Planning for #drought, or planning for a drier future? — Hannah Holm

From the Hutchins Water Center (Hannah Holm) via The Glenwood Springs Post Independent:

Looking up at the Grand Mesa from Grand Junction in early April, it’s good to see snow on its flanks. For too much of this past winter, they have been bare. Skiers felt the pain of the dry winter early; fish and ranchers will feel it this summer.

In Grand Junction, the impacts of this year’s drought will likely be eased by last year’s bounty, stored in reservoirs upstream. More troubling is the trend we’ve been seeing since 2000, which scientists are warning could signal a shift to a more arid climate.

Since 2000, we’ve had a lot more dry years than wet years in the Colorado River Basin. In a report released in March, the Colorado River Research Group warns that it may be more accurate to see this succession of dry years as a process of aridification, rather than a drought: we shouldn’t assume that it will end any time soon.

The group points to several recent studies showing that warmer temperatures have already led to a larger portion of our snowpack evaporating or getting taken up by plants before it has a chance to reach streams. 2017 was a case in point, with a very large snowpack converted into only moderately above-average inflows into Lake Powell.

Water managers and policymakers have not failed to notice this drying trend, reflected most obviously in dropping levels in Lakes Powell and Mead. Water users in the lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada have reigned in their water use a bit, managing to keep Lake Mead just barely above official shortage levels for the past few years. In the upper basin states of Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado, water leaders have been conducting modeling exercises to assess the risk of critical shortages and experiments to test options for responding.

The Colorado River Risk Study, spearheaded by the Colorado River District and the Southwestern Water Conservation District, has modeled several hydrology and water demand scenarios to assess the risk of Lake Powell dropping too low to reliably generate hydropower (somewhere between elevations of 3,490 and 3,525 feet above sea level). If Powell drops much further, it could also become difficult to release enough water through the dam to meet downstream obligations under the 1922 Colorado River Compact. If that happens, cities could rush to purchase water rights from farms, potentially drying up much of the agriculture on the Western Slope.

Using historical hydrology from 1988–2012 and demand numbers that roughly track current use trends, modeling indicates a 20 percent chance of Powell dropping to elevation 3,525 between now and 2036 if we don’t significantly change how water is managed. Using the same demand and hydrology data, that risk could be cut in half if major reservoirs like Blue Mesa and Flaming Gorge release extra water to Powell, and the lower basin states implement their own plans to protect Lake Mead water levels. The risk drops further if conservation activities generate water that can be stored in a “bank” and released as needed. However, major benefits would come only after such a bank has had time to accumulate a significant amount of water.

Meanwhile, the Upper Colorado River Commission has been giving out grants to test whether paying willing water users to temporarily reduce their use could help boost water levels in Powell. Such temporary reductions, rotated between different water users, are seen as an alternative to the permanent “buy and dry” of agricultural water rights.

Participants in the grant program include the Grand Valley Water Users Association, which chose several farmers by lottery to temporarily fallow their land in exchange for payment, and farmers in the North Fork and Uncompahgre Valleys who reduced irrigation or grew alternative crops under the program.

The Commission’s report on the program concluded that it could work, but several hurdles would have to be overcome. For example, it is unclear if sufficient legal tools currently exist to ensure that water conserved by one user could make it to Lake Powell without being picked up by someone else along the way. Measuring the amount of water saved through modified irrigation practices is also technically challenging. And the cost could be high — at the rates used by the program in 2017, it would cost $40 million to conserve about 200,000 acre feet of water.

As drought planning has been discussed at Western Slope water meetings, concerns have been raised about how to ensure fairness, with a strong desire to ensure that cities share the pain of any use cuts with farmers. There is also concern that proactive conservation could simply facilitate new drains on the Colorado River system, rather than protect existing users from drier conditions.

The data clearly demonstrate that we face the risk of a drier future, in which past ways of managing water will not continue to be viable. There are ways to mitigate the impact on our communities, but they are likely to be expensive and will certainly be complicated. This makes it all the more important to press forward now. The sooner we can find equitable, feasible mechanisms for adapting to drier conditions, the more smoothly we will be able to handle both temporary droughts and drier conditions over the long term.

Hannah Holm coordinates the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, which promotes research, education and dialogue to address the water issues facing the Upper Colorado River Basin. Support for Hutchins Water Center articles is provided by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. You can learn more about the center at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/water-center.

