‘Atmospheric rivers’ aid the West — and imperil it — @HighCountryNews

From The High Country News (Emily Benson):

When a rainstorm slammed California’s Russian River watershed in December 2012, water rushed into Lake Mendocino, a reservoir north of San Francisco. The cause? An atmospheric river, a ribbon of moisture-laden air that can ferry water thousands of miles across the sky. When the tempest hit, the state was on the brink of an exceptional drought. But instead of storing the surge the storm brought for the dry days to come, the reservoir’s owner, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, let it run downstream.

They had to. Army Corps rules say Lake Mendocino must be partly drained during the winter, leaving room for the next deluge to prevent downstream flooding. But in 2013, that space ended up being superfluous, mostly because drought conditions kicked into high gear and the rainy season essentially ended after the December downpour. “We lost that water,” says Shirlee Zane, who serves on the board of the Sonoma County Water Agency, which delivers water from Lake Mendocino to nearby homes. The agency estimates that more than $2 million slipped down the river. It was a loss that might have been prevented if the Army Corps had known they could safely store the water — and one managers would hate to repeat. “We lose millions of dollars of water if we don’t have better forecasting,” Zane says.

Atmospheric river storms swelled the American River in January 2017, inundating a footbridge near Sacramento, California.
Dale Kolke / California Department of Water Resources

Now, scientists are getting closer to solving that problem. Atmospheric rivers can cause dangerous deluges — an atmospheric river contributed to the mudslides that recently killed more than a dozen people in southern California — but they also provide up to half the annual precipitation on the West Coast. To make the most of those benefits while reducing risks, researchers are improving forecasts using computer models, weather balloons and instruments dropped from airplanes. The knowledge they’re gaining could help reservoir managers stockpile more water for dry periods without sacrificing the safety of downstream communities. And as climate change intensifies both floods and shortages in the coming decades, meeting that balance will become even more critical.

“It’s possible to predict these storms, to a degree,” says Marty Ralph, the director of the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes, part of U.C. San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Meteorologists can see an atmospheric river coming a few days in advance; and, just as important, they can also see when the coast is clear after a big storm swells reservoir storage. “With good enough forecasts of no big atmospheric river coming in the next few days,” Ralph says, “then it’s plausible that one could safely keep that extra water.”

To explore that possibility, Ralph and a group of scientists, water managers and agency officials are studying what would happen to water supply and flood risk at Lake Mendocino if reservoir operators didn’t always have to leave room for a winter storm that isn’t coming. Could they avoid a repeat of the December 2012 water dump, without imperiling people downstream? “It looks viable,” Ralph says.

Further improving forecasts could help. “We’re good at seeing (atmospheric rivers),” says Anna Wilson, also a researcher at the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes. “But we are not yet good at telling exactly where they’re going to land, exactly how strong they’ll be, and, in certain instances, whether precipitation is going to fall as rain versus snow.” Wilson, Ralph and other partners, including a U.S. Air Force squadron nicknamed the “hurricane hunters,” plan to drop dozens of parachute-carried sensors measuring moisture, temperature and wind data through several atmospheric rivers early this year. Working with the National Weather Service, they hope to advance forecasts of storm location and other details.

Better forecasts could also help water managers deal with the increasingly intense atmospheric rivers climate change will likely cause. Because warmer air can hold more moisture, by the end of this century individual atmospheric rivers could drop substantially more precipitation on the West Coast than they already do, according to research done by Michael Warner, a Seattle-based meteorologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Those lessons won’t just apply to California reservoirs. For a place like Washington’s Howard Hanson Dam, more intense storms might demand faster reservoir releases, which could put downstream areas in peril. In addition to supplying Tacoma with water during the summer, the dam protects more than $6 billion in businesses, infrastructure and homes from flooding. “Every major flood in the coastal Pacific Northwest has been associated with an atmospheric river event,” Warner says.

Though it will take years of further research before official policies can be changed, managers at Lake Mendocino may try taking atmospheric river forecasts into account this year. This winter, for the first time, the steering committee of the Lake Mendocino project has requested that the Army Corps deviate from the rules that forced the agency to dump water in the past — if forecasts suggest it’s safe to do so. “We are in a feast or famine type of climate here on the West Coast,” says Zane, of the Sonoma County Water Agency. “If we have better data and we can do the forecasting … it’s going to improve our water management.”

