Utah’s drought-induced water crisis has softened somewhat after a string of monsoons, but the state’s water supplies are far from safe, with reservoirs across the state falling below 40% full, state officials told lawmakers Tuesday. Only a massive snowpack this winter can assure adequate supplies going into next year, and even then, Utah’s water future remains uncertain in the face of long-term drought and climate change.
In July the entire state was in extreme or exceptional drought and Utah’s two largest lakes hit their lowest levels ever…
“We are setting all the wrong records,” Candice Hasenyager, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources, told the Legislative Water Development Commission. “Then came August. We had some great monsoon season, which we didn’t receive the previous year.”
August precipitation was four times normal in many places…
All eyes are fixated on the Colorado River, a water source that supplies much of the American Southwest. Its flows have diminished so much after 20 years of drought and warming temperatures that a shortage was declared last month in the river’s Lower Basin States and Utah’s Lake Powell is looking more like a puddle than the nation’s second-largest reservoir.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation has forecast that by next May the lake will fall to the point where hydropower cannot be generated at Glen Canyon Dam, said Gene Shawcroft, Utah’s Colorado River Authority commissioner. To reduce the risk of that happening, the bureau is releasing 181,000 acre-feet from Flaming Gorge and two other Upper Basin reservoirs this summer and fall…
Describing himself as an optimist, [Carl] Albrecht said he believes the West’s drought will end and Utah should position itself to capture the water when heavy snows return…
Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council pushed back, arguing that Utah’s water needs will decline as water-intensive agriculture is displaced by the very growth Albrecht described.
“We’re converting our farmland to blacktop, subdivisions, shopping malls and homes. And because municipal lands use less water per acre than agricultural lands, it’s leading to a growth in our water supply,” Frankel said.
He said you will find eight pages of water rights posted for sale on KSL.com, showing a vibrant market for water that’s available along the Wasatch Front.
Due to a number of reasons including this year drought conditions, water supply is becoming a major concern in western Kansas.
Agriculture-heavy western Kansas is substantially supported by the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest aquifers. But water-intensive crops and farming are putting incredible pressure on it. Groundwater levels in the Ogallala have been on the decline ever since irrigation began. The state water plan warns that if irrigation and pumping continue at this rate, some regions may see themselves out of water in as little as 20 years.
“For agriculture, the impact on farming is increasing costs to pump water from a continuously lowering groundwater level,” Elmer Ronnenbaum, general manager at Kansas Rural Water Association, told The Center Square. “At some point, the aquifer will either not yield sufficient water for irrigation or the costs associated with pumping water from so deep will make irrigation no longer feasible.”
While funding for groundwater management remains an issue, there are a few solutions being implemented.
“Practical solutions include Intensive Groundwater Use Control Areas (IGUCA) and Local Enhanced Management Areas (LEMA),” Ronnenbaum said. “Another solution that has been floated in recent years is an aqueduct to transport water to southwest Kansas from the Missouri River in northeast Kansas, but generally has been deemed too costly and is opposed by neighboring states and local (northeast Kansas) residents.”
Two LEMAs have already been established in Northwest Kansas Groundwater Management District (GMD) No. 4, which appears to have slowed water level declines over just a few years. A third LEMA was just implemented in Western Kansas GMD No. 1.
Kansas farmers will continue to farm, but with limited water supply, some may have to shift their focus to continue to be profitable.
“Advances in technology have allowed some irrigators to keep irrigating with less yield of water but comes at a cost to change,” Ronnenbaum said. “Some farmers will have to switch to dryland crops or crops with lower irrigation water use requirements as the aquifer declines in their areas. For example, cotton requires half the amount of irrigation water but currently is nearly as profitable as corn.”
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) shared alarming news this year about the unprecedented conditions on the Colorado River. The agency, which oversees federal water management across 17 western states, publishes some pretty wonky information, even for those of us who regularly interface with this agency and rely on its analyses.
However, in June, Reclamation shared its new, five-year projections for the Colorado River Basin. It shares these projections a few times every year to assist drought management within the Basin. This time, the news was big: the water situation on the Colorado River is worse than folks anticipated when adopting the shared shortage agreements called the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) adopted in 2019.
