Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.
US Drought Monitor map May 4, 2021.
West Drought Monitor map May 4, 2021.
High Plains Drought Monitor map May 4, 2021.
Colorado Drought Monitor map May 4, 2021.
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
This U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) week saw an active weather pattern with severe weather observed across portions of the central and southern Plains, Texas, mid-South, Midwest, and the Northeast. In Texas, 7-day rainfall accumulations ranged from 2 to 10+ inches leading to significant improvement in drought-related conditions across the state. Likewise, areas of northeastern Colorado and portions of the central Plains received much-needed rainfall (2-to-4-inch accumulations) leading to improvements on the map. Out West, 83% of the region is currently in moderate-to-exceptional drought with the most severe conditions centered on the Four Corners states, California, and Nevada. In California, conditions deteriorated on this week’s map in response to a combination of factors including back-to-back dry water years, above-normal temperatures, below-normal snowpack, and drought impacts (agricultural, ecosystem health, water supply, recreation)…
On this week’s map, areas of the region—including Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming—saw improvements, including a reduction in areas of Severe Drought (D2) in southwestern Nebraska and northwestern Kansas as well as in areas of Moderate Drought (D1) in northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming. In northeastern Colorado, 2 to 4+ inches of rainfall were observed during the past week, which provided a timely boost in soil moisture conditions for recently planted crops. Elsewhere, areas of Extreme Drought (D3) expanded in northern South Dakota and southern North Dakota. In northwestern South Dakota, the town of Lemmon saw its driest January through April period on record with only 0.71 inches of precipitation observed. The South Dakota State Extension and the North Dakota State Climate Office are both reporting drought-related impacts in their respective states, including poor water quality for livestock and dry stock ponds. In western North Dakota, dry conditions and strong winds have been exacerbating fire-related conditions as firefighters are battling two wildfires in the Dakota Prairie Grasslands. Average temperatures for the week were above normal across the region with positive temperature anomalies ranging from 2 to 9 deg F above normal…
On this week’s maps, areas of drought expanded across California, Oregon, and Washington following a very dry April. In California, areas of Extreme Drought (D3) expanded across the northern and central Sierra Nevada, as well as in areas of the San Joaquin Valley where water deliveries have been severely reduced due to the poor snowpack conditions across the Sierra (59% of normal on April 1 statewide) and below normal reservoir conditions. For the Water Year (since October 1), precipitation across most of California has been much below normal (bottom 10th percentile) with some locations—including areas of southeastern California, and the greater Bay Area—experiencing record or near-record dryness. In Marin County, the Marin Water District declared a water shortage emergency on April 20 in response to Marin’s total reservoir storage level dipping to 50% of capacity, whereas average storage for the date (May 4) is normally 90% of capacity. California’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville, were at 50% and 42% of normal, respectively, on May 4. Across the region, statewide reservoir storage levels were below normal in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, and Washington according to the NRCS on April 1. On the Colorado River system, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (May 5) is reporting Lake Mead at 38% of capacity while upstream Lake Powell is 35% full. In Oregon, drought-related conditions continue to deteriorate in western Oregon after a dry April. On the map, areas of D1 to D4 expanded in Oregon this week in response to a rapid decline of the mountain snowpack across the Cascades in addition to anomalously dry soils and well-below-normal streamflow levels. For the week, average temperatures were above normal (2 to 10 deg F) across most of the West, with the exception of areas of southeastern Arizona and southern New Mexico where temperatures were 2 to 9 deg F below normal…
On this week’s map, widespread improvements in areas of drought were made across Texas (and southern and eastern Oklahoma) in response to significant precipitation accumulations (ranging from 2 to 10+ inches) with areas along the Texas Gulf Coast and the Hill Country receiving the heaviest accumulations. The slow-moving front that entered the region last week brought severe storms with frequent lighting, tornados, and softball-sized hail that caused extensive property damage with damage estimates expected to exceed $3 billion. This week’s rainfall significantly improved soil moisture levels across much of Texas, but negative soil moisture anomalies remained across the Trans-Pecos and the Texas Panhandle regions according to the NASA Crop-CASMA. According to Water Data for Texas (May 4), monitored water supply reservoirs are currently 83.6% full, with most of the reservoirs in the eastern half of the state ~80% to 100% full and reservoirs in the western half of the state generally <50% full. Average temperatures for the week were below normal (2 to 10 deg F) in the Trans-Pecos, Edwards Plateau, and southern High Plains regions of Texas, whereas the rest of the region was above normal with the greatest anomalies (5 to 15+ deg F) observed in eastern Texas…
The NWS WPC 7-Day Quantitative Precipitation Forecast (QPF) calls for moderate-to-heavy liquid accumulations ranging from 2 to 4+ inches across the mid-South and lower Midwest while portions of the Plains, Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and the Southeast are expected to receive <1-inch accumulations. In the Intermountain West and Pacific Northwest, light precipitation (<1-inch accumulations) is forecasted for areas of the central and northern Rockies, and portions of the Cascades. The CPC 6-10-day Outlook calls for a moderate-to-high probability of above-normal temperatures in the Far West, Southwest, Great Basin, and Florida while a high probability of below-normal temperatures is forecasted across most of the Eastern Tier. In terms of precipitation, there is a moderate probability of above-normal precipitation across areas of the central and southern Plains, as well as the southeastern tier of the U.S. Below-normal precipitation is expected across the Pacific Northwest, Great Plains, and areas of the Intermountain West.
