From The High Country News (Emily Benson):
During a dry spring, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet visits rural Colorado to talk economics and agriculture.
Grand Mesa rises from desert scrub and farm fields 25 miles north of Olathe, a town of 1,800 people in western Colorado. The mountain’s flanks were a shade darker than the cobalt sky in late March. They should have been frosted white with snow, but monitoring stations showed some of the lowest snow readings in decades. Closer to town, farmers who depend on the water stored in the Western snowpack were turning over their fields, getting ready to raise this year’s corn and hay, dust devils of dry earth rising in the wakes of their tractors.
Outside the Olathe town offices, American and Colorado flags flapped in the sun. Inside, local officials shook the hand of Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat visiting western Colorado farming country to learn about the economic obstacles places like Olathe face, and the policy concerns of the farmers and ranchers that live there. Bennet told me he plans to initiate a statewide conversation on climate change that crosses political and rural-urban divides.
For farming and ranching communities like Olathe, drought is a major worry. Mayor Rob Smith said if the town had to dry up lawns to keep agricultural water flowing — and the local economy healthy — it would. “I’d rather eat than worry about a lawn,” Smith, a Republican, told me.
When the fields circling town are irrigated this summer, the water will come from the Colorado River Basin. Climate change is already shrinking the Colorado and other water sources across the West. It’s a threat that most Coloradans know is real, Bennet said, but not one that politicians have rallied bipartisan support to fight. “I do not believe that the Democratic Party or the environmental groups generally have done a great job of reaching farmers and ranchers on issues related to climate,” Bennet told me. “And to my mind, they’re the people that really are the stewards of this land; they’re the ones that want to have something to pass to the next generation of Americans…I think it would be nice if we had a political conversation around this that was not repellant to them.”
Such a conversation might start in a town like Delta, Bennet’s afternoon stop, 15 minutes down the road from Olathe. In a stuffy courthouse conference room, about 50 people sat on folding chairs and lined the walls, eager to tell Bennet, a member of the Senate agriculture committee, what he should champion in the 2018 farm bill, which distributes billions of dollars to conservation, food assistance, agricultural subsidies and other programs.
John Harold, a corn grower from Olathe, stood up to introduce Bennet. “I’m going to take your water, ‘cause I’m out of water,” he said to another farmer, reaching for a plastic bottle sitting on the speakers’ table. The crowd laughed, and someone, perhaps thinking of late summer, dry fields and stunted crops, called out, “Already?”
As Bennet took notes, ranchers, farmers and local leaders highlighted the policies and programs that can boost or sink their businesses. Looming concerns over exports caused Bennet to suggest that those present urge their Republican representatives to “moderate the rhetoric” in Washington. “Our farmers and ranchers … need the president to behave responsibly,” he said.
Within a week, American agriculture would be caught in the middle of an escalating fight between the U.S. and China over tariffs. In 2017, Colorado exported goods worth more than $580 million to China, or about 7 percent of the state’s total exports, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Beef, pork, wheat and other grains are some of Colorado’s biggest agricultural exports, and farmers and ranchers say prices are already dropping because of the trade dispute.
As the hour-long meeting in Delta wound down, a man who introduced himself as a scientist asked about whether Bennet planned to support including land-use policies that address the realities of climate change and drought in the farm bill.
Bennet, an ardent champion of climate action, said he plans to barnstorm Colorado this summer, soliciting discussions and concerns and ideas — from conservatives and liberals, city-dwellers and small town residents — for how to build a coalition dedicated to addressing climate change. But working those priorities into the farm bill itself may be difficult, given the climate change denialism of the Trump administration.
“Will the politics of it let us get it done?” Bennet replied from his seat at the table in the front of the room, flanked on one side by a county administrator and on the other by the executive director of an agricultural land trust. “I don’t know.”
Emily Benson is an assistant editor at High Country News.
From The New Mexico Political Report (Laura Paskus):
For more than a decade, researchers have explained that warming will affect water supplies in the southwestern United States. Now in a new paper, hydrologist Shaleene Chavarria and University of New Mexico Earth and Planetary Sciences Professor David Gutzler show climate change is already affecting the amount of streamflow in the Rio Grande that comes from snowmelt.
