Beginning in 2021, the Bureau of Reclamation will repair El Vado Dam.
Built in 1935, the dam is one of the only steel faceplated dams in the country. It can store around 200,000 acre-feet of water.
Some of the steel faceplates of the dam have become cracked and bent due to shifts in the land around the dam, wrote Bureau of Reclamation Public Affairs Specialist Mary Carlson in a March 6 email.
The shifts in land have also caused erosion behind the faceplates and cracks and bending in the plates on the dam’s spillway, she wrote.
Bureau of Reclamation Civil Engineer Carolyn Donnelly discussed the potential effects of these changes at the Fifth Annual Rio Chama Congreso Feb. 29.
“The spillway, some of those face plates, if you walk on it, you can hear it’s kind of hollow underneath and they move, so if we started using that at the full capacity, water could get under those plates, take them out, and then there could be failure of the dam,” Donnelly said. “And luckily there’s not a large population downstream, but for those who are there it would not be a good thing.”
El Vado stores water for irrigation in the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which includes six pueblos—Santa Ana, Kewa, Cochiti, San Felipe, Isleta and Sandia.
It also sometimes stores drinking water for cities including Santa Fe and Albuquerque as part of the San Juan-Chama Project.
Carlson wrote that the Bureau of Reclamation is still working out details about how water will be stored and move during the repair, for which the reservoir will be close to empty for at least a year.
The Water Main, a project from American Public Media, wanted to know how Americans think, feel and worry about their water. Among their findings is that knowledge of water issues isn’t the biggest predictor of whether someone takes the effort to act. Personal connections to particular rivers, lakes and oceans led to more concrete conservation measures.
“The big surprise is that knowledge, how much we know, and action aren’t as tightly correlated as we might think they are,” said Amy Skoczlas Cole, Water Main’s managing editor. “It wasn’t actually the people who knew the most about water who were doing the most, it was the people who felt the most connected to water who were taking the most action.”
Half of those surveyed reported feeling a strong personal connection to a river, lake, ocean or other body of water.
More people over the age of 65 felt this way than those under the age of 45, the survey found…
The survey also found geographic and regional differences in how people think about water. Residents of Western states were more likely than the rest of the country to vote with water issues top of mind, but knew less about sources of water pollution than those in the Northeast or Midwest.
Western respondents were also twice as likely to say that water was too heavily regulated than those in eastern regions of the country.
Westerners were more likely to share information about water with others. 44% of western residents said they share information about water and water related issues at least once a month, which was the highest of any group surveyed.
The survey aimed to measure attitudes and perceptions about water. It looked at four specific dimensions: how much people know about water, how much they care, how concerned they are and their actions to protect water…
The survey is titled Water + Us, and it was compiled by the APM Research Lab and the Water Main.
[Snowpack] in the Arkansas and Rio Grande basins [was] near normal this year. That snow was not enough to relieve the on-going drought. Runoff in both basins is expected to be well below normal and looks to be coming early. Warm temperatures and lack of precipitation in April have accelerated the snowmelt. Models indicate the runoff may peak about 2-3 weeks ahead of an average year; the Rio Grande slightly earlier than the Arkansas. Runoff in the Arkansas and Rio Grande basins will be well-below average.
Drought conditions began to develop in the early fall of 2019. Below average rainfall during the summer and into the fall depleted soil moisture and groundwater going into the winter. Those dry soils and groundwater reservoirs are currently absorbing snow melt that would run off in a wetter year.
Forecasts from both the NRCS and the NWS reflected these dry soils and ground water deficits earlier this winter. Water users in the Arkansas River basin are fortunate to have a number of dams available within the system. Snowpack and runoff in 2018-2019 were abundant and some of it remains available in storage.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Colorado’s current snowpack is at just 43 percent of where the snowpack was this time last year and 64 percent of the average for this date, despite reaching a peak snowpack at 103 percent of the norm this season. This low snowpack is due to warm temperatures and a dry spring, which has resulted in a faster melt and less snow…
One spot that’s particularly dry is the Upper Rio Grande Basin, which is at 25 percent of the median snow water equivalent as of May 13. This includes spots like Medano Pass, Wolf Creek Summit, and Hayden Pass. The Arkansas River Basin is also lacking quite a bit of snow – currently at 59 percent of the median snow water equivalent on May 13. The Arkansas River Basin includes areas like Saint Elmo, Glen Cove, and Fremont Pass…
While things do seem quite dry right now around the state, the 2018 snowpack was worse, as seen by the yellow line in the graph below.
There was a notably wide gap in snowfall totals from the west side of Denver to the east side this winter, with the east side of the city seeing only about half of the snowfall that the west side received. Consider, for example, Wheat Ridge’s approximately 100 inches of snowfall this winter compared to the 48 inches of snow that Brighton received.
To be clear, most winters feature some sort of noticeable gradient between all sides of the Denver metro area. But as evidenced in part by Boulder’s record-breaking snowfall season, this winter favored the east-facing foothills west of Denver in a perhaps slightly unusual way.
For example: Denver generally saw a slightly above average season’s worth of snowfall (57.6 inches at Denver International Airport, and about 71 inches at the Stapleton Airport weather observation site). This was a generally decent-sized winter (30-year average Denver snowfall: about 50 inches) for the immediate Denver area, but it wasn’t off-the-charts for local standards.