Here’s the one week change map ending May 4, 2021.
Just for grins here are US Drought Monitor maps for early May for the past few years.
Here’s the release from the University of California, Santa Cruz (Tim Stephens):
Despite differences in aquatic life and toxic metals in streams across a broad region of the western United States, scientists found common responses to cleanup of acid mine drainage
Many miles of streams and rivers in the United States and elsewhere are polluted by toxic metals in acidic runoff draining from abandoned mining sites, and major investments have been made to clean up acid mine drainage at some sites. A new study based on long-term monitoring data from four sites in the western United States shows that cleanup efforts can allow affected streams to recover to near natural conditions within 10 to 15 years after the start of abatement work.
The four mining-impacted watersheds—located in mountain mining regions of California, Colorado, Idaho, and Montana—were all designated as Superfund sites under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), which helps fund the cleanup of toxic-waste sites in the United States. They are among the few acid mine drainage sites where scientists have conducted extended studies to monitor the effectiveness of the remediation efforts.
“The good news from them all is that Superfund investments can restore the water quality and ecological health of the streams,” said David Herbst, a research scientist at UC Santa Cruz and coauthor of a paper on the new findings to be published in the June issue of Freshwater Science, now available online.
For the past two decades, Herbst has been monitoring streams affected by acid mine drainage from the Leviathan mine in the central Sierra Nevada. The new study developed out of discussions he had with other scientists involved in long-term studies of similar sites.
“There are not many of these long-term studies of impacted watersheds, and by combining our data we could identify the common threads of recovery between these different sites,” Herbst said.
To assess the recovery of aquatic life in streams and rivers severely polluted by the abandoned mines, the researchers combined data from long-term monitoring over periods of 20 years or more. They used aquatic insects and other diverse invertebrate life (such as flatworms and snails) as indicators of the restoration of ecological health, with nearby unpolluted streams serving as standards for comparison.
Even with differing mixes of toxic metals and different treatment practices used to control the pollution at each site, the studies documented successful recovery to near natural conditions within 10 to 15 years. Much of the recovery was rapid, occurring within the first few years of treatment.
“These promising results and shared paths suggest that even daunting environmental problems can be remedied given the effort and investment,” Herbst said.
The research also revealed that the sites shared common responses despite differences in the species of aquatic life occurring across this broad geographic region. Shared feeding habits, patterns of development, and behavioral characteristics unified how stream invertebrates responded to the alleviation of metal pollutants.
Species with traits such as feeding on algae, long life cycles, and clinging to the surfaces of stones became increasingly common as toxicity declined over time. Species that were more prevalent when metal concentrations were higher had traits such as rapid development, short life cycles, feeding on deposits of organic matter, and an ability to escape quickly off the bottom by drifting into the flow of water.
The species most sensitive to toxic metals are the mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies. Across all streams, the loss of these sensitive insects occurred at a toxicity level predicted by lab bioassays based on the combined levels of the toxic metals present.