@COWaterTrust: RiverBank tickets are on sale!

Click here for all the inside skinny:

This year, we have the honor of recognizing our 2018 David Getches Flowing Waters Award winner, Jeff Shoemaker and The Greenway Foundation!

Read more about Jeff’s accomplishments here.

Water Education Colorado hires editor to lead news initiative

Your Water Colorado Blog

Water Education Colorado, an independent, nonpartisan and policy-neutral nonprofit based in Denver, is pleased to announce it has hired Jerd Smith, an award-winning editor and reporter, to lead a ground-breaking news initiative designed to expand coverage of the critical water issues facing Colorado and the American West.

“Jerd is a respected journalist with a deep backgJerd-Smithround on water in Colorado. I am thrilled that she has joined our team to tackle this important new program offering,” said Jayla Poppleton, executive director for Water Education Colorado. “This work is going to help us reach a much wider audience with timely, relevant information about what is happening in Colorado water, rounding out the work we do to advance awareness and informed decision making statewide.”

Smith most recently served as business news editor overseeing coverage for the Boulder Daily Camera and Times-Call newspapers in Boulder County. She spent more than a decade…

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@WaterEdCO launches digital water news initiative

Jerd Smith. Photo credit: Water Education Colorado.

I am so excited that WECO is putting this together. Water journalism will reap huge benefits from this effort. I have read a lot of content from Jerd Smith over the years. She is accurate and understands the complexities of water issues in the West. She has an accessible writing style that will help you understand and learn.

From email from Water Education Colorado:

Spring is in the air, and our team is growing! I am pleased to announce that we have hired a new staff member here at Water Education Colorado. Please welcome Jerd Smith, an award-winning editor and reporter, who will lead a news initiative designed to expand coverage of the critical water issues facing Colorado and the American West.

Jerd is a respected journalist with a deep background on water in Colorado. I am thrilled that she has joined our team to tackle this important new program offering. Our goal in bringing Jerd on is to reach a much wider audience with timely, relevant information about what is happening in Colorado water. This will round out the suite of programs we already offer to advance awareness and informed decision making statewide.

Jerd most recently served as business news editor overseeing coverage for the Boulder Daily Camera and Times-Call newspapers in Boulder County. She spent more than a decade at the Rocky Mountain News before its closure in 2009. While there, she led a drought team that won Stanford University’s first Risser Prize in environmental reporting. Her work has also been honored by the Associated Press, the Society of Professional Journalists, Scripps, and the American Planning Association, among others. Jerd has also been a regular contributor to Headwaters magazine over the past 10 years.

In her new role at Water Education Colorado, Jerd will help design and launch a weekly digital news report that includes in-depth reporting on current water issues. This content will be available at no cost to other media and news organizations that choose to carry it, as well as to Water Education Colorado members and the general public, via our website and various social media platforms.

Click here to read Jerd’s article, “Keeping It Clean: Protecting and enhancing water quality on the Colorado”, from the Summer 2011 issue of Headwaters Magazine.

@ColoradoClimate: Weekly Climate, Water and #Drought Assessment of the Intermountain West

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

Boulder Sues Exxon Over Climate Change: Wildfires, Droughts and Water Are a Few Reasons Why

From Inside Climate News:

In Boulder, Colorado, climate change means extreme weather and wildfires. It means worrying about water security for people and farms, and about heat waves and mosquito-borne diseases. These aren’t just future risks—they’re problems the city and its surrounding county are facing now.

On Tuesday, the city and Boulder County joined San Miguel County, home to the ski slopes of Telluride, in suing two fossil fuel companies—ExxonMobil and Suncor—over the costs of dealing with climate change.

Their lawsuit is the latest in a string of legal actions by communities that are attempting to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the problems climate change creates. Until now, the plaintiffs had been coastal cities and counties worried primarily about sea level rise.

The new case takes climate litigation to the middle of the country, where the risks take on new shapes and high costs.

The Colorado communities are already seeing climate-related damage to property, health and safety, and “the damage will only multiply as climate change worsens,” the lawsuit says.

It points to the dwindling snowpack, which is critical for the state’s agriculture, water supply and $5 billion ski industry. (This month, the snowpack in southern Colorado was 50 percent of normal.) It also raises concerns about the loss of water flow into the Colorado River, and about extreme summer heat, wildfires and droughts. (San Miguel County, like much of the Four Corners region, is facing extreme drought conditions.)