To jump to the conclusion: Reclamation’s projections signal that we urgently need to do more than the DCPs envisioned because of the increasingly hot and dry conditions in the basin. Reclamation has continued to revise its projections throughout this shockingly dry spring, resulting in really dire projections for water storage and distribution. In other words, less water for people, and less water in streams that benefit birds, fish, and a robust recreational economy.
We’ve arrived at the time when the limits of the Colorado River are being reached.
What does this mean for birds? Birds rely on the riparian habitats of the Colorado River and its tributaries, and aquatic birds have come to rely on the big reservoirs on the river, too. Surveys of aquatic birds at Lake Powell have documented dabbling ducks, diving species, shorebirds, and more. American Coot and Western Grebe are common. Gadwall, Common Goldeneye, Redhead, and Green-winged Teal have also been observed. The habitats created by Lake Powell have existed for less than 60 years and can change with the lake level, which can affect birds.
You may recall that the main reservoirs on the highly-plumbed Colorado River—Lake Powell and Lake Mead—sometimes “equalize” in water accounting flows. Lake Powell is the receiving reservoir from the Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico) meaning that it stores water that runs downstream from these states. Lake Mead is the distributing reservoir for the Lower Basin states (Arizona, Nevada, and California) and Mexico meaning that water deliveries to each of these places comes from available water in this lake (and legal water rights, of course). The amount of water in Lake Mead—the largest reservoir in the country—determines how much water a state has available for its Colorado River water users.
Reclamation projects that Lake Mead water levels are, for the first time ever, so low that they will require cuts in water Lower Basin water deliveries, operating in a Tier 1 shortage. And the agency says there is a greater than 99 percent chance of this shortage continuing into 2022 and a high risk (greater than 80 percent probability) that Lake Mead will remain under shortage operations for at least the next five years, perhaps with even more aggressive cuts.
Severe drought conditions are also triggering an emergency response with the release of water from reservoirs further upstream to address declining water levels at Lake Powell and protect the ability of the Glen Canyon Dam to generate hydropower. Representatives from Reclamation and the Upper Basin states just announced they will release water from Flaming Gorge and other reservoirs.
If we have another bad water year, elevations at Lake Mead could even be lower than before Lake Powell was created. It’s getting to the bottom for both of these reservoirs.
Why does this matter? These unprecedented and exceptional drought conditions are a signal to all of us to take steps to ensure the river flows long into the future and address water security for people and wildlife. Climate change is here and the entire Colorado River Basin is in crisis.
We have a very limited window to begin implementing innovative tools that are at our disposal in order to adapt to and mitigate climate change. In addition to reductions in carbon emissions and other large-scale solutions for our planet, Audubon continues to focus on federal and state investments in climate resilient strategies that will help stabilize water supplies and better assist economic sectors and ecosystems adapt to changing conditions. Future water projections by Reclamation – and future agreements on the Colorado River – need to account for climate extremes.
The effects of prolonged drought and climate change affect everyone in the basin. Our ways of life are at stake—millions of acres of farmland and ranches, urban and rural communities, recreation on rivers and lakes, our economies, as well as incredible bird life. Our work is more urgent and more difficult.
On Sept. 13, Mesa County Commissioners Cody Davis and Janet Rowland voted 2-0 and elected Scott McInnis as the Mesa County Director for the Colorado River Water Conservation District…
In his almost 30 years of working in public service, McInnis boasts knowledge of various water issues that qualify him even more for his new position. With his legislative service, McInnis has worked closely with the River District, which considers the amount and water right seniority of the Colorado River. McInnis was also a partner with the Delaney and Balcomb law firm, which at the time, was legal counsel for the Colorado River District.
In addition to his new position, McInnis served as a member of the Colorado House of Representatives, he served as the Majority Leader and Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee. McInnis has also served as a U.S. Congressman for six terms, where he served on the Natural Resources Committee and the Ways and Means Committee.
It was 1952 when the cities of Aurora and Colorado Springs first started gobbling up water rights in a remote, high mountain valley on the state’s Western Slope. The valley is called Homestake, and now, those same cities want even more of its pure water.
