“Miracle May” revisited

Federal Water Year precipitation as a percent of normal thru May 31, 2015
Federal Water Year precipitation as a percent of normal thru May 31, 2015

From The Produce News (Lora Abcarian):

“We started in May with a rain cycle,” said Dick Wolfe, Colorado’s state engineer. “Things really turned around.”

He said conditions during March were not as snowpacked as is typical for the Centennial State. “We were way behind,” Wolfe explained. “But May was a huge turnaround in what we saw.”

According to Wolfe, the National Weather Service has deemed the month of May the wettest month, setting a national record “which is pretty impressive.” He added that this is the first turnaround of significance to have occurred during more than a decade of drought.

“Reservoirs are full or nearly full,” he commented. “We’ve got good reservoir storage.”

Coloradans saw an extended winter season in 2015 with cooler-than-normal temperatures moving into May. Monsoonal flows, typically seen during the summer months, took hold early and resulted in heavier-than-normal springtime rains. News accounts were rife with stories about flooding or potential for flooding.

The flirtation with summer began in early June as temperatures climbed and rains diminished. But, as Wolfe noted, weather forecasters have been keeping their eyes to the skies and are predicting that rainy patterns will return in July and continue into September.

“July through September is supposed to be above-average precipitation,” Wolfe commented. “Colorado is right in the bull’s-eye for rainfall predictions.”

Although the majority of Colorado falls outside the drought profile at the current time, he said areas from the western part of Colorado’s San Luis Valley to Gunnison are still dry.

According to Wolfe, the much-needed precipitation and favorable water storage condition mean that agricultural producers will have more water available for irrigation in 2015. “With good runoff and water supply, there aren’t the calls on the river that been restricted in years past,” he explained.

The subtle — but very real — link between global warming and extreme weather events — The Washington Post

Graphic via the National Climate Assessment via The Washington Post
Graphic via the National Climate Assessment via The Washington Post

From The Washington Post (Chris Mooney):

Last week, some people got really mad at Bill Nye the Science Guy. How come? Because he had the gall to say this on Twitter:

“Billion$$ in damage in Texas & Oklahoma. Still no weather-caster may utter the phrase Climate Change.”

Nye’s comments, and the reaction to them, raise a perennial issue: How do we accurately parse the relationship between climate change and extreme weather events, as they occur in real time?

It’s a particularly pressing question of late, following not only catastrophic floods in Texas and Oklahoma, but also a historic heatwave in India that has killed over 2,000 people so far, and President Obama’s recent trip to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, where he explicitly invoked the idea that global warming will make these storms worse (which also drew criticism).

As the Nye case indicates, there is still a lot of pushback whenever anyone dares to link climate change to extreme weather events. But we don’t have to be afraid to talk about this relationship. We merely have to be scrupulously accurate in doing so, and let scientists lead the way.

Take the floods. One exemplary voice here has been Texas Tech climate researcher (and evangelical Christian) Katharine Hayhoe, who took to Facebook to explain the science. As Hayhoe noted, climate change doesn’t “cause” individual extreme events, in this case or in others. But “just like steroids make a baseball player stronger, climate change EXACERBATES many of our weather extremes, making many of them, on average, worse than they would have been naturally,” she said.

Thus, Hayhoe treated the link between a changing climate and the floods not as a matter of simple causation, but as a matter of context. She notes that overall, “heavy rainfall and flood risk is increasing,” due to the fact that warming charges the atmosphere with more water vapor, which is then more available to fall in individual precipitation events.[…]

And what about India’s extreme heat? Here again, we must bear in mind that extreme weather events are not directly caused by climate change. Indeed, weather extremes can occur — and weather records can break — due solely to natural climate variability.

Nonetheless, and as with past major heat extremes, such as Australia’s 2012-2013 “angry summer,” the odds of an event like this one occurring may have shifted. Indeed, meteorologist Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground has directly stated that the heat wave “was made much more probable by the fact that Earth is experiencing its hottest temperatures on record.”

Colorado Springs: Mayor Suthers wants $19 million for stormwater

Fountain Creek Watershed
Fountain Creek Watershed

From KKTV.com:

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers is asking for $19 million a year to mitigate the flow of Fountain Creek as it goes downstream. He told 11 News $8 million would come from bonds, $3 million from Springs Utilities and $3 million from the city’s general fund. That still leave $5 million for the plan to work, meaning there could be budget cuts…

“We’re prepared to make budget cuts and sacrifices as necessary to resolve this issue. We’ve got to get this issue behind us and move on with relations between Pueblo and Colorado Springs,” said Suthers.

