FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
A 2007 deal creating guidelines governing how Lake Powell and Lake Mead are operated in coordination isn’t scheduled to expire until 2026. But water officials in Colorado River Basin states are already beginning to talk about the renegotiations that will be undertaken to decide what succeeds the 2007 criteria.
“I think the guidelines have been a big success,” John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said Wednesday during the 10th annual Upper Colorado River Basin Water Forum. The forum is put on by Colorado Mesa University’s Ruth Powell Hutchins Water Center and this year is taking place online due to the pandemic.
The 2007 criteria dictate how much water must be released each year from Powell into Mead, in an effort to equalize water levels in the two reservoirs. The criteria are important to Colorado and other states in the Upper Colorado River Basin because those states rely on Powell water storage for meeting long-term delivery obligations to downstream states based on a 1922 interstate compact.
Amy Haas, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, which represents Upper Basin states, said she thinks the 2007 guidelines have reduced the “safe yield” of water for the Upper Basin. Even with low inflows into Powell, the guidelines resulted in releases of 9 million acre-feet a year of water from Powell every year from 2015-19, compared to the 8.3 million acre-feet negotiated average minimum objective, she said.
Entsminger called that a simplistic analysis that cherry-picks data. He says his entity’s modeling indicates that under the 2007 criteria there is more water in Powell and less in Mead than otherwise would have been the case.
Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said that with the guidelines in places, Powell water levels largely have remained around 50% of capacity “through some horrendously dry years” and only three or four years of above-average inflows.
The criteria encourage water conservation and provide rules for determining water shortages and reducing water use by Arizona and Nevada.
Entsminger said the 2007 agreement increased cooperation and communication among states in the river basin, provided certainty by operating the two reservoirs together, and headed off litigation only two years after states were close to going to the Supreme Court over river water issues…
Those states are evaluating the possibility of demand management measures to temporarily curtail agricultural, municipal and other use during droughts. The goal is to bolster Powell levels with water that could be reserved for compact delivery obligations. But Haas said it’s important to assess the risk of curtailment of Upper Basin uses occurring as well. Such a curtailment has never happened.
The “bathtub ring” at Lake Powell evidences lower flows coming into the reservoir. According to preliminary data from the Bureau of Reclamation, the total inflow into Lake Powell for the 2020 water year was about 6 million acre-feet, just 55% of average. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The white bathtub ring along Lake Mead reflects the effects of years of drought in the Colorado River Basin. Source: Water Education Foundation
Between the lack of moisture this spring, summer and fall, rising temperatures and a heads-up statewide wildfire season, the Gunnison Valley continues to feel the severe effects of drought as we head into what’s expected to be a warmer than average winter season.
According to the United States Drought Monitor’s latest update…every region of Colorado is currently in at least moderate drought, with more than 21 percent of the state in the most severe “exceptional” category. The last time the entire state of Colorado had been in drought was July 2013. Most of Gunnison County is one level below, in “extreme” drought, with the northwestern tip in the “exceptional” category.
Water availability is a growing concern as we experience less and less precipitation and rising temps. Due to such dry soil moisture conditions and early warm temperatures this past spring, last winter’s average snowpack dried up very quickly and the water supply in Gunnison County “was literally disappearing before our very eyes,” said Sonja Chavez, general manager for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD).
According to Chavez, peak water flows occurred about two weeks early and quickly fell. Blue Mesa’s projected max fill capacity this summer was approximately 604,000 acre-feet, only about 72 percent of maximum capacity. The Taylor Reservoir’s highest fill this summer was about 80,000 acre-feet, only about 75 percent to 80 percent full.
“We knew things were really dry and we knew we weren’t going to have a lot of water, and were likely going to have a deficit at the end of the year,” said Chavez. So the UGRWCD, in partnership with the Taylor Local Users Group (TLUG), made the decision to forego typical fall water releases from Taylor Reservoir in order to provide enough water for water users this summer.
This, said Chavez, meant agricultural water users would finish their only hay crop of the season, forego any potential second cut and not put fall water on their fields. “Upper Gunnison users had to go into their irrigation season having less water available to them,” said Chavez, which will then affect their crop supply. Bill Trampe of the Colorado River District estimates that hay crops around Gunnison were at 50 percent to 60 percent of normal.
