There’s a “half full/half empty” joke in here somewhere.
The reservoirs of the Colorado River Basin are 49 percent full/51 percent empty right now (data pdf). Despite another bad runoff year, that’s pretty much exactly where they were at the end of 2015.
Let’s go with half full then, shall we? We’ve come within a couple of inches’ elevation of halting Lake Mead’s decline. It still shrank, and absent further action it will continue to do so.
But we are close, and we can see what “further action” looks like. As I write this on New Years Eve, it looks like Mead will end 2016 at elevation 1,080 feet and change above sea level, just a couple of inches below where it ended 2015. Maybe the experience of the last couple of years suggests “inexorable” is no longer the right word?
The year-end number is still a record – the lowest since 1936, when they were first filling the big reservoir. (Despair?) But in a year with below average precipitation in the Colorado River Basin (89 percent of average into Lake Powell), this represents real progress in managing the system. “Normal” for the 21st century (the median) is an annual drop of 12-plus feet in the reservoir. It’s only gone up twice since 2000. Both times were unusually wet years. A year in which, despite sub par runoff, Lake Mead doesn’t keep dropping is a step in the right direction.
Looking at the basin more broadly, total storage at years’ end sits at 29.453 million acre feet, just a tad below 29.693 million acre feet last year at this time. This despite Upper Colorado River Basin runoff that was more than 1 million acre feet below average.
A few things are going on here:
Arizona only took 2.61 million acre feet of water in 2016, 93 percent of its full allotment.
Nevada only took 235,000 acre feet, 78 percent of its full allotment.
Over the last couple of years, the combined conservation efforts of Arizona and Nevada are equivalent to about 8 feet of elevation in Mead – water that is currently sitting in the reservoir.
Colorado Springs filed arguments last week to keep an Arkansas River water district from joining the federal and state lawsuit that’s demanding cures to city stormwater violations.
But with Rocky Ford melons and other crops at stake, the water district plans to fire back by the Thursday deadline with counterarguments to the U.S. District Court in Denver.
Fountain Creek flows through Colorado Springs and into the Arkansas, bringing excess sedimentation, E. coli contamination and other pollution, the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District claims.
The lawsuit it wants to join was filed last month by the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency and by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The EPA and Department of Justice negotiated with the city unsuccessfully over the past year to resolve the violations cited in EPA audits in 2013 and in August 2015, two months after Mayor John Suthers took office.
Suthers has made the issue a priority, crafting an agreement with Pueblo County to provide $460 million worth of stormwater projects by 2035, beefing up the city’s stormwater division with a new manager and added engineers and inspectors, and releasing an inch-thick Stormwater Program Implementation Plan on Nov. 2.
The EPA and state nonetheless filed suit one week later, on Nov. 9.
“From my perspective, they’re dwelling in the past,” Suthers said. “We feel very strongly the EPA and state health need to get down to El Paso County and see how many problems we’ve already fixed.”
The Lower Ark, as the district is known, had given notice in November 2014, that it would sue the city for violating its MS4 permit, which allows for the municipal separate storm sewer system.
That’s what the EPA and state now are suing over as well.
“We were precluded from filing our own lawsuit because our claims were essentially the same,” said Peter Nichols, lawyer for the Lower Ark.
“The question is whether the city is already putting a lot of political pressure on the state and EPA to back off. The district is concerned they might be successful with that pressure, and water quality wouldn’t be improved in Fountain Creek,” Nichols said.
The Lower Ark – which represents Bent, Crowley, Otero, Prowers and Pueblo counties – has seen Colorado Springs break stormwater promises repeatedly, said district Executive Director Jay Winner.
The city was collecting about $15 million a year through its Stormwater Enterprise Fund until voters passed ballot Issue 300 in 2009, restricting city enterprise funds. Days later, the City Council voted to phase out the fund by 2011.
Then the Waldo Canyon fire erupted in 2012, creating a burn scar that spawned widespread flooding in 2013, exacerbating problems with Fountain Creek, Monument Creek and other tributaries while spewing sediment and floodwaters downstream.
