The winter weather we all have waited for is nowhere to be found.
It’s not just the case in Colorado, where more than 230 record high temperatures were broken in the first three days of December, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. News outlets have reported the hottest-recorded December temperatures in Wyoming, Montana, Washington and North Dakota.
Although temperatures in the Front Range have finally fallen to normal levels, a decent early winter snowfall remains but a memory.
State and regional weather and climate experts agree that though it likely will be a warmer winter than normal, it’s still unclear how much snow will end up falling in Colorado. National Weather Service forecasters say most of the state has an “equal chance” of having below or above-average snowfall this season. The lower third of the state is projected to have less snow than average.
“It’s all over the backdrop of climate change,” said Greg Hanson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boulder. “We’ve been trending warmer for years now.”
A potentially warmer, drier Colorado winter is also tied to La Niña, which is occurring for the second year in a row. This climate pattern starts by churning up colder water in the Pacific Ocean. That pushes the jetstream north and brings wetter weather to the Pacific Northwest and drier, warmer conditions to Colorado and other western states.
“The storm systems that do come through, they’re pretty starved of moisture by the time they get here,” Hanson said. “Any precipitation we get is light and quick hits. And that’s what we’ve seen so far.”
Project 7 Water Authority has been invited to apply for a $39 million water infrastructure loan for the Ridgway water treatment plant project. Projects were chosen for their efforts to help modernize water infrastructure for 25 million people while creating up to 49,000 jobs across the country.
If selected, funds would be pulled from Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) loans fund, providing assistance to the Project 7 initiative slated to provide a second water treatment source to the region. The water resiliency project, estimated to cost between $50 – $70 million, will establish a raw water line that offers more long-term affordable costs and energy-efficient infrastructure.
Project 7 pursued the loan, applying for eligibility in early planning stages. The loan is considered a common funding instrument for water projects, said Miles Graham, spokesman for the water treatment cooperative.
“I think, more than anything, it speaks to what a good candidate this project is for outside federal funding opportunities,” said Graham. “When you look at the project on its merits, it’s really well qualified to bring in low interest loans and grants. So this was one of the first ones [loans] to make sure that we had the ability to take on the needed debt to fund the project.”
As helpful as the loan would be for the water project, Graham emphasized the cooperative’s goal of minimizing as much of the long-term debt that Project 7 takes on as possible.
Seeking grant opportunities and low interest loans such as the WIFIA program would supplement any gaps in funding, as well as mitigate water treatment rate increases that will be applied as a result of the project. Ultimately, it’s the grant opportunities that will keep water rates low, Graham said…
The WIFIA program would provide Project 7, if selected, with financing tools to address challenges around public health and environmental concerns within the community.
In addition to the WIFIA loan, the water cooperative is pursuing several grant opportunities with entities such as FEMA, the Department of Local Affairs and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Project 7 was previously awarded $25,000 through the Bureau of Reclamation grant.
The river that supplies water to about 40 million people is getting worryingly dry. Since the federal government officially declared a water shortage this summer, the Colorado River has been thrust into national headlines, and so have the scientists and decision makers who track and shape its future.
Next week, hundreds of them will gather under one roof for the first time since the shortage was declared. The Colorado River Water Users Association has met annually for 76 years now, but this year’s iteration in Las Vegas will be under a new magnifying glass.
“This used to be more regional,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “Maybe occasionally a national story. But we saw people discussing the Colorado River as a case study in Glasgow. So there certainly is a lot more attention being paid to it.”
Entsminger was alluding to a United Nations climate conference held in Scotland earlier this year. Beyond the increased media attention — Entsminger said he’s done “dozens and dozens of interviews” with news outlets from all over the world — conditions in the river basin are deteriorating more quickly than water managers had hoped, providing an inescapably urgent backdrop to discussions…
The meeting in Las Vegas brings together a wide array of groups who stake a claim to portions of the river’s water — which feeds homes, businesses and farms from Wyoming to Mexico, including seven states and 30 federally-recognized native tribes.
Those groups are under increasing pressure to negotiate agreements that will allow the region to move forward while drawing from a shrinking water supply.
This summer’s shortage declaration was triggered by dropping levels in Lake Mead, but comes as the result of more than two decades of drought. Scientists say unprecedented heat, driven by human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, is causing a chain of effects that includes less snow, shorter winters, drier soil and parched rivers and streams.
At the same time, those who manage the region’s water are having to allocate that smaller supply in the face of growing demand. Cities from Denver to Phoenix to San Diego, including many with steadily growing populations, depend on water from the river. Agriculture uses about 80% of the river’s water, and has increasingly come into the crosshairs of public scrutiny.
