#Colorado’s major snowstorm only made a dent in the #drought. These maps and graphs explain what’s going on – The Colorado Sun #snowpack #runoff

Golden Gate Canyon State Park March 2021. Photo credit: Colorado Parks & Wildlife

From The Colorado Sun (Luch Haggard):

The South Platte and Arkansas river basins are closer to average after last week’s precipitation, but the Western Slope remains painfully dry.

Despite what multiple feet of snow on the ground might suggest to many Coloradans, the state’s long-term drought remains persistent. And water forecasters are worried that even if the state receives decent spring moisture, Colorado and the greater American Southwest will need lots more to emerge from this drought.

The record-breaking storms that buried Front Range and Eastern Plains gave a rare glimmer of hope in a drier-than-normal winter. But resolving a drought takes more than one big snowfall.

Compared to last week, there have been some improvements.

US Drought Monitor one week change map for Colorado ending March 16, 2021.

Denver received the fourth-largest snowfall on record from March 12 to 14, and the Front Range is still largely blanketed in slowly melting drifts. The highly anticipated storm significantly improved conditions east of the Continental Divide, according to the latest drought monitor report.

Brad Pugh, a meteorologist with the Climate Prediction Center and author of this week’s report, called last weekend’s snow an “ideal storm” for the area. The snow had a high water content, which means that lots of liquid water is released as it melts. Soils have started to thaw as well, especially on the northeastern plains, so that melted water is able to sink in and recharge the woefully dry ground. Resaturating soils is a necessary prerequisite before water can run off into streams and rivers.

Yet the driest parts of the state, which are mostly on the Western Slope, received scant precipitation from the storm and are still suffering under the worst category of “exceptional” drought. Storms there have had low water content and have been less frequent, and since the drought there has been so severe for so long, Pugh said it’s unlikely conditions will improve anytime soon.

Conditions were better one year ago, but still weren’t great.

Significantly more snow fell last winter than this one, which helped to resolve some drought conditions that had set in during the fall of 2019; the last drought monitor analysis to clear the state of any drought conditions was July 6, 2019. By March 17, 2020, about 30% of the state was out of drought, and none of the state was classified in the worst two categories of “exceptional” or “extreme.”

But an earlier-than-normal runoff threw typical patterns out the window. By May 2020, worsening degrees of drought began to creep back in, especially in the south and west of the state. Summer monsoons failed to materialize, and a wildfire-laden autumn with little precipitation led to 2021 starting with the worst drought conditions since 2002…

Snow metrics have improved in some river basins, but not enough.

Colorado statewide snowpack basin-filled map March 20, 2021 via the NRCS.

Last weekend’s snowstorm led to significant improvements in the Arkansas and South Platte river basins, which start in the mountains west of Denver and flow east across the plains. Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the National Resource Conservation Service, said that before the storm, more than half of the SNOTEL sites were marking their worst or second worst records of precipitation. Some of those have improved significantly since the storm…

Statewide snowpack Basin High/Low graph March 19, 2021 via the NRCS.

The snow-water equivalent — that is, how much liquid water is held in snow — for Colorado as a whole is lagging behind the median for this time of year. The metric usually peaks in mid-April. From the start of the water year on Oct. 1 through Thursday, current measurements are roughly 92% of the median.

Since this drought has lasted so long, it will also take a significant, sustained period of high quality snow and rain to recover, which is not common in Colorado. A couple of record-breaking storms could do the trick, but those are less likely still. Even if spring storms roll through bountifully, Wetlaufer said stream flows will likely be significantly lower than expected, which affects wildlife, plant health, agriculture and more.

The forecast isn’t good west of the Mississippi.

Colorado is not the only parched state; much of the western U.S., and especially the southwest, is experiencing drought to varying degrees, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Climate scientists call this a “megadrought,” which has lasted since 1999.

2021 #COleg: HB21-1181 Agricultural Soil Health Program

Governor Hickenlooper, John Salazar and John Stulp at the 2012 Drought Conference

Here’s a guest column from John Stulp that’s running in the Sterling Journal-Advocate:

The proposed “Voluntary Soil Health Program,” (HB21-1181), would empower the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) to develop voluntary, incentivized programs for Colorado farmer and ranchers that will support the vitality of agriculture statewide. This bipartisan legislation, HB21-1181, was introduced by State Reps. Karen McCormick (D-Longmont) and Perry Will (R-New Castle),and State Sen. Cleave Simpson (R-Alamosa).

