Weekly Climate, Water and #Drought Assessment of the Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin

Upper Colorado River Basin month to date precipitation through November 22, 2015 via the Colorado Climate Center
Upper Colorado River Basin month to date precipitation through November 22, 2015 via the Colorado Climate Center

Click here to read the current assessment. Click here to go to the NIDIS website hosted by the Colorado Climate Center.

#Drought news: ~0.5 inches of precip in northern and eastern #Colorado over the past week

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


A strong upper-level low pressure system funneled Gulf of Mexico moisture into the central U.S. at the beginning of this USDM week, triggering widespread heavy rains and severe weather. Two to 5 inches of rain fell on November 17 from eastern Texas to Missouri eastward to Mississippi and Illinois. An inch or more of precipitation was observed from northwest Kansas to central Nebraska, across Iowa and Minnesota, and into the western Great Lakes. As the Low and cold front moved eastward on the next day, 1 to locally 3+ inches of precipitation fell across the Southeast, Tennessee Valley, and Upper Mississippi Valley. By the third day, the system had dropped an inch or more of precipitation along the East Coast. Meanwhile, another storm system brought rain and snow to the Pacific Northwest, with 1 to 3+ inches, and locally up to 5 inches, of precipitation measured in Washington and northwest Oregon west of the Cascades. Another system moved from the Pacific Northwest, across the Plains to the southern Great Lakes, leaving a blanket of snow in its wake, up to a foot or more deep in places. As a result, drought and abnormal dryness contracted over large parts of the country. The weather systems missed the Southwest and northern Plains. Virtually no precipitation fell across California to parts of Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, with a tenth of an inch or less widespread across the northern Plains. Temperatures averaged warmer than normal across much of the East to northern Plains, and in parts of the central Plains and Far West. Cooler-than-normal temperatures dominated from the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies to the southern Plains…

California and Great Basin

Parts of the northern coast of California received up to 2 inches of precipitation this week, and some northern sections of the Great Basin measured a few tenths of an inch, but most of California and the Great Basin received no precipitation. According to November 22 USDA reports, 85% of the topsoil and 85% of the subsoil in California was rated short or very short of moisture (dry to very dry). In Utah, 48% of the subsoil and 36% of the topsoil was short or very short of moisture. No change was made to the drought depiction in this region…

Great Plains to Mississippi Valley

This week saw a continuation of widespread heavy rains across much of the eastern Great Plains and Mississippi Valley. An inch or more of rain fell from the eastern portions of the Plains states – from Texas to the Dakotas – eastward to the Mississippi Valley and beyond. A band of 1-inch precipitation stretched from northwest Kansas into central Nebraska. Two inches to locally 5+ inches was observed from eastern Texas and Oklahoma to Mississippi, western Tennessee, and Illinois. Two-plus inches of precipitation were measured across parts of South Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota. This heavy precipitation effectively erased the D0 and D1 that remained from last week’s rains across southern and eastern portions of the region. D0 was removed from eastern Texas and southeastern Oklahoma. The rain in southeast Oklahoma contributed to Broken Bow and Hugo Lakes returning to near- to above-normal pool stage. D0-D1 disappeared from Arkansas and Mississippi, with only a small sliver of D0 remaining in northeast Mississippi to reflect longer-term precipitation deficits. D0 was removed from Missouri, southeast Iowa, southwest Tennessee, most of Illinois, and the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers area. The recent rains in Illinois have restored soil moisture and benefited winter wheat. D1 was removed and D0 shrunk in Minnesota and Iowa. Heavy snow sliced away at the D0 in northwest Kansas, southwest Nebraska, and northeast Colorado. At the other end of the state, precipitation eroded D0 and deleted D1 in southeast Nebraska and northeast Kansas.