The water adjustments were also intended to let recreational water users make the most of a limited seasonal water supply. But the lower water levels limited the boating season, impacted water temperatures in the fisheries and ended up funneling anglers to certain segments of the rivers. This then put more pressure and impact on those river sections experiencing higher concentrations of people…
Even though Colorado already experienced a couple of early wet snow storms this fall, bringing a little moisture to our soils and helping to tame the wildfires, Chavez said the combination of warm weather in between storms and already dry soils are not reassuring looking ahead to 2021. “The soils are like a sponge,” she said. “If the soils are wet going into winter and the water freezes and stays there, the soils will melt come spring and help get the crops going. But if you don’t have that and you go into the next season dry, it’s much harder to fill that crop.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) annual winter outlook calls for a drier-than-average and warmer than average winter season in Colorado, especially for the southern half of the state. This, according to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL), will likely lead to an escalation of the drought we are experiencing.
Researchers from OU and the University of Colorado at Boulder are working together by using drones to study how storms form in coastal urban areas to help improve weather forecasting.
This team of researchers wants to better understand how storms form through the relationship between atmospheric circulations, according to an OU press release. Atmospheric circulations are the winds driven by changes in temperature and pressure, and particles in the air, known as aerosols, and convection.
“By deploying a fleet of remotely piloted aircraft systems in the Houston, Texas, area, we will gain valuable insight to improve the ability for computers to predict how and why storms will form so that meteorologists can provide better warnings in advance of dangerous hail, flash flooding or high winds,” Liz Pillar-Little, OU’s Center for Autonomous Sensing and Sampling assistant director and College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences research scientist, said in the release.
The release reads Houston is an excellent location to study these processes due to the interactions between different air masses, which have been observed previously to induce or enhance storm formation.
In the release, Pillar-Little said “mid-latitude” storm systems can produce severe storms with flooding, strong wind and lightning. The physics behind this is hard to represent in models, she said.
“Like a pot of water coming to boil, convection is the transfer of heat from a warmer area to a cooler one,” Pillar-Little said in the release. “The combination of these atmospheric circulations and aerosols in coastal urban environments, like Houston, can drive convective processes by which big storms are created.”
The team involved in this study includes researchers from OU’s CASS, along with scientists from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder and the Integrated Remote and In-Situ Sensing Laboratory, according to the release.
As wildfires, avalanches and drought increase in intensity, worried city managers are planning and budgeting for better water systems and backup sources.
Communities across Colorado are…problems linked to a changing climate, from forest fires to drought. They are also already spending money on solutions to address them.
It cost Summit County nearly $88,000 to dig out from under historic avalanches in 2019 and in Carbondale the year before, low stream flows imperiled the town’s water supply spurring a $600,000 water system upgrade.
“The impacts are very real and lived and are concretely affecting communities,” said Jacob Smith, executive director of Colorado Communities for Climate Action, a coalition of 34 local governments promoting state climate policies…
At the moment, Colorado finds itself grappling with its worst wildfire season ever. Hundreds of thousands of acres burned in eight significant fires this fall, including the three largest on record, as all of the state drifted into drought status for the first time since 2013…
Over the past few decades, forest fires have been more frequent and larger in a hotter, drier West. This year’s unparalleled wildfire season Colorado coincided with the state’s warmest August on record.
Studies have shown that average summer temperatures in Colorado have risen by more than 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1986. The growing heat creates drier soils, lower snowpack, earlier thaws, lower stream flows.
All those add up to increased risk of wildfires and, according to one study, added 26 days to the average fire season in the West between 1979 and 2015, a 41% increase.
There are serious risks when wildfires fires damage or destroy the watersheds towns and cities rely upon for their drinking water.
“Burned watersheds are prone to increased flooding and erosion, which can impair water-supply reservoirs, water quality, and drinking-water treatment processes,” according to the U.S. Geological Service.
The 2010 Fourmile Canyon fire, for example, burned just 23% of the watershed near Boulder, still a USGS study found that after severe thunderstorms the water heading to the city’s water treatment plant was laden with mud, nutrients and metals – some at levels four times normal.
After the High Park fire burned more than 87,000 acres in Larimer County in 2012, the Poudre River ran black after heavy rains and choked the intake pipes of Fort Collins’ water treatment plant. The water smelled and tasted like smoke.
The city now has sensors in 10 locations in the Upper Poudre to alert the treatment plan if there is a water quality problem and Fort Collins Utilities runs an average of 110 lab tests a day on its water.
Fort Collins is now “very concerned” about the Cameron Peak fire, the state’s largest fire ever, burning west of the city, Gretchen Stanford, a utility spokeswoman, said in an email…
Horsetooth Reservoir is out of commission for upgrades, leaving it only with Poudre River water. Stanford said processes are in place to deal with any water quality, odor or taste problems.
