According to the USDA, statewide snowpack is currently at 124 percent of the to-date median. The largest gap between the current snowpack and the 30-year to-date norm is found in the western half of the state, particularly in the northwest and southwest corners. The southwest corner, home to Durango and much of the San Juan mountain region, is at 141 percent of the to-date median, with the northwest corner, home to Steamboat Springs, at 136 percent of the to-date median. The Gunnison river basin is also quite a bit about the to-date median, at 139 percent. The only part of the state lagging behind the 30-year to-date median is the Arkansas river basin, which includes Colorado Springs and Pueblo. It’s a 79 percent of the to-date median.
Last month, six of the seven proposed a sweeping plan to share the burden and bring the river’s supply and demand into balance. But California, the river’s largest water user, refuses to play fair. As climate change shrinks the river, California argues, it’s Arizona that should take the biggest cuts. If the water in Lake Mead dips below 1,025 feet above sea level, California’s proposal would cut Arizona’s allocation in half, but California’s share, which is already larger, would be cut only 17 percent. That would mean central Arizona’s cities, farms and Native American communities would suffer, while California’s farmers in the large desert agricultural empire of the Imperial Valley — by far the region’s largest agricultural water user — would receive more water from Lake Mead than the entire state of Arizona…
California justifies this imbalance with an outdated interpretation of the river’s allocation laws, but it’s really just an excuse to hoard resources on behalf of the farmers who raise alfalfa, the valley’s most dominant crop, and the cows that eat it. Alfalfa and other animal feed crops are grown across the West, and other regions must decide whether to continue this use of water in an ongoing drought. But nowhere are the stakes as high as in California…
Many Native American communities in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California that were left out when the water subsidies were handed out in the 20th century deserve a much bigger share of the river than they have received. California’s intransigence is making it harder to meet that legal and moral challenge. The fish, birds and vegetation of the Colorado River also need water to survive. Collaboration among all seven basin states has, over the last decade, returned a modest supply to once-dry stretches of the river’s bed. California’s intransigence makes that harder, too…
If we approach the challenge with a sense of fairness and shared sacrifice it will be possible to save the West that we know and love. But this can only happen if California joins in, rather than trying to hoard the water for itself.
What’s missing is a water-sharing agreement among the Lower Basin states. In contrast to the Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — the Lower Basin states never decided how to divvy up their part of the river.
A U.S. senator put it this way: “The trouble is that there is not enough water in the river available to the Lower Basin to satisfy the demands of the Lower Basin states, particularly … Arizona and California. Somehow, somewhere, the issues must be settled.” Those were the words of California’s William Fife Knowland at the beginning of Senate committee hearings on the Colorado River 75 years ago…
The Upper Basin states completed that task in 1948. To deal with uncertainties in the water supply and the obligation to the Lower Basin states, the Upper Basin compact allocates water by share of what’s available. My home state of Colorado, for example, can consume 51.75% of the water available for use in the Upper Basin. If more water is available, Colorado can use more; if there is less, Colorado must use less. The Upper Basin compact did much more than that. It also includes provisions for assessing system reservoir evaporation and an interstate agency to administer the subcompact…
So what should California do? I believe the state has only two alternatives: Engage in another round of contentious and unpredictable litigation or, preferably, encourage its fellow Lower Basin states to get their house in order by finally negotiating their own subcompact. California, Arizona, Nevada and the tribal communities of the Lower Basin are in a position to take advantage of what has worked for the Upper Basin. A Lower Basin subcompact could allocate water based on how much is available, not what we thought we had decades ago. It could also include provisions for assessing evaporation and a commission to administer the deal. And it could encourage the cooperative banking, water recycling and agricultural efficiency projects that the Lower Basin desperately needs to meet future demand. To be successful, the negotiators for all parties would have to check their historical grievances at the door, make difficult compromises and be open to new and innovative solutions. Given that Arizona and California couldn’t agree on water use before, why is such a deal possible now? The answer is that no better option exists. This is the only way for California and its neighbors to control their own water destiny.
As we keep seeing the lack of Western Water in the news, it’s time to start taking action to reduce outdoor water use. Eagle River Watershed Council is developing an outdoor water conservation program along with Eagle County Conservation District and we need your help. Through this survey, we will learn how our community wants to interact with programming and how we can help you make a measurable change in outdoor water use. Please take a few minutes to think about your outdoor water usage and take this survey. Those who take this survey will be entered into a drawing for a YETI Hopper soft cooler.
Last November, the Great Salt Lake, iconic landmark of the Great Basin Desert, fell to its lowest surface elevation ever recorded. The lake had lost 73% of its water and 60% of its area. More than 800 square miles of lakebed sediments were laid bare to become dust sources laden with heavy metals.
Settlers colonized the eastern shoreline 175 years ago, displacing Native peoples, and all of us who followed have mostly taken this desert lake and its fiery sunsets for granted. But the lake is an economic engine as well as an ecological treasure.
Its waters and wetlands yield thousands of jobs and an annual $2.5 billion for Utah from mineral extraction and brine shrimp eggs used worldwide as food for farmed fish and shrimp. The lake also suppresses windblown toxic dust, boosts precipitation of incoming storms through the “lake effect,” and supports 80% of Utah’s wetlands.
The Great Salt Lake has no outlet. It can hold its own against evaporation only if sufficient water arrives from three river systems, fed by snowmelt in the lake’s 21,000-square-mile mountain watershed. When that flow declines, the shallow lake recedes.
In each of the last three years the lake has received less than a third of its average streamflow, recorded since 1850. And as the lake shrinks, it grows saltier, currently measuring 19 percent salinity. This is six times as salty as the ocean and well past the 12 percent salinity that’s ideal for brine shrimp and brine flies.
More than 10 million birds depend on the lake’s tiny invertebrates for food. Half of the world’s population of Wilson’s phalaropes feasts on Great Salt Lake brine flies in summer, taking on fat reserves for their 3,400-mile, non-stop migration to South America. For phalaropes, the lake is “a lifeline,” says conservation biologist Maureen Frank.
All these wonders do best with a minimum healthy lake level of about 4,200 feet in elevation, which the Great Salt Lake hasn’t seen for 20 years.
