FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Recent snowstorms, followed by even more snowstorms, are providing much-needed moisture and even some optimism that perhaps this winter could bring relief from the persistent drought that has been gripping the region.
“We’re certainly hopeful and optimistic at this point. It certainly looks a whole lot better than it did a year ago, for sure,” said Molina rancher Carlyle Currier.
He noted that one National Resources Conservation Service snow measurement site on Grand Mesa, at Park Reservoir, was at about 160% of normal Monday.
“We’re not that far below what it peaked at last winter, better than three-fourths of what it peaked at the first of April … so that’s really wonderful,” said Currier.
That speaks to the paucity of snow last year on Grand Mesa and in much of western Colorado, but also to the recent abundance of snowfall that has vastly improved the state’s snowpack status in just a matter of weeks.
That boosts hopes for more spring runoff that will benefit farmers and ranchers, municipal water providers and the environment…
As of Monday, snowpack had grown to 118% of median in the Gunnison River Basin, 104% in the upper Colorado River Basin and 112% in the combined San Miguel/Dolores/Animas/San Juan basins.
The Arkansas River has the lowest snowpack of any major basin in the state, at 76% of normal…
Currier, who is president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, said this year’s snow has fallen on ground that was a lot wetter from rain in the fall. When last winter’s snowpack melted, it soaked into dry soils, reducing how much reached reservoirs and irrigation ditches…
Boyer said about the current weather pattern, “We’ve got this big deep trough that’s transitioning over the western U.S., and we’re right kind of in the base of that trough. It’s ejecting little pulses of energy right across Colorado, so as soon as it hits the mountains, it pretty much creates a snow event for us.”
The system has been favoring snow higher in the mountains, where there were reports of 6 to 8 inches for the most part having fallen over the previous 24 hours, Boyer said Monday…
Powderhorn got only 2 inches in that timeframe, but collected 10 inches of snow on Christmas Eve, he said.
Grand Junction also received its first official measurable snow of the season on Christmas Eve, when an inch fell at the National Weather Service office at the Grand Junction Regional Airport. On average, the city’s first measurable snow falls on Nov. 17; the latest-ever measurable snow in the city didn’t arrive until Jan. 5.
Grand Junction officially got 0.03 inches of precipitation Sunday, a lot of that consisting of snow that melted when it hit the ground, Boyer said…
Currier said this year is reminding him of 1977, which was extremely dry but was wet in the fall and was followed by an extremely wet winter.
Click here to access the report (Adam N. Wlostowski, Keith S. Jennings, Rachel E. Bash, Jesse Burkhardt, Cameron W. Wobus, Graeme Aggett). Here’s the abstract:
From hampering the ability of water utilities to fill their reservoirs to leaving forests parched and ready to burn, drought is a unique natural hazard that impacts many human and natural systems. A great deal of research and synthesis to date has been devoted to understanding how drought conditions harm agricultural operations, leaving other drought-vulnerable sectors relatively under-served. This review aims to fill in such gaps by synthesizing literature from a diverse array of scientific fields to detail how drought impacts nonagricultural sectors of the economy: public water supply, recreation and tourism, forest resources, and public health. We focus on the Intermountain West region of the United States, where the decadal scale recurrence of severe drought provides a basis for understanding the causal linkages between drought conditions and impacts.
This article is categorized under:
Human Water > Value of Water
Science of Water > Water Extremes
Drought in the Intermountain West typically begins during the winter in high elevation mountain basins with reduced snow accumulation and earlier than normal melt. Drought conditions proceed downstream to lower elevations in the form of diminished streamflow, lower reservoir storage, higher plant water demand, increased reliance on groundwater, and desiccated forests. Drought conditions affect the recreation and tourism industry by truncating the winter ski and summer boating seasons. Drought impacts municipal water suppliers by increasing demand amidst lower-than-average supply, which in turn stresses utility finances. Drought impacts forest resources by way of tree mortality, wildfire, and diminished ecosystem services. Hot and dry conditions trigger myriad public health impacts, including increased incidences of respiratory disease, mental health issues, and adverse water quality conditions. While the impacts of drought extend to other facets of regional ecosystems and economies, our review focuses on impacts to tourism and recreation, municipal water supply, forest resources, and public health.
Click on a thumbnail graphic below to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.
US Drought Monitor map December 28, 2021.
High Plains Drought Monitor map December 28, 2021.
West Drought Monitor map December 28, 2021.
Colorado Drought Monitor map December 28, 2021.
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
A persistent pattern over the North Pacific and western North America maintained a continuation of frequent storms affecting the West Coast through late December. 7-day precipitation from December 21-27 exceeded 2 inches, liquid equivalent, across much of California along with western portions of Oregon and Washington. During the past two weeks, precipitation has averaged 150 to 300 percent of normal, or more, throughout nearly all of California. This wet pattern during mid to late December has also been accompanied by below normal temperatures (-2 to -6 degrees F) across California and the Pacific Northwest. Periods of heavy snow continue to build a favorable snowpack from the Cascades southward to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. On December 23 and 24, a strong low pressure system tracked inland from the East Pacific and resulted in widespread precipitation of 0.5 to 3 inches, liquid equivalent, across much of southern California along with the Great Basin, Southwest, and Four Corners region. Dry weather with much above normal temperatures persisted throughout the central and southern Great Plains. As of December 28, month-to-date temperatures have averaged more than 7 degrees F above normal across the south-central U.S. Eastern North Dakota and the upper Mississippi Valley received another round of precipitation (0.25 to 0.75 inches, liquid equivalent) this past week. Following a period of widespread rainfall across much of the Ozarks region, lower Mississippi Valley, and Southeast during mid-December, dry weather returned to these areas from Dec 21 to 27. Little or no precipitation continued through late December across the Mid-Atlantic. The wet pattern, typical of La Nina winters, continues to affect Hawaii…
A continued expansion of abnormal dryness (D0), moderate drought (D1), and severe drought (D2) were required again this week across much of Kansas due to worsening soil moisture indicators, 90 to 120-day SPIs, declining streamflows, and impacts such as cattle sell-offs. A 1-category degradation was made to the southwest corner of Nebraska based on soil moisture and SPI values at various time scales. A recent increase in snowpack led to improving drought conditions across the central Rockies, to the west of the Continental Divide. Severe (D2) to extreme (drought) was expanded across northeast Colorado due to declining soil moisture indicators and EDDI. Precipitation (more than 0.5 inch, liquid equivalent) on Dec 26 along with positive SPI values dating back 6 months supported a slight decrease in abnormal dryness (D0) and moderate drought (D1) across central and eastern North Dakota…
Heavy December precipitation, SWE numbers, and 12 to 24-month SPIs supported a large 1-category improvement to California along with parts of Nevada and Utah. The SWE is 150 to 250 percent of normal throughout the Sierras for this time of year. The Central Sierra snow lab has observed 193.7 inches of snowfall this month which is a December record. 179 inches, set in 1970, was the previous record for December. As of December 28, the California statewide average of snow water content is 159 percent of normal for that date. Given the favorable snowpack and heavy precipitation during December, additional improvements may be warranted for California during subsequent weeks. Widespread, heavy precipitation (1 to 3 inches, liquid equivalent) resulted in a 1-category improvement across parts of Arizona and Utah where the heaviest amounts occurred and also supported by 12-month SPI values. A 1-category improvement was also made to much of northern and central Idaho along with adjacent areas of northwest Montana based on near to above normal SWE and 24-month SPI. A sharp gradient in drought conditions exists from west to east along the Continental Divide. During the past 14 days, parts of southeast Washington and northeast Oregon have received more than 2 inches of precipitation, liquid equivalent. This recent heavy precipitation and favorable response from soil moisture and 28-day streamflow indicators prompted a slight improvement to those areas. The longer term SPEI, which includes the record heat earlier this summer, continues to support extreme (D3) to exceptional (D4) drought for central and eastern parts of Oregon and Washington. Along and to the west of the Cascades, additional improvements were made this week to western Oregon. A recent increase in snowfall prompted improving drought conditions across parts of northern New Mexico, while all of northeast New Mexico is now designated with severe (D2) to extreme (D3) drought. No precipitation has been observed at Clayton, New Mexico for 76 days which is the 5th longest streak on record…
Based on persistent dryness, periods of enhanced winds and anomalous warmth this month, and worsening soil moisture conditions, a broad 1-category degradation was made to much of Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle. Most locations across southwestern Oklahoma along with the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles have received less than 0.10 inch of precipitation during the past 70 to 80 days. As of December 28, Amarillo, Texas has observed no precipitation for 76 consecutive days which is the second longest dry streak on record. Additional expansion of various Dx levels was also made across much of the remainder of Texas due to persistent dryness and much above normal temperatures. Month-to-date temperatures, as of December 28, have averaged more than 8 degrees F above normal throughout nearly all of Oklahoma and Texas. The current depiction of conditions across Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi was a balance among SPI values, soil moisture, and 28-day average streamflows. During the past 90 days, precipitation has averaged less than 50 percent of normal throughout much of the lower Mississippi Valley…
Another round of heavy rain and high-elevation snow are forecast across southern California, the Southwest, and Four Corners region on Dec 30 and 31. A low pressure system and trailing front are expected to progress eastward from the central to eastern U.S. from Jan 1 to 2. A swath of snow may occur on the northwest side of the surface low track, from the central Plains northeast to the Midwest and Great Lakes. Heavy rain (1 to 3 inches) is forecast to overspread the Tennessee Valley, southern Appalachians, and southern Mid-Atlantic. Little to no precipitation is expected for the southern Great Plains into the beginning of the New Year. Heavy rain and high-elevation snow is forecast to return to the Pacific Northwest and northern California by Jan 3. Following a brief moderation in temperatures, another outbreak of Arctic air is anticipated to shift south from Canada into the northern Plains during the first week of January 2022. The wet pattern is likely to persist across Hawaii well into the New Year.
The Climate Prediction Center’s 6-10 day outlook (valid Jan 4-8, 2022) favors above-normal temperatures across the southern Great Plains, Gulf Coast States, and along the East Coast. Below-normal temperatures are very likely for the northern Great Plains and southeastern Alaska where probabilities exceed 70 percent. Near or below-normal temperatures are favored throughout the West. Above-normal precipitation is most likely across the northern to central Rockies, Great Basin, Pacific Northwest, and northern California. Probabilities of above-normal precipitation are elevated from the Mississippi Valley to the East Coast, while below-normal precipitation remains favored for the southern Great Plains.
FromThe Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga) via The Durango Herald:
Limited water supply consolidated to keep corn crop and flour mill operating; jobs lost, canal payment assistance requested
In the Ute Mountain Ute language, paa is the word for water, nüvav means “snow,” uway means “to rain” and tühpar üatüaa means “dried up cropland.”
These words weigh heavily on the minds of Ute Mountain Utes in Southwest Colorado because they are missing the critical ingredients of snow in the mountains and rain in the valleys.
Tribal member Wilford Lang drove a tractor for more than 20 years for the tribe’s 7,600-acre alfalfa and corn farm, southwest of Towaoc.
He has seen water supply fluctuate up and down. But when flows in the Dolores River and McPhee Reservoir came in at 10% for the 2021 season, he and 20 other workers on the farm suddenly lost their jobs…
Water is sacred for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and with less to go around, the tribe is searching for ways to augment its supply.
Tribal elders remember water scarcity long before the Colorado Ute Water Rights Settlement of 1988, which provides water for tribal lands from the Dolores River and McPhee Reservoir.
Vera Summa remembers the 1950s, when she and her grandmother collected water from the springs and mesas of Sleeping Ute Mountain. During winter, adults, elders and children collected snow in bundles and hauled it out on their backs, Summa said…
The Mancos River runs through Ute Mountain reservation lands, but it dried up after Jackson Reservoir was built in 1950 to serve the Mancos area upstream, said elder Laverna Summa, Vera’s sister.
Water shortages are happening again, brought on by a worsening dry spell that started in 2002…
In 2021, drought-stricken fallow fields have replaced the bounty of alfalfa and corn harvests on the Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch operations, an economic hardship brought on by the worst water year in McPhee Reservoir history.
Marginal mountain snowpack was sucked up by dry ground and whisked away on the warm spring wind.
The runoff from mountain snowmelt never made it to McPhee, where the water level already was low from the previous parched year.
The 2021 deficit caused a 90% water shortage for farmers tied to the Dolores Water Conservancy District, including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
The tribe’s 7,600-acre farm received just 10% of its 24,517 acre-foot allocation.
The water shortage dried out fields and brought financial challenges for the farming and ranching operations. The tribe laid off half its farm workers, about 20 total, most of whom are tribal members…
Farm operations include the Bow and Arrow mill, a state-of-the-art facility opened in 2014 that sells non-GMO, gluten-free and kosher cornmeal to food manufacturers, grocery stores and distilleries.
The mill’s products are used to make chips, polenta, pasta, grits, cornbread, whiskey and more.
Simon Martinez, general manager of the Ute Mountain Ute Bow and Arrow Brand and Farm & Ranch Enterprises, talks Oct. 20 near Towaoc about how drought and reduced irrigation have affected crop production. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
The Ute Mountain Ute Bow and Arrow Brand mill on Oct. 20 near Towaoc. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Martinez used most this year’s limited water supply to irrigate the white, yellow and blue corn crops and keep the mill and its staff of 13 going. The tribe’s ranching operation, with a 600 cow-calf herd, has been kept whole.
So far, business has been brisk at the corn mill, but the drought weighs on everyone’s mind…
Lang said the farm and ranch operation and Bow and Arrow corn mill have been an economic boon for the tribe. They provide well-paying careers for many tribal members and create a deep sense of pride…
The drastic drop in crop revenue fell short of the $660,000 in annual delivery costs for the water on the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Towaoc-Highline Canal.
So far this year, Martinez said, the tribe has paid $150,000 of that bill and has asked the Bureau of Reclamation for drought assistance to pay the rest…
Martinez and his reduced farm staff still must tend to thousands of acres of fallow fields, and they are discing the soil and controlling weeds to prep the fields for next year.
Long-term forecasts for the Four Corners region of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah call for abnormally dry and hot weather…
Senior water rights buffer drought impacts
Ute Mountain Ute water rights have a complex history.
As part of the Colorado Ute Water Rights Settlement of 1988, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe gave up 1868 rights on the Mancos River in exchange for more junior water rights to the Dolores River in McPhee Reservoir, said Mike Preston, a water consultant for the tribe.
The settlement was made partly in response to the Mancos River going dry through Ute Mountain Ute land after Jackson Lake was built upstream in Mancos.
As original inhabitants, Native American tribes have inherent water rights, which were codified by the Winters Doctrine, a 1908 U.S. Supreme Court decision that mandates that tribal reservations have access to water.
As part of the 1988 settlement, the Dolores Project and McPhee Reservoir satisfied Ute Mountain Ute water rights via delivery from McPhee and the gravity-fed 39-mile Towoac-Highline Canal to Ute Farm and Ranch.
The settlement also created a reliable domestic water line to Towaoc from the Cortez water treatment plant, which gets the water from McPhee…
Ute Farm and Ranch shares equally with other water district farmers when water supply is below normal.
Consequently, the tribe took a 90% hit this year, along with other ranches and farms. The fish pool, 32,500 acre-feet earmarked for native fish habitat downstream of McPhee Reservoir, also took the cut. Municipalities do not share in the shortage.
McPhee, the Dolores Water Conservancy District and the tribe are more exposed to drought because their water rights on the Dolores River are junior to those of Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co.
In these dry times, the tribe has redoubled its efforts to study and potentially claim all its water rights, including on the San Juan River, said Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart. The river touches the Ute Mountain reservation while flowing from New Mexico to Utah…
Colorado’s prior appropriation water system of “first in line, first in right” can leave more junior water right holders high and dry in extreme drought, a situation that is playing out now.
The practicality and fairness of the system in a new era of aridification and chronic water shortage has been a point of discussion, Heart said.
