In response to continued forecast precipitation, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 400 cfs for today, July 28th, at 4:00 PM.
Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell). The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.
Water connects us and supports the lives of every bird and Coloradan every day. It’s time for action for Colorado’s birds and people. People tend to evade challenging work in water until a crisis. Now is an opportune time to lean in and work for holistic water solutions that sustain a more water-resilient Colorado to support our birds, fish, other wildlife, rivers, and all people—equally.
Ironically, water stress can bring hope. [ed. emphasis mine] Pressure can sharpen focus towards innovative actions to protect what is precious to us. The draft Colorado Water Plan update is an opportunity to engage in our sustainable water future—for all of us. After intense work by Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) staff and directors, the draft plan made a public debut on June 30th and is open for comment through September 30th. The plan will be finalized in January 2023 and direct Colorado’s water priorities for ten years.
Coloradans shape our water planning and management. A diversity of voices, needs, and knowledge must be integrated into this water plan update process. Our solutions are stronger with diversity and collaboration. Understanding how, when, and where to engage in water is essential. In 2015, Audubon contributed thousands of public comments and technical input to the completion of the inaugural water plan. We will again call on you, the broad Colorado Audubon network, to engage in this critical water plan update. In the coming weeks, help us define this moment for birds, rivers, and people.
The updated water plan calls on Coloradans to actively contribute to our water-resilient future through participating in any of the approximately 50 identified partner actions. Colorado is a local control state. So, local participation is critical to the health of Colorado’s local river systems and economies. The updated plan also details 50 actions that state agencies will take to help advance local water projects and initiatives.
The plan update also reflects the very real and everyday impacts of climate change—like aridity, wildfires, and floods—on Colorado’s water resources. Over the majority of the last ten years, Colorado has been racking up superlatives like “hottest,” “driest,” and sadly, more than one “historical wildfire” title.
Here are some top highlights from our review focused on the “Thriving Watersheds” and “Resilient Planning” sections of the draft plan.
Top Three Likes
Resiliency is a core pillar in the draft plan. We all depend on watersheds and natural systems for delivery and eco-services to access reliable, clean water. Wildlife and people must be able to respond to what nature gives us. Birds, other wildlife, and all people must be able to respond to and sustain themselves in both scarcity and abundance of water—this is the core of resilience to climate change shocks.
The draft plan acknowledges the need for and inclusion of river health assessment frameworks, a stream construction guide, nature-based solutions, green infrastructure strategies and techniques, and water-dependent native species data coordination and access. Resilience requires a baseline understanding of our watershed and river systems to support sustainable and positive management. Rivers and river health are a crucial part of how we meet our water challenges in Colorado. We need to understand river health conditions more and easily access data to manage and restore this invaluable resource nimbly. Audubon thanks the CWCB staff for the many meetings discussing the importance and inclusion of these topics.
The draft plan also begins down the path of how to engage everyone working towards equity, diversity, and inclusivity in the Colorado water space. The decisions we make about water impact everyone. A diversity of voices representing a diversity of needs strengthens Colorado’s water decisions. The draft update contains leaps forward from the 2015 plan with more substantive diversity content regarding the inclusion of the Water Equity Task Force principles. This includes translating the entire plan and factsheets into Spanish for better language equity, and broader inclusion of the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Indian tribes in the plan’s vision and actions. The advancements in the water equity, diversity, and inclusivity space are notable, while considerable work in actualizing this critical work must still follow. “Connectivity must begin with identifying those most vulnerable around us, building their capacity to engage, and assuring that their needs are prioritized. A region, after all, is only as strong as its most vulnerable communities,” notes the 2020 California Water Resilience Portfolio.
Top Three Needs
Coloradans know we need to act on behalf of water resilience and act quickly. There is an urgency to start implementing water security solutions at scale and take advantage of once-in-a-generation federal funding. Although the draft plan sets an ambitious scope of activity and vision, how will we track work in a transparent and publically accessible way? What are the timelines for achieving this critical work?
