This year, Colorado has seen the two worst fires in its history. On top of this, the dust levels in the Great Plains have doubled in the past 20 years. Both are examples of the real impacts of global warming and the changing of our climate…
The Cameron Peak fire soon after it started on Aug. 13, 2020. By Sept. 11, the fire had grown to more than 102,000 acres (now >200,000 acres) and was not expected to be considered out until Oct. 31. Photo credit: InciWeb via The Colorado Sun
East Troublesome Fire. Photo credit: Brad White via The Mountain Town News
Scenes of the CalWood Oct. 17, 2020 (Jivan West/CU Independent)
It’s November, and the Colorado fires are still not out. According to the Denver Post the East Troublesome Fire, the second-largest fire in Colorado’s history, has burned 193,812 acres and was only 47 percent contained. The Cameron Peak Fire, the largest in Colorado’s history has burned 208, 913 acres and as of November 5 was 92 percent contained with ongoing investigations of the fire…
There are currently seven active wildfires across Colorado. The fire season is in part due to the compound issue of short-term natural climate variability layered with fundamental changes to the long-term climate from global warming. According to the Colorado Climate Center, Colorado is experiencing a drought for the first time since 2013. Fully 97 percent of the state is in exceptional, extreme, or severe drought categories.
The senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University, Brad Udall told CBS News “This year was shocking because we had a decent winter and on April 1, we had 100 percent of the snowpack. With 100 percent of snowpack, you’d expect a decent runoff year. Instead, we ended up with 52 percent of what is normal.”
This water runoff is important because how quickly it melts determines water availability for soil and vegetation. The decrease in runoff is due to an increase in evaporation brought on by significant heatwaves in the state.
The high country isn’t the only landscape impacted by rising temperatures and climate change. In October, a storm reminiscent of the dust bowl swept across the Great Plains creating a wall of dust that could be seen from space stretching from eastern Colorado into Nebraska and Kansa.
A study conducted by Gannet Haller, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah, explained that these dust storms have become more common and more intense over the past 20 years, due to frequent droughts and the expansion of croplands. Haller even went as far as to say that the result of this study suggests a tipping point that mirrors the return of conditions of the 1930s dust bowl.
These dust storms remove soil nutrients and decrease agricultural productivity while also presenting health hazards, according to Andy Lambert the co-author of the study and a meteorologist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. This dust contains ultrafine particles that can penetrate cells in the lungs, impacting people with long conditions like Asthma, and causing cancer and heart disease.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Water and Climate Center’s snowpack report, the Wolf Creek Summit, at 11,000 feet of elevation, had 8.1 inches of snow water equivalent as of 2 p.m. on Nov. 11.
That amount is 169 percent of the Nov. 11 median for the site.
The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River Basins were at 148 percent of the Nov. 11 median in terms of snowpack.
With more winter storms rolling through Pagosa Springs and the surrounding areas, the San Juan River flow spiked to over 300 cfs on Nov. 8. As of 2 p.m. on Nov. 11, the river flow at the U.S. Geological Survey station in Pagosa Springs was listed at 58.1 cfs.
Based on 84 years of water records, the average flow rate for this date is listed at 99 cfs.
The highest recorded rate for this date was in 1987 at 340 cfs. The lowest recorded rate was 13 cfs, recorded in 1951.
From the San Juan Water Conservancy District (Al Pfister) via the The Pagosa Daily Post:
As is custom and per State procedures, the San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) is in the process of developing our 2021 budget.
Our draft 2021 budget sets the framework for our activities in the coming year. In an effort to better communicate with our district taxpayers as to how we can provide the appropriate amounts of water under wet and drought conditions, we are inviting you to a public meeting and hearing on November 16, 2020 at 5:00pm via ZOOM to discuss our proposed 2021 budget.
We have developed our proposed 2021 budget to be used to set the framework for activities that we will implement in the accomplishment of our mission. Our mission is to ensure water resources are available for beneficial use to those who do provide water (such as the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District) for the community. This may come in the form of consumptive uses like agriculture, municipal, fire protection, and industrial pursuits. This may also mean non-consumptive uses such as recreational, wildlife habitat, and aesthetics.
Our main focus with the 2021 budget will be implementation of our Strategic Plan that will deal with the challenge of serving the water needs of the majority of Archuleta County. We look forward to seeing and hearing from you on November 16. If you would like more information or want to discuss the budget and associated issues, please contact me or any board member whose contact info is listed on our website — http://www.sjwcd.org — under the “About Us” tab. The website also has the draft 2021 budget, our draft Strategic Plan, the meeting agenda, and the ZOOM information.
Accomplishment of our mission must take place in accordance with Colorado water law (including the prior appropriation doctrine), and following the direction set forth in the Colorado State Water Plan.
The Colorado Water Plan (Plan) was completed in 2015 and is based on three foundational elements: interstate compacts and equitable apportionment decrees (ie. each of the States are entitled to a certain amount of water as detailed in the respective compacts), Colorado water law, and local control. The Plan is the result of several years of statewide collaborative efforts and discussions about how the water needs of Colorado residents and downstream users will be met. “It sets forth the measurable objectives, goals, and actions by which Colorado will address its projected future water needs and measure its progress- all built on our shared values”. As a headwaters state we need to be actively involved in ensuring our water needs and rights are met, while also complying with interstate compacts.
