2014 Colorado legislative session: ‘It’s an election year…I mean, I’m not blind.’ — Governor Hickenlooper

Plume of subtropical moisture streaming into Colorado September 2013 via Weather5280
Plume of subtropical moisture streaming into Colorado September 2013 via Weather5280

From The Denver Post (Lynn Bartels/Kurtis Lee):

Two schools of thought are in play when the 2014 Colorado General Assembly opens Wednesday:

• Nothing could be as caustic as last year, when lawmakers endured 20-hour days fighting over gun control, new election rules and a renewable energy mandate for rural co-ops.

• It’s going to be even worse than last year as lawmakers rehash those issues and try to figure out how to finance education with the failure of Amendment 66, all while gearing up for the November election.

“I tell people it will be either/or depending on the issue — only I add some cuss words,” said longtime lobbyist Mike Beasley.

Gov. John Hickenlooper said he believes the disasters Coloradans endured last year — fatal fires, floods and a school shooting — will bring people together. But he conceded another rough session could be ahead.

“It’s an election year,” he said. “I mean, I’m not blind.”

Hickenlooper, a Democrat, once was deemed invincible in his re-election bid but now has attracted a field of Republican candidates, including a state senator, seeking to unseat him.

The session will open on a historic note: All three new faces in the Senate — Republicans Bernie Herpin and George Rivera and Democrat Rachel Zenzinger — took office after efforts to recall three Democratic lawmakers who voted for stricter gun laws.

But legislative leaders agree there are plenty of opportunities for bipartisan efforts.

“Floodwaters did not discriminate between Democrat and Republican counties. It’s something we should be doing together,” said House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver. “Flood recovery will be one of the first things we deal with in the legislative session.”

September’s floods impacted 24 counties and killed 10 people. To date, millions of dollars in state and federal money have gone toward the disaster recovery.

Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, said much of what the legislature does every year — such as the budget — passes with support from both sides of the aisle.

“I think we’re pretty supportive of a lot of the stuff the governor has proposed,” he said.

That includes increasing the state’s statutory reserve account from 5 percent to 6.5 percent and a bigger investment in K-12 education by using some of the unspent balance in the state’s education fund, Cadman said.

With the failure of Amendment 66, a $950 million tax increase for public schools, legislators now are setting their sights on addressing K-12 education within the financial parameters of Colorado’s improving economy.

“The biggest challenge is going to be school finance,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, chair of the House Education Committee. “Fortunately, the economy is slowly picking up, but it’s a challenge to get the appropriate amount of money into schools.”

Although most education activity likely won’t unfold until after the state sees its March revenue projections, some pieces of Senate Bill 213 — the legislative basis for Amendment 66 that won votes during last year’s session solely from Democrats — will re-emerge with bipartisan support.

“Some education issues shouldn’t be party against party,” said Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley.

With significant reserves in the state education fund, lawmakers could use this pot of money to initiate some of the bill’s more popular elements, such as a rolling student count system rather than a single count day for purposes of school funding. A financial transparency website that tracks money to the individual school level also proved popular.

Minority Republicans in the House already have zeroed in on those items and others, such as capital construction funding for charter schools and more money for English-language learners, as part of their 2014 education agenda.

But while House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, believes plenty can be accomplished with current state money, Ferrandino believes additional resources are needed.

Gun battles are expected to divide the legislature once again.

Republicans will attempt to “reform, rescind or revise” some of the gun bills, along with other controversial measures passed last year, Cadman said.

“We have a responsibility to try to fix the things we think went wrong here,” he said, adding “maybe the Kumbaya-moment opportunities are there with some of the gun bills.”

Senate President-elect Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, doesn’t support overturning gun legislation passed in 2013, although she’s all about changing procedures to hear bills. Lessons were learned from last year, she said, when hundreds of people came to the Capitol to testify against a package of Democratic gun bills but didn’t get a chance. The Senate, in particular, was criticized for hearing all seven bills on the same day.

“I think it’s … important that everybody who shows up gets to testify,” Carroll said.

