Supporters say Proposition DD will ‘fund Colorado’s Water Plan,’ but what does that mean? — @AspenJournalism #COWaterPlan

The Colorado River near the Colorado/Utah state line. Proposition DD could allocate tax revenue to a demand management program with the aim of leaving more water in the river. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Proposition DD’s supporters — including environmental organizations, agriculture interests, conservation districts and Aspen Skiing Co. — say the measure will be used to close a $3 billion state funding gap in implementing the Colorado Water Plan. The frequently cited figure of a $100 million annual shortfall for 30 years is written in the water plan itself.

But where did the authors of the water plan get this number and what kinds of projects and programs might the measure fund? According to the legislation, money raised from Prop DD could go toward an agricultural water-use reduction program that doesn’t yet exist.

In the following explainer, Aspen Journalism unpacks the ballot question, which will be posed to voters Nov. 5, and what the tax revenue may actually end up funding.

The Colorado River in fall light. Proposition DD allows for tax revenue raised through sports betting to fund a future demand management program, which would pay agricultural water users to leave more water in the river. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

How will Proposition DD work?

Gov. Jared Polis signed House Bill 19-1327 into law in May. But voters must still pass Proposition DD for it to take effect.

According to the 2019 State Ballot Information Booklet, Proposition DD would authorize the state to collect a 10% tax up to $29 million a year (but the projected average amount is $16 million) from casinos’ sports-betting proceeds. The Colorado Division of Gaming and the Colorado Limited Gaming Control Commission will be responsible for regulating sports betting operations.

Of the money raised, a projected $130,000 would go to gambling addiction services and $960,000 would go into a “hold harmless” fund. Entities that receive tax revenue from traditional gambling such as horse racing could apply for funding from the hold harmless fund if they can prove they lost money due to the legalization of sports betting.

The remaining projected average annual $14.9 million (but up to $27.2 million) in tax revenue would go to funding projects that align with the goals outlined in the water plan, as well as toward meeting interstate obligations such as the Colorado River Compact. Under the compact, the Upper Basin states, which include Colorado, must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet of water annually to Lake Powell.

If voters pass Proposition DD, it will take effect May 1.

The orange machine is a combine used to harvest grains. The yellow machine in front is a land plane used to level fields, clarification via Larry Vickerman. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smity/Aspen Journalism

What does the legislation say?

The legislation creates a special Water Plan Implementation Cash Fund, which would be administered by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, a statewide agency charged with managing Colorado’s water supply. The money could be spent on water-plan grants, but may also be spent “to ensure compliance with interstate water allocation compacts … including … compensation to water users for temporary and voluntary reductions in consumptive use.”

This language refers to a demand management program, the feasibility of which the state is currently studying.

A hayfield near Grand Junction, irrigated with water from the Colorado River. Under demand management pilot programs, the state could pay irrigators to fallow fields in an effort to leave more water in the river. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

What is demand management?

At the heart of a demand-management program is a reduction in water use by agriculture on a voluntary, temporary and compensated basis, all in an effort to send up to 500,000 acre-feet of water downstream to bolster water levels in Lake Powell to meet potential obligations under the Colorado River Compact. Under pilot programs the state could pay ranchers and farmers to leave more water in the river.

The CWCB has formed nine workgroups, each tasked with helping to identify and solve issues related to demand management. Western Slope agricultural water users about how a demand-management program would be implemented fairly.

District 5 State Sen. Kerry Donovan, whose district includes Aspen and who was a sponsor of the bill, acknowledged that as Colorado gets a handle on demand management, money from Proposition DD could go toward funding a future program.

“Most water experts would say demand management in some form will be part of addressing the Colorado River Compact obligations,” Donovan said. “Maybe in five years, maybe in the next generation, but somewhere in the long-term planning strategy of the Colorado River, demand management will be part of the puzzle.”

District 5 State Sen. Kerry Donovan, left, speaks on a panel with other lawmakers at the Colorado Water Congress legislative session in Steamboat Springs in August. Donovan asked water managers for their support of Proposition DD, which would fund water projects grants and, potentially, a demand management program. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

What is the Colorado Water Plan?