In western Colorado, where only about 20% of Colorado’s population lives, all water tries to flow toward the Pacific Ocean. On the east side, where most people live, water flows to the Atlantic. To bring the water from the west side to the east side of the Rockies requires lots of money and lots of pipelines.
But money isn’t much of a barrier when your population is exploding: Colorado Springs, with 478,961 residents, and Aurora, with 386,261, need more water. And they aim to get it even if it must cross under the Continental Divide and damage a fragile and ancient wetland called a “fen” in the process.
The new reservoir the two cities plan to build would be five miles downstream from their existing Homestake Reservoir, and called Whitney Reservoir after a creek that flows into Homestake Creek. There’s also a Whitney Park within the nearby Holy Cross Wilderness Area, which could lose some 500 acres if the new reservoir goes through.
But protesters are already active, and conservation groups are threatening lawsuits. Meanwhile, the cities have already quietly begun test drilling at four possible dam sites on U.S. Forest Service land along Homestake Creek.
Obstacles, however, are popping up. The Forest Service says it won’t even consider a reservoir proposal that shrinks a wilderness area, and the cities would have to get that approval from both Congress and the White House.
The U.S. congressman for the district, rising Democratic star Joe Neguse, has also made it clear he doesn’t support shrinking a designated wilderness or damaging wetlands. Local leaders are also chiming in: “A Whitney Reservoir would irreparably change and harm our community,” said Minturn Mayor John Widerman and Red Cliff Mayor Duke Gerber, who co-wrote a letter to the Forest Service. Both represent small towns dependent on tourism and outdoor recreation.
State Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Democrat who grew up in the nearby ski town of Vail, also wrote the Forest Service to oppose the dam: “I cannot express how sternly the citizens of my district … oppose water diversion projects to Front Range communities.”
Another issue, and for some it’s the most critical, is the fate of valuable “fen” wetlands that would be destroyed by a dam and reservoir. “This is one of the finest wetlands we can find on our forest — it’s unbelievable,” White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams told Aspen Journalism in 2019. “You can mitigate, but you can’t replace 10,000 years of work.”
Nor can you turn the clock back to 1952, when Colorado’s population was 1.36 million, compared to 5.7 million today, and the global land and ocean temperature was 1.52 degrees Fahrenheit cooler. Climate change, scientists say, will cause the Colorado River to lose up to 31% of its historical flow by 2052. That prediction was a factor in a recent, first-ever federal water shortage declaration.
“When Colorado Springs and Aurora got their water right, the [Holy Cross] wilderness wasn’t there and wetlands at that time were something we were just filling in,” said Jerry Mallett, president of the local conservation group Colorado Headwaters. “Since then (wetlands) have become an extremely valuable resource because of what they can do for groundwater recharge, addressing climate change — all kinds of things.”
Then there’s the issue of Kentucky bluegrass, Colorado’s landscaping groundcover of choice. Kentucky gets more than 50 inches of rain a year compared to the Front Range average of 17, so why pump western Colorado’s high-elevation water through the Rockies for lawns?
Colorado photographer and conservationist John Fielder, who says he’s been just about everywhere within the nearly 123,000-acre Holy Cross Wilderness Area, wants people to just look at his images of the fen wetlands along Homestake Creek, and then ask themselves these questions:
“Is anything more sublime and fertile and life-giving than a 10,000-or-more-year-old fen wetland? You can’t “mitigate” the loss of ancient wetlands by creating a manmade wet place somewhere else. No more water to the Front Range.”
David O. Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a freelance writer who lives near Vail, Colorado.
An internal Facebook report found that the social media platform’s algorithms – the rules its computers follow in deciding the content that you see – enabled disinformation campaigns based in Eastern Europe to reach nearly half of all Americans in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, according to a report in Technology Review.
The campaigns produced the most popular pages for Christian and Black American content, and overall reached 140 million U.S. users per month. Seventy-five percent of the people exposed to the content hadn’t followed any of the pages. People saw the content because Facebook’s content-recommendation system put it into their news feeds.
Social media platforms rely heavily on people’s behavior to decide on the content that you see. In particular, they watch for content that people respond to or “engage” with by liking, commenting and sharing. Troll farms, organizations that spread provocative content, exploit this by copying high-engagement content and posting it as their own.