In the northern Plains where precipitation was sparse this week, D0 expanded in southwest North Dakota and adjacent South Dakota. Below-normal precipitation for the last 7-90 days, coupled with windy and warmer-than-normal weather in recent weeks, continued to dry soils, with 23% of the topsoil and 28% of the subsoil moisture short or very short in North Dakota. In Wyoming, the storm system that blew through this week increased snow depth 4-12 inches at SNOTEL stations in the Big Horns. But even with this increase, snow depth was still less than a foot in this region, and snow water content and water year-to-date precipitation still ranked in the lowest 20th percentile to driest fifth percentile, so no change was made to the D0 in northeast Wyoming. November 22 USDA reports rated 44% of the topsoil and 46% of the subsoil in Wyoming short or very short of moisture. With low streamflows and precipitation deficits stretching over the last 2-12 months and longer, the drought impacts designator for the D0 and D1 in Kansas and north central Oklahoma was changed to SL to indicate both short- and long-term drought conditions…

Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies

Another round of precipitation in coastal Washington and northwest Oregon resulted in improvement to the drought depiction. Two to 5 inches, and locally more, this week added to the precipitation of last week to bring two-week totals to 15-20 inches, or more, in favored upslope areas. Streams were bank full and flooding in many areas west of the Cascade ridge line, especially in Washington. It should be noted that instantaneous streamflow observations are an important flash flood monitoring indicator, but they should never be used for drought monitoring; the base streamflow is best used for drought monitoring, and that is estimated by averaging over several days. The persistent heavy rains and swollen rivers in Washington improved reservoir levels. Seattle-Everett-Tacoma deactivated their water shortage response plans November 23 due to improving reservoirs.

Precipitation along and west of the Cascade Mountains was above normal for the last 7 to 90 days, and in some places above normal out to the last 12 months. The precipitation resulted in pullback of the D0 to the Cascade ridge line in Washington and contraction of D1-D3 in areas further north, and pullback of D0-D2 in northwest Oregon. But the weather systems producing this precipitation were embedded in a westerly flow, and areas in the rainshadow east of the Cascades continued to have below-normal precipitation at all time scales from the last 7 days to the last 36 months, so D2-D3 continued for Washington and Oregon east of the Cascades. The USGS 7-day, 14-day, and 28-day streamflow indicators show low streamflow in eastern Washington. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, November 22 reservoir statistics still showed low reservoir levels in the Yakima River Basin east of the Cascades, including Kachess and Cle Elum at 33% full each and Rimrock at 29% full. Kachess and Rimrock were well below average, even after the November precipitation. NRCS reservoir statistics are available on a monthly basis. The NRCS October 31 values for reservoirs east of the Cascade ridge line ranged from 30 to 70 percent of average and included 32% at Cle Elum Reservoir, 39% at Keechelus, 56% at Lake Shannon, 71% at Ross, 77% at Kachess, and 79% at Upper Baker.

Winter mountain snowpack is crucial to spring and summer water supplies. The Pacific Northwest experienced an abysmally low snowpack during the 2014-2015 snow season. The 2015-2016 snow season has started out with snowpack below average. In Washington, a handful of SNOTEL stations have 3 to 5 feet of snow in the northern Cascades, but most of the SNOTEL stations in the Cascades of Washington and Oregon had less than a foot of snow, even after the recent storm systems, and these are all at high elevations. This is still early in the snow season, but these values are less than 75% of normal, and in many cases less than 50% of normal. Snow depths ranged up to 2 feet in some of the higher SNOTEL stations in the northern Rockies of Idaho, but even many of these were still below normal for this time of year.

November 22 USDA reports noted that 18% of the winter wheat in Washington and 15 % in Oregon was rated in poor to very poor condition. In Washington, 38% of the winter wheat was rated in good to excellent condition, but this value dropped 3 percentage points compared to last week. More than half of the topsoil was rated short to very short of moisture in Oregon (55%) and Washington (51%), with 21% so rated in Idaho. Subsoil moisture conditions were even drier, with 76% short to very short in Oregon, 59% in Washington, and 38% in Idaho…


Half an inch to an inch of precipitation fell across eastern and northern parts of Colorado, with a few tenths in northern Utah and northeast New Mexico. But other than that, most of the Southwest received no precipitation this week. D0 was trimmed in northeast Colorado, where precipitation improved Standardized Precipitation Index values at several time scales. No change was made to the drought depiction in the rest of the region.

More clouds over stormwater — The Pueblo Chieftain

Channel erosion Colorado Springs July 2012 via The Pueblo Chieftain
Channel erosion Colorado Springs July 2012 via The Pueblo Chieftain

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Colorado Springs is facing another federal lawsuit over stormwater violations, this time from the federal government.

The Environmental Protection Agency is considering litigation over violation of the city’s federal permit for discharging storm sewer water into Fountain Creek.