As a longtime farmer and rancher involved with the Prowers Conservation District and who cares about Colorado agriculture and rural communities, I fully support this legislation and encourage others to study and support it as well.

No sector of our economy is more vulnerable to the unpredictable economic climate, weather extremes including drought, dwindling water supplies, and development pressures. These constraints have and are likely to become more extreme, and HB21-1181 can help Colorado farmers and ranchers continue their long legacy of land and soil stewardship that have helped them withstand these pressures to date.

Graphic via Aksik.org.

The experience of farmers and ranchers in Colorado and nationwide – and research by CSU scientists – shows that adopting best soil health practices can reduce input costs and at the same time improve soil productivity, drought resilience and, ultimately, increase long-term viability. For these reasons, farmers and ranchers are increasingly adopting best management practices. From 2012 to 2017 in Colorado: No-till acreage increased 5.0%; reduced till acreage increased 38.4%; and traditional “intensive tillage” land management decreased by 21.3%. Over half of the 12,407 Colorado livestock operations practiced adaptive grazing management in 2017.

Nonetheless, farmers and ranchers face barriers to adopting soil health practices. Investing in soil health means upfront costs, but long-term benefits. Additional funding, technical assistance and educational opportunities are needed. Colorado conservation districts have a great history of soil stewardship, but they often have insufficient resources to meet farmers and ranchers needs. Likewise, USDA NRCS programs are competitive and do not fully meet farmers and ranchers needs.

HB21-1181 would help fill those gaps. The voluntary soil health program would complement USDA NRCS programs and help farmers and ranchers better access those resources. The USDA is indicating that soil health is a high priority, and this legislation will position Colorado to better access those federal resources. It would also provide additional resources to conservation districts and counties who want to work with producers on soil health. Programs would also help farmers and ranchers enter established, as well as new and emerging, markets for alternative crops and crops grown using best soil health practices.

HB21-1181 is the result of a multi-year stakeholder process involving Colorado farmers, ranchers, producer groups, scientists, and conservation districts. This bill explicitly prohibits CDA from implementing any type of program that is mandatory or involuntary. To ensure that new programming works for farmers and ranchers, the bill establishes a state soil health advisory committee to develop voluntary and incentives-based programs based on the needs of the agricultural community. These include a grant program, a reduced cost soil health testing program, and other programs supported by the agricultural community.

Most of Colorado land — 51.8 million acres, or 78% — is used for some form of agricultural production. This bill will help keep that land in agriculture. The benefits of these programs will not only go to farmers and ranchers but will have a positive impact on our rural communities and be enjoyed for generations to come. Healthy soil is one of the most practical and available tools for farmers and ranchers to enhance their long-term viability. HB21-1181 will help ensure that resources are available to every Colorado farmer and rancher, regardless of size, who wants to improve their soil health.

I urge everyone who is concerned about the future of Colorado’s agriculture and rural communities to contact your representative and senator in the Colorado General Assembly and encourage them to support this common-sense legislation.

John Stulp is the former Commissioner of Agriculture under Governor Bill Ritter, Water Policy Advisor to Governor John Hickenlooper and a wheat and cattle farmer/rancher in Prowers County.

A #ColoradoRiver Showdown Is Looming. Let The Posturing Begin — KUNC #COriver #aridification #DCP #LakePowellPipeline

Horseshoe Bend.

From KUNC (Luke Runyon and Lexi Perry):

A showdown is looming on the Colorado River. The river’s existing management guidelines are set to expire in 2026. The states that draw water from it are about to undertake a new round of negotiations over the river’s future, while it’s facing worsening dry conditions due in part to rising temperatures.

That means everyone with an interest in the river’s future — tribes, environmentalists, developers, business groups, recreation advocates — is hoping a new round of talks will bring certainty to existing water supplies and demands.

The table at which those deals will be hammered out is beginning to take shape. The federal government, mostly in the form of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the seven basin states hold the greatest power in determining what will be up for debate, what will be left out, and whose voices are listened to.

