@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.

The South Platte: an Urban River and Critical Watershed — Urban Waters Learning Network

The South Platte River runs by a utility plant near I-25 in Denver.

From the Urban Waters Learning Network (Maria Brodine):

Like many American cities, Denver grew up on the banks of its local river, the South Platte. In May 1858, in Cheyenne and Arapaho territory, a small party of settlers set off the Colorado Gold Rush when they turned up gold at the mouth of Little Dry Creek. The resulting trading and mining encampment, located at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek, is now marked by the sprawling Confluence Park, nestled in the heart of Denver and offering a variety of recreation opportunities for city dwellers, including biking, kayaking, and fishing.

The Platte’s headwaters emerge in the South Park highland meadow basin, then flow north and east through several major reservoirs. Just after entering the Chatfield Reservoir and State Park, it flows through the outlying cities of Littleton and Englewood before entering Denver city limits. By the time it reaches the Confluence at Denver’s heart, it has already picked up a number of pollutants from point and non-point sources, including stormwater runoff from nearby buildings. For the past 15 years, regular water quality testing at the Confluence and at other sites have revealed high levels of E coli bacteria, especially during the summer. Drought years—such as 2017, when the river was too low to support the normal popular tubing activities—exacerbate these problems, as nutrients and other pollutants build up and deplete oxygen levels. To add to these challenges, Denver is one of the fastest growing cities in America. Rapid development, trying to keep pace with the burgeoning population and industrial growth, has added to the burden of polluted stormwater runoff and put additional pressures on the low-income, underserved, and indigenous communities that already feel the brunt of local environmental and economic challenges.

The South Platte Urban Waters Partnership

In total, the South Platte watershed drains 28,000 square miles on its way to the Missouri River; includes one million acres of public lands; is home to numerous threatened and endangered species; functions as the primary source of drinking water for the Front Range of Colorado (or about three quarters of Colorado’s residents); and is renowned for its “gold-medal” fishing. The South Platte River Urban Waters Partnership (SPRUWP) focuses on the headwaters and the Denver metropolitan area, and consists of over seventy organizations, including Federal and state government, municipalities, universities, NGOs and private businesses, all collaborating to address the problems facing the South Platte and improve this vital waterway for current and future generations — as well as those who live downstream of Denver. Below are two case studies highlighting some of the impacts of the Partnership.

Groundwork Denver: Bearing the Banner at Bear Creek

A previous Impact Story (2015) covered the genesis of Groundwork Denver’s water program at Bear Creek, which flows through several cities before it feeds into the South Platte at Englewood. Groundwork Denver leads water quality monitoring and community engagement efforts along Lower Bear Creek, primarily in the working class and low-income town of Sheridan, where many people play in or near the creek and bear the brunt of effects from pollutants that enter the creek upstream. Lower Bear Creek carries high quantities of E.coli, mostly from non-point sources. While E.coli is likely not the only contaminant present, it is an indicator of overall water health, and it is easy to train youth and community members in the process of testing and monitoring for this particular pathogen. In addition to water quality monitoring, Groundwork’s community engagement efforts include public education campaigns, trash cleanups, and canvassing area schools.

Groundwork Denver maintains seventeen regular water quality testing sites in Bear Creek—with most sites located in Sheridan and Denver and one in Lakewood at the headwaters—in order to track how many contaminants the creek picks up on its way downstream. Through its Green and Blue Team job training program, Groundwork Denver trains and employs youths to conduct the sampling approximately two times per month in the winter and four times per month during hotter summer months. Professional and young scientists have discovered that the water quality degrades significantly on its way to Sheridan. The purpose of the ongoing research is to create an overall picture of how the creek becomes contaminated and, more widely, to understand how the South Platte watershed is becoming contaminated and how best to address the problem. These data can serve to identify major outfall sources, inform targeted cleanup and prevention efforts, and drive public education campaigns to advise people about the safety of fishing and recreating in certain areas.

