Summit County announced the kickoff of its public series, County 101, with a panel discussion titled “Understanding Colorado’s Water Challenges,” taking place on October 11th at the Summit County Community and Senior Center in Frisco.
“Our goal with County 101 is to keep us connected to our community and help bring more understanding to issues that are important to our residents but often fly under the radar,” said Summit County Commissioner Joshua Blanchard.
The County 101 series will be combination of in-person discussions and online events open to the public.
The first event’s panel discussion includes several experts in water resource management, including the Colorado River Water District, Blue River Watershed Group, and High Country Conservation Center.
“Water is a complex subject involving several agencies and organizations, yet it’s our lifeblood,” said Blanchard. “I’m really looking forward to this panel of experts to help our community understand how our Summit County contributes to and is impacted by the challenge of maintaining this critical resource.”
The community is invited to bring questions for the panel, and refreshments will be provided.
[An October 26, 2021] study hopes to inspire water managers — and the rest of us — to begin planning for how climate change will dramatically reduce snowpack.
It’s that time of year in the West. Winter enthusiasts have started waxing their skis and crossing their fingers for a plentiful snowpack — something that’s been in short supply of late. Of course, it’s not just recreation at stake, as a sweeping drought still has a hold over a region that needs a lot more water to replenish depleted reservoirs and ecosystems.
While tourists watch the weekend weather reports, scientists also have their eye on winter conditions further ahead.
A new study in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment sounds the alarm about mounting research showing the West is on track for a future where little to no snow becomes a regular winter occurrence. If greenhouse gas emissions aren’t reduced, models show significant reductions in snowpack in the West’s mountains over the next 35 to 60 years — with far-reaching implications for ecosystems, agriculture and communities.
Erica Siirila-Woodburn, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and one of the study’s lead authors, says these findings shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. The April 1 snow-water equivalent — a common measurement to determine the amount of water in snowpack — has already declined by 20% since the mid-1950s.
“This isn’t a future problem. This is something that’s already happening,” she says.
While things aren’t great now, they’re likely to get much worse during the second half of the century, the study explains.
During the second half of the century, the models predict that most years in the West — from 78-94% of winters — will see little to no snow. California will experience this shift first. Five consecutive years with less than half the usual snowpack could occur as early as the late 2040s, compared to the 2060s for other mountain basins in the West.
Despite these troubling predictions, the issue of snowpack declines still doesn’t get enough attention in discussions about climate change, says study co-author Alan Rhoades, a hydroclimate research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley.
“We wanted to elevate the urgency of snow loss to the level of some other climate impacts that we often see in the news, like sea-level rise, wildfires and extreme weather events,” he says. “We view this as one of the central issues for the Western U.S. in terms of water supply, reliability and ecosystem health.”
A significant decline in winter snowpack is likely to have “multibillion-dollar implications,” the study explains.
The West’s water system was built around reliance on a snowpack that builds up over the winter months and then melts in the late spring or summer, helping to fill reservoirs and irrigate farmland at the driest times of the year.
The accumulation of snow in the mountains function like giant reservoirs — and big ones.
“The April 1st snow-water equivalent in the Sierra Nevada roughly doubles the surface reservoir storage of California,” explains Rhoades. “Not only that, snow is this bridge between when precipitation starts to shut off — like when we start to stop getting atmospheric rivers or these major storm events that drive precipitation — and then when peak demand occurs.”
But warmer temperatures from our burning of fossil fuels are changing how much snow falls. It’s also leading to runoff occurring earlier in the year, which may not align with when it’s needed most by people — or plants and animals.
Warming temperatures also mean that even less water may reach downstream reservoirs because it’s being absorbed by thirstier soil and plants along the way — further diminishing water supply.
Sometimes even a seemingly small reduction in snow can have large effects on water availability when combined with higher temperatures and drought conditions — as was the case recently in the Colorado River basin.
“Last year , there was 83% snowpack in the Colorado Rockies that really turned into about 30% hydrology, meaning that by the time the snow melted, only 30% of it actually went into hydrology — into the river and down the basin,” Randy Lavasseur, acting superintendent of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, told the Camas-Washougal Post-Record. “The rest of it, the soils were so dry, it just absorbed in the soil.”
Less water available for ecosystems could change what kinds of plants are able to grow. Drier vegetation can also increase wildfire risk. And decreased water in rivers and wetlands could harm a host of aquatic species. Already many species of salmon are struggling to survive in rivers where low flows become too warm in summer months for the cold-water loving fish — a scenario that’s likely to get much worse with a diminishing snowpack.