“We have been here the longest, but don’t have senior status, plus we have OandM costs on the canal to get our water,” Heart said. “We’re seeing a megadrought. In the future if the drought gets worse, who will get cut short, Montezuma, Cortez or us?”
The tribe has hired additional staff to work on water issues, and Heart encourages leaders to “think out of the box.” He said the tribe should have looked into buying Totten Lake, which recently was sold to Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co. Totten feeds McElmo Creek, which flows through tribal lands…
“We’d like to talk about adding storage to Jackson Lake, so we could release our share down the Mancos and collect it here,” Heart said. The water could augment water shortages from the Dolores River and McPhee Reservoir.
Montezuma Valley Irrigation Co. has senior rights
Montezuma Valley Irrigation’s senior water rights date to 1888 and 1885 and include the first 795 cubic feet per second of the Dolores River. Anything above that flow mostly goes to Dolores Water Conservation District.
In normal runoff years, the river flows well above that level and is enough to satisfy MVIC rights and fill McPhee reservoir.
But during extreme dry periods, MVIC’s senior position buffers the impact of drought somewhat for its shareholders because at lower flows, their river rights are more senior and more likely to be filled.
MVIC, which stores water in Narraguinnep, Groundhog and Totten reservoirs, has rights to about 130,000 acre-feet of Dolores River Basin water annually. This year, it received only 92,000 acre-feet because of the drought.
The poor snowpack caused a 30% shortage this year for MVIC, and the irrigation season was shortened by about 20 days, said MVIC manager Brandon Johnson.
The good news is the local snowpack is starting to build. But what constitutes “normal” snowfall has changed.
The Dec. 29 snow measurement on Vail Mountain stands at 92% of the 30-year median. It’s a big jump in six days. The Dec. 23 number was 65% of normal.
Copper Mountain, the closest site to the headwaters of Gore Creek, stands at 97% of normal, while Fremont Pass, the closest site to the headwaters of the Eagle River, stands at 110% of normal.
But here are a couple of things to think about:
First, it’s still very early in the snow season — generally measured between the end of October and May of the following year. The snowpack on Vail Mountain — as measured in “snow water equivalent” — currently stands at roughly 32% of the median peak. That peak comes in late April.
As the past week shows, it’s fairly easy to make up snowpack deficits this early in the season.
The other thing to ponder is that the 30-year median has changed, and that number is lower than it once was.
Diane Johnson, the communications and public affairs manager for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said the National Resources Conservation Service changes the 30-year median every 10 years, creating a literal “new normal.”
A lower median
The 30-year median now reflects the snow years between 1990 and the end of the 2020 snow year. That’s a big change from the 30-year median that included some monstrous snow years in the 1980s. The new 30-year median now includes some of the most snow-starved winters on record, including the all-time low year of 2011-12.
That change has already made a difference in this season’s numbers.
For instance, the Dec. 29 reading at Vail Mountain would have been 89% of the former 30-year median.
Again, the current snowy period is good. Again, though, the bar is set relatively low at this point in the season…
The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook through the end of March, 2022, from the U.S. Climate Prediction Center puts virtually all of the Mountain West into the “drought persists” category. On the other hand, the map valid through the end of December also showed the Mountain West in the “drought persists” category…
Down, down, down
The trend line of the 30-year snowpack median is headed inexorably down.
And, Johnson added, just “normal” snow years won’t be enough to break the grip of what’s now a yearslong drought cycle…
Given current shortages, it would take multiple big-snow seasons to restore streams and reservoirs in the region. That’s unlikely, Johnson said. Big years aren’t a reality any more, Johnson said.
“We’re just not going to get back to where all these (reservoirs) were full,” she said.
That means people need to change their behavior regarding water use, particularly outdoor water use, Johnson said.
“We need our customers to manage with us,” she said. “It’s about people living a little differently in their landscape.”
SNOTEL sites that monitor snowfall throughout the winter measured the snowpack at Independence Pass at 98.4% of average on Dec. 26, with a “snow water equivalent” (SWE) of 6.5 inches. That’s a significant jump from 4.88 inches of SWE the week prior, which represented 80% of average. The snowpack at Independence Pass sharply increased on Dec. 23, from 4.88 inches of SWE on Dec. 22 to 5.12 on Dec. 23. Last year on Dec. 26, the SNOTEL station up the pass recorded an SWE of 4.88 inches.
Snow water equivalent — the metric used to track snowpack — is the amount of water contained within the snowpack, which will become our future water supply running in local rivers and streams.
The monitoring station at the lower-elevation McClure Pass recorded an SWE of 5.2 inches, or 88.1% of average, on Dec. 26. A week before, the station reported 2.91 inches of water contained in the snowpack, or 57.1% of average. Last year, on that same day, the station measured a snowpack holding 3.31 inches of water, or 56.1% of average.
On the northeast side of the Roaring Fork Basin, snowpack at Ivanhoe contains higher water levels than the 1991-2020 average, with 7.09 inches on Dec. 26, which is 120.1% of the average of 5.9 inches. It’s also up from last year’s 4.8 inches of SWE.
FromThe High Country News [December 27. 2021] (Jonathan Thompson):
In early September of 2021, as the Caldor Fire raged toward Lake Tahoe through eastern California’s drought-addled forests, staff at the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort made a desperate bid to fend off the advancing flames: They aimed snowmaking machines at structures and cranked up the water-misting cannons to douse an area that hadn’t seen a lick of rain in months.
At the same time, some 500 miles due east, little more than a trickle of water ran down the broad sandy bed of the Dirty Devil River in eastern Utah. Then a moisture-laden storm dumped its load on the Henry Mountains, filling arroyos to the brim. Over the course of hours, the Dirty Devil’s flow shot up to a churning 14,000 cubic feet per second — more than four times that of the nearby Colorado River — overflowing the normally dry arroyo’s banks. Water flowed six feet deep through streets and parking lots in Hanksville, sweeping away cars and a 500-gallon propane tank and inundating homes and hotels.
This stark contrast epitomizes 2021 in the West, where the devastating effects of drought were juxtaposed with drenching deluges in neighboring states. But amid all the weather whiplash, there was one constant: Temperatures were above “normal” all year long.
Number of days in June the high temperature did not exceed 100 degrees in Phoenix, Arizona.
Estimated number of people who died of heat-related causes in Washington between June 26 and Aug. 31, 2021.
Number of heat-related fatalities in the state in 2020.
Number of heat-related fatalities in Multnomah County, Oregon, during the June “heat dome”; most of the victims were older, lived alone and lacked air conditioning, according to the county health department.
Number of confirmed heat-related fatalities in Maricopa County, Arizona, between April 11 and Nov. 1, 2021.
Number of weeks climate change has lengthened the growing season in the Greater Yellowstone region since 1950.
1.88 inches Amount of precipitation received in Denver between June 1 and Nov. 30, the lowest since record-keeping began in 1872.
118 degrees Fahrenheit
Temperature at Dallesport, Washington, on June 28, the highest ever for the state.
111 degrees Fahrenheit
Temperature at Porthill, Idaho, on June 28.
Amount of rain that fell in Quillayute, Washington, between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30, smashing the old record of 51.81 inches set in 1975.
2,261 to 3,637
Estimated number of sequoias over four feet in diameter killed by the Windy and KNP Complex fires in California in 2021.
Amount of rain that fell in Cuba, New Mexico, on Sept. 30, a new monthly record for one-day precipitation.
80 cubic feet per second
Flow in the Rio Grande at Albuquerque on Oct. 25; the median flow for that date is 350 cfs.
Number of homes destroyed by a central Montana wildfire on Dec. 1.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Burn scars left behind by the historic Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires are among areas of Colorado most in need of federal funding for restoration projects to protect water quality, prevent flash floods and mudslides, experts say.
Plus millions of acres of forest across the state need to be cleared of dead and dying foliage to prevent new wildfires or at least stop them from growing so large.
The federal bipartisan infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed into law last month set aside just under $3 billion for watershed restoration projects and wildfire mitigation work. But however much of that comes to Colorado, which U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse estimates will be “tens of millions,” won’t be enough. No additional money is guaranteed either, after West Virginia’s Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin said on Sunday that he won’t support Biden’s $2.2 trillion climate, tax and spending plan, the Build Back Better Act.
The Cameron Peak and East Troublesome burn scars sit top of mind for Neguse and many other state and local officials who recall the grim 2020 season that sparked the two largest wildfires in Colorado’s history. Estimates to restore those two areas alone range as high as $150 million. Mitigation and restoration work across the rest of the state would cost billions.
“The scale and scope of the need is breathtaking,” Neguse said. “We have long unmet needs here in our community and if we don’t address them now, we’re likely to reap the consequences for years to come.”
That means more massive wildfires, Justin Kirkland, Gypsum Fire Protection District chief, said. And more flash floods like the deadly one that flowed through Fort Collins in July and more mudslides like those that forced officials to close Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon later in the summer.
“We’re seeing different fires. First they called them ‘large fires,’ now they’re called ‘megafires.’ They just keep getting bigger and bigger,” Kirkland said. “Unless we change what we’re doing it’s going to get worse and worse.”
Mitigating and preventing wildfires
Year after year, Colorado is seeing drier conditions and more people are moving into or near the wilderness, said Kirkland, whose fire district covers 455 square miles from the Eagle County Regional Airport west toward Glenwood Springs.
Not only are wildfires inevitable but population shifts mean more people and their homes are at risk…
The more cost-effective way to fight wildfires is to invest in mitigation and prevention work, he said. Crews can remove dead and dying trees, thin forests and build fire breaks. But the Gypsum fire district can’t afford to do that work alone so they must partner with other government agencies, private organizations and nonprofits…
In all, about 2.4 million acres of forest are “in urgent need of treatment to address forest health, wildfire risk and watershed protection threats,” the 2020 Colorado Forest Action Plan notes.
Watershed management and restoring burn scars
While there’s prevention and mitigation work to be done on the front end, widespread restoration work is needed along watersheds already scorched by wildfires, Gibbs said.
Wildfires actually burn the ground itself, torching all the organic material around so all that’s left is an ash-laden “powdery dust,” Adam Jokerst, Greeley’s deputy director for water resources, said. Nothing remains to absorb rain or snowfall, which then leads to flash floods and mudslides.
People also can’t drink that water, Jokerst said. Nor can Greeley, which supplies water to about 150,000 people, treat it at its Bellvue Water Treatment Plant northwest of Fort Collins.
To restore burn scars, crews can drop heavy wood mulch by helicopter, install long tubes of straw called wattles on slopes and other blocks in streams and channels to catch sediment, Jokerst said…
And that work takes time, Gibbs added, noting that utilities like Denver Water pay millions each year to restore decades-old burn scars. He mentioned the Buffalo Creek fire, which burned through nearly 12,000 acres southwest of Denver.
“If you’re a mountain biker and you go out there right now, it does not look like it did in 1990,” Gibbs said. “They’ve seen very little revegetation.”
For context, the East Troublesome fire burned nearly 194,000 acres in Grand County and Rocky Mountain National Park. The Cameron Peak fire burned nearly 209,000 acres in the Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests, Rocky Mountain National Park and Larimer and Jackson counties.
Gibbs noted that the Grizzly Creek fire scar, spanning more than 32,000 acres east of Glenwood Springs, must also be restored.
Finding money for mitigation and restoration
Some state funds are available for the prevention, mitigation and restoration work. And more became available from bills passed by the legislature this year than ever before, Gibbs said.
Senate Bill 2040 earmarked $30 million for watershed restoration and Senate Bill 258 set aside $29.9 million this year and $1.8 million next year for wildfire mitigation.
But that’s not much relative to the need, which the state forest plan estimates is about $4.2 billion.
Restoring the East Troublesome scar alone will cost an estimated $50 million, Gibbs said. For the Cameron Peak scar that number’s closer to $70 million (Neguse and Jokerst estimated $100 million).
More money is on the way from the bipartisan infrastructure bill, but nobody knows how much. Neguse acknowledged that his estimate of tens of millions allows for a wide range of possibilities.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for allocating the money and officials there said it’s too early to say how much states will receive.
Angela Boag, with the state Department of Natural Resources, said once the USDA finalizes its allocations some money will come to the DNR to dole out, some will be handed out directly by the federal government.
Understanding the funding mechanisms alone is complicated, said Boag, who works as deputy director for climate, forest health and energy. She expressed frustration that months likely remain before state officials will understand how much money they can expect.
However much money does come to Colorado, it’ll fall short, Jokerst said. Just this year, crews dropped mulch from helicopters over more than 6,000 acres of the Cameron Peak scar, less than 3% of the total area. All told, the work cost about $18 million, broken into about $87 per minute, per helicopter, he said…
Neguse said a $300 million chunk in the bipartisan infrastructure bill is earmarked for watershed protection but it can’t be spent on federal lands. Neguse wrote to USDA officials asking for more flexibility with that money, but so far told The Denver Post he hasn’t yet heard back…
Money from the bipartisan bill amounts to a downpayment for the country’s forests and watersheds, Neguse said. But it doesn’t offer ongoing funding. For that, he pointed to the Build Back Better Act, which includes $27 billion for more mitigation and restoration work…
Crow pointed to Congressional Republicans who have consistently voted against these types of funding mechanisms. U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, whose sprawling Western Slope district includes much of Colorado’s at-risk forests, voted against the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act.
Crow called Boebert’s opposition to those measures “quizzical.” Representatives for Boebert did not reply to a message seeking comment.
Consistent funding for mitigation and restoration work would not only make Colorado safer but it would also create jobs and pump money into the state’s economy, Crow said. And without that investment, the state will inevitably see more of the same devastation that has swept through in recent years.
Record-setting summer heat baked the typically cooler Pacific Northwest.
The third busiest hurricane season on record sent eight storms barreling into the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
Devastating, record-setting tornadoes brought hundreds of miles of destruction across eight states in December.
Tropical downpours flooded New York City, and a February snowstorm crippled Texas and the South.
These are just some of the 18 weather and climate-driven billion-dollar disasters we’ve seen in 2021 so far. As extreme weather goes, this year was one for the record books. Climate change is here, and NOAA is playing a key role in tackling the climate crisis.
Here are 5 ways we’ve helped make America climate-ready, responsive and resilient this year:
1. We put climate information into your hands
A major upgrade to NOAA’s climate.gov made our climate data, graphics, education materials and tools more accessible and easier to locate for millions of users.
We also released a new interactive online tool that helps users determine a county’s risk for, and vulnerability to costly weather and climate disasters such as wildfires, drought, tornado outbreaks and hurricanes.
2. We improved weather forecasts to protect lives and livelihoods
Precision matters: Preliminary results show that NOAA’s National Hurricane Center’s hurricane forecasts this year were 10-20 miles closer to the actual track of the storm two to four days prior to landfall, compared to track forecasts from the previous five years.
Our investments in forecasting capability and improved weather and climate models will continue to pay dividends as more Americans face risks from extreme weather and climate hazards like floods, wildfires, drought and hurricanes.
3. We moved America closer to meeting its clean energy goals
NOAA worked closely with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to coordinate the siting and permitting of offshore wind projects that support the Administration’s clean energy goal of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, including a comprehensive interagency approach to reduce negative impacts of offshore energy development on fisheries surveys.
We also signed a data sharing agreement with the wind energy developer Ørsted to better understand the physical and biological characteristics of the ocean where offshore wind projects occur.
4. We protected climate-vulnerable maritime wonders for future generations
Designated in June, the Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary protects 962 square miles of Lake Michigan known for 36 historically significant shipwrecks. The sanctuary designation supports research, education and outreach, and will foster tourism and recreation in the region while preserving important cultural heritage and natural resources.
In November, NOAA took the first steps toward designating a new Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, a 7,000 square mile area off the central California coast that would protect the area’s rich biodiversity, maritime heritage, and tribal history, while creating new opportunities for research and economic development.