You could say that the crisis snuck up on us.
Our big build-up of dams, canals and pipelines to harness incoming water throughout the lake’s watershed began soon after 1900. With a lake this big and with natural fluctuations in weather, “unsustainable behavior doesn’t get noticed until you are really far down the line,” says Ben Abbott, ecologist at Brigham Young University.
By the 1960s, diversions had bled the lake to levels nearly as low as we see today. But then an extraordinary wet period masked the downward trend. In the mid-1980s, the lake hit an historic high, flooding wetlands and highways and threatening the Salt Lake City Airport.
When precipitation dropped to normal, lake levels declined again, aided by today’s drying and warming climate, which is reducing natural flows and increasing evaporation, a recent but growing impact.
But agriculture is the primary driver of the disappearing lake. Two-thirds of the diversions in the Great Salt Lake watershed go to farms and ranches. With climate change accelerating, experts say the only way to bring back the lake is to decrease diversions and crank open the spigots of incoming streams.
Because Utah manages its own water, it’s up to the state Legislature to save the lake. “We can’t talk water into the lake” through studies and task forces, as Salt Lake City Rep. Joel Briscoe puts it. The State Legislature can—and must—pass mandates and incentives to reduce water use, purchase water rights, pay farmers to fallow fields and increase streamflow.
To pass such legislation, lawmakers must withstand unremitting pressure from a chorus of high-paid and powerful water lobbyists.
The 2023 Utah legislative session ends on March 3. If the members don’t take sufficient and difficult action to save the Great Salt Lake from collapse, the lake will face ruin. As the Brigham Young University scientist Ben Abbott says, “Unlike politicians, hydrology doesn’t negotiate.”
Waiting another year may be too late. Utah—the second driest state in the nation—must come to grips with its arid heart.
Stephen Trimble is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring conversation about the West. A 35th-anniversary update of his book, The Sagebrush Ocean: A Natural History of the Great Basin, will be published next year.
Another heavy winter storm hit Pagosa Country this week, bringing the closure of schools and other facilities, U.S. 160 over Wolf Creek Pass and Wolf Creek Ski Area on Feb. 22. According to the Community Collaborative Rain Hail and Snow Network website, snowfall ranged widely, with 1.5 to 7 inches of snow falling across Archuleta County be- tween Feb. 21 and 1 p.m. on Feb. 22. A 6 a.m. snow report from Wolf Creek Ski Area indicates that the slopes would be closed on Wednesday [ due to high winds, low visibil- ity and blowing snow, although it stated that Wolf Creek is expected to reopen on Thursday, Feb. 23. The report also notes that Wolf Creek had received 10 inches of snow in the storm so far, bring- ing the midway snow depth to 98 inches and the year-to-date snowfall total to 289 inches.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Water and Climate Center’s snowpack report, the Wolf Creek summit, at 11,000 feet of elevation, had 27.9 inches of snow water equivalent as of 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 22. The Wolf Creek summit was at 121 percent of the Feb. 22 snowpack median.
The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins were at 132 percent of the Feb. 22 median in terms of snowpack.
The Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) Board of Di- rectors discussed the San Juan Water Conservancy District’s (SJWCD’s) recently set target reservoir size of 11,000 acre-feet and the future of the Running Iron Ranch property at its Feb. 9 meeting. PAWSD secretary Bill Hudson opened the discussion, highlight- ing that SJWCD commissioned a water demand study by Wilson Water Group and that he had distributed his criticism of this study to the board. He added that SJWCD adopted the goal of an 11,000 acre-foot reservoir and that PAWSD estimates of growth for the district are lower than those indicated in the Wilson Water Group study, with PAWSD’s drought management plan expect- ing approximately 2 percent annual population growth.
Hudson commented that the Growing Water Smart group, which was largely funded by SJWCD, had estimated approximately 1.7 or 1.6 percent annual growth.
“So, I don’t see any real justification for coming to a conclusion that the Dry Gulch reservoir should be 11,000 acre-feet and that … we should guess at 5 percent growth — three times what the Growing Water Smart group advised us,” Hudson said.
PAWSD vice president Glenn Walsh commented that 5 percent growth is “literally impossible.”
Water managers in Western Colorado are helping to shape a water conservation program with policies they say are aimed at protecting water users.
Last week, board members of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District unanimously approved criteria that the organization will use to evaluate applications for the System Conservation Program.
To gain approval from the River District — whose mission is to protect, conserve, use and develop water in the 15 Western Slope counties that it covers — an applicant must be a farm operator, not just a landowner. And the entire payment must go to the farm operator — an increase from the 40% of the payment the River District initially proposed.
This is intended, in part, to prevent a situation where a landowner enters their acres in the fallowing program, leaving a tenant farmer with no land to farm and the resultant loss of their livelihood.
“This is a fairly simple situation where it would just be paid to the farm operator and we stay out of the contractual relationship between the owner and the farm operator,” said River District General Manager Andy Mueller.
The policy also says that no more than 30% of the irrigated land in any one sub-basin and no more than 30% or 240 acres, whichever is less, of land owned by a single entity or person shall be fallowed in any given year. For small farm operations with less than 100 irrigated acres, participants can fallow up to 50% of their land.
In December, the Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC) announced details of a restarted System Conservation Program (SCP) that aims to lessen the impacts of drought and to boost depleted reservoirs by paying Colorado River water users in the upper basin states (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) to cut back.
The program initially ran from 2015 to 2018, saving about 47,000 acre-feet of water at a cost of about $8.6 million. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot.
Applications for the 2023 program will have to be approved by the UCRC, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and, for those within its boundaries, the River District.
The SCP will be funded with $125 million of federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act and proposes to pay water users a starting price of $150 per acre-foot of saved water.
The rebooted program is one arm of the UCRC’s 5-Point Plan, released in July, which is aimed at protecting critical elevations at the nation’s two largest reservoirs: Lake Powell and Lake Mead.
Fueled by a two-decade drought and climate change, the reservoirs have fallen to historically low levels, threatening the ability to make hydroelectric power at the dams.
Grand Valley Water Users Association proposes alternative framework
The Grand Valley Water Users Association (GVWUA) is rejecting the concept of paying farmers based on an amount of unused water, even as the association’s board voted to participate in the rebooted program. Instead, the association is proposing to pay farmers for each acre they take out of production, thereby tying the payments to the land.