At the behest of then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, water managers from across Colorado collaboratively created the water plan, which was unveiled in 2015. The plan, which is more of a policy document, says Colorado faces a looming water “gap” across all sectors — municipal, industrial, agriculture, recreation and environment — because of the state’s growing population and increasing water demands.

The 567-page plan does not prescribe or endorse specific projects but instead sets Colorado’s water values, goals and measurable objectives, which are set out in a critical action plan. For example, the plan sets a measurable objective of storing an additional 400,000 acre-feet of water in reservoirs by 2050 and covering 80% of local rivers with stream-management plans by 2030, but it does not say how water managers should go about doing this.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board, after unveiling the Colorado Water Plan in Denver in November 2015. Revenue from Prop DD could go toward funding water plan grants. Photo credit: Colorado River District

What about water plan grants?

According to the legislation, revenue from Proposition DD will also go toward water-plan grants. Local water managers apply to the CWCB’s Water Plan Grant Program to fund projects that advance critical actions laid out in the water plan from the following categories: agricultural, engagement and innovation, environmental and recreation, water conservation and land-use planning, or water storage and supply.

Water-plan grants are a 50% matching grant, meaning that the local entities applying for the grant must match from their own coffers the amount they are requesting in state funds.

For fiscal year 2019-20, $10 million will be available for the Water Plan Grant Program. Funding from Proposition DD could add roughly $15 million a year to this grant program.

Many of the projects that the water-plan grants fund come from each of the nine basin roundtables’ Basin Implementation Plans. The BIPs identify how each basin’s water needs will be met through existing or new projects, policies and processes. But many of the local water projects included in the BIPs don’t specify how much funding is needed to implement them and many roundtables’ projects lists have only partial and inconsistent information.

For example, 14 of the 31 top projects outlined in the Colorado BIP have “TBD” in the Funding Needs column.

“In the Basin Implementation Plans, some of those projects are pretty rough and it was a best guess at the time with limited information,” said CWCB Deputy Director Lauren Ris.

Roundtables will soon embark on an update to their BIPs, with the goal of refining project details, including cost.

A view of the headgate on the Robinson Ditch and the boulder structure in the Roaring Fork River that maintains the grade of the river so water can reach the headgate. Pitkin County has received a water-plan grant to help repair the diversion structure and improve boating passage. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

What is the funding gap?

According to the water plan, there is an estimated funding gap of $100 million per year over 30 years. These figures, according to Ris, came from data in the 2010 Statewide Water Supply Initiative. That technical analysis found that Colorado needed $20 billion worth of water projects to meet the water supply gap by 2050. Of that $20 billion, $17 billion is expected to be paid for by existing funding sources, including rate payers of water utilities and federal money.

The state is investigating options to fund the remaining $3 billion gap. Proposition DD is one of these options. But the $3 billion figure, based on decade-old data, is not precise.

“($100 million per year over 30 years) was an estimate,” Ris said. “I don’t think it was ever really intended to be an exact figure. It’s more to say, we know there’s going to be a big need and we will work to refine that estimate going forward … We are just trying to point out it’s an expensive endeavor going forward.”

Supporters of Proposition DD say they realize that the estimated $15 million raised per year is still a far cry from the estimated $100 million needed per year, instead calling the money a “down payment” on implementing the water plan.

The 2015 Colorado Water Plan, on a shelf, at the CU law library. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Who is endorsing Proposition DD?

Proposition DD has received broad endorsement from environmental groups such as Conservation Colorado and American Rivers, agriculture organizations such as the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and the Colorado Corn Growers Association, and several chambers of commerce.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District and Aspen Skiing Co. also support the measure.

Matt Rice of American Rivers said his organization is endorsing the measure because it wants to see some projects fully funded, including stream-management plans, urban water-conservation programs and modernization of agriculture irrigation infrastructure.