Balancing the interests of different stakeholders is tricky, Entsminger said, but cited a number of occasions since the turn of the millennium in which tense negotiations have eventually found collaborative conclusions.
“Every one of those agreements was always on the brink of collapse because of adversarial animosity,” he said, “Right up until we all figured out that the only path to success was to work together.”
Looming over this conference will be the yet-undecided guidelines for managing the river after 2026, when the current rules expire. Those current rules, the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines, were the first of their kind to address a future of water shortages in the basin.
While the exact terms of the 2026 guidelines are still being hashed out, the gravity of the diminishing supply is forcing some existential questions about water use. As states prepare their own strategies for negotiating with the rest of the basin, they’re balancing internal needs.
“All of the different interests across Colorado,” said Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, “whether that’s tribal interests, whether that’s environmental interests, whether that’s agricultural interests, recreational interests, rural economy issues. Things like that are all coming into play right now.”
Mitchell said her agency’s priority is to emphasize the effects of drought on states in the upper basin, arguing that they are more at the whims of drought and climate change. Low snowpack and other hydrological factors can leave rivers and streams dry, straining water managers’ ability to meet their required allocations.
Lower basin states, meanwhile, depend on water released from reservoirs. The upper basin is required to deliver a certain amount of water to Lake Mead each year, functionally assuring a steadier supply for those who draw from it.
“We’re feeling it every day,” Mitchell said. “But really making sure that people understand what is happening and what has been happening for the last 20 years in the upper basin, that’s going to be one of our priorities.”
Mitchell agreed that collaboration will be forged out of necessity.
“We have no choice but to get there,” Mitchell said. “It may be an ugly road. It may be bumpy. There may be some issues along the way, but that is the only option at this point.”
In the lower basin, some states are discussing a plan to leave more water in Lake Mead in 2022 and 2023. The deal involves water management agencies from Nevada, Arizona and California as well as the Department of the Interior, and would put 500,000 acre-feet of water in the reservoir each year. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to fill one acre of land to a height of one foot. One acre-foot generally provides enough water for one to two households for a year.
The so-called “500+” plan would see all of those users drawing less from the Colorado River’s supply and is seen as a contingency effort to stop Lake Mead from dropping further to critically low levels…
“I do think there’s some substantive agreements that will come out of CRWUA,” [John Entsminger] said, “but it’s also a chance for the river community as a whole to come together, assess where we are at this point and figure out a plan for moving forward.”
Follow the goings on at CRWUA on their Twitter feed: @CRWUA_water.
Unseasonably warm temperatures and low chances of significant winter precipitation have deepened concerns among regional water experts and farmers that extended drought conditions will compound stress on the Rio Grande, a key source of water for wildlife, agriculture and the city of El Paso.
Climate change has already decreased snowfall levels in the mountains and raised temperatures in the region…
Alex Mayer, director at the Center for Environmental Resource Management at the University of Texas at El Paso, said he’s watching for drought impacts to the Rio Grande, the sole regional source of surface water for irrigation and a significant portion of El Paso’s drinking water.
“We’re most concerned with the headwaters of the Rio Grande, where the snowpack is,” Mayer said. “The vast majority of the river water that does reach us comes from that snowmelt in the southern Colorado, northern New Mexico headwaters.”
Mayer said the season could still see storms, but the chances are low for the near future. Predictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expect hotter and dry conditions for at least the next month, raising alarms for the snowpack’s chances.
Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, monitors and measures snowpack in Colorado to forecast the spring and summer runoff downstream.Wetlaufer said Rio Grande headwaters in Southern Colorado have seen 55% of the normal amount of rain and snow in October and November, and the snowpacks are only 30% of their normal size.
Wetlaufer said it’s early in the season as the peak snowpack usually develops through April. But even large snowpacks may not be enough to move the Rio Grande out of its water deficit. The hot and dry summers suck the moisture out of the soils, and absorbing snow melt before it makes it into a river channel compounds the drought conditions further,Wetlaufer said.
He used a simple analogy: If there is 100% of snowpack there is nearly 100% more water in the river, but the dry soil can absorb 20% or more. That means the river would only be 80% higher.
With two dry and hot years in a row, that translates to less snowmelt for the Rio Grande.
“We are going into winter with pretty considerable drought conditions,” Wetlaufer said. “We’re definitely anticipating streamflow to be much, much lower than usual relative to whatever snowpack we do see in the mountains.”
Federal forecast predictions show Colorado and New Mexico will most likely see warmer, drier conditions through February due to the La Niña weather pattern. La Niña describes a cooling of ocean surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean that shapes weather around the world.
John Fleck, a professor in the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico, said La Niña shifts the odds against a wet winter in the West.
“It’s like we’re playing with a loaded dice, and it’s more likely to come up dry this winter,” Fleck said.