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Protect Your Groundwater Day (September 4, 2018) provides an opportunity for people to learn about the importance of groundwater and how the resource impacts lives. Your involvement and passion during the week is what makes PYGWD so successful, and we have put together free marketing materials to help guide you through the event.
From The Colorado Independent (John Herrick):
On June 1, a spark near the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gage Railroad ignited a flame in the Animas River gorge north of Durango. The fire would burn for weeks, torching more than 55,000 acres and filling the air with smoke.
Then came the rain.
“Mother Nature is the one that really helped out,” Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District told a group of water experts and planners at the Colorado Water Congress in Vail this week.
But Mother Nature also wreaked havoc. As the rainwater hit the burn scar and flowed along the dry surface into the Animas and its tributaries, the ash and debris it brought down with it suffocated fish and clogged irrigation ditches, Whitehead said. It also forced the Durango water utility to shut off its water intake due to high turbidity for several days and instead draw from nearby reservoirs.
The fallout of the 416 Fire is an example of how hotter, drier conditions due to climate change are making it tougher to plan water supplies in Colorado. And it is just one example of how the impacts of drought – and the broader effects of “aridification” – are being felt across the state.
For the first time, Aspen has called for stage 2 mandatory water restrictions. This includes limiting lawn watering to no more than three days a week and running sprinklers no more than 30 minutes a day.
There are currently fishing restrictions — some voluntary, some mandatory — on eight rivers in Colorado because of low flows and high water temperatures. Anglers and rafters who make their living on those rivers have had to limit their trips like never before.
Ranchers are selling off their cattle because drought has limited their natural food supplies and caused hay prices to rise.
And there is a potential for a first-ever “call” on the Yampa River, which flows through Dinosaur National Monument. That would limit users from drawing upon the Yampa in order to maintain minimum required flow levels.
These developments have brought a sense of anxiety to the annual meeting of statewide water bosses and watchdogs.
“We are not going to be able to rely on the historical hydrology that occured before 2000 to make decisions going forward,” said Lain Leoniak, a water lawyer in the Colorado Attorney General’s office. “This is a Colorado River system problem.”
A NASA report has found that drought conditions are becoming more common in the Western U.S. Several water experts at this week’s conference scoffed at the term “drought,” preferring instead “aridification,” meaning not just a lack of rainfall, but a wholescale transformation of Western land into a drier landscape.
Colorado is expected to warm 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050 due to climate change, according to a Western Water Assessment study. As a parable for what to expect, the Water Congress held a panel discussion about Cape Town, a South African city of four million people that nearly ran out of water earlier this year.
Warmer, drier weather in the West has extended the fire season and made forests more prone to burning. It has also warmed up waterways and increased the rate of evaporation from rivers and reservoirs. This creates challenges for both water quality and quantity.
“I think nature could throw curve balls at us that are on the order of Cape Town,” said Brad Udall, a member of the Colorado River Research Group and a water and climate researcher at Colorado State University (also a former Colorado Independent board member). Udall added that “Day zero” – meaning the day water sources run dry – “happens here potentially because a community has only one water source and that source gets hammered for some reason — be it ash or low flows.”
‘I don’t think we have a choice’
Colorado has a statewide water plan, crafted with great fanfare by Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration. But implementing it has been difficult due to lack of funding and a dearth of knowledge about what to expect in Colorado’s water future.
The Statewide Water Supply Initiative (SWSI), which previously predicted Colorado will run out of water in 2050, began in 2016. A full, updated report is long overdue and now expected in July of 2019.
Russ Sands, senior program manager at the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said population increases and climate change are key factors that determine water supply. The SWSI will include a variety of different scenarios with different water forecasts. Sands said he hopes it will help water planners better prepare for climate change and a variety of potential scenarios.
One scenario is already playing out. Spring snowmelt now comes one to four weeks earlier than it did about three decades ago, according to a 2018 report by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization. Given earlier seasonal peak snowpack runoff, one strategy is to store the water in a reservoir.
John Porco, the president of the San Juan Water Conservation District, has been trying to build such a reservoir on a diversion off the San Juan River near Pagosa Springs. The project is known as the San Juan Headwaters Project, and previously Dry Gulch. It began in earnest following especially dry conditions in 2002. But it lacks community support. Voters in Archuleta County rejected a mill levy increase last November to help fund the project.
Porco said the reservoir is needed to ensure the community can keep the water to which it has a right under Colorado’s complex water law system. It also could be used to regulate flows of the San Juan for fish and wildlife and boaters, he added.
