Dry conditions are the worst they’ve been in almost 20 years across the Colorado River watershed, which acts as the drinking and irrigation water supply for 40 million people in the American Southwest.
As the latest round of federal forecasts for the river’s flow shows, it’s plausible, maybe even likely, that the situation could get much worse this year.
Understanding and explaining the depth of the dryness is up to climate scientists throughout the basin. We called several of them and asked for discrete numbers that capture the current state of the Colorado River basin.
Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS.
1. 84% of Upper Basin in extreme to exceptional drought
This is the highest percentage of land in the river’s Upper Basin since 2002, which stands as the region’s driest year on record. The Lower Basin fares worse, with 93% of the land area in those categories…
Nancy Selover, Arizona’s state climatologist, says the Upper Basin figure is concerning because that accounts for the river’s headwaters. If it’s dry there, that means many more problems as the water flows downstream.
“This is when we’re supposed to be gaining and accumulating water in the form of snowpack, and that’s not happening,” Selover said.
Conditions have been deteriorating across the river basin since the summer of 2020. Monsoon rains didn’t arrive. Record-breaking high temperatures dragged well into fall. Even hardy desert plants, the ones well-adapted to water scarcity, have struggled…
2. Three exceptional droughts in 20 years
Exceptional drought is a category that is supposed to capture the severity and frequency of an extended dry period. Climate scientists call it D4. For context, on the scale of “no drought” to “worst drought,” there’s no category that captures conditions more dry than exceptional.
“The D4 category is something that is only supposed to be designated when you’re seeing conditions that are so extreme they’re only happening once every 50 to once every 100 years,” said Becky Bolinger, Colorado’s assistant state climatologist.
The Colorado River basin has experienced three D4 droughts in the last 20 years, including the current one. 2002, 2018 and 2021 are the most intense dry periods on record for the basin.
“The droughts that we are seeing are becoming that much more severe because of the temperature component, they’re warmer,” Bolinger said…
3. A 12-inch deficit
The dryness is currently off the charts in parts of the watershed. Both Utah and Nevada experienced their driest years on record in 2020. Every other state in the watershed had one of its top five driest years on record.
Climatologist Jon Meyer with the Utah Climate Center said the number that captures the severity for him is 12 inches.
“That’s about the amount of water that our soils are behind in terms of what they normally would have,” Meyer said.
That deficit is about the same amount of precipitation that falls across Utah in an entire year. A year’s worth of rain and snow is missing from Utah’s ground…
4. Colorado River reservoirs at 46% capacity
The Colorado River system’s reservoirs combined are currently less than half full. Because of the record dry soils and lagging snowpack, they’re likely headed to their lowest levels since they were filled decades ago.
“These reservoirs are as empty now as when they started filling Glen Canyon Dam in the 1960s,” said John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s water resources program.
The low levels aren’t just causing hand-wringing among the West’s water officials. The dropping water and the reservoirs’ expanding bathtub rings are also tied to policy. As Lake Mead outside Las Vegas and Lake Powell in Utah decline, certain policies are triggered into action. Drought contingency plans for the Upper and Lower Basin are now in use.
The Lower Basin states of Arizona and Nevada have begun to see their deliveries from the river curtailed. Those cutbacks are likely to grow steeper in 2021. An official shortage declaration from the federal government could come as early as this year, as Lake Mead is currently projected to be below 1,075 feet in elevation at the end of 2021.
Meanwhile, Lake Powell’s projected decline in 2021 recently triggered the Upper Basin plan to be used for the first time. Water managers in the four Upper Basin states and the federal government are expected to start monthly planning calls this year to consider options for propping up the reservoir if needed…
5. A deadline in 2026
With the reservoirs approaching their lowest levels in modern history, that brings us to our final number: 2026.
That year is the deadline for water users to negotiate a new set of managing guidelines for the Colorado River.
“The challenges are really hard,” Fleck said. “And it’s easy to put them off if you get a wet year. The dry years are what force the really important steps forward in the policy community.”
The negotiations promise to be a more intense process than the basin saw in the lead-up to the last set of guidelines in 2007, or the effort to bring together drought contingency plans in 2019. Federal and state officials have committed to a more inclusive process that integrates the needs of tribes, environmental and recreation groups, and Mexico.
Meanwhile, climate change is adding pressure to the entire river system, exacerbating existing supply and demand imbalances.
Extremely dry years that produce eye-popping statistics tend to grab officials by the shoulders and give them a good shake. That’s important for the entire region, Fleck said, because the backdrop of an impending crisis will set the tone for those negotiations. For those talks to start in the middle of another record-breaking dry period should make it clear to everyone involved: the future of the Colorado River is all about learning to live with less.
Pagosa Country received nearly 20 inches of snow throughout the past week.
As of 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 27, Wolf Creek Ski Area reported 51 inches of new snow received over the previous seven days. The recent storms put the ski area at 228 inches of total snowfall received so far this season…
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 20.4 inches of snow water equivalent as of 2 p.m. on Jan. 27.
That amount is 102 percent of the Jan. 27 median for this site.
The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River basins were at 79 percent of the Jan. 27 median in terms of snowpack.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the San Juan River was flowing at a rate of 37 cfs in Pagosa Springs as of 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 27.
Based on 85 years of water records at this site, the average flow rate for this date is 58 cfs.
The highest recorded rate for this date was in 2005 at 152 cfs. The lowest recorded rate was 22 cfs, recorded in 1990.
The Piedra River was flowing at a rate of just under 50 cfs near Arboles as of Monday, Jan. 25. An instantaneous value was unavailable for Jan. 27.
Based on 58 years of water records at this site, the average flow rate for Jan. 27 is 75 cfs.
The highest recorded rate was 287 cfs in 2005. The lowest recorded rate was 18.6 in 2003.
From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Chris Mannara) [I could not find a deep link]:
The Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) approved changes to non-rate revenues and set the schedule of fees and charges for 2021 at a meeting on Jan. 14.
According to agenda documentation, most of the non-rate revenues are related to changes that have been made to service charges.
Changes that are highlighted include changes to water and wastewater connections, which, according to agenda documentation, vary annually depending upon quotes received for applicable equipment inside the meter pit, inside the pit, and the cost of the radio read equipment.
Additionally, equity buy-in fees were recalculated according to a prescribed formula, with water equity buy-in fees decreasing by $106 and wastewater equity buy-in fees going down by $102 as a result of “no major additions to assets and ongoing depreciation.”
Within the changes, water equity buy-in fees will go from $5,044 to $4,938 per equivalent unit (EU). Wastewater equity buy-in fees will go from $3,897 to $3,795 per EU.
Wastewater equity buy-in fees will go from $3,897 to $3,795 per EU.
The affordable housing water surcharge will increase from $0.68 to $0.69 and the standard three-quarter inch meter will go from $1,475 per connection to $1,550.
The water system capital investment fee will increase from $4,898 per EU to $5,045 per EU. The wastewater system capital investment fee will increase from $1,079 per EU to $1,111 per EU.
Additionally, the water model data use fee will go from $62 per EU to $62.25, with the max increasing from $6,200 to $6,225.
For raw water charges, the annual rate will increase from $145 per EU to $154 per EU…
Additional changes include an increase in potable water fill station and treated water tanker charges from $1.02 per 100 gallons to $1.08 per 100 gallons.
Prohibitive discharge inspection fees are going to increase from $50 to $55 per inspection and the tax replication fee is going to increase from $10.76 to $13.15.
Aurora Water, the city’s water utility, will co-chair the regional group.
Spokesperson Greg Baker said it’s still too early to tell whether Aurora Water’s vast network of reservoirs and sources will lose enough water to trigger use restrictions in city limits. So far, dry soils, low snowpack and extreme drought conditions in much of the state aren’t painting the picture of a summer flush with water…
The utility and others are banking on big snow-makers hitting the mountains in the spring, which tremendously benefit water networks in high river basins…
Currently, Aurora Water has about two years of water supply stored in various reservoirs and facilities. The utility usually hopes for a three-year supply in storage, and low levels may trigger restrictions, Baker said.
Aurora Water would make a decision to restrict water usage in April, Baker said. Until then, water managers have their fingers crossed for big storms in April and May, which can make the difference between a flush and lean water year for Front Range suburbanites.
The water utility last cut water usage in April 2013, according to Baker. That September, the bizarre “1,000-year flood” clobbered Front Range communities in Boulder, Jamestown and Lyons.
Baker noted that, with climate change, extreme weather events are more commonplace.
“You have extreme drought followed by extreme precipitation,” he said. “So managing that is a bigger challenge.”
FromThe Colorado Sun (Andy Mueller, Bob Wolff, Jim Lochhead, CEO, Brad Wind, Marshall Brown, Earl Wilkinson III, Seth Clayton, Kevin Lusk, James Broderick):
We may not always agree on the particulars of water policy and water use in the Centennial State, but we all recognize the importance of the Colorado River to our statewide economy and our Colorado way of life. The Colorado River is arguably the single most important natural resource to the State of Colorado. It powers economies on both sides of the Continental Divide. It provides food and fiber to the nation and the world from both sides of the Divide. And its fate will determine our own.
Colorado’s constitution and our state’s laws have long recognized one simple truth: The waters that originate in our great state are the property of the public. The people of Colorado have the right to appropriate and use that water for beneficial uses, such as municipal, irrigation, industrial and recreation. Long excluded from the list of beneficial uses of water is holding water for speculation. Our state supreme court has ruled unconstitutional any scheme that “would encourage those with vast monetary resources to monopolize, for personal profit rather than for beneficial use…”
Recently we have seen a series of articles and opinion pieces discussing and even advocating for the potential influx of financial capital from out of state investment funds to buy water from Colorado’s vibrant farms and ranches with the apparent aim of “solving” Colorado’s drought problems.
This is not the first time we have seen venture capital eyeing our state’s water resources. This time around, however, the investors and their representatives are posturing to portray themselves as the only solution to a climate change driven reduction in the flows of our rivers. We have come together to set the record straight on this misguided concept.
Our organizations and the water users we represent are working collaboratively with the State of Colorado to examine solutions to the threat of water shortages brought on by a changing climate and prolonged overuse of the River’s water by downstream states. Together, we are exploring a multi-faceted effort to secure our state’s water supply and protect irrigation for food product, our thriving communities and the environment that depend on this water. Among these approaches is the feasibility of a proposed “demand management” program to temporarily compensate water users in Colorado and other Upper Basin states to reduce their use of water to assure that we are able to meet our obligations under the Colorado River Compact.
Demand management is complex. It is controversial. But we are approaching these conversations in good faith because we recognize that we must work together to protect the economies and livelihoods supported by the Colorado River throughout the entire state. Since solutions to our water challenges must be undertaken for the benefit of the state as a whole, these efforts must be led by the state. The Colorado Water Conservation Board articulated a set of guiding principles for this process in November 2018, principles with which we agree.
One thing is clear. There is no place for private for-profit interests in this process. Moreover, private sector entities do not have the legal ability or authority to manage water across state lines or through federally owned reservoirs. This can be done only by the states and the federal government. Colorado state government has a long history of opposing interstate marketing and transfers of water by private interests, and that opposition should continue.
The introduction of private investors in our statewide water planning efforts will only serve to further exacerbate the water divisions that exist between our urban areas and our irrigated agricultural communities on both sides of the Continental Divide. Our state must stand strong together to protect our Colorado way of life.
Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District
Bob Wolff, president, Southwestern Water Conservation District
Jim Lochhead, CEO, Denver Water
Brad Wind, general manager, Northern Water
Marshall Brown, general manager, Aurora Water
Earl Wilkinson III, chief water services officer, Colorado Springs Utilities
Seth Clayton, executive director, Pueblo Water
Kevin Lusk, president, Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.
James Broderick, executive director, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District
FromThe Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo) via The Cortez Journal:
In recent weeks, much attention has been focused on an issue not new to officials in the water world: private interests or hedge funds purchasing water rights from agricultural communities and diverting that water to cities.
An open letter from almost 10 water officials from across the state, including the local Southwestern Water Conservation District, lashes out against the practice, saying, “waters that originate in our great state are the property of the public.”
“The people of Colorado have the right to appropriate and use that water for beneficial uses, such as municipal, irrigation, industrial and recreation,” the letter, sent Thursday, says.
The open letter is largely in response to a Jan. 3 article in The New York Times called “Wall Street Eyes Billions in the Colorado’s Water,” which says private investors may become more of a force in the political water world.
The article cites several examples of private investors purchasing water rights from ranches, and then diverting it to cities to feed new developments or subdivisions in drought-strapped places.
Several private equity owners argue the practice could be one of the solutions to curb the impacts of climate change that has resulted in drought and less available water throughout the West.
In one stance, Greenstone, a private investment firm, bought most of the water rights in Cibola, Arizona, and then sold the rights to a suburb of Phoenix known as Queen Creek, 175 miles away.
“One of the things I think we’ve learned over time is that a resource like water is best allocated through kind of a combination of market forces and regulatory oversight,” Grady Gammage, a spokesman for Greenstone, said in the article…
The practice has been more common in urban areas along the Front Range or near Phoenix, and the issue hasn’t reared its head quite yet in Southwest Colorado, according to several water officials interviewed for this story.
Robert Genualdi, Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 7 engineer, which covers Durango, said there are several key distinctions why the hedge funds of Wall Street haven’t set their sights on local waterways.
For one, in most places along the Front Range where it is happening, the waterways are over-appropriated and there is not enough water to go around to serve new developments or subdivisions.
As a result, entities looking for water for urban areas seek out farm and ranch owners who may be interested in selling their rights. Then, the developers use that water for their projects and let the farms go fallow, known as “buy and dry.”
On the other hand, most waterways in the region, like the Animas River, are not over-allocated, meaning water rights can still be bought, Genualdi said.
“In our corner of the state, it’s probably not as prevalent as it might be in other parts of the state because of the water availability down here,” he said.
Also, Genualdi pointed out that much of the water is stored in Bureau of Reclamation projects – like Vallecito, Lake Nighthorse and McPhee reservoirs – which bring some level of federal protections against the practice.
“Those projects were built for specific things, so it’s more of a task to get water use changed,” he said. “You’d have to go to Congress for a change.”
While not currently an issue in Southwest Colorado, efforts should be made to prepare for private interests in water, said Amy Huff, a water attorney recently appointed to the Southwestern Water Conservation Board…
Mike Preston, former manager for the Dolores Water Conservancy District, said several water districts in the region have set up restrictions for people to sell off to private companies.
“They’ve done what they can to protect themselves,” he said. “That water is all tied up to the land.”
Ed Tolen, general manager of the La Plata Archuleta Water District, said his water right holders shouldn’t have to worry because it’s all domestic water use, not for irrigation.