This story was originally published at High Country News (http://hcn.org) on Jan. 11, 2018.


Rain totals from atmospheric river event in S. California January 8-9, 2018 via NWS Los Angeles.

@GovofCO presents his final state of the state address

Colorado Water Plan website screen shot November 1, 2013

Here’s the complete text of the speech from The Denver Post. Here’s an excerpt:

We created the country’s first and best methane regulations; a water plan that secures food production; protected the sage grouse from being listed as an endangered species; and developed an electric vehicle infrastructure spanning 7,000 miles.

We cut or modified almost half of our rules and regulations. And in doing so, saved businesses nearly eight million dollars and over two million hours last year alone.

Two million hours!

And we measured our progress on everything that matters.

We trained thousands of employees who completed 600 LEAN process improvements…created more value for Coloradans and won several awards…

So we will not let up. We won’t stop to enjoy the view. We have a lot to accomplish in the next 119 days:

● We need to find the right solution to PERA’s unfunded liability.
● We need to pass legislation to safely cap orphan wells.
● We need to halt the opioid epidemic that continues to destroy lives and families, and disproportionately affects our rural communities.
● We need to enact a K-12 and Infrastructure Funding Plan that will help make the Water Plan a reality.
● We need legislation and funds to ensure full broadband buildout in rural areas.
● And we need to protect our rural communities by addressing the intense, negative impact the Gallagher amendment has had, and will have, in the future.

It’s a commonsense agenda…

We need your support to get to the finish line. One of the most essential pieces of infrastructure in our economy is our natural landscape, our clean air and water — the things everyone thinks about when they hear the word “Colorado.”

It’s one reason why companies of all sorts have been drawn to this place we love. And the reason why the outdoor recreation show is coming to Denver in a couple weeks along with its $110 million in economic impact.

It’s why many of our farmers and ranchers, who live on the land, came here, and stay here.

But the responsibility to be good stewards doesn’t only fall on rural parts of the state. It rests with all of us.

Xcel has submitted a plan to close two coals plants in Pueblo. This will clean our air and lower costs for consumers – and lead to greater investments that support 21st-century careers.

What is it the critics don’t like? Is it the cleaner air or the lower utility bills?

Clean air matters.

Xcel is also working with Evraz Rocky Mountain Steel — one of the cleanest steel plants in the world — to move toward renewable energy while protecting Pueblo’s future as a center for steel manufacturing. We need everyone’s support to make this a reality.

Pueblo is known as steel city, but soon it could also be “solar and wind city.”

Most of us agree that science shows climate change is happening at a significant rate in large part because of humans. But even those of us who disagree on climate change can agree that we need to protect the Colorado environment our grandchildren will grow to love with a strong economy where they can find jobs.

This includes protecting our water for agriculture. If we don’t implement our water plan, rural agricultural communities will be hit first and hardest. We live in a state of open markets. They can never afford to match what Front Range homeowners pay for domestic water.

Having a sustainable source of food — no matter what happens around the world — is an essential foundation for the future of our state.

We’re one of the great food exporting states and that’s a resource we should continue to invest in…rather than put at risk.

The Colorado Water Plan provides a framework but doesn’t include all the funding for the last $1 billion over the next 30 years. We need the support of the General Assembly.

But the cost of water has been a small part of rising new housing prices along much of the Front Range and elsewhere. It strains one’s ability to love where they live when they can’t afford the price of a home or even rent near the jobs and communities they care about.

#Snowpack news: Statewide = 2nd lowest on record

Westwide SNOTEL January 13, 2018 via the NRCS.

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Jon Pompia):

Information provided by the Department of Agriculture indicates that as of Jan. 5, the statewide snow water equivalent was 54 percent of normal — “the second lowest on record.”

Across Colorado, the snowpack levels range from a low of 23 percent of normal in the combined San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins, to a high of 87 percent of normal in the North and South Platte basins.

