A first-ever ‘call’ on the #YampaRiver as the climate veers warmer & weirder — The Mountain Town News

Floating the tiger, Yampa River, 2014. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

In late August, as reservoirs levels declined across the American Southwest, Erin Light issued something common in most river basins of Colorado but which had never been done on the Yampa River. She issued a “call.”

When a call is issued, those with newer or younger water rights must cease their diversions from the river and its tributaries until the older or more senior rights are satisfied. This system is called prior appropriation. Eighteen states in the West use aspects of prior appropriation to sort out who gets how much water and when.

Light, as the division engineer for Colorado Division of Water Resources, administers the labyrinth of water rights in the Yampa River Valley. Water goes to ranches, a power plant, and other purposes, each occupying a specific place in the pecking order as determined by volumes, locations and, above all, date of adjudication. That’s the way it works when a river is under administration. Some Colorado rivers have been under administration since the late 1800s.

Until this summer, the Yampa was different. Those with legally adjudicated water rights took what they thought was theirs. Calls had been placed on tributaries, but not the river itself.

Then in late August, Light announced that those with water rights on the rivers’ main stem awarded since 1951 would have to cease diversions until those older, or seniors, had been satisfied. By mid-September, as irrigators slowed their demands and cooler temperatures eased losses from evaporation and transpiration, Light edged the call back to those rights junior to 1960. Last week, she suspended the call altogether.

Droughts hit the Yampa and many other river basins in Colorado hard this year. But this drought may best be viewed as part of an extended 21st century drought caused more by temperature increases than precipitation declines. It’s part of a clear trend of a warming and more erratic climate.

Ted Kowalski says the water call on the Yampa should be understood within the context of these hotter, drier times in the American Southwest. A former Colorado water official who is now senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation’s Colorado River Initiative, Kowalski calls the Yampa River the first domino to fall.

Lower streamflows in all the rivers of the Colorado River Basin that produce declining reservoir levels represent the additional dominoes.

This is starkly demonstrated, says Kowalski, by the fact that reservoir storage in the Colorado River Basin has reached its lowest level since the late 1960s. That’s when the newly created Glen Canyon Dam was starting to create Lake Powell.

“All of this underscores the importance of developing and adopting and agreeing to drought contingency plans so that we can effectively manage if and when there is less water in the system,” says Kowalski. The work begins, he says, with conservation.

Conserving water in the 20th century

Far into the 20th century, conservation had a different connotation in the West. Managing water in the Colorado River Basin meant building dams and creating reservoirs, all with the intent of ensuring none of the water was “wasted” by flowing into the ocean.

Hoover Dam plugs the Colorado River on the Nevada-Arizona border. Photo December 2012/Allen Best

Nearly all this major hydraulic engineering was done on the tab of the federal government. Downstream, first Powell and then Mead, the second largest and largest reservoirs in the nation, respectively, provide most of the storage. If separated by 300 miles and the Grand Canyon National Park, the two reservoirs fundamentally operate in tandem, as a Colorado River Research Group report in August noted. They are “essentially one giant reservoir (bisected by a glorious ditch),” the report said in a nod to the Grand Canyon.

Reservoir levels rise after big snow years, but in the 21st century the more common trend has been decline.

Evidence emerging in recent years suggests the Colorado River’s decline can best be explained by rising temperatures instead of reduced precipitation. In a 2017 paper, Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University, and Jonathan Overpeck, the dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability, attributed two-thirds of water declines to temperature rather than precipitation. Not only is more water evaporating, they said, but plants have been transpiring more water.

“This is the kind of drought we will have to deal with in the future,” Overpeck said at a water conference in Santa Fe during April.

Doug Monger testifies to the warmer weather. A native of the Yampa Valley, he remembers 45-below temperatures, once in the 1980s for two days straight. Down the valley in Maybell, the temperature in that same cold spell hit 61 below. (It had also hit that same low in 1979.)

“I always prayed for climate change and global warming,” he jokes.

Now, he’s getting that warming. “We never had 90 degrees, and now it’s nothing to have 90-plus days for five or six days in a row.”

That heat has been taking a toll on the snow. About three-quarters of the precipitation in the Colorado River Basin originates as snow. Colorado itself provides 70 percent of the water in the river.

In the Yampa Basin, most of the snow collects in an elevation band of between 8,000 to 10,000 feet. The river originates on the flanks of the Flattops Wilderness Area as the Bear River, gurgles playfully along at the foot of the Gore Range and then, drawing more water from the usually snow-laden Park Range, hooks westward at Steamboat Springs for a 100-mile journey to Dinosaur National Monument.