But still, he said there is concern among the agricultural community that some ranchers and farmers may have to send their water to lower basin states to meet water compacts…
“One thing is clear. There is no place for private for-profit interests in this process,” the open letter said. “Colorado state government has a long history of opposing interstate marketing and transfers of water by private interests, and that opposition should continue.”
Weld County Wyoming, a political committee registered last year by Christopher “Todd” Richards, wants to place a measure on the November 2021 ballot that, if passed, would instruct county commissioners to engage and explore annexation with Wyoming.
“We’re not really moving,” Richards said during a November meeting at a local church that was recorded and posted on a website built to promote the proposed measure. “We’re moving a line.”
At the meeting, Richards said he got the idea for Weld County Wyoming after reading a Denver Post opinion article, admitting he considered the idea the “funniest thing I’ve ever heard.” Still, Richards later created a Facebook page to gauge interest that has since garnered nearly 5,000 likes.
“This has never been done before, so we’re not here to tell you this can be done,” Geoffery Broughton, a local pastor, said at the meeting. “We’re telling you this is a hard thing that we think is worth trying to do.”
A pair of rural Oregon counties are one election cycle ahead of Weld County Wyoming. In November, Jefferson and Union counties approved ballot measures to push lawmakers to consider relocating to Idaho, a state they believe is more representative of their political views.
Two other counties rejected the same measure proposed by a group led by Mike McCarter called Move Oregon’s Border. What’s next? McCarter hopes to push similar ballot measures in 11 other counties as soon as this year, with a vision of ultimately taking 22 of Oregon’s 36 counties to a new “Greater Idaho.”
It won’t be easy: The reallocation of any county would require votes by the state legislatures in Oregon and Idaho as well as the U.S. Congress.
The Weld County Wyoming movement faces similar long odds, with Richards stressing at the meeting that the process would be “long” and “daunting.”
If Weld County joined Wyoming, Vermont would suddenly become the country’s most sparsely populated state, with Wyoming’s population increasing by nearly 60%. The Colorado county east of Fort Collins has a population of about 324,000.
Wyoming, with about 579,000 residents, has long celebrated its standing as the country’s least populated state since the 1990 U.S. Census. One Cowboy State radio station even pulled together a “10 Reasons NOT to Move to Wyoming” list that includes too much fresh air and not enough traffic.
Why is Wyoming a better fit for Weld County? At the meeting, Broughton said it was because Colorado was “at war with three major economic drivers for Weld County: small businesses, agriculture, and oil and gas.”
A similar idea proposed in 2013 that aimed to form a new state with several northern Colorado counties failed, though it passed in five of 11 counties where it appeared on the ballot.
“There are a lot of consideration(s) for Weld County voters if they want to secede to Wyoming: income tax, personal property tax, corporate state income tax, retirement income tax, gas tax, severance taxes on oil and gas, and water rights to name a few,” Jennifer Carroll, the mayor of Erie, said in a statement. “If Weld County residents approve the ballot question, the Colorado legislature has to approve it, the Wyoming legislature has to approve it, and it’s possible both Colorado voters and Congress will need to approve it as well.”
Tommy Butler, a member of the Greeley City Council, offered a blunter assessment to KDVR-TV.
“I absolutely love living in Colorado,” Butler told the TV station. “For those that don’t love living here, there are certainly less ridiculous ways of moving to Wyoming.”
Jeff Lukas co-wrote a Colorado River book. It deserves attention, he says, but it’s not the only river of the West!
Jeff Lukas calls the Colorado the “charismatic megafauna of Western rivers.” This riverine equivalent of grizzly bears, bald eagles, and humpback whales gets lots of attention, including national attention.
Some of that attention is deserved. It has the nation’s two largest reservoirs, among the nation’s tallest dams, and many of the most jaw-dropping canyons and eye-riveting national parks in the country. It also has 40 million to 50 million people in Colorado and six other southwestern states, plus Mexico, who depend upon its water, and a history of tensions that have at times verged on the political equivalent of fist-fights.
Just the same, Lukas admits to some crankiness about all the attention lavished on the Colorado River—including his own. It is not the only river in the West. Other rivers, including those in the state of Colorado, have problems and attributes, too. They should, he says, get more time on stage. These other rivers, too, do an awful lot of heavy lifting.
Lukas recently became a water consultant after 11 years at the CU Boulder-based Western Water Assessment, a program that works with water decision-makers across Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, along with other research institutions. Before that he was a dendrochronologist, an analyst of the rings found in the bores extracted from trees to understand past growth and hence weather and climates. He calls himself a geographer at heart.
If he has never rafted the Colorado River’s great canyons, Lukas knows the river basin very well. After all, he was the co-lead author on a recently-released 500-page synthesis report—essentially, a book—called “Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology: State of the Science.” Brad Udall, a former colleague of Lukas’s at Western Water Assessment, called it the “most comprehensive scientific report ever produced about the Southwest’s iconic river.” [Click here to read the Coyote Gulch post about the report.]
Even before climate change began to intrude into the hydrology of the river, as Udall and other climate scientists have now documented, the Colorado River was tasked to be all that everybody wanted it to be. It’s unlike the Mississippi, dumping vast amounts of water into the Gulf of Mexico. The Colorado is a much smaller river and, since the 1990s, has almost never delivered water to the Sea of Cortez, an arm of the Pacific Ocean. That is part of the river’s drama.
Other river basins have drama, too. The rivers may not be as long. Their canyons may not be quite as absorbing. The challenges, though, aren’t all that different.
The Colorado River Basin “doesn’t have as many unique challenges as we’ve been led to believe,” says Lukas. “It gets too much attention. It leads to a biased view of Western water issues, at least from a national perspective. Most other rivers do not get examined in the same way, either by researchers or the media.”
A case in point is the river book shelf. Every year a new book seems to come out about the Colorado River. The South Platte River? Not so much. There’s Ellen Wohl’s body of work, including “Virtual Rivers” and “Wide Rivers Crossed,” Tershia d’Elgin’s memoir about her father, “The Man Who Thought He Owned Water,” and “Confluence: The story of Greeley Water,” one of several books by former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs. The shelf is short for books about these other rivers.
The South Platte is in many ways Colorado’s most important river. It arises along the Continental Divide in Colorado, near the town of Fairplay, traveling south before circling around for descent through the foothills to the Great Plains. If you’ve flown from Phoenix to Denver, you have hewed to some of this route as the plane glides down toward landing. Continuing north before veering eastward at Greeley, the river is augmented by the Poudre and the Big Thompson, along with Clear Creek, the St. Vrain, and Boulder Creek.
In its journey the South Platte and these tributaries provide water for 4 million of Colorado’s 5.8 million residents and some of its most productive farms. As recently as 2015, some 86% of the water in the South Platte gets used by agriculture – sometimes time and again. By some estimates, water from the Platte gets used seven times before the river meekly enters Nebraska, thoroughly tired.
Like the Colorado River, the Platte has problems aplenty. The Colorado has been tamed, but so has the South Platte. The Colorado becomes nothing—literally—shortly after it enters Mexico. The South Platte becomes basically nothing during its journey through Denver.
Context always matters. “You know the saying that all politics is local,” says Lukas. “All vulnerability is local.”
Even within this one basin, the challenges differ. Consider the consequences of the 2002 drought. Aurora, the strapping suburb on Denver’s eastern side, came uncomfortably close to draining its reservoirs. In response, the city tightened up conservation measures but also created a major water-reuse project called Prairie Waters. It reclaims water released after treatment at the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant after it has flowed for about 20 miles in the river’s banks and adjoining aquifers. Near Fort Lupton, the water gets drawn from an aquifer for pumping 34 miles back to Aurora Reservoir.
Denver Water, a much bigger provider, rode out that drought more easily. There were pinches, which it is still trying to address via both conservation but also expansion of Gross Reservoir. But the point is that context matters—and, oh by the way, it’s not just the Colorado River struggling to meet all the demands imposed on it.
This is from the Jan. 28, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy transition in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at http://bigpivots.com
Making his case even more granular, Lukas points to the needs and vulnerabilities in just one city, Boulder.
“People who live in Gunbarrel (a community jutting out from the city’s northeast corner) have a different vulnerability relative to their water supply than do people in the central part of Boulder, because they are served by a different set of raw water sources, treatment plants, and pipelines.”
Like the Colorado River, the Platte is a contentious river among the states through which it passes. Actually, there has been contention in nearly every river originating in Colorado.
Consider the Rio Grande, which arises in the San Juan Mountains and flows through the San Luis Valley on its way into New Mexico and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. New Mexico believes that the river never delivers enough water. From south of that border, flows are carefully monitored.
The Arkansas River Basin has also provoked expensive courtroom showdowns with Kansas. Colorado and Kansas don’t even pronounce the name of the river the same, East of Holly, where the river enters the Sunflower State, it becomes the ar-Kansas River. In the Centennial State, it’s universally the Ar-kan-saw River.
Sure, the Arkansas and the South Platte both benefit from imported water from the Colorado River Basin. In the case of the Platte, a little more than 33% of the annual flows comes from the various tunnels and ditches that extract water from the Colorado River headwaters. But just because these rivers get help from the Colorado River does not diminish their own unique challenges.
Again, there’s the question of how can the co-author of a 500-page report about the Colorado River say that this same river gets too much attention, at least compared to other rivers. Lukas acknowledges he sounds like the pot calling the kettle black.
It is, he says, a matter of balance.
“It would be valuable to have this same sort of science synthesis done for other basins as well,” he said.
Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.
US Drought Monitor January 26, 2021.
West Drought Monitor January 26, 2021.
Colorado Drought Monitor January 26, 2021.
Click here to go the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
The heaviest precipitation this week fell on a swath across southwestern Kentucky and immediately adjacent locales (3.0 to 4.5 inches), and the higher elevations of Arizona (3.5 to locally over 6 inches). Moderate to heavy amounts of 1.5 to locally 4.0 inches pelted the rest of Kentucky, southern Missouri, northeastern Arkansas, just north of the central Gulf Coast, and patchy areas across southern Virginia and the interior Southeast. Similar amounts dotted southern California and the higher elevations of the southern Sierra Nevada and the Four Corners region, especially across Arizona. Light to moderate precipitation extended across the remainder of the interior Southeast, from central Texas northward through the upper Midwest, across some lower elevations of the Four Corners region, in parts of the southern Great Basin, through most of the Sierra Nevada, and along much of the immediate West Coast. Much of the precipitation fell as heavy snow late in the period from Kansas and Nebraska to the lower Great Lakes. Amounts topped one foot at scattered spots across southwestern Iowa and southeastern Nebraska, with Omaha, NE reporting just under a foot. Small areas of moderate precipitation were observed in some areas to the lee of Lakes Erie and Ontario, but otherwise, the driest areas this week – reporting little or no precipitation – stretched along the northern tier of states from the Cascades through New England, most of the Intermountain West, the High Plains, southern Texas, Florida, the southern Atlantic Coast, the northern Ohio Valley, and the middle Atlantic States. No large, broad-scale changes were appropriate as a result, but numerous smaller-scale adjustments were introduced…
Moderate precipitation and/or heavy snow hit eastern Nebraska and Kansas, and isolated but heavy precipitation fell on some of the higher elevations of Colorado. Other areas received light amounts at best. Decent snowpack and recent heavy precipitation in the highest mountains led to some improvement in the protracted D2-D4 in a few ranges in north-central and south-central Colorado. Areas farther north experienced another dry week, resulting primarily in a fairly broad expansion of severe drought into northeastern Wyoming and the western Dakotas…
Persistent above-normal precipitation led to improvements across the southern tier of the region as well as the southern Oregon coast. At the same time, continued deficient precipitation led to significant expansion and/or deterioration of D3 and D4 conditions near the Nevada/California border, and D0 to D2 conditions across Montana and adjacent Wyoming. Notably, the protracted D4 conditions in central Arizona finally eased slightly as the higher elevations report above-normal precipitation and a favorably enhanced snowpack. Smaller areas of improvement due to recent increased precipitation were brought into north-central New Mexico, southwestern Arizona, and southeastern California…
Moderate to heavy precipitation fell on swaths of Tennessee and the lower Mississippi Valley, bringing improvements to some of those regions. But the precipitation was not widespread, and some parts of this area that missed the heavier precipitation saw an increase in dryness and drought. Farther east, heavier precipitation was more sparsely distributed through Oklahoma, northeastern Texas, and central Texas, with the remainder of Texas recording only light amounts. Besides adjustments to short-term cry areas in response to the rainfall pattern, moderate drought persisted in southwestern Tennessee, and expanded into larger sections of northwestern Mississippi and south-central Louisiana. In addition, an area of severe drought was assessed in an area centered near Tallahatchie County, MS where 90-day rainfall totals were 8 to 10 inches below normal and 6-month totals were 10 to 12 inches below normal. In the expanded area of moderate drought in southern Louisiana, 6-month rainfall totals were as much as 15 inches below normal, but shorter-term deficits are less remarkable…
Over the next 5 days (January 28 – February 1, 2021) the heaviest precipitation is expected along the immediate West Coast, southern Cascades, and Sierra Nevada. These areas are expecting 3 to locally 7 inches of precipitation. Meanwhile, 1 to 3 inches are expected in the central and northern Cascades and the higher elevations from northeastern Oregon to northwestern Wyoming. Up to 2 inches may fall on north-central Utah, the higher elevations of Arizona, and part of Nevada. Farther east, the western half of the Plains should be dry, and only light precipitation is forecast across the northern Great Lakes, lower Mississippi Valley, Gulf Coast, Florida, and upper New England. Moderate to locally heavy precipitation should fall on a swath from much of the Mississippi Valley eastward through the southern half of the Appalachians, middle Atlantic region, and upper Southeast. The eastern half of North Carolina should pick up 1 to 2 inches. In the portions of the Plains expecting very little if any precipitation, daytime temperatures should average at least 3 degrees F above normal, with a swath from the Texas Panhandle to eastern Montana averaging 6 to 12 degrees F warmer than normal. In contrast, most of the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts and the Southwest should average at least 3 degrees F below normal. Daytime high temperatures will average at least 6 degrees F below normal in central Arizona, northern California, the upper Northeast, and lower New England.
The ensuing 5 days (February 2 – 6, 2021) bring enhanced chances of surplus precipitation in a broad area from the Rockies to the East Coast, excluding much of Texas and Florida. Odds favor above-normal precipitation throughout Alaska as well. Meanwhile, deficient precipitation is more likely across the Florida Panhandle, the southern one-third of Texas, northern California, and the Pacific Northwest. Warmer than normal weather is favored east of the Mississippi Valley and north of Florida, with the highest probabilities covering New England. Milder than usual conditions are also expected in the southern half of Alaska. Meanwhile, the odds favor subnormal temperatures from the High Plains to the West Coast, especially across California and most of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.