5. We advanced equitable access to climate services
Vulnerable populations face unique threats from a changing climate. NOAA held a series of eight Climate and Equity roundtables across the country — from Alaska to Louisiana — to listen and learn how the agency can better serve vulnerable communities when it comes to specific regional climate hazards. In 2022, NOAA is taking action on the feedback received at these roundtables.
NOAA’s work to provide data, information and solutions to address the climate crisis doesn’t end here.
Powderhounds around the state are likely rejoicing after a major snowstorm moved through Colorado over the long holiday weekend, dropping feet of snow in some areas. Following several dry weeks that dropped Colorado’s snowpack far behind the 20-year median, widespread accumulation has resulted in a lack of snow no longer being the case.
As of December 27, statewide snowpack is at 95 percent of the to-date median. Ten days ago, statewide snowpack was at just 78 percent of the to-date median, and days before that, it was around 50 percent.
There’s no doubt about it that Colorado’s snowpack has made significant gains over the past couple of weeks, with more big snow on the way over the next couple of days.
Perhaps even more spectacular is the snowpack boost that’s been seen in the southwest region of the state.
The San Miguel-Dolores-Animas-San Juan river basin in southwest Colorado jumped from around 84 percent of the to-date median snowpack to 107 percent of the to-date median snowpack over the last ten days, having increased to 84 percent from about 30 percent of the to-date median snowpack just days before that.
The Gunnison River Basin is currently the farthest ahead of the 20-year median to-date snowpack, at 118 percent of what this region typically sees by December 27. This region includes spots like Crested Butte.
The lowest snowpack total is currently found in the Upper Rio Grande Basin, in southern Colorado, at 78 percent of the 20-year median. The Arkansas River Basin, in southeast Colorado, is close behind at 80 percent.
The recent snow will likely help Colorado’s drought situation, with 99.8 percent of the state currently experiencing drought of some level as of December 21, when the most recent report was released by the US Drought Monitor. Roughly 22 percent of the state is experiencing ‘extreme’ drought, the third of four stages, compared to roughly 49 percent this time last year. None of the state is currently experiencing the most intense form of drought – ‘exceptional’ drought. This is a huge positive compared to last year, when more than 27 percent of the state was experiencing this level of drought nearing the end of December.
The snowpack as of Monday in Southwest Colorado, measured by the snow’s water content, was at 112% of the most recent 30-year average for the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins and 120% of Gunnison Basin’s average, according to the National Resources Conservation Service.
The waves of snowstorms that rolled over the Aspen-area between Thursday and Sunday brought the kind of snow that can make a dent in the ongoing drought.
The heavy, wet snow boosted the snow pack by 25% near the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, 32% at the headwaters of the Fryingpan River and 64% at the headwaters of the Crystal River in just four days…
The snowpack is at about 44% of the median peak value. It typically doesn’t hit 50% of peak until late January…
Forecasters at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center marveled on Christmas Day about the high moisture content of the snow that fell on Schofield Pass (located between Marble and Crested Butte) and elsewhere in the central mountains during this extended storm cycle…
Long bouts of snow are nothing new in the Rocky Mountains but consecutive days of powder are still reason to celebrate. According to Aspen Skiing Co.’s snow reports, Aspen Highlands reaped 42 inches of snow from Dec. 23 through 5 a.m. Monday morning. Snowmass pulled in 29 inches while Aspen Mountain was right behind at 27 inches. Buttermilk managed an impressive 22 inches over that stretch.
The automated Snotel site on Independence Pass shot up from 80% of median on Dec. 23 to 100% of median on Monday. The NRCS uses a 30-year median between 1990 and 2020.
The snowpack at the Ivanhoe site on the upper Fryingpan improved from 96% of median on Dec. 23 to 127% on Monday.
The biggest gainer was Schofield Pass, which soared from just 82% of median on Dec. 23 to 135% on Monday.
The statewide snowpack has grown over the past month due to winter storms across the western slope, but much of southeast Colorado has remained without significant precipitation, leaving the mountains with very little snow at the start of the winter.
Right now, according to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service Colorado, the Arkansas River Basin has only measured 76% of the snowpack average for this time of year. In contrast, the Gunnison River Basin to the west has already reached 118% of that area’s average snowpack. If this continues, the limited runoff could contribute to harsher conditions when the seasons change, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Wankowski. These conditions are due in large part to the climate pattern La Niña, Wankowski said, which…impacts the weather around the world and in the United States every few years…
So far, Colorado has seen between two and four feet of snow across Wolf Creek Pass and other areas throughout December, which has helped to boost the statewide snowpack, he said. “But for Southeast Colorado, the Arkansas River Basin is lagging. And this is pretty typical for especially the southeastern mountains,” he said. “The headwaters of the Arkansas River in the last month have been doing well but as you can tell … there’s no snow on Pike’s Peak, or very little.” This low snowpack level in southeastern Colorado is normal for a La Niña year, Wankowski said, but it still carries with it some potential consequences. And while the state as a whole is catching up in terms of the annual snowpack, the coming months will be critical in determining what the runoff will look like for the southeastern part of the state. “We need to continue this onslaught of snow,” Wankowski said. “If we don’t see much in the southeast mountains, which again is pretty typical for La Niña, we will be in danger of seeing drought continue to grow and get worse as well as the potential for spring and summer wildfires.”
The SNOTEL network is composed of over 900 automated data collection sites located in remote, high-elevation mountain watersheds in the western U.S. They are used to monitor snowpack, precipitation, temperature, and other climatic conditions. The data collected at SNOTEL sites are transmitted to a central database, called the Water and Climate Information System, where they are used to make water supply forecasts.
SNOTEL sites are designed to operate unattended and without maintenance for a year or more. A typical SNOTEL remote site consists of measuring devices and sensors, an equipment shelter for the radio telemetry equipment, and an antenna that also supports the solar panels used to keep batteries charged.
A standard sensor configuration includes a snow pillow, a storage precipitation gage, and a temperature sensor. The snow pillow measures how much water is in the snowpack by weighing the snow with a pressure transducer. Automatic measuring devices in the shelter house convert the weight of the snow into an electrical reading of the snow’s water equivalent — that is, the actual amount of water in a given volume of snow.
SNOTEL stations also collect data on snow depth, all-season precipitation accumulation, and air temperature with daily maximums, minimums, and averages. Many enhanced SNOTEL sites are equipped to take soil moisture and soil temperature measurements at various depths, as well as solar radiation, wind speed, and relative humidity. The configuration at each site is tailored to the physical conditions, the climate, and the specific requirements of the data users.
The data collected at SNOTEL sites are generally reported multiple times per day, with some sensors reporting hourly. More on SNOTEL sensors.
The nonprofit conservation coalition Keep It Colorado has received $250,000 in funding to support the development of its Statewide Private Lands Conservation Plan. Investments include $175,000 from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO)’s Resilient Communities Program – which funds one-time, immediate needs or opportunities that have emerged in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic – and $75,000 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB)’s Water Plan Grant program.
The Statewide Private Lands Conservation Plan is a collaborative plan that Keep It Colorado is developing with the input of land trusts and partners to create a unified vision for the future of private lands conservation in Colorado. It will provide a set of concrete objectives and strategies, with aims to identify urgent areas for protection and create a roadmap for on-the-ground conservation the private lands conservation community wants to achieve in the next 10 years.
Because 60 percent of lands in Colorado are privately owned, they account for a significant portion of the state that needs protection and are a primary focus of Keep It Colorado’s coalition work. Prioritizing the conservation interests and needs of private landowners, including the protection of working lands, wildlife habitat and iconic viewsheds, Keep It Colorado’s plan will be a coordinated effort to ensure that those lands feature prominently in a broader statewide conservation framework. For example, there are growing calls to meet 30×30 (a goal to conserve 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030), and many organizations are creating or updating plans around water, wildlife and recreation. These include the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s Colorado Water Plan, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s comprehensive statewide recreation and conservation plan.
Keep It Colorado conceived of the plan in 2019 when it recognized a gap in statewide planning around the protection of private lands. “There is a long history of strong private lands conservation across the state. But those efforts are often fragmented and not based on a set of common strategies that prioritize the protection and connectivity of private lands at a statewide level,” said Melissa Daruna, executive director of Keep It Colorado. “This generous funding demonstrates GOCO’s and CWCB’s commitment to increasing the scale and pace of conservation and protecting a substantial percentage of Colorado’s natural resources in a coordinated and thoughtful way.”
“GOCO couldn’t be more eager to learn the results of this planning process,” said GOCO Executive Director Chris Castilian. “Each year GOCO has the privilege to invest a portion of Colorado Lottery proceeds in land protection work, and our funding strategy supports projects by our trusted partners in the conservation space across Colorado communities. We’re grateful to Keep It Colorado for taking the leading role in this important effort to elevate statewide priorities that will guide us all in achieving the greatest outcomes.”
The Nature Conservancy is a key partner and will provide data and the science through its Resilient and Connected Networks (RCN) tool. RCN will identify and prioritize the landscapes and the number of acres critical to conserve at both the state and local community levels, with goals to ensure connectivity of large natural areas; promote health and survival of wildlife and fish; and enable Colorado communities to prepare for and adapt to change. RCN will also be a tool to encourage collaborative projects.
GOCO’s and CWCB’s funding will be applied toward development of the plan; training and implementation of The Nature Conservancy’s RCN tool; diverse stakeholder engagement across Colorado; public relations and a plan release; and facilitation of activities. Keep It Colorado seeks additional funds for implementation of projects.
Keep It Colorado received additional GOCO Resilient Communities Program funding for a transaction cost assistance program…Several Keep It Colorado coalition members also received Resilient Communities Program funding for a variety of open space initiatives, including Aspen Valley Land Trust, Central Colorado Conservancy, Colorado West Land Trust, La Plata Open Space Conservancy, Montezuma Land Conservancy, Trust for Public Land, City of Boulder, City of Loveland and Eagle County. A complete list of awarded projects is available on GOCO’s website.
About Keep It Colorado
Keep It Colorado serves as a unified voice for conservation organizations focused on private lands conservation, and does so by bringing together land trusts, public agencies and conservation champions around a vision to create a Colorado where people, lands, waters and wildlife thrive. Keep It Colorado advocates for sound public policy; provides connection and collaboration opportunities for conservation partners; offers a forum to address emerging conservation issues and opportunities; pursues sustainable funding and programmatic tools and solutions; and works to advance a culture of conservation in Colorado. Learn more at http://www.keepitco.org.
During the annual Christmas tree-lighting ceremony at Breckenridge Ski Resort in early December, thousands of people crowded onto Main Street under a bluebird sky.
The event was preceded by a dog parade featuring hundreds of Bernese mountain dogs and a foot race with runners dressed as Santas and elves. When the sun finally set, the countdown began as a massive evergreen in the square was bathed in golden light.
Denver, which lies at the foot of the Rockies, blew away records this year when measurable snow didn’t fall until Dec. 10, making for 232 straight days with no snow. Pitkin County, home to Aspen and Snowmass, had 30 more frost-free days this year than in 1980. And warming temperatures, even at night, prevent early snowmaking, which is essential to a profitable holiday season.
A typical downhill ski season in the Rockies starts in early November and ends in early April, but a 2017 study in the journal Global Environmental Change found that virtually all winter recreation areas in the U.S. could see the lengths of their seasons decline by 50 percent by 2050, and by 80 percent in 2090 for some downhill skiing locations.
The authors estimated that changes in season lengths under extreme emissions conditions could result in a loss of more than $2 billion for downhill skiing in the U.S…
Ideas vary among managers at Colorado’s 32 main ski areas on how to battle the crisis, but most acknowledge that what they’re doing now isn’t working.
“We’re failing terribly,” said Auden Schendler, senior vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company and a 30-year mountain resident who is alarmed by the increasing lateness of snow and its early departure, which he called the “March meltdown.”
Schendler said he grew especially worried when the Grizzly Creek Fire chewed through 33,000 acres near Aspen in 2020. It threatened the town and led to mudslides along Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, temporarily cutting off access to Aspen.
“My concern initially was that the industry would be taken out by warmth and lack of snow. But in the last four years, we’ve had two giant, catastrophic fires that basically shut the town down,” he said, referring to Grizzly Creek and the Lake Christine Fire in 2018.
Greg Hanson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boulder, said Colorado is experiencing shortened winter seasons with first snows coming late and final ones falling earlier…
Melanie Mills, president and CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA, a trade group, said snow is becoming more unpredictable…
Skiing is the largest economic engine for western Colorado and drives its second-largest revenue generator, tourism, according to Colorado Ski Country USA.
Ski areas have been working aggressively to switch to renewable energy to generate electricity, conducting energy audits to track their progress and using water more judiciously because most of Colorado’s water comes from mountain snowpack.
Despite efforts by ski resorts to reach zero emissions, zero waste and zero net operating impacts, Mills said it’s not enough.
“We can all be carbon-free, and we still won’t make a dent in the problem,” she said.
To that end, the industry is shifting its focus to advocacy by pushing policymakers to do more to fight climate change.
“This is not a problem that we’re going to solve locally,” Mills said. “And it’s not a problem that the ski industry is going to solve. We want to be part of the solution, but we need action at the national level and the international level.”
Schendler had hoped President Joe Biden’s all-but-doomed Build Back Better plan would be successful because it included some $550 billion in climate-related programs that would have put the U.S economy on track to zero emissions by 2050.
Scientists say that without that kind of action globally, nations will be unable to limit climate change to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1.5 degrees Celsius, and avoid its most catastrophic effects…
Schendler said it will take a national effort to save not only skiing but other outdoor industries that rely on the weather for survival.
“We have to be noisy,” Schendler said, “and the bulk of the United States business community is not doing what’s required on a problem that costs more to leave alone than to solve.”
Utah has some of the highest per-capita water use and is the fastest-growing state. Yet a powerful group that steers Utah’s water policy keeps pushing for costly infrastructure over meaningful conservation efforts.
With rising temperatures and two decades of drought depleting the Colorado River, some Southwestern states are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to pay homeowners to tear out their lawns and farmers to fallow their fields.
But Utah, the fastest-growing and second-driest state in the nation, is pursuing a different strategy.
Steered by the state’s largest water districts, with the help of their legislative allies, Utah has prioritized the pursuit of new pipelines over large-scale conservation programs. These districts — the public entities that supply water wholesale to cities and towns — have used their influence to secure funding for the costly infrastructure projects, and they have done this while opposing or slowing efforts to mandate conservation, according to a ProPublica review of the districts’ internal communications and every water-related bill filed in the Utah Legislature over the past decade.
In 2017, for example, the water districts opposed legislation intended to more accurately convey to consumers the true cost of water on their utility bills by capping how much of the cost could be covered by property taxes. A similar measure in 2019 passed only after being stripped of limits on water districts’ ability to collect property taxes.
Then, beginning in 2018, the districts and their allies raised concerns about a series of bills to mandate meters for water used on lawns and gardens. Again, the proposals were significantly scaled back.
And in 2020, when a lawmaker wanted to require utilities to find leaks in their systems as a means of conservation, a lobbyist for the districts rewrote the bill, removing the mandates.
Meanwhile, the districts have secured the Legislature’s support for new water development projects that would cost billions of dollars, such as for a pipeline to carry Colorado River water to southwestern Utah and for dams along the Bear River in northern Utah. Without these projects, they say, the state could run short of water within a few decades.
This approach is having an impact beyond Utah’s borders. Other states that have taken sometimes painful steps to cut back on what they draw from the over-allocated Colorado River have criticized Utah for failing to do the same. Utah’s political leaders, though, remain hellbent on securing what they believe is their full share of the river that supports 40 million people, as Arizona, California and Nevada have already.
Agriculture consumes a majority of the water used in the West. But Utah farmers have been forced to take less than they have in the past, turning the spotlight to cities and towns where most water is used on landscaping. Yet in a state with suburbs full of lush lawns and tree-lined streets more reminiscent of the Midwest than the Southwest, conservation mandates are politically unpopular.