“The convergence of these responses across streams and at a level consistent with how water quality criteria are established lends support to guidelines established for what chemical conditions are protective of stream and river ecosystems,” Herbst said.
The additive toxicity of the metals present determined the response to pollutants, he noted, showing that water quality standards should be based on combined metals present rather than singly for each metal. In other words, even if a metal is below its toxic level, when it is present with other metals the combined effect may exceed the tolerance of aquatic life.
“It is vital to account for this factor in how water quality standards for metals are applied,” Herbst said.
The other coauthors of the study are William Clements at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Michelle Hornberger and Terry Short at the U.S. Geological Survey in California, and Christopher Mebane at the USGS in Idaho.
A network of streams, lakes and marshes in Florida is suing a developer and the state to try to stop a housing development from destroying them.
The novel lawsuit was filed on Monday in Orange county on behalf of the waterways under a “rights of nature” law passed in November. It is the largest US municipality to adopt such a law to date.
The listed plaintiffs are Wilde Cypress Branch, Boggy Branch, Crosby Island Marsh, Lake Hart and Lake Mary Jane.
Laws protecting the rights of nature are growing throughout the world, from Ecuador to Uganda, and have been upheld in courts in India, Colombia and Bangladesh. But this is the first time anyone has tried to enforce them in the US.
The Orange county law secures the rights of its waterways to exist, to flow, to be protected against pollution and to maintain a healthy ecosystem. It also recognizes the authority of citizens to file enforcement actions on their behalf.
The suit, filed in the ninth judicial circuit court of Florida, claims a proposed 1,900-acre housing development by Beachline South Residential LLC would destroy more than 63 acres of wetlands and 33 acres of streams by filling and polluting them, as well as 18 acres of wetlands where stormwater detention ponds are being built.
In addition to seeking to protect the waterways’ intrinsic rights, the suit claims the development would disrupt the area’s hydrology and violate the human right to clean water because of pollution runoff from new roads and buildings.
Chuck O’Neal, president of campaign group Speak Up Wekiva who will be representing the wetlands in court, told the Guardian he looks forward to giving them a voice. “Our waterways and the wildlife they support have been systematically destroyed by poorly planned suburban sprawl. They have suffered in silence and without representation, until now.”
The housing development, known as the “Meridian Parks Remainder Project”, needs a development permit from the city of Orlando and a dredge-and-fill permit from the Florida department of environmental protection to proceed. The suit seeks to block these from being issued.
O’Neal said he hopes the court “reaches beyond current conventional thinking” in considering the case. “This is how the evolution of rights has occurred in western law since the signing of the Magna Carta through the abolition of slavery, through women’s suffrage and through court decisions such as Brown vs the Board of Education and most recently the acceptance of marriage equality.”
Thomas Linzey, senior legal counsel at the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights who helped secure Orange county’s rights of nature law last year, said: “Given the rampant development that’s occurred in Florida over the past 30 years, and the power struggle between the state government and local government over these issues, there are multiple grounds for a court to hold that the development cannot proceed as proposed.”
State work group trying to balance risks from investors, negative impacts to agriculture
Melting snow and flowing irrigation ditches mean spring has finally arrived at the base of Grand Mesa in western Colorado.
Harts Basin Ranch, a 3,400-acre expanse of hayfields and pasture just south of Cedaredge, in Delta County, is coming back to life with the return of water.
Twelve hundred of the ranch’s acres are irrigated with water from Alfalfa Ditch, diverted from Surface Creek, which flows down the south slopes of the Grand Mesa. The ranch has the No. 1 priority water right — meaning the oldest, which comes with the ability to use the creek’s water first — dating to 1881.
What makes the ranch unique among its Grand Mesa-area neighbors is its owner. Conscience Bay Company, a Boulder-based private real estate investment firm, bought the property in 2017.
That fact alone has brought its owners scrutiny from neighbors and Western Slope water managers. Conscience Bay and its president, Eli Feldman, have been accused of water speculation — which means buying up the ranch just for its senior water rights and hoarding them for a future profit.
That is an accusation Feldman denies.
“Any time you come into a place that you’re not from, people are curious at best and skeptical and concerned at worst,” he said.
The ranch raises organic beef using regenerative techniques that operators say are better for soil health. Conscience Bay holds grazing permits on tracts of public land in western Colorado and Utah where the cattle feast on grass before being sent to California to be finished, slaughtered and sold under the brand name SunFed Ranch.
