Western Water Assessment, et al., release report “Charting Colorado’s Vulnerability to Climate Change”

co_vulnerability_report_2015_final cover
Here’s the release from Western Water Assessment, the University of Colorado, and Colorado State University:

Sea-level rise may not be not eating away at Colorado’s borders, but climate change exposes other critical vulnerabilities in the state, according to a new report. Rising temperatures will likely take a toll on cattle and crops, for example, and could more often leave junior water rights holders with little water and few options.

The new report, “The Colorado Climate Change Vulnerability Study,” was commissioned by the Colorado Energy Office in accordance with the Colorado Legislature’s HB13-1293. It’s a sector-by-sector analysis of the challenges that state residents and leaders will have to deal with in coming decades. It also details many of the ways Coloradans are already grappling with these issues, and where other strategies may help mitigate risk.

“Vulnerability is not just a question of how climate change will affect resources in the state, it’s also a question of how well Colorado is prepared to deal with changes,” said Eric Gordon, co-lead editor of the report and a researcher with the Western Water Assessment (WWA). WWA is part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder, and is funded primarily by NOAA.

“We also know vulnerabilities change over time, as environmental and socio-economic conditions change,” said Dennis Ojima, co-lead editor of the report and a professor in the Ecosystem Science and Sustainability Department at Colorado State University. “It will be important to keep an eye on this changing landscape of vulnerability.”

In the public health sector, Colorado may see more incidents of infectious diseases, the report notes, and the elderly and people living in poverty are especially vulnerable. Climate change impacts on public health are complex and difficult to anticipate, but rising temperatures could mean more frequent episodes of unhealthy air quality and more common heatstroke, West Nile virus, plague and hantavirus.

For perspective, hotter states such as Florida and Arizona are also dealing with the invasion of diseases typically not seen in the continental United States, such as dengue fever.

“Colorado is lucky to avoid certain diseases that affect hotter areas,” Gordon said, “but we are vulnerable to increases in those we already have here, especially West Nile virus.”

Temperatures in Colorado have been rising, especially in summer, and that trend is expected to continue, along with increases in the frequency and intensity of heat waves, droughts and wildfire. Public schools in many Front Range cities are vulnerable to these changes, the report notes. Historically, schools in the state have not needed cooling, so many do not have air-conditioned classrooms. “These rising temperatures have exposed a major vulnerability that could potentially be very expensive to address,” the report notes.

“As we assess impacts on various communities, we find that various sectors are affected differently,” Ojima said. “For example, droughts would affect streams and fisheries differently than agricultural or energy producers.”

Among other findings, by sector:

  • Water: The state’s reservoirs can provide some buffering against some expected increases in water demand and decreases in flow, but entities with junior rights or little storage are especially vulnerable to future low flows.
  • Agriculture: Rising temperatures, heat waves and droughts can reduce crop yield and slow cattle weight gain. Colorado farmers and ranchers are already accustomed to large natural swings in weather and climate, but may find it especially challenging to deal with expected changes in water resources.
  • Recreation: Climate projections show that Colorado’s springtime mountain snowpack will likely decline by 2050, with potential impacts on late-season skiing. Spring runoff season may also be earlier and shorter, which could affect rafting. But the recreation industry and some Colorado communities are already making changes that could help them adapt to a warmer future. For example, Telluride ski area now markets itself as Telluride Ski & Golf.
  • Transportation: As temperatures increase, rail speeds must drop to avoid track damage, leaving the freight and passenger rail industries vulnerable to slowdowns or the need for expensive track replacements.
  • The new, 176-page report is available at on the Western Water Assessment’s website: http://wwa.colorado.edu/climate/co2015vulnerability/. It is a summary of existing available data and research results from the peer-reviewed literature, and was compiled by researchers at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), the University of Colorado Boulder, the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory at Colorado State University, the North Central Climate Science Center, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Thirty experts from state offices, consulting groups and academia reviewed the report.

    CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and the University of Colorado Boulder.

    WWA, at CU-Boulder, is a NOAA Regional Integrated Sciences & Assessment (RISA) program.

