NIDIS Weekly Climate, Water and Drought Assessment Summary of the Upper Colorado River Basin

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Click on the thumbnail graphic to the right for the precipitation map for the first week of 2012. Here’s the link to the summaries from the Colorado Climate Center.

Here’s an explanation of the uncharacteristic winter weather pattern from Discovery News (Emily Sohn):

Several forces are at work, experts say. To begin with, La Niña conditions have pushed warm water toward Australia in the western Pacific, leaving ocean waters off the American West coast about 5 degrees F colder than usual. As a result, moisture levels are currently low in the atmosphere from California to Washington State.

To understand why, you can think of a La Niña-dominated Pacific like a cold bathtub, said Jeff Weber, a climatologist at the University Corp for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. Compared to a hotter and steamier vat, water is less likely to evaporate from a chilly ocean. And since weather patterns generally move west to east, very little rain or snow is falling from the jet stream right now. La Niña also pushes the jet stream northward, so that it flows near the border between Canada and the United States.

A widespread lack of snow cover explains the recent spell of high temperatures, Weber said. Snow normally acts to reflect the sun’s energy, adding more moisture to the air and causing even cooler conditions. Without snow on the ground, though, exposed brown soils and green grasses are absorbing solar radiation, warming the ground, and feeding back into exceptionally warm temperatures from Michigan to California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.

But last winter was a La Niña year, too, and conditions couldn’t have been more different — with massive and relentless snow storms pounding much of the West and Midwest. It turns out that, even though La Niña and El Niño get all the press, they are not the only drivers of seasonal weather patterns.

“A few months ago, just about everyone was predicting colder and snowier for northern tier states based on La Niña,” Douglas said. “We are discovering that every La Niña is different. And there are larger forcings on the atmosphere that really transcend anything La Niña can do.”

There are two forces that have made the difference between last year’s relentless series of snowmaggedons and this year’s January blooms. They are the Arctic Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation, and they work together like gears to alter jet stream patterns across the U.S.

NRCS: January 1 Basin Outlook Report is hot of the press

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It’s the time of the year when irrigators and water suppliers keep one eye on the sky, hoping for a copious snowpack everywhere across the state, so that conversation can center on how much water Colorado bypassed to other states rather than on allocating a short supply.

The January 1, 2012 Basin Outlook Report from the Natural Resources Conservation Service was made available for download today and many water wonks are not going to like what they see. Remember, the NRCS maintains that they can forecast runoff to within 10% based on the data they collect from selected snow courses around the high country so many rely on the forecast for planning purposes. It’s going to be a dry year, so far.

Click on the thumbnail graphic for the streamflow forecast map.

Here’s an excerpt from the report:

Summary

The water year got off to a good start with October posting 136 percent of average precipitation. Since the end of October, statewide year-to-date precipitation has fallen to 86 percent of average. January 1 snowpack totals for Colorado are also below average at 71 percent of average. This year the southern basins in Colorado have received more frequent storms than the rest of the state resulting in near average snowpack conditions in those basins. Reservoir storage remains in good condition across most of the state. The combined average for Colorado reservoir storage is 105 percent of average as of January 1. Early season runoff forecasts call for below average runoff for most of the state with the streamflow in the southern basins projected to be nearer to average. This month’s Water Supply Outlook Report is compiled using precipitation and snowpack data provided by SNOTEL sites only. With a little luck, the jet stream will shift and provide a more favorable storm track for the rest of the season.

Snowpack

Snowpack totals are below average in all major river basins in Colorado as of January 1. Statewide, snowfall has been below average each month since the start of the water year. While precipitation during the month of October was well above average, temperatures were too warm to allow that precipitation to be stored in the snowpack. In late November, concerns about lack of snowpack across Colorado increased as most of the storms tracked either north or south of the state. In general the jet stream has tracked to the north of the state which has allowed the weather to be dominated by high pressure. As of January 1 the snowpack was measured at 71 percent of average which is 52 percent of the snowpack measured this time last year. With 60 percent of the winter snowpack accumulation season remaining a lot can still happen. The state needs above average snowfall for the next three to four months to return conditions to normal before spring and summer runoff begins.

