The 2021 Western #Drought: What to Expect as Conditions Worsen — The Pacific Institute

From The Pacific Institute (Cora Kammeyer, Peter Gleick, Heather Cooley, Gregg Brill, Sonali Abraham, and Michael Cohen):

The American West has entered another drought crisis, with nearly the entire region (97 percent) facing abnormally dry conditions and over 70 percent of the region already in severe drought. State and local leaders are making emergency declarations. Water allocations are being slashed. We are already seeing fish die-offs and domestic wells running dry — and the dry season is just beginning.

Drought Conditions

There are many ways to measure drought, and all the indicators we have are telling a dismal story. Precipitation is less than half of normal across the West, and as little as a third of normal in parts of Nevada, Arizona, and California — including major cities like Sacramento, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Phoenix. This is the second dry year in a row for California; for the seven states sharing the Colorado River, there have been two decades of below-normal water. The Sierra Nevada snowpack is essentially nonexistent, having been low all winter and now disappearing two months early. Colorado River Basin snow conditions are faring only slightly better, with snowpack ranging from 13 to 100 percent of normal across the basin states, and reservoir levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two largest reservoirs on the Colorado River, are reaching record lows. Reservoir levels in the two largest reservoirs in California — Oroville and Shasta — hover around 40 percent, far below normal for this time of year.

In response, state and federal agencies are cutting water allocations. Allocations for California’s State Water Project are at a meager five percent; the federally owned Central Valley Project allocations are at 25 percent overall but down to zero percent for agricultural contractors. On the Colorado River, unprecedented shortage declarations are looming.

Drought Impacts

Severe drought conditions like those now gripping the West have adverse consequences for people, businesses, and nature. These impacts are not evenly distributed. Small and rural communities, many of which have a greater proportion of low-income households and people of color often feel the worst effects. Freshwater ecosystems are at serious risk from low water flows and high water temperatures, and water-quality issues are worsened by increased salt and contaminant concentrations and reduced oxygen levels. Surface water shortages for agriculture lead to more groundwater pumping and continued overdraft causes land subsidence, property damage, drying of domestic wells, and a permanent loss in groundwater storage.

Fish and Wildlife: Droughts in California are especially hard on natural ecosystems, already suffering from overuse and contamination. In 2014 and 2015, 95 percent of young, endangered winter-run Chinook Salmon died due to high water temperatures on the Sacramento River, increasing the risk of regional extinction of already threatened salmon and other fish species.

Wildfire: Wildfires are already becoming more frequent and severe, and they are starting earlier in the year and lasting longer. Low soil moisture and lack of rain worsens pest outbreaks and tree deaths, which in turn further increases wildfire risks and concern is growing for an extremely severe fire risk this year.

Agriculture: In the face of water shortages, farmers have to look to alternative supplies and practices, such as purchasing water through temporary transfers, pumping more groundwater, changing the types of crops grown, installing efficient irrigation systems, and fallowing land. As efforts to implement California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) expand, constraints on groundwater pumping — in both wet and dry years — will grow, further complicating agricultural responses to drought.

Rural Communities: Rural communities throughout the west are often dependent on a single water source, which increases their vulnerability to drought. During the past severe California drought, many shallow rural groundwater wells went dry as deeper agricultural wells depleted groundwater, causing major impacts on some communities. Declining water supplies and water-quality problems this year may force communities to switch to costly bottled water, dig deeper wells, and truck in emergency supplies of water. These actions impose local economic hardships on those living in rural areas, many of whom are among our most disadvantaged communities.

Urban Areas: A diversified water supply means that urban areas are usually not at high risk of running out of water, but severe drought typically leads to voluntary and mandatory efforts to cut use. There is capacity to create additional supply through water conservation in these areas. Water utilities are already beginning to implement mandatory and voluntary water-conservation programs, including educational programs, incentives to install water-efficient devices, and restrictions on discretionary water uses like car washing and watering lawns, and new cutbacks are likely as the drought continues.

Energy: Drought can strain the energy system. Past droughts have led to declines in hydroelectricity generation, leading to a shift to more expensive and polluting fossil fuels. Electricity generation from thermoelectric plants may also be curtailed if insufficient cooling water is available or if temperature limits in receiving waters are exceeded. Pumping costs to farmers increase as groundwater levels drop. Additionally, higher temperatures associated with drought reduce the efficiency of thermal power plants and of transmission and distribution lines while increasing energy demand for cooling systems.

