How much water can Colorado save? State is spending $20M to find out — @WaterEdCO

Gross Reservoir , in Boulder County, holds water diverted from the headwaters of the Colorado River on the West Slope. The reservoir is part of Denver Water’s storage system. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Colorado will launch a far-reaching $20 million conservation planning effort this spring designed to ensure the state can reduce water use enough to stave off a crisis in the drought-choked Colorado River Basin.

The money, likely to be spent over a period of two to three years, will pay for a major public, consensus-based initiative to determine how to equitably set aside enough water to protect Colorado’s share of the river and how to pay farmers and potentially cities to reduce their use.

The river is critical to Colorado’s water supply, with roughly half of the supplies for the Denver metro area coming from its annual flows and even larger amounts fueling the state’s farms.

The initiative will include at least seven technical and public work groups examining the legal, economic, and environmental issues inherent in such a demand management program, according to Brent Newman, head of the Interstate and Federal water section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). Demand management is the term water officials use to describe water conservation. It will also include a feasibility study and several pilot programs.

State staffers expect the work to take more than a year to complete as they iron out whether and where to cut back use, how to measure those reductions, and how to protect the environment, local economies, and the legal rights of water users while the program is in effect.

“We’re going to do this one bite at a time,” Newman said. “It’s not something that can be slammed together.”

Water users on both the West Slope and Front Range are gearing up for the project, hopeful that a proactive conservation program will provide a sort of insurance policy should a full-blown crisis erupt on the river.

“We’re pretty anxious,” said Brad Wind, general manager of the Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which manages the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. The project diverts Colorado River water from the West Slope for farmers and cities on the Northern Front Range. “We realize it’s going to take some time, but we would feel better having a little insurance than having nothing and having everything implode.”

Seven states comprise the Colorado River Basin, with Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming forming the Upper Basin and Arizona, Nevada and California making up the Lower Basin.

Last October, after nearly four years of work, the seven states agreed to a broad, preliminary set of drought guidelines, known as the DCP, or drought contingency plan, that begin to spell out how cutbacks will occur on the river.

Under those agreements, Colorado and its Upper Basin neighbors could set aside up to 500,000 acre-feet of water in a special drought pool in Lake Powell. That’s enough water to serve roughly 1 million homes for a year.

In addition, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will be allowed to release up to 1 million acre-feet of water from three Upper Basin state reservoirs that, together with Powell, are part of the Colorado River Storage Project, to boost storage in Lake Powell if it reaches critical lows. Two of those are located at least partially in Colorado.

How much time Colorado and the other states have to refine these drought plans and put them into action isn’t clear yet.

On Feb. 1, after California and Arizona failed to hit a federal deadline for finishing their drought plans, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said it was moving forward to impose its own water-saving plan on the region.

Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said she would halt that federal initiative only if Arizona and California complete their work by March 4. If that deadline isn’t met, the states may have to incorporate the federal government’s directives into their own work.

Equally concerning is the weather.

The drought has pushed Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the river’s two primary storage buckets, to critical lows. If the region endures another year as desperately dry as 2018, Lake Powell’s ability to produce hydropower, the major source of revenue for complying with the Endangered Species Act, could be in jeopardy. If utilities don’t have the money to comply with the ESA, the federal government can shut down their water diversions, as it has done in the past in places such as the Klamath Basin in Oregon in 2001.

Even though early snows have helped boost mountain snowpacks across the region, they aren’t likely to be deep enough to pull the region back from the brink of a major water crisis. Inflows into Lake Powell this year, for instance, are projected to be just 64 percent of average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, well below the super-sized numbers needed for it to begin to refill.

At that rate, by August of this year, Powell will be shockingly close — within about 81 feet — of hitting its minimum power pool, a level it flirted with in 2012 and 2013, according to Heather Patno, a hydrologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Salt Lake City.

In the Lower Basin, Lake Mead is already so low that Arizona is facing mandatory water cutbacks this year.

“We need as much time and space to craft and sharpen these tools as we can get,” said James Eklund, Colorado’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission. “Knock on wood we’ll get a reprieve from the hydrology for a while.”

If not, Newman said that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation may release water from the Colorado River Storage Project reservoirs in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado to boost levels in Powell, giving Colorado and other states more time to figure out how to execute these unprecedented conservation measures.

