Water Lines: Dire water predicament spurs cooperation, compromise — Grand Junction Free Press #ColoradoRiver

Colorado River Basin including out of basin demands -- Graphic/USBR
Colorado River Basin including out of basin demands — Graphic/USBR

After a winter of happy news about the generous snowpack in Colorado’s mountains, summer brought reminders that our regional water situation is dire – or, at least, poised on the edge of direness.

Just as the ink was drying on mid-July headlines announcing that Lake Mead had dropped to its lowest level since filling 80 years ago, a new study found that groundwater loss in the Colorado River Basin has been even more dramatic. The study used satellite data to track changes in the amount of water in the basin from 2004 to 2013, and found that 75 percent of the nearly 53 million acre feet lost during that period was from groundwater depletions.

While it is easy to measure how much water is in reservoirs, it is much less clear how much groundwater remains in the region’s aquifers. Western Colorado doesn’t rely much on groundwater, but other states in the basin do.

Then, in early August, researchers at CU-Boulder released an updated report on Climate Change in Colorado. The report notes that higher temperatures are likely to put further pressure on the state’s water supplies, even if we get a bit more rain and snow, because plants will need more and more will evaporate.

An historic 14-year drought plus increasing demands are pushing the Colorado River system ever closer to the point where it could no longer be able to provide the services people rely on. And groundwater appears to be disappearing too fast to be much of a safety net.

The City of Las Vegas, Central Arizona farmers and power generation at Glen Canyon Dam are among the first in line to take a hit if water levels in Lakes Powell and Mead continue to drop.

However, disaster is not inevitable. The multi-state, bi-national agreement to send water back to the Colorado River Delta last spring, for the first time in 30 years, demonstrates that those who manage the river are capable of improbable feats.

Many of the same minds that negotiated the deal that provided water for the delta are working intensely to find ways to keep Mead and Powell functioning and to keep the region’s cities, farms and environment intact. There seems to be both a growing sense of urgency and an increasingly cooperative spirit to these efforts.

Not long ago, when I heard Colorado officials and water managers discuss the overuse of water in the Colorado River Basin, they made it clear that this was mostly a problem for California, Arizona and Nevada — and that Colorado was still intent on developing its full legal share. That tune hasn’t exactly changed, but more cooperative efforts have moved into the foreground.

Most recently, the Central Arizona Project, Denver Water, The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Southern Nevada Water Authority announced that they will team up with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to provide $11 million for pilot conservation projects to boost levels in Powell and Mead.

Cooperation is crossing constituencies as well as Upper – Lower basin divisions. The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel recently reported that Denver Water, the Colorado River District, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, the Colorado Farm Bureau, the Southwestern Water Conservation District, the Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited are working together to explore ways to use some of that $11 million to test “temporary, voluntary and fully compensated” conservation strategies.

Even within Colorado, some of the conflict between West Slopers and Front Rangers over additional transmountain diversions could be softening. A recent “conceptual agreement” released by Colorado’s Inter-basin Compact Committee, which includes representatives from all the state’s river basins, outlines how additional Colorado River water could be sent East “under the right circumstances.” Central to the draft agreement is the recognition by East Slope entities that a new transmountain diversion may not be able to deliver water every year and must be used along with non-West Slope sources of water.

These shifts in tone seem to indicate a coming-to-terms with the fact that Colorado River Basin water supplies are limited, and that everyone who relies on them has a stake in finding ways for all to live within those limits. What remains to be seen is whether we can adapt quickly enough to keep ahead of crisis. Don’t stop praying for snow just yet.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.

Warmer state in your future? — The Pueblo Chieftain

Climate Change in Colorado report for the CWCB from the Western Water Assessment and CIRES
Climate Change in Colorado report for the CWCB from the Western Water Assessment and CIRES

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A state report predicts climate change would stress Colorado’s water supplies by mid-century.

“It shows why the state water plan effort is timely,” said Alan Hamel, who represents the Arkansas River basin on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “There’s a lot of good information that can help the state in the report.”

Warmer temperatures are projected to reduce spring snowpack, cause earlier snowmelt and increase the water use by all types of vegetation as the growing season expands, a report for the CWCB states.