To the charges that he’s doing something untoward by investing in the ranch’s land and abundant water rights, Feldman said he’s just like any other major water user in the state putting it to beneficial use. The ranch is using the water to irrigate, he said.
“We’re growing grass and feeding it to cows and trying to improve the ground, improve the soil health and make a business out of it,” Feldman said.
Speculation work group
The conversation around water speculation has been heating up in Colorado in recent months. At the direction of state lawmakers, a work group has been meeting regularly to explore ways to strengthen the state’s anti-speculation law. The topic frequently comes up at meetings of Western Slope water managers: the Colorado River Water Conservation District, basin roundtables and boards of county commissioners.
Investments such as Feldman’s have been of interest to the work group, which consists of water managers and users from around the state and is chaired by Kevin Rein, state engineer and head of the Division of Water Resources.
“I think it’s a valid concern because they do see unusual parties, large parties that, again, aren’t the typical parties, purchasing those water rights, and so that’s the concern,” Rein said. “Are they speculating or are they purchasing just so they can flip it, as people say, in a few years for more money?”
Under Colorado law, a water-rights holder must put their water to “beneficial use,” meaning continuing to use the water for what it was decreed in order to hang onto it. But Colorado also treats the right to use water as a private-property right. People can buy and sell water rights, change what the water is allowed to be used for and, if given a court’s blessing, move the water from agricultural use to growing cities.
This system, used widely in the western United States, creates an opening for investors who see water as an increasingly valuable commodity in a water-short future, driven by climate change. A private-equity fund, Water Asset Management, is now the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association, which provides water for farmers in the intensely irrigated valley, a short drive from Harts Basin Ranch. The purchases of the New York City-based company have raised suspicions among water managers and prompted the formation of the speculation work group.
Similar concerns have cropped up in agricultural communities throughout the West. A water transfer in Arizona from agricultural lands on the Colorado River to a rapidly expanding Phoenix exurb recently stirred up controversy. In Nevada, Water Asset Management is trying to market water held in an underground aquifer.
Colorado’s current anti-speculation doctrine is based on case law that says those seeking a water right must have a vested interest in the lands to be served by the water and must have a specific plan to put the water to beneficial use.
The work group has identified the following risks from speculators: investors’ obtaining a monopoly over a local water market; large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands; less water availability for other water users; and violation of Colorado’s values to see a vital public resource traded as a commodity.
Potential risks and solutions
The potential solutions to these risks are many, according to a draft document. The work group is exploring several of these, including creating a process to determine the intent of the purchaser; taxing profits from the sale of water rights at varying rates to encourage beneficial use and to discourage profiteering; imposing time limits on turnover of ownership to discourage short-term “flipping”; encouraging local governments to police investments through their 1041 powers; and creating a public-review process for water transfers that exceed some threshold.
The group has not coalesced around any of these potential solutions, but state officials said they are zeroing in on using the water court process to evaluate transfers as a way of spotting speculation.
The work group is supposed to submit a report, along with any recommendations from members, to state officials by August. But so far, the group has had a difficult time making sense of the thorny questions raised by these issues. Even trying to define what speculation is (and isn’t) and who is considered a speculator has been a struggle.
“It’s one thing to point at something and say, ‘Oh, that’s probably speculative.’ Another to actually put the legal definition on it,” said Alex Funk, agricultural water-resources specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Funk is also a member of the work group.
Discussions so far about reining in speculation have focused on the intent of the buyer. Can the state determine whether someone who is purchasing water rights intends to grow hay or build a residential subdivision? Or are they solely focused on the water rights’ future value? And how do you tell the difference?
“Do we want to protect against certain types of intent?” Rein said. “And then how do we determine that?”
Predetermining a water-right purchaser’s intent could prove to be a difficult task, akin to stopping a crime before it’s actually committed. Funk invoked the 2002 film “Minority Report,” in which a police detective (played by Tom Cruise), with the help of three psychics, tracks down would-be murderers and arrests them before any gun goes off.
“There aren’t speculation police running the state and breaking up these investments, right?” Funk said.
Financial water speculation
A draft report by the work group attempts to define two different types of speculation.