Precipitation

Precipitation across Colorado’s high county was well above average for the first month of the 2012 water year. Statewide total precipitation during October was 136 percent of average. November was a somewhat drier month across with 80 percent of average precipitation reported at SNOTEL sites across the state. Total precipitation amounts for the month of December were considerably lower than the previous months at just 52 percent of average. Only the Upper Rio Grande basin reported above average precipitation for December with totals at 101 percent of average. Northern basins reported notably below average precipitation for the month of December. The Yampa, White and North Platte basins received only 28 percent of their monthly precipitation average in December, and the Colorado River basin recorded just 32 percent of its average December precipitation. Despite December precipitation measuring well below average statewide, the above and near average precipitation totals during the previous two months has somewhat compensated; leaving year-to-date precipitation for Colorado at 86 percent of average. The Yampa, White and North Platte basins recorded 75 percent of average year-to-date precipitation as of January 1 and the Colorado basin was at 72 percent of the year-to-date average. The Arkansas, Upper Rio Grande, combined San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins all report year-to-date precipitation totals equal to or slightly above average as of January 1.

Reservoir Storage

Reservoir storage across Colorado continues to track near the mid-winter average. Statewide storage on January 1 was 105 percent of average and was 105 percent of last year’s storage volumes reported at this same time. Broken down by basin the Colorado, South Platte and combined Yampa, White and North Platte basins all reported above average reservoir storage on January 1. Likely a lingering effect of the above average streamflow volumes recorded in those basins last spring and summer. The Gunnison, Arkansas and combined San Juan, Animas, Dolores, and San Miguel basins all reported near or slightly above average storage for January 1. The only basin in the state reporting below average reservoir storage is the Rio Grande which was at 64 percent of average on January 1.

Streamflow

At this point in the water year streamflow volumes are forecast to be below average statewide. The only forecasts issued that predict average or above average conditions for this spring and summer are located in the Arkansas River basin. Forecasts for the Purgatoire and Huerfano Rivers located in the lower portion of the Arkansas basin were at 106 and 100 percent of average respectively as of January 1. April to September runoff forecasts for streams located in the Upper Rio Grande basin range from 73 percent to 99 percent of average. The forecasts for the Colorado, Gunnison, Yampa, White, and North Platte and the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan basins are all in the 60 to 85 percent of average range. The South Platte basin faired a little better with April to July forecasts ranging from 68 percent of average for Bear Creek at Morrison to 95 percent of average for the Inflow to Antero Reservoir. At this point above average snowfall is needed for the remaining winter months to improve runoff conditions for the state this spring and summer.

CO Farmers, Elected leaders, Business owners urge Obama to protect waterways

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Here’s the release from Environment Colorado (Heather Kryczka/Patrick Stelmach):

Elected Leaders, Local Farmers, Business Owners Speak Out for Cleaner Colorado Waterways

WHAT: Environment Colorado will release letters of support from over 100 Colorado elected officials, farmers, and businesses who are urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to safeguard the Colorado River, the South Platte River and waters across Colorado and the country from pollution.

After more than a decade of risk for waterways such as the South Platte, the Colorado, the Arkansas and other rivers nationwide, Environment Colorado is urging President Obama to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act by restoring critical protections to these waters immediately through final guidelines and a new standard.

WHEN: Thursday, January 12th, 12:30 pm

WHERE: Colorado State Capitol, west side steps, Lincoln Street
between 14th and Colfax Avenues

Speakers:

James Martin, US Environmental Protection Agency, Region 8 Administrator

Dominick Moreno, Mayor pro tem, Commerce City

Bill Dvorak, Dvorak Expeditions, Owner

Alex Manzo, Confluence Kayaks, Owner

Patrick Stelmach, Environment Colorado, Field Organizer

Heather Kryczka, Environment Colorado, Field Organizer

More Colorado River basin coverage here.

NSAA Litigates Forest Service Water Rights Clause

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Here’s the release from the National Ski Areas Association (Troy Hawks):

The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) filed a lawsuit in Federal court in the district of Colorado today against the U.S.D.A. Forest Service (USFS) to challenge a new water rights clause that results in an unconstitutional taking of property.

“We greatly value our longstanding and successful partnership with the United States Forest Service in delivering outdoor recreation experiences for millions of Americans that are unmatched in the world,” said NSAA President Michael Berry. “As always, we will continue to work positively and cooperatively with the agency to provide these opportunities on public land, but water rights are simply too critical and valuable to our operations not to defend ourselves against this outright taking of private property by the U.S. Government.”

The controversial water rights clause requires ski areas operating on Forest Service land to transfer ownership of many types of water rights to the United States government, including water rights that have been purchased with private dollars by ski areas for business operations. From NSAA’s view, requiring ski areas to transfer ownership or limit the sale of water rights without compensation is no different than the government forcing a transfer of ownership of gondolas or chairlifts, grooming machines, or snowmobiles without compensation—except for the fact that water rights are significantly more valuable than these other ski resort assets.

NSAA’s lawsuit should be a wake up call for cities and counties and other entities that have invested in the development of water rights that are in any way associated with National Forest System lands. Because of the significant percentage of water that originates on National Forest System lands, this change in policy could impact other water owners including cities and counties, owners of recreation residences, marinas and summer resorts, ranchers, mining interests and utilities.