That year, the EPA audited the city’s stormwater system Feb. 4-7.
Between 2011 and 2014, the city spent $1.6 million a year average on stormwater and had nine full-time employees in that division. Degradation, widening and erosion of streambeds, combined with surface runoff, led to sedimentation and substandard water quality, the EPA and state say.
The next EPA audit, conducted on 14 sections of the city’s system Aug. 18-19, 2015, found “continuous failure” to meet standards or remediate problems highlighted in 2013.
Arizona also has a nearly-normal snowpack, with between 2 and 24 inches falling all along the Mogollon Rim and into the White Mountains in the most recent storm. However, the snow in Arizona makes only a modest contribution to runoff into the Colorado River, a vital water source in seven states — especially Nevada, California and Arizona…
meeting of the Colorado Water Users Association failed to agree to a long-term plan to protect the water supply in the chain of reservoirs along the Colorado River.
If the group can’t come to an agreement and Lake Mead falls any further, Arizona and Nevada could find themselves rationed or cut off — since California has priority when it comes time to ration the water.
The water users hoped to adjust allotments and agree on conservation measures to stretch the water supply and avert a cutoff with devastating consequences to lower-priority states. Las Vegas, Nev. is amongst the most vulnerable, since it relies almost entirely on the Colorado River.
Most of the outstanding issues involve California. Key issues remain providing enough water to keep the Salton Sea from drying up and leaving enough water in the Sacramento River delta to prevent serious environmental effects.
Payson remains in a happily secure position. The town currently relies entirely on well water. Well levels had dropped more than 100 feet until the town imposed water conservation rules a decade ago. Since then, the water table has stabilized. By 2018, Payson will roughly double its water supply with the completion of the C.C. Cragin pipeline.
Roosevelt Lake has dwindled to just 37 percent of normal, reflecting a relatively dry year to this point. However, this week the Salt River had a flow of 1,460 cubic feet per second — almost three times its normal flow. The Verde River had a flow of 797 cubic feet per second, also nearly three times normal. Tonto Creek carried 227 cubic feet per second, compared to its normal flow of just 25 cfs.
Payson has secured its water future, but other cities throughout the region have been following the drama of the disappearing Lake Mead with breathless anticipation.
The snowpack in 2015 on the Colorado River watershed was far below normal, the latest disappointing year in a 16-year, record drought. The storms of 2016 have raised hope for at least a reprieve from rationing. Forecasters say the waning El Niño sea surface warming in the Eastern Pacific could produce a wetter-than normal winter in the West.
Here’s a guest column from Crisanta Duran that’s running in The Pueblo Chieftain:
In the American West, nothing is more vital or sacred than water.
Colorado has a rich and complicated history with the resource, one that is colored by some successes, but also many conflicts and challenges. But because of the work of thousands of Coloradans on our state’s first-ever comprehensive water plan, our water future could be very bright indeed. That bright future, however, will require a lot more hard work.
A little more than one year ago, Gov. John Hickenlooper announced the completion of Colorado’s water plan, developed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board after two years of meetings across the state, input from the state’s eight basin roundtables, and the considered comments of more than 30,000 Coloradans from across the spectrum, including Colorado’s ranchers and farmers. It is a landmark policy document that will drive decisions about Colorado’s water for decades into the future.
The plan itself is ambitious, but implementing its component parts, though challenging, will be critical to our state’s future. Smart growth of our state requires tackling looming threats to our water supply, and the plan sets out a clear guide path to do just that.
There is both a conservation and economic imperative for implementing the Colorado Water Plan. We absolutely must have healthy rivers to power Colorado’s thriving recreation and tourism economies while also defending our agricultural community’s needs. In 2014, 71.3 million visitors came to Colorado and spent $18.6 billion, much of it on activities in Colorado’s great outdoors. We must ensure our rivers remain healthy so that future generations can continue to enjoy all the benefits our waterways provide.
The Colorado Water Plan set unprecedented statewide water conservation targets in cities and towns, prioritizing conservation as never before.