To prepare for the talks, and to coalesce around a set of priorities, leaders in the individual states are attempting to settle their internal issues before coming to that broader negotiating table. We reached out to leaders in three of those states to learn how they’re preparing:

Sand Hollow Reservoir proposed terminal storage for the Lake Powell Pipeline. Photo credit: Utah Department of Natural Resources


In Utah, all eyes are pointing toward the state’s southwest corner. That’s where the proposed Lake Powell pipeline would transport water from the Colorado River’s second largest reservoir and deposit it near the fast-growing communities of Washington County.

The proposed pipeline is shaping up to be an important bargaining chip in the state’s overall Colorado River negotiation strategy.

Utah’s pursuit of the project has also led the six other states in the watershed — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Nevada, California and Arizona — to raise serious concerns…

Central Arizona Project Mark Wilmer Pumping Plant. By No machine-readable author provided. Kjkolb assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=830400


In Arizona, water from the Colorado River enters the Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal, and becomes a ribbon of blue that winds through miles of arid desert to reach the cities of Phoenix and Tucson, where it supplies homes, gardens, businesses, agriculture and golf courses.

Under the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, Arizona is already taking cuts to its CAP supply. If current projections hold, those cuts will increase nearly three-fold next year, said Ted Cooke, the project’s general manager.

“So 512,000 acre-feet coming out of the CAP supply is about a third — 30% to a third. That’s a lot,” Cooke said.

Arizona could lose a lot more water if the levels in Lake Mead keep dropping. The state’s junior rights mean its Colorado River supply is more vulnerable than others. With drought plans in place now, Arizona is getting good practice at reining in its uses and finding flexibility as supplies shrink, he said…

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism


The Colorado River starts as a modest-sized stream high up in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. As the river flows through the Southwest, it picks up enough water from its tributaries to supply 40 million people across the seven basin states and Mexico.

About 70% of the river’s flow comes from Colorado’s Western Slope. That fact alone leads water officials in the state to feel protective of the river, said Colorado Water Conservation Board director Becky Mitchell. She also sits on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

“First and foremost, I think it’s important, as Colorado’s commissioner, that we’re looking at protecting our legal entitlement on the Colorado River and protecting our state’s waters for those who depend on it,” Mitchell said.

Leading up to this new round of negotiations, Upper Basin leaders, like Mitchell, have been under pressure to consider implementing what’s referred to as a “demand cap.” In theory, it could be one half of a “Grand Bargain,” a concept that’s been in the Colorado River management ether for years.

Water demands on the river in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico have been flat since the late 1980s. Putting a hard limit on future uses would give water planners throughout the entire basin more certainty, and could appease downstream users from ever issuing a dreaded Compact Call on the river. But Mitchell said that much buzzed-about concept is a non-starter.

Beetle outbreak impacts vary across #Colorado forests — @ColoradoStateU

Spruce Beetle-impacted forest in Southwestern Colorado. Photo Credit: Sarah Hart

Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Karina Puikkonen):

It’s no secret. Colorado’s forests have had a tough time in recent years. While natural disturbances such as insect outbreaks and wildfires occurred historically and maintained forest health over time, multiple, simultaneous insect disturbances in the greater region over the past two decades have led to rapid changes in the state’s forests.

A bird’s eye view can reveal much about these changes. Annual aerial surveys conducted by the Colorado State Forest Service and USDA Forest Service have provided yearly snapshots for the state. New collaborative research co-led by Colorado State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison now supplements this understanding with even greater spatial detail.

The study titled Effects of Bark Beetle Outbreaks on Forest Landscape Pattern in the Southern Rocky Mountains, U.S.A. analyzed Landsat satellite imagery between 1997-2019 to quantify how outbreaks of three different insect species have impacted forests across high-elevation forests in Colorado, southern Wyoming, and northern New Mexico. The interuniversity team found that while these collective beetle outbreaks impacted around 40 percent of the area studied, the effects of these outbreak varied due to differences in forest structures and species composition across the region.

“In contrast to research that has examined the heterogeneous effects of wildfire on trees, there hasn’t been much work on the landscape-level variation in bark beetle effects on forests, particularly across broad areas,” said Sarah Hart, co-author and assistant professor in the Forest and Rangeland Stewardship department. “Heterogeneity plays an important role in how these forests will look in the future, where surviving trees will regenerate the forest, and what potential there is for future outbreaks.”