The first six months of 2021 are predicted to be dryer than normal, and the Evergreen Metropolitan District is reminding residents that it isn’t too soon to conserve water.
All foothills residents, whether in a water district or on private wells, should be concerned about drought, and EMD General Manager Dave Lighthart is already expecting to impose water restrictions in the district as soon as April.
“The stream-flow forecast that came out in January is showing critical issues throughout the state but most importantly in the Bear Creek and the Mount Evans watersheds,” Lighthart said. “We want people to be aware that we are extremely dry. The long-range forecasts for the (foothills) are that temperatures will likely be higher than normal with an equal chance of lower-than-normal precipitation.”
According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, as of Jan. 1, Colorado’s year-to-date mountain snowpack was 83% of normal and precipitation was 70% of normal. Last year, the snowpack was 119% and precipitation was 92% of normal.
The 2020 water year, which ended on Sept. 30, 2020, finished on a record dry note, according to the conservation service. The combined precipitation in August and September 2020 totaled the lowest in the 36 years the service has kept records. Then October precipitation across Colorado was 47% of average.
Last summer, EMD instituted Level 2 drought restrictions and was concerned it would need to move to Level 3 — the strictest level — until a couple of rainstorms in July increased water flows in Clear Creek.
EMD’s Level 1 requests voluntary reductions in water usage; Level 2 requires mandatory cutbacks in both residential and commercial outside watering; Level 3 requires no outside water uses and assesses fines for violations.
Lighthart said EMD generally waits until April to begin water restrictions, hoping that the typical spring snowstorms will positively impact snowpack, but “the long-range forecasts are not being very positive in that regard.”
UTE Water and the Bureau of Land Management said that the lack of runoff from the snowpack could impact our community. Not only does it limit our supply of water but could also lead to increased fire risk.
According to UTE Water, last year was the fourth worst drought in Colorado’s history…
Ute Water is urging people to conserve water. “Right now, what we want from our customers is make voluntary cutbacks. Do what they can to conserve the water that they have right now,” said Andrea Lopez, External Affairs Manager, UTE Water.
The calls came in shortly after the story in The New York Times announced Wall Street was on the prowl for “billions in the Colorado’s water.”
“Can you help us? How do we get started?” wondered the New York financiers, pals of Andy Mueller, the manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
“My response was really that if you want to invest in Colorado, you might want to look at something other than water,” Mueller said. “There is nothing to see here.”
The national story raised hackles across Colorado. It defined agriculture as a “wrong” use of Colorado River water and detailed a growing swarm of investors eager to inject Wall Street’s strategies into the West’s century-old water laws. The idea of private investment in public water has galvanized the state’s factious water guardians…
Population growth and persistent drought exacerbated by climate change are stressing the Colorado River, which supports 40 million people in seven states and Mexico and irrigates some 5.5 million acres of crop land. Now, the increasingly parched communities along the 1,450-mile river can add an additional threat: speculation.
It’s rare to see Front Range water managers like Denver Water and Northern Water joining counterparts on the Western Slope. Heck, neighbors on the Western Slope don’t often agree over agricultural, municipal, recreation and tourism-based uses of water. But everyone involved in the perpetual tug-of-war over Colorado water is ready to fight Wall Street investors eyeing “billions” in the state’s most precious resource.
“We have different interests and we have different things we use water for on the Western Slope,” Martha Whitmore, the Ouray County board member on the Colorado River Water Conservation District Board, said during the board’s quarterly meeting last week. “but the one thing we are really unified on … is we don’t want this to be a New York hedge fund’s new thing.”
Water law requires beneficial use
Colorado has some of the toughest laws to prevent profiteering on water in the West, anchored in a nearly 160-year-old state water law that requires users to put their rights to beneficial use. That definition has expanded from irrigation and home taps to include snowmaking, protecting wildlife and even kayaking in a whitewater park. Beneficial use does not include making money.
Even with the state’s strict law preventing a gold rush on water, an 18-member Anti-Speculation Law Work Group created by Colorado lawmakers last year is studying how to give the law preventing water profiteering even more teeth.
Jim Lochhead, the head of Denver Water, agrees with water managers around the state that institutionalized private investment in water “is inherently a problem for the entire state of Colorado.”
The Law of the River could be upended by Wall Street investors buying up and fallowing farmland for water rights, or even worse, buying agricultural water and holding it unused until it makes them rich, like some kind of water-logged bitcoin bros. (Which, by the way, is illegal under Colorado law that doesn’t really allow the sale of actual water as much as the right to use water for beneficial use.)
But, in a way, that buy-and-dry scenario is already part of Colorado’s water landscape. Cities like Aurora and Pueblo often buy water rights to support growth. And more of that is coming. The Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan — part of a historic water management agreement inked in 2019 by federal officials and leaders in seven states — aims to cut water use, by, in part, paying farmers and ranchers and other water users to temporarily suspend their water rights.
Details on the controversial “demand management” element of the drought contingency plan are still being hammered out. But the prospect of water speculation has led to calls for all types of safeguards of public water in a demand-management market.
There is a big difference between investors who likely would be moving water from farms to cities willing to pay big and water districts trying to temporarily secure water rights to bolster supplies, said Taylor Hawes, who directs The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program.
Demand management is about conserving water and “creating water security, which is a public good,” said Hawes, who earlier this month published a letter in Western Slope Colorado newspapers along with the the national Family Farm Alliance and Trout Unlimited urging partnerships among often-contentious Colorado River users “to find durable solutions that make economic sense for water users and rural communities, as well as cities.”
“Demand management should be more of a guided market not a free market,” Hawes said in an interview. “It needs to have sideboards and restrictions, and one of those restrictions needs to be that it is serving the public good, to make sure we have water security for the future and that we can adapt to the changing climate.”
Mueller, with the Colorado River District, led a spirited discussion last week with his board, detailing specific issues with the increasing call for private investment in water. He warned that eroding trust in government institutions could sway more people toward a revamp of Colorado laws that would increase the role of market forces.
“The demand-management market needs to focus on rules and regulations and structures that protect our communities and if it can’t be done, the program should go away,” Mueller said.
Mueller, who has many issues with the New York Times article, says the article may “help make our case” as a launching point to rally not just water managers, but state residents, around the need to protect water.
Private, profit-driven investment in Colorado River water might not respect agricultural roots of communities that exist because of the river. But the eye of Wall Street might help champion the case for drought management and it’s share-the-pain plan to spread potential cuts. Mueller said the threat of speculators moving into Colorado’s water market could help convince residents about the need for big, climate-adapting changes in how water is conserved and protected in the state…
Most of the angst over Wall Street is coming from a group called Water Asset Management, a New York investment firm that has spent more than $16 million over the past few years buying more than 2,000 acres of farmland in the Grand Valley. The company is the largest landowner in the influential Grand Valley Water Users Association, which operates the 55-mile Government Highline Canal and 150 miles of irrigation pipe and ditches that water more than 23,000 acres of farmland.
It’s safe to say that Water Asset Management has succeeded where all others have failed: The fund has found a way to get Front Range and Western Slope water users in quick and easy agreement.
And advising the investment firm is James Eklund, the former director of the state’s top water protector, the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Eklund spent years as the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission, helping to draw up the drought contingency plan that, among many things, creates a pool of water for Upper Basin states inside Lake Powell that serves as the upper state’s own bank within the larger bank.
Eklund bristles at the notion that the WAM group is angling to take over that bank of Upper Basin water in Lake Powell.
“You can’t do that now and you could not do that before the Drought Contingency Plan and you can’t do it in the future. Because the Law of the River forbids it,” he said. “If we allow private accounts in Lake Powell, we will undo the benefits of the bargain of the 1922 compact.”
Water Asset Management buys farms, pays for upgrades that increase the efficiency of water used in irrigating crops and then leases the property back to the farmer, Eklund said.
The firm’s investment fund “develops and markets the water assets while our farming operators manage the farming operations of the properties, mitigating agriculture risk,” reads the firm’s website details of its Water Property Investor Fund.
The group is not trying to flip water. If it was, it would have already sold the water rights it has, Eklund said. The group wants to invest in agriculture in the Western United States, he said…
Across Colorado, water managers agree with at least of one of Eklund’s ideas: It is time to work together. But not necessarily with his group. A host of water managers across the state have been meeting, amiably, to discuss how best they can form a united front to stop Wall Street speculation on public water.
“The coming together of all these different interests is a recognition that the challenges we face on the Colorado River are already complex enough. So, so complex,” said Hawes with the Nature Conservancy. “The last thing we need is Wall Street getting in the middle of this as we try to work out the solutions which are going to be really really difficult to do.”
FromThe Center Square (Derek Draplin) via The Kiowa County Press:
President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed an executive order halting new leases for oil and natural gas development on federal land, a move criticized by the industry and some state governors.
“We’re going to review and reset the oil and gas leasing program,” Biden said Wednesday at the White House.
Biden said his administration is going to “properly manage lands and waterways in ways that allow us to protect, preserve them and the full value that they provide for us for future generations,” adding that his administration won’t ban fracking.
The administration cites greenhouse gas emissions and “irresponsible leasing” that negatively affects communities as the reason for the order, which won’t affect existing oil and gas development on federal land and doesn’t apply to tribal land.
The lease moratorium, which also applies to offshore leases, expands a secretarial order signed last week suspending new land leases and drilling permits for 60 days unless approved by Department of Interior (DOI) leadership. It’s also part of broader executive actions Biden took on Wednesday.
The executive actions establish an Office of Domestic Climate Policy in the White House along with a National Climate Task Force. Biden is also directing DOI to establish a plan that will conserve 30% of the country’s land and water by 2030…
Other states, like Colorado, welcomed Biden’s climate actions and pledge to work with his administration.
“We will also work closely with the Biden administration as they begin a program-wide review of energy development policy on public lands to ensure that it works for Colorado,” Gov. Jared Polis said in a statement. “And as long as the review is completed expeditiously we don’t expect an economic impact in the short-term with current market factors and the many existing unused leases and permits.”
Environmental advocacy groups praised the moratorium along with the administration’s broader efforts on fighting climate change.
“Hitting pause on oil and gas leasing is a crucial first step toward reforming a rigged and broken system that for too long has put oil and gas lobbyists ahead of the American people,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director for the Denver, Colo.-based Center for Western Priorities.
The Sierra Club said the lease moratorium “will improve the health of our communities, our climate and our wild places.”
“We look forward to working with the Biden administration to secure lasting solutions that address the climate impacts of coal, oil and gas leasing and put in place long-overdue protections for communities, taxpayers, and the climate,” said Athan Manuel, the Sierra Club’s director of Public Lands Protection.
Click here to read the article (Caroline S Nash, Gordon E Grant, Susan Charnley, jason B Dunham, Hannah Gosnell, Mark B Hausner, David S Pilliod, Jimmy D Taylor). Here’s the abstract:
Beaver-related restoration is a process-based strategy that seeks to address wide-ranging ecological objectives by reestablishing dam building in degraded stream systems. Although the beaver-related restoration has broad appeal, especially in water-limited systems, its effectiveness is not yet well documented. In this article, we present a process-expectation framework that links beaver-related restoration tactics to commonly expected outcomes by identifying the set of process pathways that must occur to achieve those expected outcomes. We explore the contingency implicit within this framework using social and biophysical data from project and research sites. This analysis reveals that outcomes are often predicated on complex process pathways over which humans have limited control. Consequently, expectations often shift through the course of projects, suggesting that a more useful paradigm for evaluating process-based restoration would be to identify relevant processes and to rigorously document how projects do or do not proceed along expected process pathways using both quantitative and qualitative data.
North American beaver (Castor canadensis)
Photo credit: Wisconsin Wildlife Services
A beaver dam on the Gunnison River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
A beaver slap on the upper Colorado River. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
Restoration beaver dam San Antonio Creek. Photo credit: WildEarth Guardians
Disclaimer: I work for the City of Thornton and I am quoted in this article.
As drought conditions intensify across Colorado, at least 14 cities in the Denver metro area say they will join forces to warn residents of looming water shortages and the need to cut back use this spring.
Denver Water’s Jason Finehout said a metro drought coordination effort would help ensure a consistent message on reducing water use in what is shaping up to be another alarmingly dry year.
“Right now 14 cities have signed up, but I expect that number to grow,” Finehout said.
Finehout said Denver Water would likely not decide until March whether to impose tough watering restrictions, but other participating communities, such as Thornton, are likely to move ahead.
Thornton’s John Orr said the city planned to implement restrictions sooner rather than later in order to prepare for what is likely to be a water-short year.
“Our team recommends that we treat this as a start to a multi-year drought,” Orr said. “We’re trying to be cautious.”
Orr’s comments came at the Jan. 21 meeting of the state Drought and Water Availability Task Force.
Last year was the state’s second-driest calendar year on record, according to the Colorado Climate Center, leaving soils ultra dry. That is worrisome to weather trackers and water utilities, because the soil is likely to absorb much of the water coming out of this year’s snowpack.
Colorado basin-filled SNOTEL snowpack map January 27, 2021 via the NRCS.
Statewide Basin High/Low graph January 26, 2021 via the NRCS.
Right now snowpack statewide is at 78 percent of normal, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and stored water supplies are also below average. Last year reservoirs stood at 107 percent of average at this time, but are now at just 82 percent of average.
“2020 was a doozy of a year,” said Peter Goble, climate specialist at the Colorado Climate Center. “And we just continue to fall farther and farther behind,”
In November the state announced it would activate a statewide emergency municipal drought response plan for only the second time in its history, citing the deteriorating water forecasts. The agricultural portion of the plan had already been activated over the summer.
Colorado has experienced four severe droughts since 2000, but the trend has intensified with the drought of 2018 barely lifting before 2020 brought searing temperatures and dry weather again.
Few expect this year to be any different. “My personal demeanor has gone from cautious to concerned,” said Swithin Dick with the Centennial Water and Sanitation District, which serves Highlands Ranch and which is a member of the new drought group. The district’s water reservoirs stand at 55 percent of capacity, a benchmark that is 25 percent lower than normal for this time of year, he said.
Denver Water will partner with Aurora Water to lead the coordinated drought communications response effort, Finehout said, with the first meeting tentatively scheduled for early February.
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.
Last year was difficult. And while 2021 presents some optimism for a better world, the intense challenges we face remain—COVID-19 and other public health crises, growing drought and climate change, and racial injustice. Each of these intersect with water.
More than 90% of climate stress is experienced through the water cycle—drought, extreme weather and flooding, wildfire, and more. These issues were starkly illustrated in 2020 with the wildfires in the West and the drying of several western habitats. Audubon’s own science shows that climate change is by far the biggest threat to the birds that we love. We can’t ignore the relationship between water and climate—and the dangers climate change presents to our communities, often in inequitable ways. Solutions to these problems will require elected officials to catch up to what most Americans already know: we need to prioritize our water future with bold action and funding.