Drought Responses

The good news is that past experience has shown there are many appropriate and effective responses to droughts, including changes in the efficiency of urban and agricultural water uses, the expansion of non-traditional water sources like stormwater and recycled water, and voluntary changes in behavior – all of which can help lessen the severity of this drought and future ones. In future blog posts and research, the Pacific Institute’s Western Drought Initiative will offer information on these responses, building on previous work and experience around drought impacts and solutions. Stay tuned for more coverage to come and for up-to-date drought conditions for California, visit For publications on these issues, including previous drought work, visit

Goose Pasture Tarn Dam on schedule after first month of construction — The Summit Daily

Photo credit: The Town of Breckenridge

From The Summit Daily (Lindsey Toomer):

The Goose Pasture Tarn Dam rehabilitation construction officially started in May and is on schedule to be completed in 2023 as planned.

Breckenridge Public Works Director James Phelps said most of the work taking place throughout 2021 is in preparation for larger aspects of the project, such as taking apart the spillways.

The project currently in the works is getting a 96-inch bypass pipe in place, which will help when it comes time to drain the tarn at the end of July, Phelps said. He added that this will be of use once they take apart the spillways next year to control runoff.

The town of Breckenridge created a website,, dedicated to construction updates on the dam rehabilitation. Updates will be posted every two weeks with details on the construction schedule.

According to the website’s May 21 update, construction between May 24 and June 5 has included setting up staging areas to access the job site, finishing the temporary access road via Wagon Road and minor work in the stilling basin on top of the bypass pipe work.

Phelps said the town has also worked to identify properties where water supply could be affected by the project. He said they are working with a contractor that will be able to provide water for those who may need it…

He added that wells have been placed around the reservoir to monitor groundwater. Based on what’s already been observed in these monitoring wells, Phelps said it’s possible that neighboring wells won’t be affected by the project…

Based on current progress, Phelps said the project is on schedule and should continue as planned with little interruptions based on runoff predictions for the rest of the year.

#Loveland council approves $61.3M bond issue to build #ChimneyHollow, support other #water projects — Loveland Reporter-Herald

Site of Chimney Hollow Reservoir via Northern Water.

From The Loveland Reporter-Herald (Max Levy):

Loveland’s City Council gave the first OK to issuing $47 million worth of bonds for the proposed Chimney Hollow Reservoir on Tuesday, clearing one of the last obstacles in the way of the project breaking ground.

Between 2000 and 2020, the city contributed about $8.4 million to the construction of the 90,000-acre-foot reservoir, also known as the Windy Gap Firming Project…

Loveland’s water utility is one of a dozen Northern Colorado agencies partnering on Chimney Hollow. The city has laid claim to one-ninth of the water in the future reservoir and assumed responsibility for one-ninth of project costs, which are now expected to total about $696.2 million…

On Tuesday, the council gave the first of two affirmative votes needed to issue bonds worth $47 million, which along with $21.9 million in the Raw Water Fund already earmarked for the project and the $8.4 million already spent will be enough to cover Loveland’s stake in the project.

In addition to the $47 million in bonds issued for Chimney Hollow, the council also voted to approve the issue of $5.5 million in bonds for a new water storage tank at 29th Street and Rio Blanco Avenue, as well as the refinancing of $8.1 million in year-2013 bonds for improvements at the Loveland Water Treatment Plant, which chief financial officer Alan Krcmarik guessed will save the city about $850,000. About $523,490 in proceeds will also be spent on the costs associated with the issuance itself.

The $61.3 million in revenue bonds will be repaid through the Water Enterprise Fund, which receives payments from the city’s utility customers.

Krcmarik said the 25-year life of the bond issue was chosen as the shortest increment of time during which the city could pay the securities down without disrupting its current projection of average fee increases for customers — 7% in 2022 and 2023, then 3.5% per year until 2031.

The June 2021 Audubon Rockies newsletter is hot off the presses

Marsh Wren. Photo: Ramkumar Subramanian/Audubon Photography Awards

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Inspiration to Preservation in Pagosa Springs

Promoting community-driven wetland conservation with Pagosa Wetland Partners.

The story of Pagosa Wetland Partners (PWP) begins with a verdant, 15-acre stretch of wetlands teeming with birds adjoining the San Juan River in the southwestern Colorado town of Pagosa Springs. Uniquely fed by geothermal hot springs, this wetland is an ecological and cultural treasure. It harbors rare species, provides a key winter refuge and nesting site for birds, and serves as a premier site for nature observation. It is considered a birding hotspot by residents and tourists alike, with more than 180 species identified to date.

