Written in Water, from Greeley Water, features, ‘The wisdom of W.D. Farr and the poetry of Justice Gregory Hobbs’


“The need for water is omnipresent…,” says Hobbs, “All of Greeley would be treeless…”

Here’s the link to the video from Greeley Water.

The Downstream Neighbor is hosting an, ‘extraordinary weekend symposium [and] dialogue around the Front Range connection to the South Platte watershed,’ January 27 – 29


Here’s the link to the announcement. From the post:

This extraordinary weekend symposium brings together activists, scholars & contemplatives in dialogue around the Front Range connection to the South Platte watershed. Critical conversations about our water future will be guided and inspired by international voices for Earth, water and human rights: Maude Barlow and Elisabeth Peredo Beltrán

And yet we know: the waters flowing in and through our watershed belong to Earth, to all species, to future generations. Come! Let us labor together, inspire one another, and grow our awareness in openness to the great shift required as old notions of “separation from nature” slip away.

More South Platte River basin coverage here.

NCAR and University of Colorado scientists are researching methods of measuring snowpack to increase accuracy


From the Boulder Daily Camera (Laura Snider):

[Ethan Gutmann, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research] and his colleagues are testing a number of new snow-measuring devices both at NCAR’s Marshall Field Site south of town and at the Niwot Ridge weather station northwest of Nederland.

Today, there are manual methods of measuring snow — think ruler — and automatic methods of measuring snow. Ultrasonic snow depth sensors, for example, essentially send out a pulse of noise and measure how long it takes for the sound waves to bounce back from the snow surface. But sounds waves can be altered by temperature and wind speeds. “In addition to the ultrasonic snow depth sensors, people are starting to use lasers,” Gutmann said. “It’s the same basic principles, but you’re using light instead of sound. And lasers aren’t affected by things like wind and temperature of the air.”

Gutmann is now using a laser measuring device at Niwot Ridge that can take a measurement of a different spot every four seconds. But he’s hoping to win the support of the National Science Foundation to install a laser that can take 12,000 measurements a second, which would allow him to quickly get a picture of how snow is piling up across a landscape. “I don’t want to know the snow depth 12,000 times per second,” he said. “But we want to study snow processes — we want to study the when and why. If you can scan a point and it takes you five days to get back to it, it’s hard to learn much about the processes.”

Gutmann is also working with a collaborator at the University of Colorado, Kristine Larson, to work on ways to use GPS sensors to measure snow depth. When GPS sensors receive satellite signals, they record both the signal that directly hits the device and the signal that bounces off the ground before hitting the sensor. “The receiver you have can’t distinguish between the two,” Gutmann said. “But the reflected signal causes a little bit of noise in the dominant signal that it’s looking at.” That noise changes as the distance between the GPS receiver and the ground changes, like after a snowfall. Using GPS signals to measure snowfall is especially interesting, from a cost efficiency perspective, because existing GPS receivers that are in place around the world could be used for the task.

At the Marshall Field Site south of Boulder, NCAR scientists are also developing instruments for measuring the amount of precipitation that falls during a snowstorm. These sensors, which contain some antifreeze, melt the snow as it falls, and measure the weight of the newly melted precipitation. In terms of gaining a full picture of total precipitation from a storm, these sensors have the benefit of measuring all the water in the snow, whereas snow depth measuring devices may inaccurately gauge precipitation when snow melts before it accumulates. The sensors, though, can be affected by wind.

Colorado Gives Day — December 6


Mrs. Gulch’s birthday is on Christmas Day. She’s going to be a bit disappointed — but not surprised — when she finds out the the dough I’ve been squirreling away for some cool jewelry went to various non-profits instead.

Book: A Great Aridness — Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest


Here’s the Toms Dispatch post about the book from the author William DeBuys:

Just think of the coming Age of Thirst in the American Southwest and West as a three-act tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions.

The Age of Thirst: Act I

The curtain in this play would surely rise on the Colorado River Compact of 1922, which divided the river’s water equally between the Upper and Lower Basins, allocating to each annually 7.5 million acre-feet, also known by its acronym “maf.” (An acre-foot suffices to support three or four families for a year.) Unfortunately, the architects of the compact, drawing on data from an anomalously wet historical period, assumed the river’s average annual flow to be about 17 maf per year. Based on reconstructions that now stretch back more than 1,000 years, the river’s long-term average is closer to 14.7 maf. Factor in evaporation from reservoirs (1.5 maf per year) and our treaty obligation to Mexico (another 1.5 maf), and the math doesn’t favor a water-guzzling society.