According to an information sheet for water users, “cooperators” would get $1,306 for each acre fallowed for the entire 2023 irrigation season. Fallowing from the beginning of the season through Sept. 30 would get $1,237 per acre; fallowing through Aug. 31 would get $1,073 per acre; and fallowing just through the summer season, from May 15 to Aug. 31, would get $686 per acre.
“We are really hesitant on anything that would make it appear we are removing that water right from the land or even using verbiage that hints at that,” GVWUA General Manager Tina Bergonzini said. “The way we put it in our application (to the UCRC) is we would be requesting a certain amount of money per acre that’s not farmed. We basically are telling them: We are not accepting your $150 per acre-foot; we are basing it on per acre.”
A maximum of 1,000 acres of the association’s roughly 24,000 would be enrolled in this year’s program and farmers would have to go through GVWUA; they cannot submit applications on their own. If the applications total more than 1,000 acres, the association will hold a drawing to choose participants.
Applicants must meet the definition of “actively engaged in farming” as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency and be farming a minimum of 30 irrigated acres within the GVWUA service area. There is a minimum of 15 acres and maximum of 240 acres that one applicant can enroll, and enrolled acreage cannot exceed 50% of the applicant’s acreage.
The GVWUA application must be approved by the UCRC, the CWCB and the River District before its proposed program is implemented.
The Grand Valley, where the 55-mile-long Government Highline Canal snakes through farmland, turning the desert green, has been ground zero in recent years for discussions about water conservation and the speculation concerns that come with it. New York City-based private equity firm Water Asset Management (WAM) has been acquiring land in the Grand Valley and fueling fear that speculative outside investors could be seeking to profit from Colorado’s water.
Bergonzini said that WAM’s farmers, who she said irrigate around 1,200 acres of GVWUA system lands, are invited to apply for the program through the association just like any other water user.
She said the issue of whether GVWUA should participate in SCP was contentious and the nine-voting-member board was split 5-4 in favor.
Fruita farmer and GVWUA board member Tom Wood voted against participation because he said the tight timeline doesn’t give water users enough time to plan for this irrigation season. Wood said he participated in the original pilot program but is undecided if he will do so this time.
“It’s not that I’m against the program,” he said. “I just didn’t think the timing was right for this year. If people are going to participate, they probably need a little more time to consider their cropping sequence.”
The deadline for applications, originally set for Feb. 1, has been extended to March 1.
Bringing balance to the river
The Grand Valley is well positioned for a water conservation program because water left in the river at this location near the state line is almost certain to reach Lake Powell; there are few major diversions between there and the nation’s second-largest reservoir.
But water managers caution that using SCP to boost water levels in Lake Powell is not a guarantee. Unlike the much-studied and conceptually similar “demand management” program, SCP does not have a dedicated pool in Lake Powell for the upper basin states to store water and there is no mechanism to “shepherd” conserved water past downstream users and into depleted reservoirs.
Any water saved by Western Slope water users will probably end up being used by the lower basin states (California, Arizona and Nevada) instead of bolstering reservoirs, Mueller said. He said just because the River District has created a policy for approving SCP applications doesn’t mean it endorses the program.
“I don’t think that it’s a well-designed program to actually achieve the stated goal, which is to assist in bringing balance to the river,” Mueller said. “Any water produced under system conservation — to the extent it makes it past your neighbor’s headgates and makes it into Lake Powell — is going to get sucked right through the Glen Canyon Dam and into Mead and right through Hoover and on to some lawn or swimming pool in Southern California or Arizona. And I don’t think that’s a great idea.”
Upper basin water managers have called on the lower basin states to bear the brunt of the cuts needed to sustain the system, given that the lower basin regularly uses its full annual appropriation of Colorado River water, while the upper basin uses far less overall.
Bergonzini said it’s not up to GVWUA to fix a problem they didn’t create. But she said the association stands in solidarity with the state of Colorado and the UCRC on the 5-Point Plan.
“We are trying to show the state we have their back in negotiations with the lower basin to try to come to a conclusion that supports some stability in the Colorado River,” she said. “That’s the biggest reason why we are doing this.”
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times.
In fall 2021, City Council directed staff to seek further analysis of the High Line Canal Stormwater Master Plan (Master Plan) as it pertains directly to the three-mile segment of the Canal within the Village, as well as craft short and long-term strategies for capital improvements and annual maintenance of this segment of the High Line Canal. The Master Plan explores the analysis associated with utilizing the Canal for stormwater purposes but cannot be construed as acceptance or approval of the drainages analyzed or improvements recommended. The City desires to know what additional considerations are necessary to transition the City’s segment of the irrigation Canal to a stormwater channel and how to address certain considerations to accomplish that goal.
Stormwater Capital Improvement and Operations Analysis
Icon Engineering, Inc. has been hired to complete the study in 2022 for a total cost of $59,000. The analysis will include modeling of High Line Canal areas beyond what was completed in the Master Plan to ensure safety, constructability, and ease of maintenance. Additionally, the City will receive a detailed cost model verifying the costs outlined in the Master Plan for the construction and maintenance of: (1) the proposed improvements; and (2) the entire High Line Canal conveyance channel, including the ditch and bank vegetation, within the municipal boundaries, as the City will become responsible for these costs if the stormwater improvements are constructed. Further, the analysis will give the City guidance on possible phasing and timing plans for the capital projects, based on prioritization determined during the analysis process.
DENVER – Today, Governor Jared Polis signed into law administratively the bipartisan HJR23-1007 Water Projects Eligibility Lists sponsored by Representatives Karen McCormick and Marc Catlin and Senators Dylan Roberts and Cleave Simpson to support water projects across the state that design and construct safe drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure projects.
“We are here to serve the people of Colorado, and must continue working together to solve pressing problems and help improve the lives of Coloradans. I appreciate the legislature sending this bipartisan bill to my desk, sponsored by the vast majority of Colorado’s General Assembly with the goal of providing clean and safe water to the people of our state,” said Governor Polis.