Rice said American Rivers “unabashedly and unequivocally” supports a demand-management program in Colorado, which Proposition DD could help fund.

“We deeply believe a demand-management program needs to be one of the tools that we have in our toolbox as we plan for water scarcity or prolonged drought because of climate change,” Rice said.

A river project, partially funded by the CWCB on the Arkansas River at Granite. The project was removing a river-wide diversion structure and replacing it with a new diversion structure that will allow unimpeded boating through Granite. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Who is opposed to Proposition DD?

Environmental group Save the Colorado and the political action committee Coloradans for Climate Justice oppose the measure. According to the Coloradans for Climate Justice Facebook page, the group believes fossil fuel companies should pay for the damage to water-supply systems caused by climate change. So far, the group has not filed any reports for contributions or expenditures.

The Colorado River in fall near Loma. Proposition DD could allocate tax revenue to a demand management program with the aim of leaving more water in the river. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Who is funding Proposition DD?

Despite broad support from many organizations, the political action committee Yes on Prop DD is funded primarily by the gambling industry. According to filings with the Secretary of State, as of Sept. 30, casinos and online sports betting organizations have spent nearly $1 million to support the measure. The Colorado Farm Bureau and the Environmental Defense Fund have contributed $10,000 each.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times, Vail Daily, Summit Daily, Glenwood Springs Post-Independent and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Oct. 10, 2019 edition of the above papers or on their websites.

#Drought news: Dry conditions expand over eastern #Colorado

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 an excerpt:

This Week’s Drought Summary

The flash drought in the southern portions of the United States, especially over the Southeast and Texas, remains the prominent feature this week. As conditions continue to dry out coinciding with record warmth, deteriorations are widespread and rapidly occurring. Temperatures were varied over the United States this week, and much of the West, upper Midwest, and central and northern Plains were cooler than normal, with temperatures 3 to 6 below normal widespread. It was even cooler over Great Basin with temperatures 6 to 9 degrees below normal. In contrast, temperatures over the Southeast were generally 9 to 12 degrees above normal coming off a month when many locations set records for the warmest September on record. Temperatures were generally 6 to 9 degrees above normal in Texas and into the Midwest as well. Two prominent rain events came through the country in the last week. The first occurred at the beginning of the period when much of eastern New Mexico, west Texas and the Texas panhandle received rain and thunderstorms. A significant rain event moved through the southern Midwest and into the South, not only putting a stop to further drought development but also allowing for widespread improvements. Unfortunately, these rains did not get into the Southeast, where another hot and dry week continues to raise havoc on the region, especially to those involved in agriculture…

High Plains

Cooler than normal temperatures and the first freeze for the season were widespread throughout the region. Temperatures were 3 to 6 degrees below normal for most of the area. Above-normal precipitation was recorded over much of the Dakotas, eastern Nebraska and most of Kansas. Drier than normal conditions were reported over Colorado, western Nebraska, and southwest South Dakota. The region had abnormally dry conditions expand over eastern Colorado and slight improvement to the abnormally dry conditions over western Wyoming…


Cooler than normal temperatures dominated the region, with areas of Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah having temperatures 6-9 degrees below normal. Warmer than normal temperatures were experienced in New Mexico, where departures were 3 to 6 degrees above normal. Precipitation was widespread through central and eastern New Mexico and spotty throughout the Pacific Northwest and northern Rocky Mountains. The precipitation in New Mexico did allow for a full category improvement to the abnormally dry conditions in the southeast, east, and southwest portions of the state. In Arizona, further assessment of last week’s rain was done, with some further improvements made. Moderate drought and severe drought conditions were improved slightly in the central to south central portions of the state where the greatest impacts of the previous rains were observed. Due to a recent wet pattern, moderate drought and abnormally dry conditions were improved over the panhandle of Idaho, northeast Washington and northwest Montana…