Nonetheless, the states of the Lower Basin have been taking their allotment as if nothing were wrong and consequently overdrafting their account by up to 1.3 maf annually. At this rate, even under unrealistically favorable scenarios, the Lower Basin will eventually drain Lake Mead and cutbacks will begin, possibly as soon as in the next few years. And then things will get dicier because California, the water behemoth of the West, won’t have to absorb any of those cutbacks.

Here’s one of the screwiest quirks in western water law: to win Congressional approval for the building of a monumental aqueduct, the Central Arizona Project (CAP), which would bring Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona agreed to subordinate its Colorado River water rights to California’s. In that way, the $4 billion, 336-mile-long CAP was born, and for it Arizona paid a heavy price. The state obliged itself to absorb not just its own losses in a cutback situation, but California’s as well.

Worst case scenario: the CAP aqueduct, now a lifeline for millions, could become as dry as the desert it runs through, while California continues to bathe. Imagine Phoenix curling and cracking around the edges, while lawn sprinklers hiss in Malibu. The contrast will upset a lot of Arizonans.

Worse yet, the prospective schedule of cutbacks now in place for the coming bad times is too puny to save Lake Mead.

The Age of Thirst: Act II

While that Arizona-California relationship guarantees full employment for battalions of water lawyers, a far bigger problem looms: climate change. Models for the Southwest have been predicting a 4ºC (7.2ºF) increase in mean temperature by century’s end, and events seem to be outpacing the predictions.

We have already experienced close to 1º C of that increase, which accounts, at least in part, for last summer’s colossal fires and record-setting temperatures — and it’s now clear that we’re just getting started.

The simple rule of thumb for climate change is that wet places will get wetter and dry places drier. One reason the dry places will dry is that higher temperatures mean more evaporation. In other words, there will be ever less water in the rivers that keep the region’s cities (and much else) alive. Modeling already suggests that by mid-century surface stream-flow will decline by 10% to 30%.

Independent studies at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute in California and the University of Colorado evaluated the viability of Lake Mead and eventually arrived at similar conclusions: after about 2026, the risk of “failure” at Lake Mead, according to a member of the Colorado group, “just skyrockets.” Failure in this context would mean water levels lower than the dam’s lowest intake, no water heading downstream, and the lake becoming a “dead pool.”

If — perhaps “when” is the more appropriate word — that happens, California’s Colorado River Aqueduct, which supplies water to Los Angeles, San Diego, and the All-American Canal, which sustains the Imperial and Coachella Valleys, will go just as dry as the Central Arizona Project aqueduct. Meanwhile, if climate change is affecting the Colorado River’s watershed that harshly, it will undoubtedly also be hitting the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

The aptly named Lester Snow, a recent director of California’s Department of Water Resources, understood this. His future water planning assumed a 40% decline in runoff from the Sierras, which feeds the California Aqueduct. None of his contemplated scenarios were happy ones. The Colorado River Aqueduct and the California Aqueduct make the urban conglomerations of southern California possible. If both fail at once, the result will be, as promised, the greatest water crisis in the history of civilization.

Only Patricia Mulroy has an endgame strategy for the demise of Lake Mead. The Southern Nevada Water Authority is, even now, tunneling under the lake to install the equivalent of a bathtub drain at close to its lowest point. At a cost of more than $800 million, it will drain the dregs of Lake Mead for Las Vegas.

Admittedly, water quality will be a problem, as the dead pool will concentrate pollutants. The good news, according to the standard joke among those who chronicle Sin City’s improbable history, is that the hard-partying residents and over-stimulated tourists who sip from Lake Mead’s last waters will no longer need to purchase anti-depressants. They’ll get all the Zoloft and Xanax they need from their tap water.

And only now do we arrive at the third act of this expanding tragedy.

The Age of Thirst: Act III

Those who believe in American exceptionalism hold that the historical patterns shaping the fate of other empires and nations don’t apply to the United States. Be that as it may, we are certainly on track to test whether the U.S. is similarly inoculated against the patterns of environmental history.

Because tree rings record growing conditions year by year, the people who study them have been able to reconstruct climate over very long spans of time. One of their biggest discoveries is that droughts more severe and far longer than anything known in recent centuries have occurred repeatedly in the American Southwest. The droughts of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, of the 1950s, and of the period from 1998 to 2004 are remembered in the region, yet none lasted a full decade.

By contrast, the drought that brought the civilization of the ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi, centered at Chaco Canyon, to its knees in the twelfth century, by contrast, lasted more than 30 years. The one that finished off Mesa Verdean culture in the thirteenth century was similarly a “megadrought.”

Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Arizona who played a major role in the Nobel-Prize-winning work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, tells me that the prospect of 130° F days in Phoenix worries him far less than the prospect of decades of acute dryness. “If anything is scary, the scariest is that we could trip across a transition into a megadrought.” He adds, “You can probably bet your house that, unless we do something about these greenhouse gas emissions, the megadroughts of the future are going to be a lot hotter than the ones of the past.”

Other scientists believe that the Southwest is already making the transition to a “new climatology,” a new normal that will at least bring to mind the aridity of the Dust Bowl years. Richard Seager of Columbia University, for instance, suggests that “the cycle of natural dry periods and wet periods will continue, but… around a mean that gets drier. So the depths — the dry parts of the naturally occurring droughts — will be drier than we’re used to, and the wet parts won’t be as wet.”

Drought affects people differently from other disasters. After something terrible happens — tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes — people regularly come together in memorable ways, rising above the things that divide them. In a drought, however, what is terrible is that nothing happens. By the time you know you’re in one, you’ve already had an extended opportunity to meditate on the shortcomings of your neighbors. You wait for what does not arrive. You thirst. You never experience the rush of compassion that helps you behave well. Drought brings out the worst in us.

After the Chacoan drought, corn-farming ancestral Puebloans still remained in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. They hung on, even if at lower population densities. After the Mesa Verdean drought, everybody left.

By the number of smashed crania and other broken bones in the ruins of the region’s beautiful stone villages, archaeologists judge that the aridifying world of the Mesa Verdeans was fatally afflicted by violence. Warfare and societal breakdown, evidently driven by the changing climate, helped end that culture.

So it matters what we do. Within the limits imposed by the environment, the history we make is contingent, not fated. But we are not exactly off to a good start in dealing with the challenges ahead. The problem of water consumption in the Southwest is remarkably similar to the problem of greenhouse gas pollution. First, people haggle to exhaustion over the need to take action; then, they haggle over inadequate and largely symbolic reductions. For a host of well-considered, eminently understandable, and ultimately erroneous reasons, inaction becomes the main achievement. For this drama, think Hamlet. Or if the lobbyists who argue for business as usual out west and in Congress spring to mind first, think Iago.

We know at least one big thing about how this particular tragedy will turn out: the so-called civilization of the Southwest will not survive the present century, not at its present scale anyway. The question yet to be answered is how much it will have to shrink, and at what cost. Stay tuned. It will be one of the greatest, if grimmest, shows on Earth.

More climate change news here and here.

Carl Brouwer: ‘It takes 10 years and $10 million to permit a project — That seems to be the new norm’


It’s easy to recommend cooperation, streamlined permitting, conservation and changes to Colorado water law during average and wet water years (like Colorado has seen lately). Colorado water law shines during dry years. Also, our current system has nurtured the development of a very active water market in the state. The big criticism is that, “Water flows uphill to money,” which, of course, means that more ag water is moving, and will move, to municipal use. It’s great to see the recognition of the concept of food security in the conversation. It’s also a good sign that water wonks are evaluating projects in light of the Colorado River Compact call where the Colorado-Big Thompson and Fryingpan-Arkansas projects could be called out. Both projects water hundreds of thousands of humans and acres of irrigated cropland on the eastern slope.

Here’s a report about the discussion from the recent Colorado Ag Water Summit, from Chris Woodka writing for The Pueblo Chieftain. From the article:

Alex Davis, a former state water official now working as a water lawyer, pointed to cases where cooperation appears to be working, such as the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch or the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement. On the other hand, the state and local interests will spend $100 million in the Republican River basin trying to reach compliance under a compact with Nebraska and Kansas…

The state is looking at programs that share water between cities and farms to keep cities from drying up more farmland, but the legal issues regarding water use are complex. Last year, a state bill was floated and quickly sunk that would have given the state engineer up to 80 years of authority to approve water lease agreements in the Arkansas Valley. Some said it circumvented water court. But the water court process is expensive and gives the advantage to better-funded municipal interests.

“When I started out in this business, we didn’t think that much about food security,” said Jennifer Gimbel, executive director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “I think there was an assumption that ag used so much of the supply, the people assumed it was available.”[…]

Carl Brouwer, project manager with the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, said its Northern Integrated Supply Project is snagged on expensive environmental studies. “It takes 10 years and $10 million to permit a project. That seems to be the new norm,” Brouwer said. “Things have changed. Ten or 15 years ago, projects could be permitted in four years.”[…]

Eric Kuhn, general manager of the Colorado River Conservation District, said five reservoirs have been built by the district in the last 30 years. The key to getting them done was to include multiple purposes and gain the support of environmental groups…

“I personally doubt that a pipeline hundreds of miles long [ed. Flaming Gorge Project] that costs billions of dollars to city councils is the way to save agriculture,” he said.

More water law coverage here.