In his State of the State address to the General Assembly in January, Governor Polis outlined his vision for Colorado at 150, including making sure Colorado has the water resources necessary for farms, communities, and industries to thrive. The Polis administration has dedicated significant resources toward protecting Colorado’s water resources and the Governor’s budget proposal includes new, ongoing resources for climate action and preparedness for water quality, defending Colorado’s water rights.
The Colorado River has not connected to the sea for a generation, and its Delta is dying out. This once lush region of 3,000 square miles teeming with plant, bird, and marine life lived only in the memory of older community members.
Most had abandoned hope that nature would ever return. No water means no life. However, the inverse is also true.
Funding for this project will help the Sonoran Institute (SI) revive, enhance, and maintain 751 acres of this area and reconnect the Colorado River to the sea. By reintroducing water, landscapes, wildlife, and communities thrive together.
A women-led restoration team
Led by Edith Santiago, who has 22 years of experience in the restoration of wetlands, this project comprises a diverse team of biologists, ecologists, hydrologists, community planners, environmental educators, and economists. Women hold over 50% of these positions.
Monitoring and growing native species
Support will allow this team to monitor the water and surrounding wildlife and conduct restoration activities that include irrigation, weeding, fire prevention, vigilance, and signage to prevent vandalism.
It will also help grow native species at the SI nursery near the Delta. Producing vegetation closer to restoration activities prevents plant damage and reduces transportation time.
Local outreach and education
Environmental education and outreach activities are essential to inspire the local community to help restore and conserve the Colorado River Delta. SI will achieve this through an online course about wildlife and vegetation, guided visits to restored areas, talks, presentations, and workshops. Building a training and multiple-use site will serve as a gathering and educational spot for the community.
SI has already engaged people through the visitor center at Laguna Grande, guided tours, and “Family Saturdays.” Through these programs, nearly 26,000 people have reconnected with the river.
The importance of centering on community
The recovery and stewardship of the Delta ultimately depend on the commitment of people who live in the region. Having local community groups, leaders, and government agencies participate in the restoration work, operate plant nurseries, manage restoration sites, and welcome guests is a significant part of this project.
With a flowing river and a steady stream of visitors, the conservation site will become the heart of an economy based on working with nature, and a living, learning laboratory for the one million residents of Mexicali.
Long-term goals to protect more land and reach more people
By 2024, the project’s main objective is to enhance and maintain 751 acres. The long-term plan is to restore and protect 30,000 acres of habitat. Another prime goal is to connect the river and sea for an average of 146 days a year.
Through education and social media, it aims to reach more than 400,000 people who will get to know the endangered beaver and many of the 380 bird species in the Delta. It will continue implementing virtual and in-person activities with students from kindergarten through college, families, national and international media, and donors.
Collaborating governments mean successful conservation
As a leader in restoration, SI and its partners have been working in this region for over 20 years. Their work extends along the main channel of the Colorado River, from the US and Mexico border to the upper estuary of the Gulf of California, and includes a key tributary, the Rio Hardy.
SI’s work has been crucial to adopting agreements between the United States and Mexico that have become a global example of collaboration. The Minute 319 and 323 accords between the two governments support the complete restoration of the Colorado River Delta.
By advancing agreements governing the river, restoration can succeed in the Delta as people connect with their natural resources. SI’s team is optimistic that bringing the river back to life will make the local communities flourish harmoniously as one with nature.
SI’s work has been crucial to adopting agreements between the United States and Mexico that have become a global example of collaboration. The Minute 319 and 323 accords between the two governments support the complete restoration of the Colorado River Delta.
By advancing agreements governing the river, restoration can succeed in the Delta as people connect with their natural resources. SI’s team is optimistic that bringing the river back to life will make the local communities flourish harmoniously as one with nature.
With the substantial amount of snow that has fallen across the Colorado River basin over the past couple of months, I have been asked many questions about the state of the drought, and whether all this precipitation will reverse the severe declines in both Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Will all this snow “save” the Colorado River basin from further declines and cutbacks? Can we all just go back to normal now and not worry about conservation so much?
Spoiler alert – Not likely.
Certainly, all this snow will help quench the basin’s immediate thirst. It may also serve to have much of the basin delay confronting what has been shaping up to be a real emergency, with real consequences for everyone who relies on the Colorado River – but not for long. If we experience another low snowpack year which has been predicted, the situation from the top of the basin to Mexico will be pretty dire – and if this recent snow funnel turns off, it still could be. But for now, it appears that, while the current snow conditions will certainly not save the day, they might help side-step having to immediately endure worst-case scenarios beginning as early as this spring, which hopefully can provide the states and Federal government some space to come together and bring the rest of the Colorado River community along in support of workable solutions for the basin by the end of the summer.
Through my role with American Rivers, I am honored to be one of the two Environmental Representatives on the GLEN CANYON DAM ADAPTIVE MANAGEMENT PROGRAM (GCD-AMP) TECHNICAL WORK GROUP (TWG) which is intimately involved with much of the science conducted in the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell. As part of that role, how Glen Canyon Dam operates and is managed is of central consideration, and the impacts of decisions around how water flows through the dam are of critical importance to the ecological, recreational, and cultural values of the Grand Canyon and the overall natural heritage it provides.
Last week, at a meeting in Phoenix, we got detailed readouts around the hydrologic conditions in the Upper Basin of the Colorado River (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico make up the Upper Basin) and so far, the data looks positive for this current water year.
All those purple and blue blobs are great news and something to cheer about. These numbers all play into how the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), the Federal agency that oversees and manages the federal infrastructure for the Colorado River system, forecasts likely water supply scenarios in different areas of the basin. But for the time being, let’s stick with Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell.
The chart above may look confusing but bear with me. The vertical axis is the elevation of the water stored behind Glen Canyon Dam in Lake Powell. The horizontal axis is time, looking ahead across the next two years. Modeling experts at BOR run dozens of simulations based on 30-year average hydrology, current snowpack conditions, soil moisture, projected meteorology, and water use estimates to identify potential probabilities around how much water may be coming through the system, including how much water may reasonably be expected to flow into Lake Powell in a given year. Then, understanding these “inflows” projections in combination with other resource considerations, the BOR projects the volume and timing of water to be released out of Lake Powell, through the Grand Canyon, and into Lake Mead on an annual basis.