“Water politics waste more water than anything else in Utah,” said a broker who buys and sells water in the state and who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation from the districts.
Critics call the districts’ prediction that Utah will run out of water without new infrastructure a myth. The state would have the water it needs to continue growing, they say, if it aggressively pursued conservation.
ProPublica found some projections by the state and districts rely on faulty data and questionable cost estimates. A legislative audit uncovered a rash of errors in data on water demand and supply, the very numbers used to justify new infrastructure. And while a district representative told legislators that new projects such as pipelines would be a cheaper source of water for Utahns, their own numbers show conservation has provided water at a fraction of the cost of those projects…
Uniting as Prepare60
The influential group that controls Utah water policy is largely unknown to the public, but they’re well known to policymakers. At its core are Utah’s four largest water districts, which work alongside a loose coalition of politicians and interest groups representing cities and rural water users.
The water broker calls the group Utah’s “water OPEC.” A former state senator who clashed with the group over legislation considers them “smug kingdom builders.” But to most people familiar with their power and ploys, they’re the “water buffaloes.”
The four largest water districts see themselves on the front lines of a battle to defend Utah’s water rights from neighboring states and prevent shortages as the state grows. These districts — which serve about 90% of Utahns and bring in about a half-billion dollars of revenue annually — secure water at its source and transport it across the state to cities and towns, which in turn sell it to Utahns.
The state’s population is projected to more than double between 2010 and 2060, so the four districts, three of which sell to the cities along the Wasatch Front, teamed up to develop and lobby for a plan to keep pace with that growth. This has given them an organized bloc to push for their ideas. Nodding to the 2060 population projection, they dubbed themselves Prepare60.
The group, commonly referred to as Prep 60, has three stated goals: conservation, defending water rights and developing new water. But they don’t give equal attention or funding to each.
When it comes to conservation, the Prep 60 districts implement measures long common elsewhere in the West. These include, among others, a “Flip Your Strip” program that pays homeowners to rip out curbside grass; rebates for efficient irrigation and low-flow toilets; lining canals to reduce water lost to seepage; demonstration gardens to showcase water-saving landscaping; and financial support for such outreach efforts as television ads in which Utah Gov. Spencer Cox pleads with residents to voluntarily “slow the flow.”
The Washington County Water Conservancy District, a member of Prep 60, is also working with St. George and other southern Utah cities on their first-ever municipal ordinances limiting the size of lawns. California first instituted rules on water-efficient landscaping in 1993, and they’ve become stricter in the years since.
Other Colorado River Basin states say Utah’s investments in conservation are insignificant compared to steps they have taken in the face of climate change. In blistering comments about the Lake Powell Pipeline — which would draw water from a shrinking reservoir along the Arizona-Utah border and send it to Washington County in Utah’s southwest corner — Nevada water officials took aim at Utah water policy…
There’s a similar gap in other conservation spending. Arizona, Nevada and California recently committed $100 million to reduce water use in the next two years alone. Of that, $20 million will come from the largest water district in Nevada, a state about the same size as Utah. The Central Utah district spends several hundred thousand dollars of its own money every year on “water conservation activity” and “water efficient landscaping.” When it does fund conservation, it typically relies on federal dollars, spending $141 million in federal funding between 1995 and 2019. Utah’s Washington County Water Conservancy District spent 445% more on the yet-to-be-started Lake Powell Pipeline than it spent on “conservation” and “public education” combined, according to its three most recent audited financial statements. The district said those years were outliers because the pipeline’s environmental impact was being analyzed.
Meanwhile, the Prep 60 water districts have spent generously on lobbying at the Utah Capitol.
The districts’ most influential surrogate is Fred Finlinson, a Republican who spent 20 years in the state Senate before leaving to lobby his former colleagues. After switching jobs, he married Christine Fox, a Republican who had spent 11 years in the Legislature before joining her new husband to work on water policy and lobbying. The Prep 60 districts have paid their firm, Finlinson & Finlinson, more than $5.3 million since 2014. (The districts said some of that money went to “specialized consulting services” that didn’t involve lobbying.)
In addition to helping found the firm that lobbies on behalf of the four Prep 60 districts, Christine Finlinson collects a paycheck as an assistant general manager of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District. Activists and a member of the district’s board have alleged that this is a conflict of interest because her district sends lobbying business to Finlinson & Finlinson.
Over the summer, the Utah Rivers Council, an environmental group, asked the state attorney general and the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General to investigate the district’s role in the arrangement and its history of using the firm to lobby against conservation bills. “We are concerned that the personal financial needs or professional whims of the senior staff of the CUWCD have been placed ahead of the needs of Utahns in providing an affordable water supply,” the council’s letter to the state attorney general said…
Challenging Road for Conservation
When lawmakers file conservation bills, they quickly learn who controls the process.
As she campaigned for office in 2018, Harrison, the Democratic lawmaker, repeatedly heard water mentioned as a top issue for voters. So, after she won, she filed a bill to compel water districts to study how to reduce per-capita use.
Harrison’s bill would have set a conservation target based on Denver’s per-capita water use but without mandated cutbacks to reach her goal. She wanted the bill to start a discussion and believed her idea would fly through the Legislature. But there was immediate opposition.
In emails with the water districts’ general managers, Fred Finlinson noted Harrison’s bill had not been “vetted to my knowledge before any members of the water community.” He claimed it would require studies costing millions of dollars, even though Harrison’s bill would have merged its goals with already mandated conservation plans. The water districts’ general managers said they wanted to wait for the completion of a state goal-setting process, which eventually published weaker conservation targets than Harrison had proposed.
The emails also revealed a cozy relationship between Prep 60 and state regulators. The deputy director of the Utah Division of Water Resources at the time, Todd Adams, worked directly with Finlinson to write amendments that weakened Harrison’s conservation targets. He sent the lobbyist a marked-up copy of the bill with a note reading, “Give it a read and let me know what you think and where I screwed up.”
Adams wrote in an email to ProPublica that the agency is open to working with anyone on legislation, including “Legislators, water conservancy districts, cities, water entities, NGO’s and lobbyists.”
Finlinson forwarded the annotated legislation to the Prep 60 leadership. The districts could “let everybody know who is going to destroy their communities,” he wrote, referring to Harrison. “If she isn’t willing to go with this proposals, her bill will likely remain in the House Natural Resource committee for the rest of the session,” he added.
The bill was shelved.
Harrison said, “I learned really quickly as a freshman lawmaker that when you try to address water legislation, you’re quick to get burned.”
The outcome for Harrison’s bill was typical for Finlinson, the Prep 60 general managers and their “trusted friends,” as the lobbyist called their legislative allies. As the 2020 legislative session ended, Finlinson noted in an email to his clients that of the 53 bills he was interested in — a majority dealing with water — 52 had gone the way he wanted. The only bill that had Finlinson’s approval but failed to advance ended up signed by the governor a year later…
Among the legislation Finlinson helped shape were bills proposed by state Sen. Jacob Anderegg, a Republican. Tens of thousands of Utah property owners only pay a connection fee for unlimited use of untreated water outdoors, leading to excessive watering of landscaping. Known as secondary water, it typically comes from lakes and rivers and could otherwise be treated and used elsewhere. Anderegg saw potential savings by requiring meters for secondary water.
In 2018, Anderegg filed a bill in the Senate to require secondary water meters on most connections statewide and co-sponsored a House bill to include secondary metering in conservation plans. Both bills died.
The Prep 60 general managers acknowledge secondary meters encourage conservation. Data from the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District — a northern Utah Prep 60 member that spent more than $16 million installing meters — shows residents reduced outdoor water consumption by 23% simply because they could see how much water they used. No rate increase was necessary…
However, when Anderegg tried again, Finlinson, in emails to the Prep 60 general managers, worried that if lawmakers put money toward secondary metering, there would be less funding for water infrastructure such as dams.
Asked if the group decides what water legislation lives or dies, Anderegg answered bluntly: “Yes. Absolutely.”
Even when Finlinson and the large water districts don’t stand in the way of conservation measures, other lobbying groups, politicians and rural districts often oppose them. In the case of Anderegg’s bills, small districts and cities also balked at the cost of the meters.
“They all work together on water,” Anderegg said of Utah’s water districts, large and small. “They all shoot an email out to everybody in their group, and then all those people go talk to their elected officials, and then their elected officials don’t want to get sideways from their water buffaloes and come up here and say, ‘I’ve got serious issues with your bill, Sen. Anderegg.’”
Anderegg eventually passed two bills. His intent was to mandate secondary water meters on all buildings statewide, but he was forced to remove that requirement. As enacted, one bill requires meters on new construction, while the other exempts certain jurisdictions from the rule. Finlinson bragged about the outcome, telling his clients that secondary metering passed “in its substituted splendor.”
Even with Prep 60’s influence, it’s difficult to persuade lawmakers to mandate large-scale conservation, so they must rely on voluntary measures, said Shawcroft, who is the Central Utah district’s general manager and has a non-voting seat on the Legislature’s water committee. “Because our Legislature thinks ‘mandate’ is a word of the dark side, we try to focus on things that make sense and are doable. To the degree we can, we will attempt to influence conservation bills that make sense, that are frankly doable and passable.”
The aversion to conservation mandates has led lawmakers to discuss solutions to the drought that included prayer and a national pipeline network to transport water from Eastern states to the West. Any less ambitious solution would be “nonsense,” said Republican state Sen. David Hinkins, the co-chair of the Legislature’s water committee.
Support for Pipelines and Other Projects
The new [Washington County Water Conservancy District] general manager, Renstrom, is tasked with keeping the water flowing. According to the district and the state, that requires pursuing perhaps the most controversial water project in the nation, the Lake Powell Pipeline.
Renstrom has heard the criticism of southern Utah’s conservation efforts. According to the district, water use in Washington County has over the past two decades dropped from 439 gallons per person per day to 271 gallons. But conservation won’t be enough to keep the area growing, he said, especially as a changing climate threatens the area’s main source of water, the Virgin River: “If I have a biblical drought, the Virgin River’s toast.”
The Colorado River is also suffering. Flows in recent years are down 19% compared to the average during the 20th century, according to research from Brad Udall, a water and climate scientist at Colorado State University. If individual states move forward with new projects to draw from the river while their neighbors are cutting back, it could upend the agreement that allocates the river’s water. “The last 20 years should be an enormous wake-up call that we need to rethink water planning in the West,” he said…
Over immense opposition from inside and outside Utah, Renstrom and state leaders are pushing the 140-mile pipeline to take up to about 85,000 acre-feet of water annually from Lake Powell. In the Legislature, resolutions and legislation supporting the Lake Powell Pipeline and the Bear River Development Project, which would send water from the Utah-Wyoming-Idaho border to Utah’s population center on the Wasatch Front, have had an easier path than bills calling for conservation…
Since 2015, lawmakers have approved bills to pay for this infrastructure. One created a restricted account to fund the Bear River and Lake Powell Pipeline projects and replace some federal water infrastructure. The account was seeded with $5 million from the state’s general fund. Another bill allocated to it one-sixteenth of a percent of all state sales tax revenue. The account has since accumulated more than $95 million.
Safeguarding that money is a priority for Finlinson and Prep 60.
Critics say the districts are blindly pursuing new water infrastructure. Initial projections showed water from the Bear River project would be needed by 2015, but the Weber Basin district now says it won’t be needed until at least 2060. Environmentalists argue this shows the project wasn’t necessary in the first place and the money would be better spent on aggressive conservation efforts.
Tage Flint, the Weber Basin district’s general manager, said he’s proud of the project’s delayed timeline because it shows “we’ve done much better in water conservation from our current sources and stretched them further.”
Plans Based on Faulty Data
As Utah amasses a war chest to tap more water from the Colorado and Bear rivers, data used to justify the projects doesn’t pencil out.
Responding to concerns about the accuracy of projections on how much water the state will need, Utah’s Office of the Legislative Auditor General investigated, casting doubt on the claim that the state will run out of water without new sources. “It is widely recognized that there are fundamental problems with the way the state’s water use data is gathered and submitted by local water providers,” the auditor general’s 2015 report stated.
The audit found some Utah cities reported different water use numbers to the state than they reported internally. One city’s officially reported “water use for 2012 was the water use of another city with an identical name in the state of New York,” the audit said. The audit also found cities and water districts had rapidly added to their supply from local sources, such as converted agricultural water, but the state’s projections showed an inexplicable slowing in the growth of supply if projects like the Lake Powell Pipeline weren’t built.
The state agencies charged with protecting and developing Utah’s water — the Division of Water Rights, the Division of Water Resources and the Division of Drinking Water — acknowledged flaws in their data.
But the state’s political establishment and Prep 60 water districts continue to cite that data to prove that Utah is on the verge of a shortage. They say their internal numbers are sound and that state water accounting has improved, pointing to a 2017 legislative audit that found the state had begun cleaning up its numbers.
The state justified the need for the Lake Powell Pipeline to federal officials using projections that show residents in Washington County will reduce per-capita water use from 302 gallons a day to 240 gallons by 2045, a level of consumption that’s still higher than most of the country. Their projections continue for another 30 years, to 2075, but show no further decline in use. They also show leaks and other water losses consuming 15.4% of the district’s water, higher than the estimated loss of a typical Utah municipality, while projecting the losses won’t decline before 2075. The water district said they are making progress addressing water loss and that number would be updated.
Their cost estimates for water infrastructure also appear to be based on questionable figures, according to Zach Frankel, founder of the Utah Rivers Council and longtime critic of the Prep 60 districts, who hired a researcher to vet the numbers.
In 2013, the Division of Water Resources published a draft list of $19.8 billion worth of water projects needed to keep pace with growth. The following year, Prep 60 released a similar analysis with a $32.7 billion price tag. Last year, Prep 60 updated its estimates to $47.7 billion for projects, maintenance and conservation, some of it paid by businesses and homeowners…
He noted that the state’s estimate includes such odd items as $3 billion for a water district’s “master plan” that won’t be needed until 2100 and nearly $1 billion for projects that the group’s research suggests already have funding.
Shawcroft defended Prep 60’s higher estimates, saying the group’s methodology, which was reviewed by an engineering trade group, was more detailed than the state’s and accounted for inflation and the need to replace infrastructure every 50 years.
Despite uncertainty about the cost, Prep 60 contends spending billions of dollars for new water infrastructure is cheaper than conservation and the only way to have adequate water. Conservationists say Prep 60 is wrong on both points.
Studies have found it cheaper to invest in conservation and purchase water from local sources, when those options are available. Estimates for the Lake Powell and Bear River projects range from more than $1 billion to more than $2 billion each. The Central Utah Water Conservancy District analyzed the average cost for its past conservation projects, and tapping new Bear River water could be up to eight times more expensive than conserving an equal amount of water and new Colorado River water could be 14 times more expensive, ProPublica found…
The broker pointed to state data that shows Utah lost 200,000 acres of farmland during the most recent five-year reporting period, much of it converted to residential development, which uses less water than farming. “More farm water comes out of production than the cities can absorb annually,” the broker said. “There is a glut of water.”
Bart Forsyth, the general manager of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, a Prep 60 member, said it’s not always cost effective to buy and treat water from farms that have ceased production.
Growth and cost aren’t the only considerations. The Bear River Development Project, because it would divert more water from the Great Salt Lake, must also account for its impact on the lake, which is already at a record low. If the project causes the lake’s water level to fall even further, more of the lake bed will dry out, creating airborne dust laden with toxic metals from industry and fertilizer runoff near a metro area already plagued by poor air quality.
Again, proponents of this pipeline support their argument with suspect data.
The state asserts the project will only lower the lake 8.5 inches. But environmentalists like Frankel believe it will drop several feet, pointing to historical studies of the relationship between the Bear River and the lake level.
