Drought news: Good rains in the San Juan mountains help, SE Colorado needs a good winter

Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:


Another large weather system moved across the country’s midsection last week, bringing the heaviest rains to those areas outside of dryness/drought. The system brought anywhere from 3 to 5 inches of rain across eastern Nebraska and Kansas and then through Missouri, Iowa and into the Midwest and Great Lakes region, with cooler temperatures following in its wake. The rest of the country saw a much drier week and California, Oregon and Washington recorded well above normal temperatures…

The Plains and Midwest

A large, slow-moving storm system brought heavy rains (3 to 6 inches) and flooding to eastern Nebraska, eastern Kansas, southwestern Iowa, northern Missouri, central Illinois and extreme western Indiana. One-category improvements are noted in these areas, leaving behind small pockets of D0-D1 as the dryness/drought has been pushed farther south. Streamflow values across much of the Missouri and upper Mississippi basins are running very high for this time of year, emptying swollen streams and rivers into reservoirs along the way as recovery from the 2012-2013 drought continues.

One area that has missed out on the wetness of late is the tri-point region between extreme northeast South Dakota, southeast North Dakota and extreme west-central Minnesota, which sees the introduction of D0 this week. Although the past month was particularly dry, some locales in this region have been experiencing this pattern back to 60 and even 90 days. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as the harvest season is underway for many…

The West

Hot temperatures (6-10 degrees above normal) and dry conditions were widespread across coastal California all the way up to Washington. Conditions remain unchanged this week on the map, however, as a critical new Water Year begins to spin up. With the 2014 Water Year in the books now, the National Weather Service in Sacramento issued some preliminary numbers that help put this drought into perspective. The Sacramento Water Supply Index (WSI) came in as the 4th driest water year in terms of runoff in the 109-year period dating back to 1906. In case you’re interested, 1977 was the worst year, followed by 1924 and 1931, respectively. Several of California’s largest reservoirs are running at their second-lowest levels, only running behind 1977. This is of particular importance given that the population has roughly doubled since the drought of 1977. No doubt about it, though, an above-normal Water Year is sorely needed to stave off even further depletion of surface and ground water supplies.

Elsewhere across the region, good rains came to the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, resulting in some minor trimming of the western notch of D0-D1 found there. Good rains over the past 90 days (or more) has also led to some trimming of the D3 in extreme southeast Colorado, northeast New Mexico, southwest Kansas and the extreme western Panhandle of Oklahoma. Conditions are still dire, though, as the region has weathered four years of intense, persistent drought. This is another region that could use a good beneficial winter…

Looking Ahead

For the period October 9-14, temperatures are expected to remain well above normal (3-6 degrees) across most of the West. Temperatures could prove to be even hotter across the Gulf Coast region and the Mid-Atlantic, with temperatures as high as 9 degrees above the norm. The Central Plains, Midwest and the Great Lakes regions are expecting to see much cooler than normal weather, with readings 3-6 degrees below normal. As for precipitation, one place expecting to see good precipitation is the coastal ranges of Washington. The major rainmaker, however, is expected to come from the remnants of Tropical Storm Simon trekking across the Desert Southwest (southern Arizona and New Mexico), central and southern Plains, Mississippi Valley, the Tennessee and Ohio Valleys and the Northeast. Totals are expected to range anywhere from 2 to 5 inches over widespread areas that are currently under the grip of drought.

Looking out a bit further at the 6-10-day time frame (October 14-18), the models are showing a greater likelihood of above-normal temperatures for virtually all of the contiguous United States, with the exception being the Pacific Northwest. The prospects for this unseasonable warmth are quite strong in the West, western Plains and Atlantic Coast. Southern Alaska is the only place that is expecting below-normal temperatures during this period. All areas except northern Alaska are also expected to be below normal on the precipitation side of things. For the Lower 48, the Pacific Northwest and eastern third of the country are showing better odds of above-normal precipitation. The Four Corners region and the central and southern Plains show a stronger tendency of being below normal with regard to the wet stuff.