If you look carefully at the chart above, you will see three dotted lines undulating from left to right. Those three lines are the “Minimum, Maximum, and Most” probable storage scenarios for Lake Powell based on different inflow and other inputs (Maximum being the top, a blue line which reflects where 90% of the scenarios will land at or below in storage elevation, meaning the maximum probable amount of water to be stored at Lake Powell for the relevant year; Minimum being the bottom, red line which reflects where 10% of the scenarios will land or fall below in storage elevation, meaning the minimum probable amount of water to be stored at Lake Powell for the relevant year; and, Most being the middle, green line, which reflects that 50% of the scenarios are likely to be at or below in Lake Powell storage elevations for the year. Each of these projections is based on CURRENT conditions and is subject to change as we learn more about actual, as opposed to modeled, conditions in the basin.
As you can see, the line trends down from now until about mid-April 2023, then makes a sharp curve upwards. This represents spring runoff – it is current, frozen snow (very low runoff in the rivers) transitioning into spring (lots of snowpack melting and the rivers flowing vigorously.) Then as we get into summer and fall, things more or less flatten out as the snowpack depletes and levels in Lake Powell stabilize.
The most important line on the chart above (at least for this blog) is the bottom line (Minimum Probable,) and, in particular, the April 2024 timeframe, the lowest point on the chart. Below that lowest point is a grey dashed line marked “Minimum Power Pool – 3,490ft.” This represents the elevation where Lake Powell can no longer produce any hydropower electricity because the water has fallen too low to turn the turbines.
Just a couple of months ago, it looked like Lake Powell may fall below that Minimum Power Pool elevation sometime around the April 2024 timeframe, and if this winter’s snowpack was dismal, the threat to the minimum power pool could be much higher much sooner. Last fall, BOR Commissioner Touton instructed that the Basin must come up with an additional 2- and 4-million-acre feet of Colorado River water to avoid critical threats to infrastructure and the system between now and the time new long-term operating criteria can be finalized (est. 2026). This directive, along with several other factors, also inspired BOR to consider partially modifying the current operating criteria through a process called a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS).
A SEIS is, in essence, a comprehensive study around some options that could guide operations at the Glen Canyon Dam and other facilities to forestall threats to the health, safety, and continuing functionality of the system until more comprehensive management plans can be assessed and considered. Short-term adjustments to system operations will likely consider, among other things, the release of less water (and potentially MUCH less water) from Lake Powell in the current and next years with the assumption that storage at Lake Powell could continue to decline. That study is in process, but we all need to continue to press the urgency of this situation and find every way possible to reduce the consumption of Colorado River water, from every user across the entire basin. Just because the snowpack looks good today, doesn’t reduce the immediate need to find a way to live within the means that the river can provide starting now.
Now, some caveats to all this optimism. First, it could stop snowing, like it did last year, and this trend of piles of happy snow could go away. Second, the basin overall is in a serious water deficit across nearly all reservoirs in the Upper Basin. BOR has had to release a lot of water over the past two years under emergency and drought contingency actions, including the implementation of a Drought Response Operations Agreement to try to keep Lake Powell from falling even farther and even faster. Lastly, runoff matters, and the combination of how soon spring arrives and how warm it gets, combined with how moist the soil is as that snow begins to melt will dictate how much water makes its journey down the river. With the solid monsoon seasons over the past two summers, the soil moisture is much better than it was a couple of years ago. But dry soils absorb water as the snow melts, and if the soils are too dry, runoff water never makes it to the rivers in the first place. In fact, many believe that relying on the 30-year average hydrology conditions in the basin as part of the modeling foundation leads to potentially overly optimistic results in storage conditions.
So, there is cause for optimism, and cause for skepticism, but at least at this point in early 2023, things are looking as good as they likely could to provide a little room to keep working toward collaborative solutions than in years past. Keep those snow dances coming!
An upper-level ridge over the northeastern North Pacific Ocean deflected Pacific storm systems away from the West Coast of the contiguous U.S. (CONUS) during this U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) week (February 15-21). This resulted in a generally drier-than-normal week over much of the West. An upper-level trough developed over the western CONUS downstream from the ridge, and the trough was responsible for a cooler-than-normal week over the West. Strong high pressure over the Gulf of Mexico extended into a ridge across the East Coast. A southerly flow between the trough and eastern ridge spread warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico across the eastern CONUS and directed weather systems northeastward from the southern Plains to Great Lakes. Two weather systems early in the week generated above-normal precipitation across parts of the central to eastern CONUS. As the week ended, weather systems moved across the northern tier states, bringing areas of snow. The week was wetter than normal across parts of the northern Rockies, from the Four Corners states to western Great Lakes, and from the central Gulf Coast states to Ohio Valley and Mid-Atlantic states. It was a drier-than-normal week across much of the West, southern Plains, coastal Southeast, and southern Great Lakes to New England, and parts of the northern to central Plains. Drought or abnormal dryness expanded where it continued dry in parts of the Pacific Northwest, southern Plains, and Florida. Drought or abnormal dryness contracted or reduced in intensity where it was wet over parts of the Four Corners area, southern and central Plains to Upper Mississippi Valley, and the Big Island in Hawaii…
A storm system tracked across southern parts of the High Plains region early in the week, with another late in the week tracking across northern Wyoming. Weekly precipitation totals were half an inch to over an inch in parts of Wyoming, Colorado, northern and eastern Kansas, southern and eastern Nebraska, and southeast South Dakota. The rest of the region received little to no precipitation. Moderate to exceptional drought was trimmed in a few areas of northwestern and eastern Kansas, and adjacent parts of Nebraska, while abnormal dryness and severe drought were trimmed in southern Colorado. No change was made to the drought areas in the rest of the region…