“We see big changes in the winter and early spring,” said Chavarria. “Big changes in winter temperature, increases in springtime temperatures and decreases in streamflow.”
The paper, recently published in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association, is based on her graduate work in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department.
Snowpack is the main driver of the Rio Grande’s flows in the Upper Basin of New Mexico, explained Chavarria, who examined annual and monthly changes in climate variables and streamflow volume in southern Colorado for the years 1958 through 2015.
She found that flows have diminished in March, April and May. And not only is snowpack decreasing, snowpack melts earlier as temperatures continue to rise.
This means flows have increased in the late winter and early spring and decreased later in the season, when farmers need it most for irrigating crops and orchards. The paper points out that as temperatures continue warming and streamflows drop during the growing season, more people will rely on groundwater pumping, further depleting already-stressed aquifers.
“One thing that we that we really need to keep in mind is that conditions in the basin are changing—we know from the paleoclimatic records, and stories from the past—and we have projections of what could happen in the future,” she said. “We need to take those together and we need to prepare because ultimately what we do today and in the coming years is going to affect future generations—mainly our children and our grandchildren, so we need to take care of what we have now.”
Like many in New Mexico, Chavarria’s community—and its forests and watershed—have been affected by climate change…
Her co-author and graduate adviser, David Gutzler, has worked on climate change issues in the southwestern United States for more than 20 years.
The state is now about three degrees warmer than it was during the 1970s, he said, and those changes are seen in extremes. Winters aren’t as cold, and more summer days are very hot, even by New Mexico standards. That warming trend over time is different from variability, or year to year changes.
“New Mexico is a variable climate so for millennia we have seen wet periods and dry periods on the order of decades,” he said. “What’s not so normal, by historical standards, is how warm it’s been.”
The takeaway for policymakers, he said, is that snowpack is becoming a less reliable source of streamflow in New Mexico’s rivers. Even in snowy years, the region’s warmer springs melt the snowpack faster and earlier than in the past.
Here’s the abstract from the paper:
Observed streamflow and climate data are used to test the hypothesis that climate change is already affecting Rio Grande streamflow volume derived from snowmelt runoff in ways consistent with model‐based projections of 21st‐Century streamflow. Annual and monthly changes in streamflow volume and surface climate variables on the Upper Rio Grande, near its headwaters in southern Colorado, are assessed for water years 1958–2015. Results indicate winter and spring season temperatures in the basin have increased significantly, April 1 snow water equivalent (SWE) has decreased by approximately 25%, and streamflow has declined slightly in the April–July snowmelt runoff season. Small increases in precipitation have reduced the impact of declining snowpack on trends in streamflow. Changes in the snowpack–runoff relationship are noticeable in hydrographs of mean monthly streamflow, but are most apparent in the changing ratios of precipitation (rain + snow, and SWE) to streamflow and in the declining fraction of runoff attributable to snowpack or winter precipitation. The observed changes provide observational confirmation for model projections of decreasing runoff attributable to snowpack, and demonstrate the decreasing utility of snowpack for predicting subsequent streamflow on a seasonal basis in the Upper Rio Grande Basin.
Here’s a report about Santa Fe’s preparation for this season from Julie Ann Grimm writing for the Santa Fe Reporter:
Groundwater wells that have mostly been resting on the city’s west side since the construction of a Rio Grande diversion are likely to get put back into action this summer.
Dismal snowpack and low rainfall so far this spring mean water in the river is scarce.
These have long been the plans in Santa Fe, where officials decided in the early 2000s to build a massive infrastructure project to draw water off the river. The Buckman Direct Diversion went online in 2011, becoming a fourth source in the water supply portfolio for Santa Fe’s homes and businesses, along with two well fields and the Rio Grande. Since the reservoirs on the smaller Santa Fe River are also low due to the drought conditions, that leaves the wells.
The city’s policy is to “minimize groundwater use in years when surface water availability is limited—like this year,” reads a memo from water utility staff to diversion board managers late last month explaining the plan.
City Water Division Director Rick Carpenter tells SFR he doesn’t anticipate a supply problem this season.
