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From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):
Extreme drought has crept back into Southwest Colorado…
“With climate change, we expect to see these really big swings from wet to dry years,” said Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist with Colorado State University. “But the trend is we’re in a mega-drought.”
For context, Udall said it’s important to look at Colorado’s weather the past three years. In 2018, it was one of the hottest and driest years on record. The next year, however, brought one of the best snowpacks in recorded history.
For 2020, it appears the pendulum has swung back to hot and dry.
“It’s not as bad as 2018, but it’s still bad,” Udall said. “Probably within the bottom 10 driest years on record.”
On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor relisted parts of Southwest Colorado in the “extreme drought” category for the first time since the region was downgraded after the 2018-19 winter…
Southwest Colorado’s current dry spell began in October 2019 and lasted through the winter. Though high elevation weather stations recorded about normal snowpack levels, researchers estimated snow levels were below average.
This spring, too, has been all but void of precipitation. April saw just 10% of normal precipitation levels for the region, making it one of the driest months on record. From October to April, the region saw 70% of its average precipitation levels.
As a result, the Animas River is expected to have 63% of its normal water supply.
Unusually high temperatures, too, have exacerbated the lack of snow and rain. In April, for instance, the region was 10 to 20 degrees higher than average, according to data from the Colorado River Basin Forecast Center.
Above-average temperatures this early in the season have caused snowpack to melt and rivers to run higher and earlier than normal. The Animas River, for example, is expected to peak this weekend at around 2,700 cubic feet per second. By comparison, the Animas River usually peaks during the first week of June around 4,700 cfs.
Most of the snow has already melted off the San Juan Mountains – the Animas, Dolores, San Miguel and San Juan river basins have just 50% of normal snowpack levels for this time of year.
The hot and dry conditions have elevated concerns about fire danger in the region. Pugh said soil moisture is in the lowest fifth percentile, a sign that fuels on the ground are ripe to burn and would be difficult to put out.
Hal Doughty, chief of Durango Fire Protection District, said local fire chiefs in the region sent a letter Friday to La Plata County, requesting commissioners implement Stage 1 fire restrictions.
La Plata County commissioners are expected to vote on the restrictions Tuesday. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe implemented Stage 1 fire restrictions on Friday…
On April 7, the Forest Service announced a complete fire ban across 24 national forests in the Rocky Mountain region, including the San Juan National Forest.
Lorena Williams, spokeswoman for the Forest Service, said the agency is expecting above-average fire potential in May and June.
“Fuel dryness levels have hit critical levels, and above-normal fire potential exists at all snow-free elevations in Southwest Colorado,” she said. “We are preparing for active fire behavior that will be difficult to control. As we’ve seen very recently, any ignitions can lead to rapid fire spread when aided by wind and slope. As fuels dry even more, less wind and less slope will result in the same amount of spread.”
Udall said there is some connection between dry years and wetter monsoons later in the summer: The sun heats the land more, which pulls moisture-laden air from thousands of miles away.
“I don’t think there’s any question that happens,” he said. “But it’s just not a guaranteed thing. The odds are just higher.”
Udall pointed to a scientific study published April 17 in Science that concludes a drought of epic portions is the new reality for the American Southwest, driven in part by climate change…
Williams and his colleagues, however, found by studying soil moisture content in tree ring records that the region had experienced four periods of more than two decades of severe drought conditions in the past 1,200 years.
The study found the current drought in the region since 2000 is the second-worst drought experienced in that time span, second only to a dry spell in the 1500s.
Add complications with climate change, which is expected to move storms farther north and raise temperatures in the Southwest, and concerns about water availability and intensified wildfire seasons begin to mount.
“I’ve always been worried about Southwest Colorado,” Udall said. “As the planet warms, areas right on the edge of big deserts like Southwest Colorado are really at risk.”
From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent via The Sky-Hi News (John Stroud):
Rivers are rising faster than usual throughout the Colorado and Roaring Fork river watersheds, as warm temperatures have led to early melting of the high-country snowpack.
Higher river flows have also drawn paddlers to the Glenwood Springs Whitewater Park, as the facility officially reopened this week with public health guidelines in place amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic…
Commercial rafting is on hold until later this month or early June while guidelines are being developed for that and other tourist activities. Private boats are allowed on the rivers, but with social-distancing and other health guidelines in mind.
The higher river flows are the result of warmer-than-normal temperatures across Colorado’s Western Slope, and the lack of precipitation to add to the mountain snowpack in April, according to Ken Leib, hydrologist with the United State Geological Survey in Grand Junction…
Leib said the Colorado River could see peak flows earlier than usual if the warmer weather continues, or possibly an early peak and then a second peak in June if temperatures modify.
After the record snowpack during the winter of 2018-19, the peak flow on the Colorado River below the confluence with the Roaring Fork River in Glenwood Springs didn’t come until July 1, 2019, according to USGS historical data.
The flow last year topped out at 20,800 cubic feet per second (cfs), at a depth of 9 feet, 8 inches at the Glenwood measuring station.