The state supports its position with a white paper authored by a Utah State University professor who compiled research on the Great Salt Lake. To answer how much the Bear River project would lower the lake level, he turned to a Division of Water Resources employee who had done modeling on the lake. Instead of citing a peer-reviewed study to support the 8.5-inch figure, the white paper points to their “personal communication.” The professor acknowledged to ProPublica that the number should be treated with skepticism until the state’s model is published and reviewed. Still, the number has been accepted as gospel at the Utah Capitol, with lawmakers and state reports citing it.
It has likewise become widely accepted at the Utah Capitol that conservation alone will never satisfy the state’s demand for water.
During a legislative meeting in September, Brian Steed, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, addressed the Legislature’s leadership, who were seated around an ornate, U-shaped wooden table in the Capitol. He was there to discuss $100 million in federal COVID-19 relief money the state had set aside for water issues. Steed told lawmakers he wanted half of it spent on secondary water metering. Utah has 260,000 secondary connections, 85% of which are unmetered, and installing meters would bring massive water savings, he told them.
“This sets aside the need for additional buildout of water infrastructure,” Steed said, “and as we grow and have additional pressure, that additional conservation is really what’s going to have to take place in order for us to grow like we’d like to.”
Legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle responded favorably. (They have since approved Steed’s proposal, and the governor suggested spending an additional $200 million of federal money on secondary meters.) It appeared the worsening drought and availability of federal funds had refocused the state on conservation.
But as Steed stepped into the corridor outside the hearing room, a lobbyist approached. Instead of spending all that money on secondary water meters, the man asked, couldn’t Steed carve out a few million dollars for a reservoir?
As the sun slipped behind the canyon wall last Friday, I lingered at the bottom of a concrete boat ramp just outside Page, Arizona. I was there to study the disappearing Lake Powell.
We expect the sun to vanish. Not so the giant reservoirs of the Colorado River Basin. We are perplexed.
Earlier in the afternoon I had walked along and above Glen Canyon Dam. The dam was completed in 1963, its primary job being to store water at the direction of Colorado and the three other states in the upper Colorado River Basin. It took 20 years to fill and then stayed full, more or less, through the 20th century.
One year, 1983, it got too full. The winter had been snowy, but not incredibly so. Then came March — and April, May and even early June, sunshine scarce and the snow unrelenting. Vail and other ski areas that had closed reopened.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, operator of the dam, was caught by surprise. It should have released more water from Powell to roar down the Grand Canyon and into Lake Mead, the reservoir created by Hoover Dam, just outside of Las Vegas. As the snowmelt from Colorado surged through Utah, a catastrophe loomed. Plywood planks were erected along the rim of Glen Canyon Dam, to hold the water back. The dam survived, just barely.
Then came the 21st century. The winter and spring of 2002 were sobering, the Colorado River carrying less than a quarter of what was assumed to be average when these and the other dams of the 20th century were built and the compacts and other legal architecture that underpinned them were struck.
Other years since 2002 have been better, but the trend line is clear and troubling. Some call this a long-term drought, but that word implies a temporary condition. Others, with compelling scientific studies to cite, see a climate rapidly changing because of human-caused atmospheric pollution. Aridification, they say, describes what we have been seeing — and there’s no end in sight.
This shift underway was illustrated by 2020. The winter snows were productive in Aspen, Vail and Steamboat Springs, average or above, but the flow into Powell was worse than disappointing, less than 30% of average. You don’t replenish reservoirs when most of the melting snow disappears into the warming air or the drying soil.
Reservoir levels have dropped and then dropped more. Mead, the reservoir outside Las Vegas and the largest in the Colorado River Basin, was 36% full when I visited last week. The Powell I saw a day later was 28% full.
The boat ramp along the shores of Lake Powell told the story of decline far better than the semi-abstraction of water levels at Glen Canyon Dam. We had driven past the marina, with the stored houseboats, and then down the concrete ramp sloping toward the reservoir below. The ramp was about a football field in length and tilted at the angle of a beginners’ ski slope. At the bottom were barriers, then broken ground. Far below was the water.
A few days prior, water leaders from the seven basin states had met in Las Vegas for the annual Colorado River Water Users Association. They represented roughly 40 million people, most of whom live in cities outside the basin, including Denver, Los Angeles and Albuquerque. Also represented were the farmers on both sides of the Continental Divide in Colorado but also the Mojave Desert of Arizona and California. The latter deliver 80% of the nation’s vegetables during winter.
Water leaders recognize the need for changes. Much has already occurred. Enough? Those who have urged accelerated action have been proven right so far, and in the conference hallways of Las Vegas last week I saw their heads shake. The pace has quickened, they said, but not enough.
Still, there was a remarkable shift from the last in-person conference in 2019. At that conference, officials from the Trump administration spent an hour on the dais congratulating themselves and each other about a minor milepost of achievement. Adoption of a drought contingency plan.
This year, Maria Camille Calimlim Touton, the new Bureau of Reclamation commissioner, stressed the need to think hard beyond the next few years and a new agreement among the basin states scheduled to take effect in 2026.
In the past two years, Lake Powell’s surface elevation has declined 60 feet. Glass half fully or half empty? At this point, it’s far closer to empty. Then again, maybe it’ll snow until June next year.
The Twelve Days of Christmas, which last from December 25 through January 5, have grown warmer in 97 percent of the U.S., according to a new analysis from Climate Central that evaluated temperature trends across 246 locations since 1969.
Warming has surpassed 5 degrees F in 37 percent of locations, 3 degrees F in 75 percent of locations, and 1 degree F in 95 percent of locations. The cities that have seen the greatest warming are Milwaukee, Wisconsin (8.6 degrees F), Burlington, Vermont (9.1 degrees F), and Reno, Nevada (9.5 degrees F). Winter is the fastest-warming season across most of the country.
In a warmer climate, precipitation is more likely to come down as rain than snow. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration analysis of winter weather from 1991 to 2020 reveals where people are most likely to enjoy a snowy Christmas in today’s warmer climate. The odds are best in the Allegheny, Rocky, and Sierra Nevada Mountains, as well as in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Maine.
Diminished snowpack threatens water supplies in the West, where streams and reservoirs are filled by melting snow in the spring. Levels of freshwater derived from snow have dropped by as much as 30 percent since 1955.
John Entsminger walks a fine line as Southern Nevada’s top water official.
On one side, he has to explain the seriousness of a shrinking Colorado River to climate change skeptics and people who are content with not immediately handling the West’s water woes.
On the other, he has to quell concerns of crisis on a river that supplies water to 40 million people in the U.S. and Mexico.
“That’s a delicate balance,” he said.
How we got here
How Lake Mead got to its lowest levels in history — enough to trigger a water shortage — isn’t a mystery. Part of it is basic math.
Historically, the lower basin has used more water than has been released to Lake Mead by the upper basin, largely because there is no agreement between the lower basin states on how to cut allocations to account for evaporation.
Couple that with decades of unfavorable hydrology, and Lake Mead begins to decline.
But Southern Nevada has lived within its means in recent decades, using less than its legal entitlement of water every year since 2002, Entsminger said.
Entsminger said he wishes water use had been brought into balance with the river’s flows sooner, but he’s part of a generation of water managers that has addressed the deficit.
He said agreements that have been signed since 2007 seek to create an equilibrium. Lower basin states last week signed a new deal with the federal government that will conserve water beyond those existing agreements to protect Lake Mead from crashing to critical levels.
Southern Nevada ‘immunized’ from crisis
Entsminger doesn’t think the Colorado River is in a crisis, but it is out of easy solutions.
If the river experiences two more years of hydrology like what it just experienced, it could become a question of how much water the federal government will be able to send downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam, he said.
But even in that case, Entsminger doesn’t see a crisis on the horizon for Southern Nevada.
“And that’s because we’ve essentially immunized ourself from that by the construction of new infrastructure on the shore of Lake Mead,” he said.
About $1.5 billion in local money has gone to ensuring Las Vegas can pump water from Lake Mead, even when the federal government can’t send it downstream to others.
Entsminger said he thinks Southern Nevada is “the most water-secure municipal area in the Colorado River Basin.”
Sustainability in the basin depends on agricultural efficiencies, he said. Locally, Entsminger continues to push for conservation as a way out of a dire situation.
Growth in Las Vegas is possible, he said, but it requires driving down existing water demands and tightly controlling new demands, something he said Southern Nevada has a track record of doing successfully.
One method of meeting conservation goals is through a law signed this year that bans nonfunctional grass in coming years. Another is increased enforcement of compliance with seasonal watering restrictions.
Those measures will be able to save about 15 percent of Southern Nevada’s allocation of Colorado River water under a nonshortage year and help provide the water for additional growth.
Like a sinister specter that won’t vanish, drought was already writing the playbook for water supplies in Utah and the rest of the West as early as fall of 2020.
The year 2021 may have been months ahead, but extremely dry conditions during those last few months of 2020 amplified the reality of what was to come: drought, and a nasty one.
Looking back, water supply managers who had their fingers and toes crossed hoping for a different outcome via a wet spring realized their hopes were not to be.
By March, Gov. Spencer Cox declared a state of emergency, putting out the plea for all water users to cut back and cut back severely. Nearly all of Utah, about 90%, was already classified in extreme drought at that time.
By June, he asked residents of all dominations to pray for relief from the drought, sparking national headlines and stoking some criticism.
The state Division of Water Resources, in conjunction with the governor and other state agencies, also launched an aggressive campaign challenging residents to take pride in yellowed and dried-out lawns and expanded efforts to help residents replace water-guzzling curbside turf with other, less consumptive vegetation…
In addition, Cox announced ambitious plans to make metering secondary water a standard for irrigators, especially given that 60% of Utah’s municipal and industrial consumption is for outdoor use.
A drought poll commissioned by the Deseret News last summer showed the majority of Utah residents on board with state initiatives, with strong support by residents for financial incentives to be water wise and support of penalties for water users who ignore restrictions, such as prohibitions on daytime sprinklers operating under the heat of the sun.
With agricultural use consuming the bulk of Utah’s overall water supply, Cox also turned his attention to ways farmers could be more efficient in their water use through better technology and the need to replace earthen ditches with cement lining to curtail leaks.
While farmers and ranchers are often in the harsh glare of scrutiny for water use, the governor defended the state’s ability to provide food and fiber for residents and called on everyone to do their part to conserve. Farmers, he noted at an event this summer, experienced water cuts this year by as much as 75%…
The protracted drought had Utah leaders revisiting a list of 300 potential sites for new dams to capture runoff and led to a congressional webinar in which one lawmaker lamented that the West had fallen behind when it comes to water storage.
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., bemoaned the lack of foresight — foresight he said was demonstrated by generations before — to construct new dams and water delivery systems to keep pace with weather conditions…
Cox echoed that concern at a media event staged at the shrinking Great Salt Lake where he unveiled his budget proposal that includes $500 million in one-time money aimed at water infrastructure and conservation.
“We think it’s crazy that we’re growing as a country and that we’re not investing in additional water storage,” Cox told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards ahead of his budget unveiling. “It’s an abomination.”
The Great Salt Lake reached historic all-time low levels this summer, giving rise to growing concerns about the lake’s support of industry, its ecosystem serving as a stop for millions of birds and the exposed lake dust leading to increased air pollution.
Insufferably high temperatures in the summer led to two heat-related deaths in Utah and spurred warnings about the effect of urban heat islands in areas like Salt Lake City.
July broke or tied heat records in the state and already dry lawns turned more brown…
By November, the weather delivered more bad news for Utah and other states in the West.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, November was the second-driest on record for the West and Southwest regions and in Utah, Nevada and Colorado, the month logged the second warmest minimum average temperature on record…
A recent report by the U.S. Drought Monitor noted that the majority of Utah continues to linger in severe or extreme drought.
New rules approved by air-quality regulators are intended to keep the oil and gas industry on track to meet state-mandated reductions in emissions to cut pollution and address the effects of climate change.
The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission approved the rules [December 17, 2021] that are seen as a big step forward in meeting goals outlined in state law. Environmental and community organizations have said the new rules can be a national example for other states and federal regulators to follow.
The rules target emissions of methane, a powerful heat-trapping gas, and the pollutants that form ground-level ozone, which creates the haze along the Front Range and health problems.
The commission’s decision to largely adopt the state Air Pollution Control Division’s proposal requiring more frequent inspections of oil and gas sites will go far to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in Colorado, said Joro Walker, general counsel for Western Resource Advocates, an environmental organization…
The new rules increase how often oil and gas sites must be inspected for leaks and emissions. Low-producing wells now subject to a once-in-a-lifetime check will be inspected at least annually.
Higher-producing wells will undergo semiannual rather than annual inspections and others will shift to bimonthly from quarterly. Leaks in disproportionately affected communities must be repaired in five days…
The new rules are also a response to a 2021 law that requires paying particular attention to emissions and pollution in communities that have been disproportionately affected by oil and gas operations. The communities are many times in lower-income areas and have higher populations of people of color.
The commission faced a deadline of Jan. 1 to pass rules directing the oil and gas industry to cut emissions by at least 26% by 2025 and 60% by 2030, based on 2005 levels. Most agree the industry is on track to meet the 2025 goal, but more is needed to realize the next objective.
To help hit the 2030 goal, state regulators proposed an approach that combines more direct regulations and what’s called an intensity program, which directs companies to come up with plans to further reduce emissions. Some organizations, including members of an environmental justice coalition, argued against giving oil and gas operators leeway to craft their own plans.
Renee Millard-Chacon, co-director of Womxn from the Mountain, said Indigenous communities and people of color want to see the environment and public health restored in areas that have been heavily affected by pollution and industrial operations…
Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, said requiring more frequent inspections of well sites for leaks and emissions is important, but the intensity program will allow for increased oil and gas production, resulting in more heat-trapping greenhouse gasses…
While expressing concerns, Elise Jones, a member of the commission, voted for the combined plan of direct regulation and allowing companies to develop their own plans. She said a program to verify that companies are making the necessary emissions reductions is critical.
The commission is expected to consider the makeup of a verification program in 2023…
The plan proposed by the air pollution control division staff and approved by the commission does contemplate some increase in production over the next few years, said Robyn Wille, the division’s chief strategy officer…
The division believes the industry will still be on track to meet the target of 60% reductions by 2030, Wille added…
Lynn Granger, executive director of the American Petroleum Institute-Colorado, called the emissions intensity program “the centerpiece” of the new rules. She said in a statement that it gives companies the flexibility to be proactive and innovative.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Water and Climate Center’s snow pack report, the Wolf Creek summit, at 11,000 feet of elevation, had 9.6 inches of snow water equivalent as of 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 22.
That amount is 75 percent of that date’s median snow water equivalent.
The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins were at 72 percent of the Dec. 22 median in terms of snow pack.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the San Juan River was flowing at a rate of 40.6 cubic feet per second (cfs) in Pagosa Springs as of 11 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 22.
Based on 86 years of water records at this site, the lowest recorded flow rate for this date is 23 cfs, recorded in 1990.
The highest recorded rate for this date was in 1987 at 132 cfs. The average flow rate for this date is 62 cfs.
An instantaneous reading was not available as of 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 22, for the Piedra River near Arboles.
Click here to read the paper (John Fleck and Anne Castle). Here’s the abstract:
The Colorado River is a critical source of water supply for 40 million people in nine states spanning two nations in western North America. Overallocated in the 20th century, its problems have been compounded by climate change in the 21st century. We review the basin’s hydrologic and water management history in order to identify opportunities for adaptive governance to respond to the challenge of reduced system flows and distill the ingredients of past successes. While significant advances have been made in the first two decades of the 21st century, these past actions have not been sufficient to halt the declines in the basin’s reservoirs. We find that the mix of federal, state, and local responsibility creates challenges for adaptation but that progress can be made through a combination of detailed policy option development followed by quick action at hydrologically driven moments of opportunity. The role of directives and deadlines from federal authorities in facilitating difficult compromises is noted. The current state of dramatically decreased overall flows has opened a window of opportunity for the adoption of water management actions that move the river system toward sustainability. Specific measures, based on the existing institutional framework and on policy proposals that have circulated within the Colorado River community, are suggested.