Water users across the state are closely watching this new water-saving initiative, with farm interests on the West Slope and out on the Eastern Plains intent on ensuring that any water cutbacks that may occur are done only on a paid, voluntary basis and that all water users shoulder the reductions equally.

At the same time large urban water users, most of whom have less favorable water rights than the state’s farmers do, want to ensure their municipal supplies aren’t radically reduced.

“We are at a point where the Upper Basin does have some time to get this demand management right,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District. Looking for ways to reduce water use, he said at a meeting of the Colorado Water Congress earlier this month, “is an incredibly threatening concept to West Slope water users. But the River District is committed to proactively engaging and working with the CWCB to figure out how we can stand a program up that truly protects all of us.”

A clearer outline of the state’s approach to developing the demand management initiative will be presented at a meeting of the CWCB March 20-21. Depending on the outcome of that meeting, the various task forces could begin work in April or May, Newman said.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at or @jerd_smith.

What’s the beef with water? – News on TAP

Don’t have a cow man. Improve your wellness by reducing your water footprint.

Source: What’s the beef with water? – News on TAP

Do you use only what you need indoors? – News on TAP

Making small, individual adjustments at home can save lots of water citywide.

Source: Do you use only what you need indoors? – News on TAP

Final DCP Steering Committee meeting scheduled for February 19 — Arizona Water News

A final wrap-up meeting of the 40-plus member Steering Committee – the stakeholder group that over the last 8 months debated and negotiated the Intra-Arizona DCP Implementation Plan – is scheduled for Tuesday, February 19 at the Central Arizona Project headquarters. The agenda for the meeting is available at the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Planning […]

via Final DCP Steering Committee meeting scheduled for February 19 — Arizona Water News

February 2019 #ENSO Update: #ElNiño conditions are here — @NOAA

From (Emily Becker) on Valentines Day:

After several months of flirting, the tropical Pacific ocean and atmosphere appear to have coupled just in time for Valentine’s Day and now meet the criteria for El Niño conditions. Is it true love? Time will tell, but forecasters expect weak El Niño conditions to persist through the spring.

Summary of decision process in determining El Niño conditions. NOAA drawing by Glen Becker and Fiona Martin.

That is, the sea surface temperature in the Niño3.4 region of the tropical Pacific Ocean has been more than 0.5°C above the long-term average, and models were predicting it would stay that way for the next several seasons.

Monthly sea surface temperature in the Niño 3.4 region of the tropical Pacific for 2018 (purple line) and all other El Niño years since 1950. graph based on ERSSTv5 temperature data.

What’s new over the past month is that we’re seeing signs of El Niño-related changes in the atmosphere, with increased clouds and rain in the central Pacific indicating a weaker Walker circulation. One measurement of the strength of the Walker circulation, the Equatorial Southern Oscillation Index, was -0.6 during January, indicating more rising air than average over the eastern Pacific, and less than average over the western Pacific. These changes are enough evidence that the atmosphere is responding to the warmer ocean, leading us to conclude we have El Niño conditions!

Be Mine
The Walker circulation—the atmospheric circulation over the whole tropical Pacific Ocean—is usually driven by intense rising air over the very warm waters of the far western Pacific and Indonesia. This air rises to the upper atmosphere, travels eastward, sinks over the eastern Pacific, and travels back westward near the surface, forming the trade winds.

When El Niño’s warmer-than-average surface waters develop in the central-eastern Pacific, the Walker circulation is weakened. The extra heat in the ocean surface warms the air above it, leading to more rising motion, and hence more clouds and rain than average over the central-eastern tropical Pacific. Adding a source of rising air over the central-eastern Pacific, and reducing the rising air over the far western Pacific, means the steady upper-level and near-surface winds are disrupted. Those weaker-than-average near-surface winds in turn help to keep the surface warmer, in a feedback process critical to the coupled system of El Niño.

Call me
The surface warming in the Niño3.4 region is currently just a few tenths of a degree above the El Niño threshold (0.5°C warmer than average), and actually decreased through January. Most of the climate models predict that the surface temperature anomaly (the difference from the long-term mean) will increase slightly in the near future, and remain above the El Niño threshold through the spring.

Climate model forecasts for the Niño3.4 Index. Dynamical model data (purple line) from the North American Multi-Model Ensemble (NMME): darker purple envelope shows the range of 68% of all model forecasts; lighter purple shows the range of 95% of all model forecasts. Statistical model data (dashed line) from CPC’s Consolidated SST Forecasts. NOAA image from CPC data.