The latest El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) diagnostic discussion is hot off the presses from the Climate Prediction Center

Mid-September 2014 plume of ENSO predictions
Mid-September 2014 plume of ENSO predictions

Click here to read the latest discussion. Here’s an excerpt:

Synopsis: El Niño is favored to begin in the next 1-2 months and last into the Northern Hemisphere spring 2015.

During September 2014, above-average sea surface temperatures (SST) continued across much of the equatorial Pacific. The weekly Niño indices were relatively unchanged from the beginning of the month, with values ranging from +0.3°C (Niño-3.4) to +1.1°C (Niño-1+2) at the end of the month. The change in subsurface heat content anomalies (averaged between 180o-100oW) was also minimal due to the persistence of above-average temperatures at depth across the central and eastern Pacific. Equatorial low-level winds were largely near average for the month, though brief periods of westerly wind anomalies continue to arise. Upper-level winds were also close to average for the month. The Southern Oscillation Index has remained negative, and rainfall was near average around the Date Line, with a mix of positive and negative anomalies over Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The lack of coherent atmospheric and oceanic features indicates the continuation of ENSO-neutral.

Most models predict El Niño to develop during October-December 2014 and to continue into early 2015. The consensus of forecasters indicates a 2-in-3 chance of El Niño during the November 2014 – January 2015 season. This El Niño will likely remain weak (3-month values of the Niño-3.4 index between 0.5°C and 0.9°C) throughout its duration. In summary, El Niño is favored to begin in the next 1-2 months and last into the Northern Hemisphere spring 2015 (click CPC/IRI consensus forecast for the chance of each outcome).

Denver Water sets course for 2015

Ashland Reservoir roof construction via Denver Water
Ashland Reservoir roof construction via Denver Water

Here’s the release from Denver Water (Stacy Chesney/Travis Thompson):

At its meeting today, the Denver Board of Water Commissioners adopted rate changes to fund essential repairs and upgrades to Denver Water’s system in 2015.

The required revenues for 2015 equate to a rate increase of less than $1 per month on average for Denver residential customers and are needed to help fund a number of multi-year projects, such as replacing failing underground storage tanks and aging pipes, upgrading water treatment facilities to maintain water quality and meet new regulatory requirements, and rehabilitating Antero Dam in Park County and Marston Dam in Lakewood, Colo.

“Like water providers across the country, Denver Water faces many challenges to ensure we are providing our customers with a clean, safe, reliable supply of water,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO/manager of Denver Water. “From upgrading our aging facilities and staying ahead of regulatory requirements, to planning water projects in the face of climate change and much more, we are working hard to provide Denver Water customers high-quality water and reliable service every day, 24/7.”

Effective February 2015, the revenue increase of 2.2 percent equates to a rate increase of $0.95 per month on average for Denver residential customers using 115,000 gallons annually (the average annual consumption for Denver Water’s entire PDF document service area). The amounts will vary depending upon customer water usage and whether the customer lives in Denver or is served by a suburban distributor under contract with Denver Water. Customers in Denver tend to use less than 115,000 gallons per year; suburban customers tend to use more.

Under the 2015 rates, customers living in Denver will still pay among the lowest water rates in the metro area, and rates for suburban Denver Water residential customers will fall at or below the median among area water providers.

“It’s all connected,” said Lochhead. “Denver Water’s infrastructure is not just pipes and reservoirs. It includes millions of acres of Colorado forests and thousands of miles of rivers and streams, which Coloradans love. Denver Water is committed to investing money and resources to continue to strengthen the health of those rivers and streams. We have a responsibility to the environment in which we operate.”

Denver Water operates and maintains more than 3,000 miles of distribution pipe — enough to stretch from Los Angeles to New York — as well as 19 reservoirs, 22 pump stations, 30 underground storage tanks, four treatment plants and more. The water provider’s collection system covers more than 4,000 square miles and operates facilities in 12 counties in Colorado.

Moody’s Investors Service recently upgraded Denver Water’s revenue bonds from Aa1 to Aaa, its highest rating. “Denver Water is one of only 10 utilities in the country to receive this rating,” said Lochhead. “This upgrade is a result of having a well-maintained system and strong management team focused on long-term planning. Along with receiving the highest ratings from Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings, this top rating allows Denver Water to borrow money for major capital projects at a much lower cost.”