“While future increases in annual natural streamflow are possible, the body of published research indicates a greater risk of decreasing streamflow, particularly in the southern half of the state,” it concludes.

The report was written by a team of climate scientists from the University of Colorado and Colorado State University, looking at historic records and future projections. It was funded by the CWCB, Western Water Assessment and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Annual temperature averages have heated up by 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 50 years, and the trend is expected to continue. However, there has been no longterm trend in precipitation, according to the report.

Although snowpack has been below average in all basins since 2000, no long-term trend has been detected. But runoff is occurring one to four weeks earlier because of higher spring temperatures and dust on snow.

Tree-ring research indicates that there were multiple droughts more severe than anything experienced since 1900 in Colorado.

The rise in temperature is expected by nearly all climate models to continue at the same rate or greater in Colorado through 2050, and climb even faster in the second half of the century.

There is little agreement about precipitation in climate models, except that more of it is expected to occur in the winter months and that it will melt off earlier.

The models project an increase in heat waves, droughts and wildfires.

The report suggests water planners incorporate climate change into scenarios, rather than focusing on a single trajectory of the future.

That’s already been initiated by the CWCB, which has used scenarios for variable climate and growth conditions in the state.

“Planning for longrange water supplies, it is critical to consider changes in climate,” Hamel said. “You have to have scenarios going forward. Just look at 2013 with record droughts, record fires and record floods, all in the same year. You have to plan for variability, as many of the state’s utilities are doing.”

From TheDenverChannel.com (Phil Tenser, Mike Nelson):

“Climate Change in Colorado,” the report issued Tuesday and led by a University of Colorado researcher, is based on compiled climate science. It focuses on current observed trends and forecasts for the mid-21st century.

Over the past 30 years, average temperatures in Colorado have increased by 2 degrees Fahrenheit, the report finds. That is the same amount by which North America has warmed over the same period.

“These global changes have been attributed mainly to anthropogenic (human-caused) influences, primarily the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to the highest levels in at least 800,000 years,” the report’s executive summary says.

While it says that warming in Colorado is “plausibly linked to anthropogenic influences,” it says recent variability in annual precipitation here “has not exhibited trends that might be attributed” to humans. The next paragraph, however, states human influences may have increased the severity of the drought in the western United States.

“Drought is not just a matter of precipitation, the amount of evaporation is just as important. Even if the total annual precipitation were to remain the same, a warmer Colorado will experience more drought due to the increase in evaporation,” 7NEWS Chief Meteorologist Nelson said…

The report says, “The uncertainty in projections of precipitation and streamflow for Colorado should not be construed as a ‘no change’ scenario, but instead as a broadening of the range of possible futures, some of which would present serious challenges to the state’s water systems.”

According to the report, these observations and predictions could influence reservoir operations including flood control and water storage. Changes in the timing and volume of runoff may also “complicate” future water rights issues and interstate water compacts. Lower streamflows could also lead to higher concentrations of pollutants.

Earlier peak flows could have impacts on aquatic ecosystems and rafting or fishing industries, while reduced snowpack may also impact Colorado mountain tourism.

Every climate model assessed in the report indicates future warming will increase average annual temperatures by 2.5 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050 if greenhouse gas emissions are in the lower range of estimates. If emissions are in a higher range, the increase could be 3.5 to 6.5 degrees.

“We will still have cold winters and cool summers, but as the global climate warms, these cooler trends will become less frequent in the coming decades,” Nelson said.

“Climate model projections show less agreement regarding future precipitation change for Colorado,” the report states. Most predict additional precipitation by 2050 during the winters, but there is weaker consensus in the projections for the other seasons.

Hydropower facilities or power plants that need water for cooling could also be impacted, it says.

“Water truly is liquid gold in Colorado, the long term trend toward a warmer and drier climate is something we will need to plan for in the future,” Nelson said.

More CWCB coverage here.

“We’re still bringing water through the Boustead Tunnel. It’s running at twice of average” — Roy Vaughan #COdrought

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Summer rains have prolonged river flows in Southern Colorado beyond anyone’s expectations this year.

It’s been great for rafting on the Upper Arkansas River, a blessing for farmers and helped to replenish reservoir levels after years of drought.

