bureau of Reclamation moved nearly 10 million acre-feet of water from Lake Powell to Lake Mead, creating unusually high flows (topping out at about 19,000 cfs) each day all summer long. These higher daily flows actually stripped some of that new sand at the lower elevations of the channel, shooting it downstream. In September, Reclamation pulled the flows back a bit more, revealing those lower, expansive benches of sand.
Where is all this leading? Well, in early October Reclamation issued a Notice of Intent for scoping some supplemental rules related to the Long-Term Experimental Management Plan, or LTEMP. While much of what is being considered is related to a situation where invasive small mouth bass have come into the canyon from Lake Powell, threatening the humpback chub population in the canyon, it also is proposing to amend the guidelines for how HFEs are conducted. The new rules would make it so the period of time that sand is accounted for in the canyon would be longer (on an annual basis rather than two, shorter timeframes) as well as lengthening the one of the periods that HFEs could be conducted (importantly making it so HFEs could be triggered in May and June, which they cannot be under the current rules.)
Importantly, you can comment on these new rules. You can read more at the Notice of Intent link above and send your comments by email to LTEMPSEIS@usbr.gov. But you only have until November 3 to make your voice heard.
Seeing these beaches and sandbars firsthand is an extraordinary experience, but being able to speak up for the canyon and all that depend upon it is both a privilege and responsibility. I know that I for one am proud to be able to put my energy into making my voice heard for such a special place. And for even more Grand Canyon exploration, check out our award-winning storymap, Caught in the Middle, which we published last spring.
The 2023 water year began with nearly two-thirds of the Intermountain West in drought. Much-above average precipitation fell across nearly the entire region during winter and many long-term monitoring sites in Utah and western Colorado broke snow-water equivalent (SWE) records. Above average winter precipitation and snowfall caused above-to-much-above average seasonal streamflow volumes across nearly the entire region. Wet winter conditions alleviated drought in many locations. An active North American monsoon season caused areas of above average precipitation in late summer and fall which alleviated drought conditions in all but 8% of the region.
Precipitation during the 2023 water year was above normal to much-above normal for much of the region, except for a large region of south-central Colorado and pockets of eastern Utah and eastern Wyoming where precipitation was 50-90% of normal. Much-above normal conditions of up to 200% occurred in pockets of western and northern Wyoming, east of the Denver area in Colorado, and southwestern Utah. Record wet conditions occurred in much of northeastern Colorado, particularly along the Front Range and counties surrounding Denver, regions of northern Wyoming from Park and Hot Springs to Sheridan, Johnson, and Crook Counties, and southeastern Wyoming near Cheyenne and Laramie.
Temperatures during the 2023 water year were below normal for the region, besides small pockets of slightly-above normal temperatures in each state, particularly in the San Luis Valley region of Colorado. Temperatures ranged from near-normal to -6°F below normal throughout the region, with the coldest temperatures from normal observed in northwestern Colorado, northwestern and northeastern Utah, and western Wyoming. Based on mean temperature data from 1895-2010, the region experienced much-below normal temperatures, particularly in southwestern Utah, western and central Wyoming, and eastern Colorado. Record cold temperatures were observed in small pockets of southwestern Utah and Fremont County in Wyoming.
April 1st snow-water equivalent was above average to much-above average for nearly all river basins in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. Many river basins and individual SNOTEL sites received record SWE accumulation during the 2023 water year; as a statewide average Utah received record SWE accumulation in 2023, breaking the previous record set in 1983. The largest snowpacks were found in Utah and western Colorado including record SWE accumulation in the Lower Bear, Dolores, Lower Green, Jordan, Lower San Juan, and Weber River Basins.
Seasonal runoff volume was above-to-much-above average for all regional river basins except for the Arkansas River Basin where spring runoff volume was slightly-below average. Seasonal runoff volume for the Upper Colorado River Basin was 157% of average. Seasonal streamflow volumes were highest in Utah and western Colorado and lowest in the Arkansas and South Platte River Basins.
Drought was removed from nearly all of the Intermountain West during the 2023 water year. In late September 2022, drought covered 64% of the region. By late September 2023, only 8% of the region was in drought. In Utah, where D3-D4 (extreme to exceptional) drought covered nearly 60% of the state at the start of the water year, extremely high winter precipitation and an active monsoon in August-September caused statewide drought coverage to fall to 5% by September 2023. A portion of northwest Wyoming remained in drought after winter 2023, but a wet August completely removed drought from Wyoming. In Colorado, deep winter snowpacks aided the removal of drought conditions only to see drought return by August. Finally, drought conditions on Colorado’s Eastern Plains were completely removed after very wet conditions in May and June.
Reservoir storage conditions improved significantly across the entire region except for Lake Powell which saw a more modest improvement of conditions. Reservoir storage is average to above average for nearly every major reservoir in the region. The huge 2023 snowpack brought much above average runoff volume into Lake Powell. By July 2023, Lake Powell rose 60 feet increasing from 24% to 36% of capacity by the end of the 2023 water year.