Their results indicate that most forest stands affected by insects still have mature trees that can be sources for reestablishing seeds and conditions for the next generation of trees to grow. Areas with tree mortality greater than 90 percent were relatively small and isolated. Unlike severe wildfires that can kill all trees in its path, trees typically survive bark beetle outbreaks, facilitating forest recovery in upcoming decades.

Spruce beetle-impacted forest in Southwestern Colorado with moderate levels of tree mortality. Photo credit: Sarah Hart

High-resolution, field-level accuracy

Widespread outbreaks of three important bark beetle species have occurred in Colorado’s forests since the turn of the century: mountain pine beetle, spruce beetle, and the western balsam beetle (that affects various fir tree species). These bark beetles primarily target large trees with reduced defenses due to lower precipitation amounts and higher temperature trends since the turn of the century.

This research team combined satellite imagery capable of identifying small groups of dead trees with a decade of extensive field data from nearly 250 plots to develop presence and severity maps for tree mortality caused by bark beetle attacks. Having this data combination gave the research team detailed information about how many trees have died in particular places, and helped to identify what may still be causing the death of individual trees.

“These maps give us unique insight into the effects of recent insect outbreaks because they span a large area but also show a lot of detail, and we are confident that they are showing us how many trees are dying because technicians counted trees on the ground,” Kyle Rodman, lead author and post-doctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison said.

The maps the team produced indicate that areas most impacted by bark beetles are concentrated in northern and southwestern Colorado due to higher concentrations of old lodgepole pine and spruce forests which were then infested by mountain pine beetle and spruce beetle, respectively. Western balsam beetle impacts were also widespread across the region, but these beetles tended to kill fewer trees in any single location.

Example of presence and severity maps produced in the study.

“Satellite data is a crucial bridge that allows us to take detailed information from individual places and extend this localized knowledge to large areas,” Rodman said. “In using these maps, we can see how the forest has changed over the past 20 years during each of these outbreaks.”

Fortunately, much of the 25,000 square kilometer study area showed low to moderate levels of tree mortality, with high tree mortality being contained in small and isolated patches averaging only about nine city blocks in overall size.

“People tend to notice what has changed, rather than what has stayed the same,” Rodman said. “These forests have changed a lot, but I am hopeful. It will just take a little while for them to recover, but many of these beetle-killed forests are likely to recover within a few decades.”

This study was a multi-year, collaborative effort among the following institutions and organizations: Colorado State University, University of Wisconsin- Madison, Clark University, University of Colorado, The Nature Conservancy, Texas Tech University, University of Washington and Washington State University.

Virtual Public Meeting: Conditions on the upper San Juan, Navajo, and Blanco Rivers, Hosted by: The Upper #SanJuanRiver Watershed Enhancement Partnership, March 31, 2021 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Click here for all the inside skinny.

From The Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership (Mandy Eskelson and Al Pfister) via The Pagosa Springs Sun

A Pagosa Springs-based collaborative group, called the Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership (WEP), has been working since 2018 to identify concerns and opportunities to address the needs of the diverse water users of the Upper San Juan River Basin.

The WEP strives to be a community-driven effort that supports values and needs unique to our basin while assisting the broader state and regional goals of the Colorado State Water Plan and Southwest Basin Implementation Plan. The state calls these local planning efforts of multiple water uses either Stream Management Plans (SMP) or Integrated Water Management Plans (IWMP).

The WEP’s three-phased IWMP process is designed to ensure there is ample time to gather public feed- back, conduct analysis and create a plan with local priorities, which is why we encourage all community members to attend our upcoming virtual public meeting. We are excited to share our updates from our work and hear your ideas on how this information can be used to support local water users.

In Phase I, the WEP organized a steering committee comprised of representatives of the agricultural, environmental, municipal and recreational water users of our community to begin outlining water-related needs and issues. Through multiple public meetings, the steering committee gathered input on the geographic scope/focus, concerns and potential project opportunities to help guide what information was known, what gaps existed, new data to collect, and what analysis and modeling the community wanted in Phase II.