Senate Democrats enjoyed a 20-15 majority last year. Thanks to the recalls, they now have only an 18-17 edge and two of their caucus members — Lois Tochtrop of Thornton and Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge — tend to vote with Republicans on business and other issues.

“Eighteen-17 is a big change from 20-15,” Cadman said.

He’s just days away from discovering how big.

More 2014 Colorado legislation coverage here.

Drought conditions may return to western Colorado #COdrought

From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Hannah Holm):

As of Dec. 30, the Natural Resource Conservation Service reported that snowpack in the Colorado River Basin in Colorado was at 102 percent of the median for this date, while the Gunnison Basin was at 108 percent, as were the Yampa and White Basins, and the state’s southwestern river basins were at 102 percent. This is down from a few weeks ago, but it’s still looking pretty good.

All in all, the water situation is feeling more comfortable than it has for a couple of years. Zooming out in time and space, though, provides a less comforting picture.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, most of the Colorado River Basin remains either “abnormally dry” or in “moderate” to “severe” drought. Most of western Colorado is still in the abnormally dry category, while drought lingers in northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona. Areas outside of the basin that depend on transfusions of Colorado River water, including much of southern California, are also still in drought.

Looking ahead three months, the U.S. Drought Monitor forecasts warmer and drier conditions across much of the Southwest. This could bring back drought conditions here and cause them to persist elsewhere in the Colorado River Basin.

We depend on reservoir storage to minimize disruptions to water use during droughts. They have been doing their job well over the past 10 years, as water demands in the Colorado River Basin have exceeded inflows from rain and snow. Reservoirs take longer to recover than soils and streams, however, once drought conditions ease.

Currently, most of the region’s big reservoirs are fairly depleted. Lake Powell, the biggest bucket in the Upper Colorado Basin, is only 43 percent full, and Blue Mesa Reservoir, the biggest bucket in Colorado, is 45 percent full. Navajo Reservoir in northwestern New Mexico is 57 percent full, and Flaming Gorge, on the Wyoming/Utah border, is better off at 75 percent full. To put that in seasonal perspective, Lake Powell is at 55 percent of average for this time of year, Blue Mesa is at 68 percent of average, Navajo and Flaming Gorge are at about 75 percent of average.

In Colorado, Lake Dillon is the only big reservoir with a level that’s above average for this time of year. It’s 95 percent full, which is 109 percent of average for this time of year. Green Mountain Reservoir, an important safety net for much of western Colorado, is 56 percent full, which is 95 percent of average for this time of year.

A return to drought in western Colorado and continued drought across other parts of the Colorado River Basin could have wide-ranging effects, from environmental stress to reduced water available for irrigation. Power generation could be another casualty. Lake Powell releases to the Lower Basin are already set to be reduced for the first time since Powell filled, and if Powell’s levels drop much more, it won’t be able to continue producing electricity through its turbines.

One more year of drought is unlikely to cause a major catastrophe. A longer-term continuation, however, which tree ring studies show has occurred in the past, could require major adjustments to how we rely on and manage our rivers.

Thanks, Polar Vortex

Polar Vortex graphic via Columbia University
Polar Vortex graphic via Columbia University

From CNN (Alan Duke):

Americans in two dozen states from the Midwest to the Southeast and Northeast are shivering this week courtesy of a distorted polar vortex. The rush of cold air it’s sending southward is the biggest visitor from the North Pole since Santa Claus. The gifts it brings, however, are chilling and generally unwelcome. Much of the United States has plunged into a deep freeze from record low temperatures.

CNN International senior meteorologist Brandon Miller answers a few pressing questions about this phenomenon.

What is a polar vortex? What distinguishes it?

The polar vortex, as it sounds, is circulation of strong, upper-level winds that normally surround the northern pole in a counterclockwise direction — a polar low-pressure system. These winds tend to keep the bitter cold air locked in the Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. It is not a single storm. On occasion, this vortex can become distorted and dip much farther south than you would normally find it, allowing cold air to spill southward.

How frequently does this polar vortex distortion occur?