But if you push ever-so-slightly west into the west side of Denver and into the first suburbs on the other side of the city line, like Lakewood and Wheat Ridge, and those seasonal snow totals jumped dramatically. Wheat Ridge saw over 100 inches this winter, while Lakewood saw almost 90 inches of seasonal snowfall.
While there’s typically a gap between the east and west sides of Denver, the fact that the west side of the metro area almost doubled the east side’s snowfall is a bit of a wider spread than usual.
“There weren’t a lot of big synoptic storms that were widespread (in producing more evenly-distributed snowfall),” said Scott Entrekin, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Boulder. “Most of the folks on the plains only had 20 to 30 inches of snow, which is a bit below normal out there. We did have some upslope-heavy storms.”
If you stretch out the geography a bit, the gap gets even wider: Colorado’s Eastern Plains saw only about 20 to 30 inches of snow this winter, below average in most cases. Meanwhile, the foothills west of Denver saw as much as 200 inches worth of snowfall, well above the climatological average there.
This was likely due to a high number of snowstorms that primarily pushed in easterly winds, or ones that strongly favor the foothills and the west side of the Denver area. Because elevation begins its sharp climb just west of Denver, easterly winds are forced to climb with the terrain as well. When air rises, it condenses into moisture…
Traditionally, the wider snowfall gap comes between the south side of the metro area and the rest of the city. The Palmer Divide, the mountainous area between Denver and Colorado Springs that rises up to 7,000 feet in elevation, is typically one of the more significant areas of snowfall across the metro area. The Palmer Divide’s elevation difference and geography is why places like Castle Rock (83.5 inches of snow this winter) and Sedalia (about 80 inches) often wind up with some of the higher seasonal totals over the course of a full winter.
The divide, however, usually relies on a bit more of a northerly component to the winds to bring in both colder and more upslope-dominant winds that’ll rise more efficiently against the east-west orientated range.
But this winter, those Palmer Divide areas actually saw slightly less snowfall than places like Wheat Ridge and Lakewood, and Castle Rock barely half of Boulder’s 152 inches of seasonal snowfall. That’s far from unheard of, but it certainly is a bit unusual, and yet another indicator of the huge snow season that the foothills specifically had.
That led to a big difference in snowfall totals over just a few miles across the Denver area this winter, including slightly below average seasonal amounts for areas just north of the city.
Legislative mandates, plunging costs, but also consumer demand push shift
The rapid shift to renewables has three, and perhaps four powerful guiding forces. First were the legislative mandates to decarbonize electrical supplies. Colorado in 2019 set targets of 50% reduction economy wide by 2030 and 90% by 2040. New Mexico, a second state where Tri-State operates, has comparable goals.
A second and now more powerful driver pushing renewables have been plunging prices.
“It’s no longer just a green movement, it’s an economic movement,” said Duane Highley, chief executive of Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which delivers electricity to 43 member cooperatives in Colorado and three other states.
Tri-State recently signed contracts for 1,000 megawatts of wind and solar energy that will be coming online by 2024 at average price of 1.7 cents per kilowatt-hour.
“That’s an amazing price. That’s lower than anything we can generate with fossil fuels. It automatically gives us the head room, because of the savings just on energy, to accelerate the retirement of coal and do that affordably with no increases in rates,” said Highley. “We see downward rate pressure for the next 10 years, and beyond 2030, we see increases below the rate of inflation.”
The economics prevail in states that have not adopted mandates designed to reduce emissions.
“We see a green energy dividend that allows us to accelerate the closure of coal without raising rates. That’s a key and it’s a key for Tri-State to getting support from our board, which covers four states. Nebraska and Wyoming don’t have the same intensity of passion behind the renewable energy movement that New Mexico and Colorado do. But one thing all of our members can agree upon is low rates and low costs.”
At Holy Cross Energy, an electrical cooperative that is not supplied by Tri-State, chief executive Bryan Hannegan sees the same downward price pressures.
“The price of new power supply from the bulk grid is coming in below where we are today in the marketplace. That is actually putting downward pressure on rates,” he said. At Holy Cross, the cost of electricity accounts for half of what consumers pay, with the other half going to the poles, wires, trucks and overhead.
“We at Holy Cross are saying we will get to 70% clean energy by 2030 with no increase in our power supply costs. If we can do it—which is a big if—we will try to do it in a way that keeps our rates predictable and stable.”
A third driver of the move to renewables has been bottom-up pressure from customers. Both Vail Resorts and the Aspen Skiing Co. have pushed Holy Cross Energy to deliver energy untainted by carbon emissions. So have individual communities. Six of the member communities in Colorado Communities for Climate Action are served by Holy Cross. “That is driving us forward. We are hearing it from our customer base,” said Hannegan.
Yet a fourth driver may be choice, as consumers can demand to pick and choose their energy sources as is proposed in a bill about community choice aggregation introduced in the Colorado Legislature this year. Holy Cross has to deliver that clean energy “frankly before somebody else does.”
All three utilities represented on the webinar retain ownership in coal plants. Holy Cross Energy, however, has consigned the production from its small ownership of Comanche 3, located in Pueblo, Colo., to Guzman Energy. Both Tri-State and Platte River have plans to be out of coal in Colorado by 2030, although Tri-State has no plans yet announced to end importing coal from a coal plant at Wheatland, Wyo.