As a computer scientist who studies the ways large numbers of people interact using technology, I understand the logic of using the wisdom of the crowds in these algorithms. I also see substantial pitfalls in how the social media companies do so in practice.
Throughout millions of years of evolution, these principles have been coded into the human brain in the form of cognitive biases that come with names like familiarity, mere exposure and bandwagon effect. If everyone starts running, you should also start running; maybe someone saw a lion coming and running could save your life. You may not know why, but it’s wiser to ask questions later.
Your brain picks up clues from the environment – including your peers – and uses simple rules to quickly translate those signals into decisions: Go with the winner, follow the majority, copy your neighbor. These rules work remarkably well in typical situations because they are based on sound assumptions. For example, they assume that people often act rationally, it is unlikely that many are wrong, the past predicts the future, and so on.
Technology allows people to access signals from much larger numbers of other people, most of whom they do not know. Artificial intelligence applications make heavy use of these popularity or “engagement” signals, from selecting search engine results to recommending music and videos, and from suggesting friends to ranking posts on news feeds.
Not everything viral deserves to be
Our research shows that virtually all web technology platforms, such as social media and news recommendation systems, have a strong popularity bias. When applications are driven by cues like engagement rather than explicit search engine queries, popularity bias can lead to harmful unintended consequences.
Social media like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok rely heavily on AI algorithms to rank and recommend content. These algorithms take as input what you like, comment on and share – in other words, content you engage with. The goal of the algorithms is to maximize engagement by finding out what people like and ranking it at the top of their feeds.
On the surface this seems reasonable. If people like credible news, expert opinions and fun videos, these algorithms should identify such high-quality content. But the wisdom of the crowds makes a key assumption here: that recommending what is popular will help high-quality content “bubble up.”
We tested this assumption by studying an algorithm that ranks items using a mix of quality and popularity. We found that in general, popularity bias is more likely to lower the overall quality of content. The reason is that engagement is not a reliable indicator of quality when few people have been exposed to an item. In these cases, engagement generates a noisy signal, and the algorithm is likely to amplify this initial noise. Once the popularity of a low-quality item is large enough, it will keep getting amplified.
Algorithms aren’t the only thing affected by engagement bias – it can affect people too. Evidence shows that information is transmitted via “complex contagion,” meaning the more times people are exposed to an idea online, the more likely they are to adopt and reshare it. When social media tells people an item is going viral, their cognitive biases kick in and translate into the irresistible urge to pay attention to it and share it.
We recently ran an experiment using a news literacy app called Fakey. It is a game developed by our lab, which simulates a news feed like those of Facebook and Twitter. Players see a mix of current articles from fake news, junk science, hyperpartisan and conspiratorial sources, as well as mainstream sources. They get points for sharing or liking news from reliable sources and for flagging low-credibility articles for fact-checking.
The wisdom of the crowds fails because it is built on the false assumption that the crowd is made up of diverse, independent sources. There may be several reasons this is not the case.
First, because of people’s tendency to associate with similar people, their online neighborhoods are not very diverse. The ease with which social media users can unfriend those with whom they disagree pushes people into homogeneous communities, often referred to as echo chambers.
Second, because many people’s friends are friends of one another, they influence one another. A famous experiment demonstrated that knowing what music your friends like affects your own stated preferences. Your social desire to conform distorts your independent judgment.
Third, popularity signals can be gamed. Over the years, search engines have developed sophisticated techniques to counter so-called “link farms” and other schemes to manipulate search algorithms. Social media platforms, on the other hand, are just beginning to learn about their own vulnerabilities.
A different, preventive approach would be to add friction. In other words, to slow down the process of spreading information. High-frequency behaviors such as automated liking and sharing could be inhibited by CAPTCHA tests or fees. Not only would this decrease opportunities for manipulation, but with less information people would be able to pay more attention to what they see. It would leave less room for engagement bias to affect people’s decisions.
It would also help if social media companies adjusted their algorithms to rely less on engagement to determine the content they serve you. Perhaps the revelations of Facebook’s knowledge of troll farms exploiting engagement will provide the necessary impetus.