“We’re seeing an increase in private boaters,” said Stew Pappenfort, lead ranger for the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area. “A lot have taken up kayaking or canoeing after going on a commercial outing.”

Caution was needed during the very high flows that occurred earlier this year, he added. There have been 11 deaths on the upper portion of the river, including seven drownings from boating accidents and one medical emergency.

Flows above Canon City remained above 1,000 cubic feet per second Friday, thanks to both wet conditions and releases to make even more space for imports in Turquoise and Twin Lakes in Lake County, near the headwaters of the Arkansas River.

“We’re still bringing water through the Boustead Tunnel. It’s running at twice of average,” said Roy Vaughan, manager of the Fryingpan- Arkansas Project for the Bureau of Reclamation.

The Boustead Tunnel brings water from the Roaring Fork watershed into Turquoise Lake.

So far, nearly 80,000 acre-feet (26 billion gallons) of water has been brought over, which is about 25 percent more than Reclamation forecast in June. Snowpack was about 25 percent above the median this year in Colorado’s central mountains. But regular summer rains, missing in 2012 and 2013, have boosted flows to more normal levels, Vaughan added.

For farmers, the wet conditions are welcome.

“We were dry early,” said Dale Mauch, who farms near Lamar. The Fort Lyon Canal has had 16 runs of water so far this year, compared with 12 total in 2013 and just seven in 2012. “We had a slow start, because it had been so dry, but it picked up in mid-June. We ran out of snow water on July 4, but then it started raining. You need rain. It really makes a difference.”

Many eyes are on Lake Powell and the power pool #ColoradoRiver

A high desert thunderstorm lights up the sky behind Glen Canyon Dam -- Photo USBR
A high desert thunderstorm lights up the sky behind Glen Canyon Dam — Photo USBR

Here’s a look at the Lake Powell power pool and the cascading effects if the reservoir drops below the level necessary to continue to deliver power to the southwestern US, from Allen Best writing in The Denver Post:

Colorado water leaders used a curious approach last week in announcing a new water conservation program involving the Colorado River. They talked about electricity and the effect of spiking prices on corn farmers in eastern Colorado, ski area operators on the Western Slope, and cities along the Front Range.

The scenario? A Lake Powell receding to what is called a minimum power pool, leaving too little water to generate electricity. Glen Canyon Dam, which creates the reservoir, is responsible for 81 percent of the power produced by a series of giant dams on the Colorado River and its tributaries, including those on the Gunnison River. This electricity is distributed by the Western Area Power Administration to 5.8 million people in Colorado, Arizona and other states.

Should this power supply be interrupted, WAPA would make good on its contracts with local utilities by buying power in the spot market, such as from gas-fired power plants. But extended drought on the Colorado would certainly increase prices to reflect the higher costs of replacement by other sources.

Hydropower is far cheaper than renewables but also fossil fuels. Rural electrical cooperatives get nearly half the production, followed closely by municipalities, including Colorado Springs, Delta and Sterling, plus Longmont, Loveland, Estes Park and Fort Collins.

Right now, WAPA is selling the energy from Glen Canyon and the other dams at $12.19 per megawatt-hour with a separate charge for transmission. Just how much prices would increase in event of prolonged interruption is speculative. The same agency, however is shoring up August deliveries with purchases of power from other sources at $55 per megawatt-hour, according to Jeffrey W. Ackerman, the Montrose-based manager of WAPA’s Colorado River Supply Project’s Energy Management Office.

This illustrates the bone-on-bone relationship between energy production and water during time of drought.

Yet the broader story about the Colorado River is about a narrowing razor’s edge between supply and demand. There’s no crisis, but water officials are planning for one. A healthy snowpack in Colorado last winter helped, but did not solve problems. The basin as a whole was still below average, as it has been 11 of the last 14 years.

“As leaders, we simply cannot wait for a crisis to happen before we come together to figure out how to address it,” said Jim Lochhead, chief executive of Denver Water. “That would be irresponsible.”

Denver Water and providers in Arizona, Nevada and California, plus the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, are pooling $11 million to launch a demand-management program. Utilities such as Xcel Energy have similar programs, offering to pay customers willing to suspend use of air conditioners for a couple hours on hot summer afternoons.