November 10, 2023 – CO, UT, WY
October precipitation varied throughout the region, generally with above normal conditions in Wyoming and below normal conditions in Colorado and Utah. October temperatures were near-normal across the region, leaning towards the warmer side overall. Regional snow-water equivalent (SWE) was mixed, with the greatest variance of much-above to much-below normal SWE in Utah. Drought conditions slightly expanded during October and at the end of the month, drought covered 11% of the region. El Niño conditions persisted during October and are expected to remain through late spring. NOAA seasonal forecasts for November suggest an increased probability of above normal temperatures and equal chances for precipitation for the region.
Regional precipitation during October was a mix of conditions, including much-above normal conditions in Wyoming and much-below normal conditions in Colorado and Utah. Greater than 200% of average precipitation was observed in large regions of Wyoming, including Park, Hot Springs, and Fremont Counties in the west and Johnson, Converse, and Niobrara Counties in the east, as well as Baca County in southeastern Colorado. Less than 25% of average precipitation was observed in pockets throughout the region, mainly in southern Utah and southeastern Colorado where pockets of less than 2% of average precipitation were observed. Above and below normal conditions were observed throughout the region, with Wyoming seeing more above normal conditions and Colorado and Utah seeing more below normal conditions overall.
Regional temperatures were near-normal (+/- 3°F of average), mainly leaning slightly-above normal throughout. Many pockets of above normal temperatures (+ 3-6°F of average) were scattered throughout the region, particularly in Colorado and Utah. There was one anomalous pocket of much-below normal temperatures in Duchesne and Summit Counties in Utah, ranging from -9 to -15°F of average and below.
As of November 1, snow-water equivalent (SWE) conditions were mixed for the region, particularly in Utah with much-below normal SWE in the south and much-above normal SWE in the north. SWE was above normal in northern Utah, northern Wyoming, and the West Slope of Colorado, and below normal in southern Utah, southern Wyoming, and southwestern Colorado. In Colorado, most SNOTEL sites reported 1-2″ of SWE with a high of 2.8” in Schofield Pass near Maroon Bells. In Utah, most SNOTEL sites reported 0-1″ of SWE with a high of 1.4” at the Farmington site. Lastly, in Wyoming, most SNOTEL sites reported 1-4″ of SWE with a high of 4.1” at the Blackwater site near Yellowstone Lake.
Note: Current SWE as a percent of normal maps are often skewed at this time of year due to the very low average SWE this early in the season.
At the end of October, drought covered 11% of the region, a 3% increase from late September. Wyoming is no longer drought-free with D1 moderate drought development in Carbon and Sweetwater Counties. In Utah, there was a 1-category degradation in drought conditions in Uintah County. In Colorado, there was a mix of 1-category degradations in drought conditions in the Eastern Plains and the northwest and southwest, and 1-category improvements on the West Slope.
October streamflow conditions in the Upper Colorado River Basin were above normal in the Upper and Lower Green River Basin, near-normal in the White-Yampa River Basin, and below normal in the Colorado River Headwaters, Gunnison, Dolores, and San Juan River Basins. Most locations in the Utah portion of the Great Basin experienced normal to much-above normal streamflow conditions. Rivers in Wyoming also experienced normal to above normal streamflow conditions with much-above normal conditions in the Big Horn, Tongue, and Powder River Basins.
An El Niño advisory remained in place through October as above average sea-surface temperatures occurred across the equatorial Pacific Ocean and temperature anomalies increased in the central and east-central Pacific. El Niño conditions are projected to remain in place through late spring as there is greater than an 80% chance of El Niño conditions continuing through the March-May forecast period. The NOAA monthly temperature outlook for November suggests an increased probability of above average temperatures for the region, with a 40-50% chance of above normal conditions for the majority of Colorado and Wyoming and a 50-60% chance of above normal conditions for all of Utah. The NOAA seasonal precipitation outlook for November-January suggests below normal conditions for northern Wyoming and the seasonal temperature outlook for November-January suggests above normal conditions for northern and western Utah and the majority of Wyoming.
Significant October weather event. Halloween weekend snowstorm. From October 28-29, a stalled jet streak over Colorado coupled with the coldest air of the season caused scattered bands of heavy snow to develop throughout the state. Thanks to this storm, Denver received its first snowfall of the season, with up to 8” of snow. Many areas in the Denver metro area received more than 8” of snow, including Aurora at 10.4”, Englewood at 10.2”, and Cherry Creek Reservoir at 9.5”. Castle Rock received 12.5” of snow and Colorado Springs received 11”. Other locations receiving heavy snow included Eldora with 14”, Estes Park with 13”, and Evergreen with 11.5”. The heaviest snow totals were recorded in the central mountains, with a high of 24” just north of Crested Butte in Gothic. Crested Butte received 19″, Copper Mountain received 16.9”, Breckenridge received 16”, and Silverthorne received 15.6”.