The Arctic Oscillation (AO) refers to an atmospheric circulation pattern over the mid-to-high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. The most obvious reflection of the phase of this oscillation is the north-to-south location of the storm-steering, mid-latitude jet stream. Thus, the AO can have a strong influence on weather and climate in major population centers in North America, Europe, and Asia, especially during winter.
The AO’s positive phase is characterized by lower-than-average air pressure over the Arctic paired with higher-than-average pressure over the northern Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The jet stream is farther north than average under these conditions, and storms can be shifted northward of their usual paths. Thus, the mid-latitudes of North America, Europe, Siberia, and East Asia generally see fewer cold air outbreaks than usual during the positive phase of the AO.
Conversely, AO’s negative phase has higher-than-average air pressure over the Arctic region and lower-than-average pressure over the northern Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The jet stream shifts toward the equator under these conditions, so the globe-encircling river of air is south of its average position. Consequently, locations in the mid-latitudes are more likely to experience outbreaks of frigid, polar air during winters when the AO is negative. In New England, for example, higher frequencies of coastal storms known as “Nor’easters” are linked to AO’s negative phase.
AO phases are analogous to the Southern Hemisphere’s Antarctic Oscillation (AAO), a similar pattern of air pressure and jet stream anomalies in the Southern Hemisphere. Viewed from above either pole, these patterns show a characteristic ring-shape or “annular” pattern; thus, AO and AAO are also referred to as the Northern Annular Mode (NAM) and Southern Annular Mode (SAM), respectively.
Monthly and Daily values for the Arctic Oscillation Index are available from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.
Thompson, D.W.J., S. Lee, and M.P. Baldwin, 2002: Atmospheric Processes Governing the Northern Hemisphere Annular Mode/North Atlantic Oscillation. From the AGU monograph on the North Atlantic Oscillation, 293, 85-89.
Thompson, D.W.J., and J.M. Wallace, 2001: Regional Climate Impacts of the Northern Hemisphere Annular Mode. Science, 293, 85-89.
Thompson, D.W.J., and J.M. Wallace, 2000: Annular modes in the extratropical circulation. Part I: Month-to-month variability. J. Climate, 13, 1000-1016.
Thompson, D.W.J., and J.M. Wallace 1998: The Arctic Oscillation signature in wintertime geopotential height and temperature fields. Geophys. Res. Lett. 25, 1297-1300.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation:
The Bureau of Reclamation continues to make significant progress towards completion of the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project (NGWSP) with today’s award of a $76,113,868 contract to SJ Louis Construction of Rockville, Minnesota, for construction of the next portion of the project, the Navajo Code Talkers Sublateral.
The sublateral will further the NGWSP, which is bringing clean and reliable water to Tribal and rural communities in northwestern New Mexico. The work will be located along New Mexico State Highway 264 between Yah-Ta-Hey, New Mexico, and Window Rock, Arizona, and will consist of the installation of approximately 17 miles of 24- to 30-inch diameter pipe and one water storage tank. Work under this contract will begin in January 2022 and is expected to last for approximately two years.
“This is a significant milestone for the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project and illustrates the Department of the Interior’s commitment to Tribal communities,” said Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo. “The department is excited to leverage the new resources in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to make similar investments to ensure that clean, safe drinking water is a right in Tribal communities.”
“Reclamation is pleased to begin construction on the Navajo Code Talkers Sublateral,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “This will mark another step towards meeting the United States’ obligation to the Navajo Nation under the Nation’s water rights settlement agreement on the San Juan River Basin in New Mexico, where over a third of households still haul drinking water to their homes.”
These areas currently rely on a rapidly depleting groundwater supply of poor quality to meet the current and future demands of more than 43 Navajo chapters, the southwest area of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation and the City of Gallup, New Mexico. The NGWSP consists of two main pipeline systems – the San Juan Lateral and the Cutter Lateral.
When the full project is completed, it will include approximately 300 miles of pipeline, two water treatment plants, 19 pumping plants and multiple water storage tanks. Construction on the Cutter Lateral is nearly complete and water deliveries are currently being made to eight Navajo communities and soon to the southwestern portion of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation, serving 6,000 people or 1,500 households.
This contract continues many years of hard work by Reclamation, the Navajo Nation and other project partners constructing the NGWSP to improve the lives of residents and provide opportunities for economic development and job creation.
DEVON Peña and The Acequia Institute in San Luis just landed a $1.5 million grant from the Colorado Health Foundation that promises to restore the Culebra River Acequia Communities of Costilla County to its healthy foods heritage.
The initiative “Growing a Healthy Community Foodscape, Food System & Food Economy for the Culebra River Acequia Communities” was awarded the funding over a two-year period. The most immediate work and initially most visible part of the effort is to finalize purchase of the R&R Market in San Luis and continue with its restoration and upgrade which has started through other grants.
The bold and comprehensive strategy includes:
Establishing a Food & Community Revolving Credit Association (RCA) that provides zero percent interest credit to local agriculture and food producers.
Creating a Milpa/Molino/Masa harina Marketing Collaborative that assists acequia farmers in transitioning from cow and alfalfa reliance to an “agroecosystem that includes growing traditional non-GMO corn and associated companion crops.” The farming effort involves producing companion plants like beans (bolita, fava), squash, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, chard, spinach, beets, and other crops that are part of the region’s traditional and healthier adopted diets, according the prospectus for the grant.
Integrating youth and young adults into all of the stages of the collaborative through the Move Mountains Youth Leaders Partnership which supports young people (teenagers and young adults through their 30s) in growing food for elders and families; participating in the design and operation of the grocery and community food center; and developing their own food production and value-added food enterprises, among other youth-led efforts.
“The underlying objective of this project,” said Peña, “is to improve long-term community health through a resurgence of food sovereignty by reviving and strengthening the local agri-food system, rebuilding our polyculture agroecosystem traditions, unleashing the creativity and commitment among our youth and younger adults by participating in and establishing a set of local institutions to generate and keep our agriculture-generated wealth in the community.
“What concerns us is that our county also has some of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in Colorado. According to one recent report, 25.4 percent of the population in Costilla County is obese while 41 percent is overweight (Costilla County Public Health Agency 2018), more than twice the statewide rates. The same report indicates that 13.3 percent of the Costilla County population is currently diagnosed with diabetes compared to the Colorado rate of 5.6 percent. Among epigenetic factors, diet is strongly associated with emergent conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular illnesses. The evidence suggests community health and well-being in the acequia villages are casualties of the enclosure of the common lands and the dramatic long duration effects including the diminishment of our food sovereignty and healthier heritage foodways.”
It’s a heady effort that now has major investment from the state’s largest health foundation. The Colorado Health Foundation grant to The Acequia Institute announced Tuesday is among the single largest grants awarded to a San Luis Valley non-profit organization and community.
Other notable recent awards include a 2020 Great Outdoors Colorado $1.9 million grant to SLV Generation Wild through the city of Alamosa, and a $2.3 million RISE grant from the state of Colorado to a group of nonprofits working with Adams State on youth development. Antonito, also this week, received a $1 million grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development & International Trade to restore the S.P.M.D.T.U., Sociedad Protección Mutua de Trabajadores Unidos building, on its main drag.
“Support for this initiative will increase food sovereignty and security while strengthening the local agriculture-food system in Costilla County,” the Colorado Health Foundation said in its award letter. “Local agriculture traditions will be rekindled, the San Luis grocery store will be renovated and expanded, a new commercial kitchen will increase production of local value added foods, and youth will reconnect to the land, acequias, and healthy food while developing skills that will support them to remain in their villages and secure employment.”
The youth component may be the most challenging of The Acequia Institute’s strategy. Like other communities in the San Luis Valley, San Luis struggles to keep its youth in the community and to find a next generation to maintain and sustain operations.
This past summer teen farmers, as part of a trial run for the grant, were paid $15 per hour to grow and maintain a one-acre garden. For the summer of 2022 the program will pay $17 per hour. Scholarships, training and internships in trade specialties needed in the agricultural community, an emergency fund for youth and young adults, and a paid staff member for counseling services are all part of the youth efforts under the grant.
“We still face the challenge of the next generation,” Peña said. “So we’re already working on youth leader development.”
Originally from Laredo, Texas, Peña first came to San Luis in 1984 as an assistant professor for Colorado College in Colorado Springs. A few years later, while on a field trip with Colorado College, he met the late Costilla County Commissioner Joe Gallegos who invited him to get involved with San Luis.
It was with Gallegos’ nudge that Peña started to more intently learn about the acequia farming system, the issues of Costilla County, and the plight of the land. In 2005 Peña established The Acequia Institute, and by 2007 he continued his transition by spending at least half his time living in San Luis while also teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle, a position he still holds. Only now he resides full-time in the outlying area of San Francisco, a few miles east of the town, where he’s neighbors as the country roads go with Costilla County’s two world-renowned artists, sculptor Huberto Maestas and muralist Carlos Sandoval.
“My proudest accomplishment is helping the land heal,” he said. “That’s what I’m most proud of is repairing the damage to the land.”
Cottonwoods and willows have come back along the river corridor through a conservation easement that was put in place. The feeling of neighbors looking after each other, whether it’s through growing and sharing food, or learning new ways to do business in a technology-driven society, has San Luis and Costilla County looking ahead.
While the state of Colorado commonly refers to San Luis as the oldest town in the state, Peña has flipped it by saying San Luis is the “last town in Mexico, not the oldest in Colorado.” It’s his way of recognizing the land history of Costilla County and forcing a different interpretation of San Luis as he and The Acequia Institute work to re-establish its cultural heritage to the land and farming system.
He promises accountability and transparency to the San Luis community with the health foundation grant, and said he won’t draw a salary for the work because he’s already paid well through his professor work at the University of Washington.
His persistent rap about San Luis, work of The Acequia Institute and efforts to highlight the plight of local farmers, and his willingness to challenge traditional power structures of the San Luis Valley which he says have worked against San Luis and its interests, has won him audiences and influence.
National Geographic recently featured the community, and a grocery chain is expressing interest in carrying food grown through the program as part of its store offerings.
“The goal is to address community health through making good, fresh healthy food,” said Peña, and then making it available beyond San Luis and the R&R Market. He’s purchased two corn mills so that corn grown by the farmers can be turned into tortillas which can then be offered with other fresh food efforts locally.
The Revolving Credit Association (RCA) is the key to the plan, “the operational heart and soul of the entire project as it revives the soft infrastructure of our cultural heritage including the solidarity norms expressed in our acequia associations, land grant councils, and mutual aid and cooperative labor traditions and institutions,” according to the project prospectus.
Peña has patterned the RCA after the S.P.M.D.T.U., a Society for the Mutual Protection of Workers popular in the early 1900s to protect Hispanic property rights and fight discrimination. He sees the model as fitting for the type of rebirth of the community farmer that the project envisions.
The plan relies on local farmers committing one acre of their land for community growing, with a goal of 20 farmers participating in the effort. Over time the project is shooting for 1,000 acres set aside for community purposes out of the 23,000 acres of acequia irrigated farm land in the southern half of Costilla County.
It gets back to the community eating healthy with the assistance of local growers. “We are just as responsible as anyone for the failing health of our communities,” Peña said.
Of the request for farmers to set aside an acre for community purposes, Peña said, “We’re very happy with the response of the farmers around here.”
His role, he said, is to bring resources into the community and then to let community leaders like Shirley Romero-Otero and others take over.
“Colorado Health Foundation thinks we’re on the right track,” said Peña.
After five long years of discussion and negotiation, the Colorado River states and the federal government agreed in May 2019 to a Drought Contingency Plan to help protect the river system from the worsening effects of drought and over-use.
On December 15, the Lower Basin States and their partners in the water-using community took a further step to help keep Lake Mead from descending to dangerous levels, agreeing to plan to leave at least 500,000 acre-feet of water in the reservoir above their DCP commitments in 2022 and 2023.
And they managed that agreement after less than four months of negotiation.
The agreement, known as the “500+ Plan” aims to add 500,000 acre-feet of additional water to Lake Mead in both 2022 and 2023 by facilitating actions to conserve water across the Lower Colorado River Basin. The additional water – enough water to serve about 1.5 million households a year – would add about 16 feet total to the reservoir’s level, which continues to reach record low levels.
Together, water agencies in California, Nevada and Arizona and the Bureau of Reclamation committed to investing up to $200 million in projects at Lake Mead over the next two years.
Following the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding, Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke noted the remarkable sense of urgency to get the job done among the participants.
“Our work on the 2019 DCP took more than five years to complete. This commitment to work together to stabilize Lake Mead came together in a matter of a few months,” said Director Buschatzke. “That alone is a powerful testament to the commitment of the Lower Basin States to work together with our partners at (the Bureau of) Reclamation to protect this vital river system.”
Under the terms of the MOU signed during the Colorado River Water Users Association’s annual conference, ADWR commited up to $40 million to the initiative over two years, with the Central Arizona Project, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Southern Nevada Water Authority each contributing up to $20 million. The federal government plans to match those commitments, for a total funding pool of $200 million.
Some of the specific conservation actions and programs that will be implemented through the 500+ Plan have already begun, while others are still being identified. The MOU includes conservation efforts in both urban and agricultural communities, such as funding crop fallowing on farms to save water, including the recent approval of a short-term agricultural land fallowing program in California, or urban conservation to reduce diversions from Lake Mead.
On May 24th, 1869, the ten men of the Colorado River Exploring Expedition stood at the banks of the Green River in Wyoming prepared to enter into a region of the United States known only as “unexplored territory.” The expedition was to enter into the “Great Unknown,” take scientific measurements, chart the region, and effectively complete our nation’s maps. To John Wesley Powell, unexplored territory was unacceptable and unknowns were opportunities for greater understanding. Powell and his crew traveled over 900 miles from Green River, Wyoming to the mouth of the Virgin River, in present day Lake Mead, through a wild, largely uninhabited system of river canyons. The West was a new and final frontier, ripe for development and lacking only a system for the manipulation of the Colorado River’s water, a subject Powell addressed in his “Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States”. By erasing empty space and, in turn, leaving only defined place, Powell’s journey fueled a western migration that continues today.
The unexplored territory of 1869 through which the Colorado River Exploring Expedition was the first to travel in a continuous, deliberate progression continues to be explored by adventurous boatmen and boatwomen. Powell’s unknown has become a highly visited, studied and managed environment encompassing five states, two U.S. Forest Service units, three Bureau of Land Management field offices, three U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reservoirs, two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuges, and five Nation Park Service units The Colorado River Basin also continues to support indigenous groups in five Native American reservations.
In many ways, experiences similar to those of the Colorado River Exploring Expedition are available through the stewardship of public land management agencies. However, our perception of place and the resulting relationship to the environment of the arid West are easily distinguished from Powell’s time. The Colorado River Exploring Expedition embarked from Green River, Wyoming armed with “two sextants, four chronometers, a number of barometers, thermometers, compasses, and other instruments” (Powell 1875, pg. 8) and began a process of complete geographic, geologic, and topographic surveys of the American West. The linear progression of the systematic and methodological utilization of water resources— a process commenced by Powell’s surveys of the arid region of the United States—has led to a contemporary Great Unknown, one in which we have inherited a system of management built upon incomplete scientific knowledge and techniques better applied in more humid regions. This system has begun to show weaknesses and has forced reactive management as pressures increase from climatic uncertainties, increased populations, compact obligations for water allocations, and most recently a move to privatize 640 million acres of public lands. Today, nearly 150 years after Powell, a methodological lineage exists between his systematic inquiry into the unexplored territory of the arid West and the complex plumbing of the modern Colorado River system that supports over 40 million Americans through storage reservoirs, irrigation, and transbasin diversions.