Bolstering forecasters’ confidence that short-term surface warming will rebound and then persist for the next few months is the presence of warmer-than-average water below the surface of the Pacific. This blob, a downwelling Kelvin wave, will travel eastward over the next few weeks, gradually rising and providing a source of warmer waters to the surface.

Departure from average of the surface and subsurface tropical Pacific sea temperature averaged over 5-day periods starting in early June 2018. The vertical axis is depth below the surface (meters) and the horizontal axis is longitude, from the western to eastern tropical Pacific. This cross-section is right along the equator. figure from CPC data.

U R Cute
But what does it all mean? Is this relationship built to last? The future remains to be seen, but forecasters give weak El Niño conditions the edge through the spring. After that, chances of a continued El Niño drop below 50%. It’s tough to make a successful forecast for later in the year, due in large part to the “spring predictability barrier,” a notoriously tricky obstacle for computer models. Spring is a time of year when ENSO (El Niño/Southern Oscillation, the entire El Niño and La Niña system) is often transitioning, making it especially difficult to predict what comes next.

Weak El Niño conditions means that El Niño isn’t dominating the global circulation, and there is a lower probability of El Niño-related global temperature and precipitation effects through the next few months. Other players, including the Madden-Julian Oscillation, may continue to affect weather patterns. For a prediction of the U.S. climate this spring, check out the Climate Prediction Center’s outlook. For all the ENSO information your heart desires, stick with us!

The latest briefing from the Western Water Assessment is hot off the presses

Click here to read the assessment:

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map February 14, 2019 via the NRCS.

The latest monthly briefing was posted today on the Intermountain West Climate Dashboard. The highlights, also provided below, cover current snowpack and drought conditions, forecasted spring-summer streamflows, recent precipitation, and ENSO and precipitation outlooks.

  • Snowpack conditions have improved substantially across the region since mid-January, with most basins gaining 10-20 percentage points relative to median SWE conditions. The February 1 seasonal runoff forecasts call for below-average (70-90%) or near-average (90-110%) spring-summer runoff for the vast majority of forecast points across the region, with the NOAA forecasts anticipating lower volumes than the NRCS forecasts.
  • Right after we waved the ‘drought flag’ in the January briefing, a very active weather pattern emerged, with frequent storms affecting all three states over the past month. As of February 12, snowpack conditions are very near or above normal in every basin in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, with most basins reporting between 100-115% of normal SWE. Even southwestern Colorado, which had been lagging behind all season, is now reporting near-normal SWE. The SNOTEL basin average for the Upper Colorado River Basin is at 107% of normal, up from 90% one month ago.
  • NRCS released their first (February 1) seasonal runoff forecasts of the season, and they call for near-average (90-110%) spring-summer runoff for most forecast points in Colorado and Utah, and below-average (70-89%) runoff for most points in Wyoming, as well as for southwestern Colorado. The February 1 forecasts from NOAA CBRFC and its neighboring RFCs are generally more pessimistic, as they explicitly factor in the low antecedent soil moisture, while the NRCS forecasts do not. For example, the NOAA CBRFC February 1 forecast for Lake Powell April-July inflows is for 74% of average (5.30 MAF), while the NRCS February 1 forecast is for 87% of average (6.23 MAF). Because above-normal precipitation has continued into February, the latest (February 12) CBRFC daily ESP forecast is higher than the official February 1 forecast, calling for 80% of average Lake Powell inflows (5.75 MAF).
  • Due to the above-normal precipitation and snow since early January in most parts of the region, there has been widespread improvement in drought conditions over much of Utah and western Colorado. Most of the area of exceptional drought (D4) in the Four Corners region has improved to D3. There has also been some degradation or expansion of D0-D2 conditions in northeastern Colorado and southern and central Wyoming, where the recent storms did not have much impact.
  • ‘El Niño-ish’ conditions continue in the tropical Pacific. It is still likely (~65%) that an El Niño event will emerge by the end of spring, but it will be weak and unlikely to persist. The CPC seasonal precipitation outlooks for the February-April and March-May periods show enhanced chances for above-normal precipitation for Colorado, with slightly enhanced chances for adjacent parts of the region.
  • @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.