    The North Central Climate Science Center is a partnership with the Department of Interior and Colorado State University.

    Eric Gordon, co-lead editor, CIRES Western Water Assessment, University of Colorado Boulder, esgordon@colorado.edu, 303-492-4766
    Dennis Ojima, co-lead editor, Colorado State University, dennis.ojima@colostate.edu, 970-491-1976
    Katy Human, CIRES communications, Kathleen.human@colorado.edu, 303-735-0196
    Kate Jeracki, CSU external relations, kate.jeracki@colostate.edu, 970-491-2658
    – See more at: http://cires.colorado.edu/news/press/2015/climatechange.html#sthash.noDom6ZH.dpuf

    Snowpack news: “We’ve had very warm nights for this time of year” — Charles Kuster

    Westwide SNOTEL snow water equivalent as a percent of normal February 3, 2015 via the NRCS
    Westwide SNOTEL snow water equivalent as a percent of normal February 3, 2015 via the NRCS

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

    If this were a postcard winter, it would be the kind in which a polar bear in sunglasses was enjoying a tropical drink and a lot of the words in the message were crossed out and scribbled over.

    On paper, everything looks pretty average. But there have been twists of extreme cold and higher-than-normal temps, snowpack that built up early and began to dwindle and the typical uncertainty of how things will play come springtime.

    Snowpack for Colorado as a whole was just 81 percent of median as of Tuesday, but that’s no indication of how it will turn out or even of how it is in any given part of the state.

    Most of the snowpack is clustered over the central mountains at the top of watersheds that feed into the Arkansas, Colorado and South Platte basins — all of which are almost at normal levels.

    The outlying parts of the state are drier than normal.

    “What’s unusual is that we normally see very cold weather in the December-February time period,” said Charles Kuster, who watches the weather closely in the Leadville area. “This year, I’ve only recorded 26 days with lows of 0 degrees (Fahrenheit), and the average is usually about 60 days of those type of temperatures.”

    The high temperature in Leadville was 50 degrees on Jan. 26, and the lows were 7 degrees above average overall.

    That has played havoc with a snowpack that built up generously in November and December, but suffered in January. Kuster recorded just a foot of snow last month, about 17 inches below normal.

    “We’ve had very warm nights for this time of year,” he said. “Normally that’s not a factor. But even with the low sun angle, we’re seeing some melting. It’s unusual to have significant melting this time of year.”

    Still, some sites in the Leadville area remain well above normal, such as Fremont Pass, which is sitting at 123 percent of median in snowpack and 124 percent of average precipitation since October.

    The Rio Grande basin is just at 65 percent of median snowpack, the driest area of the state.

    Colorado’s Southeastern corner still is in severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency’s three-month outlook is calling for aboveaverage precipitation and below-average temperatures for Southeastern Colorado.<,/blockquote>

    CWCB meeting recap: $29,000 for compliance study until Arkansas Valley Conduit is online

    Arkansas Valley Conduit Comanche North route via Reclamation
    Arkansas Valley Conduit Comanche North route via Reclamation

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

    New state regulations are creating a headache for Arkansas Valley water providers who are banking on the Arkansas Valley Conduit to improve water quality.

    The Colorado Water Conservation Board approved a $29,000 grant this week that will go toward a $70,000 program to create a working group to chart a course of action for 38 communities until the conduit is completed.

    Water in many of the systems is contaminated by metals, salts and/or radionuclides and managing treatment of the water is more complicated because of recent solid waste regulations by the Colorado Department of Health and Public Environment.

    That’s created a hardship because smaller private water companies do not have the resources to comply or even determine compliance and the state has not clearly explained what is or is not required. The regulation presumably covers disposal of by-products.

    There are ongoing concerns about radionuclides, which affect 12 of the communities.

    The $400 million conduit, which will move water from Lake Pueblo to Lamar and Eads, is seen as the best solution to the water quality problems for about 50,000 people. However, construction of the conduit might be a decade away from reality.

    The Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and Lower Arkansas Valley are contributing $7,500 each toward the project, as well as $27,500 in inkind services.

    More CWCB coverage here.