Mississippi had their driest September on record and Tennessee had their second driest while Texas and Louisiana had their warmest Septembers. Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Mississippi had their second warmest. Significant rains over portions of west Texas and into the panhandle, northern Arkansas, southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana as well as much of western Tennessee allowed for some improvements in the region. Abnormally dry conditions were removed over much of the Texas panhandle and into west Texas. Moderate drought was also improved upon over the far northeast portion of the Texas panhandle and into western Oklahoma. A full category improvement was made over southern Arkansas and into northern Louisiana. A full category improvement was made in western Tennessee, northern Mississippi, and northern Alabama where the greatest rains fell. In the areas not impacted by rain, the warmer than normal temperatures along with dry conditions allowed for the flash drought to continue. Widespread degradations were made over Texas where areas of severe and extreme drought were expanded greatly. In central and southern Louisiana, abnormally dry conditions spread southward while a new area of moderate drought was introduced over eastern Mississippi.

Looking Ahead

Over the next 5-7 days, precipitation chances look to be greatest over the Plains and Midwest and into the Mississippi Valley. The greatest chances of precipitation are in North Dakota and through Missouri into Oklahoma. Conditions are expected to remain dry over much of the West, Southwest, and Mid-Atlantic into the Southeast. Cooler than normal temperatures are projected over most of the country with the greatest departures expected over the High Plains, where departures could be over 20 degrees below normal. Warmer than normal temperatures are expected over the Southeast and New England with departures of up to 3 degrees above normal.

The 6-10 day outlooks show above-normal chances for cooler than normal temperatures over the High Plains and into the Midwest while the best chance for above-normal temperatures is along the southern portions of the country from the Southwest into the southern Plains and into the Southeast. The best chances for recording above-normal precipitation are over the eastern portions of the country, especially the Southeast, as well as over the Pacific Northwest and into the Great Basin. The best chance for below-normal precipitation is over the central Plains.

US Drought Monitor one week change map ending October 8, 2019.

Eagle River Watershed Council: Big snow and high flows don’t tell the whole story

Eagle River Basin

From the Eagle River Watershed Council (James Dilzell) via The Vail Daily:

One hundred and 28 percent.

That’s the average snowpack the Upper Colorado River Basin saw for the 2019 winter season, which comprises the Western Slope of Colorado, eastern Utah, and parts of Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico.

In Colorado, our local watersheds experienced snowpack at 134% of average through the season, and many late-season storms contributed to areas in the state being above 400% for the month of June. Though, we don’t need numbers to confirm what we already knew — 2019 brought a ton of snow and with that a fantastic ski season. The powder came early and stayed late, allowing for turns at Thanksgiving and on the Fourth of July.

The gift of powder last winter came in part from the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, a climate cycle connected to the Pacific Ocean. El Niño occurs when the ocean’s surface has a warm-year cycle, creating a low-pressure zone in the Pacific. This event pushes and extends the Pacific jet stream down, creating the path for amplified storms across the southern United States. That said, the winter we experienced last year wasn’t guaranteed, the El Nino-Southern Oscillation merely increased the probability.

2019’s El Niño event was paired with randomness, transporting warm, wet air from the Pacific Northwest inland to Utah and Colorado. When that arrived in the high country, it was met with near-normal cold temperatures. This combination allowed for storm after storm and precipitated into a lot of snow midseason. SNOTEL sites throughout the state showed record-setting precipitation in February and March. Overall, 2019 was the second wettest season since 1900.

One hundred and 20 percent.

That’s the peak flow of rivers in the upper basin compared to average. Here in the Eagle River Valley, we saw high flows and a late-season peak when the Eagle River reached 7,490 cubic feet per second on July 1. The second highest in recent years was in 2012 when the river peaked just above 6,000 cfs in early June. Again, we don’t need numbers to tell us about the incredible summer the river had. But what the numbers can tell us is that we are not in the clear when it comes to the water in our western rivers.

While 120% is a strong runoff, the complete story is that we are not seeing the same efficiencies in snowmelt reaching the rivers. At the Water Seminar in Grand Junction, hosted by the Colorado River District, it was repeated over and over that runoff efficiencies are far lower now than in the 1950s and 60s. This is due to the extended drying of the west, the lack of consistent precipitation to bring the soil moisture up, and the increasing average temperatures.