“If things get really bad, we don’t have a backup,” he said of his community’s current drought preparedness.
But conservationists argue that building more water storage is not the silver bullet.
“Storage is just a bucket,” said Abby Burk, western rivers program manager for Audubon Rockies. “It doesn’t create any new water.”
Instead, Burk said water managers need to be thinking about new ideas for conservation and efficiency.
But, as with reservoirs like the one Porco wants to build, there isn’t much money to get these projects off the ground. Most of the money for water conservation projects comes from the state’s tax on oil and gas production, known as the severance tax. But that funding source is proving to be insufficient and far too volatile because it hinges on fluctuations in oil and gas prices. Tax deductions that oil and gas companies claim also have chipped away at revenues, especially since 2016 following a lawsuit brought by BP America.
As a result, funding specifically for the Colorado Water Plan was slashed this year from $10 million to $7 million. Lawmakers also had to use money from Colorado’s sales and income taxes to keep environmental regulatory agencies operating through the next year.
The two major-party candidates running for Colorado governor hinted at a possible funding plan when they spoke to the Water Congress this week.
State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, a Republican, said there are “opportunities for Colorado to expand revenues” through sports betting and medical marijuana, but noted he wants to fund the water plan without raising taxes. He declined an interview for clarification after his speech, leaving through an exit at the side of the ballroom. His spokesperson did not return an emailed request seeking elaboration on how medical marijuana could pay for the water plan without a tax increase.
Congressman Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee for governor, spoke of a stakeholders’ group working on a funding proposal that includes ideas ranging from sports betting to bottle fees. But he did not say how, if elected, he would prefer to fund a water plan that he deems necessary.
“I look forward to hearing your ideas,” he said.
State lawmakers, in the meantime, are considering new funding ideas.
Sen. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose who serves on the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee, mentioned a water bottle tax, a 25-cent per thousand gallon water meter surcharge, and a sales tax as potential other sources of revenue. He also wants to pay back some of the severance tax money used to balance the budget in prior years. According to a February memo by the Joint Budget Committee, $322 million in severance tax dollars have been transferred to the General Fund since 2001.
“I don’t think we have a choice. We’re not producing any more water. We have to manage the water we have,” Corum told The Colorado Independent at the end of this year’s legislative session in May. “We need money to do that.”
Call on the River
A new forecast by the Bureau of Reclamation estimates that Lake Mead – formed behind Hoover Dam to store Colorado River water for the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California – could fall below a critical level by 2020. Currently, the reservoir is just four and a half feet above 1,075 feet, the point at which Colorado and other Upper Basin states may have to release their share of stored water from Lake Powell into Lake Mead in what would be known as a “call” on the River. The 1922 Colorado River Compact requires the Upper Basin — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah — to send at least 7.5 million acre-feet per year to the Lower Basin. The so-called Law of the River would require users with newer rights to water to have to give up water first, depending on how curtailments are carried out.
Even so, Eric Kuhn, a retired manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said compacts are only agreements to agree. He seemed worried about total supplies in a complex Western water law system that divided water rights between Western states nearly a century ago and in which farmers and ranchers often have higher water priority than urban and suburban users.
“Deep uncertainty implies that you have to be flexible,” said Kuhn. “Nature may not care if you have a decree or not.”
From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott) via The Glenwood Springs Post Independent:
The drought-stressed Colorado River carried even less water than expected this summer, increasing the odds of a shortage in the vital river system in 2020, federal water managers said Friday.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said the chances of a shortfall in Lake Mead, the river’s biggest reservoir, are now 57 percent, up from the 52 percent projected in May.
The river and its tributaries serve 40 million people and 6,300 square miles of farmland in Mexico and the U.S. states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah. A nearly two-decade drought, coupled with rising demand from growing cities, has reduced the amount of water available in Lake Mead and the river’s other big reservoir, Lake Powell.
If the surface of Lake Mead drops below 1,075 feet above sea level, some deliveries would be cut under agreements governing the system. Arizona, Nevada and Mexico would have their shares reduced first in a shortage.
A shortage has never occurred in the river.
“There is a real sense of urgency across the basin to protect the river’s supply in the face of increasing demand and ongoing drought,” said Brenda Burman, chief of the Bureau of Reclamation.
The forecast worsened because Lake Powell, which is upstream from Lake Mead, collected about 500,000 acre-feet (600 million cubic meters) less water than expected between April and July, said Patti Aaron, a spokeswoman for the bureau. One acre-foot is enough to supply a typical U.S. family for a year.