Half an inch of precipitation fell over a few areas in the Four Corners states and in western Oregon, while 2 inches or more of precipitation occurred over parts of the Washington Cascades and northern Rockies. But for the most part, little to no precipitation fell across large parts of the West region. Abnormal dryness and moderate to severe drought were trimmed in northwest New Mexico where this week was wet and moist conditions were evident in soil moisture, snowpack, and Standardized Precipitation Index (SPI) indicators. But low streamflow, snowpack, soil moisture, and SPI values prompted expansion of abnormal dryness and moderate drought along coastal Oregon and southwest Washington, as well as in the Idaho panhandle. While many reservoirs in California have recovered from the recent atmospheric river events that have struck that state, reservoirs in Oregon continue at drastically low levels and some reservoirs in Utah remain at low levels. As of February 21, 2023, the water level in Lake Powell was 3521.53 feet above sea level, which is the lowest level recorded since the lake was filled in the 1960s. As noted by the media, Lake Powell is a man-made reservoir that sits along the Colorado River on the Arizona-Utah border. It generates electricity for about 4.5 million people and is a key part of the Colorado River Basin system, which supplies water to more than 40 million people. Further north, an extension agent in Blaine County, Montana, reported the drought is causing reduced water for irrigation, later emergence of spring grasses, and grazing must be supplemented and water hauled for livestock…
Two inches or more of precipitation fell across eastern portions of the South region, specifically parts of Mississippi and much of Tennessee. Half an inch or more occurred from there to eastern Oklahoma and northeast Texas. For the rest of Oklahoma and Texas, the week continued a dry pattern. Abnormal dryness and moderate to extreme drought contracted in eastern Oklahoma, due to wet conditions this week and previous weeks and improved soil moisture and streamflow conditions, and abnormal dryness contracted in northeast Texas. But extreme to exceptional drought expanded in western Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle, while abnormal dryness and moderate to severe drought expanded in parts of southern Texas along the coast and along the Rio Grande River where streamflow and soil moisture conditions deteriorated and precipitation deficits continued to grow. According to media reports, 80-mph winds created a dust storm in the Oklahoma panhandle that caused a multiple car pileup, killing a driver…
A strong Pacific weather system moved across the West on February 22, with a low pressure and frontal system spreading rain and snow from the Plains to Mississippi Valley and across northern states. A series of weather systems will follow during February 23-28, spreading an inch or more of precipitation from Oklahoma to the Great Lakes, from the Tennessee to Ohio Valleys, and across much of the Northeast, as well as along the West Coast and into the interior West. Some precipitation totals will exceed 2 inches in the Upper Mississippi Valley and western Great Lakes, and exceed 4 inches along coastal Washington and California and into the Sierra Nevada range. The Gulf of Mexico Coast, western parts of the Great Plains, and parts of the Mid-Atlantic Coast will see little to no precipitation. High pressure over the Gulf of Mexico will keep temperatures warmer than normal from the southern Plains to Ohio Valley and Gulf Coast to Mid-Atlantic Coast, while temperatures will be cooler than normal across the Far West to northern Plains. For February 28-March 8, the outlook favors colder-than-normal weather across the West and Alaska, with warmer-than-normal weather from the southern Plains to Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes. Above-normal precipitation is likely across Alaska, the western CONUS, and much of the CONUS east of the Rockies except along the Gulf Coast where below-normal precipitation is favored.
‘Caliphobia’ is a cultural germ that infects many Americans everywhere. ‘Caliphobia’ is fear and loathing of the State of California, the state that always seems to be ahead of everyone else in everything, bringing us everything from new entertainments and toys, to new laws on cultural frontiers the rest of us know we ought to be brave enough to embrace ourselves. I’m thinking of things like auto emission standards where the size of the California market brought the automobile industry to heel, with the nation eventually falling in line too. We hate them when they’re right.
Californians also occasionally take a big step backward in a deliberate way, and the nation eventually falls in step there too – remember ‘Proposition 13,’ California’s 1978 property tax revolution to protect existing homeowners at the expense of community health, a battle which ultimately generated the national ‘Tea Party’ and the Trumpian ‘I’ve got mine Jack’ culture. We hate them when they’re successfully wrong.
California always seems to be first with the worst as well as the best. For this they are generally disliked, even hated, in a subrational way that is often tinged with envy – Caliphobia. This leads to things like bumper stickers saying ‘Don’t Californicate us!’ and the perception of Californians as emigrants from the gridlock of their success, spreading through the West with fistfuls of money to drive up our housing prices.
California’s impact nationally has to do mostly with its size and population. Close to one of every eight Americans lives in California – approaching 40 million. One-eighth of our Congresspeople are part of the 53-person California delegation.
But where California – and Caliphobia – has had its largest and most ingrained impact may be in the Colorado River Region – the seven states through or between which the Colorado River meanders. California has close to twice as many people and Congressmen as the other six states combined.
We see Caliphobia rearing its head today on the Colorado, as six of the seven Basin states have put forward a plan for major cuts in water use in the Basin – cuts the Interior Department says are essential if their system of storage and distribution structures are going to remain functional. But California refuses to sign onto that plan, in which they would take a big hit; instead, they have put forward their own plan in which they would take a moderate hit, but only after Arizona and Nevada have taken big hits, demanding that their large senior priority rights be honored. This is engendering media headlines like ‘California Isn’t Playing Nice on the Colorado River’ or ‘Unlike California, Vegas isn’t gambling with its future by squandering water.’
Caliphobia is nothing new along the Colorado River, however. It goes back to the early 20th century. All seven states in the Region – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming – had adopted the first come, first served appropriation doctrine for the distribution of the use of water. Appropriation law – free water for free land, permanently if you get there early – became a powerful growth engine that contributed to growth in all seven states in the early 20thcentury, but California’s population quintupled in that time.
This gavethe six ‘slower’ states reason to fear that, in an unchecked seven-state horse race to appropriate use of the Colorado River’s water, California had the pole position and a fast start, and might put most of the river’s water to use while they were still getting started. The fact that the developers of the Salton Sink, aka the Imperial Valley, down at the end of the river, had a 1901 appropriation filing for more than two million acre-feet of river water lent substance to their fear. Caliphobia spread along the river.
Their Caliphobia led to the convening, in 1922, of the Colorado River Compact commission, with the original intention to make an equitable seven-way division of the use of the river that would override the appropriation doctrine at the interstate level, assuring each state of a share of the river to develop in its own good time. But a seven-way split proved impossible to attain; they lacked necessary information about how much water was even in the river, and the only information they had about their own futures came from their own overheated imaginations. So in something close to desperation, with time running out, they came up with a big sloppy broad stroke: dividing the river in two, an Upper Basin with the four states above the unsettled canyon region (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming), and a Lower Basin with the three states below the canyons (Arizona, California, and Nevada). Basically, each Basin would get the consumptive use of 7.5 million acre-feet (maf), to further divide among themselves as their futures unfolded.