In the future, Groundwork hopes to become involved in the development and maintenance of larger green infrastructure projects. Certification of Green Team members through Colorado State University will create opportunities for youth to lead future ventures in the area of green infrastructure design and maintenance. In 2018, Groundwork Denver—in partnership with Home Depot, River Network, Colorado State University, River Watch, area city governments, and more—received a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) Five Star and Urban Waters Grant to install green infrastructure on residential properties, organize volunteer projects to remove trash and invasive species from Bear Creek, and restore the Creek’s habitat by planting native species.

Water Education Colorado: Speaking Fluent Water

In the words of Water Education Colorado (WEco)’s Executive Director Jayla Poppleton, “Our role as a collaborator [in the SPRUWP] is much the same as most of the other partners. We show up, we listen, we share our resources, we highlight opportunities we have coming up that others might want to take advantage of, and we try to be responsive to the needs identified by the group.” WEco programs include educational publications and radio broadcasts, webinars and workshops, leadership courses, an annual conference called Sustaining Colorado Watersheds, and for the past eight years, Urban Waters Bike Tours, which are open and free to the public and are put together collaboratively with a variety of other organizations including the Barr Lake and Milton Reservoir Watershed Association, the Colorado Stormwater Council, and the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District. Though WEco has a statewide mission and focus, the organization is based in Denver, with the bulk of programming taking place in the Denver metro area. To extend its reach, WEco hosts educational tours and workshops in rural and mountain communities and partners with other statewide organizations. WEco also offers extensive training courses and resources for water professionals, community leaders, educators, and non-water professionals. WEco estimates that it reached 156,377 people in 2018.

As members of the Partnership, WEco has been able to build new connections, extend the reach of its programs, learn about additional funding opportunities, and secure additional funding for the Urban Waters Bike Tours through the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Division. Going forward, WEco is committed to advancing awareness and understanding of water issues among a wider variety of citizens and decision makers. In 2019, WEco will be leading development of a Statewide Water Education Action Plan working with other water educators from around the state. The goal of the plan is to build a collective vision and set of goals and metrics that water educators can build on to achieve greater results. WEco is also dedicated to increasing focus on advancing public awareness, including a new initiative called Fresh Water News that provides weekly, up-to-the minute reporting on Colorado water issues, as well as more workshops on topics including community-level watershed health, water quality protection, and water conservation.

Tools and Technologies

In an effort to make water quality and environmental data more accessible to decision-makers and the general public, members of the Partnership—including Federal, state, local governments, and non-profits—have worked together to develop useful interactive tools that can be used in classrooms, community meetings, and more.

Water Quality Assessment Tool

In 2016, the Water Quality Working Group—chaired by Groundwork Denver—pooled resources to develop the Water Quality Assessment Tool (WQAT). The WQAT provides mobile-compatible online access to interactive maps, graphs and narratives users can bring into the field to explore water quality in the South Platte River basin. Educational tools include “storylines,” which are lesson modules covering E-coli, nutrient levels, dissolved solids, and more. Users can also map or graph contaminant levels at specific water quality testing sites, adjusting dates to look at discrete periods of time or analyze trends over a period of years. Instructors can easily use these tools to teach students how to read and analyze maps and graphs; scientists and advocates can use them to share the information with stakeholders in real time.

Natural Capital Asset Map and Decision Support Tool

This ecosystem services valuation tool provides interactive access to data about green infrastructure sites in the headwaters, Denver metro area, and the plains. Data are provided by forty public, private, and non-profit stakeholders. The project aims to equip decision-makers with the best available information about local natural capital—including city parks and forested regions—and their relative importance to public health and the economy. Ranks of importance were determined using forty-eight different studies combined with local data. Users can view maps of these assets by region or neighborhood. The methodology used to create the map combines approaches from multiple green infrastructure mapping efforts throughout the U.S., including Strategic Green Infrastructure Planning (Firehock, 2015) and ESRI’s Green Infrastructure for the U.S. Advanced users with their own GIS programs can download the data and view them in greater detail. Stakeholders interested in conducting additional, more detailed analysis can download the project data and use it within their own GIS interface. SPRUWP stakeholders have used the tool to rank and apply for funding for reforestation projects.