The upper-level winds that make up the polar vortex change in intensity from time to time. When those winds decrease significantly, it can allow the vortex to become distorted, and the result is a jet stream that plunges deep into southern latitudes, bringing the cold, dense Arctic air spilling down with it. This oscillation is known as the Arctic Oscillation and it can switch from a positive phase to negative phase a few times per year. This oscillation — namely the negative phase where the polar winds are weaker — tends to lead to major cold air outbreaks in one or more regions of the planet.

Where on Earth can this happen?

The polar vortex can lead to major cold air outbreaks in any portion of the Northern Hemisphere — North America, Europe and Asia. This will lead to cold snaps in multiple locations, though not always…

Is it a side effect of global warming and should we expect more events like this?

This is a hotly researched topic. In short, yes, it could be. It seems counterintuitive that global warming could cause significant cold snaps like this one, but some research shows that it could. We know that different types of extreme weather can result from the overall warming of the planet, melting of the Arctic Sea ice, etc. This includes extreme distortions of the jet stream, which can cause heat waves in summer and cold snaps in winter.

From NBCNews.com (Erik Ortiz):

So what exactly is a polar vortex?

A polar vortex is basically a great swirling pool of extremely cold air located tens of thousands of feet in the atmosphere, said Frank Giannasca, senior meteorologist with The Weather Channel.

Basically an arctic cyclone, it ordinarily spins counterclockwise around the north and south poles.

While it tends to dip over northeastern Canada, it’s catching everyone’s attention because it has moved southward over such a large population — as many as 140 million Americans are feeling the freeze.

Why has it traveled so far south?

There’s a variety of reasons why a chunk of cold air over Canada would break off our way.

Chiefly, warmer air builds up over areas such as Greenland or Alaska, and that air forces the colder, denser air southward.

Also, weather patterns can create the right conditions for the polar vortex to point south.

But in this case, “this very well just may be one of those anomalies where it forces itself southward,” Giannasca said.

Collaboration may be the key to solving Colorado’s water problems

Upper Basin States vs. Lower Basin circa 1925 via CSU Water Resources Archives
Upper Basin States vs. Lower Basin circa 1925 via CSU Water Resources Archives

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Jack Flobeck):

Years ago, Mary Lou Smith of Fort Collins gave presentations on “Collaboration,” as an alternative to compromise or capitulation. Most of the water folks who heard Mary Lou learned that most times a compromise ensured that one side of the question or even both sides, would be mad and feel cheated by the negotiated decision.

But, when they found some common ground and participated in discovery and equilibrium, they all felt like they had contributed to the decision.

To amplify the collaboration story, we should consider the advantages of working in groups with wide experiences and skills. Think of the pain that could have been avoided if there had been just a single scientist, economist, or a plain old rancher with horse sense; at Bishop’s Lodge, N.M.; in 1922 when a cadre of attorneys ‘guaranteed’ the lower basin states 7.5 million acre feet a year of Colorado River water, when we could have agreed to 50 percent of what was in the river at that time. Every water study group should have some bedrock advisers, as well as scientists, biologists, engineers, hydrologists, and yes, dam experts.

What does 2014 hold for us in the arid West? Part of the answer is certainly local, but a great part is definitely national, as the overall national economy will determine our ability to borrow, construct, or divert.

#ColoradoRiver Drought Forces a Painful Reckoning for States — New York Times

Glen Canyon Dam -- Photo / Brad Udall
Glen Canyon Dam — Photo / Brad Udall

From The New York Times (Michael Wines):

The once broad and blue river has in many places dwindled to a murky brown trickle. Reservoirs have shrunk to less than half their capacities, the canyon walls around them ringed with white mineral deposits where water once lapped. Seeking to stretch their allotments of the river, regional water agencies are recycling sewage effluent, offering rebates to tear up grass lawns and subsidizing less thirsty appliances from dishwashers to shower heads.

But many experts believe the current drought is only the harbinger of a new, drier era in which the Colorado’s flow will be substantially and permanently diminished.

Faced with the shortage, federal authorities this year will for the first time decrease the amount of water that flows into Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, from Lake Powell 180 miles upstream. That will reduce even more the level of Lake Mead, a crucial source of water for cities from Las Vegas to Los Angeles and for millions of acres of farmland.