The conservation goal for towns and cities equates to nearly 1 percent per year water use reduction by 2050, which, while ambitious, is absolutely achievable
If met, the conservation goals and flexibility envisioned for users enshrined in the Colorado Water Plan will help both towns and cities meet their needs and keep our farms and ranches a key part of the Colorado landscape and economy.
For example, the CWP provides more flexibility for ranchers and farmers to share water with towns and cities, and to keep water in streams without jeopardizing future access to their water rights.
The plan also creates frameworks for much more comprehensive evaluations of new water projects to avoid costly diversions, helps keep Western Slope rivers flowing, and provides for comprehensive management plans for Colorado’s rivers. In short, if it continues to be implemented, the plan will preserve our water supply for ranchers and farmers, help to foster our outdoor recreation economy, and protect our quality of life now and into the future.
Creating a sustainable water future for Colorado is not only vital economics — it is vital to our local communities and our history as a state, including Latina and Latino communities whose long history in Colorado is intrinsically linked to Colorado’s waterways.
For centuries, Colorado’s rivers and streams have been integral to Colorado’s rich culture and way of life. Our rivers provide us with a collective sense of “querencia,” a place in which we know exactly who we are, the place from which we speak our deepest beliefs.
Protecting the Colorado and other rivers is not just smart water management for our state; it builds upon our tradition of responsible use and conservation for the benefit of future generations. Colorado’s rapid growth only compounds the need for urgent and continued action.
Crisanta Duran is speaker-designate of the Colorado House of Representatives. Lucia Guzman is minority leader of the Colorado Senate. Both are Denver Democrats.
Here’s a guest column from Bart Miller that’s running in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:
Water is the lifeblood of Colorado, and yet demands for water to support population growth, agriculture, and businesses are increasing while available water supplies are not.
Climate change is also having a growing impact in an already water-scarce region, and Colorado’s population is predicted to double by 2050. Not surprisingly, water scarcity was found to be one of the top concerns of state residents in the latest State of the Rockies Poll Project while 77 percent of Coloradoans support more conservation and water reuse as opposed to only 15 percent who support diverting water from rivers and streams. The good news is that we’ve had a sound first year implementing the state’s new water plan and now we need our state Legislature to help.
One year ago, Colorado’s water plan established goals for ensuring enough water for vibrant cities, viable agriculture, and healthy rivers that sustain wildlife, recreation and local economies. For West Slope communities like Grand Junction, the plan contains a number of provisions to safeguard West Slope interests every bit as much as those of the Front Range.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board recently approved a new budget of $25 million annually over the next few years for implementation. This budget includes funding for water conservation to help reach our state goal of saving 400,000 acre-feet of water, which would reduce water use by approximately 1 percent per year. The budget advances cost-effective measures to help communities make the most of every drop, like fixing leaky infrastructure and increasing water reuse technologies. Also included: $5 million annually for stream management and watershed restoration plans — essential for both healthy ecosystems and our thriving recreational economy.
The plan’s criteria “checklist” for evaluating what water projects receive public funds also started to gain steam by being embedded in the grant process for local river basin roundtables. The common-sense checklist evaluates whether projects have community support, prevent environmental degradation, are feasible, and meet real water needs. Ensuring local community support is essential for protecting West Slope resources.
We’ve run a good first lap, but there are miles to go to meet new water demands and protect Colorado’s rivers. In the coming year, we need development of alternative agricultural water agreements that support agriculture rather than “buy and dry” scenarios where cities buy up water rights that never return to agricultural producers. We need urban water conservation embedded into land use decisions so new development is water-smart from the start, reducing pressure to divert water from the West Slope to the Front Range. We need funds so local stakeholders can assess river health and create local stream management plans.
Most immediately, we need the Legislature to approve the $25 million plan budget developed by the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The plan’s proposals have the support of the vast majority of Coloradans. Ultimately, the water plan’s long-term success requires collaboration among diverse stakeholders to ensure we help all local economies that rely upon Colorado’s rivers. Please join us in asking our state representatives to help by putting the water plan and our communities first.
Bart Miller leads Western Resource Advocates’ program protecting healthy rivers; improving water efficiency; and drawing the connection between water, energy, and climate change.