Snowpack in the Arkansas Basin, which encompasses Pueblo and Southern Colorado, was only 48 percent of normal, with big differences between the northern (81 percent of normal) and southern portions (an average of 17 percent) of the basin.

In the nearby Rio Grande Basin, January snowpack was only 29 percent of normal.

While 2017 was classified a “big year in terms of precipitation around here, well above normal across most of the area” by local National Weather Service meteorologist Tony Anderson, the last three months of the year were extremely dry…

Chris Woodka, issues management program coordinator with the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, agreed that it’s too early to start worrying.

“So far, this year is shaping up like some of the drier years we’ve seen, but it’s still pretty early in the snow season,” Woodka said. “The heaviest snows typically come in March and April.

“We have not made any estimates of how much water will be imported through the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project this year. Like everyone else, we’ll be watching the snowpack carefully as we head into 2018.”

On a positive note, all major river basins in the state are currently holding above average reservoir storage.

Less encouraging is the fact that all streamflow forecasts in the state are far below average spring and summer volumes.

Drought news: D2 (Severe drought) expanded in the Grand Valley #ColoradoRiver #COriver

West Drought Monitor January 9, 2018.

From West Slope Now (Marcus Beasley):

We’re currently under a severe drought here in Grand Junction, but how’s that affecting the snow pack up in the mountains, and what will the results be come spring time here in the grand valley?

The “Ute Water Conservancy District” are keeping their eyes on the snow pack up in the mountains, and that way, they will know if we are going to have a shortage of water here in the spring.

“Ute Water Conservancy District uses the north side of the mesa for our source water. We’re looking at two snotel sites on the north side of the Grand Mesa. We look at Mesa Lakes which is currently at 26%, and Park Reservoir, which is at 25%.”

Those numbers are a little low because we’d like to see numbers around 100%, but it’s a little too early to start worrying about the water for the spring.

“mid to late March is when we’ll have a better indicator of where we’re going to be for the rest of the year, and that’s when we’ll start to formulate a plan if we need to move into any of our phases in our drought plan, it’ll happen around that time.”

Keeping an eye on the #LakePowell water level #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Lake Powell April 12, 2017. Photo credit Patti Weeks via Earth Science Picture of the day.

From the Colorado Cattlemen’s Ag Water NetWORK via The Fence Post:

The collective water use of the upper basin states is still well below the 7.5 M acre-feet annual average depletion maximum. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reports indicate that the upper basin water use averaged 4.4 M acre-feet between 2000 and 2015. The highest use among these years was 4.9 M acre-feet.

The lower basin states, with greater population and higher evapotranspiration, have a more difficult time managing water demands within the limitations of the compact. For the last several years, annual releases from Lake Mead have averaged about 9 M acre-feet to meet lower basin water demands. Lake Mead also loses about 1.2 M acre-feet in evaporative and system losses, so the total annual outflow from Lake Mead has been about 10.2 M acre-feet.

The imbalance between Lake Mead’s recent inflows and outflows is called the “structural deficit.” This is the amount by which the lower basin states and Mexico must reduce their demands in order to reach a more sustainable withdrawal rate from Lake Mead.

Lake Powell stores water that flows from the upper Colorado River basin and is used to buffer declines in Lake Mead. Glen Canyon Dam, which creates Lake Powell, also generates 5 billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power annually. The Western Area Power Administration distributes this electricity to Colorado and six other states at cost-effective rates. The total value of the electricity produced is about $120 million annually. A small, but important, portion of the annual power revenue is used to fund salinity control programs that help pay for irrigation infrastructure upgrades on the western slope, and provide funding for the Colorado River and San Juan River endangered species recovery programs.

In 1970, formal “Operating Criteria” were agreed upon by the seven states and the Bureau of Reclamation to provide for the coordinated operation of reservoirs in the upper and lower basins and set conditions for water releases from Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The Operating Criteria allow the secretary of the interior to make releases from Lake Powell to raise the water level in Lake Mead so that the stored volume of the two reservoirs is roughly equal. The upshot is that Lake Powell will decline when Lake Mead declines, even if ample flow is entering Lake Powell from the upper basin states.

