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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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…