An inspection of the city’s stormwater system Aug. 18-19 found failure to meet standards or perform remediation of problems identified in a state audit in February 2013.

“I have to look at the report, but I think this highlights what we have been saying for years,” said Jay Winner, general manager of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District. “Colorado Springs has failed to meet its obligations and continues to dump on Pueblo and its other downstream neighbors.”

The Lower Ark district has its own federal lawsuit ready to go, but is holding it back as it waits to see if the city’s new leadership follows through on a commitment to fund stormwater at $19 million per year.
Colorado Springs City Council in 2009 voted to dissolve its stormwater enterprise, after it had been listed as a building block for approval of the Southern Delivery System in permits with the Bureau of Reclamation and Pueblo County.

The move was first protested in early 2010 by state Rep. Sal Pace, now a Pueblo County commissioner, to the Bureau of Reclamation, Corps of Engineers and EPA. All three agencies indicated at the time Colorado Springs was in compliance with SDS conditions.

In early 2012, Colorado Springs’ city attorney informed then-Mayor Steve Bach and City Council that they were obligated to fund stormwater projects as a part of the SDS approval. That resulted in a stormwater task force that failed to gain voter approval for a regional drainage authority.

Also in 2012, the Lower Ark began talking with Reclamation about stormwater commitments Colorado Springs made in order to obtain approval for SDS.

“It was very disappointing that the Bureau of Reclamation did not step in at that time,” Winner said. “We went to Washington to talk to (Interior Secretary) Ken Salazar and Ann Castle (assistant secretary for water and science) and got nowhere.”

After failing to interest either the Pueblo City Council or Pueblo County commissioners in pursuing the issue in 2012, the Lower Ark’s legal staff began working on a federal lawsuit, embarking on a detailed analysis of how stormwater protection was failing. The lawsuit first targeted Reclamation, but later shifted to naming the city of Colorado Springs as the potential defendant, based on violations similar to those cited by the EPA in August.

“I think this action by the EPA shows that it is not just our district that thinks Colorado Springs has not measured up,” Winner said.

Under Bach, Colorado Springs’ interest in stormwater protection centered on dealing with damage from the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires, which combined claimed 832 homes and scarred more than 32,000 acres.
But Bach actively opposed the regional drainage district.

Former Colorado Attorney General John Suthers was elected Colorado Springs mayor in May, and immediately pledged to work for $19 million in annual stormwater funding, a move fully endorsed by Colorado Springs City Council.

“I think the new leadership in Colorado Springs is addressing the problem, and the voters endorsed the mayor’s and council’s plan in the last election,” said Steve Nawrocki, president of Pueblo City Council. He said more meetings on the stormwater issue should occur early next year. Nawrocki also acknowledged that pressure from the Lower Ark district helped press the issue.

“I think it helped by making the new leadership (in Colorado Springs) more proactive.”
Pueblo County is in negotiations with Colorado Springs over its 1041 permit for SDS, and is unsure of the impact potential litigation with the EPA would cause.

Colorado Springs notified the county of the impending lawsuit Monday and commissioners expect to discuss it at today’s meeting “It sounds like it vindicates us for what we in Pueblo have been alleging for more than a decade,” said Commissioner Terry Hart.

Suthers was quoted in Tuesday’s edition of The Gazette as saying: “We would rather spend money trying to solve the problem. We’re hoping both Pueblo and the EPA have some realization that we have a council and mayor that realize you can’t kick the can down the road any farther.”

Colorado Springs takes issue with “status quo” #COWaterPlan — the Colorado Springs Independent

From the Colorado Springs Independent (Pam Zubeck):

he state’s long-awaited water roadmap to assure adequate supplies decades into the future got a lot of coverage last week, with many cheering the plan…

But Colorado Springs Utilities’ managing engineer for water resource planning M. Patrick Wells, had harsh words for the plan.

In a Sept. 17 letter providing feedback on a draft version, Wells called the plan “a directionless recitation of guardrails without a road.”

The plan fails to establish a common vision for the state’s water supply future, and rather appears to be “a vehicle for managing growth,” he says.

The plan also lacks baselines against which to judge water development in the future, Wells says. For example, water projects have been labeled harmful in some cases for recreation and the environment. But the contrary is often true, he writes. “In many cases, water development has resulted in more reliable flows, improved habitat, better water quality, and improved recreation for key stream reaches versus pre-development conditions.”