It is hard to see the Compact as a real success – certainly not an achievement deserving the reverence most water mavens hold it in today. It gave the four Upper Basin states relief from having to compete for water with California, but it left Arizona and Nevada in the cage with California, and Arizona refused to ratify the Compact as a result. California officials said their state would not ratify the Compact until there was solid assurance that the storage dam would be built. All the Compact really achieved was a minimum show of agreement by six out of the seven states, which Congress found acceptable enough, and proceeded with the Boulder Canyon Project Act that finally passed in 1929.
The Act itself relieved the Lower Basin states of the stress of dividing up their 7.5 maf – difficult given Arizona’s bad case of Caliphobia – by doing the division for them: 4.4 maf for California, 2.8 maf for Arizona, and 300,000 af for Nevada. Why so little for Nevada? All the action in Nevada then was in the western part of the state, in the relatively well-watered mining and ranching area just east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, four hundred miles from the Colorado River. The only town in southeastern Nevada was Las Vegas, a little flag-stop collection of ranchers and prospectors.
Caliphobia was enough of a presence in Congress so that, before the representatives would vote on the Boulder Canyon Project Act, California was required to pass a state law that the state would limit its use of Colorado River water to the 4.4 maf specified in the Act. California passed that law docilely enough in 1929; the Act contained not just the big dam to control the river, but the weir dam and All-American Canal for getting water to their Imperial Valley, so they had a lot to gain by complying.
But then, once the Act was passed and construction had begun, the seven largest California users got together in 1931 to divvy up their 4.4 maf – and an additional 962,000 acre-feet that they said the Upper Basin wouldn’t be using for decades, so why shouldn’t they use it in the meantime?
They were, in other words, going to use the Upper Basin’s unused share of the river to grow on, in hopes that there would prove to still be excess undivided water in the Basin when the Upper Basin needed its water – or that the engineers would have figured out how to bring new water in from some other river with water to spare. Early Anthropocene thinking: something would come along to keep them from being limited to their 4.4 maf. The intrastate Seven-party Agreement became part of the ‘Law of the River,’ along with the 1929 California Limitation Law.
The Metropolitan Water District, created to serve the Los Angeles-San Diego metropolitan area with Colorado River water, bet on the permanence of that surplus water in a big way: they built the 250-mile Colorado River Aqueduct to carry twice their share of the 4.4 legal allotment – a concrete conviction that they would not be limited.
The Bureau went along with this, given California’s assurance that it would only use ‘surplus water’ so long as it existed; it was consistent with the Bureau’s optimistic outlook for the future of the river’s flow – even though in 1931, the river’s flow dropped to half of the allotted 15 maf, the beginning of a droughty decade. The myth of a surplus flow, above and beyond the Compact allotments, was born, and would persist on paper too – well, to the present: it has been the increasingly fictitious surplus that supposedly ‘paid’ the 1.5 maf of evaporation and other system losses on the lower river.
The surplus was also supposed to take care of most of the Mexican allotment too, once that was negotiated in 1944. Anticipating an eventual allotment to Mexico, the Compact had said that ‘such waters shall be supplied first from the waters which are surplus over and above the aggregate’ allotted to the states, and ‘if such surplus shall prove insufficient for this purpose, then, the burden of such deficiency shall be equally borne’ by the two basins. More about that in a moment.
Caliphobia in the Upper Basin states increased as it became increasingly obvious after the 1930s drought that there was probably never going to be enough water in the river consistently for them to get a full 7.5 maf share. Yet the Compact committed them to ‘not cause the flow at Lee Ferry (the division point) to be depleted’ below 75 maf in any 10-year period. So even though there was not enough for their full allotment, they had to let the Lower Basin’s full allotment go downriver, or else – well, the Compact said nothing about what would or should happen if the flow at Lee Ferry fell below the Compact minimum, but that only enabled the Caliphobic imagination to run wild on what California would do to Upper Basin users in such an instance.
That clause could have been interpreted as a mere caution to make sure the Upper Basin users themselves were not responsible for a seriously diminished flow of the erratic river past Lee Ferry. But it could also be interpreted as a delivery commitment even if the diminished flows were caused by something other than human uses, like a two decade drought – which would already have seriously impacted the Upper Basin. Would the Lower Basin – California – add insult to injury by placing a call on them to further diminish their own uses to meet the 7.5 maf ‘obligation’? Letting the Lower Basin escape sharing any of the pain from the erratic river?
I find no evidence that California and Arizona ever officially threatenedthat, but the Caliphobic imagination believed it would happen, so the 1948 Upper Colorado River Compact in a sense codified it as a delivery obligation no matter what, and even included punishment in a ‘call’ situation, for Upper Basin states who might have had gone above their percentage of the river’s highly variable flows.
Why did the Upper Basin not take advantage instead of the Compact’s Article VI invitation, ‘should any claim or controversy arise between any two or more of the signatory States,’ to work out a more equitable modification to the Compact? Caliphobia: fear that California was so big and powerful that it would just roll right over the four states. The six Davids were basically too timid to take on their Goliath.
Another insult was added to the cumulative inequity to the Upper Basin in 1970 when, with Powell Reservoir filling behind Glen Canyon Dam, ‘Operating Criteria for Colorado System Reservoirs’ were developed that set a desired minimum release from Powell for the Lower Basin, not the 7.5 maf Compact allotment, but 8.23 maf, the Compact allotment plus half of the Mexican obligation, to be shared among the four states. But was the Lower Basin subtracting their half of the Mexican obligation from their allotments? No, they were still relying on ‘surplus’ flows, even though with ever increasing Upper Basin use, and the Central Arizona Project under construction, that surplus was steadily diminishing.