The 150th anniversary of the Colorado River Exploring Expedition offers an opportunity to once again begin a systematic and deliberate expedition into the unexplored territory of Western economies, politics, and ideologies as they relate to the water resources of the Colorado River Basin. Powell was able to travel through a continuous, natural riparian ecosystem. This experience is no longer possible, as the system is now separated into two basins, with three major dams, 15 management areas, and over 20 significant laws governing the allocation of Colorado River water. Because of these major differences, this expedition is not a reenactment of the past, but rather a re-envisioning of our future that engages traditional, historic, and contemporary river ecosystem perspectives to derive proactive management strategies, integrating community values, science, and humanities through an analysis of culture, informed management, and traditional ecological knowledge.
In the Río Culebra Villages of arid, desert southern Colorado, el agua es vida: Water is life.
The crux of ranching and farming is snowmelt and any supplemental rain. Natural waterways wind from the canyons through the desert terrain. The acequia system taps into these creeks and streams with a series of earthen and concrete-lined ditches that bring water to fields. Dug by settlers in the mid-1800s, acequias are physically cleaned, repaired and maintained by water rights holders. Today, many of those people are descendants of area settlers.
Scientists and state, federal and tribal officials expressed the need for swift action in the face of a mounting water shortage as a major conference about the Colorado River wrapped up in Las Vegas Thursday [December 16, 2021]…
If severe drought conditions persist, one the region’s largest sources of hydropower, the Glen Canyon Dam in Lake Powell, could stop producing power as early as next summer, according to recent federal projections. The dam provides electricity to millions of users in the West. If it fails authorities will need to find other sources to replace that power, which could raise costs for homes and businesses.
Some states did agree to a new deal that will keep more water in Lake Mead, but leaders, including Assistant Interior Secretary Tanya Trujillo, acknowledged the region needs more substantial changes…
Some scientists and tribal officials said incremental changes in managing the river’s water supply are woefully insufficient and called for immediate and wide-ranging conservation measures.
“We have to think swiftly,” said Crystal Tulley-Cordova, principal hydrologist for the Navajo Nation. “Otherwise, we will continue to be in the situation that we are in, or even in worse circumstances.”
Next year officials will begin negotiating new rules for managing the river…
Dwight Lomayesva, vice chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes in Arizona, said his tribes do have a seat at the table this time around and will attend meetings next spring. But he’s also skeptical about how much of a voice Indigenous people will have.
“We’re always a victim of a lot of promises but no results,” he said. “That’s been our history, so it’s kind of a wait and see right now.”
The Colorado River Indian Tribes have some of the most senior water rights in the Colorado River Basin.They’ve been fallowing fields in an effort to conserve water, which is costing the tribes an estimated $25 million in crop losses. They are also supporting federal legislation that would allow them to lease some of their water to cities or towns off reservation that are suffering shortages.
Earlier this month, it snowed for the first time in 232 days, breaking a city record for days without snow. We’re now in the second half of December and have yet to see a major storm. As the weeks go by without Denver breaking a half-inch of monthly precipitation, we’re starting to see more talk about drought — its causes, severity and long-term implications.
In early December, Denver’s drought graduated from “severe” to “extreme” on the U.S. Drought Monitor, a national service that tracks drought conditions across the country. What does an “extreme” drought look like? What does it mean for people living in Denver? And at what stage of a drought does Denver Water decide to implement water-use restrictions?
We talked to some climate and water experts to find out how they categorize droughts, how concerned we should be about this one, and what it means for people living in Denver. Here’s what they told us.
Denver is in a drought. What does that mean, exactly?
Drought is defined (pretty vaguely) as an extended period of relatively low precipitation in an area. But there’s a lot more that goes into how local and national organizations categorize drought.
“When we think about drought, drought is really multifaceted,” said Peter Goble, a service climatologist for the Colorado Climate Center, a state office that assesses decades of drought-related records gathered at stations across Colorado.
There are several different kinds of drought.
“You could be talking about just simply a meteorological drought, which is probably the most simple definition of, ‘It’s raining a lot less than normal.’ Or, ‘It’s a lot warmer than normal, and we’re losing water more quickly,’” Goble said. “Oftentimes, when people think about drought around here, we think hydrological drought, which is, ‘What’s the state of our water resources? What do our reservoirs look like?’”
There’s also agricultural drought, which is a reflection of a drought’s impact on agriculture in a region, and socioeconomic drought, which is when drought impacts the exchange of goods and services in a region, like if ski towns suffer from reduced tourism because of low snowpack.
On Dec. 16, the National Weather Service reported that since July 1, Denver has been the warmest and driest it’s been on record.
“When we see statistics like that, we kind of have to recognize that as a meteorological drought,” Goble said.
That categorization, he said, reflects the breadth of the drought: how many sectors are affected, and how widespread its impact is. The U.S. Drought Monitor, meanwhile, reflects how severe the drought itself is…
As of Dec. 2, Denver Country is in “extreme drought”. In extreme drought, the evidence put us in the third to fifth percentile of drought severity in Denver County’s history…
“If you look at a time series graph of drought in Colorado, you have basically been in and out of drought in Colorado since almost 2000,” Simeral said.
He said that’s in large part due to low snowpack and warmer temperatures than normal, which all leads to premature melting of the snowpack in the mountains.
Still, Denver is in a period of concerningly low rainfall.
“Looking at the autumn, the October through November period and the September through November period of two and three month periods were the driest on record for Denver County,” Simeral said.
Goble said a huge part of the deficit is that we haven’t had the “right ingredients” to produce the big storms.
“We’ve seen an anomalous amount of high pressure atmospheric conditions. When we’re under a high pressure system, that’s when air is calm and generally sinking rather than rising. And that’s not conducive to producing moisture,” Goble said…
What does this drought actually mean for me as a Denverite?
Drought categorizations mean different things for different states. According to the Drought Monitor, in Colorado, a D3 (Extreme Drought) categorization can mean:
Worsened pasture conditions
Dying city landscapes
Recreational activities like rafting, fishing, hunting and skiing are reduced, and fish kills occur
Reservoirs extremely low; water restrictions implemented; water temperature increases
However, not all of these conditions necessarily apply in Denver County, especially because our water supply comes from outside of the city.
“Calling this an extreme drought for the Denver area, even if it’s the driest that we’ve been on record over the last six months or so, during the winter when we don’t really see the impacts, it can be confusing from a communication and public relations-type standpoint,” Goble said.
Simeral said the drought might impact recreation, like the ski season and rafting outfitters. It can have ecological impacts. Warm waters can lead to higher mortality in trout populations, which further impacts fly-fishers. Extreme drought may negatively impact agriculture in the plains.
“In terms of actual impacts on the ground in Denver itself, I don’t think you’re going to really see a whole lot in terms of what somebody is going to feel in their day-to-day life,” Simeral said.
Most of the water we use doesn’t come from Denver County itself. Denver Water services about 1.5 million people in the Denver area. Its collection system spans thousands of miles, and includes 12 to 20 reservoirs fed mostly by snowpack in the mountains, which have seen more precipitation than Denver. For now, the reservoirs Denver depends on for water supplies are in decent shape (for example, Simeral said, Dillon reservoir is 78% full at the moment)…
How you can help.
“I do like to say, it’s always good to use water wisely,” Goble said. He says the summer is when people can make the most difference. “Where most people could save a lot more is outdoor watering type usage.”
Still, Hartman says there are small things you can do in the winter and year round that make a collective difference.
“Just turn the faucet off when you’re using it, when you’re brushing your teeth and shaving,” Hartman said.
He said you can also check for leaks and replace older toilets with ones that use less water.
“These are really no-brainer behavior changes that people can make, that if made across a lot of people saves a lot of water,” he said. “Even though it doesn’t sound very interesting or sexy, simple things like that are really important.”
FromThe High Country News [December 22, 2021] (Theo Whitcomb):
Last week, at Caesars Palace, a luxurious hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, nearly a thousand water managers, scientists, and government officials convened at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference to discuss the future of the imperiled watershed.
The tone was one of urgency: The Colorado River, which spans seven states, 30 tribal nations and two countries, is carrying much less water than it used to. At the same time, a lot more people are vying for what’s left. The crisis has been exacerbated by climate change, which continues to shrink the snowpack and reduce rainfall. In August, the river’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, dropped to levels unseen since it was first filled in the 1930s. In response, the federal government officially declared the first-ever Colorado River water shortage.
At the conference, which capped yet another year of drought, water managers signed landmark agreements on conservation measures to try to steer the water users toward sustainability. But the intense aridification happening in the region — and growing uncertainty about the future — loomed large, leaving experts uneasy about the Southwest’s water supply.
“The sense of the crisis was striking,” said John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program. “We’ve shifted from having discussions about what we might have to do at some point in the distant future to discussions of what we might have to do next year. It’s really no longer a drill.”
Here are four important takeaways from this year’s conference:
There’s a new plan to keep water in Lake Mead
Colorado River officials in the Lower Basin states of Nevada, Arizona and California made perhaps the most significant announcement. Working with the Bureau of Reclamation, they formally announced what they’re calling the “500+ Plan,” a proposal aimed at keeping an additional 500,000 acre-feet of water each year in Lake Mead starting in 2022. “This is really important,” said Fleck. “It’s not chump change, rummaging around in your couch cushions for some small conservation measures. It’s a lot of water that won’t get used.”
The plan would work by incentivizing water users to conserve. State and regional agencies, along with the federal government, have already pledged $200 million to pay for programs expected to range from taking agricultural land out of production to changing crop irrigation strategies. Aside from nearly doubling the amount of water reductions in the Lower Basin, what really made the plan remarkable was the financing, said Jennifer Pitt, director of the Colorado River Program at the National Audubon Society. Usually, water users with junior water rights have to take the shortage head-on, receiving no water and no compensation. However, by putting money on the table, the 500+ Plan makes the necessary cutbacks much easier for landowners by offering incentives to stop using water.
Tribes are leading in water conservation efforts
The Gila River Indian Community, the Colorado River Indian tribes and the federal government also put forward a voluntary plan to conserve 179,000 acre-feet, as part of the 500+ Plan.
The proposal shows the vital role that tribes are playing in planning for the future, Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis told the Nevada Independent. “By bringing the parties together, fostering productive cooperative dialogue and providing much-needed critical resources, tribes — shouldering this sacred responsibility, this leadership — can and will help shape the future of the Colorado River.”
Historically, the 30 sovereign tribal nations along the Colorado River have been marginalized, generally excluded from decision-making and legally sidelined, said Pitt. “It is remarkable that a group of stakeholders with such significant concerns and complaints about the process are also the first to step up in a crisis and be a part of the solution,” she said. “We need all hands on deck. Their leadership is hopefully inspiring for other water users.”
U.S. and Mexico hammer out details on habitat restoration efforts
In another notable agreement, the International Boundary and Water Commission, which is responsible for upholding the U.S. and Mexico’s border and water treaties, formalized a habitat restoration plan.
For years, nongovernmental organizations like the National Audubon Society have worked with the two governments to restore ecosystems in the desiccated Colorado River Delta in Baja, Mexico, despite limited funding, constrained water flows and the increasingly dry conditions. “Managing water at the border is not simple,” says Pitt. “How are two countries with two different systems going to work together, down to the detail, to get water from the Colorado River to the Delta to support habitat?”
At the conference these finer details were worked out in the agreement , essentially creating a technical roadmap to get water to ecosystems in the delta, said Pitt. The effort has so far been successful, in spite of all the challenges it faces, and the agreement is an important step forward in continuing the work, she added.
In the face of adversity, close collaboration remains key
But the joy of gathering in person did not obscure the gravity of the moment. “Climate change is barreling down on us so fast that I wonder if we have enough time for these tools to work,” Fleck said. After a year and a half of Zoom meetings, attendees were grateful to be in the same room again. Fleck said he was encouraged by the ongoing collaboration. “These are people who know and love each other from all across the Southwest, people who have invested time in building a set of relationships around collective actions.”
Sinjin Eberle, the Intermountain West communications director with the environmental nonprofit American Rivers, agreed. “We are in a very challenging time,” he said over the phone. “All the hydrology and forecasts don’t look good, and it looks like the next couple years are going to be pretty rough.”
Hammering out collective agreements is the only option, Eberle said. “It’s hard, but it’s what we have to do. There are no more silver bullets left.”
Theo Whitcomb is an editorial intern at High Country News. We welcome reader letters. Email him at email@example.com.
Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor website.
US Drought Monitor map December 21, 2021.
Hight Plains Drought Monitor map December 21, 2021.
West Drought Monitor map December 21, 2021.
Colorado Drought Monitor map December 21, 2021.
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
On December 14, a strong mid-level low pressure system progressed inland into southern California where heavy precipitation (0.5 to 3 inches, liquid equivalent) occurred. As this area of mid-level low pressure continued to track eastward, a powerful surface low developed across the high Plains with a subsequent track northeastward to the upper Mississippi Valley. This intense low surface low resulted in widespread damaging winds and a dust storm across the central and southern Plains. The high winds and antecedent dryness contributed to a number of wildfires across Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle. According to the Storm Prediction Center preliminary data, nearly two dozen tornadoes were reported across eastern Nebraska and Iowa on December 15. As this storm tracked northeast to the upper Mississippi Valley, widespread precipitation (0.5 to 2 inches, liquid equivalent) fell over this region with heavy snow blanketing northern Minnesota. A slow-moving cold front resulted in a widespread area of rainfall (0.5 to 3 inches) from the Ozarks Region south to the western Gulf Coast. On December 18, a wave of low pressure developed along the front which led to rainfall (0.5 to 3 inches, locally more) overspreading the Southeast. However, this rainfall remained south of the increasingly dry Mid-Atlantic. A series of low pressure systems and frontal passages resulted in 7-day amounts of 0.5 to 1.5 inches, liquid equivalent, throughout the Northeast. Periods of enhanced onshore flow continued to bring rain and high-elevation snow to the Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies through mid-December. The heaviest 7-day precipitation (2 to 5 inches, or more, liquid equivalent) was observed along and west of the Cascades in Oregon. Month-to-date temperatures (Dec 1-20) have averaged more than 6 degrees F above normal across the central and southern Great Plains. In contrast to the above-normal temperatures throughout nearly all of the central and eastern continental U.S. so far this month, temperatures have averaged below normal across most of California. Following the heavy precipitation associated with a Kona low earlier this month, enhanced trade winds continued to maintain a fairly wet pattern for Hawaii through mid-December. More than 1 inch of rainfall occurred across northeast Puerto Rico from December 14 to 20…
Based on 60 to 90-day SPI values and soil moisture, abnormal dryness (D0) and moderate drought (D1) were expanded across parts of southern Nebraska and western Kansas. Severe drought (D2) increased across southeastern Colorado and southwestern Kansas due to rapidly worsening soil moisture and the EDDI. Based on below-average SWE and SPI, the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range was degraded to extreme drought (D3). Minor improvements were made to parts of North Dakota due to recent snowfall and above-normal precipitation dating back through the fall…
During early to mid-December, precipitation averaged more than 150 percent of normal across much of California along with western areas of Oregon and Washington. According to the California Department of Water Resources as of Dec 21, snow water equivalent (SWE) statewide is 93 percent of normal. During the past two weeks, temperatures have averaged 2 to 4 degrees F below normal which has contributed to the favorable snow water content numbers through mid-December. Above-normal precipitation during the past two weeks, current SWE numbers, and 12 to 24-month SPI considerations supported a reduction of D4 (exceptional drought) across much of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Also, D4 was decreased to the north of Los Angeles due to recent heavy precipitation. As a result of December precipitation, a slight decrease in extreme drought (D3) was made to the north of San Francisco. The exceptional drought (D4) was eliminated from southern Nevada and southeastern California due to the lack of support from long-term SPI values. A persistent wet pattern resulted in a 1-category improvement to western Oregon as longer term indicators slowly improve. As of Dec 20, Oregon statewide SWE is at 95 percent of normal with generally above average SWE along and west of the Cascades but continued below average SWE throughout northeastern Oregon. WYTD (Oct 1-Dec 20) precipitation along with assessment of long-term SPIs resulted in a 1-category improvement to western Idaho and adjacent Washington. Recent heavier precipitation, especially at the higher elevations, resulted in improving drought conditions throughout many locations of Montana. The areas of exceptional drought (D4) were decreased due to recent wetness and lack of support from longer term SPIs. Due to current low SWE, there is growing concern for worsening conditions across the Bear and Snake River basins of southern Idaho. These ongoing low SWE numbers supported a 1-category degradation for parts of southern Idaho and adjacent areas of western Wyoming. Due to recent dryness and rapidly worsening soil moisture, D3 was expanded to include more of northeast New Mexico…
Based on worsening soil moisture conditions and recent warmth and enhanced winds, severe drought (D2) was expanded to include all of the Oklahoma Panhandle and this D2 expansion included the northeast Texas Panhandle. Extreme drought (D3) increased across southwestern Oklahoma where a few locations have received less than 0.10 inch of precipitation during the past 70 days. As of December 21, no measurable precipitation has been recorded at Amarillo, Texas for 70 consecutive days which is the 4th longest streak on record. Abnormal dryness (D0) and D1 to D2 drought continue to expand across west-central Texas. Month-to-date temperatures (Dec 1-20) have averaged 6 to 10 degrees F above normal throughout Texas. Impacts, related to the expanding and worsening drought conditions across the southern Great Plains, include poor grazing for livestock. Farther to the east, moderate to heavy rainfall (1 to 3 inches, locally more) resulted in a 1-category improvement to parts of Arkansas, Louisiana, eastern Oklahoma, and eastern Texas. Despite the recent rainfall, 60 to 90-day SPI values continue to support D0 and D1 across eastern Texas and northern Louisiana. Moderate to heavy rainfall (1 to 3 inches) prompted a decrease in the abnormal dryness (D0) for parts of western Tennessee and northern Mississippi…
Heavy rain and high-elevation snow are forecast from the West Coast east to the Continental Divide from Dec 23 to 27. According to the Weather Prediction Center, 5-day precipitation amounts could total more than 5 inches, liquid equivalent, along the coastal ranges of the West Coast, Cascades, and Sierra Nevada Mountains. Moderate to heavy precipitation is also forecast to occur across the Great Basin and Four Corners region. Dry weather and above-normal temperatures are likely to persist across the central and southern Great Plains. A mixture of rain and snow is forecast from the Great Lakes east to the Northeast from Dec 23 to 27 with little or no precipitation continuing throughout the Mid-Atlantic. Following beneficial rainfall across the lower Mississippi Valley, western Gulf Coast, and parts of the Southeast during mid-December, dry weather is forecast through Dec 27.