Wells also objects to what he sees as the plan’s “anti-growth” and “anti-City” stance.

Utilities spokesman Steve Berry says the water plan won’t have a major impact on the city’s plans, mainly because it has “no teeth” in imposing costs on water users. But if the water plan dictates changes in how water is appropriated from the four rivers that originate in Colorado, that could affect Springs water users.

Berry says the city owns undeveloped water rights in both the Colorado River and Arkansas River basins. The Colorado River, which supplies eight states, including Colorado, and Mexico, could become a point of contention in coming years as water users look for other sources.

After the city failed to win approval of its second trans-mountain system, called Homestake II, in the 1990s, Utilities turned to developing its Arkansas River rights and built the $829-million Southern Delivery System pipeline from Pueblo Reservoir, which goes online next year.

Utilities officials, Berry says, don’t support a water plan that would impede the city from developing those rights. It’s worth noting that the new water plan doesn’t favor an additional trans-mountain water project to bring water from the Western Slope to the Front Range.

“We want to make sure through this water plan there are not unreasonable obstacles to developing our water rights in the future,” Berry says.

Lastly, Berry says Utilities is concerned the plan unduly emphasizes conservation. Through rates adopted amid drought conditions over the last decade, Utilities’ customers have dramatically cut usage — from 109 gallons per customer per day in 2006, to 85 gallons, he says. Of course CSU is in the business of selling water, and less usage could affect revenue.

Berry also notes Springs Utilities has long planned decades ahead for its water supply. SDS, for example, began in the 1990s.

Southern Delivery System route map -- Graphic / Reclamation
Southern Delivery System route map — Graphic / Reclamation

#COWaterPlan: Lots of ‘storage’ in water plan, but few ‘dams’ — Glenwood Springs Post Independent

Stagecoach Dam and Reservoir via the Applegate Group
Stagecoach Dam and Reservoir via the Applegate Group

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith) via the Glenwood Springs Post Independent:

In the just-released Colorado Water Plan it’s rare to see the word “dam” used.

And yet, dams and reservoirs are at the core of Colorado’s water-supply systems, past, present and future.

The word “dam” does not appear at all, for example, in Chapter 10 of the water plan, which is the “Critical Action Plan” for the future of water supply in Colorado.

Instead of using “dam,” or “dams,” the state water plan, and most people at water meetings in Colorado, use the word “storage,” as in “water storage” or “storage project” to describe some type of structure that backs up and holds water.

In Chapter 10, where “dam” is ignored altogether, “storage” merits 14 uses.

In Chapter 6.5, the word “dam” is used just twice in the 30-page chapter about “infrastructure,” while “storage” is used over 160 times.

And in Chapter 4, “dam” is used 13 times, as one might expect in a chapter called “Water Supply.” But “storage” is used 71 times.

In a state like Colorado that can store 7.5 million acre-feet of water in 1,953 reservoirs — all formed by dams of some sort — the practice looks a bit like “dam” avoidance.

There are, however, a few instances in the water plan where “dam” or “dams” are used in a routine way.

“While new storage projects will certainly play a role in meeting the state’s water needs, the enlargement and rehabilitation of existing dams and reservoirs will provide more options for the path forward, as Ch. 4 discussed,” the plan states, for example, in Chapter 6.5.

In that context, the use of “dams and reservoirs” sounds appropriate, and not overly damning, one would suppose.

Here’s another example.

“While storage is a critical element for managing Colorado’s future water supplies, new storage projects may be contentious and face numerous hurdles, including permitting and funding,” the plan states in Chapter 4. “In many cases, it may be more practical and efficient to reallocate or enlarge an existing dam and reservoir than to build a completely new structure.”

Again, a seemingly innocuous use of “dam and reservoir,” which is to the plan’s credit, at least linguistically.

But “dam” is not a popular term in the water plan.

“Storage” is the preferred word.

In an op-ed piece in The Aspen Times on Nov. 23, Gary Wockner of Save the Colorado said the use of “storage” was “an Orwellian double-speak way of saying more dams, diversions and river destruction.”

Double-speak or not, “storage” is used a lot in the plan, including four times in the two sentences below, which describe the priorities of the Arkansas River basin.