The San Juan River, and its tributaries, contribute water needed to comply with local water rights user’s needs, as well as several interstate compacts (Colorado River Compact 1922, Rio Grande River Compact 1938, Upper Colorado River Compact 1948, others). Admittedly, how all these water rights needs are met is a very complex and confusing scenario, under which SJWCD is charged with accomplishing our mission under State statute. Nonetheless, the Water District is responsible for ensuring the conditional water rights owned by the District taxpayers are utilized to meet our shared water needs. In order for the District to better understand how the District’s taxpayers want that to happen, we need your input.
We hope to finalize our Strategic Plan that outlines our implementation of the statewide Plan in the next couple months.
Al Pfister is Board President for the San Juan Water Conservancy District.
It has been a rough year for operations at the Shoshone hydropower plant in Glenwood Canyon.
First, ice jammed the plant’s spillway in February, damaging equipment that required repair. The plant came back online in July but was able to generate electricity for only a few weeks before the Grizzly Peak Fire burned down its transmission lines.
According to the plant’s owner, Xcel Energy, the electricity impacts of the outages at the 15-megawatt generating station have been minimal, and the utility expects the plant to go back online this week. But while the electric grid can manage without the plant, the outage presents a much bigger threat to the flows on the Colorado River because the plant has senior water rights dating to 1902.
This means that any water users upstream with junior rights — which includes utilities such as Denver Water that divert water to the Front Range — have to leave enough water in the river to meet the plant’s water right of 1,250 cubic feet per second when the plant is running. When the Shoshone makes a call, the water makes its way through the plant’s turbines and goes downstream, filling what would otherwise often be a nearly dry section of river down toward Grand Junction.
A Shoshone call keeps the river flowing past the point where it would otherwise be diverted, supporting downstream water uses that would otherwise be impossible on this stretch of river. But when the plant is down, as it has been for most of 2020, that call is not guaranteed.
“Historically, what the Shoshone plant has done is kept a steady baseflow, which makes it easier for irrigators down here to be able to divert their own water right,” said Kirsten Kurath, a lawyer for the Grand Valley Water Users Association, which represents agricultural water users. “When the river goes up and down, it takes a lot of operational effort.”
The Shoshone water right also supports important nonconsumptive water uses. It provides critical flows needed for fish habitat and supports a robust whitewater-rafting industry in Glenwood Canyon. When the river drops too much below 1,250 cfs, it can create for a slow and bumpy ride.
“Customers get off and think, ‘Ugh, it would have been more fun to go to Disneyland,’ ” said David Costlow, the executive director of the Colorado River Outfitters Association. “Much lower and you are really scraping down that river and at some point you just pull the plug.”
The nearly year-long outages at Shoshone have many on the river worried. When the plant is down for repairs or maintenance, it does not make its call on the river allowing users upstream — including those that pipe water to the Front Range — to begin diverting. The Shoshone call can be the difference between the water remaining on the Western Slope or being diverted to the Front Range. Long outages, such as this one, reveal the vulnerability of the water on which so many rely.
“It’s a critically important component to the way that the Colorado main stem water regime has developed over more than a century now,” said Peter Fleming, the general counsel for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “It’s sort of the linchpin or the bottom card.”
Water interests on the Western Slope have made some headway in recent years to maintain the status quo on the river even when Shoshone is down. Most of the major junior water-rights holders upstream of the plant — including Denver Water, Aurora and the Colorado Big Thompson Project — have signed on to the Shoshone Outage Protocol (SHOP). When the protocol goes into effect, as it has this year, these diverters have agreed to manage their diversions as if the Shoshone Plant — and the call — was online.
The agreement has been in operation for about a decade, helping to maintain flows during periods where the plant has undergone repairs or maintenance. The agreement was formalized in 2016 with a 40-year term. While the outage protocol has staved off major drops in the Colorado River flow over the years, the agreement is not as secure as water users that rely on Shoshone’s flows would prefer.
“SHOP is the best alternative that we have right now, but it doesn’t completely restore the flows,” said Kurath. “And one of the other problems right now is that it’s not permanent.”
For water users downstream of Shoshone, SHOP has three major issues. First, it is only guaranteed for 40 years, which for water planners is considered a short time frame. Second, the agreement does not include every upstream diverter, meaning that it doesn’t completely restore the flows to the levels where they would be if the Shoshone plant were on. Third, the agreement allows some of its signatories to ignore SHOP under certain water-shortage scenarios.
Despite the drought this year, the conditions never reached a point where SHOP’s signatories were able to opt out of the protocol, so the agreement went into effect when river levels dropped. But even though SHOP worked this year, the long outages at the Shoshone plant highlight the uncertainty of the plant’s future.
“We’ve always been nervous about it,” Fleming said. “It’s an aging facility, it doesn’t produce a ton of power, and we don’t know how long it’s going to be a priority to maintain and operate.”
The River District has been working to negotiate a more permanent solution for the Shoshone water rights for years. They have considered everything — from trying to buy the Shoshone plant outright to negotiating with diverters on the river to make something such as SHOP permanent.
The Shoshone outages have given these efforts renewed importance. In a recent board meeting of the River District, Fleming said that resuming talks with Denver Water that had stalled during the pandemic is a top priority.
While Fleming would not elaborate on the specifics of the ongoing negotiations, all options have the potential to impact many water users on the river — even those who aren’t at the negotiating table.
“We don’t approach this like we have water rights that we don’t have,” Costlow said. “But our business depends on water, and it depends on water levels that make water fun.”
This story ran in the Nov. 13 edition of The Aspen Times.