People, too, will feel the pinch.
A major reduction in water supply could dry up millions of acres of irrigated agricultural land and reduce the drinking water available to rural residents and urban dwellers alike, while also reducing power from hydroelectric generation.
While the most significant reductions in snowpack are still decades ahead, planning for potential changes to water availability should start happening right away, the study’s authors say.
“The climate is projected to change pretty dramatically over the next 50 years,” says Rhoades. “So if we do need more infrastructure or we need to alter how we manage our infrastructure, how do we take into account the changing hydro-climate?”
We’ll need to get creative with ways to reduce how much water we use and stretch water supplies further. Conservation and efficiency will be needed across households and industries. Groundwater reservoirs can be actively managed to increase storage capacity to take better advantage of surplus water when it occurs. And new technologies can help better manage reservoirs, treat polluted water, or transform wastewater into potable water.
Whatever solutions are employed, though, they’ll need to be done with the long-term climate picture in mind and other ecological considerations, like preserving biodiversity.
“Decisions and investments made today will extend multiple generations, operate for half-centuries or more, and need to function within rapidly changing hydroclimatic conditions,” the researchers write.
Employing different demand and supply-side solutions will also take time, money and a lot of collaboration — which is why the study’s authors urge action right away. And not just from water managers. Everyone from academics to stakeholders and policymakers need to get out of their traditional “silos” and work together to address the problem.
“I think partnership shouldn’t be overlooked,” says Siirila-Woodburn.
With an entire water infrastructure system built across the West “based on the assumption of an abundant snowpack,” he says, “there hasn’t been a lot of proactive thought in a concerted way on what we do about that changing.”
The time to begin that proactive planning, Siirila-Woodburn says, is now.
State officials are working to address a tension that has arisen alongside the growing popularity of stream restoration projects that aim to keep water on the landscape by mimicking beaver activity.
There’s no doubt that North America’s largest rodent is good for riparian ecosystems. By building dams that pool water, beavers can transform channelized streams into sprawling, soggy floodplains that recharge groundwater, improve water quality and create areas resistant to wildfires and climate change. Beavers create natural storage ponds in the headwaters which slows the rate that water is released and can help boost late-summer base flows and prevent downstream flash flooding. Basically, beavers rehydrate a dry sponge.
The engineers of the forest are so good at what they do that environmental groups sometimes copy beaver activity in stream restoration projects, building what are called beaver dam analogues. These temporary wood structures usually consist of posts driven into the streambed with willows and other soft materials woven across the channel between the posts. The idea is that by creating appealing habitat in areas that historically had beavers, the animals will recolonize and continue maintaining the health of the stream.
These types of low-tech, process-based restoration projects have been growing more popular in recent years in part because they are relatively cheap and because beavers — which were once hunted almost to extinction — are having a moment as more people recognize their many benefits to an ecosystem. But there is a growing concern that these projects, which often take place on small, headwaters streams, could negatively impact downstream irrigators.
Under Colorado water law, older water rights have first use of the river, and if these stream restoration projects prevent them from getting their full amount, it could be problematic. Some are concerned that if the projects create numerous ponds in the headwaters, it could slow the rate of peak spring runoff or create more surface area for evaporation, which could negatively affect downstream water users.
According to Kelly Romero-Heaney, assistant director of water policy for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, some water rights holders are concerned that projects that mimic beaver activity could be considered an out-of-priority diversion of water.
“If that’s a diversion, then it would potentially need a water right or a plan of augmentation,” Romero-Heaney said. “I would say both the water rights community and river health community are collectively unsettled over the issue.”
This concept, taken to its logical extreme, raises the question: Could beavers need a water right?
Reducing barriers, protecting water rights
The issue cropped up at the Colorado Water Congress summer conference in Steamboat Springs in August during the meeting of the Interim Water Resources Committee, part of the Colorado state legislature. Terry Scanga, general manager of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District, presented an overview of the issue to lawmakers. His district is home to a pilot project that aims to explore the risks of these stream restoration efforts to water rights holders.
“One of the big concerns is that in these types of stream restoration projects, as important as they are to the habitat and so forth, they can still cause impacts to water rights that are negative and actually depleting water to downstream users,” he said.
Sen. Jeff Bridges, who represents Arapahoe County, called the presentation strange and surreal.
“Who are we taking to water court in these cases if beavers move in?” he asked. “It seems to me beavers would probably have the most senior water rights of anyone in the state.”