Beyond Dinosaur, the Yampa’s water eventually flows into the Utah desert and Lake Powell.

The Park Range has a reputation as the snowiest place in Colorado. A gauge at 10,285-foot Buffalo Pass, located northeast of Steamboat Springs, reported 80 inches of water contained in the much deeper snowpack by early May on a recent, snow year.

When spring arrives in years such as that, the Yampa gushes through Steamboat Springs well into summer. Flows needed for commercial tubing during summer represent one measure of winter’s legacy. Tubers are not allowed to use the river until flows drop below 700 cubic feet per second. That commonly isn’t possible until after the Fourth of July.

This year, snowpack was better than in Southwest Colorado. Still, it came weeks early and was altogether modest in its surge. Tubing season in Steamboat began June 11. Commercial tubing season ended a month later, when it is usually starting. City and state wildlife officials asked all tubers and others river users to stay out. The river was dropping to 85 cfs, considered a critical threshold, and warming as it did, hitting 75 degrees, reported the Steamboat Pilot at the time.

“If the river’s getting above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, the aquatic life is severely stressed, and this is the time of year when they’re feeding, and they’re getting ready for winter,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, the city water resources manager for Steamboat Springs.

No relief came with summer, hot and dry. Clouds produced just a few drops.

Water infrastructure in 21st century

Light, the water engineer on the Yampa since 2006, tells a complicated story of why the first call was made this year and not during prior years. Water rights always get complicated. The immediate repercussion will be that investments will necessarily be made in the devices that assure flows. In the Yampa River it was a point of pride that there was no call, unlike places like the South Platte Basin. But almost everybody agrees it was inevitable.

The Yampa River had almost no flows at Deerlodge Park, at the entrance to Dinosaur National Park, when this photo was taken in mid-August. Photo/Erin Light via The Mountain Town News

That inevitably stems in large part to trends in hydrology. In 20th century hydrologic records, three drought years stand out: 1935, 1955, and 1977. Now, in this still young century, there have been three more: 2002, 2012 and 2018.

“When you look at temperatures that were 5 to 10 degrees above average every day, that has to raise eyebrows about what the climate is saying,” she says.

Changes in the Yampa River Basin have not been well documented, but anecdotally at least comport with statewide trends reported in a 2015 report to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. That report, “Climate Change in Colorado,” says statewide average temperatures had increased 2 degrees F during the previous 30 years, with daily minimum temperatures warming more than maximum temperatures. Timing of snowmelt and peak runoff had shifted earlier in spring by one to four weeks. Snowpack as measured by April readings had been mainly below-average since 2000.

Anecdotal evidence of this abounds around Steamboat. Local ranchers long measured a winter’s severity by how deep it accumulated on their barbed wire fences. The 20th century produced many three-wire winters, enough snow to hit the top strand. Three-wire winters seldom come anymore. Last winter snow failed to reach the bottom wire. In some places, the was no snow at all on the ground, says Ken Brenner, who grew up on a ranch south of Steamboat Springs and is now president of the Upper Yampa River Water Conservancy District Board of Directors.

Light says the Snotel automated snowpack measuring sites fail to tell the full story. The stations maintained by the federal government’s Natural Resources Conservation Service record snow and water content at 8,000 to 10,000 feet. Some years, they report robust snow that cannot be seen in snow depths on the valley floor. This leaves locals wondering how this snowpack could be anywhere near normal. The rising levels for snowpack argue for a different monitoring system, says Light, one that captures dynamics of the low-elevation snowpack.

Water infrastructure for 21st century climate

Climate change models predict sharply increased temperatures in coming decades, Models also predict greater variability of precipitation, more extremes of both wet and dry. That could provide an argument for more reservoirs. The Yampa River has just 2 percent of Colorado’s reservoir capacity, but the river provides a much larger percentage of the state’s overall flows. The Gunnison River, with about the same runoff on average, has three giant federal dams, part of the same Congressional authorization in 1956 that created Lake Powell.

The Yampa, White, and Green Basin Roundtable, a decision-making body created by the Colorado Legislature, agree that instead of giant reservoirs, the basin could benefit from smaller reservoirs, discretely located, such as on tributaries, to serve specific needs, reports Light, the state’s liaison to the roundtable.