He told 11 News cutting city employee salaries could be how they make up the rest of the money needed for the plan, although nothing is set in stone yet and there is a lot of work to be done before the plan is finalized.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Colorado Springs sent something other than rushing water, logs and mud Pueblo’s way Monday.

Springs Mayor John Suthers and City Council President Merv Bennett met with the Pueblo City Council at its work session to backfill trust that has been eroding when it comes to Fountain Creek.

“We are going to fund our stormwater requirements,” Bennett said. “We will resolve this. We owe it to all the people in the Arkansas Valley.”

Suthers said it was not fair to Pueblo and other communities downstream that Colorado Springs City Council yanked funding from its stormwater utility in 2010 on a split decision after a murky 2009 vote. That meant funding of about $16 million annually washed away.

“At one time Colorado Springs was committed to funding stormwater and then it went away,” Suthers said. “That was flat unfair to Pueblo.”

Colorado Springs voters last year again rejected a regional stormwater fee and Suthers doesn’t want to keep going back to the same well. Instead, he and the current council want to put a road tax to a vote and find the money for flood control in the Colorado Springs general fund.

“Selling roads to the voters is easier than stormwater,” Suthers said.

The plan is to shift funding to provide $19 million a year for stormwater, which Suthers said could strain other departments, but is necessary for Springs to uphold its commitments.

Pueblo Councilman Bob Schilling called the presentation “a breath of fresh air,” but reminded Suthers and Bennett that Colorado Springs also has a $50 million commitment to fund flood control on Fountain Creek when Southern Delivery System goes online early next year.

That money will be controlled by the Fountain Creek Watershed Flood Control and Greenway District, which has both El Paso and Pueblo counties members.

“The most important thing is that the $50 million cannot benefit Colorado Springs, and don’t split hairs,” said Schilling, the only council member who was serving in 2004 when intergovernmental agreements were signed to protect Arkansas River flows through Pueblo. “I hope you’re real serious and have a way to follow through.”

Bennett and Suthers gave assurances that Colorado Springs plans to incorporate the needs of downstream communities, including Pueblo County and the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District, into planning, hinting that future agreements are in the works.

“This is an issue that needs to be dealt with, that needs to be put behind us,” Suthers said.

Pueblo Councilman Chris Nicoll said Springs appears to be more concerned with containing the flows off the Waldo Canyon burn scar than living up to past commitments on Fountain Creek.

“The water from the burn scar doesn’t stop at Colorado Springs,” Bennett said, but added the city must address downstream concerns. “We’ve been investing $20 million a year, and a lot of that is from grants. These dollars are not grant money, but coming out of our general fund.”

From KOAA.com (Lena Howland):

Mayor John Suthers presented a plan to fund a permanent storm water enterprise. He says with this plan he is committed to the people of Pueblo and solving the flood problems.

A shake of the hand. This is how City Council President Steve Nawrocki ended tonight’s presentation from Colorado Springs Major John Suthers.

“We have an obligation to the folks in Pueblo to do the best job we can to mitigate some of those impacts caused by Fountain Creek on Pueblo,” Suthers said…

Mayor Suthers presented an idea to Pueblo City Council that would use $19 million a year of Colorado Springs city revenue to mitigate the devastating flow of Fountain Creek into Pueblo.

“We’re prepared to make budget cuts and sacrifices that’s necessary to resolve this issue. We’ve got to get this issue behind us and move on,” he said.

News5 has been tracking much of the Fountain Creek flood damage as beds along this creek have been deteriorating for the past several weeks. And Suthers knows this problem needs immediate attention.

“That’s just part of being responsible and being a good neighbor,” Suthers said.

Pueblo City Councilman Bob Schilling asked Suthers for reassurance that Colorado Springs is on board.

“You’re going to have to stand tall and get your people to care enough about Pueblo to tax themselves on it. And that’s going to be a real project,” Schilling said.

But Schilling sees this as a step in the right direction.

“I truly believe that you all are, hopefully, what I see as a breath of fresh air as far as commitment,” he said.

This is far from a done deal. Suthers must also approach Pueblo County Commissions in hopes of avoiding legal action.

Moving forward, they must decide how to hold Colorado Springs accountable if the city doesn’t come up with the annual minimum payment to Pueblo and, how much input Pueblo will have on these mitigation efforts.

More stormwater coverage here.

