2020 Summer Convening of the Colorado Water Congress

From the Colorado Water Congress:

Water Congress will hold a virtual summer meeting beginning August 25 and will continue for 4 weeks. Sessions will be on Tuesdays and Thursdays starting at noon with each one running 60 to 75 minutes. More information on specific topics and related workshops will be released in the upcoming weeks.

Drought news: Moderate drought (D2) was expanded in the #Nebraska panhandle and NE #Colorado

Click on a thumbnail graphic below 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

As Tropical Storm Isaias churned through the northern Caribbean and then northward along the east coast of the United States, an active pattern from the central Plains through the Midwest also brought precipitation with it. Temperatures were cooler through the center of the country, with departures of 6 to 8 degrees below normal in Kansas and Oklahoma while temperatures were well above normal in the Northwest, Southwest and from the Mid-Atlantic up into New England. Several areas broke or tied temperature records for the month: Phoenix had their all-time warmest month ever with an average temperature of 98.9 degrees and Tucson also had their warmest July ever at 91.5 degrees, breaking the previous warmest July by almost a full degree (90.6 degrees in 2005). Sitka, Alaska reached 88 degrees on July 31, tying an all-time record high originally set on July 30, 1976. Richland, Washington recorded 113 degrees on July 30, tying an all-time record high first achieved on August 5, 1961…

High Plains

Cooler than normal temperatures helped to slow down some of the drought development in the region this week. Temperatures were generally 2-4 degrees below normal, with pockets in Kansas that were 6-8 degrees below normal. Precipitation was mixed as areas of eastern Kansas, eastern Wyoming, central South Dakota, south central and southwest Nebraska and far southwest Kansas all had above-normal precipitation for the week with thunderstorm activity. Improvements to the moderate drought and abnormally dry conditions were made in southeast Kansas and central Nebraska. Moderate drought was expanded in the Nebraska panhandle and northeast Colorado while abnormally dry conditions were introduced here as well. A new area of severe drought was added in eastern Nebraska in response to dryness that has lingered in the region since last fall. Moderate drought was expanded in southeast Wyoming and abnormally dry conditions were expanded in northwest Wyoming…

West

Well above normal and record-setting temperatures continued in the region, with many areas 2-4 degrees or more above normal for the week. Much of the region was dry for the week with only some spotty precipitation in places; the bulk of the precipitation was in eastern New Mexico and southwest Colorado as the monsoon brought some relief to this region. The hot and dry conditions allowed for a full category degradation over much of Arizona and into portions of southern Nevada and southern California. Even with the rains in New Mexico, the issues related to drought continued and further degradation was shown in the north and southeast portions of the state this week as a mix of both short and long-term issues continue…

South

In typical summer fashion, precipitation was spotty through the region, with Oklahoma and Arkansas and into northern Texas recording the most widespread precipitation this week. Portions of the Texas panhandle and central into west Texas as well as eastern Arkansas and into Mississippi remained dry this week. Temperatures were 2-4 degrees below normal in Arkansas, Louisiana, western Mississippi, east Texas and north Texas. Portions of central Oklahoma were 6-8 degrees below normal for the week while much of west Texas was normal to 4-6 degrees above normal. Almost a full category improvement was made from central Oklahoma into northwest Arkansas in response to both the cooler temperatures and above-normal precipitation. Areas of southeast Texas were improved with both abnormally dry and moderate drought reduced. Areas of central and west Texas had degradation with an expansion and introduction of extreme drought in this region. Continued improvement occurred over the panhandle of Texas where rains have helped local conditions while neighboring counties saw degradation. Abnormally dry conditions were improved in Louisiana but were expanded in northern Mississippi…

Looking Ahead

Over the next 5-7 days, it is anticipated that the West remains dry with only light precipitation over portions of New Mexico and southeast Arizona and into the coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest. The greatest precipitation is anticipated over the Midwest and areas from Florida north along the East coast. Temperatures during this time will be warmest over the West with departures of 3-6 degrees above normal widespread over the Southwest and into the Rocky Mountains. Cooler than normal temperatures are projected over the lower Mississippi Valley with departures of up to 3 degrees below normal.