That means Powell will be up to 5 feet lower than expected, with less water available to release into Lake Mead…
The Bureau of Reclamation dates the Colorado River region’s drought to 2000, but some researchers have said the river might be experiencing a longer-term shift to a drier climate, called aridification.
From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Liz Forster):
Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted a 70 percent chance of an El Niño for the 2018-19 winter. Tom Di Liberto, a meteorologist with NOAA, said it’s too early to say with confidence the strength of the climate variation event.
“As we move into the fall, our models and the ocean-atmosphere conditions will be clearer and we can better determine how strong the El Niño will be,” he said. ”The stronger the El Niño, the more consistent with the general pattern of an El Niño this winter will be.”
Colorado straddles the jet stream as it runs across the northern and southern tiers of the United States, and scientists have not been able to find corollary data between El Niño events and the snow conditions in Colorado.
“In general, I don’t tend to make a whole lot out of El Niño predictions in terms of snow conditions in Colorado because we’re right in that inflection point,” Molotch said.
He continued, “You also have to remember that the Sierras, the mountains in the Pacific Northwest and others in the western Rockies are really efficient in squeezing snow out of these storm systems. By the time those storms get to Colorado, you don’t have a significant amount of snowfall.”
Even if Colorado’s winter definitively sways with the northern or southern jet stream, the characteristics ascribed to El Niño events are influenced by other climactic and weather elements that are unique to a specific winter season.
”We don’t necessarily see storms moving to the same places and in the same direction winter-to-winter in a normal year, which is also the case for an El Niño year,” Di Liberto said. “Every winter has other factors that can tweak the characteristics of a general El Niño.”
As Colorado awaits its uncertain snow season, the state is expected to remain in drought through the end of November with above-average temperaturesThe seasonal drought outlook for Aug. 16 through Nov. 30 produced by the Climate Prediction center forecast drought to persist but improve in the southern part of the state, but to persist without improvement in the central and northwest corner.
El Paso County — which currently is a mosaic of abnormally dry, moderate drought and severe drought — sits in the latter of the two predictions.
From The Albuquerque Journal (Maddy Hayden):
Recent rainfall has done little to assuage long-term drought conditions throughout New Mexico.
“We’re still seeing these long-term lingering effects,” National Weather Service senior hydrologist Royce Fontenot said Tuesday in conference call. “The very dry winter and spring have done a lot of damage to the environment.”
Some monitoring stations, Fontenot said, went more than 100 days without measurable precipitation since October, and “it really seemed like someone turned off the tap” to the start of the monsoon season, so they are still at a precipitation deficit.
The worst drought conditions in the country are centered over Colorado, Utah, Arizona and northwestern New Mexico, as well as north-central New Mexico, where precipitation levels are well below normal.
That area remains in exceptional drought.
Conditions have also worsened in the Roswell area, which is now in extreme drought.
The portion of the state in exceptional drought decreased from 15.68 percent last month to 14.54 percent.
Much of the rest of state has improved to severe and moderate drought conditions.
On Wednesday, the board of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority voted to lease 20,000 acre-feet of water from Abiquiu Reservoir to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for $2 million to keep the Rio Grande flowing through Albuquerque, largely for the protection of endangered species…
John Stomp, chief operating officer of the water authority, said that without rain and this intervention, the Rio Grande would likely have soon gone dry from the Bernalillo Bridge to Central Avenue.
Last week, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District announced it was expecting to run out of storage reserves by the end of this week.
By catching some of the 20,000 acre-feet that leaks from the Rio Grande into their drainage systems – and thanks to Wednesday’s rain – that day may now come on Sunday or Monday.
“We’re in the position now where every little bit helps and it should be a good thing for us,” said David Gensler, water operations manager for the district. “We’ve managed to kick the can down the road a little bit.”
One of the reservoirs the district uses for storage, El Vado, is at just 6 percent of capacity.
As storage runs out, farmers around the state have had to cut back on irrigation.
The lack of rainfall has curtailed grass and hay growth.
From The Summit Daily (Deepan Dutta):
El Niño can shift jet streams south, pushing cooler, wetter weather into Colorado’s backyard, whereas La Niña usually shifts the jetstream north and brings the opposite — hotter, drier weather — to the western U.S. La Niña was one of the reasons for the drought and wildfires across the west this summer…
Even in an El Niño year, other factors, such as local temperatures and the exact path of the jet stream that separates the cool and dry air, may be more important than the broader pattern occurring in the Pacific, and even a minor jetstream shift can change local day-to-day weather patterns.