The South Platte River Urban Waters Partnership: Looking Ahead

Partners meet on a quarterly basis to highlight salient partner projects, research findings, and collaborative opportunities. Past highlights included the Denver Parks and Recreation river-front master planning process, Denver’s 2017 Green Roof Initiative (requiring all buildings greater than 25,000 square feet to dedicate a portion of their rooftop to green space), and efforts on the Upper South Platte to conduct landscape-scale forest resilience watershed restoration projects. 2019 presentations will include topics such as green infrastructure for urban stream restoration, automated stormwater sampling systems, and water quality analysis opportunities for students along the South Platte River. Sub-committees will meet on a more regular basis to focus on critical projects and tasks within the spheres of education/outreach and science/data related to the health of the river. The SPRUWP hopes to continue to facilitate the development of powerful partnerships that advance the vision of revitalizing Denver’s urban waters and the surrounding communities.

#Drought news: Another round of moderate to heavy snow across central and western #Colorado pushed mountain #snowpack Snow Water Equivalents (SWE) to record or near-record levels

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.

Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s and excerpt:


Dryness and drought intensified across parts of the South, while the overall trend toward drought recovery continued in the Four Corners region. Elsewhere, dryness concerns increased in the Northwest where drought expanded slightly; rain and snow will be needed soon across the northwestern quarter of the nation to prevent the region from slipping further into drought. Most of the nation from the central and northern Plains to the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast remained free of drought, with severe flooding the primary concern in the nation’s heartland…

High Plains

The primary concern on the High Plains centered on locally severe flooding in the Missouri River Basin, though localized dryness intensified in some western locales. Moderate to heavy rain (1-2 inches) eliminated the lingering pockets of Abnormal Dryness (D0) in northeastern Colorado and western Nebraska, while a continuation of wet weather (0.5-1 inch) in east-central Colorado facilitated the reduction of D0 east of Colorado Springs. Meanwhile, another round of moderate to heavy snow across central and western Colorado pushed mountain snowpack Snow Water Equivalents (SWE) to record or near-record levels (approaching or reaching the 100th percentile); as a result, additional reductions to the lingering long-term D0 and Moderate Drought (D1) were made. Note the drought over much of the Four Corners is almost exclusively now long-term (L) drought, with deficits most pronounced at 24 months (50-80 percent of normal) and beyond. Despite the overall trend toward drought removal on the High Plains, pronounced short-term dryness over the past 60 days (20-50 percent of normal) east of the Bighorn Mountains led to a small increase in D0 in north-central Wyoming…


Increasingly dry conditions in the Northwest contrasted with additional recovery from long-term drought from the Great Basin into the central and southern Rockies.

Across central and southern portions of the region, moderate to heavy precipitation (0.5 to more than 1 inch) fell from Nevada east-southeastward into Colorado and northeastern New Mexico. This week’s precipitation—on top of last week’s rain and snow—as well as input from local experts led to widespread reduction of the southern High Plains’ Abnormal Dryness (D0). Across northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, precipitation over the past two weeks has totaled an impressive 1 to 5 inches (liquid equivalent), pushing mountain Snow Water Equivalents (SWE) toward record levels (80-100th percentile) and begetting notable reductions in drought intensity and coverage. Similar SWE were reported across Utah and Nevada, with corresponding decreases to the lingering D0 and Moderate Drought (D1). Note the drought over much of the Four Corners is almost exclusively now long-term (L), with deficits most pronounced at 24 months (50-80 percent of normal) and beyond.