The Climate Prediction Center’s 6-10 day outlook (valid Dec 28, 2021-Jan 1, 2022) favors above-normal temperatures across the East, Gulf Coast States, and southern Great Plains. Below-normal temperatures are likely across the upper Mississippi Valley, northern to central Great Plains, and West. Probabilities for below-normal temperatures exceed 90 percent for parts of the northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest. Near to above-normal temperatures are favored for much of Mainland Alaska, while below-normal temperatures are more likely to persist across the Alaska Panhandle. Near or above-normal precipitation is favored for nearly all of the continental U.S. with only slightly elevated probabilities for below-normal precipitation forecast across the Florida Peninsula…
Editor’s Note: This week, in a special collaborative report with nine other Colorado news outlets, Fresh Water News and the Colorado News Collaborative examine Colorado’s hallmark “first-in-time, first-in-right” prior appropriation doctrine. The doctrine is coming under increasing scrutiny as the state’s rivers and reservoirs dry out. We go on the ground from Evans to San Luis to Cortez to see how the venerable doctrine, which has shaped water distribution across the West, is working.
This report is based on the work of the nine media outlets, Fresh Water News, and the Colorado News Collaborative, undertaken as part of a water news training program for journalists. The journalists are: Trevor Reid, The Greeley Tribune; Michael Elizabeth Sakas, Colorado Public Radio; Zack Newman, 9News; Kate Perdoni, Rocky Mountain PBS; Jim Mimiaga, The Cortez Journal; Philip Poston, the Aurora Sentinel; Olivia Emmer, The Sopris Sun; Priscilla Waggoner, the Valley Courier; and Tara Flanagan, the Ark Valley Voice. This program was made possible by a grant from the Colorado Media Project and the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation.
In Evans, Colo., four miles south of Greeley, houses are shooting up.
Once a quiet farm town, Evans is scrambling to come up with enough water to slake the thirst of hundreds of new homeowners, drawn here by comparatively affordable housing.
“We have enough water in our water portfolio to meet the needs of our existing population,” he said.
But future water needs will have to be met by developers, who are required to buy water and bring it to the city for use. It’s an expensive process that can often mean nearby irrigated farmland with old, high value water rights is bought and then dried up so the water can be transferred to cities.
While large northern Colorado cities like Loveland, Greeley and Fort Collins have older water rights, and have been able to buy extra water over the years, small cities like Evans haven’t had enough money to do so, Becklenberg said.
Gold, silver, land
In Colorado, acquiring water is a complicated undertaking due in part to Colorado’s hallmark “first-in-time, first-in-right” water law, known as the prior appropriation doctrine.
The doctrine dates back 150 years to when Colorado was a territory rich in gold, silver and land, but not water. It evolved to ensure no one could hoard water and deprive others of its use. Any farmer, miner or homesteader could claim water on a stream, divert that water, and put it to use, establishing a place in the priority system of water rights. It was a common person’s dream and had a certain fairness to it, ensuring that whoever got in line at the drinking fountain first, as University of Denver law professor Tom Romero puts it, gets to drink first. Everyone else takes their turn later.
But the doctrine is coming under increasing scrutiny as the state’s rivers and reservoirs dry out and tens of thousands of people continue moving here every year. Is prior appropriation up to the task of divvying up the state’s water in an era of increasingly frequent and severe drought conditions? It depends on whom you ask.
David Robbins, a water attorney who represents water districts in some of the state’s most water-strapped regions, such as the Rio Grande and Lower Arkansas basins, says the prior appropriation system is a sturdy, legally tested allocation system.
“To people who want water and don’t have water, the system doesn’t feel fair because they can’t have what they want. But that would be true under any system,” Robbins said. “Somebody has to make decisions and water has to be allocated. It doesn’t and can’t satisfy everybody’s desires because water is inherently finite.”
In Colorado, a water right is a private property right that can be bought and sold, with certain conditions. Older, more senior water rights, because they are entitled to water first during dry times, are more valuable because they are more reliable.
Water rights are officially entered in the system only after they’ve gone through the state’s special water courts, where the law requires that diversion histories are certified, that diversion amounts are quantified, that times of use are established, and that other water systems on the same stream are not injured by a new water claim. The law also requires that water only be applied toward a list of legally defined “beneficial uses,” including farming, mining, drinking water, and environmental flows, among others.
Pressure on the system is rising as water supplies hit record lows. The Colorado River, for instance, may see a crucial water benchmark fall as the river’s flows continue to decline. The river system supplies Colorado communities and growers all across the state. In as little five years, according to climate researcher Brad Udall, the Upper Colorado River Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, may not be able to deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water they are required to annually to Arizona, California and Nevada under the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
If that happens, many Colorado communities with water rights junior to 1922 could see their water supplies slashed so that the state can meet its legal obligations.
And a movement known as the Rights of Nature for Rivers is suggesting that Colorado’s rapidly drying streams need better protection under the prior appropriation system, such as giving first dibs on streamflows to rivers to protect their ecological value instead of to whomever has the oldest right to pull that water out…
Thousands of water rights
Colorado has more than 164,000 water rights on file, according to data analyzed by 9News.
Agriculture uses roughly 86% of Colorado’s water and the state’s oldest, most historical water rights are found in a small, communal farm community that includes San Francisco and San Luis in the Rio Grande Basin’s San Luis Valley.
Here, water use dates back to the 1600s, but those water rights weren’t brought into the state’s prior appropriation system until the mid-1800s when water officials still rode on horseback to check diversion structures and irrigation ditches.
To the families of the San Luis Valley, the acequias, as their ditches are known, are a liquid thread feeding a farming culture that existed long before Colorado became a state.
And many of the ranchers here, including Charlie Quintana, believe the prior appropriation doctrine, known informally as the priority system, has stood the test of time.
In his pocket is a list of the water rights and their dates for the area’s acequias. “The acequias are the priority system,” he says.
Rights on paper
Native American Tribes too hold some of the oldest water rights. And prior appropriation has profoundly affected the way those tribes’ have developed.
In Southwestern Colorado, just miles from the New Mexico state line, the Ute Mountain Utes, like dozens of Native American tribes, have valuable, very old water rights that were granted as part of the Winters Doctrine, a landmark 1908 U.S. Supreme Court decision that gave tribes enough water to fulfill the needs of their reservations. That decision backdated tribal water right priority dates to the date the reservation was established. Theirs dated back to 1868. But for more than a half-century, the tribe never had the money or the expertise to claim the water formally in Colorado’s water courts and to develop the measuring devices, dams and ditches required to put it to beneficial use, as the prior appropriation system requires.
As a result, in a 1988 water rights settlement, the tribe traded its 1868 paper water rights on the Mancos River in exchange for more junior wet water rights in the Dolores Project, a federal storage system on the Dolores River that stores water in McPhee Reservoir, said Mike Preston, a water consultant for the tribe.
Now one of the tribe’s largest employers, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm and Ranch Enterprise, has a water right that is much younger and therefore less valuable.
This year, it received just 10% of its water, as did other farmers in the Dolores Project. If it had been able to put its 1868 water rights to beneficial use 150 years ago, it would have still been affected by the drought, but it would have had more water.
Now, as the drought continues, the tribe is redoubling its efforts to study and claim all of its water rights, including on the San Juan River, said Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart.
Cities double down too
Like other junior water rights holders, the fast-growing City of Aurora, Colo., has worked hard to secure a seat at the water table, spending millions of dollars buying older water rights when it can find them, and developing new junior water supplies when it can.
“Aurora got into the water game late,” said Greg Baker, Aurora Water’s manager of public relations.
Aurora was wholly served by the city and county of Denver until 1954 when Denver Water put into place a “blue line” no longer granting permits for new taps in the ever-growing metropolitan area, leaving parts of Aurora out of Denver’s service region.
The completion of phase one of the Homestake Reservoir, which the city shares with Colorado Springs, was in 1967 and, with that, Aurora was able to become completely self-reliant when it came to supplying water to its residents.
Though Aurora has been aggressive in buying water rights and building storage, 10% of its supplies come from reusable water developed through its $637 million Prairie Waters Project. Completed in 2010 the large-scale reuse system captures Aurora’s wastewater after it is released into the South Platte River, then filters it through a system of wells and sand and gravel pits, treating it and mixing it with fresh water before it is delivered to residents.
Without its large tax base, Aurora would have had a much harder time developing a reliable water system in modern times when most of the state’s oldest water rights are already taken.
Even communities with older rights, though, are seeing supplies dry up as climate change and drought sap stream systems where water once was plentiful.
Bill Fales has been raising cattle on Cold Mountain Ranch in Carbondale, Colo., since he moved here in 1973. In his 48 years working the approximately 600-acre mosaic of pastures, of which around 250 are irrigated, Fales has experienced some tough years, when the Crystal River ran low, but largely felt confident about having the water he needed.
That confidence has been eroding.
“2018 was really bad, 2020 was really bad, 2021 was pretty terrible. I used to be pretty smug and think, ‘Well, hell, my right’s 1883. I’ll still be standing out here with my shovel, irrigating my alfalfa, and the guys in Denver will turn on the faucet to brush their teeth and nothing will come out,” Fales said.
But these days he’s worried that little will help farm and urban users with water shortages that are beginning to appear.
Other subdivisions in the Crystal River Valley have long relied on wells next to the river. But in the drought of 2018, the subdivisions’ taps ran dry. They scrambled to drill a new well under their 1971 water right. But that would not be enough. Soon they learned that their water use, for the first time ever, was harming a senior 1902 water right holder farther down the river system.
Now the homeowners are buying water to offset their own water use under a state-required plan to prevent any more harm to the senior water right holders on the stream.
Taxing itself to survive
Far to the southeast, in the San Luis Valley, water too is in short supply. Here, in what is the second-largest potato growing economy in the nation, farmers are under orders to reduce groundwater pumping to protect the Rio Grande River and ensure Colorado can meet its legal obligation to deliver millions of gallons of water to New Mexico and Texas.
More than a decade ago, farmers voted to tax themselves to solve the looming legal water crisis, using the revenue to buy irrigated farmland and dry it up, so that unused water could remain in the aquifer that supplies the river. But the relentless series of droughts the state has endured since 2002 have wiped out much of the farmers’ work to restore the aquifer. If the situation doesn’t improve soon, the state could shut off thousands of irrigation wells.
To prevent that from happening, farmers will vote next year on whether to dramatically raise penalties for over-pumping from $150 per acre-foot to $500, an increase long-time farmer Don Shawcroft believes will provide the necessary jolt to convince valley farmers to change their irrigation strategies.
“This valley relies on agriculture, and agriculture relies on water. If that water is shut off or worse – used up – none of these towns will survive,” he said. (Editor’s note: Shawcroft sits on the board of trustees for Water Education Colorado, which sponsors Fresh Water News.)
The challenge will come
Whether prior appropriation will weather the coming dry years remains to be seen.
“What prior appropriation does really well is provide certainty. It’s a sophisticated system, but in principal and theory it’s simple,” says DU’s Romero. “We know that when there is not enough water those at the front of the line get their water. That creates predictability and certainty. Historically, it has also provided opportunity,” he said.
But the challenge will come, he said, “when you envision uses that aren’t prescribed, or if you need access to the water and need to reallocate it. Running it through our water court system is pricey. It requires expertise and investment…who is in the best position to cover those costs?
“It’s either big private water developers and the state, or water utilities like Denver Water and Aurora Water. They are in the best position to cover those costs, which raises a big question: Is this market scheme going to serve the public interest?”
Ask someone on the ground
Tara Flanagan is secretary of the Bowen Ditch Company in the Upper Arkansas River Basin. Keeping this 140-year old ditch functioning requires backbreaking labor, pre-dawn emails between neighbors, and faith that each spring the snow will fall, melt, and flow down to the handful of families still relying on it for water.
Flanagan, who is also a reporter for the Ark Valley Voice, describes the prior appropriation system as her “frenemy.”
“In a perfect world, nobody would need to care one iota about the words prior appropriation, which at first glance is an eye-glazing term that has spent entirely too much time living in the heads of politicians and water lawyers – as well as the tattered log book for the Bowen Ditch Company that sits under my desk.
“But people have died over prior appropriation, so there’s that.
“Prior appropriation means this,” she continues. “The date when your water rights were officially filed with the State of Colorado has everything to do with you getting water on your fields and how long you are able to have it. Unlike birth certificates and things stored in your refrigerator, the earlier your date, the better.”
The journalists are: Trevor Reid, The Greeley Tribune, firstname.lastname@example.org; Michael Elizabeth Sakas, Colorado Public Radio, email@example.com; Zack Newman, 9News, firstname.lastname@example.org; Kate Perdoni, Rocky Mountain PBS, email@example.com; Jim Mimiaga, The Cortez Journal, firstname.lastname@example.org; Philip Poston, the Aurora Sentinel, email@example.com; Olivia Emmer, the Mt. Sopris Sun, firstname.lastname@example.org; Priscilla Waggoner, the Valley Courier, email@example.com; and Tara Flanagan, the Ark Valley Voice, firstname.lastname@example.org.