DNR is currently working on a solution — which could take the form of legislation — to address the issue. The goal would be to reduce barriers to stream restoration projects while still being protective of water rights. If project proponents were required to spend years in water court securing a water right and spend money on an expensive augmentation plan, in which water is released to replace depletions caused by the project, it could have a major chilling effect on projects that nearly everyone agrees are beneficial to the environment.
“I think DNR’s concern is that if stream restoration projects end up routinely needing a plan of augmentation, that could be an insurmountable barrier, particularly for the low budget, low tech projects that are high in the watershed far from diversions downstream,” Romero-Heaney said.
Under current guidelines from the state Department of Water Resources, division engineers could issue orders to discontinue a diversion, release water that has been stored or clear streams of dams that restrict the flow of water if a project is causing injury to water rights.
No measurable harm
Jackie Corday, a natural resources consultant and former head of water resources for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, has been working on a study to engage West Slope agriculture in headwaters restoration. The study, commissioned by environmental group American Rivers, was funded in 2021 by a Colorado Water Conservation Board Water Plan grant.
According to a draft of a white paper Corday wrote as part of the study, her research did not find any documented cases where process-based restoration projects resulted in measurable harm to water rights from increased evaporation or riparian vegetation sucking up the water.
The goal of process-based restoration projects is to return conditions in the headwaters to what they were before waterways were harmed by mining, cattle grazing, road building and other human activities that may have confined the river to a narrow channel and disconnected it from its floodplain.
There are ways to ensure a project is done right and won’t harm downstream water users, Corday said. These include using aerial photography to make sure a project stays within the floodplain’s historic footprint and doesn’t create new wetlands; doing projects only on the upper reaches of small tributaries; making sure the structures are porous and will allow water to still flow through them; and creating transparency around the project by including local stakeholders and addressing their concerns.
“All indications thus far are that if properly done and in the right location, with the right design, no it does not decrease the streamflow to a degree that you could measure it at the stream gauge downstream of the project,” Corday said.
For now, DNR staff is continuing to gather information from stakeholders who have expressed interest in the topic, like environmental groups and Front Range cities, and deciding how to move forward. It’s very unlikely Colorado will see a beaver in water court. But there is a sense of urgency to resolve the issue, Romero-Heaney said.
Water managers are starting to see worsening impacts of climate change and wildfires on watersheds and water supplies, and how restoration projects can lessen those impacts. The western U.S. is also poised to receive money dedicated to headwaters restoration work from the federal infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act.
“That funding won’t be around forever,” Romero-Heaney said. “That’s where we have that sense of urgency of managing the barriers to stream restoration work in Colorado.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.
In a speech about climate change from April 4th of this year, UN General Secretary António Guterres lambasted “the empty pledges that put us on track to an unlivable world” and warned that “we are on a fast track to climate disaster”. Although stark, Guterres’ statements were not novel. Guterres has made similar remarks on previous occasions, as have other public figures, including Sir David Attenborough, who warned in 2018 that inaction on climate change could lead to “the collapse of our civilizations”. In their article, “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency 2021”—which now has more than 14,700 signatories from 158 countries—William J. Ripple and colleagues state that climate change could “cause significant disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies, potentially making large areas of Earth uninhabitable”.
Because civilization cannot exist in unlivable or uninhabitable places, all of the above warnings can be understood as asserting the potential for anthropogenic climate change to cause civilization collapse (or “climate collapse”) to a greater or lesser extent. Yet despite discussing many adverse impacts, climate science literature, as synthesized for instance by assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has little at all to say about whether or under which conditions climate change might threaten civilization. Although a body of scientific research exists on historical and archeological cases of collapse, discussions of mechanisms whereby climate change might cause the collapse of current civilizations has mostly been the province of journalists, philosophers, novelists, and filmmakers. We believe that this should change.
Here we call for treating the mechanisms and uncertainties associated with climate collapse as a critically important topic for scientific inquiry. Doing so requires clarifying what “civilization collapse” means and explaining how it connects to topics addressed in climate science, such as increased risks from both fast- and slow-onset extreme weather events. This kind of information, we claim, is crucial for the public and for policymakers alike, for whom climate collapse may be a serious concern. Our analysis builds on the latest research, including Kemp et al.’s PNAS Perspective, which drew attention to the importance of scientifically exploring the ways that climate outcomes can impact complex socioeconomic systems. We go further by providing greater detail about societal collapse, for instance, distinguishing three progressively more severe scenarios. Moreover, we emphasize avoiding doom-saying bias and recommend studying collapse mechanisms in conjunction with successful adaptation and resilience, seeing these as two sides of the same coin.