Drought news: Hope and angst for the upcoming snowpack season up and down the #ColoradoRiver Basin

From the Las Vegas Review-Journal (Henry Brean):

After 14 years of record drought, it will take an unusually wet year — one like the basin saw in 2011 — to stave off the first-ever water shortages on the overdrawn river and slow the decline of its two main reservoirs.

Lake Mead, the source for 90 percent of the Las Vegas Valley’s water supply, has seen its surface fall by more than 100 feet since the drought began. Current projections call for it to lose another 25 vertical feet of water and sink to a record low by November 2014.

Should the lake keep falling from there, it could force the shutdown of one of two intake pipes used to deliver water to the valley. The Southern Nevada Water Authority is rushing to complete a new $817 million intake that will draw from the deepest part of the reservoir, but the complicated project is unlikely to be finished until late next year or early 2015.

“This is an alarming trend, and one that we would really like to see come to an end,” said water authority spokesman J.C. Davis. “Even if we have an ‘average’ year on the Colorado this year, Lake Mead is projected to continue falling. In order to make a significant dent, we would need at a minimum something on the order of 150 percent of normal.”

Almost all of the river’s flow starts as snow that collects in the mountains of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming from November to late May. Lake Powell, on the Utah-Arizona border, fills with that water in early summer, rising sometimes by a foot or more a day as the snow starts to melt and water flows downstream…

Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather, which supplies data for the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s daily weather page, is forecasting a wet, snowy season in the Northwest, the Rockies and in California, where heavy precipitation in December and January could help fill reservoirs drained by dry conditions in that state…

Just don’t get your hopes up quite yet, Goodbody said. “I’d be reluctant to put a whole lot of stock in forecasts like that. They’re fairly low-skill.”

Long-range forecasts for the Rockies are tricky because the mountains rest between two areas generally influenced by the El Niño and La Niña weather phenomena. It’s even more complicated right now, Goodbody said, because the climate is in what he called a “neutral phase” between El Niño and La Niña.

But the stage is set for a good winter on the Colorado.

The heavy downpours that triggered devastating floods in eastern Colorado last month also soaked the headwaters for the river, moistening soil left parched by the long dry spell. Goodbody said that could allow more snowmelt to flow down into the river system rather than be absorbed by the dry ground.

The flow of water into Lake Powell was more than twice what it normally is in September, which is the driest month of most water years but ranked as the third wettest of water year 2013.

That’s almost unheard of, Goodbody said, and it serves to illustrate just how unusually wet September was and how unusually dry it was during the rest of last year.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.

Protect the Flows seminar: ‘Hundreds of thousands of jobs depend directly on the #ColoradoRiver’ –@MarkUdall

Hayfield message to President Obama 2011 via Protect the Flows
Hayfield message to President Obama 2011 via Protect the Flows

From The Durango Herald (Joe Hanel):

Sen. Mark Udall laid out a pro-business case for conservation of the Colorado River on Friday, and he also threw cold water on the idea of building new large dams on the Western Slope.

Although discussions about the Colorado River Basin are traditionally dominated by water utility mangers, anglers and rafting company owners, a broader array of businesses are starting to pay attention. About 50 businesspeople gathered Friday for a seminar by Protect the Flows, a group that urges conservation of the river that supports most of the cities in the southwestern United States.

“Hundreds of thousands of jobs depend directly on the Colorado River,” Udall told the group.

The fate of Colorado’s share of its namesake river is getting more attention this fall, as state leaders are ramping up a publicity campaign around Colorado’s Water Plan, a first-ever statewide water strategy that Gov. John Hickenlooper wants to debut by next winter…

James Eklund, executive director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, shared Hickenlooper’s goals for the state water plan. The governor wants action to replace decades of talk about Colorado’s water woes, but at the same time he wants to make sure solutions come from people around the state, not from the offices of power in Denver, Eklund said.

“In water, you usually talk about decades. Instead, we’re in a position where we need to act in real time, not water time,” Eklund said…

Eklund reminded people during his lunch presentation that the Western Slope already supports the Front Range’s water consumption.

“The water in your glass – half of that comes from the Colorado River,” Eklund said.

From The Denver Post (Jason Blevins):

“In the West, when you touch water, you touch everything.”

Sen. Mark Udall repeated that famous quote by Colorado congressman Wayne Aspinall at a unique gathering Friday of corporate forces working to protect and sustain the encumbered Colorado River.

Population growth, drought and increasing demand are challenging the Colorado River and threatening Western economies and outdoor lifestyles.

“In order to meet those challenges, we have to acknowledge that the current management and current use of the river is unsustainable. We’ve got to start from that point,” said Udall, addressing the first Business of Water Corporate Leaders Summit in Denver, hosted by Protect the Flows, a network of almost 1,000 businesses advocating for protection of the 1,450-mile river.

More than 30 business leaders rallied for the two-day summit, sharing innovations and strategies for better water management.

Catherine Greener, head of sustainability for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the largest national park concessionaire with operations in Rocky Mountain, Zion and Grand Canyon national parks, told the gathering how her company has decreased water use, gas emissions and fossil-fuel use by enlisting guests in its “softer footprint” mission.

Mark LeChevallier is the scientist in charge of innovation and sustainability at American Water, a utility that serves 15 million people in 30 states. His utility’s conservation measures have reduced residential consumption by 15 percent in the past decade despite years of drought using innovation such as acoustic monitoring to detect leaks and reducing water pressure during low-demand hours.

Liese Dallbauman, director of water stewardship for PepsiCo, detailed her company’s global efforts to provide community watersheds with the same amount of water used by PepsiCo plants in the region. PepsiCo’s three plants in Arizona work with the Nature Conservancy on several water-conserving programs that have led the company to reduce its water use by 20 percent.

“The water we use is a debit. We are spending something. We want to offset that,” Dallbauman said.

Every speaker offered concrete strategies for not just protecting water but educating consumers on its value. George Wendt urges the 3,000 people a year who float his OARS rafts down the Colorado River to support conservation. Broomfield’s WhiteWave Foods makes sure consumers know its plant-based drinks require 77 percent less water per half gallon than cow milk. MGM Resorts International is fighting to include water conservation in energy-saving metrics that often focus only on reducing carbon impact.

The idea is to build a groundswell of consumer and business support for water conservation. With Western populations swelling, demand for the Colorado River’s water is expected to exceed supply by 3.2 million acre-feet in 2060, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s alarming multiyear “Colorado River Basin Water Supply & Demand Study” released last year.

That does not bode well for the 40 million people who drink Colorado River water. Or the farmers who irrigate 4 million acres with that water. Or the 5 million people who recreate around Colorado River water, generating a $26 billion impact that sustains 230,000 jobs across seven states.

Protecting that natural resource protects jobs and fuels economies, Udall said.

“Conserving the great outdoors is a long-term investment in jobs that can’t be outsourced,” said Udall, who suggested that a balance between increased conservation and wastewater treatment, expanding storage and recharging groundwater supplies would alleviate pressure on the Colorado River.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.