Colorado River Basin: Climate Central series about the Colorado River basin

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Here’s part one of the series from Climate Central (Tom Yulsman/Brendon Bosworth)

Plot spoiler: They maintain that westerners are obsessive about winter snowpack. I’ll agree that some of us are. From the article:

In recent weeks, water managers, skiers and farmers, if not city folk, from California all the way to Colorado were breathing a little easier with the news that storms have significantly boosted both mountain snowpack and the water supply outlook in the Colorado River Basin.

As of January 6, the average snow water equivalent for most of the basin was at 141 percent of the long-term average. (Snow water equivalent is the depth of the water you’d collect if you melted a given amount of snow instantaneously). This is the very best start to the year since 1997, according to the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.

Here’s part two of the series from Climate Central (Brendon Bosworth/Tom Yulsman). They look at the future of the basin. From the article:

During the past few decades of rapid growth in water use, “the hydrological cycle in the region began to change,” write Tim Barnett and David Pierce of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in a 2009 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Snowpack declined in the western mountains, temperatures increased, and many streams gradually shifted their peak flow to earlier in the year,” they continued. “It has been shown, with very high statistical confidence, that a substantial portion of these changes are attributable to human-induced effects on the climate.”

But Brad Udall, director of the Western Water Assessment of the University of Colorado, is a bit more cautious: “The way science and statistics work is that there’s a really high bar set to say, ‘Okay, this particular event is actually climate change and not just natural variability.’ In fact that bar is so high, frequently all you can say is, ‘hey, this is consistent with what we think climate change will bring.’ I think this is in many ways is where we are in the Colorado River.”

Regardless of whether the recent drought has a man-made component or not, computer modeling of the climate system is not reassuring about the future. It indicates that the Colorado River basin will become warmer and more arid in coming decades. In fact, this is one of the more robust findings shared among most of the climate models.

Here’s the third article in the series where Brendon Bosworth explores the increasingly common large dust events from the Colorado Plateau. From the article:

Rust colored desert dust on the snowpack has been causing snow to melt on average three weeks earlier than it did before human activities in the West disturbed its pristine ecosystem, around the middle of the 19th century, according to a study by researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES). (For a CIRES press release on the research, go here.)

This has been robbing the river of some 750,000 acre-feet of water each year, on average, compared to the undisturbed conditions that preceded human settlement. Astonishingly, that’s enough to supply the entire city of Los Angeles for 18 months.

These findings come at a time when the Southwest is in its 11th year of the most severe drought since 1900, and increasing water demands from expanding cities are placing added strain on the Colorado River.

To learn more about what’s going on, I visited study co-author Jeffrey Deems in his office at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. As part of his research, he digs pits in the snowpack to examine layers of compressed dust buried by fresh snowfall.

More Colorado River basin coverage here.

CWCB: Water Availability Task Force meeting recap

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Here’s an excerpt from the report from the CWCB (Veva Deheza/Kevin Rein):

Despite a warm and dry start to December, large storms later in the month helped 2010 end with above average snowpack statewide. However, east of the continental divide remains drier than normal with D2, severe drought conditions, persisting in the Arkansas Basin and D1, abnormally dry conditions, in much of the rest of the eastern plains. Reservoir storage is strong across most of the state with the majority of basins near average; the Rio Grande Basin is the lowest at 78%. While precipitation in the mountains is off to a good start, water managers and agriculturalists remain cautious. Continued warm temperatures could result in high early season demand for water; however, should precipitation on the eastern plains rebound, demand would likely be eased. The next 2-3 months will give a better indication of what conditions can be expected throughout the spring and early irrigation season.

More CWCB coverage here.

U.S. water infrastructure assessment

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Here’s a look at the potential costs and problems with existing water infrastructure in the U.S. from Alison Kosik writing for CNN.com. From the article:

Each day, leaking pipes account for an estimated 7 billion gallons of water, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Much of this is blamed on age. A large part of the U.S. water delivery system dates back to the years shortly after World War II. “Now it’s time to replace that system and we’ve got to make those investments or we’ll suffer the consequences,” said Goldstein. To get an idea of how old the nation’s water pipes are, 30% of pipes in systems that deliver water to more than 100,000 people are between 40 and 80 years old, according to the EPA. About 10% of pipes in those systems are older.