Denver Water is a public agency funded by water rates, hydropower sales, fees for new service (tap fees), bond sales and cash reserves, not taxes. Water rates are designed to recover the costs of providing water service — including maintenance of pipes, reservoirs, pump stations and treatment plants — and also encourage efficiency by charging higher prices for increased water use. Most of Denver Water’s annual costs are fixed and do not vary with the amount of water sold.

More Denver Water coverage here.

It’s Time For America To Talk About The Price Of Water — The Huffington Post

From The Huffington Post (Cynthia Barnett):

Squeezed by drought, U.S. consumers and western farmers have begun to pay more for water. But the increases do not come close to addressing the fundamental price paradox in a nation that uses more water than any other in the world while generally paying less for it. And some of the largest water users in the East, including agricultural, energy and mining companies, often pay nothing for water at all.

As a result, we’re subsidizing our most wasteful water use — while neglecting essentials like keeping our water plants and pipes in good repair. “You can get to sustainability,” says David Zetland, a water economist and author of the book Living with Water Scarcity. “But you can’t get there without putting a price on water.”

Cheap, Abundant Illusion

Water is the most essential utility delivered to us each day, meeting our drinking and sanitation needs and many others, from fire protection to irrigation. Incongruously, it is also the resource we value least. This is true generally for both the way we use water and the price we put on it.

On the global scale, Americans pay considerably less for water than people in most other developed nations. In the U.S., we pay less for water than for all other utilities. That remains true in these times of increasing water stress, says Janice Beecher, director of the Institute of Public Utilities at Michigan State University, whose data show the average four-person household spends about $50 a month for water, compared with closer to $150 for electricity and telephone services.

Water’s historically cheap price has turned the U.S. hydrologic cycle abjectly illogical. Pennies-per-gallon water makes it rational for homeowners to irrigate lawns to shades of Oz even during catastrophic droughts like the one gripping California. On the industrial side, water laws that evolved to protect historic uses rather than the health of rivers and aquifers can give farmers financial incentive to use the most strained water sources for the least sustainable crops. In just one example, farmers near Yuma, Ariz. — the driest spot in the United States, with an average rainfall of 3 inches per year — use Colorado River water to grow thirsty alfalfa; under the law of the river, if they don’t use their allotment, they’ll lose their rights to it.

For both municipal waterworks and those that carry irrigation water to farms, the illusion of cheap, abundant water arose with the extensive federal subsidies of the mid-20th century. The Bureau of Reclamation built tens of billions of dollars worth of irrigation and supply projects that were supposed to have been reimbursed by beneficiaries; most were not repaid. After passage of the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act in the 1970s, the feds doled out billions more dollars, this time to local communities to help upgrade water plants and pipes. Since ratepayers didn’t have to bear the costs, they didn’t balk at treating water destined for toilets and lawns to the highest drinking-water standards in the land.

Americans got used to paying wee little for a whole lot of pristine water. At the same time, many utilities delayed the long-term capital investments needed to maintain their pipes and plants. Water boards are often run by local elected officials, making decisions uneasily political. A board member with a three-year term might not vote for a water project that would pay off in year six. Officials who tried to raise rates risked being booted out of office. It was easier to hope federal subsidies would continue to flow. They did not. A Reagan Administration phase-out of water-infrastructure grants began 25 years ago. Over the past decade, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency water infrastructure funding has declined (with the exception of 2009, the year of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), and policy has shifted from grants to loans.

Unfortunately for water utilities, the timing coincided with the arrival of requirements to scrub dozens of newly regulated contaminants out of drinking water and record numbers of water mains and pipes bursting due to age and extreme temperatures, both hot and cold.

Playing Catch-Up

In recent years, municipalities have begun raising rates to play catch-up. Since 2007, city water prices have risen at rates faster than the overall cost of living. Even so, the water sector reports it is not enough to pay for an estimated $1 trillion in anticipated repair costs for buried water pipes and growth-related infrastructure costs over the next 25 years.

