Snowpack news: Dry across southern Colorado, South Platte snowpack levels out

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CWCB: January 2014 Drought Update #COdrought

Click here to read the drought update from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Here’s an excerpt:

Continued precipitation across the northern half of the state has resulted in a decent start to the snow accumulation season. However, accumulation in the southern portion of the state has slowed over the last two months, with the Rio Grande and Southwest basins seeing only 26 and 23% of normal precipitation for January to date. Moderate to exceptional drought conditions remain on the eastern plains, with 15 counties recently receiving a USDA secretarial disaster designation for drought. Storage levels in all basins are better than they were this time last year; however the northern half of the state is doing better than the southern basins. Water providers are closely monitoring conditions to determine if additional actions need to be taken.

 The 2013 calendar year ended at exactly average (44.9oF) for annual average temperature, placing it as the 64th coolest on record. Records date back to 1895. January to-date has been near average for most of the state.

 Currently, 68% of the state is in some level of classification according to the US drought monitor. 46% of that is characterized as “abnormally dry” or D0, while an additional 9% is experiencing D1 or moderate drought conditions. 10% is classified as severe, 2.5% as extreme and only 1.47% of the state remains in exceptional drought. In comparison, this time last year 100% of the state was classified as experiencing severe to exceptional drought conditions.

 Fifteen counties in eastern Colorado were granted a USDA secretarial disaster designation for drought in mid-January (Sedgwick, Phillips, Yuma, Kit Carson, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Prowers, Bent, Baca, Las Animas, Otero, Crowley, Pueblo, El Paso, and Lincoln). An additional 15 counties were also given contiguous or secondary designations. While many of these contiguous counties are on the eastern plains, five counties are on the western slope along the Utah border.

 Precipitation across the state has been inconsistent since the start of the water year, October 1, 2013. All basins have seen at least one month with above average precipitation, however with the exception of the Yampa/ White, all have also seen at least one month of below average precipitation. Currently, water year to-date precipitation is 98% of average with the northern part of the state near average to above average (90-120%) and the Rio Grande, southwest basins and Arkansas ranging from 79-89%.

 The Climate Prediction Center seasonal drought outlook released January 16, 2014 and valid for January 16- April 30, 2014 illustrates persistent or intensifying drought across southeastern Colorado and the eastern plains along the Kansas and Nebraska border; and likely drought development in the Rio Grande and across the southern state line. Temperature forecasts for the same period show a probability for above average temperatures in Southern Colorado.

 ENSO conditions remain neutral, which offers less guidance for long range climate outlooks. However, the early season forecast was fairly accurate for January 1st snowpack. The statistical precipitation forecast for January- March 2014 shows dryness across much of the state, especially in the northern mountains.

 The April 1st long term snowpack forecast indicates near normal conditions for the northern and eastern basins, but below-normal for the San Juan Mountains. A switch to El Niño appears possible this spring which could result in improved odds for precipitation.

Rio Grande River Basin: The US Supreme Court allows Texas lawsuit against New Mexico to go forward

Rio Grande and Pecos River basins
Rio Grande and Pecos River basins

From the Albuequerque Journal (John Fleck):

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning ruled Texas can proceed to the next step in its lawsuit against New Mexico over the use of Rio Grande water. The brief order suggests the court thinks it may have jurisdiction over the interstate water dispute, but the order invites New Mexico to shortcut a potentially lengthy proceeding by filing a motion to dismiss the action.

Texas has charged that groundwater pumping in New Mexico is draining water from the Rio Grande, depriving Texas water users of their share of the river. New Mexico counters that it is in full compliance with the Rio Grande Compact, the interstate water deal that divides the river’s waters, and that the Supreme Court has no business even taking up the case.

Today’s ruling is a step toward the Supreme Court giving Texas its day in court, but it leaves the door open for New Mexico to cut that courtroom time short.

More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.

2014 Colorado legislation: SB14-017 now termed the ‘sodbuster bill’


From The Durango Herald (Joe Hanel):

Harris thinks it’s time Colorado places limits on new lawns, and his idea is getting a close look at the state Capitol.

“If you want to do conservation, limiting grass is how you do it,” he said.

The problem is known as “buy and dry” – farmers selling their water rights to expanding cities and leaving rural economies without farms and jobs. State studies predict Colorado will lose more than half a million acres of agricultural land by the middle of the century because of buy and dry.

Harris thinks the problem could have a relatively simple solution. Starting in 2016, he says, if any new housing development plans to buy agricultural water rights, then its lawns should cover no more than 15 percent of each house’s property…

Harris took his idea to Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, and they turned it into Senate Bill 17, a bill that is now under scrutiny at the state Capitol.

Roberts rounded up bipartisan sponsors to help her carry the bill – Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton; Rep. Ed Vigil, D-Fort Garland; and Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose. She also has the Colorado River Water Conservation District and water experts in Southwest Colorado on her side.

Roberts and her allies have been presenting the bill to the various groups engaged in Colorado’s long-running water wars – farm and ranch groups, city utilities, homebuilders – in the hopes of building support before scheduling the bill for its first hearing.