Farther north, a drought-free California contrasted with increasingly dry conditions across the Northwest and northern Rockies. Changes to the Northwestern drought depiction were minor and confined to small increases of D0 and D1 in northern and western Washington. However, local experts are becoming concerned as water-year precipitation (70-80 percent of-normal) has been subpar in the central and northern Cascade Range and environs, exacerbated by acute short-term dryness (60-day precipitation totaling 30 to 50 percent of normal in Washington, slightly more in northwestern Oregon). Furthermore, snowpacks remained much lower than those seen farther south, with SWE in the 10th to 30th percentile over much of Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana…


Rain in the north contrasted with intensifying dryness in southern portions of the region. Moderate to heavy showers (1-2 inches, locally more) were noted from northern Texas and western Oklahoma southeastward into the northern and central Delta, resulting in a slight reduction of the northern Texas Abnormal Dryness (D0). Additional reductions to the southern Plains’ D0 were made based on input from local experts, indicating additional benefits from the previous week’s rainfall. Conversely, increasingly dry conditions in Texas have been noted over the past 60 days from Childress southward toward Laredo and Corpus Christi, with 90-day rainfall tallying a meager 20 percent of normal in the state’s expanded Severe Drought (D2) areas. Farther east, a highly variable signal is evident from Austin, Texas, eastward to New Orleans, Louisiana; 90-day rainfall has averaged near to above normal in these locales, while 60-day precipitation was below half of normal (locally less than 30 percent)…

Looking Ahead

An unsettled weather pattern will continue over much of the nation. A pair of Pacific storms are expected to bring much-needed rain and mountain snow to the Northwest and northern Rockies. As the lead system marches east, it will produce rain and snow from the central Plains into the Midwest, though the Upper Midwest will remain dry. Increasingly stormy weather is also in the offing for the East Coast States, with the greatest chances for heavy rain noted along Florida’s eastern coast and from the Carolinas into the Mid-Atlantic region. Mostly dry weather is expected from the lower Four Corners into central Texas, while showers may return to southern Texas. The NWS 6- to 10-day outlook for April 2–6 calls for near- to above-normal precipitation across most of nation, save for pockets of dryness in the Southwest and central Gulf Coast region; drier-than-normal conditions are also expected over Alaska. Colder-than-normal weather over northern portions of the Plains and Upper Midwest will contrast with above-normal temperatures in northern- and southern-most portions of the Atlantic Coast States and from the Four Corners into the Northwest and Alaska.

US Drought Monitor one week change map ending March 26, 2019.

#Snowpack/#Runoff news: “Why does Eagle River Water & Sanitation District care so much about local streams?” — Diane Johnson

Here’s a column about snowpack and runoff from Diane Johnson that’s running in The Vail Daily. Click through and read the whole column to learn about the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District priorities during drought. Here’s an excerpt:

As the water provider for homes and businesses from Vail through Edwards, we welcome each snowfall. Specifically, we focus on the water content — or “snow water equivalent” (SWE) — of our local snowpack. Statewide SWE is currently about 140 percent of normal and local snow measuring sites are similarly high.

Above normal SWE generally bodes well for summer water supply. However, we need the snowpack to linger well into May. The federal snow measuring site on Vail Mountain normally peaks on April 25, then the melt starts. The Fremont Pass site near the headwaters of the Eagle River normally peaks on May 6, followed by a six-week melt. A slower melt lets water seep into soils — which were parched entering winter due to drought in 2018. While good winter snow should mean good summer river flows, some of that snowmelt will replenish soil moisture and not be part of spring runoff. Winter may be over, but the Eagle River valley needs April (snow) showers to bring May (river) scours.

Why does Eagle River Water & Sanitation District care so much about local streams? Because they serve as the supply for us to provide you with clean, safe drinking water, irrigation water, and fire protection. The amount of water used by our customers affects local stream levels. Since healthy waterways are critical to our natural environment and recreation-based economy, we strive to balance the water needs of our customers with the rivers’ needs.