The first is traditional water speculation, which involves obtaining a water right without any plan or intent to put that water to beneficial use. The intent is to obtain a desirable priority date and then sell the water right to others who have a beneficial use.
This type of speculation has been addressed before in Colorado water law in what is known as the High Plains case. In 2005, the Colorado Supreme Court determined that a water-investment company was speculating because its plan for using the water was too expansive and nebulous, and the plan did not identify either the structures through which the water would be diverted or the specific locations where the water would be used.
The second type of speculation — and, because of WAM’s dealings in the Grand Valley, the one on which the work group is more focused — is financial water speculation. The work group defines this as the purchase and use of water rights with the primary purpose of profiting from increased value of the water in a short period of time. Financial water speculation may run counter to Colorado’s prior-appropriation doctrine because the primary intent is profit rather than beneficial use.
The concerns over speculation tap into a deep-seated anxiety that is prevalent in Western farm towns: the transfer of water from agriculture to cities. There are real examples of agricultural water being sold to cities, sometimes derisively described as “buy and dry,” and some rural communities have suffered economically as a result.
In some ways, the work group’s discussion of how to prevent speculation is really a broader discussion of how to prevent water transfers away from agriculture. The group has identified the large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands as the No. 1 risk from speculators. Part of Funk’s job is to head up a program of “alternative transfer methods,” which allow cities to temporarily buy or lease water from agriculture, but without the severe economic impacts.
“I think the issue with speculation is that what on paper might seem a very sort of small, isolated issue, as soon as you start sort of unpacking it a little bit, it’s essentially all the problems that Western water and rural communities are facing in, like, one issue,” Funk said. “So, as soon as you start unraveling it, you start running into other forces at play that are really beyond the state’s control or any one individual producer’s control.”
Impacts to ag
The work group is walking a fine line to come up with ways to deter speculation while not harming traditional agriculture producers in the process. In a big-picture sense, irrigators may worry about the impact to their community and way of life if all their neighbors sell to hedge funds. But when it’s their turn to receive a check for their water rights, they don’t want regulators doing anything that would make the process harder or devalue the ranch they have put their lives into, including restricting whom they can sell to.
It’s an oft-repeated adage that a rancher’s land and water rights are their 401(k) or their child’s college fund, and some say any new rules aimed at speculators should not make it more difficult for traditional ag producers to cash out if and when they want.
So far, the investment firms active in western Colorado have continued to lease their land back to farmers, or farm it themselves.
Carlyle Currier, a rancher in Molina and president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, has a seat on the Colorado River Basin Roundtable and his family has ranched in the Grand Mesa area for more than a century. Currier said until the investors attempt to sell it off, they’re not doing anything illegal.
“If the government can tell (someone) they can’t buy a farm and farm it, well, then they could tell me that, too. And I don’t want them telling me that,” Currier said.
The speculation discussion is also set against the backdrop of a potential demand-management program, the feasibility of which the state is currently studying. A demand-management program would pay irrigators on a temporary, voluntary basis to fallow fields and leave more water in the river. This water would be sent to Lake Powell to fill a 500,000-acre-foot pool that could be used to help the upper-basin states avoid a protracted legal battle with states downstream on the Colorado River.
Some say the exploration of demand management — including pay-to-fallow pilot projects in the Grand Valley — could have opened the door for investors who want to take advantage of the program to make easy money. Where there are opportunities, there are opportunists.
“Here in Mesa County, we’ve been watching a Wall Street investment firm buying up agricultural properties all with pre-compact water rights,” Steve Aquafresca, Mesa County’s Colorado River District representative, said at a board meeting last month. “I think it could be safely said that these actions probably would not have occurred if the state were not discussing the possibility of a demand-management program and if one particular major irrigation-water provider was not showing some willingness to entertain a demand-management program.”
Suspicion of outsiders
For all the concern about water speculation, there’s scant proof that it’s happening on a large scale on the Western Slope. Even WAM is not speculating, according to the current definition, as long as they keep the land in agricultural production.
“It does seem like there’s a lot of speculation about speculation,” Feldman of investment firm Conscience Bay said.
Instead, he said, old-fashioned suspicion of outsiders is at the heart of the issue.