In 2021, our job is to galvanize a heightened focus on water to advance solutions that improve the lives of people and birds in the West. Our commitment to collaborating with water users, tribes, farmers, water and land managers, and other stakeholders allows us to identify solutions that align habitat protection and restoration with improved water supplies for communities. And with your support, we can better protect and restore the Colorado, Gila, Rio Grande, San Joaquin, and other rivers in the arid West as well as unique saline lake ecosystems such as Great Salt Lake and the Salton Sea.
The Colorado River Compact was signed 99 years ago, and the year ahead kicks off a new round of negotiations about the future of the river. This moment gives all of us opportunities to lean into the lessons learned from management of the Colorado River and its water and bring environmental priorities forward. Of course, the past two decades have required more adaptation and mitigation because of dwindling water resources amidst long-term drought. As the arid West continues to deal with climate change, our laws and management will need to adapt.
With your advocacy, we can advance Audubon’s Western Water policy priorities with considerations for inclusive and equitable provisions. We can leverage opportunities for federal legislation and appropriations to address drought in the West, WaterSMART improvements, Farm Bill funding, and more in the context of declining water flows due to climate change impacts. We can advance investments in natural infrastructure and climate resiliency (i.e. floodplain restoration, natural water storage solutions, wildfire mitigation programs). We can improve river health, protect water quality, and support funding for agencies focused on water resources and habitats through state policy improvements. And in priority areas, we will work on-the-ground and with partners to protect and restore bird habitat and improve water flows.
For urgent attention to solutions that last, we need diverse and inclusive voices at the table and in decision-making. Audubon has spent years working to improve our equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts, and 2020 gave us real urgency to address the disproportionate impacts that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color face, including water security. In 2021, Audubon’s Western Water team will better support tribal communities, when asked for help, because tribes should be able to actively participate in decisions about water management, ensure that their water needs are met, and realize the full benefits of their water rights. And we’ll better evaluate what communities are most impacted by our conservation actions, and build collaborative partnerships to increase bird habitat and equitable access for people.
Birds connect us. Water is our great unifier too. Join us in taking urgent local, state, and national actions in the year ahead. Sign up, spread the word, and stay connected at http://audubon.org/westernwater.
In 1888, local farmers and ranchers got together to start a formal ditch company. For this, there would have to be an official survey. The original survey map that was made in July through August of 1888 was measured by hand with 100-foot links of chain. Once completed, the Lone Cone Ditch Company was formed on Wright’s Mesa for irrigation purposes on July 30, 1889.
Shortly after that, on Oct. 29, 1889, the State of Colorado awarded its certificate of incorporation. The original eight owners of the Lone Cone Ditch Company were Roger Williams, Charles Hotchkiss, Charles Traux, Jeremiah Foster, R.A. Peers, J.W. Winkleman, L.W. White and J.W. Fraser.
Approximately 12 to 13 years later, land was donated for a reservoir. The company took the opportunity to grow, and the Lone Cone Ditch Company then became the Lone Cone Ditch and Reservoir Company on June 21, 1902. The reservoir was excavated using a Fresno machine pulled by horses. The reservoir floor was compacted after excavation by running a sheep herd back and forth through it. It was built to hold 1,800-acre feet of water…
Every year, the size of the water shares depends on Mother Nature. Snowmelt, rain, wind and heat all contribute to the factors of water dispersed to each shareholder annually. Lone Cone Ditch does not have a ditch rider. Given that there are approximately 14 miles of upper ditch and 32 miles of lower ditch, water shares are taken on an honor system with divider boxes made and placed by each shareholder. This ditch system is not an “on call” system. It is “all on” or “all off.”
According to Colorado SNOTEL Snowpack Update report for Jan. 24, the Lone Cone is at 6.1 inches of water and 64 percent of it median. These numbers are low and could be an indicator of what our water circumstances could be for the upcoming irrigation season. Conservation practices can become highly effective habits.
The Lone Cone Ditch and Reservoir Company is currently working on the mechanics of the dam structure that is in need of maintenance and repairs. Their engineer is diligently completing his assessment and report. The existing water outlet has held strong and true for many, many years. But, like with all things, it is in need of replacement. At that time, regular maintenance will be performed to ensure that it is functioning to capacity. Once the assessment is complete, grant funding will be the next step.
One of the most profound statements I have ever heard before was from a Wright’s Mesa farmer and rancher: “Gold runs clear.”
FromThe High Country News [December 21, 2020] (Mark Olalde):
Decades have passed and millions of dollars spent, yet little has been done to restore the lake. California officials say it’s all been leading up to this moment.
This story is a collaboration between High Country News and The Desert Sun, part of the USA Today Network.
Red flags flutter outside the schools in Salton City, California, when the air quality is dangerous. Dust billows across the desert, blanketing playgrounds and baseball diamonds, the swirling grit canceling recess and forcing students indoors. Visibility is so poor you can’t see down the block. Those days worry Miriam Juarez the most.
Juarez, a mother of three and active volunteer at the schools, often received calls to pick up her 7-year-old son, Lihan, when sudden nosebleeds soiled his outfits. But she couldn’t leave her job, harvesting vegetables in the fields that form square oases in the Coachella Valley. So she began packing fresh clothes for him every day, before COVID-19 halted in-person learning. “It’s OK. Just go to the office,” she’d say. “The ladies will help you change.”
The doctor’s diagnosis was unclear: Perhaps Lihan had allergies. Then, Juarez’s 17-year-old daughter began suffering headaches and respiratory issues. Finally, Juarez got a runny nose and sore throat that lasted for days when the dust blew.
Juarez blames California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea. Only a few miles east of the family’s neatly kept house, it’s a cobalt-blue patch on Southern California’s Colorado Desert, a roughly 325-square-mile oblong oddity that’s twice as salty as the ocean.
It’s also toxic — a looming environmental and public health disaster. The Salton Sea’s shoreline is receding, exposing a dusty lakebed known as the “playa.” This sandy substance holds a century’s worth of agricultural runoff, including DDT, ammonia, possibly carcinogenic herbicides like trifluralin and other chemicals. Its windborne dust travels across Southern California and into Arizona, but nearby communities — many of them populated by Latino farmworkers — bear the heaviest burden.
The problem isn’t new. Yet California, though largely responsible for fixing it, has barely touched the more than 25 square miles of exposed playa. It’s been almost two decades since an agreement was signed in 2003, committing the Imperial Irrigation District, the Colorado River’s largest user, to conserve water that once flowed from farms into the lake and send it to other districts. Knowing the lake would recede, the state committed to mitigating the health and environmental impacts. The state and federal governments have spent about $70 million so far, largely on salaries and studies. Meanwhile, the high-water mark has fallen nearly 10 feet, and salinity continues to rise.
The politicians admit they’re years behind schedule, but they’re adamant that the course has been corrected, the money is being put to good use and the future is bright. Currently, 16 state employees are planning projects to tamp down dust or rebuild wetlands, and that will grow to 26 once new positions approved in the latest budget are filled. They’ve also nearly finished permitting projects that will cover 30,000 acres, a little more than a third of the area that could eventually be exposed.
Assembly Member Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, who represents the region surrounding the lake, is optimistic. “I believe 2021 will be a new story of the state of California living up to its responsibility and liability in terms of investing in what it signed up for at the Salton Sea,” he said.
Still, the state must overcome funding issues, disagreements with the feds, permitting bottlenecks and decades of inertia.
FOR YEARS, the government stood still.
Over tens of thousands of years, as it meandered across the West, the Colorado River occasionally filled the Salton Sea. The lake’s most recent iteration formed between 1905 and 1907, when an engineering disaster diverted the river into the basin. It has since been fed largely by agricultural runoff from the Imperial and Coachella valleys. It soon became clear that salinity levels would continue increasing. Since then, millions more people have begun relying on the Colorado River, even as climate change threatens the waterway. In response to competing demands, the 2003 agreement diverted water from the Imperial Valley. That meant that the lake’s level was guaranteed to drop. So, in 2007, the state released a sweeping proposal with an $8.9 billion price tag — unfortunately, just as the Great Recession took hold. “Folks got sticker-shocked and did not really pursue a full rehabilitation-restoration approach,” Garcia said.
Still, the agreement included 15 years of inflows to temporarily control salinity while the state decided on a plan. By late 2020, the California Natural Resources Agency had completed one dust-suppression project covering a mere 112 acres; the goal for the end of that year was 3,800 acres. “For a very long time, the enormity of the challenge at the sea was frankly overwhelming, and there was very little action at the state level until 2014 or 2015,” said Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the Natural Resources Agency, the lead department tasked with restoring the sea.
That one completed site, the Bruchard Road Dust Suppression Project, looks like someone tried to farm the surface of the moon. Tractors dug long, straight furrows through the white, sandy playa to catch the windblown dust. But more expensive wetland habitat restoration is needed; the lake has long been an important feeding ground along the Pacific Flyway, a migratory bird route on the Western Seaboard.
In order to “fix” the sea, government agencies, led by the state, will need to flood, plough or plant tens of thousands of acres to control dust and rebuild habitat. They’re racing against the clock. An estimated 131 square miles of playa will be dry and exposed to the air by the time the lake reaches a degree of equilibrium — meaning the inflow from three small waterways and agricultural runoff will maintain a smaller lake — in 2047.
For a shallow body of water, the Salton Sea holds a large amount of sunk costs. Years of studies, salaries and office supplies have been purchased, but few shovels have been put to work.
But Arturo Delgado, an assistant secretary with the Natural Resources Agency and the state’s Salton Sea czar, pointed out that a portion of the more than $355 million set aside for the lake — 99% of it from bonds — needed to be spent sorting out permits and access to a complex checkerboard of state, tribal, federal and private land. “The bulk of the funding that has been appropriated to date for the Salton Sea program has not been spent,” he said.
As of late November, state agencies had used about $53 million, most of it going to ledger entries, including “studies and planning activities,” “staffing and other design costs” and “annual surveys to monitor bird and fish populations.” Glaring zeros marked the “expended” column next to several construction budgets.
Years of indecisiveness mixed with land-access and permitting issues have bogged down the process; the state’s own efforts to clean up the ecological disaster got stuck in the compliance process. “Frankly, the permitting is probably more expensive right now than the actual projects,” said Tina Shields, water department manager at the Imperial Irrigation District, which, separate from the state, completed about 2,000 acres of dust suppression on its own land around the lake.
The state is appropriating some funds, but the federal government has been slow to pitch in. The U.S. Department of Agriculture kicked in about $8 million for dust-suppression projects, and over the past five years, the Bureau of Reclamation spent about $11 million on water-quality monitoring, wetlands projects along polluted rivers that empty into the lake, and studies on the feasibility of using salty water for dust mitigation.
When the Natural Resources Agency is finally ready for large-scale builds, the budget could get in the way. Individual construction sites are expensive, with one roughly 4,000-acre project set to break ground in 2021 costing an estimated $200 million. Another 160-acre design will cost $20 million. Cleanup along the New River, one of three small waterways flowing into the lake, comes with a $28 million bill.
And while California regularly calls on bonds to fund large projects, that money can’t be used for operations and maintenance. Crowfoot acknowledged that the state lacks a mechanism to fund long-term monitoring and upkeep. At the beginning of 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom promised an additional $220 million, but that was predicated on a bond. When the pandemic hit, that idea and a parallel measure Garcia introduced in the Legislature both died, although Garcia said he’ll reintroduce his bill in 2021.
For now, the state lacks a better funding plan. “We don’t have the reserves that we had prior to COVID-19,” Garcia said. “That money has been invested in our emergency response.”
IF THE SALTON SEA RESTORATION were to reinvigorate the Pacific Flyway, it would likely begin at the wetlands around Red Hill Bay on the lake’s southeastern corner, where various agencies are constructing new habitat. An October visit found it far from inspiring. A flat patch of dirt covered several hundred dry acres, dotted with a few dead trees. A sign, complete with typos, showed a hopeful rendering of a functioning wetland and promised: “Estimated construction in 2016.”
Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., introduced the federal Salton Sea Public Health and Environmental Protection Act in November to streamline permitting and unlock additional federal dollars. He acknowledged the delays, but called the Red Hill Bay Restoration Project “proof of concept that we can get a shovel-to-ground project started,” adding, “My number-one goal was to break ground on a project to rip that inertia to pieces and to start building momentum.”
The son of farmworkers, Ruiz grew up just miles from the lake. He returned home to practice medicine after studying at Harvard, and he still wears gym shoes with his suits, as if he’s about to run into the emergency room. Ruiz, who was struck by the high rates of respiratory illnesses in the area, compares the lake to a patient “in need of triage.”
A 2019 study conducted by researchers from the University of Southern California’s medical school and a local nonprofit called Comite Civico del Valle estimated that nearly one in four elementary school children in northern Imperial County, the area nearest to the Salton Sea’s exposed and emissive playa, suffered from asthma, about three times the national average. “Exposing this population to more and more poor air quality — in particular, particulate matter small enough to penetrate the lung-blood barrier that also carries toxins like arsenic, selenium and pesticides — would be devastating to the public’s health,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz said that divergent visions had stalled progress, while egos got in the way. Since entering Congress in 2013, he has tried to rally local lawmakers and called on the federal government to take a more active role. Juarez, in Salton City, welcomes the efforts but believes that if this problem affected a wealthier, whiter area like Palm Springs, it would’ve been addressed already. It’s a sentiment her elected representatives share. So, she asked, “Why is nothing getting done?”
In 2020, the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District slapped the state and feds with notices of violation for failing to complete dust-control projects. The Imperial Irrigation District wants the state to act, too, citing the 2003 water transfer agreement. California politicians argue the federal government needs to step up because the Bureau of Reclamation owns much of the land underneath the lake. The feds insist they occupy a supporting role, and agency heads from Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refused to attend a September congressional hearing to discuss the government’s role in cleaning up the lake.
The people in Salton City and other towns around the retreating lake are still waiting. For Juarez, who began working in the fields when she was just 15, the clock is ticking on the American dream her family built in the California desert. It’s difficult to find hope in stepwise permit approvals while dust fights through cracks in her home. She takes her children to the doctor every six months and worries about Lihan. “I’m nervous, and I’m scared to see my son like that,” Juarez said.
She doesn’t want to move away but is finally considering it. “I don’t want to stay here and see my kids sick,” she said.
Mark Olalde is an environment reporter for The Desert Sun. He is based in Palm Springs, California.
Mette Lampcov is a freelance documentary photographer from Denmark, and is currently based in the greater Los Angeles area.