“Those wells have all been resting and the water levels are coming up. Two examples that I can give are two Buckman wells that have recovered so much that they have gone artesian, which means that the water is coming out of them, we don’t even have to pump them,” he says. “So the aquifer is recovered. That is always what we had hoped for. If we do have to pump the wells all summer, we should be fine.”
Most of the water drawn each year at the Buckman is technically water piped into the Rio Grande over the continental divide from the San Juan River in Colorado to the Chama River in New Mexico. And that—coupled with availability of other water to carry it, and additional water from local reservoirs—has been able to meet the majority of demand in recent years. Not so for this summer.
The memo contemplates two operational scenarios: one in which the diversion is shut down for three months, and one in which it draws just enough water to stay open.
Conservation education and restrictions in the city have led to water use generally declining over the past two decades. Officials say the city would likely need about 10,000 acre-feet this year, and given the surface water shortage, just over half that is expected to now come from the wells. During July and August, more water would be produced from wells than any other source.
From The Nevada Independent (Daniel Rothberg):
After four states and Denver’s municipal water agency wrote letters accusing Arizona’s largest water provider of manipulating the Colorado River system to advantage itself, a former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority lashed Arizona as a “bad actor.” An official at the water authority said this week that the utility was taking the concerns seriously.
Pat Mulroy, the water authority’s former general manager, offered a sharp critique of the Arizona utility — the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) — in an interview with The Nevada Independent. She said the utility’s actions had made it a “bad actor” on the river, adding that she believed the claims that CAWCD was manipulating the system to the detriment of other users. She said the fight plays into the internal power struggle within Arizona.
“They are willing to let the entire Colorado River system crash in order to win this parochial battle against the state,” Mulroy said. “It’s illogical… But that’s where they’re headed.”
In a letter Monday, Denver Water said it would end funding for a conservation program in 2019 if CAWCD did not alter its actions. The Southern Nevada agency, which manages water throughout Clark County, also funds the program.
No decision has been made about whether it will pull funding too. A spokesman said that the authority will take a “wait and see” approach to evaluate whether to fund the program next year. Colby Pellegrino, who manages the authority’s Colorado River supply, said the Denver Water letter was significant. Through Lake Mead, Southern Nevada gets about 90 percent of its drinking water from the river.
“We need to take Denver’s concerns seriously,” she said in an interview.
The funding in question is for a pilot program designed to conserve water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, an attempt to prop up the elevation of the two major interconnected reservoirs in the Colorado River system. The Colorado River is split into two basins, an Upper Basin and a Lower Basin. The Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada pull their water from Lake Mead. Both basins have an interest in keeping their respective reservoirs above critical elevations that trigger losses in hydropower production and shortages in their water deliveries.
The Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are concerned that the CAWCD is manipulating supply and demand, to take more water from their reservoir, Lake Powell, than is appropriate for a system that is over-stressed and runs through an increasingly arid region. Even Arizona state officials have spoken out against CAWCD, which is locked in an internal battle with the Arizona Department of Water Resources, an arm of the governor’s office.
Mulroy applauded the Upper Basin for writing its letter, saying she hoped it would put pressure on Arizona water managers to settle their fighting, one of the factors holding up a drought plan.
From Colorado Public Radio (Grace Hood):
Denver Water raised concerns in an April 16 letter over perceived “manipulation of water demands” by the Central Arizona Water Conservancy District, which manages the Central Arizona Project. CAP’s system of canals feeds Colorado River Water to Arizona farms and the cities of Phoenix and Tucson.
In the letter, Denver Water CEO/manager Jim Lochhead called into question recent CAP statements about a so-called “sweet spot” in Lake Mead. CAP water managers are publicly discussing keeping measurement levels within a specific range in the lower Colorado River Basin reservoir so more water will come from Lake Powell upstream.
Lochhead said those actions jeopardize millions spent by his agency to conserve Colorado River water upstream. Denver Water gets about half of what it needs from the river, and has invested in recent years in the Colorado River Conservation Program, which pays state farmers and ranchers to conserve Colorado River water as the entire basin struggles to manage the effects of an 18-year drought.
Denver Water is prepared to terminate our funding of the program after we meet our obligations in 2018…unless the [Central Arizona Water Conservancy District] is able to verifiably establish it has ceased all actions to manipulate demands and is fully participating in aggressive conservation measures along with other entities in Arizona,” the letter said.