In 2020, as part of Phase II, the WEP has partnered with experts Lotic Hydrological and San Juan Conservation District/NRCS to analyze components identified as priorities during public meetings, such as current and future river flows, riparian habitat, forest health/wildfire risk influences on water resources, and agricultural infrastructure conditions and needs. Based on public feedback and the capacity of models and our partners, the WEP’s work has mainly focused on the upper San Juan watershed, but we continue to include steering committee members and project components from the Rio Blanco and Navajo watersheds.

Results from Phase II’s data analysis, field assessments and model outputs now need to be reviewed and approved by you, the community. Our upcoming public meeting on Wednesday, March 31, held via Zoom
from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., will present the preliminary results of these assessments and models, gather feedback to ensure it aligns with local experience and knowledge, or identify where additional data and analysis may be needed. WEP steering committee members Joe Crabb and Justin Ramsey will also present on local water systems and drought preparations.

Learn how to access the March 31 public meeting and find additional information about the Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership at http://www.mountainstudies.org/sanjuan/smp.

To learn more about other Colorado watershed groups conducting a SMP/IWMP process, visit www. coloradosmp.org. If you have questions, please contact Al Pfister at westernwildscapes@gmail.com or Mandy Eskelson at mandy@mountainstudies.org. We hope to “see” you on March 31.

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

The Pagosa Areas Water & Sanitation District approves new #drought management plan, aims to curb water use with a different approach — The #PagosaSprings Sun

The springs for which Pagosa Springs was named, photographed in 1874. By Timothy H. O. Sullivan – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17428006

From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Chris Mannara):

The Pagosa Area Water and Sani- tation District (PAWSD) Board of Directors approved its drought management plan at its regular meeting on March 11, with things mostly staying the same from last year’s plan, except for changes made to drought triggers.

In an interview on Monday, PAWSD Manager Justin Ramsey explained the reason behind the changes in drought triggers.

“Historically, it’s been a cumulative amount of water: how much water is in the lakes, how much water is in the river, altogether,” he said. “Now, we’re going to break that up. If the lake gets too low, we’re going to go into drought management regardless of what the river is doing, or vice versa.”

Drought management stages could also be triggered by snow water equivalency (SWE) data and whether or not a call is made on Fourmile Creek, he added later.

“We did it the exact same way, we just broke it up so it’s not a cumulative amount of water, it’s individual pieces of water that could put us into a drought stage,” he said.

According to the plan, there are four stages of drought, which in- cludes a voluntary period of water

The voluntary stage, according to the plan, is intended to give the community advanced notice about developing drought conditions and aims to start the process of water conservation, according to the plan.

Level-one drought management, or a low category of drought, could be triggered by a variety of methods, whether it be SWE, a call date on Fourmile, the reservoir level in Hatcher Lake, drought stages or the San Juan River flow, Ramsey noted.

Level one is categorized as being a stage that aims to build upon the voluntary efforts while also incorporating basic mandatory water-use restrictions that look to curb excessive outdoor irrigation. This stage would also include an “increase community outreach and awareness campaign,” according to the plan.

The plan further notes that there would no surcharges or modifications to rate structures, but penalties for noncompliance could be issued.

“For all of them, anything could go on depending on how early it happens,” Ramsey said of the four stages of drought triggers. “Any of these triggers could put you into a drought stage one through four. It just depends on what happens.”

Level two, or moderate level of drought, is described as an “advance notice” of severe drought conditions.

This stage of drought features amplified mandatory water-use restrictions, more aggressive com- munity outreach and a modified water-use rate structure for residential users.

Level three, or serious level of drought, is defined by the plan as drought conditions that threaten water availability.

“Mandatory water use restrictions are further amplified to curb water consumption and extend the usability of current water supplies,” the plan reads. “A drought surcharge will be implemented on both residential and commercial customers and the water use rate structure will be implemented for commercial customers and be further modified for residential customers.”

The final stage, level four, or severe drought, indicates “dangerously low” water supply levels, according to the plan.

This stage would feature drought surcharges and the water-use rate structure being further modified, according to the plan.

Ramsey explained that sur- charges will not be triggered until level three. There will be a charge for heavier water use at level two, but no surcharge will be incurred. The surcharge for drought stage three is $17.23 per equivalent unit (EU) and for drought stage four it’s $21.53 per EU, he noted.