#Snowpack news (January 7, 2021): Colorado snowpack mostly below average as #drought persists statewide — The #Denver Post

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS.

From The Denver Post (Jake Shapiro):

Tuesday night was a good one for Colorado’s snowpack. Steamboat Ski Resort reported 9 inches of new snow, Loveland another 7 and many other ski areas between 2 and 6 inches…

As of Wednesday, Southwest Colorado struggles the most with just 72% of normal snowpack levels, while the Rio Grande basin is slightly above average. Denver’s South Platte River basin is 82% of the average snowpack, which matches most of the state’s northern half, the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Colorado reports.

Where the snowpack is struggling is also where Colorado’s drought conditions are the worst. The entirety of the Four Corners counties — Montezuma, La Plata, San Juan Dolores and San Miguel — are listed by officials as being in an exceptional drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. Most of the western slope is either recorded as being in stage four drought conditions, which are considered exceptional, or stage three, considered extreme.

Custer and Alamosa counties are faring the best in Colorado, with droughts considered moderate. The two Rio Grande basin counties and the entire San Luis Valley are doing better than the rest of the state.

In its entity, Colorado is in a drought and has been since September when the water year began. Conditions have become much more extreme, meaning snow is all the more critical.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map January 7, 2021 via the NRCS.

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Jessica Snouwaert):

An inch of snow is expected to fall in Colorado Springs over the weekend, but the light sprinkling will not be enough to offset this winter’s lag in moisture.

Usually by this point in the year Colorado Springs has had 14.4 inches of snowfall, the National Weather Service reported. But since July 1, 2020, Colorado Springs has only seen 11.1 inches of snow, which is about 3 inches less than the average. The lack of moisture through the fall and into winter could have serious consequences for the trees and the landscape in the region…

About an inch of snow is due in the Pikes Peak region Saturday, Weather Service forecasters predict. The brief storm will clear out Saturday night with sun expected Sunday and temperatures rising into the 40s by Monday…

“There’s nothing we can do there in terms of making up water deficits,” Will said. “It either comes from nature or it doesn’t.”

#Drought news (January 7, 2021): Much of the rest of the West was relatively dry last week

Click on a thumbnail graphic below to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.

Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:

This Week’s Drought Summary

Since the release of last week’s map, several storm systems impacted the Lower 48. The first spread snowfall across the Rockies and into the Plains and Midwest. The second spread snow and ice from Texas across the central U.S. and into the Northeast. Meanwhile the Pacific Northwest was battered with a series of strong Pacific storms that brought heavy rain and mountain snow. The overall effect generally brought improvements in drought conditions to the Northwest and across an area extending from Texas to Pennsylvania. Deteriorating conditions were minimal and limited to areas such as the Pacific Northwest, North Dakota and Hawaii, where moisture deficits continued to increase. In all, the percent area of the U.S. experiencing moderate drought or worse stands at 45.76%, down from 48.99% last week…

High Plains

With this week’s band of heavy precipitation falling to the south, the drought status over much of the High Plains remains unchanged this week. Most locations received near-to-below normal amounts. Catching the northern edge of the heavy rain band, one-category improvements were made in southeast Kansas. In North Dakota, extreme drought (D3) was removed from the east central part of the state, since precipitation, soil moisture, streamflow and well data no longer supported the depiction. Severe drought (D2) was expanded in the northwest corner of the state, where moisture deficits have been building for the last six months…


A series of storms brought excess rain and snow to parts of the Pacific Northwest. Washington and parts of Oregon saw precipitation in excess of 200% of normal resulting in local one-category improvements to drought areas where precipitation deficits over the last six to 12 months decreased and streamflow and soil moisture showed recovery. Conditions deteriorated in south central Oregon, with the expansion of severe drought (D3). This area has missed out on most of the rain after a very dry year. Much of the rest of the West was relatively dry last week. State drought teams noted that in areas where rain and snow fell, it wasn’t enough to increase moisture availability; in areas where it didn’t the dryness didn’t yet warrant additional degradations.