Dating back to 1967, the highest peak flow at Glenwood was 31,500 cfs on May 25, 1984. The earliest peak flow came on May 20, 1996, at 18,200 cfs.
As of Thursday evening, according to realtime USGS data, the Colorado at Glenwood was flowing at 5,150 cfs with a depth of 5 feet, 8 inches — down from the Monday high this week of 6,000 cfs and 6 feet, 1 inch.
Just above the confluence on the Roaring Fork River at Veltus Park, the flow in the Fork was topping out at 1,200 cfs with a gage depth of 3 feet, 3 inches. The peak flow on the Roaring Fork at that location last year also came on July 1, at 8,960 cfs.
USGS data goes back to 1906 for that location on the Roaring Fork. The earliest recorded peak came on May 12, 1934, when the flow topped out at 4,100 cfs.
From The Craig Daily Press (Joshua Carney):
Following a number of delays, the monochloramine conversion process within the city’s water department is scheduled to officially start on Monday, May 11 at 10 a.m.
According to a press release from the City of Craig Water & Wastewater Department Director Mark Sollenberger, the city’s water department has resolved a number of issues and is ready to get the project, previously scheduled to start on March 31, underway.
“After numerous weeks of working on the primary disinfection portion of the treatment plant upgrade, our engineers, staff, and contractors have finally resolved many of the issues preventing the original March 3 start date for the chloramine conversion process,” Sollenberger said in the press release. “Be assured that we are now ready to proceed and that the entire conversion process of the water plant, and roughly 80 miles of water distribution system, will still take approximately 3 weeks to be fully completed.”
Sollenberger added that the city will continue to flush fire hydrants in the distribution system throughout the entire conversion process to help move chloraminated water around the entire water system and support normal system maintenance.
“The public should please note that fire hydrant flushing can cause discolored water or pressure fluctuations at your home. If you encounter these problems, they should clear up quickly if you run your water faucets throughout the house for a short period of time. We apologize for this inconvenience,” Sollenberger said.
The controversial monochloramine project to add monochloramines to the current use of chlorine for water disinfection has the city’s water department monitoring water quality now, and moving forward, Sollenberger added.
“Please be assured that throughout the chloramine conversion process, and long afterwards, the City Water Department staff will be monitoring the water quality in the water distribution system to make sure it always remains safe and is of the highest quality we can deliver to our customers,” Sollenberger said.
Here’s a guest column from Al Pfister that’s running in The Pagosa Sun:
We are living in an age where we are facing drier and warmer times ahead. While we have had a few wet years over the past two decades, looking over that entire time span, we have been in a drought. We are currently in a severe drought with gradually worsening conditions in southern Colorado over the past few months. This scenario is believed to be a foreshadowing of our future.
The Colorado Water Plan, completed in December 2015, recognized these conditions and outlined numerous strategies to guide all water users in collaboratively addressing our challenging water future.
One of those strategies was the development of stream management plans (SMPs). SMPs are intended to compile a community’s understanding of a watershed’s collective environmental, recreational, agricultural and municipal water needs, identifying information gaps, and promoting projects and processes that meet those needs and gaps.
In 2018, community representatives formed a group, now called the Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership (WEP), to better understand current and future local water use and needs through the Colorado Water Plan’s SMP process. Funding for this local effort is provided by the state through Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), Southwest Basin Roundtable, San Juan Water Conservancy District, Archuleta County, Town of Pagosa Springs, Banded Peak Ranch and numerous other partners.
Envisioned as a three-phase process, the ultimate purpose of this effort to explore opportunities to conserve the Upper San Juan Basin streams and their uses with wide-ranging community support and decisions based on local input and current science and assessments. In order to ensure a broad representation of the community’s interests are brought forward and maintained through the process, a steering committee was formed. Representatives of agricultural, environmental, recreational, and municipal water users, private landowners, business owners, and local government comprise the steering committee.
While forming the steering committee and informing stakeholders about this endeavor, the local water users decided to call it the Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership to recognize the voluntary and collaborative nature of this effort. Phase I, just completed, of this effort entailed formation of the steering committee and outreach to stakeholders, identification of our community’s collective values on issues, opportunities and the geographic scope of the WEP. Funding for Phase II has been obtained and is now awaiting formal approval from the CWCB in order to proceed with implementation.
Phase II will focus on assessing the environmental, recreational, and agricultural structural water needs and values of our community. We will be working with partners, San Juan Conservation District and Lotic Hydrological, to evaluate current and future water needs via community input and scientific analysis. Our goal is to complete an assessment that can prioritize projects and processes to meet those needs. This assessment will inform the development of an Integrated Water Management Plan that lists goals, potential projects and actions in Phase III, as determined by the local community.
In order to accurately assess and identify projects that align with local values and needs, the WEP is again asking for community input throughout Phase II. To help the WEP and our partners better understand environmental, recreational and agricultural structure needs this year, our partners will be working directly with ditch companies, land owners, governmental agencies, as well as providing updates to the general public throughout the process. We greatly appreciate your involvement and input, helping our communities in the San Juan River Basin better prepare and secure our water future.