Click through and read the whole article. Thanks to Loretta Lohman for the link.

More infrastructure coverage here.

‘Managing Custer County’s Water’ conference recap

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Here’s an in-depth report from Nora Drenner writing for the The Wet Mountain Tribune. Click through for the article. Here’s an excerpt:

Some 120 persons gathered inside the fellowship hall at Hope Lutheran Church Saturday, Jan. 15, to learn what they could about Colorado water law and how it relates to Custer County. The forum was sponsored by the Custer County Conservation District and local Natural Resource and Conservation Service office.

The forum began with our local District 13 water commissioner Jerry Livengood giving an overview of the county’s water resources and uses. Livengood told the group there are 3,964 wells in the Valley with the permitted uses including domestic, household, municipal, commercial and irrigation uses. He also equated one acre-foot of water to 325,851 gallons, and one cubic foot per second of water to 646,320 gallons per day.

The primary water storage vessel in the Valley, said Livengood, is Lake DeWeese with 2,300 acre feet belonging to the DeWeese Dye Ditch Company, 500 acre-feet each to the Bureau of Land Management and Colorado Division of Wildlife, 350 acre-feet to the Round Mountain Water and Sanitation District, and 100-acre feet to the Upper Arkansas Area Council of Governments.

Proposed Penley Dam Project reservoir update

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In November, residents in the Indian Creek area, near Sedalia, got together and organized an opposition group to Ventana Capital’s application for the Penley Dam Project, part of the proposed Penley Ranch development. The project’s effects on property values, aesthetics and possibly the flood plain were their main issues.

[Note: I was mistaken about this project. It is on Indian Creek, not Plum Creek. I still don’t know about water rights that would be used to fill the reservoir.]

In December the Douglas County planning staff recommended approval for the project and sent it on the the Douglas County Planning Commission.

On January 10 the Commission voted unanimously (8-0) against the project, according to email from a Coyote Gulch reader.

The hearing before the Board of Commissioners originally scheduled for January 25 has now been continued to February 7. Here’s the notice from Douglas County:

The Douglas County Board of County Commissioners hearing to consider a Use By Special Review application for 3485 N. State Hwy 67-Penley Reservoir (Project File No. US2010-006), noticed for Tuesday, January 25, 2011, at 2:30 p.m., is being continued to Monday, February 7, 2011, at 6:30 p.m. This continuation is necessary to accommodate the numerous requests from citizens for an evening hearing.

Additional hearings are tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, February 23 and Thursday, February 24, 2011, also at 6:30 p.m. All project documents are available on the County’s website here.

More Penley Dam coverage here.

Snowpack news

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From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent:

Overall, the snowpack in the [Roaring Fork] watershed is at 136 percent of average, and all stations are still “significantly above average,” according to the Roaring Fork Watershed Snowpack Report issued by the Roaring Fork Conservancy…

Regional snowpack

Roaring Fork Watershed, 136%
Independence Pass (Roaring Fork), 131%
Ivanhoe (Fryingpan), 132%
Kiln (Fryingpan), 122%
McClure (Crystal), 140%
North Lost Trail (Crystal), 153%
Schofield Pass (Crystal), 137%

Justice Hobbs talks Colorado water history at the state legislature

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Wayne Aspinall is credited with saying, “In the West, when you touch water, you touch everything.” Well, these days you can hardly read an article about our new governor or the General Assembly that doesn’t mention water somewhere so I guess I have to agree with Aspinall.

Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs was at the capitol building yesterday talking Colorado water history. Here’s a report from Patrick Malone writing for The Pueblo Chieftain. From the article:

Ancestral Pueblo Indians built [water works] in the southwest corner of the state between 750 and 1180 A.D. The San Luis People’s Ditch, the state’s oldest water right dating from 1852, is still honored today. “We didn’t even become a territory until 1861,” Hobbs said…

He discussed the complexities of water source augmentation, the unique role Colorado’s courts play in water decisions (appellate courts are bypassed straight to the Supreme Court on appeal), how Colorado’s neutral decision makers on water disputes — the courts — differ from other states’ more political approaches and the state’s history of consideration to agriculture in structuring water law.

More 2011 Colorado legislation coverage here.