In Hawaii, rainfall continued to favor the east-facing windward slopes of the state while leeward areas continued to dry out. As a result, abnormal dryness (D0) was expanded on Kauai to cover all of the southern slopes of the island; moderate drought (D1) was expanded on Oahu to cover the west-facing slopes of the Waianae Range and near South Point on the Big Island. Finally, extreme drought (D3) was expanded on Maui and introduced on Kahoolawe. No changes were made to the maps this week in Alaska. The state continues to be free of drought with areas of abnormal dryness near the Wrangell Mountains, in the Far North, and on Kodiak Island. The map also remained unchanged in Puerto Rico with abnormal dryness and pockets of moderate drought (D1) in the north central part of the island…


Widespread above normal precipitation fell across the region resulting in large swaths of drought improvements. In Texas, this week’s winter storm brought 1 to 4 inches of precipitation, more than what is normally received in an entire month this time of year. This resulted in one-category, and localized two-category improvements to drought areas in all but the far western part of the state, the Panhandle and South Texas. Moderate drought (D1) was removed from southeast Oklahoma and Arkansas and reduced in Mississippi and Tennessee where rainfall exceeded more than three times the normal amount. In addition to helping chip away at short- and long-term precipitation deficits across the region, soil moisture and streamflow showed recovery…

Looking Ahead

The National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center forecast for the remainder of the week calls for continued storminess in the Pacific Northwest. Heavy rain is expected along the coastal ranges of Washington, Oregon and northern California, with snow at higher elevations. As the storms move eastward, snow is forecast for the northern and central Rocky Mountains while the northern Plains are expected to receive a wintry mix of rain, snow and/or ice. Forecasts for the southern Plains, South and Southeast call for showers and thunderstorms. Areas from the mid-Mississippi Valley to the Mid-Atlantic can also expect a wintry mix of precipitation while light snow is forecast for the Great Lakes region, Northeast and central Appalachians. Moving into next week, the Climate Prediction Center 6- to 10-day outlook (valid January 12-16) favors above normal temperatures for the Southwest and much of the northern part of the country. Below-normal temperatures are expected in the southern and Mid-Atlantic States. The greatest probabilities for above-normal precipitation are expected in the Pacific Northwest and Northern Plains.

US Drought Monitor one week change map ending January 5, 2021.

CDPHE will not lower mercury limits — The #Leadville Herald-Democrat


From The Leadville Herald-Democrat (Sean Summers):

Following more than a year of back-and-forth with state regulators, the Leadville Sanitation District has been issued a new wastewater discharge permit that will allow for the same amount of mercury to be present in treated water released into California Gulch.

The new permit, issued by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE), came after outside evaluations and public comments to the state agency called attention to Leadville Sanitation District’s (LSD) inability to meet proposed lower mercury limits without substantial upgrades.

The previous permit limited acceptable mercury levels in treated water to 0.077 micrograms per liter. Though CDPHE was going to require a lower limit of 0.044 micrograms per liter in the new permit, the limit will remain the same under the recently implemented five-year discharge permit.

While the new permit maintains the same limits for mercury levels, it requires the sanitation district to monitor for a number of contaminants not previously recorded, including uranium and radium, among others.

The permit, citing a 1989 report regarding the release of gasoline from underground storage tanks, also calls for new monitoring of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene given the potential for groundwater contamination from the Tabor Grand Hotel service site.

The permit went into effect on Jan. 1, and requires regular reporting of contaminant levels to CDPHE.

LSD has had issues meeting the 0.077 microgram-per-liter mercury limit in the past. The district was found to be out of compliance with state-determined mercury limits in 2017, prompting evaluations of the district’s collection system.

As the organization responsible for receiving, treating and releasing all of Lake County’s wastewater, LSD has since been evaluating the sources of entry for contaminants into the county’s wastewater system.

While the district has not been able to pinpoint the exact entry point for mercury and other contaminants, evaluations of the district’s aging collection system, made up of pipes and drains throughout Leadville, suggest that the intake system has leaks which may allow for contaminant infiltration and leakage.

After recording a lower-than-expected amount of incoming sewage based on the number of residences and businesses served in the sanitation district, CDPHE is requiring LSD address the issue under the new permit. In its explanation of the new requirement, CDPHE says the low input may be a result of sewage leaking from the collection system before reaching the treatment facility.

The new permit requires LSD to meet acceptable mercury limits stipulated in the 2021 permit by September 2023. The district is required to submit a report that identifies sources of cadmium, zinc, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene by Sept. 30 of this year.

#LakePowellPipeline tests #ColoradoRiver’s future — S&P Global Market Intelligence #COriver #aridification

From S&P Global Market Intelligence (Richard Martin):

In an era of perennial [aridification], when the future of the Colorado River watershed, the lifeline of the U.S. Southwest, is the subject of fierce debate in state capitols across the region, the idea of bringing more than 26 billion gallons of water a year to a community of fewer than 200,000 people on the edge of the Mojave Desert strikes many as folly. To officials in Washington County, of which St. George is the county seat, though, it is a critical resource for the future.