In July 2018, as drought caused local waterways to drop to low levels, we prioritized river water over customers’ use of water for outdoor purposes. Outdoor areas use much more water than indoor areas and landscape irrigation has a greater impact on streamflows than indoor and fireflow use. Our staffcontacted hundreds of customers who were using excessive amounts of water that disproportionately impacted our community’s limited water resource. Nearly all customers who were contacted responded positively, which helped to preserve streamflows.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

…the moisture March has been delivering to Colorado has put an exclamation point on a stellar snowpack season. The state has experienced a remarkable turnaround from last year when poor snowpack and meager rainfall left the state deep in drought.

“There are lingering effects (of that drought) for sure, but as far as the snowpack goes, it’s really the best that we can hope for,” said Taryn Finnessey, climate change risk management specialist for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

As of Wednesday, statewide snowpack averaged 140 percent of median.

“It’s been a very good water year,” Dennis Phillips, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, said of the 12-month hydrological period that began last Oct. 1.

He said conditions have been particularly good in the southern mountains, where snowpack levels have been at 275 to 300 percent of where they were a year ago and already are well above their average seasonal peak amounts…

According to a March drought update produced by the board, since Feb. 1 the San Juan Mountains have received 15 inches of precipitation, nearly equal to the entire total they received during the 2018 water year that ended Sept. 30.

River basins in far-southwest Colorado on Tuesday had a combined median snowpack of 161 percent of average, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Gunnison Basin, which was water-starved last year, is at 154 percent of median, and the upper Colorado River Basin is at 136 percent.

The Weather Service is reporting that precipitation so far this month in Grand Junction has totaled 2.28 inches, just 0.08 inches behind the record of 2.36 set more than a century ago, in 1912. Local weather records date back to 1893.

The current water year got off to a wet start in Grand Junction in October, which was the fourth-wettest on record for the city, with 2.76 inches of precipitation…

Record-setting or not, such moisture in Colorado has gone far to alleviate drought conditions in the state. Three months ago two-thirds of the state was experiencing some level of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. That was down to just under a third of the state as of March 12, and about 7 percent as of the latest drought report last week, with drought conditions remaining in parts of southern Colorado.

Mesa County and much of western Colorado are now ranked as abnormally dry but not in drought. But officials are recommending removing that abnormally dry designation for Mesa County and much of the surrounding region in the next drought map, scheduled for release today…

Blue Mesa Reservoir

Erik Knight, a hydrologist for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Grand Junction, said the outlook at Blue Mesa Reservoir is “a lot better than a few months ago, that’s for sure.”

The massive, 940,700 acre-foot reservoir’s level has fallen to around 30 percent of capacity, and hasn’t been that low since 1977.

Now, Knight said, it’s looking like it may get to 85 percent of full this year…

Now Colorado snowpack levels are high enough that water officials are at least considering the potential for flooding this spring.

“Right now we’re not overly alarmed. We’re just going to see how it plays out,” Finnessey said.

She said streamflow forecasts are average to just above average at this point.

“Typically snowmelt is rather well behaved in Colorado,” she said.

She said most of the state’s flooding results from rain, not snowmelt runoff. In addition, it remains to be seen how much of the runoff goes toward refilling reservoirs versus swelling streams. But Finnessey said officials are looking forward to the ecosystem and reservoir benefits the snowmelt will provide.

But she said the drought’s impacts aren’t over, as in the case of ranchers who had to sell livestock last year. Poor hay-growing and range forage conditions took a heavy toll on many of them.

From 9News.com (Allison Levine):

Denver Water’s reservoirs are already in good shape with some, like Eleven Mile, over capacity…

What does that mean for Denver Water customers?

Hartman: It means we have a healthy water supply. It means, going into the summer, we’re going to be in our standard watering rules. We’ve seen, over the years, our customers become so good with their water use and we expect to see the same from them this summer…

There is still a lot of snow that has to melt. How will that impact reservoir capacity?