This winter did allow for a moisture recharge, pulling Colorado out of a 19-year drought, but we are not in the clear. Our winter was the second wettest, but June through August was the eighth-driest on record, and our summer fell into the top 10 of warmest on record.

The Winter 2019 feast after the famine was welcomed and needed, but it is a part of the increasingly unpredictable, unsteady and inconsistent hydroclimate. As climate cycles alter and average temperatures increase, we don’t know what the future of water in the West is. Uncertainty is the only thing we can count on — and it is up to us to stay ahead of the changes in our climate. Consider writing a letter to the current administration to stand up for rivers or join the Watershed Council in local planning efforts to ensure the future of water for our community.

James Dilzell is the Education & Outreach Coordinator for Eagle River Watershed Council. The Watershed Council has a mission to advocate for the health and conservation of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River basins through research, education, and projects. Contact the Watershed Council at (970) 827-5406.

‘Climate Whiplash’ Tests Four Corners Communities’ Ability To Adapt — KUNC #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Mancos and the Mesa Verde area

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

Communities in the Four Corners — where the borders of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona meet — have been bouncing between desperately dry and record-breaking moisture since the winter of 2017, forcing people dependent on the reliability and predictability of water to adapt…

If you want a sense of what climate change is doing to agriculture in the Southwest, and how individuals are reacting to unprecedented weather, this is a good place to see those effects on a small scale.

“We’ve set records almost every year, good or bad,” [Dustin] Stein said. “So hot, so dry. So much snow, the river’s too high. It’s just incredibly bipolar.”

The winter of 2017-2018 was one of the driest ever recorded in parts of the Four Corners, kicking off the latest intensification of a prolonged dry period that’s stretched nearly two decades. Rivers ran at some of their lowest flows ever recorded during their annual spring runoff in 2018.

That summer was the hottest on record across most of the Colorado Plateau. From October 2017 to September 2018, the region recorded its driest weather in more than a century of recordkeeping…

Stein draws irrigation water to grow forage for his cattle from the Mancos River, a tributary of the San Juan River. It’s a key water source for the ranchers and farmers in this agricultural valley. The river used to be reliable, Stein said.

“We’ve got fairly senior water rights in the Mancos Valley. Our water hadn’t gone off until 2002. Since 2002 it’s gone off almost every year at some point in the year,” Stein said.

With irrigation water tapped out in the summer of 2018, and his pastures turning brown, Stein made the expensive decision to send all his cows and their calves to high mountain pastures owned by a custom grazing operation 200 miles to the north, near Gunnison…

Stein thought he was out of the woods as this snow started flying at the start of this past winter. At its height in the spring, snowpack in some parts of the nearby San Juan mountains was at its highest level ever, compelling parched communities to quickly prepare for flooding…

The spigot turned off this again summer, when the above-average heat and below-average moisture trend returned. Drought conditions have been slowly worsening in the Four Corners region since late July…

This feeling that Stein is talking about, of being jerked around, lurching from one small weather-related crisis to the next, has a name, according to Gregg Garfin, climatologist and researcher at the University of Arizona.

“Some scientists and practitioners have referred to this as climate whiplash,” Garfin said…

They found strong evidence of rising temperatures. That finding alone causes a sort of domino effect, where the warmer temperatures upend the accumulation and timing of snowpack melting. That can then lead to a mismatch between a runoff period and when water users, like cities and ranchers, need it. The higher temperatures also sap more moisture from the region’s already arid soil, and pull more water from rivers and reservoirs in the form of evaporation. When precipitation does arrive, it’s less effective than it used to be.

“Then if you combine that with some kinds of disturbances, such as tree mortality like we’ve seen, mortality in ponderosa pine, piñon-juniper woodlands, and also fires,” Garfin said. “Those things can reset ecosystems.”

A woodland might come back as a shrubland. Or a shrubland might return as a grassland. Or a grassland might turn into a desert.

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.