The need for more traditional storage is mentioned numerous times in the draft plan. Colorado’s current reservoirs are often far below their capacities. Building more dams to hold questionable water supply is not a sustainable solution to the water crisis. Instead, we need balanced strategies for innovative storage opportunities looking at forest health, pre-wildfire watershed readiness, and creativity to complement storage with nature-based solutions like wet-meadow and wetland restoration. These strategies increase wildlife habitat, improve water quality and cycling, lift wildfire preparedness and recovery, increase overall river health, and provide recreational opportunities for local communities and economies.
River health is a key component of Colorado’s water resilience. In the draft plan, there is a high priority on watershed-scale work and less on the scale of streams and rivers. The plan needs to include more weight on statewide river health, as Colorado’s river-related recreation is a major economic driver for the state, with more than $10 billion spent each year and nearly $19 billion in overall economic output. Birds, recreation, and agriculture all depend on healthy rivers flowing from resilient watersheds. All of us rely on healthy river ecosystems to thrive.
Colorado’s future depends on water and each of us—birds and people—is connected by it. Even if you are not a water right holder, we are all responsible for engaging in the Colorado Water Plan update and contributing to the stewardship of our water resources. When we understand the connections—where our water comes from and how much we depend upon it—we value water for what it is: life and sustainability for people and nature. Watch for guided water plan engagement opportunities from Audubon. Kingfishers, American Dippers, Snowy Egrets, and Colorado’s water-resilient future depend on you to lean in and participate. Thank you in advance for your engagement in the update of the Colorado Water Plan.
Drought persisted across much of the West this week, while flash drought over parts of the Great Plains, Ozarks, and Mississippi Valley continued to intensify and cause agricultural problems. Short-term drought also expanded over parts of the Northeast this week, where deficits in short-term precipitation and streamflows mounted in some areas. Conditions locally improved in parts of the Southwest due to an influx of rainfall from the North American Monsoon. Farther east into the lower Great Plains and Midwest, localized heavy rainfall led to improvements, including severe flooding in the St. Louis Metro area, which previously had been experiencing abnormally dry conditions. In Alaska, moderate drought was mostly removed after recent rainfall improved conditions there…
With the exception of Colorado (which was mostly warmer than normal) and southern Kansas (which was 4-8 degrees warmer than normal), temperatures in the High Plains region this week were generally within 2-4 degrees of normal. Rainfall from the North American Monsoon occurred in parts of southern, central, and eastern Colorado, locally easing drought conditions in the eastern part of the state. Heavy rains in south-central and southwest South Dakota, and in southern Nebraska, northern Kansas, and east-central Kansas, led to locally improved drought and dryness conditions. Meanwhile, south of the heavier rains, flash drought continued to take hold in southern Kansas, where a combination of dry and hot weather worsened conditions. Extreme drought expanded in parts of southwest Nebraska, where short- and long-term precipitation deficits worsened conditions amid poor crop health. Drought also expanded in northeast Nebraska and southeast South Dakota, where soil moisture deficits continued to mount amid warm temperatures and dry weather. Extreme drought also developed in western Wyoming, where above-normal evaporative demand combined with short-term precipitation deficits to worsen conditions locally…
Rainfall from the North American Monsoon over the last few weeks led to some improvements in the drought situation across Arizona and New Mexico, where precipitation deficits lessened. Rain also fell in parts of Nevada, Utah, and eastern California this week. Temperatures were mostly 2-6 degrees above normal in the West region, though scattered areas were within a couple degrees of normal. Precipitation deficit amounts lessened enough for some improvement to ongoing short- and long-term drought in central Montana. Elsewhere, widespread drought continued this week across a large portion of the region…