Hartman: We will be able to fill our reservoirs and we’ll be able to use that water throughout the summer. We’re in late March right now, it’s obviously always difficult to predict how things will unfold. We could, say for example, have a warm April. A warm April would melt that snow off more quickly.

Because of a number of dry years in the last 10 and 20 years, we have low soil moisture and Mother Nature gets dibs on that water. So, even with that great snowpack, some of that’s going to get eaten up by that very thirsty soil.

You can always get evaporation if the weather gets very hot, or we could have a cooler April, which we hope for. That slows the melt off and sort of sustains the reservoir that is the snow. We consider the snowpack one giant reservoir. We are optimistic that we will continue to see these weather patterns that keep the snowmelt happening in a slower, more predictable, and more manageable way.

U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Water and Power #Drought Contingency Plan hearing recap

Tom Buschatzke.

Here’s a report from Andrew Howard writing for The Cronkite News. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

The director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources told a Senate panel Wednesday there is an “urgent need” to authorize a multistate drought contingency plan for the Colorado River basin.

Tom Buschatzke was one of several state and federal officials pressing Congress on the plan, years in the making, that is designed to head off a potential water “crisis” in the region and help settle disputes over water allocations if the Colorado does drop to crisis levels.

Despite recent rains, there is still a pressing need for the plans in a region that has been hit by “its worst drought in recorded history,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman.

“We didn’t get into this drought in one year, and we’re not going to get out of it in one year,” Burman told members of a Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee.

The plan addresses water supplies in the river’s two biggest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which Burman said dropped in 2018 to 40 percent of their combined capacity. She said the water level is the lowest since the 1960s, when Lake Powell was still filling.

Under previous agreements, states in the lower basin – Arizona, Nevada and California – began to lose their rights to the amount of water they could take from the river once Lake Mead fell below a certain level.

The new plan raises that threshold and eases the amount of water states have to give up initially – triggering an earlier but less harsh response in hopes of staving off severe shortfalls.

For Arizona, that means the state would have to give up – or “contribute” in the terms of the agreement – 192,000 acre-feet a year once Lake Mead levels fell below 1,090 feet, compared to the old contribution of 320,000 acre-feet after the lake fell below 1,075 feet. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot, or 325,853 gallons.

It’s taken years of negotiating to reach the deal, which involves seven states, local and tribal governments, and the U.S and -Mexican administrations.

But for California and Arizona, much of the wrangling has been over how much different groups within their states would have to give up to make up the overall state’s contribution in a shortfall.

Buschatzke said that despite a lot of debate at the beginning of the process, Arizona was able to develop a plan that spreads the impact of contributions throughout the state after “folks came to the table” to work on a deal…

“Now that the states have completed their work, it’s time for Congress to take it across the finish line,” said Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, at Wednesday’s hearing. McSally, who chairs the Water and Power Subcommittee, said she plans introduce enabling legislation “very soon.”


Buschatzke said in his prepared testimony that he hopes for quick action, because any delay “greatly reduces the sustainability of the Colorado River system.”

If the plan does not take effect, he said, there could be a “crisis” for the river, which provides water for more than 40 million people, irrigates 5.5 million acres of farmland and generates hydropower for millions.

From the Associated Press via Colorado Public Radio:

Republican Sen. Cory Gardner attended the hearing and commended the seven Colorado River basin states for coming together to define a plan.

“This is an incredibly important issue for those of us out in the plains of Colorado, those of us in Western Colorado and throughout the upper basin of Colorado — and lower basin,” he said. “Colorado has the unique distinction of being a state that all water flows out of and no water flows into.”

Gardner said the guidelines created in 2007 didn’t sufficiently mitigate the risk of Lake Mead dropping below critical levels. He added that even though Colorado was helped by a wet winter this year, it’s still important to determine a plan to prevent a crisis that would impact 40 million people in the West.

“These are states where history is written in water so this is incredibly important,” he said.