The new water clause also poses a threat to the current system of state allocation and administration of water rights. The Forest Service acted unilaterally in changing its policy, and did not consult with states on its impacts on the state system of allocation and adjudication of water rights.

Prior to litigating the matter, NSAA urged the agency to set aside the controversial water clause and start over on a clause that was within the bounds of the law and protected all parties’ interests. NSAA was not alone in making this request, as Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), Sen. James Risch (R-ID), Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (D), Colorado representatives Scott Tipton (R) and Jared Polis (D), Doc Hastings (R-WA), Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Frank Lucas (R-OK) Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, Mike Simpson (R-WY), Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and the Environment, and Jack Kingston (R-GA), Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, also requested in writing that the agency issue a moratorium on implementation of the controversial clause.

When the agency refused to withdraw the clause, NSAA was forced to go to federal court to seek judicial review and injunctive relief and protect the rights and interests of its member ski areas. Three ski areas have already been required to accept the clause, effective November 8, 2011, as a term in their special use permit in order to operate. Those ski areas include Powderhorn in Colorado, Alpine Meadows in California, and Stevens Pass in Washington.

More coverage from the Summit County Citizens Voice (Bob Berwyn). From the article:

The water rights issue surfaced publicly in November, when the National Ski Areas Association, represented by attorney Glenn Porzak, complained in Congress that the Forest Service was trying to “take” privately held water rights by revising a ski area permit condition that was adopted in 2004. Since then, the ski industry has threatened to sue the Forest Service over the new water rights clause. But Ed Ryberg, who headed the agency’s ski area program from 1992 to 2005, says it’s the other way around. According to Ryberg, the ski industry used its political connections in the Bush administration to lobby for regulatory changes that were subsequently implemented without public input or review under federal environmental laws…

According to Ryberg, the latest move by the Forest Service to revise the language merely restores the balance that existed before 2004 and ensures that water that originates on national forest lands and has been developed for ski resort use remains with the ski areas.

Click through to read the text of a letter from Ryberg to U.S. Senator Udall.

More coverage from Troy Hooper writing for the Colorado Independent. From the article:

“Frankly, litigation may be the best way forward on this issue,” Ed Ryberg wrote in a letter last week to Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, commending foresters for redressing “the abuses of crony capitalism.” In his letter, Ryberg, who coordinated the Forest Service’s ski area program from 1992 until his retirement in 2005, excoriates “the ‘bad actors’ in the ski industry who welshed on their agreements with the United States, and obtained water rights, justly belonging to the American people, through fraud and deception. These are the ski areas on who’s behalf NSAA has been lobbying.”

Asked for a response, Geraldine Link, the policy director for NSAA, emailed the Colorado Independent to say “the 2011 clause … is retroactive in nature. It resurrects old, invalid and replaced clauses that are no longer in effect. It resurrects them from the past even though at this time the ski area and the water rights could very well be owned by a different entity who was not a party to the permit from 3 decades ago. The 2011 clause also applies to water that originates on private land and other non-USFS lands. Talk about shifting political winds. The ski industry is frustrated with the pendulum swinging back and forth between administrations. It is not good for business.”

Ryberg has a much different perspective but he agrees with NSAA officials on at least one point when they say they are going to sue the Forest Service: Let the dispute play out in court. “It will be advantageous to the public’s interest to get the Justice Department involved in this matter,” Ryberg wrote in his letter to Udall, on which Bennet was copied. “It will provide them an opportunity to become familiar with the facts of the matter to help them determine if criminal prosecutions should be pursued, and to expedite acquiring title to water rights that justly belong to the American people.”

More coverage from Kevin Hoffman writing for The Mountain Mail. From the article:

The industry statement says the water rights clause enacted in November last year requires ski areas operating on forest service land to transfer ownership of many types of water rights to the United States government. The clause prohibits ski areas from selling or transferring ownership of some water rights acquired on private or non-federal land. Effectively the lawsuit is based on the association claim that the clause results in an unconstitutional taking of property without compensation and is a restriction that will have a significant and adverse effect on the value of water rights…

Monarch Mountain marketing director Greg Ralph said the lawsuit will not affect the local ski area much because it doesn’t use water rights to manufacture snow.