“There’s people that view us as outsiders and we are not from here,” he said. “We know that. We know that damn well. And that’s not news to us.”
And there’s some evidence that he’s right. The Colorado River District, which protects Western Slope water interests, is developing a policy statement about water speculation. A draft of the policy says the district “recognizes the importance of locally owned agricultural lands and waters” and will work “to protect our state’s water resources from out-of-state special interests.”
And although these ideas didn’t get much traction, the work group has also floated two more potential solutions targeting outsiders: restricting the ability of out-of-state entities to participate in Colorado water court proceedings and prohibiting out-of-state entities from holding water rights.
“Is speculation just another word for investment (but it has) a negative connotation to it because it’s somebody that’s not from here?” Feldman said. “OK, well, do you not want to have investment in rural Colorado? Is that what we’re after? That’s where it would go if you put up enough barriers and hoops.”
Feldman says he is not the enemy. His operation isn’t the mom-and-pop homestead ranch of the Old West. It’s the investor-owned, employee-operated, risk-taking ranch of the New West. Harts Basin Ranch is looking for innovative ways to adapt to water scarcity and is participating in a program with environmental group Trout Unlimited to study consumptive use and how agriculture can stay productive while using less water. The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River reporting.
Feldman sees the heated discussion about speculation as a symptom of how Western communities are choosing to grapple with increasing water scarcity under climate change. There are those who explore new ways of running an old business and there are those who want to protect the status quo.
“At its core you see a real friction or conflict between a group of people that’s trying to make water policy more flexible to adapt to a changing climate,” Feldman said, “and those that are trying to impose more rigidity and prevent any change from occurring.”
This story was part of a collaboration between KUNC in Colorado and Aspen Journalism. Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit and investigative news organization that covers water and river issues. KUNC’s Colorado River reporting project is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.
As the coronavirus pandemic stretches past a year, the world has become accustomed to facing problems we rarely, if ever, anticipated before. These new challenges extend beyond logistical work-from-home issues to graver concerns: For example, how do we keep our water systems safe from hackers?
In Florida, a water treatment plant ran into that very issue in February when a hacker breached its remote system. The hacker, who is still unknown, reportedly adjusted the sodium hydroxide — added to alkalize water and limit lead leaching from pipes — in the city’s water to poisonous levels. While the threat was quickly addressed, the incident highlighted the weaknesses of remote access operations.
The Florida water plant is far from the only utility that’s fallen victim to a cyberattack. Similar threats have happened in Colorado, too. For example, in 2019, hackers demanded a ransom from the Fort Collins Loveland Water District and South Fort Collins Sanitation District. (The districts were able to resolve the issue on their own).
And just last month, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Division warned of recent phishing attempts at various water utilities.
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, works to help organizations bolster their technology and counter cyberattacks. “Water utilities face the same types of cyberattacks as any other organization: phishing schemes, ransomware attacks and other malware designed to steal credentials,” said Dave Sonheim, Colorado CISA cybersecurity advisor. “While technology creates many advantages, it also brings with it the risk of cybercrime, fraud and abuse.”
COVID-19 has intensified the problem, he said, because it necessitated remote work, making operations for many utilities more vulnerable.
“What we know is that breaches in cybersecurity can knock on a bazillion doors electronically until one opens,” explained John Thomas, professor of engineering practice at the University of Colorado. To prevent cyber threats from escalating, Thomas says it’s important to consider as many challenging scenarios as possible and work backward to build a more adaptable system.
Cyber issues predate the pandemic but because water utilities typically use electronic control systems that were developed in the 1960s, their technology tends to be older, too. Older tech combined with pandemic conditions exacerbated an already existing weakness.
“Systems are still outdated and not really designed to be operated on the internet, and with all the issues surrounding COVID-19 suddenly requiring remote administration and access — it’s kind of a perfect storm,” Thomas said.
As hacks have increased, regulators have responded with more explicit guidance. The Water Information Sharing and Analysis Center offers 15 cybersecurity fundamentals targeted for the water sector. Additionally, the Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 requires larger water utilities to conduct risk and resilience assessments of their cybersystems. These kinds of threats have long been on the radar of utilities like Denver Water, which follows the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s best practices to stop cyberattacks before they begin.