Monger does see the need for storage on the Yampa River. It could help Colorado manage its water so as to ensure it can meet its commitments to other states in the Colorado River Basin. “Let’s keep it in my backyard rather than sending it down to Lake Powell and have it be subject to the Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Interior,” says Monger, a Routt County commissioner as well as a delegate to the Colorado River Water Conservation District. Higher elevation storage, he says, will reduce evaporative losses from Lake Powell, about six and a half feet a year off the surface.

About 90 percent of the Yampa’s total annual flows go downstream out of Colorado, ultimately to Lake Powell. That reservoir provides Colorado and other upper-basin states in the Colorado River Basin the ability to meet requirements for delivery of 8.3 million acre-feet annually to Arizona, California, and Nevada at Lake Mead.

That obligation of 7.5 million acre-feet plus the upper basin’s share for Mexico was derived by negotiators who met at a resort near Santa Fe in 1922. Disregarding contrary evidence, they assumed at least 16.5 million acre-feet average annual flows in the river and probably more. That rarely has been the case. In the hotter, drier 21st century, flows have been just 12.4 million acre-feet, say Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

At a recent conference called “Risky Business on the Colorado River,” Kuhn warned against overdrawing Lake Powell, Lake Mead, and other reservoirs.

“When you build reservoirs, you have to have some water. You have to have a little bit of money in the bank. We can’t bankrupt the system. We have to find ways to cut back before we bankrupt the system.”

In Vail on Wednesday, Kuhn took his vision of difficulty for the Colorado River a step further. As long as greenhouse gas emissions go untamed, he said, “there is no bottom” to how hot and how dry the Colorado River Basin could become.

It’s not that the past hasn’t also been drier. Kuhn looks to the past to warn against even more difficult times on the Yampa River and in the Colorado River Basin altogether. The evidence comes from examinations of batches of trees at eight different sites in the Colorado River Basin above Lee Ferry, located just above the Grand Canyon and below Lake Powell.

Dendrochronologists can estimate precipitation by the growth of tree rings. Using that technique, they have charted wet and dry periods since 1434.

Tree-ring research indicates there have been much more severe 19-year droughts in the Colorado River Basin than the current one—and without the impact of human-induced higher temperatures. Graphic via The Mountain Town News

“A number of folks claim that the current 19-year period of 2000-2018 is the driest 19 year period on the Colorado River. That’s nonsense,” says Kuhn, pointing to the graph. In the past there have been droughts both longer and deeper. (Above, see estimated river flows at Lee Ferry, at the top end of the Grand Canyon, from 1434 to 2018. For underlying data, see http://treeflow.org).

Those droughts occurred without the rising temperatures of today. “If these past 19-year droughts were to happen with today’s temperatures,” he adds, “things could be much worse.”

This article was published in the Oct. 4 issue of Mountain Town News, a weekly e-magazine. To subscribe, see options in the red boxes in the top-right corner of the http://mountaintownnews.net webpage.

#ColoradoRiver Basin Contingency Planning Webinar – 10/9/2018 — @CWCB_DNR #COriver #aridification #drought

In case you missed the webinar the other day.

“Failure is not an option” — James Eklund

Colorado River Basin. Graphic credit: Water Education Colorado

Arizona holds up the Colorado River drought agreement — @HighCountryNews

From The High Country News (Paige Blankenbuehler):

This week, the Bureau of Reclamation released the draft Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, drawn up by the states within the river’s watershed.

The seven states that rely on Colorado River water are nearing completion of an ambitious two-part plan to protect water in the West, as the already over-allocated Colorado River faces further shrinking due to drought and climate change. The draft plan could spread the burden of exceptionally dry years across all communities that draw from the overtaxed river — if only warring factions inside Arizona could finalize their own portion of the agreement.

The plan aims to conserve more water and store it in Lake Powell so that the Colorado River system, which supports the water needs of more than 40 million people, doesn’t collapse. Seven states plus Mexico need to agree to the plan. Documents released this week lay out two drought-contingency plan proposals. One is from the Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming— which has already been signed. The second part of the agreement is the proposal from the Lower Basin states: Arizona, Nevada and California. Those states still need to finish hammering out an agreement.

While the release of the draft plan signifies a step toward a final agreement, Arizona remains mired in within-state negotiations. The plan requires cutbacks in water use, and Arizona water managers are still negotiating to determine how cities, farming districts and tribes could spread around the impacts of the deal.