More detailed information on the WEP can be obtained at our website: http://www.mountainstudies.org/sanjuan/smp, or by contacting Al Pfister at (970) 985-5764.
From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):
Colorado and other Western states will be hard pressed to shield their rivers and streams under a new federal Clean Water Act rule finalized last month, largely because hundreds of shallow Western rivers are no longer protected, and writing new state laws and finding the cash to fill the regulatory gap will likely take years to accomplish, officials said.
Though many agricultural interests and water utilities support the new Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule, as it is known, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser and Patrick Pfaltzgraff, director of the state’s Water Quality Control Division, said they will take legal action to protect streams that are no longer subject to federal oversight.
“We are pleased the final rule protects important agriculture exemptions and provides continued assurance that states retain authority and primary responsibility over land and water resources…However, the federal government’s decision to remove from federal oversight ephemeral waters, certain intermittent streams, and many wetlands is based on flawed legal reasoning and lacks a scientific basis,” Weiser said in a statement.
Whether Colorado will seek an injunction to stop the new rule from being enforced and whether it will join other Western states in a legal challenge isn’t clear. Weiser and Pfaltzgraff declined to discuss their legal strategy, other than vowing to take action.
The Colorado Water Congress, which represents hundreds of water agencies and agricultural interests, had been largely supportive of the new rule before it was finalized. But Executive Director Doug Kemper said the group hasn’t finished its analysis of the final version.
Formally adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency April 21, the move to significantly revise the WOTUS rule began after President Trump took office and vowed to reverse policies established under the Obama Administration.
The new rule has already triggered a handful of lawsuits seeking to stop the EPA from enforcing them. One was filed by cattle growers in New Mexico alleging that the rule is still too onerous, and at least two others have been filed by environmental interests in South Carolina and Massachusetts, who say the rule leaves too many streams unprotected.
And more are expected.
The Clean Water Act (CWA) has been legally hamstrung for years over murky definitions about which waterways fall under its jurisdiction, which wetlands must be regulated, what kinds of dredge-and-fill work in waterways should be permitted, what authority the CWA has over activities on farms and Western irrigation ditches, and what is allowable for industries and wastewater treatment plants to discharge into streams.
One rule never fits all
Administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA, the CWA, now nearly 50 years old, is credited with making U.S. waters some of the cleanest in the world. But it has also been, at times, fiendishly difficult to administer, in part because of the nation’s widely different geographies.
Go to the East or Midwest, and massive rivers, such as the Ohio and Missouri, are filled with barge and shipping traffic and are clearly “navigable.” That was the term early courts used to determine how water would be regulated. If a stream was considered navigable, it was subject to federal law.
But Colorado and other Western states rely on shallow streams that don’t carry traditional commercial traffic. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates 44 percent of Colorado’s streams are intermittent, meaning they are sometimes dry, and 24 percent are ephemeral, meaning they can be dry for months or years and appear only after extraordinary rain or snow. Just 32 percent of Colorado streams are classified as being perennial, meaning they flow year round.
Under the new rule, only perennial and intermittent streams, or those deemed navigable, will be regulated, meaning that thousands of miles of streams in Colorado and other Western states would no longer be protected under the law.
A financial quandary
And that worries state water quality officials who are responsible for protecting Colorado’s streams.
They warn that writing state rules and finding millions of dollars in new cash to enforce water quality protections will be difficult, especially as the COVID-19 budget crisis unfolds. Officials of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), which includes the Water Quality Control Division, say that until state rules are in place, new housing developments and other projects could be stopped because there is no mechanism yet to issue the permits that were once issued by the federal government.
“While the specific impacts of this rule still are being determined, there’s no question this rollback removes huge swaths of Colorado’s waters from federal jurisdiction—the most of any administration since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. The state will need to put in significant resources to determine how to continue to protect these waters and to determine how this rule will be implemented as the rule is unclear as written,” the CDPHE said in an email.
“Specific construction projects and associated permitting processes that were originally covered…won’t be able to move forward without doing so illegally and harming the environment,” the CDPHE said.
Melinda Kassen, general counsel for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said it would make sense to pursue an injunction to give the state time to set up its own regulations and find a way to fund them.
“If you read the economic analysis that accompanies the rule, there are assumptions that the states will step up and take this over. The potential is for it to be really dysfunctional. We’ve got to get something set up,” Kassen said.
EPA officials have said they don’t expect federal funding to enforce the Clean Water Act will be reduced, even though the new WOTUS rule is smaller in scope and governs fewer waterways.
Still the CDPHE and most opponents of the new rule believe millions of dollars will be needed to fill in any regulatory gap.
How far Colorado will go to challenge the new rule isn’t clear. The CDPHE’s Pfaltzgraff said his agency is still analyzing its next steps.
“It is now up to the state to provide the necessary protection of both Colorado’s economy and the environment,” Pfaltzgraff said in a statement. “We are going to do everything we can, while also addressing the impacts from COVID-19, to ensure Coloradans live in the healthy state they deserve.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.