When it comes to meeting needs associated with growth, many of the most promising solutions are found on the demand side. Americans still use more water per person than anywhere else in the world. But the U.S. today taps less water overall than it did 40 years ago despite population and economic growth, thanks to increased efficiency and awareness. From irrigation to manufacturing to toilet flushing, everything we do takes a lot less water than it used to.

Because utilities’ funding relies on revenue generated by water sales, efficiency has many utilities up a creek and churning blame. Earlier this fall, The Washington Post published a story, reprinted in newspapers around the nation, that blamed “federally mandated low-flow toilets, shower heads and faucets” for water utilities’ financial woes. Conservation, the story said, was the cause of higher water rates and new fees.

The reality is just the opposite, says Mary Ann Dickinson, president and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency, a Chicago-based nonprofit dedicated to sustainable water use. Everyone is beginning to pay more for water — but communities that conserve have lower long-term costs than those that don’t. In many cases, simply saving water can eliminate the need for costly new sources, Dickinson says. Growing, water-stressed cities including San Antonio and Perth, Australia, have saved ratepayers more than a billion dollars in long-term capital costs by helping them slash water use in half. An analysis by the city of Westminster, Colo., found that reduced water use by citizens since 1980 saved residents and businesses 80 percent in tap fees and 91 percent in water rates, compared to the costs of acquiring the new water — close to $220 million on Colorado’s Front Range.

Efficiency will be the answer in many communities, although it cannot save the day in financially strapped cities that are losing population. Detroit’s emergence from bankruptcy depends in part on its ability to sell water, but it has lost a quarter of its population over the past decade. Under pressure to reduce more than $90 million in bad debt, the Water and Sewerage Department in the spring began ordering shutoffs for customers who had fallen behind on their bills, prompting a global outcry and a warning from the United Nations.

Pictures of American families bathing and brushing teeth from five-gallon buckets hold a mirror to the nation’s hydro-illogical cycle: We subsidize water for the largest users in the United States, including agriculture and energy plants, yet we do not ensure a basic amount of water for the poorest citizens.

Agriculture at the Table

Likewise, efficiency doesn’t solve water-quality issues like Toledo’s, where ratepayers could be looking at $1 billion for a new drinking-water plant advanced enough to filter out the pollutants brewing in Lake Erie, their water source. Donald Moline, commissioner of Toledo’s public utilities department, says the cost issues are opening up much-needed dialogue with the agricultural community on its contribution to nonpoint-source pollution in Lake Erie. Fueled by farming, septic systems, urban runoff and other causes, nonpoint-source pollution is the largest contributor to water-quality problems in the United States. “It used to be we just weren’t allowed to get into the agricultural causes, but given the science of this, we can’t ignore that piece,” Moline says.

Indeed, concerns over both quality and quantity make agriculture an increasingly important part of the conversation about how we value and price water, says University of Arizona law professor Robert Glennon, author of the books Water Follies and Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It.

Irrigation costs differ significantly for American farmers depending on whether they operate in the West or in the East. Reclamation Reform Acts in the 1980s and 90s began to shift the costs of major U.S. irrigation projects — which move river water around the West — from federal taxpayers to western farmers, whose bill depends on an arcane mix of water rights, allocations and contracts. But in the Colorado River basin, century-old water law can still create a tragedy of the commons in which farmers risk losing their allotment if they don’t use it. To solve this waste-encouraging dilemma, Glennon advocates a regulated system of markets and trading that would allow farmers to sell their water allotments to cities in times of drought or let a manufacturer pay to convert a large farm from flood to drip irrigation in exchange for the saved water.

Groundwater presents yet another paradox of price: Rising energy costs and declining water levels in troubled aquifers such as the Ogallala in the U.S. Great Plains have helped motivate many farmers to use less water. Agricultural and industrial water users pay for the wells, pumps and energy to draw water up from belowground, but in much of the country they still pay nothing for the water itself — which in some cases has provoked a race to the bottom that can dry up neighbors’ wells and even collapse the ground underfoot. In one hot spot in California’s San Joaquin Valley, U.S. Geological Survey scientists found that steady groundwater pumping in the nut-tree region south of Merced is sinking the ground nearly a foot a year, threatening infrastructure damage to local communities…

New Approaches

Going forward, water infrastructure, supply and quality challenges intensified by the droughts, floods, temperature extremes and other influences of a changing climate will require new approaches to not only price, but also ethics: using less and polluting less, recycling more, and sharing costs among all users.