Currently the county has one primary source of water, the Virgin River, said Todd Adams, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, and more will be needed in the coming decades.

“They only have one water source, and they have potential vulnerabilities with the Virgin River,” Adams said in a recent interview. “They need a second reliable source.”

What’s more, St. George, a bedroom community about 120 miles from Las Vegas with more than a dozen golf courses, lavish resorts and a high percentage of retirees, is expected to continue to grow rapidly through mid-century. To serve all those new arrivals, and all those fairways, more water will have to be imported, say local and state officials.

“Based on the population growth projections for Washington County through 2060, it’s expected to triple in size to over 500,000,” said Adams. “And with that growth, additional water sources will be needed.”

The problem is that taking water from one part of the Colorado River watershed diminishes the water available for other parts. And long before St. George reaches its ultimate population level, there may not be enough to go around…

Proposed Lake Powell Pipeline project map via the Washington County Water Conservation District (Utah) as of November 30, 2020.


Approved by the Utah state legislature in 2006, the Lake Powell Pipeline has become one of what opponents and environmentalists have dubbed “zombie water projects”: proposals for diversion and transportation in the Colorado River watershed that face significant opposition and may never get built, but that refuse to die.

The pipeline was originally pitched as a source of water and power generation. The initial plan called for a large hydropower generating station along the route and a reservoir for pumped energy storage, but those elements were scrapped to reduce the environmental impact of the overall system, according to Karry Rathje, a spokesperson for the Washington County Water Conservation District. The line will still include six smaller inline hydropower facilities, to manage the water pressure and to reduce the electricity load from the pipeline on the regional grid. Those stations will total 85,000 MWh of generation annually, at full capacity; the full project will consume around 317,500 MWh, making it a net consumer of 232,500 MWh a year.

Reducing the amount of water in Lake Powell, though, could affect electricity production at the two major downstream hydro stations on the Colorado, at Glen Canyon Dam below Lake Powell, built in 1964, with 1,312 MW of generation capacity, and the two plants at Hoover Dam, built in 1936, with a combined capacity 2,078 MW, below Lake Mead. Both dams have become symbols of the 20th-century conquest of the Southwest and of the human depredation of the Colorado River ecosystem. Glen Canyon, in particular, was controversial from its conception; environmentalists today loudly demand its removal…

Together, the two dams produce enough electricity to feed roughly 630,000 homes across the region. Because hydropower generation is dependent on the volume of water stored in the reservoirs, as the levels of lakes Mead and Powell fall, electricity production will follow. Lake Powell has been below its average annual elevation every year in this century, according to data collected by Western Resource Advocates; in 2018 the difference was more than 30 feet.

Electricity production from all three facilities has fallen slightly in recent years, and water experts believe the future could be far worse.

“Higher temperatures and altered precipitation patterns” — i.e., the effect of global climate change — are expected to reduce streamflows in the basin by up to 11% by 2075, according to a 2013 white paper by Aaron Thiel of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Water Policy. “These factors, combined with increased summer evaporation rates, could reduce reservoir storage by as much 10-13 percent, and ultimately reduce electricity generation by 16-19 percent in the Colorado River Basin.”

Reduced electricity from hydropower could be only one of the obstacles facing big water-diversion projects like the LPP, as policymakers face the new drier, hotter era in the Southwest.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2019 of the #coriver big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck

Business risk

Governed by a complex web of agreements and water rights stemming from the Colorado River Compact of 1922, water use in the basin has long outstripped the actual water available. As the climate warms that gap is sure to expand.

A 2017 paper in the journal Water Resources Research, by Bradley Udall of Colorado State University and Jonathan Overpeck of the Colorado River Research Group, found that “As temperatures increase in the 21st century due to continued human emissions of greenhouse gasses, additional temperature‐induced flow losses [in the Colorado River] will occur.” Those losses could exceed 20% below the 20th-century average flow by mid‐century and 35% by 2100.

And they could be devastating to the region’s economy. According to a 2014 study that was produced by Arizona State University’s Seidman Research Institute and commissioned by Business for Water Stewardship, a non-profit organization, the Colorado River supports $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity and 16 million jobs across the seven states of the basin. Water from the river is essential to at least half the gross economic product in each of those states, including 65% in New Mexico and 87% in Nevada, the economists found. A drop in available water of only 10% would endanger some $143 billion in economic activity in a year.