The Colorado plaintiffs, like cities and counties suing oil companies in California, accuse ExxonMobil and the Canadian oil sands company Suncor of creating a public nuisance through the burning of fossil fuels that is costing them money and putting their residents and property at risk.

They say the fossil fuel companies “intentionally engaged in conduct that has caused and contributed to climate change, thus causing flood waters, fire, hail, rain, snow, wind and invasive species to enter plaintiffs’ property.”

And they also cite the Colorado Consumer Protection Act, claiming the companies engaged in “deceptive trade practices”—an allegation similar to the Massachusetts attorney general’s investigation currently underway into Exxon.

From Grist:

Boulder, Boulder County, and San Miguel County are taking ExxonMobil and Suncor Energy (Canada’s biggest oil company) to court in an effort to hold them accountable for damages caused by extreme weather — events scientists have linked to increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Colorado has seen a 2 degree F increase on average over the past 30 years, making it the 20th fastest warming state in the U.S. since 1970.

The three plaintiffs in the lawsuit say their communities have endured wildfires and flash floods fueled by climate change. They want ExxonMobil and Suncor to pay millions for the damage and fork over additional money to fund climate adaptation initiatives.

“Plaintiffs have taken substantial steps to reduce their own GHG emissions,” the complaint says. Meanwhile, “Defendants have acted recklessly.” Watch out, Big Oil! Colorado isn’t pulling its punches.

From Bloomberg (Emily Chasan):

Most cities suing oil companies over the impact of climate change want help paying for walls to protect against rising sea levels. And then there’s Boulder, Colorado.

The politically liberal town known as the gateway to the Rocky Mountains and two counties in the same neck of the woods said Colorado’s economy depends on snow, water and cool weather when they accused Exxon Mobil Corp. and Suncor Energy Inc. of “causing and exacerbating climate change” in a state-court lawsuit filed Tuesday.

“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue and requires global participation and actions,” Exxon spokesman Scott Silvestri said in an email. “Lawsuits like this — filed by trial attorneys against an industry that provides products we all rely upon to power the economy and enable our domestic life — simply do not do that.” Suncor didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Colorado communities said they’re facing expenses and costs related to earlier snow melt, which has increased the risk of forest fires, dried-out soil, beetle outbreaks and drought.

From Ecowatch (Elliott Negin):

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in a state district court by Boulder, Boulder County and San Miguel County, is seeking compensation for damage and adaptation costs resulting from extreme weather events.

New York City and eight coastal California cities and counties, including San Francisco and Oakland, have filed similar lawsuits against ExxonMobil and other oil and gas companies, charging that they have injured their communities under common law. The Colorado suit is the first by an inland county or municipality.

“Climate change is not just about sea level rise. It affects all of us in the middle of the country as well,” said Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones. “In fact, Colorado is one of the fastest warming states in the nation.”

Oil Industry Knew About Threat 50 Years Ago

The 1,300-square-mile San Miguel County sits in the southwest corner of the state on the Utah border. About a third of the county’s 8,000 residents live in Telluride, a well-known ski resort town. Boulder, 25 miles northwest of Denver, is the county seat of the 740-square-mile Boulder County and home to nearly a third of the county’s 319,000 residents. The three communities have been ravaged by costly climate-related extreme weather events, including wildfires and flash floods, according to the 100-page complaint. Likewise, each community has launched initiatives to curb carbon emissions and adapt to a changing climate.

The Colorado communities contend that ExxonMobil and Suncor were aware that their products caused global warming as early as 1968, when a report commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute (API), the U.S oil and gas industry’s premier trade association, warned of the threat burning fossil fuels posed to the climate. Subsequent reports and memos prepared for API and its member companies came to similar conclusions. Regardless, ExxonMobil and Suncor not only continued to produce and market fossil fuel products without disclosing their risks, the complaint charges, they also engaged in a decades-long disinformation campaign to manufacture public doubt and confusion about the reality and seriousness of climate change.

The plaintiffs want the two oil giants to “pay their share of the damage” caused by their “intentional, reckless and negligent conduct.” That share could amount to tens of millions, if not billions, of dollars to help cover the cost of more heat waves, wildfires, droughts, intense precipitation, and floods.