“Storage is essential to meeting all of the basin’s consumptive, environmental, and recreational needs,” the plan states in Chapter 6.2. “In addition to traditional storage, aquifer storage and recovery must be considered and investigated as a future storage option.”

To be fair, the water plan does discuss, and promote, the idea of “aquifer storage,” which does not require dams. It requires pipes and pumps to store water underground, but not dams. So aquifer storage is “storage,” but without “dams.”


“Storage” was on the mind of Patti Wells during the Colorado Water Conservation Board meeting in Denver on Nov. 19, when she told her fellow board members that “words matter.”

Wells is general counsel of Denver Water and represents the South Platte River basin on the CWCB. She suggested that “storage” may have worn out its usefulness as a euphemism for “dam.”

“We keep saying storage and what that connotes for people is a big reservoir that takes the water out of the river and sends it down a pipe to a municipal treatment plant, and that’s what storage is,” Wells said. “But in fact, maybe we should call them ‘water management facilities.’

“Because as we all know, if you can store the water, you can manage the water,” Wells said. “And that may be for low-flow releases in the summer. That may be for a boat race through a whitewater park. So storage doesn’t just mean to meet the supply gap. It can also mean to meet all the other goals in the state water plan.”

Wells made her suggestion during the “basin directors’ report” section of the CWCB meeting, after the Colorado Water Plan had been approved and presented to the governor.

Earlier in his director’s report Russell George, who represents the Colorado River Basin on the CWCB, also said language was important in shaping perceptions about water, especially about “reuse” water.

“Because right now, when you’re having a conversation with anybody about reuse, it’s a negative,” George said, noting reuse was sometimes called “toilet to tap.”

“That sort of image isn’t helpful, but it’s real,” George said. “The idea is, let’s see if we can improve the tone of that conversation. I think we absolutely have to do that. It’s a cultural thing, and we know that reuse will increasingly be part of the solutions in the future, so we need to begin to change the language and the impact of language.”

“Reuse” water, by the way, is “water used more than once or recycled,” according to the WateReuse Association, which notes it is already a common municipal practice.


Other words with layered meanings are also used in the water plan, including “multipurpose,” “balanced” and “education.”

“Multipurpose,” as in “multipurpose projects,” has a halo over it and the water plan seems to suggest as long as a project is “multipurpose,” it’s good to go.

“Those projects and methods that intentionally target consumptive and nonconsumptive benefits are categorized as multipurpose,” states Chapter 6.5, with an emphasis on “multipurpose,” as if defining the term.

But a sentence in Chapter 4 says “multipurpose” projects “take into account multiple users and multiple benefits, and diverse interests become involved during the planning process.”

But that could describe almost any “storage” project in Colorado.

Then there is “balanced,” which is often used by Front Range water providers and seems to suggest the use of Western Slope water to help meet the state’s water demands.

In Chapter 6.5 for example, the plan says the “primary message” of the South Platte and Metro basin roundtables was support for “water supply solutions that were ‘pragmatic, balanced, and consistent with Colorado water law and property rights.”

Joe Stibrich, the water resources policy manager at Aurora Water, and a member of the Metro Basin roundtable, told the CWCB on Nov. 19 that ”the development of additional storage was also identified as an essential tool for implementing these balanced solutions.”

And Joe Frank, head of the S. Platte River Basin roundtable, told the CWCB that his roundtable wants to see “a balanced program to investigate, preserve and develop Colorado River supply options.”

“Education” is another heavily used word in the water sector. Sometimes “education” means teaching students about water. But often it means “public relations.”

“Education” often is combined with “outreach” in the water plan, as in Chapter 9.5, which is called “Outreach, Education and Public Engagement.”

“‘Outreach’ creates public awareness of policies and processes, whereas ‘education’ promotes a deeper understanding of these topics,” the water plan states. “Both are prerequisites to ‘public engagement.’”

The word “public relations,” however, is not used in the chapter about “Outreach, Education and Public Engagement.”

But that doesn’t mean PR is absent from the plan, it’s just called “outreach and education activities.”

“With completion of the basin implementation plans and Colorado’s Water Plan in 2015, it will be imperative that the Colorado water community sustain momentum for outreach and education activities, and that funding for such activities increase as the community implements water supply solutions,” the plan states in Chapter 9.5.

Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on the coverage of rivers and waters. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.