Businesses everywhere are increasingly vulnerable to the risks presented by inadequate supplies of clean water. The 2019 Global Water Report produced by CDP, a nonprofit organization focused on the environmental impacts of companies, investors and governments, found that, worldwide, the total business value at risk due to water shortages and water pollution reached $425 billion. In the U.S. Southwest, that risk grows more acute with each year of persistent drought…

Despite being identified in a June 2020 executive order from the Trump administration as among the infrastructure projects that should be pushed quickly through the environmental review process, the LPP has sparked near-universal opposition from the other six states of the basin. That opposition crescendoed in September with a letter to the Secretary of the Interior from a coalition of state water agencies and governors’ offices in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming demanding that the project be paused or abandoned…

Overlook of downtown St. George and adjacent Pine Valley Mountains. By St. George Chamber of Commerce – St. George Chamber of Commerce, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54242094

Subsidized water

In southern Utah that debate is complicated by a range of factors with origins in the economics and politics of water in the West.

People in Washington County use around 300 gallons of water per capita per day, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Geological Survey, more than twice the national average and 90 gallons more per capita than residents of Las Vegas, a city of nearly 650,000. And they get their water cheaply: water rates in the county average around $1.50 per 1,000 gallons, less than half of what Las Vegans pay and way below the $5/1,000 gal. that Denverites pay.

Zach Renstrom, the general manager of the Washington County Water Conservation District, disputes those numbers, saying that the state of Utah includes evaporation from reservoirs and re-used water in its water-use calculations…

Still, simple economics indicate that if people in southwest Utah paid more for their water, they would use less.

“Water use in Utah is subsidized, mostly by property taxes,” said Gabriel Lozada, an associate professor of economics at the University of Utah who has extensively modeled the Lake Powell Pipeline project. “So people in urban areas don’t see what the right price of water is. Unsurprisingly, Utah urban dwellers use a lot more water. The price of water we face is way way too low.”

And Washington County residents will eventually have to pay for the new pipeline, after the state fronts the construction costs. That, says Lozada, in turn would raise water rates — thus obviating the need for the pipeline as residents use less water. The possibility of rising prices leading to more conservation, and thus less demand, has not factored, at least publicly, into the developers’ considerations.

“In many scenarios it’s possible for Washington County to raise rates enough to pay back the cost of the pipeline,” said Lozada, “but they’d be so high that demand for water would be so low that no one would want to buy the water in the pipeline.”

Renstrom claims that Lozada and other opponents have an underlying agenda…

The argument over the Lake Powell Pipeline is a proxy for a larger debate about the future of the economy and society in the West, between competing visions of unlimited growth and boundless prosperity, on the one hand, and a new era of scarcity, conservation and more modest expectations on the other.

The biggest consumer of water in the Southwest, by far, is not cities like St. George but big agriculture. Since the early 20th century farmers have been growing water-intensive crops like alfalfa and cotton in the desert, using groundwater and Colorado River water. That era could be coming to a close. As the region urbanizes, converting farmland to towns, average water use goes down. Even a golf course uses less water than an alfalfa farm. A 2015 report on Utah’s future water resources and needs by the state’s Legislative Audit Division found that the Utah Division of Water Resources “understates the growth in the water supply when estimating Utah’s future water needs.”

“The division has not attempted to identify the incremental growth in supply that will occur as municipalities develop additional sources of water,” the auditors wrote. “That additional supply will mainly come from agriculture water that is converted to municipal use as farmland is developed.”

At the same time, municipal water districts in the West, such as Las Vegas, are actually using less water per capita as their populations grow…

“The widespread presumption that population growth means growing water demand drives much of the politics of water planning in the Colorado River Basin,” write Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservancy District, and John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, in their 2019 history of Colorado River management, Science Be Dammed. “But it is wrong. Simply put, we are consistently using less water. In almost all the municipal areas served with Colorado River water, water use is going down, not up, despite population growth.”

That means the fundamental presumption at the heart of the Lake Powell Pipeline — that in order to grow, Washington County needs more water from the river — is likewise flawed. And it offers hope that as the climate warms and the region dries, it’s possible to forge a new relationship between the Colorado River and the communities that depend on it.

“We have been getting it wrong for a century,” write Kuhn and Fleck. Time to get it right is growing short.