Twenty of the West’s Leading Water Managers Raft Colorado’s Yampa River — Smithsonian

Yampa/White/Green/North Platte river basins via the Colorado Geological Survey
Yampa/White/Green/North Platte river basins via the Colorado Geological Survey

From Smithsonian.com (Heather Hansman):

We had come to the canyon that the Yampa carved through ancient Weber sandstone on a raft trip, to talk about the future of wild rivers, and rivers in general. Advocacy groups Friends of the Yampa and American Rivers decided that the best way to talk about water issues was on the water. So they pulled together 20 people who have been making decisions about water in Colorado, and in the West, for the past 30 years—the head of Denver Water, former Deputy Secretaries of the Interior, ranchers, power plant managers and environmentalists—and a few journalists like myself. They tempted them with the idea of running an untapped river, and then stuck everyone in boats for five days so they had to talk to each other.

The Yampa flows from the high country near Routt National Forest, past power plants and ranchlands, into Dinosaur National Monument where it joins the Green River at Echo Park. It hits the main stem of the Colorado just over the border in Utah. Even though it’s not dammed anywhere, it’s used by almost all the major groups who depend on river flows: farms, fish, cities, industry, recreation and power. The coal-fired Craig Power Plant is its major consumptive user. Endangered fish like the Colorado pikeminnow depend on its flow. Along the way it irrigates pasture lands and provides flows for kayakers. And, if it continues to run free—hence the flow-dependent bathtub ring—it can be a model for fish habitat and smart agricultural use…

On the river, as we floated through the folded geology of the canyon and stopped to scout rapids, we talked about those questions. At night, people pulled up chairs around the fire, cracked beers and tried to explain their priorities. We talked about risk management and sharing the burden of drought. The most heated topic was transmountain diversions of water across the Continental Divide, and how to avoid them.

The Yampa, and with it the state of Colorado, is a microcosm of river management. Colorado has to send almost half of the water that falls in the state downstream. To complicate things, the state’s water law is legally layered and hard to change. This spring, a bill that would allow Colorado residents to collect rainwater failed to pass, because it was argued that it could injure downstream water rights.

“It’s just like balancing a checkbook,” says Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “Based on the last 16 years, nature has provided a flow of about 13 million acre feet of water at Lee’s Ferry [just below Glen Canyon Dam], and our estimate is that we’re using about 15 million. Since then, we’ve overused the system by 30 to 32 million acre feet, which we know because we’ve drawn down storage by that amount. We started with 50 million in the bank, now we have about 18. The system is heading for zero.”[…]

Water rights are also based on a use-it-or-lose-it principle of beneficial use. In theory, or maybe in the 1920s, that sounds good, because it implies that if you’re using a lot you must need a lot. But now it means that senior rights holders—corporations, irrigation districts, water departments and others with earlier and higher priority rights that get their share of water first—are unlikely to use less water than they’re allotted, for fear they’ll never get it back. It makes conservation unappealing, because by using less, you could be selling your security blanket down the river.

“Everybody is trying to pressure dreams from the past,” says Jay Gallagher, from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, after the boats were pulled up on the beach one day. “They want security for today and something left over for tomorrow. That’s the root of the emotion around water, the fear of losing it.”

That’s particularly true on the Yampa, which feels like the last of a dying breed. The Colorado itself has been so allocated that it no longer flows to the Pacific, and other western rivers, like the Dolores, in southern Colorado, are considered dead, because only a trickle flows past the dam. The Yampa is the only one that has remained untouched despite proposals to siphon off or dam up its flow.

Conservation across all facets of the water system, from farming to lawn watering, could stanch the bleeding, but it’s tricky to ask people who have a legal right to a certain amount of water to give it up. To change both perspective and use patterns, you have to make the greater good also good for the individual. Kuhn says that basically comes down to money—you have to make it financially smart for water users to conserve…

Kuhn is trying to outline the clearest ways to make conservation financially appealing. There is talk of setting up a water market, where willing sellers and buyers can trade water rights. “Those plans are moving at a snail’s pace, but the conversations are happening,” he says. People on the trip are also working together on smaller, creative projects. Blakeslee is fallowing parts of the ranch he manages to try to conserve, while American Rivers is working with ranchers to create manmade riffles—small rapids where fish can find food—on streams to build trout habitats without diverting any water.

On the Yampa, despite the disparate intentions, there was more teamwork than infighting. “Overall the average amount of water we recieve each year is still below our needs,” Kuhn says. “What we need to figure out how to do is live within our means.”

One evening on the banks of the river, Matt Rice, the director of American Rivers’ Colorado River Basin Program, brought out a bottle of beer he’d been saving. “It’s called ‘Collaboration Not Litigation,’” he said. “And I think we should all have some.”

More Yampa River Basin coverage here.