The Salton Sea is a major nesting, wintering and stopover site for about 400 bird species (Source: California Department of Water Resources)
Aerial view of the Salton Sea from the north-northeast (from over Joshua Tree National Park), looking into the early afternoon sun. Photo credit: Dicklyon via Wikimedia Commons
The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake, covering 330 square miles, and a major drop along the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds. But it is receding, threatening to create a public health and ecological crisis. By NWSPhoenix – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56724223
Just above the horizon here, a haboob (dust storm) can be seen heading north. This was shot at what remains of the Salton Sea Naval Test Station. Photo credit: slworking2/Flickr
The New River, a contaminated waterway that flows north from Mexico, spills into the Salton Sea in southwestern California’s Imperial Valley. Transborder pollution is among Jayne Harkins’ priorities as U.S. IBWC Commissioner. (Image: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)
American Avocets in the Salton Sea. Photo: David Tipling/NPL/Minden Pictures. Screen shot American Audobon Society western water website, October 4, 2017.
Conceptual work has begun on a pumped-storage hydro project along the Yampa River five miles east of Craig. The project was conceived to provide electricity to assist Colorado utilities in balancing the intermittency of wind and solar generation as they advance toward 100% renewable portfolios during the coming decade.
In pumped-storage hydro, water is released from a higher reservoir to produce electricity when needed most. The water in the lower reservoir is then pumped uphill to the higher reservoir when electricity has become more readily available.
Colorado has two existing pumped-storage hydro projects. Cabin Creek Generating Station, between Georgetown and Guanella Pass, harnesses a 1,200-foot vertical drop to produce up to 324 megawatts of electricity. Completed in 1967 and operated by Xcel Energy, it serves as effectively a giant battery with a four-hour life, the same as a humongous bank of Tesla batteries.
Near Leadville, at Twin Lakes, the Mt. Elbert pumped storage hydro plant can produce up to 200 megawatts. Operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, that pumped-storage hydro was completed in 1981.
Near Craig, the project—it’s really no more than an idea—would use three turbines to produce 600 megawatts, nearly as much as Colorado’s largest coal-fired power plant. The idea submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Aug. 20 calls for two relatively small reservoirs of storage capacity of 4,800 acre-feet each connected via a tunnel and conduit, with a total drop of 1,450 vertical feet. This compares with a 1,200 drop at Cabin Creek.
The lower reservoir would not be on the Yampa River, nor would it require a constant infusion of water. Rather, it operates in a closed loop. Only water lost to evaporation would have to be replaced. In an open loop hydro system, water is drawn directly from a river to be pumped uphill.
Matthew Shapiro, the applicant, says the preliminary permit awarded by FERC in November for the Craig-Hayden project is best described as a placeholder for a future license application. He hopes to begin producing electricity toward the end of this decade, just as several utilities in Colorado aim to achieve 100% renewable generation. See Nov. 24 notice in the Federal Register.
Creating pumped-storage hydro, he says, requires considerable patience but also capital. One project in Wyoming that Shapiro’s company proposes has an estimated cost of $1.8 billion.
The United States has not had a new pumped-storage project since 1993. The Craig-Hayden project is the only FERC filing for Colorado.
Meeting the checklist
Despite its jumbled geography and abundant water, the Centennial State actually is a difficult place for new pumped hydro projects, says Shapiro. The right kind of topography, with enough vertical drop over a short distance but not too much is needed, but also proximity to transmission and low environmental sensitivity.
“It’s a significant challenge. Finding the combination of factors is not easy,” Shapiro says. “But that is what a good pumped-storage developer does during the site-screening process.”
The Craig site checks all the boxes. Private land is easier to develop than public land, says Shapiro, and it has that. Transmission lines export the electricity in three directions and to several states, but especially to east of the Continental Divide in Colorado. The Hayden and Craig coal-fired stations together have 1,724 megawatts of generating capacity, the most of any area of Colorado.
Water is also needed. The two coal-burning stations together own 15,000 acre-feet from the Yampa River, far more than the 5,000 acre-feet needed for this project. The plants will close between 2025 and 2030.
Finally, a pumped-storage hydro project needs customers. Shapiro reports seeing a promising market within Colorado. Two utilities—Platte River Power Authority, a co-owner of the Craig plant, and Holy Cross Energy—both have adopted goals of 100% renewables by 2030. Xcel Energy, the primary owner of the Hayden units and a part owner at Craig, has a 100% emissions-free goal for 2050.
All analyses of attaining high levels of renewables in electricity supplies have focused on three crucial pillars:
One, demand needs to be recontoured to better take advantage of when renewables are abundant, such as linking warming of hot water to times of abundant electricity.
Second, energy supplies in Colorado need to be better connected with a broader geographic area, either to the west or possibly to the Great Plains and conceivably in both directions, thus allowing greater ability to take advantage of renewable energy. The sun might not be shining everywhere, but the wind is always blowing somewhere. There is actually some predictability to this, if you get large enough terrain.
And third, there needs to be storage. The Craig-Hayden idea envisions eight-hour storage, compared to the four-hour value of lithium-ion batteries. So-called green hydrogen, which uses renewable electricity to create hydrogen from water, can deliver 50 to 100 hours of storage, but the technology and economics lag. “I think there is going to be a mix, particularly over the next 20 to 30 years before I think green hydrogen really matures,” says Shapiro. “We will see a mix of storage types. I don’t think we are going to do 100% renewable energy without additional advanced energy storage technology.”
Utilities have been closely watching developments. Duane Highley, chief executive of Tri-State Generation and Transmission, operator of the three units at Craig, said on an October webinar that his utility sees no need to make decisions about energy storage until 2024 and does not actually need it until 2029-2030. The three units at Craig will be shut down between 2025 and 2030. The two Hayden units operated by Xcel are to be shut down in 2027 and 2028.
The value of storage
A 2019 report by Synapse Energy Economics that was commissioned by the Colorado Energy Office spoke to the need for advanced energy storage as Colorado decarbonizes its electricity.
“Although pumped hydro is currently the most prevalent type of energy storage in the United States, traditional battery storage technologies (primarily lithium-ion) have experienced rapid market growth within the last few years. As costs continue to decline in the coming decade, flow batteries are also expected to become common in large-scale storage applications.”
Pumped-storage hydro does not figure prominently in the analysis by Synapse. However, the consultant did find need for public policy that serves to encourage the market for storage in Colorado.
“Though lithium-ion battery costs are projected to decline in the coming years, there is debate about whether they are expected to become cost-competitive with traditional generators prior to the late 2020s without supportive policy mechanisms.”
In removing two coal-burning units at the Comanche station near Pueblo, Xcel Energy is adding 275 megawatts of battery energy storage. On a vastly different scale, United Power began using a 4-megawatt battery storage in late 2018.
In viewing the Craig project, Shapiro hopes to time completion to the closure of the coal plants. These projects require patience.
Shapiro already has already demonstrated great patience. In a life with many twists and turns since his upbringing in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, Shapiro by 1991 was on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. In a paper titled E Pluribus Unum, Shapiro describes himself as a “creator, an entrepreneur, a public philosopher, a conscious citizen, a writer, and a father.”
In that paper, he says he was motivated to help the Blackfeet and, in that outlook, he began to wonder whether the steady winds of the Montana reservation could be harnessed to benefit the tribe. He quickly grasped the limits of renewable generation.
“Upon my return to New York, I immersed myself in the study of energy storage as a means of helping wind energy compete with conventional energy resources,” he explained. There were then 40 pumped-storage hydro projects in the United States among well more than 100 around the world.
Since then, in 1993, just one additional project pumped-storage hydro has been built in the United States. Many gas-fired plants were built, however, to address the need for peaking power.
Growing interest from utilities
About 2009, though, Shapiro noticed a shift.
“Renewable energy was surging, the interest in storage was starting to pick up, and more and more utilities were mentioning pump-storage in their resource plans,” he explained in a telephone interview. “So partners and I formed GridFlex to identify the best new sites in the country.”
His partners now include David Gillespie, who served a stint with Duke Energy as vice president of business development, and John Spilman, the general counsel, who has provided services to Vestas Americas, among others. Shapiro is the chief executive.
Utilities have shown much greater interest in the last two years after solar prices tumbled and, in response to consumers, many embraced 100% carbon-free goals. But the time was not lost. “We spent a lot of those years honing our knowledge about how to make the business case,” he said in a recent phone interview. “And we built relationships with equipment vendors and environmental consulting firms and others needed to move ideas into projects.”
Shapiro’s company, Gridflex, now in partnership with another company called rPlus Energies, a developer of utility-scale wind and solar, has filed with the FERC for seven sites: two in Nevada and one each in California, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming.
Most, like the Craig site, are placeholders in the FERC process. Two, in Wyoming and Nevada, have moved to a second step with FERC, the pre-application stage.
In Wyoming, Shapiro last summer outlined a plan to use Seminoe Reservoir in conjunction with a new reservoir on federal Bureau of Land Management property for a capacity of 700 megawatts, somewhat larger than the Craig-Hayden proposal. The Rawlins Times reported that officials in Carbon County declined to endorse the project but were OK with the application with FERC proceeding. Cost of that project has been estimated at $1.8 billion
In Nevada, progress came earlier with the White Pine project getting press attention in Ely in 2014. But it has moved little further along than the Colorado project.
In Arizona, other developers have several proposals for even larger pumped-storage hydro projects. One using water from Lake Powell proposes to use the transmission built for the Navajo Power plant now being demolished. It has a price tag of $3.6 billion.
About the Craig-Hayden site, Shapiro declined to identify whether his company has agreements with landowners and other specific elements of what will be needed. He said he has begun outreach to utilities.
Holy Cross Energy might be one such utility. Its service territory includes Vail and Aspen but also Rifle, which is within 100 miles of the pumped-storage hydro, connected by a major transmission line. In its resource plan posted in 2020, Holy Cross specifically mentioned pumped-storage hydro as one option for being able to attain its goal of 100% renewable generation by 2030.
Jonah Levine, who wrote a master’s thesis about pumped-storage hydro in 2007, now works in the realm of biomass for Louisville, Colo.-based Lignetics.
“The evolving story is not of wind vs. biomass or even traditional resources vs. renewables,” he says. “The real question is how do we deploy these things together in the most efficient and effective ways? I don’t see that story enough. What is the best utilization of the resources to our society?
“We need snow and a lot of snow,” warned Tony Anderson, service hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Pueblo. Anderson has been studying the drought levels in Southern Colorado for years and said that this is the worst he has seen, possibly ever…
The dry weather spells bad news for the continuing drought.
“What (the climatic indicators) are telling us right now is we have a very good chance of being warm and dry through April and May,” Anderson said. “Now, that’s not to say they are going to be warm and dry, it’s just that the probabilities are good. This is one of those times where I really hope I’m wrong.”
Anderson noted Pueblo County is typically one of the drier areas in the state, tempering the severity of the current drought situation…
The other part of the equation is that Pueblo has received more precipitation than other parts of the state this year, which is unusual. Typically, Pueblo receives less precipitation throughout the year than the mountainous regions, but recent months have been wet in relation to other areas of the state.
Anderson tracks the area’s precipitation amounts, as well as temperatures, vegetation growth and rivers for drought data. This same data is what the U.S. Drought Monitor, a national organization that focuses on broad-scale conditions, uses to publish a weekly drought map…
The city’s reserves are in good shape for the upcoming year, noted Alan Ward, Pueblo Department of Water Works Water Resources Division Manager, but as a precautionary measure short-term water lease agreements have been put on hold. The agreements are typically used for agricultural purposes.
“We have about 30,000 acre feet of water in storage, which should be plenty to meet full demand,” Ward said. “As always, we advise our residents to use water wisely.”
Nathan Coombs, a burly alfalfa farmer in the San Luis Valley, never imagined he would trust an environmentalist, much less partner with one to improve habitat for fish in the region’s rivers and streams. As manager of the Conejos Water Conservancy District, Coombs cares first and foremost about supporting the livelihoods of agricultural water users in the upper Rio Grande Basin. As such, he had figured that more water for fish meant less water for farmers and ranchers.
And that was unthinkable.
But things took a surprising turn about seven years ago when Coombs met Kevin Terry, a fish biologist at Trout Unlimited. Terry, who manages the organization’s efforts in the Rio Grande Basin, approached Coombs with what seemed like an outlandish idea, if only because it had never been suggested before, at least not here: shift the timing of some water deliveries from storage reservoirs to provide enough water for trout to survive the winter, while still meeting the requirements of the Rio Grande Compact. Even a small boost in streamflows can be enough to significantly help trout and other fish hang on until the late-spring snowmelt naturally improves their ability to reproduce.
For decades reservoirs in the basin have only released water for agricultural, the basin’s primary water users, during the April-through-October irrigation season. As a result, many streams and ditches run dry or slow to a trickle in the winter.
What kept Coombs, whose district operates the Platoro Reservoir on the Conejos River, from rejecting Terry as just another antagonizing environmentalist or silver-spoon fly-fisherman, as he might have previously, was that Terry didn’t pontificate or try to persuade. Rather, he asked Coombs and other board members and residents what they needed to support their farms and ranches.
Terry then suggested a way to help them: Pay irrigators to re-time reservoir releases, providing them with cash, while giving native and wild fish a leg up.
Over the course of many discussions with Terry and heated debates among district board members, Coombs became convinced that this did not need to be a zero-sum proposition. About two years later, in 2015, he joined Terry in creating the Rio Grande Winter Flow Program. That same year the district board voted unanimously to change a longstanding rule to allow for the re-timing of water released from reservoirs.
The program works like this: Trout Unlimited pays participating water users to shift the release of a portion of their water allocation from the growing season to the winter months. Those landowners then pay a fraction of what they receive from TU to their local water conservancy district to release that amount of water from their storage reservoir, and they can keep the difference.
Dennis Moeller, for instance, owns a 2,000-acre ranch near the town of Antonito that stretches to the Conejos River in the southern San Luis Valley. Some 80 head of cattle roam the ranch in the winter, and another 400 graze on public land in the mountains. Now, the Conejos district releases a portion of Moeller’s allocated water from Platoro Reservoir into his ditch through the winter. Not only does this help the trout upstream of Moeller’s ranch, but he no longer needs to truck in winter water for his cattle. Trout Unlimited pays him $10 per acre-foot. Moeller pays the Conejos district $4.50 per acre-foot and pockets the $5.50 difference. For a total of about 84 acre-feet, he netted $462. Hardly a 401(k) plan, but it’s easy money. He said he still comes out net positive even if he needs to buy extra water to irrigate his meadow grass and alfalfa hay during the growing season.
And the collaboration is paying off across the valley.