And the effects of these fires can last for years. Five years after the 2002 Hayman Fire, Denver Water was still dealing with water quality problems created by the wildfire, including a $30 million project to remove tons of sediment from the Strontia Springs Reservoir…
A warming world will create drier soils, more evaporation and more water sucked up by plants and all that led to lower stream flows, according to several scientific studies.
“There is no question that climate change is affecting stream flow,” said Brad Udall, a senior researcher at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Institute.
Heat, not a lack of precipitation, was the key driver in a 20% decline in Colorado River flow between 2000 and 2014, compared to 20th century averages, and if the current trends continue, it will decline another 20% by 2050, according to a study co-authored by Udall.
Since 2000, the Roaring Fork’s streamflow has been about 13% lower than the 20th century average, according to a study done for Carbondale by the Western Water Assessment, an affiliate of the University of Colorado.
The study found that while there was no appreciable change in the average snow and rainfall the average temperature for the area increased 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average.
That trend is projected to continue. “All climate models indicate that the climate of the Roaring Fork Valley will continue to warm well into the 21st century. Under the lower-emissions scenario, by 2050, average temperatures are projected to be 3-5°F warmer than the late-20th century average,” the study said…
The Carbondale and Glenwood Springs water projects are a sign of things to come. “What people are looking for now is redundancy, multiple sources of water supply,” Udall said. “One source, one pipeline has become a risk. It’s like betting on one stock.”
It is not only low stream flows but the timing of those flows that are presenting problems for some communities, such as Northglenn.
“Climate change isn’t going to impact Northglenn from a quantity perspective, but from a timing perspective,” said Tamara Moon, the city’s environmental manager. “The city has water rights that come into priority in the fall and rights in late May and early June. A concern is we may not have the availability of water in the fall that we have now.”
Northglenn’s worries are prompted by three trends associated with climate change: lower snowpack, earlier thaws and hotter summers. They could add up to less water in the fall.
One study led by John Abatzoglou, a University of Idaho geography professor, used 20 different climate models and federal data on snowpack to assess potential changes and projected a 5% to 20% decline in snow levels in the central and southern Rockies by 2050.
The snow season will also shorten, with more precipitation coming as rain instead of snow and earlier thaws of the snowpack, according to the study. All this could change the timing and availability of water supplies creating a need for alternative supplies or more storage.
“It is entirely possible if the runoff is early, we may not get our full quantity,” Moon said, “and in dry years we may not get the fall water.”
This scenario has Northglenn looking for ways to capture and store more water during the spring.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission also gave initial approval to a rule requiring companies and regulators to assess the cumulative impacts of oil and gas development locally and on a broader scale. The COGCC and other state agencies will evaluate the ongoing effects on air and water quality, greenhouse gas emissions and provide reports.
The rules, up for a final vote Nov. 20, are part of the implementation of Senate Bill 181, a 2019 law mandating that oil and gas be regulated in a way that protects public health, safety and the environment.
The provisions on flaring and venting prohibit routine releases of natural gas from oil and gas equipment. Alaska is the only other state that bans the releases, said Dan Grossman, the regional director of the Environmental Defense Fund…
Efforts to prevent the flaring and venting of natural gas from wells have taken on urgency as the impacts of climate change have intensified. Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas and is 84 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat over the short term.
Flaring and venting also emit nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds, which contribute to ground-level ozone pollution…
The World Bank says four countries — Russia, Iran, Iraq and the U.S. — are responsible for nearly half of the gas flaring worldwide. Flaring in the U.S. rose 48% from 2017 to 2018, according to the World Bank. Activity in North Dakota’s Bakken oil and field and the Permian Basin in southeastern New Mexico and Texas accounted for the overwhelming majority of the flaring, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
In Colorado, companies must submit a form seeking permission to vent and flare and must regularly report the volumes of gas.
Under the new rules, companies will have to ship the gas in a pipeline or put it to some kind of beneficial use, such as generating energy. Operators can seek approval of flaring or venting gas under certain conditions and must notify regulators.
Companies will have a year to submit plans to bring existing sites into compliance. Environmental and community groups argued that a six-month grace period was long enough because the COGCC made it clear a year ago that the change was likely.
The industry argued for consistency between the COGCC and the Air Quality Control Commission, which also regulates oil and gas, said Carrie Hackenberger, associate director of the American Petroleum Institute-Colorado. She said after discussions and input from the various parties, the industry “is largely OK with where the rules ended up.”
Most of Colorado’s oil- and gas-producing areas have pipelines and other infrastructure to transport natural gas. One exception is Jackson County in northern Colorado, where drilling has grown the past few years.
Barbara Vasquez has lived in Jackson County since 2005. She said the amount of natural gas being flared has substantially increased. Large combustion units are used to flare the gas.