In an interview, Lochhead said actions by Arizona water managers “undermines both the investment that Denver Water has made in this program and it undermines the conservation efforts that are being made by water users in the upper basin including in Western Colorado.”
For its part, the Arizona district said it will contact Denver Water officials and can’t comment now.
More Unusual Steps
Denver Water’s missive isn’t the first warning received by the Central Arizona Water Conservancy District. Just three days before Denver’s communique, the Upper Colorado River Commission sent its own strongly worded dispatch to Arizona Department of Water Resources chief Tom Buschatzke.
“[The Central Arizona Water Conservation District’s] goal appears to be to delay agreement on drought plans in order to take advantage of what it terms the ‘sweet spot’ by drawing ‘bonus water’ from Lake Powell… characterizations indicate that CAWCD intends to disregard the basin’s dire situation at the expense of Lake Powell and all other basin states,” the commission wrote.
Upper Colorado River Commissioner James Eklund signed the letter along with representatives from New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah. He said it was “an unusual step to see language like this in a letter from one state to another. That said, we feel like it was timely and the situation warranted the letter.”
For Eklund, the crux of the issue is one water district in Arizona “maximizing one interest over the interest of the entire basin.”
“We assumed good faith dealing and when we saw something that suggested a contrary message or policy being adopted by the district in Arizona,” Eklund continued. “That’s when we decided we have to bring them back into the fold, into the herd, and get them back at the negotiating table.”
At a deeper level, there’s an internal dispute between Arizona water leaders. The Arizona Department of Water Resources has criticized these management practices by the Central Arizona Project.
“It raises important questions about actions taken by Central Arizona Water Conservation District that threaten to blow up the collaborative effort that we have been enjoying on the Colorado River for the last 20 years,” Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke told KJZZ in Phoenix.
From KJZZ.com (Bret Jaspers):
Commissioners for the Upper Colorado River sent a letter late last week to Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke. In the letter, they specifically criticized a water management strategy of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD).
Here’s what the upper basin doesn’t like: the CAWCD aims to keep Lake Mead at a so-called “sweet spot.” If the level of the lake stays in that range, then under current agreements, more water comes down from Lake Powell.
The Commissioners’ letter expressed deep concern that CAWCD “intends to disregard the basin’s dire situation at the expense of Lake Powell and all other basin states.” Don Ostler, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, said bluntly in an interview. “That kind of manipulation is unacceptable to the Upper Basin.”
The letter echoed an argument long made by Buschatzke.
“It raises important questions about actions taken by Central Arizona Water Conservation District that threaten to blow up the collaborative effort that we have been enjoying on the Colorado River for the last 20 years,” he said.
A statement from the CAWCD, in part, said, “We are surprised and disappointed to have received a letter from the Upper Colorado River Commission questioning CAWCD’s intentions in leaving water in Lake Mead. We have been reaching out to our partners in the Upper Basin, hoping to clarify apparent misunderstandings, and to facilitate in-person, collaborative discussions aimed at finding solutions that will benefit the communities and environment served by this mighty river.”
CAWCD also reminded people of the water the agency has conserved on behalf of Lake Mead, “at a significant cost to CAP water users in terms of water and water rates.” CAWCD runs the Central Arizona Project canal system, which delivers water to the Phoenix and Tuscon areas.
The Upper Colorado River Commissioners also urged Arizona to get its internal house in order so all seven states and Mexico can plan for long-term drought.
“The seven Colorado River Basin states and Mexico are connected at the hip in this river,” Ostler said. “And what is going on with regards to one state, its failure to make progress, is having an effect on all seven states.”
Buschatzke and Gov. Doug Ducey are trying to get big-ticket water legislation through the state Capitol this year. But time is running out on the legislative session.
From the Colorado River District (Martha Moore):
“It’s unfortunate that what we view as their internal dysfunction within Arizona has cause frankly damage within the water community on the Colorado River,” Mueller said.
Mueller wants to see Interior review whether the CAP’s water diversions are in compliance with Colorado River water law.