“I promise you, I was considered the most anti-environmentalist in the room a few years ago,” said Coombs. “And the attitude of the board in the beginning was ‘no and hell no.’ But we realized that the [winter flow] program could benefit operators in the district, and that fish were a footnote. And we came to recognize that it also helps fisheries and tourism broadly in the region. The genius of this [program] is getting enough people in the room who understand what the common goal is, and enough trust.”
Five storage reservoirs in the basin participate in the program: Platoro, Continental, Terrace, Beaver Creek and Rio Grande. They operate on the Conejos, Rio Grande and Alamosa rivers.
For the voluntary program with an annual budget of about $80,000, Trout Unlimited does not set firm goals, but Terry noted that any additional water in the winter helps fish and their habitat. “The more the better, but we consider the program a success if we get any additional acre-feet of water for instream flows,” he said.
Last year was Colorado’s second-driest year on record, making precious little water available for additional instream flows.
The situation is also made more complicated by the Rio Grande Compact. Under this agreement, formalized in 1938, water users in the valley must make sure that certain amounts of water are delivered across the state border en route to New Mexico and Texas every year.
And the winter flow program, which works cooperatively with the water users, is able to work within the constraints of the compact.
Although Terry said Trout Unlimited’s goal to raise streamflows in the basin is not specific, the Conejos district set a goal of adding at least three cubic feet per second (cfs) per day, a 43 percent increase from its minimum required release of 7 cfs, in the non-irrigation season, amounting to roughly 900 acre-feet total to the program.
Last winter the Conejos far exceeded its goal—releasing an additional 4,345 acre-feet during the winter months. Overall, the winter flow program generated more than 5,000 acre-feet, according to Terry. And although it was not the most productive year, it was a pleasant surprise.
“The message is that we made a small portion of the [Rio Grande] Compact water do more work while it was still in Colorado, by re-timing some of it so that Colorado’s streams benefitted and we still paid the bill,” Terry said.
Estevan Vigil is an aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife who has been researching fish populations and their habitat in the Conejos and Rio Grande rivers. He said the program has helped to restore and improve some trout and insect habitat, although low flows in the last two years especially have made it difficult to survey fish populations. Going forward, he said, climate change and drought will pose major slow-moving threats.
“Doing things like the winter flow program, where we’re keeping flows higher in rivers as often as we can, allows us to try to mitigate the impacts of those changes,” Vigil said.
Anecdotal evidence from fly-fishing outfitters suggests that the winter flows have helped bring more wild brown and other trout into local rivers and streams. Randy Keys, owner of Riffle Water LLC in Antonito, said the program has helped restore certain areas for fishing, drawing more anglers to the area. “It has made a huge difference,” he said. “For example, before the program the area right below the Platoro [Reservoir] was nothing but meadow water, with not a lot of holding places for trout. Now it’s great for fishing.”
As water in this region, and more broadly in the West, becomes increasingly scarce, the winter flow program may become one of many examples of how different water interests with seemingly competing priorities are reassessing their historic perspectives in order to figure out how to squeeze more out of every drop, for everyone.
“It’s one of those things where we’re just changing people’s mindsets,” said Craig Cotten, Division 3 engineer at the Division of Water Resources, which has been working with Trout Unlimited to administer water under the winter flow program. “We don’t have to do everything exactly like we did in the past. We can adjust it a bit to get multiple benefits.”
Susan Moran is a freelance journalist based in Boulder, Colo. She can be reached at email@example.com or @susan_moran.
This article was supported by a grant from The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.
From the Colorado West Land Trust via The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:
Meek Ranch, which covers more than 1,200 acres along the West Elk Scenic and Historic Byway, has been conserved by the Colorado West Land Trust, it announced Monday.
The ranch is located on the western slope of the West Elk mountain range and includes pasture land for cattle, as well as mountain shrublands and woodland and more than two miles of riparian habitat.
This conservation will ensure the large open spaces, ranchland and habitat will never be developed in the future.
Owners Roy and Sandy McLaughlin purchased the property in 2014 and graze livestock on it, which is how it has been managed for more than a century. The McLaughlins have worked to improve the land.
“The Meek family started ranching this land in 1915,” Sandy McLaughlin said in a statement. “To continue their legacy, we try to enhance the unique natural qualities that exist here—things like fertilizing fields and reopening old ditches to channel spring water to dry areas of land.”
The ranch is surrounded by privately owned open space and National Forest land that connects to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to the southwest.
Funding for the project was provided by Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“We are grateful to the McLaughlin family and our friends at Colorado West Land Trust for ensuring the permanent protection of a property that so immensely benefits Colorado’s wildlife and people,” GOCO Executive Director Chris Castilian said in a statement.
The Meek Ranch property and surrounding area provides forage, cover, breeding grounds and migration corridors for a diversity of wildlife, including big game species.
This project is part of Colorado West Land Trust’s work to conserve the natural and agricultural land in the area of the West Elk Scenic and Historic Byway.
To date it has protected nearly 9,500 acres of ranch land in that area.
“We greatly appreciate the efforts of landowners like the McLaughlins, who choose to conserve their properties so future generations can have places to farm and ranch long term,” Colorado West Land Trust Director of Conservation Ilana Moir said in a statement. “It has been a pleasure working with Sandy and Roy, and we look forward to our continued connection with them as they ranch and care for their property.”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
The Colorado River District will spend the first $1 million in partner project funds made possible from a recent tax approval to help pay for a Grand County effort to address environmental impacts from a reservoir.
The district board last week approved the contribution to a $23.5 million project for a channel to reconnect the Colorado River where the Windy Gap Reservoir blocks its flow.
The decision means nearly a quarter of the annual amount that the tax approval will generate for such projects will be spent in just one of the 15 counties in the river district. But district General Manager Andy Mueller believes it’s a good place to start. And a district policy newly approved by the board aims to ensure that over the long run, funding is allocated fairly and broadly around the district…
In November, voters, including in Mesa County, approved roughly doubling the district’s property tax rate to 0.5 mills. The measure is expected to boost its revenues by nearly $5 million in the first year. Some of the annual revenues from the new tax will help the district address operating budget needs, but most of it — about $4.2 million this year — is to go toward partnering on projects addressing agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health and water quality, and conservation and efficiency.
Under the board’s new policy to implement the program, it is seeking over time to spread funds among those categories and among counties and river basins in the district, while also considering factors such as the relative populations of counties and basins, and the district’s strategic goals.
The district also plans to use funds to help lobby for contributions of funds from other sources, rather than paying for projects by itself…
Mueller told the board the Windy Gap project is the kind of funding partnership he had in mind, in that “it really brings together all of these folks to fix something.”
Among those who already have committed to the project are the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service (about $5.67 million), the Northern Colorado Water Conservation District and related entities ($5 million), the Colorado Water Conservation Board (more than $3.2 million) and Grand County ($1 million).
With the river district commitment, the project remains more than $6.3 million short of full funding, but Mueller plans to use the district’s commitment to push for further funding from a variety of sources, including by pressuring the Northern Colorado Water to chip in more…
The bypass project partly involves reconfiguring the reservoir through construction of a redesigned dam, and building a roughly mile-long natural channel around the reservoir to reconnect the river upstream and downstream of it.
The project is expected to improve Gold Medal trout habitat and improve water quality for downstream irrigators…
Steve Acquafresca, Mesa County’s representative on the river district board, told fellow board members that the project is necessary…
He said it provides a lesson to the current generation of the water community about the need to “really pay attention to what you’re doing” to avoid unintended consequences…
As for other projects that the new river district tax revenue could someday fund, the district more locally has pointed to possibilities such as helping rehabilitate the Grand Valley Roller Dam in Mesa County, and working to maintain for the long term Colorado River flows secured by the senior water right associated with the aging Shoshone hydropower plant in Glenwood Canyon.
“This one was right up there, one of those the district thought was really qualified to be the initial (recipient),” said Catlin, of Montrose, who also represents State House District 58 in the Colorado Legislature. “Hopefully, it gets started right away, but all the communities will be able to apply for funding for projects across the district.”
Montrose and the 14 other counties that make up the Colorado River District voted in November to increase the district’s mill levy to 0.5. The same ballot measure eliminated spending and revenue caps under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, but not the tax-rate cap, and allows the district to keep and spend state and local grant funds.
The mill levy increase was projected to generate about $5 million in 2021, with the bulk going to partnerships for priority water projects.
Applications may be made for the awarding of partnership funds, which are to be direct to priority projects; the money can also serve to leverage other funds from state, federal or private sources.
“The projects supported by the Partnership Project Funding Program will protect and sustain West Slope water for all of us who rely on it,” River District General Manager Andy Mueller said, in a provide statement announcing the Windy Gap funding.
“In launching this program and funding our first project, we’re fulfilling our promise to the voters who make our work possible. This and future projects will help build a brighter water future for Western Colorado.”
Under the Partnership Project Funding framework, the river district has created a line item in its general fund budget, identifying the moneys available for such funding.
Staff analyze requests for funding and forward those that match up with several criteria to the board for further consideration. Under those criteria, the proposed project must fit with the mission of the district and language of the 2020 ballot measure.
Risk analysis is part of consideration and applicants need buy-in from their respective local governments. Mostly, the river district will offer partial financial support, although some projects may also receive technical, legal or administrative advocacy.
District funds are not intended to be the sole funding source for any project.
Projects may involve improvements related to agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health/water quality, conservation and efficiency. The framework calls for geographic equity in awarding the funds.
Sports betting got off to a hot start, meaning enough tax revenue has already been collected to start benefiting Colorado’s Water Plan projects…
Colorado had already collected more than $3.4 million in sports betting tax revenue through the end of December, more than enough to cover the roughly $2 million in startup costs that had to be paid off before wagering dollars could start being directed to the water plan projects, including increasing storage capacity.
Sports betting began in Colorado in May, after voters passed Proposition DD in November 2019. More than $1 billion has been wagered so far…
Proposition DD was pitched to voters as a way to direct money to the state’s water plan, which could have a price tag as large as $40 billion. But in December 2019, Polis’ Department of Revenue warned state lawmakers that it would possibly take until the 2021-22 fiscal year before enough tax revenue came in for the water plan to benefit.
The sports betting tax revenue is still far lower than the Colorado General Assembly’s fiscal analysts projected. But the upshot is that there’s already plenty of sports betting tax dollars — which are generated by a 10% tax on casinos’ net proceeds — to turn on the water-plan-funding spigot…
Gamblers have placed more than $1.1 billion in wagers since sports betting began in Colorado last year.
American football saw the most bets in December, with $88.1 million in wagers placed with retail and online operators, followed by basketball at $42.8 million. Coloradans continue to show interest in betting on table tennis, with $10.9 million in bets coming in for the sport last month.
Betting on professional football and basketball, and college basketball added up to more than half of the $284.6 million total in December. Last month’s total was up 23.1% from November but the amount sportsbooks kept after paying winners fell by 36.7% to $5.67 million, in large part because sportsbooks gave away nearly $11 million in free bets on promotions.
“Hitting the $1 billion mark is a milestone event for the department, leading us to believe that the trust and competition in the industry are leading bettors from the black market to the regulated market,” said Dan Hartman, director of the Colorado Division of Gaming, which regulates sports bettering and casinos. The $1.19 billion in bets last year generated $3.4 million in tax revenue for the state. Sportsbooks pay a 10% tax on profits, which funds Colorado water projects.
After pro football, and pro and college basketball, college football and table tennis were the two next-most-popular sports with bettors, attracting $14.1 million and nearly $11 million in wagers, respectively. Parlays and combination bets accounted for $46.4 million in wagers and other sports combined to total another $45.9 million. More than 98% of all bets were placed online or with mobile applications, and nearly 94% of all amounts wagered were paid to winning bettors.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Bridget Kochel):
Colorado has mandatory boating inspection regulations in place to help monitor that mussels do not cross state lines.
After three consecutive years of negative testing, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) has removed Green Mountain Reservoir in Summit County from the positive waters list for quagga mussels, a prohibited aquatic nuisance species (ANS). As Green Mountain Reservoir was the only body of water in Colorado suspected of having a population of quagga mussels, this de-listing makes Colorado a completely negative state for both zebra and quagga mussels.
In August 2017, Green Mountain Reservoir, which is owned and operated by the Bureau of Reclamation and whose developed public recreation sites are managed by the White River National Forest, tested positive for the presence of quagga mussel larvae (veligers). No adult mussels were ever found in Green Mountain Reservoir nor have they ever been found in a Colorado water body. Regional standards require three years of subsequent negative testing in order to re-classify the water from Suspect to Negative.
“After three years of negative testing, we are confident that Green Mountain Reservoir is free of invasive mussels and does not pose a risk to other aquatic resources,” said CPW’s Invasive Species Program Manager Robert Walters. “Colorado is the only state to de-list all mussel positive waters. This is a testament to the fact that our mandatory watercraft inspection and decontamination procedures do work to protect Colorado’s waters from invasive species.”
While Colorado is once again completely free of invasive mussels, the threat of zebra or quagga mussels entering Colorado from another infested state is still quite real. Boaters using infested waters must take extra care not to transport mussels across state lines and to comply with Colorado’s mandatory inspection regulations.
“Our staff want to express our gratitude to the boaters who help keep Colorado’s waters safe from harmful invasive species. By participating in Cleaning, Draining, and Drying your watercraft and gear between each and every use, we can continue to prevent the spread of invasive species,” said Walters.
State of Colorado Aquatic Nuisance Species Management Plan Approved
The management plan was originally conceptualized in 2006 and has been collaboratively developed by CPW staff, the Colorado ANS Task Force and by ANS experts and stakeholders across the state.
“The approval of this plan is a significant milestone in ANS program history because it sets a clear path forward on how we can prevent and manage aquatic nuisance species in Colorado,” said Reid DeWalt, CPW’s assistant director for aquatic, terrestrial and natural resources. “Invasive species have the potential to cause significant irreversible environmental impacts. The ANS management plan includes a coordinated prevention plan to keep Colorado’s waters free of ANS and a rapid response strategy that is designed to quickly contain new populations that may establish. This aims to minimize negative impacts on human safety, our wildlife populations and our native ecosystems.”
In an effort to balance outdoor recreation with mindful conservation, Colorado Parks and Wildlife requires boaters to purchase an ANS Stamp when registering a boat in Colorado to help protect state waters. The stamp provides approximately half of the funding needed to run the ANS Program operations annually, which includes watercraft inspection and decontamination services, monitoring of state waters and management of existing populations.