However, this downtown wetland area faces diverse threats, some of which include limited protections in local county and town building codes, possible light and noise pollution, and harmful water runoff. The possibility of inadvertent disruption to the unique warm geothermal water inflows is a primary concern that we are collaborating with the town and local developers to ensure doesn’t occur.

PWP began at a November 2019 meeting of the local Weminuche Audubon Society, where local conservationist Bob Lecour alerted the chapter to the possibility of proposed development that would threaten the Riverwalk Conservation Area. In the months to follow, a group of concerned citizens, including future PWP leaders Randy McCormick and Barry Knott, assembled and delivered a presentation to the Pagosa Springs town council on the environmental and tourist value of these unique wetlands. This presentation began the critical step of building awareness within the town government and community about the importance of wetland conservation. The proposed development did not materialize, however. The organization recognized that more extensive and far-reaching work would be required to ensure lasting protection of the wetlands.

PWP has grown in the year since its formation. We have recruited new members and articulated our mission and objectives to conserve, protect, and enhance the wetlands.

Our work has been shaped by three strategies:

  • Building partnerships wherever possible with local businesses and town government
  • Educating stakeholders about the value of wetlands
  • Striving for clear policy successes
  • From its inception, PWP has positioned itself as a willing collaborator with all stakeholders, including town government, environmental groups, and local developers. We have framed our environmental protection work in terms of promoting responsible development and science-driven conservation. We are very careful to avoid simplistic antagonism towards development. This approach has been key in building fruitful partnerships with developers and town government. Although there have been times when PWP has taken a firm stand against a potentially damaging project, more broadly, our relationships have been congenial and have allowed us to gain support and financial backing for our initiatives.

    At the same time, our focus on rigorous science has allowed us to collaborate effectively with diverse conservation organizations, including a wetland water-monitoring partnership with River Watch of Colorado, utilizing Weminuche Audubon as a non-profit recipient for donations, and receiving ongoing guidance from Audubon Rockies staff. These partnerships have built our base of support, expanded our options for financial backing, and allowed us to connect with a diverse cross-section of the community, including many key decision-makers.

    Our education initiatives aim to expand community knowledge and engagement with the wetlands, thus creating political pressure to preserve the area. This education initiative, inspired by advice from Abby Burk of Audubon Rockies, started with a series of educational articles in the local newspaper, the Pagosa Sun, in December 2020. These articles aim to educate the community about the unique ecology and beauty of the area as well as its importance as a tourist destination. They include pieces on wetland ecology, profiles of specific wetland species, and coverage of human threats to wetlands. As COVID-19 restrictions have loosened, our education and outreach have expanded, including a successful booth at the recent local Earth Day event and the upcoming launch of our Riverwalk Naturalist Program, which will provide guided nature tours of the wetlands to visitors and residents. Our education efforts have been successful in building community interest in the wetlands and in framing them as a key natural resource in the minds of residents and policymakers.

    Great Blue Heron at the Pagosa Springs wetlands. Photo: Barry Knott

    Our efforts also include the appointment of PWP co-chair, Barry Knott, to the Land Use and Development Code (LUDC) revision steering committee. He is working, along with other committee members, to update and add more significant wetland protection provisions into the revised code, which will be finalized in 2021.

    PWP has also collaborated with the town to develop environmentally responsible approaches to proposed initiatives in the wetlands. These collaborations have included providing scientific and citizen input on the proposed placement of night lights along the wetlands pathway and the installation of a wind harp in the wetlands. In both cases, the information provided by PWP resulted in a reassessment of the environmental viability of the projects by the town and their collaborators. These collaborations are the most tangible markers of our growth as an organization. However, they would not be possible without the strong foundation of partnerships and public education that underlie them.

    In addition to its value as a community conservation success story, I hope this article will offer a blueprint for other organizations looking to promote conservation in their communities. The three main themes of PWP’s development (building partnerships, educating the public, and pursuing policy protections) are easily transferable to many environmental causes. In addition, many of the organizational strategies we have used, including delegating tasks to match members’ skills, being willing to connect with key decision-makers, and being highly flexible about securing resources and building partnerships, are also useful to a range of start-up conservation organizations. Our work to protect the wetlands continues with the LUDC revision process and the launch of our naturalist program coming in the near future. As our work continues, I hope it provides an inspiration for others to advance their conservation goals. If you want to learn more, you can contact Pagosa Wetland Partners at