“I’ve been talking with homebuilders a lot. Being married to one, I don’t want to have any negative effect on homebuilders as they continue to recover from the recession,” Roberts said.

Homebuilders, however, question whether the bill will do any good.

The bill limits grass only on private lots, and it excludes parks and open space – the biggest grassy areas in most new developments.

Most of the new suburbs under construction now don’t follow the old pattern of rectangular lots separated by privacy fences. Instead, builders are putting up houses with “postage stamp” lawns that surround large, grassy open space areas, said Amie Mayhew, CEO of the Colorado Association of Home Builders…

Opposition is also coming from local governments.

The bill requires them to enforce the 15 percent lawn limit through their land-use codes, and the local government lobby has a long-standing opposition to mandates from Denver. Roberts is usually one of the first senators to side with local governments against the state…

But then, this is a water bill, and the usual rules of politics don’t apply.

Water has always been the one issue in Colorado that could overcome party politics, and SB 17 offers further proof. One of Roberts’ main collaborators is Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District. Roberts was elected to the Senate by ousting Whitehead, the incumbent senator, in 2010 during a hard-fought campaign…

To win, Roberts, Whitehead and Harris need to make sure the bill isn’t treated like a West Slope-East Slope fight, because they will be outvoted if Front Range Democrats and Republicans unite against it.

Both Whitehead and Harris point out that the bill would apply statewide. Subdivisions like Lake Durango use converted agricultural water, although current houses there would be grandfathered and would not have to limit lawn sizes.

If nothing else, Whitehead said, the bill is spurring Colorado leaders to get serious about saving water after years of talk.

From The Denver Post (Michael Remke):

Vincent Carroll’s column summarized state Sen. Ellen Roberts’ proposed bill to mandate lawn size in Colorado. Her intent, of course, relates to water conservation. I would like to propose an alternative idea that should be part of the conversation. Instead of mandating lawn size, we ought to mandate grass species used in our lawns.

Many Colorado residents are unaware that Kentucky bluegrass is not actually native to the prairies of Colorado, but rather Eurasia. In order to maintain Kentucky bluegrass, rigorous watering is needed. This is the source of the battle between lawn size and water conservation.

Rather than using the non-native Kentucky bluegrass, native grass species such as buffalo grass and blue grama offer aesthetic beauty and mat-like properties that rival that of Kentucky bluegrass. They are easy to establish and grow, and have very high drought tolerance. These native grasses have minimal water requirements and, once established, they will be able to support their own well-being from natural precipitation events.

A policy that mandates native grass species would be a suitable (and beautiful) alternative to existing policy, bringing native short-grass prairies back to the Front Range and supporting dominant grass communities in cities like Durango and other high-desert ecosystems.

By growing native grass species, landowners and residents would be supporting native insect and wildlife species while living in harmony with the ecosystem and consuming less water. This idea may seem romanticized. However, I argue that a romantic shift in policy is much more captivating and riveting than an anti-climactic shift in policy.

Indeed, if lot sizes are held constant and lawn sizes are mandated to occupy a smaller percentage of the lot, we are only cultivating a new problem: bare soil and the likelihood for airborne dust.

We should bring more diversity to our lawns by requiring landowners to conserve water by planting native species. Smaller lawns may promote water conservation, but native lawns bring biodiversity and ecosystems back to the prairies and arid grasslands of Colorado, while promoting water conservation.

Planting native is a new idea that should be part of the conversation in Colorado’s legislature.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Ivan Moreno):

Raging waters carved away at the land under Sal Coppolecchia’s house for days last fall. The historic floods weakened his foundation, caused his walls to collapse and washed away his home of 25 years, carrying off a large chunk of land along with it.

Today, Coppolecchia has a huge crater where his living room and kitchen once stood — and he’s expecting a bill for taxes on the destroyed property.

In the coming weeks, state lawmakers will discuss legislation that aims to provide a measure of help for the longtime Lyons resident and hundreds of others in similar situations across Northern Colorado.

It’s offensive “that we expect people to pay taxes on property that doesn’t exist,” said Democratic Rep. Jonathan Singer, who is sponsoring a proposal that would have the state pay the bills instead.

The legislation is still in its formative stages, but it would benefit victims of the flooding, as well as the summer’s destructive wildfires.

Coppolecchia said he has typically paid about $2,200 in property taxes and any aid — however small — would be welcome.

“When you go through this, financially you don’t know if you’re going to recover,” the 59-year-old said.

Coppolecchia has received nearly $32,000 in aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which deemed his home in Lyons to be 100 percent destroyed. He’s now waiting to see whether he will be allowed to rebuild on his property, or if it’s deemed unsafe and the government buys him out.

As the proposal stands, owners of the destroyed properties still would get a tax bill from county assessors so local governments don’t miss out on revenue they rely on to provide services to residents. After the property owners pay the bill, they then could claim a tax credit from the state.

More 2014 Colorado legislation coverage here.