In this case, $2.5 million is being allocated to fund programs that would yield reduced demands in Colorado and other states upstream of Lake Powell. The obvious idea is fallowing of crops, such as a hay meadow, with the irrigator to be reimbursed. But Lochhead stresses that it’s a blank chalkboard. The intent is to solicit ideas and then “demonstrate effective demand-management techniques.”

“It’s not something we expect to do. It’s not something we want to do, but if the drought continues, we want to be ready,” says John McClow, Colorado’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

The bulk of the $11 million will be allocated to demand-management programs in the lower-basin states.

Doug Kenney, director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment, sees the agreement as representative of broad shift in states sharing water from the Colorado River. “In the past, they could get together to build things such as dams. Now, they are teaming up to save water,” he says. “That’s a paradigm shift.”

An effort involving The Nature Conservancy and water agencies based in Durango and Glenwood Springs has been underway for five years. That parallel effort, however, is driven by a different trigger: the prospect of a compact curtailment or “call.” The 1922 Colorado River Compact requires Colorado and the other upper-basin states — Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — to deliver an average 75 million acre-feet over any given 10-year period.

Upper basin states at this point have a cushion of 15 million acre-feet, or two years’ supply. Yet abundant snowfall last year in Colorado only slightly filled Lake Powell. One relatively good year does not compensate for several bad ones.

Always hovering in the background is the prospect of even worse. Tree rings from across the River Basin provide clear evidence of longer, more intense droughts 800 to 900 years ago. An additional layer is the prospect of higher temperatures caused by global warming.

Chris Treese, external affairs director for the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, acknowledges a growing sense of urgency. “We could be back in a near-crisis or crisis situation in as little two or three years,” he says. And for water planners, who typically try to think decades ahead, that’s a current event, he adds. [ed. emphasis mine]

How likely is this dead pool? U.S. Bureau of Reclamation modelers in April found a 4 percent chance of a minimum power pool in 2018 and a 6 percent in 2019. The models are based on recorded hydrology of the last 105 years.

What if Powell does decline and electricity cannot be generated? It depends upon how long the shortage lasts. A longer outage would affect electrical consumers from Arizona to Nebraska. “We’re struggling to quantify the impact,” says Andrew Colismo, government affairs manager for Colorado Springs Utility.

Tri-State is the single largest consumer, purchasing 28 percent of all power produced in 2012 from the dams. It sells this power to 44 member co-operatives in a four-state region, including those who sell to irrigators in eastern Colorado.

Irrigation is a huge consumer of cheap power. In northeastern Colorado, Holyoke-based Highline Electric meets demand that ranges from a low of 25 megawatts to a high of 190 megawatts, the latter occurring when irrigation pumps are drawing water from the Ogallala aquifer to spread across 123-acre circles of corn, beans and other crops. Some large irrigators pay hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in electrical costs, says general manager Mark Farnsworth.

The irony is that if a drought occurs accompanied by heat, as is usually the case, irrigators will probably pump more water and air conditioners will work even harder. Power demands will rise as water levels drop.

Tri-State spokesman Lee Boughey says existing rate structures anticipate both droughts and heavy precipitation.

Lochhead and others also point to other ripples from interrupted power sales. Revenues from hydroelectric sales, which were $198 million last year, are used for a great many programs: selenium control in the Delta-Montrose area, work to maintain ecosystem integrity downstream from Glen Canyon and ongoing efforts to preserve four endangered fish species in the Colorado River and its tributaries.

On Wednesday, Lochhead met with an interim legislative water committee at the Colorado Capitol to report about the new agreement. The testimony all day had been about potential measures to expand water conservation as Colorado tries to figure out how to accommodate a population expected to double from today’s 5.3 million residents to 10 million people by mid-century without drying up rivers and farms.

Denver Water already serves 1.3 million, but gets about half of its water from the Western Slope. “We have a vested interest” in the Colorado River, Lochhead told legislators.

One outstanding question is whether Denver and other water providers on the High Plains should try to be able to get additional water from new or expanded transmountain diversions.

With this story from Lake Powell, the take-home message is don’t count on it.

Allen Best writes frequently for The Post about water and energy and also publishes an online news magazine, found at http://mountaintownnews.net.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here and here.