More coverage from Jason Blevins writing for The Denver Post. From the article:

The new water-rights regulation — already employed in three new ski-area permits in California, Washington and Colorado’s Powderhorn — revises a 2004 agreement that had the Forest Service and ski- area operators sharing ownership of some water rights. In an interview in late December, the Forest Service’s acting deputy chief, Jim Pena, said the revamped clause more closely mirrors the original 1986 permitting legislation and makes sure “we don’t sever the resource from the land.” The industry, however, argues the new clause prohibits ski areas from selling and trading a valuable commodity, reduces the value of the commodity and injures balance sheets. Vail Resorts reports water rights as intangible assets valued at $18.3 million…

Former Forest Service winter sports coordinator Ed Ryberg last week sent a letter to Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo. Ryberg said the 2004 water rights clause was a “radical change to Forest Service direction” that “was a direct result of the ski industry exploiting lax regulatory environment that characterized the Bush Administration.”[…]

Colorado attorney Glenn Porzak, who has represented several ski areas and helped negotiate the 2004 water-rights clause, sent a letter to Udall rebutting “numerous inaccuracies” in Ryberg’s letter. A major contention between the Forest Service and the ski industry is the agency’s assertion that the new water-rights clause does not impact water rights secured on private or non-federal lands. “The new clause impacts water rights on no ski area permit lands regardless of whether they are federal or private lands,” Porzak wrote in his Jan. 10 letter to Udall.

More water law coverage here.

The Valley Courier Water 2012 series: Water cycle explained

Here’s the second installment of Judy Lopez’s Water 2012 series running in the Valley Courier. Here’s an excerpt:

The water cycle is an important part of how all exist; everyone learned that little fact in fourth grade. The problem today is that many have forgotten it.

So let’s have a quick refresher course. Remember that water is needed to fall in the form of precipitation, and then it does one of a few things. It is stored in the form of snow or ice, infiltrates to groundwater, runs-off to streams lakes and rivers or is used by plants. Next, as the plot continues – it evaporates from the surface or transpires through plants and then condenses in the atmosphere and starts all over again.

The key is the process recharge. When water from the surface infiltrates the ground it recharges ground water supplies. With adequate precipitation rivers, streams and aquifers are recharged allowing surface areas to stay hydrated. Even the atmosphere stays hydrated. The system stays full. But this is in a perfect world without large cities, paved streets, concrete parking lots, malls, humans and such progress. It is in this world, recharge gets inhibited, because water doesn’t always go in, but instead it gets used up or runs overland and suddenly picks up a lot of other substances before going into streams and rivers.

More Colorado Water 2012 coverage here.

Southern Delivery System update: Construction of two Pueblo County sections of the pipeline are underway

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From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A 6.4-mile pipeline section through Pueblo West and a 7.6-mile line through Walker Ranches are under way. Later this month, crews will begin construction on a 4.3-mile line from Pueblo Dam to Pueblo West. Construction on the entire 66-inch-diameter line through Pueblo County is expected to be complete by the end of this year. Pueblo City Council this week approved a $198,000 payment from Colorado Springs for an easement across the Honor Farm land. That will include about 27 acres of temporary easements, 16 acres of permanent easements and continuing access to the pipeline for maintenance and repairs. Work along the Pueblo West section has been going on for several weeks, although not all claims have been settled.

“They’ve already dug two big holes in my backyard,” said Dwain Maxwell, one of about seven property owners who are awaiting court action on how much they will be paid for SDS easements…

Construction has begun on Walker Ranches as well. Gary Walker has allowed access, and said he is working with contractors on construction details. But his lawyers are still negotiating the price of that access. Construction also has begun on the North Outlet Works connection at Pueblo Dam, 4.3 miles of raw pipeline in El Paso County and treated water pipelines in Colorado Springs. A contract for the Juniper Pumping Plant was recently awarded as well.

More Southern Delivery System coverage here and here.

Basin Roundtable Project Exploration Committee: Flaming Gorge process meeting Thursday in Silverthorne

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From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

The task force is scheduled to meet from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday at the Silverthorne Town Pavilion to identify interests, existing studies and priorities as it works to complete a report to the state by June. The task force was formed last year at the request of the Arkansas Basin and Metro roundtables to evaluate proposals to build the 500-mile pipeline. First proposed by Fort Collins entrepreneur Aaron Million, the idea is also being studied by the Colorado-Wyoming Coalition…

[John Stulp, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s water policy adviser] explained that the task force will not endorse a Flaming Gorge project, but will identify the issues that are associated with any large-scale diversion from the Colorado River to the Front Range…

“It is important that the idea for the task force came from two roundtables that thought they needed more information,” Stulp said. “While this task force is looking specifically at Flaming Gorge, the information gathered will be applicable to other transfers out of the Colorado River, and will work toward answering the question of how much is left for Colorado to develop.”

Here’s the draft agenda for the meeting. Here’s the December 13 meeting summary.

More Basin Roundtable Project Exploration Committee: Flaming Gorge process coverage here. More Flaming Gorge pipeline coverage here and here.