The 6-10 day outlooks show the greatest likelihood of above-normal temperatures over the areas east of the Rocky Mountains, with the greatest probabilities over southern New Mexico and the Great Lakes. There are also above-normal chances of below-normal temperatures over the west coast and into the Great Basin. The greatest chances of above-normal precipitation are over the eastern half of the country, centered on the Midwest, and also over the Pacific Northwest. The highest chances of below-normal precipitation are centered over Colorado and New Mexico and dominating the Rocky Mountain states and into the Plains.

US Drought Monitor one week change map ending August 4, 2020.

Hundreds of San Luis Valley farm wells at risk as state shortens deadline to repair #RioGrandeRiver — @WaterEdCO

A center pivot irrigates a field in the San Luis Valley, where the state is warming farmers that a well shut-down could come much sooner than expected. Credit: Jerd Smith via Water Education Colorado

From Water Education Colorado (Caitlin Coleman):

The race against time continues for farmers in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, with the state’s top water regulator warning that a decision on whether hundreds of farm wells will be shut off to help save the Rio Grande River could come much sooner than expected.

July 28, at a virtual symposium on the Rio Grande River, the state warned growers that they were running out of time to correct the situation.

“We’ll see in the next couple of years if we can turn around this trick,” said State Engineer Kevin Rein. “If we’re not turning it around, we need to start having that more difficult conversation.”

The valley is home to the nation’s second-largest potato economy and growers there have been working voluntarily for more than a decade to wean themselves from unsustainable groundwater use and restore flows in the Rio Grande. Thousands of acres of land have been dried up with farmers paying a fee for the water they pump in order to compensate producers who agree to fallow land.

Artesian well Dutton Ranch, Alamosa 1909 via the Crestone Eagle

The San Luis Valley, which receives less precipitation than nearly any other region in Colorado, is supplied by the Rio Grande, but under the river lies a vast aquifer system that is linked to the river. It once had so much water that artesian springs flowed freely on the valley floor.

As modern-day farmers began putting powerful deep wells into the aquifer, aquifer levels declined, and flows in the river declined too as a result, hurting the state’s ability to deliver Rio Grande water downstream to New Mexico and Texas, as it is legally required to do.

Between July 2019 and July 2020 the valley’s unconfined aquifer, which is fed by the Rio Grande River, dropped by 112,600 acre-feet. All told the aquifer has lost around 1 million acre-feet of water since the drought of 2002.

Through a plan written by growers in the valley and approved by the state in 2011, farmers had 20 years, from 2011 to 2031, to restore the aquifer. But multiple droughts in the past 19 years have made clear that the region can’t rely on big snow years to replenish the valley’s water supplies because there are fewer of them, thanks to climate change.

“So what is the future, the short-term future, if we can’t count on climate? And let’s admit we can’t,” Rein said. “If climate’s not cooperating the only thing that can be done is consuming less water.”

A powerful sprinkler capable of pumping more than 2,500 gallons of water per minute irrigates a farm field in the San Luis Valley June 6, 2019. Credit: Jerd Smith via Water Education Colorado

Adding to pressure on the region is a proposal by Denver developers to buy thousands of acres of the valley’s farm land, leaving some of the associated water rights behind to replenish the aquifer, while piping thousands of acre-feet of water northeast to the metro area.

Rein said drastic steps, like drying up more fields and sharply limiting how much growers can pump, are needed. But this could result in bankruptcies and could cripple the valley’s $370 million agriculture economy, which employs the majority of workers in the region. Worse still, though, would be the shutdown of all wells in the region, which is what could occur if farmers aren’t able to make progress toward aquifer sustainability.

While the deadline to restore the aquifer is set for 2031, if it becomes clear before then that growers aren’t able to restore groundwater levels, Rein will be forced to take action early by turning off all wells.

Rein said his decision likely won’t come as early as next year. But, he said, “Do we wait until 2031, the deadline? Probably not.”

The groundwater challenges and associated deadline stem from Colorado’s historic 2002 drought which led to more groundwater pumping than ever before and resulted in a falling water table, decreases in water pressure, and failing wells.