Click here to read the report (Christopher H. Trisos, Cory Merow & Alex L. Pigot). Here’s the abstract:
As anthropogenic climate change continues the risks to biodiversity will increase over time, with future projections indicating that a potentially catastrophic loss of global biodiversity is on the horizon. However, our understanding of when and how abruptly this climate-driven disruption of biodiversity will occur is limited because biodiversity forecasts typically focus on individual snapshots of the future. Here we use annual projections (from 1850 to 2100) of temperature and precipitation across the ranges of more than 30,000 marine and terrestrial species to estimate the timing of their exposure to potentially dangerous climate conditions. We project that future disruption of ecological assemblages as a result of climate change will be abrupt, because within any given ecological assemblage the exposure of most species to climate conditions beyond their realized niche limits occurs almost simultaneously. Under a high-emissions scenario (representative concentration pathway (RCP) 8.5), such abrupt exposure events begin before 2030 in tropical oceans and spread to tropical forests and higher latitudes by 2050. If global warming is kept below 2 °C, less than 2% of assemblages globally are projected to undergo abrupt exposure events of more than 20% of their constituent species; however, the risk accelerates with the magnitude of warming, threatening 15% of assemblages at 4 °C, with similar levels of risk in protected and unprotected areas. These results highlight the impending risk of sudden and severe biodiversity losses from climate change and provide a framework for predicting both when and where these events may occur.
A new study shows that as rising heat drives some key species extinct, it will affect other species, as well, in a domino effect.
Global warming is about to tear big holes into Earth’s delicate web of life, pushing temperatures beyond the tolerance of thousands of animals at the same time. As some key species go extinct, entire ecosystems like coral reefs and forests will crumble, and some will collapse abruptly, starting as soon as this decade, a new study in the journal Nature warns.
Many scientists see recent climate-related mass die-offs, including the coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and widespread seabird and marine mammal mortality in the Northeastern Pacific linked to a marine heat wave, as warning signs of impending biodiversity collapse, said lead author Alex Pigot, a biodiversity researcher at University College, London. The new study shows that nowhere on Earth will escape the impacts.
“In the U.S., the southern states from Texas to Florida, the Appalachians and the West Coast are projected to be at particularly high risk, with between 20 and 40 percent of species facing conditions beyond anything they have previously experienced,” Pigot said…
In those regions many species live in small geographic areas under a narrow range of climatic conditions. As global warming heats their habitat to the point that it is intolerable, many species have no place to go. Some will go extinct, with a domino effect that affects scores of other species. If it gets too hot for bumblebees, for example, it affects the reproduction of plants. If it gets too warm for insects and reptiles, it affects food supplies for birds and mammals.
“I hope our predictions are wrong. But increasingly, what we’re observing around us are the signs of this happening,” Pigot said, referring to research showing how global warming affects individual species. “I think these studies are showing that many species are already living very near their thermal limits. Our results suggest that these losses are likely to involve multiple species near simultaneously rather than happening gradually, one species at a time,” he said.
At the current rate of warming, abrupt exposure events in tropical oceans will begin before 2030 and spread to tropical forests and higher latitudes by 2050. The risks decrease and arrive more slowly if global warming is capped at less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, as per the goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, the study concluded.
“If we can avert the worst of the warming we can buy extra time,” Pigot said. “Even if we can get a few extra decades, it gives us time to work on expanding protected areas, or deciding on whether to try things like assisted migration and assisted evolution.”
Even an immediate curb on greenhouse gas emissions doesn’t preclude warming of up to 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century because the current amount of warming could be magnified by big increases of heat-trapping methane in the Arctic or by changes to cloud processes, he said.
In 2020, a stubborn enemy emerged for corn farmers across the Great Plains: drought. Today, about half of the U.S. is in drought, with large swaths of Nebraska, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Illinois impacted.
A little dry or warm weather can be a boon for getting work done on the farm. Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln says, for example, farmers in many pockets of the region enjoyed a rainless, temperate September, allowing them to finish harvest in record time and get a head start on prepping the farm for winter…
Yet these weather patterns create risky tradeoffs, posing another hidden risk for plants — hotter nighttime temperatures. That’s expected to become an increasing problem for corn crops that are just trying to get some sleep.
Corn has evolved to expect hot, sunny days and dark, cool summer nights.
During the daytime, the plant photosynthesizes, eventually turning sunlight, air, and water into corn.
At night, it stops that process and enters a state similar to rest — respiration — releasing carbon through its pores. An exhale at the end of a long day on the farm.
But adverse conditions like drought and heat can confuse the plant’s internal “schedule” and cause it to veer off course. Warm and dry evening conditions can especially pose risks to how efficiently the crop will function the following day.
“When nighttime temperature increases to where they’re uncomfortable, one of the first things that start to happen to them is that they start to respire more,” said Walid Sadok, an agronomist at the University of Minnesota.
“One of the consequences of that is, by losing that carbon, they reduce the yield potential, because that’s less carbon being invested to build [in the daytime].”
The plant also loses critical supplies of water, leading to poor pollination and dehydration. Sadok says the effects are similar to getting a bad night’s sleep.
“We noticed that the following day that photosynthesis — which is the ability to basically do work, capture that carbon from the atmosphere, use light energy — they are less good at that,” he explained.
The stakes are higher early in the growing season: just a few late spring evenings over 50 degrees can sabotage a farmers’ yield prospects. Fuchs says farmers do their best to plan, but conditions can change in a heartbeat.
The Bureau of Reclamation’s dire projections for Colorado River Basin reservoirs for the first time triggers drought contingency planning across seven basin states.
The dry 2020 and the lack of snow this season has water managers in seven states preparing for the first time for cutbacks outlined in drought contingency plans drafted two years ago.
A sobering forecast released this week by the Bureau of Reclamation shows the federally owned Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the nation’s two largest reservoirs and critical storage for Colorado River water and its 40 million users — dipping near-record-low levels. If those levels continue dropping as expected, long-negotiated agreements reached by the seven Colorado River Basin states in 2019 will go into effect, with water deliveries curtailed to prevent the federal government from stepping in and making hard water cuts.
The Bureau of Reclamation’s quarterly report was dire, showing Lake Powell at 42% of capacity and downriver’s Lake Mead at 40% capacity. And there’s not much water coming.
“Right now inflows across the basin are well below average. In fact we are setting records for what is in the stream today,” said Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer with the Colorado River Water Conservation District, presenting the bureau’s latest forecasts to the district’s board last week.
The bureau’s January report showed the impacts of a warming, drying climate peaking last year. The period from April to December was among the driest stretches ever recorded in the Southwest, with current conditions mirroring 2002, 2012, 2013 and 2018, four of the five driest years recorded in the Colorado River Basin. The bureau forecasts three scenarios for the next 24 months. Those three projections detail a most probable result, a best-case scenario and a worst-case situation.
Snowpack conditions right now in the mountains that feed the Colorado River and eventually fill Lake Powell are perilously close to the worst-case scenario. The bureau report shows the 2021 inflow into Lake Powell most likely will land around 53% of normal, but could end up as bad as 33% of normal.
The bureau expects the Utah reservoir will finish 2021 at 35% of capacity. If things get worse and follow that worst-case projection, the water level at Lake Powell could drop below a critical level — 3,525 feet above sea level — in early 2022 and that would threaten the ability of Glen Canyon Dam to generate electricity…
If the reservoir falls below that 3,525-foot elevation level, the Glen Canyon Dam will be unable to deliver hydro-electricity to more than 3 million customers and the federal government could lose as much as $150 million a year in revenue from selling that electricity. Any projection that the reservoir is headed toward that critical threshold gets water managers in all seven basin states ready for drought-response operations that spread the pain of water cuts across every region of the Colorado River Basin.
Jim Lochhead has helmed Denver Water for half of this prolonged drought. He’s seen good years like 2011 — really the last decent year for water in Colorado — and bad years, like 2013…
But with the lack of snow this season and snowpack in all but one of the state’s seven major river basins below median levels, Lochhead said he is “certainly very concerned about the supply outlook.”
Kanzer, in his report to the Colorado River district board last week, said soil conditions are very dry across Western Colorado. So the state can’t blizzard itself out of this drought hole.
“Even if we did get a good spring we would not get much benefit because all of the moisture would go into the soil and not run off,” Kanzer said.
The Pagosa Springs area received over 10 inches of snow…[January 19, 2021], bringing some much-needed additional snowpack to the area…
According to the U.S. Depart- ment of Agriculture National Water and Climate Center’s snowpack report, the Wolf Creek Summit, at 11,000 feet of elevation, had 16.4 inches of snow water equivalent as of noon on Jan. 20.
That amount is 87 percent of the Jan. 20 median for the site.
The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River basins were at 67 percent of the Jan. 20 median in terms of snowpack…
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the San Juan River was flow- ing at a rate of 44.4 cfs in Pagosa Springs as of 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 20.
Based on 85 years of water records, the average flow rate for this date is 57 cfs.
The highest recorded rate for this date was in 2005 at 116 cfs. The lowest recored rate was 30 cfs, recorded in 1961.
Aspen Mountain and Snowmass racked up decent snowfall amounts in November and December but Mother Nature closed the spigot in January. Snowmass recorded only 5 inches of snowfall in January through Tuesday while Aspen Mountain managed only 3 inches, according to Aspen Skiing Co.
From Nov. 1 through Jan. 19, Snowmass received 99 inches of snow while Aspen Mountain scored 83 inches, according to Jeff Hanle, Skico vice president of communications…
By his calculations, Snowmass was at 89% of average for November and December. It’s falling further behind average during the dry January…
The dry conditions aren’t isolated to Aspen and Snowmass. Breckenridge Ski Resort finally topped 100 inches for the season last weekend. In the 2019-20 ski season, it topped the century mark for snow in mid-December, according to the Summit Daily News.
An automated snow telemetry site on Vail Mountain shows the snowpack there is just 69% of average in snow water equivalent — the amount of water in the snow, according to the Vail Daily.
The snowpack at the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River east of Aspen is at 76% of normal, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service…
The statewide cumulative snowpack was just 83% of median as of Jan. 1 and only 70% of last year’s snowpack on the same date.
Changes were approved to water rates by the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) at a regular board meeting on Jan. 14.
Back in September of 2018, the PAWSD board approved changes to its rates for water service customers that would take place in 2021, ac- cording to a public notice.
These changes, according to the notice, will increase the minimum monthly service charge per equiva- lent unit (EU) and will also increase the volume rate charges by 6 percent annually through 2023. They will equate to a 33.74 percent cumulative increase over a five-year period.
For 2021, the monthly service charge per EU will increase from $26.40 to $27.98, the release notes.
For those who use between 2,001 to 8,000 gallons, the rate per 1,000 gallons will increase from $4.74 to $5.02, according to the release.
Additionally, from 8,001 to 20,000 gallons, the rate per 1,000 gallons will increase from $9.48 to $10.05. For over 20,001 gallons usage, per 1,000 gallons, the charge will increase from $11.90 to $12.61.
The water fill station charge per 1,000 gallons will also increase from $10.25 to $10.84, the release notes.
Water availability of service and the wastewater availability of service charges will remain the same at $14.30 and $12.50, respectively, the notice reads.
The release also notes that the capital investment fees for both water and wastewater will increase by 3 percent per year.
PAWSD will also be implementing increases to wastewater charges in 2024 and will end in 2027, according to the release.
The changes will include a 2.5 percent annual rate increase, which amounts to a 10.38 percent cumu- lative increase over the four-year period, the release notes.
Drought conditions in Colorado and across the western United States aren’t expected to improve much, if any, in the coming year, prompting state and federal agencies to launch new efforts to help agricultural producers survive the growing drought problem.
Retta Brugger, Colorado State University range extension specialist, and Julie Elliott, a USDA rangeland management specialist, issued a bulletin earlier this week warning ranchers that they may want to lower their stocking on rangeland. The scientists cited a matrix of data called a “decision tree” that shows climate conditions are poised to continue the drought at least through the spring…
On Thursday morning the U.S. Drought Monitor showed serious to severe conditions are to persist across Colorado for the foreseeable future. In map after map and graph after graph, climatologists and forecasters show lower levels of precipitation, inadequate snowpack and rising temperatures. The Drought Monitor is produced through a partnership among the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska‐Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In the Midwest and High Plains sectors, which includes eastern Colorado up to the Foothills, little or no precipitation fell this week, outside parts of eastern North Dakota. Almost the entire region was unchanged compared to last week keeping most areas intact. Exceptions were found in eastern North Dakota, where light precipitation was sufficient to reduce the extent of drought conditions. Farther west, small areas of deterioration were noted in north-central Wyoming and the west-central Dakotas.
According to Brad Rippey, USDA meteorologist, around 46 percwent of the U.S. is experiencing moderate drought or worse. The seasonal drought outlook calls for continued dry conditions for nearly the entire western half of the U.S…
Meanwhile, state and federal officials are offering guidance, especially to agricultural producers, on how to survive the drought. In Colorado farmers and ranchers throughout the state can call or text (970) 988-0043 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to be connected to resources and a team to help address short and long-term drought conditions.
Colorado State University will offer a two-hour “Planning for Drought” presentation in early February.
Scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. on Feb. 2, the program will include presentations from legal, technical and planning professionals as well as grower-led drought preparation discussions and networking.
To participate, RSVP to email@example.com.
The program is in partnership with CSU Extension, Agricultural Experiment stations, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, Colorado Ag Water Alliance and the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Increasingly bleak forecasts for the Colorado River have for the first time put into action elements of the 2019 upper basin drought contingency plan.
The 24-month study released in January by the Bureau of Reclamation, which projects two years of operations at the river’s biggest reservoirs, showed Lake Powell possibly dipping below an elevation of 3,525 feet above sea level in 2022. That elevation was designated as a critical threshold in the agreement to preserve the ability to produce hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam.
In a letter to water officials in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Wayne Pullan and Jacklynn Gould said the “minimum probable” forecast triggers “enhanced monitoring and coordination,” and instructed states to identify point persons to take part in monthly planning calls. Those meetings have yet to be scheduled.
“It’s really about giving people an advanced warning,” said Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River District, and one of the architects of the 2019 plan.
The forecast in question is called the “minimum probable” forecast, one of the more pessimistic possible futures on the river that supplies water to 40 million people across seven U.S. states and two in Mexico. But the model makes clear it’s plausible that Lake Powell could see rapid declines within the next two years, Kuhn said, and water managers need to consider all possible scenarios and plan for them.
“We need a cushion, and time to react,” Kuhn said. “So the 3,525 (elevation) was put in as a way to give everyone time to think about what’s happening.”
If federal models show the reservoir’s elevation declining past that threshold under the “most probable” forecast, smaller reservoirs upstream in the four Upper Basin states could release water to prop up Lake Powell. The models don’t show that scenario as the likeliest to occur yet…
As exceptional drought conditions expanded to more than 65% of the watershed’s total land area in 2020, operational forecasts for the Colorado River have worsened dramatically. Between Oct. and Nov. 2020, Bureau of Reclamation models projected a possible one million acre-foot drop in Lake Powell’s water storage due to lagging snowpack totals and record-setting soil moisture deficits.