“Denver Water has a designated cybersecurity team, along with an emergency preparedness program, that investigates the best ways to detect, defend, respond to and recover from cybersecurity attacks, including those similar to the one that occurred in Florida,” said Denver Water spokesperson Todd Hartman. Hartman said Denver Water follows guidelines set by CISA.
But these policies may not be enough. A recent paper on how COVID-19 might transform infrastructure resilience noted that “older best practices that focus on efficiency and stability are becoming increasingly insufficient.” That presents a new opportunity to rethink how infrastructure operates and how it can be designed to respond to unexpected situations.
Emily Bondank, a science and technology fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science and one of the paper’s authors, said current guidelines are limited to what utilities can imagine as a future threat. But what about things they can’t imagine, like a global pandemic?
“COVID impacted us in an interesting way because it wasn’t recognized as being a threat to infrastructure at all,” Bondank said. “Even though people know cybersecurity is an issue for the water sector, it just hasn’t been invested in enough for them to really understand the vulnerabilities and threats around it.”
Alejandra Wilcox is a journalist currently based in northern Colorado. Her work has been broadcast on KGNU and has appeared in the Huffington Post, among other outlets.
On Friday, April 23 — the day after Earth Day — a quarter or more of Colorado’s streams, rivers, and wetlands lost critical protections as the Navigable Waters Protection (NWP) Rule went into effect in the state following a year of legal efforts to prevent it.
Until this week, Colorado remained the only state to successfully avoid application of the Trump administration rule, which last year rolled back key protections in the Clean Water Act — the bedrock environmental law protecting our drinking water from pollution. A judicial stay issued as a result of a legal challenge by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser has kept the state’s waterways protected until now. The appeals court recently lifted the stay, so the NWP Rule will take effect in Colorado Friday, April 23.
The NWP Rule will impact the protections of critical sources of drinking water and leaves at least 25% of Colorado’s streams and 22% of wetlands vulnerable to pollution. The rule hits “ephemeral” streams, those that flow seasonally, particularly hard, curtailing critical safeguards for waterways that respond primarily to precipitation events — which make up 68% of waters in Colorado. It also threatens the safety and reliability of clean drinking water, which 94% of Westerners say is essential. Below maps developed by Water for Colorado Coalition partner’s Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy illustrate the extent to which this policy will threaten Colorado’s water.
“In a state known for its work to conserve the natural resources that are vital to so many Coloradans’ well-being and livelihoods, it is shocking that this rollback is drifting by so quietly,” said Josh Kuhn, Water Advocate for Conservation Colorado, a Water for Colorado Coalition partner. “Colorado serves a vital national role as a headwaters state, and we need our lawmakers to take action now protecting our rivers, streams, and wetlands from irreversible harm.”
It is now up to the legislature to prevent this dangerous rule from taking effect and removing safeguards for water sources. Colorado needs state policies protecting clean drinking water and our waterways more broadly regardless of who is in the White House. While policy changes in the new federal administration could reestablish protections, that will take years — by then, the damage done to our waters will be irreparable. If Colorado leadership doesn’t step in, streams and wetlands could be filled with construction debris, subject to polluted runoff from nearby development sites or obliterated by bulldozers.
“We need immediate legislative action to ensure our water is treated as the precious natural resource it is,” said Melinda Kassen, Sr. Counsel, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “The Colorado Legislature has prioritized critical funding for the Colorado Water Plan — but if they don’t protect our streams and wetlands from pollution, what are we funding? Our streams, rivers, and wetlands need safeguards from activities that would release pollutants into them. Without this, unregulated construction may impair sources of drinking water and the streams and wetlands that support hunting and angling in Colorado.”
The Water for Colorado Coalition has environment, legal, and policy experts available to discuss the implications of this rule’s implementation, and the need for immediate state action.
About the Water for Colorado Coalition
The Water for Colorado coalition is a group of nine organizations dedicated to ensuring our rivers support everyone who depends on them, working toward resilience to climate change, planning for sustained and more severe droughts, and enabling every individual in Colorado to have a voice and the opportunity to take action to advocate for sustainable conservation-based solutions for our state’s water future. The community of organizations that make up the Water for Colorado Coalition represent diverse perspectives and share a commitment to protecting Colorado’s water future to secure a reliable water supply for the state and for future generations.