Reclamation officials say there is a 50-50 chance that by 2015, Lake Mead’s water will be rationed to states downstream. That, too, has never happened before.

“If Lake Mead goes below elevation 1,000” — 1,000 feet above sea level — “we lose any capacity to pump water to serve the municipal needs of seven in 10 people in the state of Nevada,” said John Entsminger, the senior deputy general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

Since 2008, Mr. Entsminger’s agency has been drilling an $817 million tunnel under Lake Mead — a third attempt to capture more water as two higher tunnels have become threatened by the lake’s falling level. In September, faced with the prospect that one of the tunnels could run dry before the third one was completed, the authority took emergency measures: still another tunnel, this one to stretch the life of the most threatened intake until construction of the third one is finished.

These new realities are forcing a profound reassessment of how the 1,450-mile Colorado, the Southwest’s only major river, can continue to slake the thirst of one of the nation’s fastest-growing regions. Agriculture, from California’s Imperial Valley to Wyoming’s cattle herds, soaks up about three-quarters of its water, and produces 15 percent of the nation’s food. But 40 million people also depend on the river and its tributaries, and their numbers are rising rapidly…

The Colorado basin states tried in the 1920s to stave off future fights over water by splitting it, 50-50, between the upper-basin states of Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming and the lower-basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California.

In fact, the deal underestimated how much water the fast-growing lower-basin states would need. During most of the wet 20th century, however, the river usually produced more than enough water to offset any shortage.

Now, the gap between need and supply is becoming untenable.

Lake Mead currently stands about 1,106 feet above sea level, and is expected to drop 20 feet in 2014. A continued decline would introduce a new set of problems: At 1,075 feet, rationing begins; at 1,050 feet, a more drastic rationing regime kicks in, and the uppermost water intake for Las Vegas shuts down. At 1,025 feet, rationing grows more draconian; at 1,000 feet, a second Las Vegas intake runs dry.

Lake Powell is another story. There, a 100-foot drop would shut down generators that supply enough electricity to power 350,000 homes.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation’s 24-month forecasts of water levels at Powell and Mead do not contemplate such steep declines. But neither did they foresee the current drought.

“We can’t depend on history to project the future anymore,” Carly Jerla, a geological hydrologist and the reclamation bureau’s Colorado River expert, said in an interview. The drought could end tomorrow, she said — or it could drag on for seven more years…

Should Mead continue to fall, Arizona would lose more than half of its Colorado River water before California lost so much as a drop.

That would have a cascading effect. The Central Arizona Project would lose revenue it gets from selling water, which would raise the price of water to remaining customers, leading farmers to return to pumping groundwater for irrigation — exactly what the Central Arizona Project was supposed to prevent.

“By going back to the pumps, you’ll have made the decision that agriculture will no longer be an industry in central Arizona,” David Modeer, the project’s general manager, said in an interview.

Even Californians doubt Arizona would stand for that, but no successor to the 1960s agreement is in place. And California has a vital interest in holding on to its full allotment of water. The Southern California region using Colorado water is expected to add six million people to the existing 19 million in the next 45 years, and its other water source — the Sierra Nevada to the north — is suffering the same drought and climate problems as the Colorado basin…

That leaves conservation, a tack the lower-basin states already are pursuing. Arizona farmers reduce runoff, for example, by using laser technology to ensure that their fields are table flat. The state consumes essentially as much water today as in 1955, even as its population has grown nearly twelvefold.

Working to reduce water consumption by 20 percent per person from 2010 to 2020, Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District is recycling sewage effluent, giving away high-efficiency water nozzles and subsidizing items like artificial turf and zero-water urinals.

Southern Nevada’s water-saving measures are in some ways most impressive of all: Virtually all water used indoors, from home dishwashers to the toilets and bathtubs used by the 40 million tourists who visit Las Vegas each year, is treated and returned to Lake Mead. Officials here boast that everyone could take a 20-minute shower every day without increasing the city’s water consumption by a drop.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.