“That was the first glimmer we could be looking at this way earlier than we expected,” said Amy Haas, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission.
The drought contingency plans place much of the authority to direct the response in the Department of Interior Secretary. While Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico has been nominated for the post, the position is currently vacant. So too is the position of Bureau of Reclamation commissioner, which means much of the drought response coordination is happening at the regional director level, something the drought contingency plans allowed for, Haas said.
Colorado is facing a very uncertain spring and summer when it comes to water thanks to a widespread drought that developed last year. According to NOAA’s National Center for Environmental Information 2020 was the second driest year on record in the state since 1895. The driest year in Colorado’s recorded weather history was 2002…
Many times we’ll see a few dry months where drought develops, but it is often in just a portion of the state, or it will be followed by a wet period that either resolves things or at least keeps the drought from getting worse. But in recent history we find ourselves getting into longer periods of dryness where drought becomes widespread and reaches extreme to exceptional levels. The years 2002, 2012 and 2013 come to mind, in addition to other shorter bouts of widespread drought in years such as 2006, 2018 and 2019…
It hasn’t been this dry in Colorado since the record drought year of 2002, which was abruptly ended when a historic blizzard slammed the region in March 2003. The storm was one of the worst since state weather records started in 1872.
The multi-day storm dropped up to 3 feet of snow around metro Denver with more than 7 feet in the adjacent foothills. Strong northerly winds produced drifts in Denver up to 6 feet tall. Widespread damage was reported to trees, roofs and powerlines because the snow was so heavy and wet…
It’s hard to know what this year will bring but it is clear we need something to change with the current weather pattern to ensure we do not fall into a more dire situation when it comes to water storage and supply. In the short term the outlook isn’t the best since the planet is currently in a La Niña weather pattern, which is an abnormal cooling of the sea surface waters in the eastern part of the Pacific Ocean along the equator.
Aside from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains cashing in on a beneficial storm track in southern Colorado, the rest of the state has been far below normal.
This has driven the statewide snowpack to its slowest start since 2018. It is also getting uncomfortably close to the minimum set in 2002.
Much of central and western Colorado has seen less than 25% of the typical month-to-date precipitation. In many mountain areas, this equates to several feet of snow that have been missing this month, and a snowpack that has largely flatlined.
Statewide snowpack currently sits around 73% of the long-term average. The current value is also getting inflated by the Upper Rio Grande river basin. This area roughly bound by an Alamosa-Salida-Silverton triangle is running close to normal when it comes to snowpack. Most of the other regions across the state are now less than 70% of normal…
Peak snowpack typically gets reached during the first week of April. By mid-April, the spring melt tends to ramp up quickly.
Given the current numbers, Colorado needs at least 133% of average snowfall for the rest of the season to reach a normal early April peak.
In the Denver area, this snow-starved January is not as much of a rarity. January is one of the driest months of the year for the Interstate 25 corridor and the Plains. A widespread snow event early in the month was enough to keep January precipitation more respectable in eastern Colorado, when compared to normal.
There are many ways to gauge the severity of a drought. This winter in Colorado, all you have to do is look around.
“The stream flows across the state have been really, really, really down throughout the whole fall season, so that is an indicator,” said Karl Wetlaufer.
Wetlaufer is a rafter, so he pays attention to stream flow. It’s also part of his job as a Hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service Snow Survey Program.
Wetlaufer met CBS4 near Clear Creek in Golden on Thursday, to talk about the data collected over the last several months.
“We really are seeing it in the data. It really was as dry as everyone is saying,” he continued. “Our May precipitation in the mountains since May 15th, about half of our sites in the state had the second lowest or lowest on record, going back about 40 years.”
This type of data can be collected in several ways, but for Wetlaufer, one of the methods is through the SNOTEL Network.
“Which stands for snowpack telemetry, and those sites have been across the west for a little over 40 years now, in varying lengths,” said Wetlaufer. “We also have a network of manual stations called snow courses, and those actually go back to the mid 1930s so we use those for snowpack, precipitation, mountain temperatures. They also monitor soil moisture conditions, which is a really big challenge this year.”
The challenge with the dry soil is just how dry it is. Not only for wildfire conditions but when it comes to spring runoff as well.
“We’re going into winter with such a severe drought, we’re anticipating once that snow starts to melt, those dry soils are going to soak up a lot of the water.”
Water soaked up by dry soil, can’t fill reservoirs, and while it doesn’t mean towns will run out of water, it’s not farfetched…
Overall, Denver Water says its reservoirs remain around 78 percent full, with the average for this date being 82 percent – slightly below typical.
Todd Hartman with Denver Water says Lake Dillon for instance, is lower than normal primarily because of the need to pull more water from the reservoir during the hot and dry fall, when demand was unusually high.
Hartman referenced the state drought monitor, which is covered in red. He says despite the current conditions, there was still time to make a dent in the deficit.
Experts hope that with the incoming Biden administration, the federal government will finally regulate a class of chemicals known as PFASs
Many Americans fill up a glass of water from their faucet without worrying whether it might be dangerous. But the crisis of lead-tainted water in Flint, Mich., showed that safe, potable tap water is not a given in this country. Now a study from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit advocacy organization, reveals a widespread problem: the drinking water of a majority of Americans likely contains “forever chemicals.” These compounds may take hundreds, or even thousands, of years to break down in the environment. They can also persist in the human body, potentially causing health problems
A handful of states have set about trying to address these contaminants, which are scientifically known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). But no federal limits have been set on the concentration of the chemicals in water, as they have for other pollutants such as benzene, uranium and arsenic. With a new presidential administration coming into office this week, experts say the federal government finally needs to remedy that oversight. “The PFAS pollution crisis is a public health emergency,” wrote Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs, in a recent public statement.
Of the more than 9,000 known PFAS compounds, 600 are currently used in the U.S. in countless products, including firefighting foam, cookware, cosmetics, carpet treatments and even dental floss. Scientists call PFASs “forever chemicals” because their chemistry keeps them from breaking down under typical environmental conditions. “One of the unique features of PFAS compounds is the carbon-fluorine bond,” explains David Andrews, a senior scientist at EWG. “That bond is incredibly strong.” Ultimately this means that if PFASs enter the environment, they build up. These chemicals can linger on geologic time scales, explains Chris Higgins, a civil and environmental engineer at the Colorado School of Mines…
Because of their widespread use, release and disposal over the decades, PFASs show up virtually everywhere: in soil, surface water, the atmosphere, the deep ocean—and even the human body. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web site says that the agency has found PFASs in the blood of nearly everyone it has tested for them, “indicating widespread exposure to these PFAS in the U.S. population.” Scientists have found links between a number of the chemicals and many health concerns—including kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, liver damage, developmental toxicity, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, pregnancy-induced preeclampsia and hypertension, and immune dysfunction.
Concerned about PFASs’ persistence and potential harm, Andrews and his EWG colleague Olga Naidenko set out to assess Americans’ exposure to the chemicals via their drinking water. PFASs can get into this water in a variety of ways. For example, industrial sites might release the compounds into the water or air. Or they can leach from disposal sites. They can also percolate into groundwater from the firefighting foams used at airports and military bases. Andrews and Naidenko say there is a need for research into drinking-water levels because the federal government does not require testing water for PFASs. This leaves a gap in scientists’ understanding of overall exposure. Andrews and Naidenko focused their analysis on two types of these chemicals—perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS)—because those compounds had the most available data. The two researchers pulled that information together from various sources, including state agencies, the federal government and the EWG’s own measurements.
The scientists estimated that more than 200 million people—the majority of Americans—have tap water contaminated with a mixture of PFOA and PFOS at concentrations of one part per trillion (ppt) or higher. Andrews and Naidenko say previous research shows that levels higher than one ppt can increase the risk of conditions such as testicular cancer, delayed mammary gland development, liver tumors, high cholesterol and effects on children’s immune response to vaccinations. “It’s a calculation of what would be a safe exposure level,” Andrews says. Even when the researchers shifted their analysis to a higher level of 10 ppt, they still found some 18 million to 80 million Americans to be exposed. Representatives of the chemical industry have disagreed with such concerns. “We believe there is no scientific basis for maximum contaminant levels lower than 70 ppt,” the American Chemistry Council said in statement to Scientific American…
Technologies to remove PFASs from drinking water exist on both household and municipal levels. Granular activated carbon filters and reverse osmosis are two options, but they are costly and high-maintenance—and the burden falls on taxpayers. “PFASs are produced by companies, for which they receive a profit,” DeWitt says. “And then residents end up paying to clean up the pollution.” On top of that, PFAS that is removed from drinking water may simply end up elsewhere, such as in a landfill or river.
Some states have instituted or proposed limits on PFASs in drinking water, but experts say federal action is needed to tackle such a widespread problem. President Joe Biden’s administration may finally address that need. His campaign’s environmental justice plan specifically called out forever chemicals. And the plan said that the president will “tackle PFAS pollution by designating PFAS as a hazardous substance, setting enforceable limits for PFAS in the Safe Drinking Water Act, prioritizing substitutes through procurement, and accelerating toxicity studies and research on PFAS.” The new administration could carry out all of these goals unilaterally through executive action, without Congress’s cooperation. Some experts appear optimistic about this prospect. “I’m hopeful that the incoming administration will reempower the EPA so that it can actually create regulations to protect public health,” DeWitt says. “That is the agency’s charge—that is its mission.”
FromThe Associated Press (Matthew Brown) via The Aurora Sentinel:
The Biden administration announced Thursday a 60-day suspension of new oil and gas leasing and drilling permits for U.S. lands and waters, as officials moved quickly to reverse Trump administration policies on energy and the environment.
The suspension, part of a broad review of programs at the Department of Interior, went into effect immediately under an order signed Wednesday by Acting Interior Secretary Scott de la Vega. It follows Democratic President Joe Biden’s campaign pledge to halt new drilling on federal lands and end the leasing of publicly owned energy reserves as part of his plan to address climate change.
In Colorado, about 14 percent of federal land in the state is available for drilling, about 3.8 million acres. Currently, federal officials report around 5,000 oil and gas leases across the state.
The order did not ban new drilling outright. It includes an exception giving a small number of senior Interior officials — the secretary, deputy secretary, solicitor and several assistant secretaries — authority to approve actions that otherwise would be suspended.
The order also applies to coal leases and permits, and blocks the approval of new mining plans. Land sales and exchanges and the hiring of senior-level staff at the agency also were suspended…
On his first day in office Wednesday, Biden signed a series of executive orders that underscored his different approach — rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, revoking approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada and telling agencies to immediately review dozens of Trump-era rules on science, the environment and public health.
The Interior Department order did not limit existing oil and gas operations under valid leases, meaning activity won’t come to a sudden halt on the millions of acres of lands in the West and offshore in the Gulf of Mexico where much drilling is concentrated. Its effect could be further blunted by companies that stockpiled enough drilling permits in Trump’s final months to allow them to keep pumping oil and gas for years…
But Biden’s move could be the first step in an eventual goal to ban all leases and permits to drill on federal land. Mineral leasing laws state that federal lands are for many uses, including extracting oil and gas, but the Democrat could set out to rewrite those laws, said Kevin Book, managing director at Clearview Energy Partners…
National Wildlife Federation Vice President Tracy Stone-Manning said she expected Biden to make good on his campaign promise to end leasing altogether, or at least impose a long-term moratorium on any new issuances.
“The Biden administration has made a commitment to driving down carbon emissions. It makes sense starting with the land that we all own,” she said. “We have 24 million acres already under lease. That should get us through.”
Oil and gas extracted from public lands and waters account for about a quarter of annual U.S. production. Extracting and burning those fuels generates the equivalent of almost 550 million tons (500 metric tons) of greenhouse gases annually, the U.S. Geological Survey said in a 2018 study.
The Colorado River Water Conservation District at a board meeting [January 19, 2021] voted to give $1 million of their taxpayer-raised funds to help construct the Colorado River Connectivity Channel, which will improve deteriorated conditions at the headwaters of the Colorado River.
“When I look at this, it has benefits that are assisting our communities in the damage caused by transmountain diversions,” River District General Manager Andy Mueller said during the meeting.
The district’s vote is the first step in a final push to fund and build the long-awaited channel, which has been in the works since the early 2000s. The connectivity channel is the first project to which River District board members have allocated money as part of the organization’s new Project Partnership Funding Program.
If built, the channel would mitigate much of the damage to the Colorado and Fraser rivers that has been caused by the Windy Gap reservoir in Grand County. While the channel itself has broad support, its fate is tangled in that of a more controversial project that will draw additional water from the Colorado River system.
The Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District constructed the original Windy Gap Project in the 1980s to divert water from the Colorado River to customers across the Continental Divide.
“It’s an unchanneled reservoir, meaning that it’s just plopped right in the middle of the Colorado River,” said Mely Whiting, the legal counsel for Trout Unlimited. “It basically blocks the river all the way across, and that has serious consequences.”
The project cut off the river’s flow and led to large stretches of river that went dry. It caused sediment buildup and a documented decline in biodiversity below the reservoir, including a 38% loss of its aquatic insect species and declines in fish populations.
The connectivity channel, which is designed to undo some of this damage, would reconnect the Upper Colorado and Fraser rivers to the main stem of the Colorado by routing the river around the dam of the Windy Gap Reservoir, creating a path for fish, water and sediment to flow down the river.
Since the release of its original conceptual design in the early 2000s, the connectivity channel has seen its estimated costs grow from about $10 million to $23.5 million. The River District money would help close the remaining $7 million funding gap — but not completely. According to Mueller, the River District voted to give the money in hopes that it would entice other groups to do the same.
The project has been lauded as a rare example of collaboration in the world of water management. It carries support from an unusual coalition of environmental groups, local government and water-management groups on both sides of the Continental Divide. The River District is just one of 10 of the project’s financial backers, which include Northern Water, Grand County and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
But the channel’s construction does come at a cost. Much of the funding for the project depends on the construction of the Windy Gap Firming Project — an expansion of the Windy Gap Project that would result in the construction of a 90,000-acre-foot reservoir in Larimer County.
To date, the Windy Gap’s junior water right has meant that the project’s managers have not been able to divert water in dry years and have not had a place to store water for their customers during wet years. The reservoir would give the project’s customers a consistent supply — or “firm yield,” as it’s called — of 30,000 acre-feet annually.
Drawing additional water from the beleaguered Colorado River was controversial, so to win support for their plan, Northern Water signed on with a battery of agreements with environmental groups and Western Slope municipalities and water managers.
Included in these agreements was $5 million for the connectivity channel, a guarantee to maintain a minimum streamflow below the dam, construction of water storage for Western Slope communities and a promise to open negotiations over other water rights that impact the Western Slope.