“Our communities and our taxpayers should not shoulder the cost of climate change adaptation alone,” said Boulder Mayor Suzanne Jones. “These oil companies need to pay their fair share.”

Higher Temperatures Hurt Ski Industry, Agriculture

Over the last four decades, wildfires in the Rockies have been happening with greater frequency. According to a 2014 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization (RMCO), the region experienced nearly four times as many wildfires larger than 1,000 acres between 1987 and 2003 than between 1970 and 1986.

Rocky Mountain trees also are being ravaged by bark beetles. Over the last 25 years, the UCS-RMCO report found, beetles have killed trees on regional forest land nearly equal in acreage to the size of Colorado itself. Heat and drought are taking a toll, too, exacerbating tree mortality. If global warming continues unabated, the region likely will become even hotter and drier, and the consequences for its forests will be even more severe.

The average temperatures in Colorado have increased more than 2 degrees F since 1983, according to a 2014 University of Colorado Boulder study, and are projected to jump another 2.5 to 5 degrees F by mid-century. That would have a devastating effect on the Colorado economy, which relies heavily on snow, water and cool weather. A 2017 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters found that low-snow winters and shorter seasons are already having a negative impact on the state’s $5-billion ski industry, the largest in the country. Rising temperatures and drought, meanwhile, threaten the state’s $41 billion agricultural sector.

ExxonMobil and Suncor Are Major Carbon Emitters

Both ExxonMobil and Suncor have substantial operations in Colorado. Since 1999, ExxonMobil has produced more than 1 million barrels of oil and 656 million metric cubic feet of natural gas from Colorado deposits, according to the complaint, and ExxonMobil subsidiary XTO Energy currently produces 130 million cubic feet of natural gas per day from more than 864 square miles across three Colorado counties. There are also at least 20 Exxon and Mobil gas stations in the state. All told, the company’s production and transportation activities in Colorado were responsible for more than 420,000 metric tons of global warming emissions between 2011 and 2015, according to the complaint.

Suncor gas stations, which sell Shell, Exxon and Mobil brand products, supply about 35 percent of Colorado’s gasoline and diesel demand. Suncor, whose U.S. headquarters is located in Denver, also owns the only oil refinery in the state, which produces 100,000 barrels of refined oil per day. According to the complaint, Suncor’s Colorado operations were responsible for 900,000 metric tons of carbon emissions in 2016 alone.

Besides their Colorado facilities, the two companies are partners in Syncrude Canada, the largest tar sands oil developer in Canada. Tar sands oil—a combination of clay, sand, water and bitumen—produces roughly 20 percent more carbon dioxide emissions per barrel than regular crude oil.

ExxonMobil and Suncor are among the 90 fossil fuel producers responsible for approximately 75 percent of the world’s global warming emissions from fossil fuels and cement between 1988 and 2015, according to the Climate Accountability Institute. Over that time frame, the two companies’ operations and products emitted 20.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide and methane.

“Based on the latest scientific studies, the plaintiffs in Colorado, as well as in California and New York City, can now show the direct connection between carbon emissions and climate-related damages,” said Kathryn Mulvey, climate accountability campaign director at UCS. “Given these companies’ significant contribution to climate change—and their decades of deception about climate science—it is long past time that they should be held accountable for the damage they have caused.”

#Colorado Water Quality Control Division sets PFOA and PFOS standards

Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.

From The Colorado Springs Independent (Pam Zubeck):

The Water Quality Control Commission imposed standards for PFOS and PFOA, two types of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), the contaminants found in ground water as a result of Peterson Air Force Base using firefighting foam for years. The chemicals leached into the underground water supply, befouling wells and wreaking havoc on supplies in the Fountain Valley.

The standard adopted by the commission is 70 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFOA, which was proposed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Hazardous Materials and Waste Water Management Division.

“This will give regulators the authority they need to hold polluters accountable for cleaning up to that level,” the coalition said in a release. “It will also give them a much needed tool to better monitor discharge into the aquifer and prevent further … contamination of our drinking water.”

The coalition also noted that it argued successfully against Colorado Springs Utilities’ bid to exclude its solids handling facility from the protected site. Biosolids have been identified as a possible source of PFOS contamination and Utilities’ facility lies within the alluvial aquifer targeted for protection.