Since 2000, the two reservoirs have been drawn down to approximately half of their capacity to meet lower basin demands. The current water level of Lake Mead (1,083 feet above sea level) is the lowest since the reservoir started filling in 1935 (ref http://lakemead.water-data.com). It is currently just above the “Tier 1 Shortage level” of 1,075 feet, which is the point where water allocations to Arizona and Nevada are automatically reduced. These reductions become increasingly severe at Tier 2 and Tier 3 levels.

The current level of Lake Powell is about 3,625 feet above sea level. The concern for the upper basin states is that if the structural deficit continues and/or a drought returns, Lake Powell could be lowered to a level below 3,490 feet, which is the minimum level needed to generate electricity.

The lower basin states and Mexico have implemented conservation measures that have saved about 1.2 M acre-feet in Lake Mead since 2014. This has resulted in the lake level being 14 feet higher than it would have been otherwise.

For Colorado and the other upper basin states, the challenge isn’t complying with the usage limit spelled out in the 1922 compact. Instead, it is simply how to deal with snowpack and runoff shortages over a multi-year period. Since many Front Range cities and irrigation districts rely on Colorado River basin water via trans-mountain diversions, runoff shortages on the western slope also directly affect eastern slope residents and farmers. And of course, multiple years of drought in the upper basin could result in lowering of Lake Powell to the power pool level simply because of inadequate runoff. When the 2002-2003 drought began, Lake Powell was full. Today it is about 58 percent of its capacity.

In 2015, a program was created to determine whether voluntary, compensated reductions in consumptive use in the upper basin states could be a useful tool to put water into Lake Powell and minimize lake-level declines during drought periods. The System Conservation Pilot Program is funded by southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, Central Arizona Project, Southern Nevada Water Authority, Denver Water, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and NGOs. About $4.5 M has been spent on the program through 2017 and approximately 22,000 acre-feet of consumptive use water has been conserved through such fallow and deficit irrigation, alternative cropping and a municipal water savings program. The program is being continued in 2018.

Nederland budget approved

Mailboxes are laden with snow on April 17, 2016 in Nederland, Colorado. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)

From The Mountain Ear (John Scarffe):

A new Waste Water Treatment facility and sewer maintenance dominated the 2018, $4.9 million budget approved by the Nederland Board of Trustees during a regular meeting at 7 p.m., December 5, 2017, at the Nederland Community Center…

Estimated expenditures for each fund: General Fund: $2,793,371; Conservation Trust Fund: $16,000; Community Center Fund: $391,068; Water Fund: $708,808; Sewer Fund: $812,422; Downtown Development Authority Fund: $30,700; Downtown Development Authority TIF Fund: $2,900. Total: $4,755,269…

The Sewer fund capital improvements have multiple items such as manhole repairs, mains and a new vehicle. The design and engineering of the Waste Water Treatment Plant Biosolids project will get up to 100 percent in 2018 but will be reimbursed by a loan, Hogan said, and will hopefully be awarded a $950,000 grant for improvements. It is a $2 million project.

Capital improvements from the water fund include the other half of the new vehicle, a Micro Hydro Feasibility Study with a matching $8,000 grant, and other projects, Hogan said.

Grant activity includes a Colorado Department of Local Affairs grant for the Biosolids project, a Great Outdoors Colorado grant for Fishing is Fun; a Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment grant for Pursuing Excellence Raw Water Filtration, a Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority grant for the Micro Hydro Feasibility Study with an $8,000 match and a GOCO Parks grant with a $6,000 town match…

For the Water Fund, the changes in rates are explained in the fee schedule. Total revenue is $707,000, operating expenses are $475,000, capital improvements $91,000 and debt payments of $143,000, resulting in a net change in cash of negative $1,200.

The Sewer Fund will also contain a fee schedule increase. Total revenue is budgeted to be $814,000, operating expenditures $527,000, capital improvements $42,000 and debt payments of $244,000, resulting in a positive net change in cash of $2,000.

Hogan presented the 2018 Fee Schedule. Noteworthy increases include the water fee with a three percent increase, and the sewer fund with a four percent increase.