Glen Canyon Dam June 2013 — Photo / Brad Udall

The most difficult hurdle the state has yet to clear is the fate of a relatively small group of farmers in central Arizona, who share some of the lowest priority water rights in the Lower Colorado River Basin. In 2004, Pinal County farmers signed an agreement that gave up permanent contracts for Colorado River water in return for temporary access at a steep discount. As a result, they stand to lose their water if there is a shortage, which could be declared as soon as 2020. Now, those farmers hope to negotiate for stipulations in the final agreement that will prevent them from losing their water supplies all together.

Despite the delay, local water managers who have been meeting regularly to hash out plan details feel optimistic that by January, Arizona will be able to sign off on the agreement. Tom Buschatzke, the director of the state Department of Water Resources, told the Arizona Republic that the idea is to reach a compromise that “more equitably spreads around the pain and the benefits” of the proposed Drought Contingency Plan. “I think the vast majority of people are trying to find ways to make this happen,” Buschatzke said.

Paige Blankenbuehler is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at paigeb@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor.

From The Nevada Independent (Daniel Rothberg):

After more than three years of negotiations, Southwest water managers this week released the first public draft of their short-term plan to manage the Colorado River as overuse and drought continue to strain a water supply that supports 40 million people from Wyoming to Nevada.

The complex plan is meant to defer more severe shortage conditions on the river as negotiators in the seven-state Colorado River Basin work out an even more complex long-term framework for a century-old system challenged by higher temperatures and changes in precipitation.

Infighting and a wet start to 2017 had put the plans on hold, but discussions resumed again this year with abysmal snowpack across the basin and forecasts of a shortage as early as 2020 led federal water managers at the Bureau of Reclamation to call for a plan by the end of the year.

Water managers said releasing the draft “Drought Contingency Plan” on Wednesday was a milestone, particularly after a spring of public sparring between different factions on the river.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority’s board will consider the plan and vote on it next month.

The plan asks Colorado River water users to make cuts to their supply in an effort to store more water in reservoirs like Lake Mead, the country’s largest storage pool and a symbol of drought across the West. The reservoir, impounded behind the Hoover Dam outside of Las Vegas, is lined by an eerie bathtub ring that shows where the water line used to be, about 140 feet higher.

“I think it shows that we are on track to try to get [a drought plan] done by the end of the year,” said John Entsminger, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “The [drought plan] is an incredibly important set of documents. It demonstrates that the seven states are still capable of coming together and managing this river in the case of changing conditions.”

No easy way to conserve

During a prolonged drought, the plan requires water users to double down on voluntary cuts as a way to keep more water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the system’s second-largest reservoir upstream of Lake Mead. If the reservoirs dry up, the seven states risk running afoul of multiple laws that govern the river — the incentive driving everyone to come up with a proactive plan.

If Lake Mead drops another 55 feet, the federal government could throw out the playbook and force even deeper cuts. Most water users want to avoid the uncertainty that comes with that…

If Lake Powell drops even lower, Glen Canyon Dam will produce less hydropower, the revenue of which supports operations and endangered species compliance. More importantly, low levels at Lake Powell put the Upper Basin (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) in a precarious long-term position. The river’s upper division is required to send a certain amount of water from Powell to Lake Mead every year to fulfill their obligations under the 1922 Colorado River Compact. If they don’t, downstream users in the Lower Basin (Arizona, California, Nevada) can force the Upper Basin to curtail water use. This tool is referred to as a “Compact Call.”

Without steps like the drought plan, “the system is going to crash,” said Andy Mueller, who runs the Colorado River District, which focuses on protecting river water in Western Colorado…

But as Mueller also concedes, the devil is in the details. Asking users to conserve more water — and in turn, use less — is a challenging, expensive, and often unpopular proposition. Now that a public draft of the plan is out in public, water districts across the basin must review the plans and sign off on them. Even though Nevada is ready to sign off on the plan and has been ready for more than a year, other water users still have concerns about the conservation measures.

In Arizona, where the cuts would be steepest, state officials are still working on an intra-state agreement that would be palatable for its state legislature, which must approve the plan. To get there, Arizona officials are looking to find ways to mitigate cuts that would disproportionately fall on low-priority agricultural users in Pinal County outside of Phoenix. Paul Orme, a lawyer for the farming community, said that Arizona officials presented a mitigation plan on Wednesday, but it faded corners from other water users — cities and tribes — that would have to sacrifice their water.

“I can’t really answer your question: Where do we go from there?” said Orme.