At the local utility level, higher prices and tiered price structures, in which households that use more pay more, are both working to encourage conservation. Utilities are also turning to new types of bonds to cover long-term projects, such as the 100-year “green bond” sold this summer by the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority to finance environmentally friendly stormwater solutions.

Water-science and engineering groups such as the American Society of Civil Engineers make the case that the U.S. infrastructure crisis is severe enough that local communities cannot solve it alone; they suggest that federal investment is crucial to forestall significant costs in emergency repair and business losses.

Market fixes and agricultural partnerships are also part of the answer — especially if water law can evolve to do a better job of protecting the environment and local communities. Over the past two decades, drought-addled Australia has built the world’s largest water market, trading $2.5 billion per year and allowing the government to buy back overallocated rights and return water to nature. Price trends are up — both utility customers and agricultural users are paying more for water — while overall consumption is down. However, feared adverse social impacts may be coming to pass; researchers from Griffith University in Queensland found governments trading “with little regard or knowledge of Indigenous interests, and many Indigenous people believe that contemporary water resource management is amplifying inequities.”

Human rights advocates often oppose water markets on the grounds that we should not commodify an essential human need. But U.S. water use and price have been so skewed for so long that market solutions may be the only politically feasible way to right them. If we are to subsidize anyone, perhaps it should be the poor: A sustenance level of water for those who need it — free or dirt cheap — and higher prices for those who want more and choose to pay. “I argue for a human right to water,” says Glennon. “If we can’t guarantee that in the richest country in the world, we are a sorry lot.”

Key tenets as U.S. water law and policy evolves, Glennon says, are making sure the environment and communities where water originates are not harmed. “It’s glacial, but we are finally seeing people do things differently,” he says. “Across California, you see block rates and municipalities paying people to rip out lawns. Price is going to give us the opportunity to do some things before crisis becomes a catastrophe.”

Water Lines: Former Las Vegas water czar to speak at CMU forum — Grand Junction Free Press #ColoradoRiver

Pat Mulroy via The Earth Institute at Columbia University
Pat Mulroy via The Earth Institute at Columbia University

From the Grand Junction Free Press (Hannah Holm):

Pat Mulroy will give a dinner speech at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction at 6:15 p.m. on Nov. 5. Mulroy is the former head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which provides water to the City of Las Vegas, Nev.

She led the agency during a time when persistent drought spurred numerous innovations, from paying Las Vegas residents to remove lawns to negotiating new agreements with other Colorado River water users on how to manage water. Mulroy is currently the senior fellow for Climate Adaptation and Environmental Policy for the Brookings Mountain West program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is known as a fiery and straight-talking speaker.

Mulroy’s talk will be the centerpiece of the 2014 Upper Colorado River Basin Water Forum, which will begin with pre-forum workshops on Tuesday, Nov. 4 and wrap up Thursday afternoon on Nov. 6. The forum theme is “Seeking a Resilient Future.”

Over the two days of the forum, researchers, water managers, policy makers and other stakeholders from each of the Upper Basin states, as well as Nevada and California, will exchange information and ideas related to enhancing the region’s ability to respond and adapt to changing water conditions.

Speakers will address climate change, state water plans, tribal water claims, Colorado headwaters challenges and responses, agricultural irrigation innovations, demand management and the Colorado River Delta pulse flow, as well as the management of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. A key goal of the forum is to generate insights into how science and history can inform management and policy.

The Thursday lunch keynote speaker will be William Hasencamp, Manager of Colorado River Resources for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He will discuss what lessons can be learned from California’s current extreme drought.

The dinner with Pat Mulroy will begin at 6:15 on Nov. 5. Registration is open to all to attend, regardless of whether or not they will also attend the full forum. Details on the forum, with a links to register for all related activities, can found at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter, or by calling 970-248-1968. One-day and student registration options are available, and the event is free for CMU students, faculty and staff.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here