From the New Mexico Political Report (Laura Paskus):
Earlier this week, the [Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District] had already announced it anticipated entering Prior and Paramount Operations—when it can only meet the irrigation needs of about 8,800 acres of pueblo lands, which have the most senior water rights in the valley.
That includes the pueblos of Kewa, Cochiti, San Felipe, Santa Ana, Sandia and Isleta. Because the pueblos were here long before any of the valley’s other communities, when Congress passed an act in 1928 supporting the irrigation district’s creation, it noted that the water rights to those pueblo lands are “prior and paramount to any rights of the district.”
The pueblos have worked with the irrigation district and federal water officials this year, according to MRGCD, managing Prior and Paramount waters to “support regular irrigation as long as possible, for the benefit of all irrigators.”
No quick end to Article VII
Poor snowpack and low runoff has also forced other water users on the Rio Grande to exhaust their supplies. As of Thursday, for example, Elephant Butte Reservoir is at just 5.5 percent of its capacity, holding just over 107,000 acre feet of water.
In May, New Mexico entered into Article VII restrictions when combined storage in Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs dropped below 400,000 acre feet. Under Article VII of the Rio Grande Compact, that means Colorado and New Mexico can’t store water in any upstream reservoirs built after 1929—including El Vado.
“We will anxiously watch the snowpack this winter in hopes that it will provide some relief for the next year,” said U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Mary Carlson. “If we exit Article VII restrictions at all next year, it likely won’t be until June at the earliest.”
She added that means storage in El Vado will be limited to Prior and Paramount water for pueblo lands and then relinquishment credit water for MRGCD until the combined storage in Elephant Butte and Caballo rises above 400,000 acre feet.
That will be a long climb, she said. Projections currently show Elephant Butte and Caballo will have about 75,000 acre feet at the end of this season.
“Of course we will gladly anticipate any forecast that calls for above average precipitation,” she said. “We will hope for the best, but manage our supplies cautiously as we are aware that forecasted precipitation, especially with above average temperatures, doesn’t always provide as much benefit as we’d like.”
El Niño conditions favor, but don’t guarantee, a wet winter for NM
During the monthly National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climate briefing on Thursday, climate and weather experts noted El Niño conditions have a 70 percent chance of developing in the fall, and they forecasted wetter-than-normal conditions in the southwestern United States for November, December and January.
“We’re more likely to have El Niño than not,” said Dan Collins, meteorologist and seasonal forecaster at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. But, he added, the predicted El Niño doesn’t look to be a strong one.
By tracking temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, scientists attempt to forecast what will happen across land surfaces. Typically, during El Niño conditions, the track of winter storms coming off the Pacific moves southward. For the swath of land from southern California eastward across the southern part of the U.S. to Florida, El Niño conditions can mean more winter storms. That is, it sets up the conditions for wetter weather but doesn’t guarantee them.
During Thursday’s climate briefing, Jake Crouch, a climate scientist with NOAA, pointed out that the contiguous United States had its 11th-warmest July on record—and there were record warm temperatures across much of the West, including in New Mexico.
The first seven months of the year were also warmer than normal. For the 25th consecutive year, Crouch said, January-to-July temperatures nationwide exceeded the 20th century mean. And New Mexico and Arizona experienced their warmest years to date in 124 years of record-keeping.
That warming trend will likely continue across the West through the fall, particularly in the Four Corners states.
“What El Niño tends to bring us is actually somewhat cooler temperatures, and so when we see a forecast of warmer-than-normal temperatures, that mostly reflects warming trends,” said David Gutzler, a climate scientist and professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of New Mexico. “But this year, that forecast is tempered somewhat by El Niño.”
Even as the climate continues its warming trend, there will be natural variability in weather patterns from year to year—swings between wet years and dry years. That’s different from changes in the climate, which relate to long-term averages.
NOAA also forecasted an improvement through the fall and winter in drought conditions across the Four Corners, including New Mexico and Arizona.
Gutzler said it’s worth being cautious about that, since drought outlooks are based on local precipitation and don’t take into account things like reservoir storage, which relies upon snowpack.
“I’ll be an optimist and say, [based on what we know] historically, if El Niño develops as projected and persists through the winter, the odds get shifted somewhat toward good snowpack conditions,” he said. But another important question for water managers—and users—is what happens at the end of winter and in early spring.
Warm winters, and early springs mean that snowpack melts too early and too quickly.
“I don’t think one wet winter solves all of our long-term water challenges, but I don’t want to dismiss how great it would be to get a really healthy snowpack,” he said. “We will root for a wet winter—I will, anyway.”