Weather across the South this week was mostly hot and dry, with some notable exceptions. Heavier rain occurred in southern Louisiana and southern Mississippi, as well as eastern Tennessee. Very localized heavy rain fell from east-central Oklahoma into southwest Arkansas. Temperatures across the region were generally 2-8 degrees warmer than normal, with the warmest readings occurring in Oklahoma, Texas, northern Arkansas, and the western half of Tennessee. Flash drought conditions intensified further in central and northern Arkansas, central and eastern Oklahoma, and in spots in western Tennessee, northern Mississippi, northern Louisiana, and eastern and southern Texas. Crop failure and related problems are widespread in the part of the region experiencing flash drought, especially in northeast Texas, eastern and central Oklahoma, and northern Arkansas…
Through the morning of Tuesday, August 2, the National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center is forecasting heavy rainfall to occur from northern New Mexico and southern Colorado eastward across parts of the southern Great Plains, Mid-South, and southern Appalachians, including some areas currently experiencing flash drought. Pockets of heavy rain also may occur in western New Mexico and portions of Arizona. Elsewhere, rainfall is forecast to remain generally spotty, with many areas staying dry or mostly dry. During this period, hot weather is forecast in the Northwest, while hot temperatures are forecast over the northern Great Plains and cooler-than-normal weather is likely in the central Great Plains during the weekend (July 30-31). Temperatures are forecast to return to near-normal levels in these areas, and then may begin to warm as Tuesday, August 2 approaches.
For the period of August 2-6, the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center forecast strongly favors warmer than normal temperatures over the eastern two-thirds of the contiguous United States, especially in the Middle Missouri River Valley. Below normal precipitation is favored in the central Great Plains, and to a lesser extent is also favored in parts of the Midwest and eastern Great Lakes. Above normal precipitation and below normal temperatures are favored in much of the western United States. Above normal precipitation is favored in east-central Alaska, while southwest Alaska is likelier to see below normal precipitation. Most of Alaska, excepting the far northern areas, is likelier to see below normal temperatures.
The Colorado River is in trouble—Lakes Powell and Mead, the two major reservoirs fed by the river, reached record lows this year nearing 25% capacity. An ongoing megadrought, impacts from climate change and systematic overuse have created a deep management crisis. Although there is growing public acknowledgement that cuts in consumptive use are inevitable and policy changes are needed, renegotiation of the rules governing this critical shared river are fraught with complexity and impeded by competing priorities between states.
In a new policy forum commentary in the journal Science (Free Access Link) researchers from the Center for Colorado River Studies describe the political history leading up to the current management crisis and present results from innovative research to offer perspective on what is needed to stabilize or reverse the decline of reservoir storage. Using adaptations to the Colorado River Simulation System, the researchers quantify the magnitude of consumptive use cuts necessary to balance the system, maintain power generation and secure water supplies if the current drought persists.
The new commentary identifies combinations of Upper Basin consumptive use limitations and Lower Basin reductions necessary to stabilize reservoir storage levels. If Upper Basin water use remains at current levels or increases (i.e., 4.0 to 4.5 million acre-feet per year), then water use in the Lower Basin must be reduced immediately by 2.0 to 3.0 million acre-feet per year to even maintain the combined Powell and Mead storage at their current depleted levels. Not achieving these critical objectives will lead to further decline of system storage, and these commitments must be sustained, the authors said.
There are many possible ways to reduce use, said the authors. A continuation of the current 23-year-long drought will require difficult management decisions in any event. Implementing, or even accelerating, the policy changes necessary to stabilize the Colorado River system requires well-grounded insight to project the impacts of those policies on the system. The reservoirs can be stabilized under specific runoff conditions, but a critical change needed is triggering reductions in use based on the combined storage of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, said Kevin Wheeler, lead author on the commentary.
The research shows that current policies can’t stabilize the Colorado River if the drought continues, however there are various consumptive use strategies that could—if these strategies are applied swiftly. Although the proposed limits and reductions in consumptive use being considered may seem like a political impossibility at present, they will become inevitable if hydrologic conditions persist, said Wheeler [ed. emphasis mine].