Groundwater declines have been so severe that they’ve affected surface water levels in parts of the valley. In 2004, state lawmakers passed a bill requiring the state to begin regulating the aquifer to make it more sustainable.

Landowners within the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) responded by forming a groundwater management district known as Subdistrict 1—that was just the first of what will soon be seven approved subdistricts.

Subdistrict 1 set goals and developed a plan of water management in late 2011 that spelled out how to reduce groundwater depletions and recharge the aquifer.

In 2012 they began paying a fee for every acre-foot of water used. That revenue helps pay irrigators who elect to participate in voluntary fallowing programs and other efforts to replenish the river and reduce stress on the aquifer.

Colorado Drought Monitor August 7, 2018.

And by 2017, irrigators had restored 350,000 acre-feet of water in the aquifer, halfway to their goal. But drought and disaster struck in 2018. With less surface water available and high temperatures, irrigators pumped heavily to maintain their crops. And by September 2018, farmers had lost about 70 percent of the groundwater gains they had worked so hard to recover.

“2018 was extremely frustrating,” said Cleave Simpson, manager of the RGWCD who is also a fourth-generation grower. ”It really kind of set us back to where we were when we started this in 2012.”

It’s not over yet. Some of that groundwater lost in 2018 has been recovered and this year participation in the fallowing program is higher than ever, with more than 13,000 acres enrolled, according to Amber Pacheco who manages the RGWCD’s subdistrict programs—that’s in addition to the 8,800 acres fallowed through the conservation programs that have been running since 2012.

Simpson and others, faced with another severe drought year, are deeply worried about the success of their conservation efforts, but dire times are also boosting motivation to solve the problem, Simpson said.

“There’s a sense of urgency from the board of managers that we’ve got to keep doing more,” Simpson said. “We’ve got to get back what we lost.”

Caitlin Coleman is the Headwaters magazine editor and communications specialist at Water Education Colorado. She can be reached at caitlin@wateredco.org.

San Luis Valley Groundwater

July 2020 #Drought update — @CWCB_DNR

Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (Megan Holcomb/Tracy Kosloff):

On June 22, 2020, Governor Polis activated the State Drought Mitigation and Response Plan and the supporting Drought- and Agricultural Impact Task Forces to respond to deepening drought conditions across the state. As of July 30th, dry conditions now cover 99.35% of the state with 83.72% in severe, extreme, or exceptional drought categories. To ​stay informed on the evolving 2020 drought season and response resources, please visit the Colorado Water Conservation Board ​drought website and submit questions on Twitter at ​@CO_H2O​ (observations, reports, or images can be tagged with #codrought2020).

Colorado Drought Monitor July 28, 2020.

The 90-day ​Standardized Precipitation Index​ (SPI) (April 21 to July 21) continues to show slightly below average moisture for nearly all of Colorado with deeper shortfalls now more prevalent in north central and front range mountains in addition to NE and SW corners.

El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) conditions now show borderline La Niña conditions, with the atmospheric response at weak La Niña or neutral. Sea surface temperature outlooks continue with equal chances neutral/La Niña in the fall and winter.
NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center’s ​three month outlook​ maps continue to show very high confidence for above average temperatures July through Sept. and a stronger chance for below average precipitation compared to last month.

The VegDri Index (a satellite derived product that looks at how well plants are photosynthesizing) shows a bullseye of severe drought conditions in the NE (see Aug 2 map to the right).

Reservoir storage​, fell 7% over the last month (now 93% of average) with slightly better than average storage in northern CO and below average in southern CO. The Rio Grande basin-wide storage is only 55% of average for this time of year, the lowest in the state.

Several municipal water providers are reporting above average demands (10-30% above avg) and increased concerns around the lack of precipitation.

Navajo Dam operations update: Releases to bump to 700 CFS August 7, 2020 #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Piute Farms waterfall. Photo credit: Bureau of Reclamation

From email from Reclamation (Susan Behery):

In response to decreasing flows and a hot and dry forecast weather pattern in the San Juan River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 700 cfs on Friday, August 7th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program has recommended base flows as close to 500 cfs as possible for the summer of 2020. This is within their normal recommended range of 500 to 1,000 cfs. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.