“It deserves looking at and will require some federal action probably,” he said, adding that the Arizona water district’s actions go beyond a “friendly water dispute.” — Andy Mueller
From The Arizona Republic (Brandon Loomis):
Central Arizona water managers, facing backlash from other Colorado River users for allegedly undercutting regional conservation efforts, will visit Utah later this month aiming to smooth relations across a region struggling to agree on a way to save a key water supply…
CAP General Manager Ted Cooke initially shot back that his agency was following the rules and manipulating nothing. But as the week progressed, CAP asked for an audience and planned an April 30 meeting with the Upper Colorado Basin Commission in Salt Lake City.
“We reached out to (commissioners) individually, and they said, ‘How about we hear you all at once?’” CAP spokeswoman Crystal Thompson said.
An official with the commission representing Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico water interests confirmed they are scheduling a private meeting to discuss the conflict…
The Arizona Department of Water Resources and Gov. Doug Ducey have sought but so far failed to secure legislative authority to hold back some of the water the CAP delivers from Lake Mead as part of the state’s offering for a regional conservation agreement. That water would come from Arizona tribes and other users who would willingly store it in the Southwest’s largest reservoir rather than taking their full legal share each year.
CAP, which traditionally has sold excess water to users or groundwater storage projects, objected and argued that keeping too much water in Lake Mead could hurt the state. That’s because federal rules for balancing the levels of Lake Mead and its upstream counterpart, Lake Powell, call for releasing more water from Powell if Mead hovers near a level that would trigger a shortage and mandate cutbacks in use.
Under a formula set by the state and the U.S. Interior Department, Lake Powell will send 9 million acre-feet to Lake Mead this year to prevent shortage, rather than the 8.23 million acre-feet it would send under normal river conditions. Each acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons and is enough to serve about two households for a year.
Conserving enough to prevent a shortage but not so much as to slow the flow from Lake Powell represents a “sweet spot,” CAP argued, in language that has now alarmed upstream water officials.
A CAP graphic circulated among water managers set off the criticism. It depicted Lake Mead’s “sweet spot” as being around elevation 1,080 to 1,085 feet above sea level, or 5 to10 feet above the level that would trigger mandated cutbacks for Arizona water users.
CAP’s “manipulation of demands in order to take advantage of the supposed ‘sweet spot’ in Lake Powell water releases undermines (regional conservation), and is unacceptable,” Denver Water CEO James Lochhead wrote.
He said his agency would cease funding conservation measures by farms and other users if CAP doesn’t embrace “aggressive conservation measures along with other entities in Arizona.”
CAP has participated in Colorado River conservation, and has argued that without its actions in recent years Lake Mead would already be in shortage mode. Critics have argued it’s not enough, and that another dry winter like the last one could end the “bonus” that Lake Powell is sending downstream.
Current projections for this spring’s runoff suggest Lake Powell will drop 30 feet this year and end up just 7 feet above the level that would mandate reductions from normal releases into Lake Mead and start a cycle of shortage.
If that happens, the reduced flows could leave Lake Mead vulnerable to declines that would impose steeper reductions on Arizona consumption.
Buschatzke worried that the letters from upstream interests might signal a lawsuit that could upend years of efforts at working across state lines to protect reservoir levels. The shortage triggers and reservoir operating plans are based largely on a 2007 agreement negotiated among the seven river states.
“For the last 10 years we’ve been on the collaborative path,” he said. “This threatens to send us back down the parochial path.”
He called on CAP to heed the message and negotiate a way to keep more water in Lake Mead. That would require an interim, interagency agreement about some of the authority the state has sought from the Legislature, until the governor can get a bill passed this year or next.
Arizona faces more severe cutbacks if it ignores interstate collaboration and lets the reservoir keep dropping. Those cuts would initially affect central Arizona farmers and groundwater banking efforts in the next two years, but urban users and developers could suffer if the depletion gets worse.
Buschatzke cautioned Arizonans against getting defensive about criticism from upstream states. Doing so and refusing to conserve more could leave the state in a bad spot, he said.
“I hope it doesn’t result in some folks in Arizona saying, ‘Man, they’re ganging up on us, we better hunker down,’” he said.
CAP officials will decline further comment to avoid undermining the planned Salt Lake City talks, Thompson said.
Holding back 15 million gallons of water requires engineering design to make the structure stronger.