But he added that Pinal County farmers have significant leverage in the state’s legislature.

“There are folks in the Arizona legislature who are very much interested in seeing Pinal County agriculture survive,” Orme said.

California is also working toward an intra-state agreement between the Metropolitan Water District and agricultural users over how the cuts would work. Kightlinger said there had been some back-and-forth over what percentage Metropolitan and each agricultural district would conserve to boost Lake Mead’s elevation, but the parties are close to a tentative agreement.

“There’s a high likelihood we are going to complete this,” he said.

There are still key details to work out in Colorado too. Although Mueller agrees with the concept of sending more water to Lake Powell, he said conservation should not fall disproportionately on the backs of farms, ranches and orchards in Western Colorado. Mueller said he wants to see a commitment from cities that they contribute an equal amount to boost reservoir levels at Powell.

“[Conservation] water should come equally from both,” he said.

The arid state’s counterintuitive role

Although Las Vegas gets 90 percent of its water supply from the Colorado River, Entsminger said the utility will be able to easily absorb the cuts, which kick in once the lake dips below a certain elevation. The region, Entsminger argues, has a more secure supply than other water users because it can access water through a pumping system, even if the lake falls so low that no water can be delivered out of the Hoover Dam to Arizona or California.

In drought negotiations, that puts Nevada in a unique situation. Even though it is the most arid state in the country’s most arid region, it has less to lose than others. In a recent podcast with The Nevada Independent, Entsminger likened the state’s position to that of Switzerland.

In these negotiations, Entsminger said Nevada helped bridge a divide between the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin. The agreement Nevada helped hammer out is a key part of the drought plan. It allows states like Colorado to “bank” conserved water in Lake Powell without sending it to Lake Mead under the reservoir’s current operating rules; it avoids the weird situation in which the benefit of the Upper Basin’s conserved water is enjoyed by the Lower Basin.

That was at the crux of a disagreement earlier this year, when the Upper Basin states released a letter to the Central Arizona Project, which controls Arizona’s Colorado River canal, of placing water orders to manipulate in such a way that they could take more water from Lake Powell.

“We saw that the water that was being saved was pulled down the river by convenient timing of orders from the Central Arizona Project,” Mueller said. “We weren’t very happy with that.”

The recent deal, Entsminger said, could go a long way in improving the historically tense relationship between an Upper Basin that has the right to use more water than it does and a Lower Basin that operates with a “structural deficit,” using more water than it takes each year.

“It’s very big from an Upper Basin, Lower Basin relationship perspective that we are going to set aside some of the dogma of the river,” Entsminger said during an interview this week…

But creating a “bank” in the Upper Basin comes with its own legal and funding challenges. Who pays to incentivize conservation? Who gets title to the conserved water? How do you account for it? And how do you shepherd it to Lake Powell without other users diverting it along the way?


On second thought, it’s not “drought plan”

How complicated is all of this?

The drought plan is so complex and involves so many side agreements that it has come to mean something different to different groups. Almost everyone agrees that it is a short-term fix to a long-term problem — climate change and overuse mean there is less water to go around.

Water managers are not even sure what to call it.

It’s about drought, yes. But some take issue with that word because it suggests that the system will recover from the conditions that have drawn down Lake Mead to its lowest elevation since it was fully filled. Eklund said that a more suitable name could be the “Climate Contingency Plan.”


Eric Kuhn, a former general manager of the Colorado River District who is working on a book about the history of Colorado River hydrology, agreed that using the term “drought” is flawed.

He asked: “Is this a Drought Contingency Plan or is this thing what we need to do for the rest of our lives? I personally think it’s kind of a joke to call it a Drought Contingency Plan.”

In many ways, the drought plan is a first step. For conservation groups, it is a way to create the reliability needed to tackle other important issues, like habitat and the general health of the river.

“Reliability of the Colorado River water supply is important both to people and to nature,” said Jennifer Pitt, who works on river issues for the Audubon Society. “We are very encouraged to see the progress that is being made toward adopting this [plan] and we know that is not the end of the story. That’s the beginning of the story. There’s more work to do.”

For others, it’s a prelude to future negotiations. Once the conservation plan is finalized, the conversation will shift to long-term planning. Right now, water managers are operating under a set of guidelines completed in 2007. Those expire in 2026 but negotiations for new guidelines begin in 2020. The plans will likely go through an extensive environmental review. The purpose of the drought plan, Entsminger and others said, is to ensure water users can get to 2026 without severe shortages.