It wasn’t until 2003 that the Interior Department – perhaps also a little fearful of California – cleared its throat and told California that it was time to give up the use of a no longer existing surplus. To everyone’s surprise, California agreed that, yes, it probably was time, and the terms of the ‘California Quantification Settlement Agreement’ were worked out, and California is now back to 4.4 maf, sometimes even a little less.
Does this mean that the basic mythic story of the past century is no longer Goliath and the six Caliphobic Davids, but is more Gulliver getting tied down by the Caliphobic Lilliputians? How the current situation among the seven states shakes out will tell us more on that.
On the one hand, there are probably thousands of farmers on spreads of all sizes throughout the Basin quietly hoping that California’s stand for the primacy of appropriation law succeeds. The future of that body of law may hang in the balance. Too many people are asking questions like, how can we resolve anything with an appropriation law when everything is already appropriated? The farmers are probably happy to have one of the really big dogs making their case.
On the other hand, the six-state plan is not really an appropriation issue; it is primarily an effort to clean up an error left standing too long: the Lower Basin has no surplus left in the water bank to cover its system losses – or its Mexican obligation, for that matter. (Why has that not been mentioned yet?) The resulting ‘structural deficit’ is why Mead Reservoir outflow is exceeding available inflow, and the logical thing to do is the ‘Nevada solution’ of simply parceling out that deficit in some equitable way among the three states, reducing their allotments accordingly. There is not really a priority issue involved in the six-state plan.
However it all shakes out in the next several months, we might hope that the irrational aspects of Caliphobia might phase out, and no question about equity in the Basin be left unasked out of fear. There is not enough love for California anywhere, even on the national level, for it to get away with throwing its weight around.
The Colorado Department of Natural Resources and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) announced the creation and appointment of members to a water conservation focused Urban Landscape Conservation Task Force. Over the next year, the Task Force will work to identify practical ways to advance outdoor water conservation through state policy and local initiatives, to meet the pressing challenges of urban water conservation in Colorado.
The Task Force arose out of the Governor’s initiatives announced during his 2023 State of the State highlighting the need to prioritize the intersections of climate change, water and housing. The Task Force is also informed by the newly finalized Colorado Water Plan calls for “Transformative Landscape Change”—understanding the need to start building the landscapes of tomorrow, today and more closely aligning land use plans, water use, and water conservation.
“Rather than just pointing to other states’ methods, the Urban Landscape Conservation Task Force will strive to find solutions that work in our state’s unique environment,” said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “The Task Force will focus on actionable recommendations like setting standards for turf-alternative ‘Colorado Scaping,’ gallons-per-square-foot water budgets, as well as evaluating land use development, water affordability, and much more.”
Sustained outdoor water savings are often difficult to realize. These goals require water providers and other groups working together in ways that extend beyond turf removal and work to advance landscape transformation in ways that provide lasting water savings.
“There’s not one single solution to urban water conservation success in Colorado,” said Becky Mitchell, CWCB Director. “It will require a cumulative effort, everyone doing a little bit—so I’m happy to have such a robust team of experts on this Task Force including water providers, urban planning experts, land use experts, developers and more, from all across the state.”
The 21-member task force is now set, consisting of 8 water utilities, 2 water conservation districts, 2 environmental non-governmental organization representatives, and several single seats. Additional Task Force consultation may also include coordination with specialists like: affordable housing professionals, water rate experts, arborists, transportation specialists or other groups as determined by the Task Force. The team will aim to meet 4 times over the next year, wrapping up in January 2024.
Continued climate warming is reducing seasonal snowpacks in the western United States, where >50% of historical water supplies were snowmelt-derived. In the Upper Colorado River Basin, declining snow water equivalent (SWE) and altered surface water input (SWI, rainfall and snowmelt available to enter the soil) timing and magnitude affect streamflow generation and water availability. To adapt effectively to future conditions, we need to understand current spatiotemporal distributions of SWE and SWI and how they may change in future decades. We developed 100-m SnowModel simulations for water years 2001–2013 and two scenarios: control (CTL) and pseudo-global-warming (PGW). The PGW fraction of precipitation falling as snow was lower relative to CTL, except for November–April at high elevations. PGW peak SWE was lower for low (−45%) and mid elevations (−14%), while the date of peak SWE was uniformly earlier in the year for all elevations (17–23 days). Currently unmonitored high elevation snow represented a greater fraction of total PGW SWE. PGW peak daily SWI was higher for all elevations (30%–42%), while the dates of SWI peaks and centroids were earlier in the year for all elevations under PGW. PGW displayed elevated winter SWI, lower summer SWI, and changes in spring SWI timing were elevation-dependent. Although PGW peak SWI was elevated and earlier compared to CTL, SWI was more evenly distributed throughout the year for PGW. These simulated shifts in the timing and magnitude of SWE and SWI have broad implications for water management in dry, snow-dominated regions.
Projections show lower peak snow water equivalent (SWE) below 3,000 m and earlier peak SWE, peak surface water input (SWI) at all elevations
Greater future peak SWI and reduced annual snow-derived SWI for all elevations, with a more even SWI distribution throughout the year
A greater fraction of future SWE will be in high elevations that are currently unmonitored
Plain Language Summary
Snowpack water storage has historically functioned as a reliable extension of manmade reservoir storage. Loss of this storage has consequences for water resource management, ecological communities, and natural hazards including wildfire. We modeled snow accumulation and melt at high spatial resolution in the Upper Colorado River Basin to assess patterns in the timing and magnitude of snow storage and snowmelt for historical and future scenarios. We analyze these patterns in relation to existing snow monitoring station coverage, and ask how this coverage may need to change in future decades to better represent water availability. Our results indicate widespread future snow storage losses at lower elevations, but limited change at higher elevations that will likely remain conducive to seasonal snow accumulation and melt for decades to come. Peak snow storage and peak snowmelt occurred earlier for all elevations in future years, with increased peak surface water input noted at all elevations. A greater fraction of future snow storage will be in currently unmonitored high elevations. Projected elevation dependent changes from this study have implications for other dry, snow dominated regions, and additional work is needed to evaluate combined effects of widespread snow loss and earlier, flashier input on coordinated water management.
As Western states haggle over reducing water use because of declining flows in the Colorado River Basin, a more hopeful drama is playing out in Glen Canyon.
Lake Powell, the second-largest U.S. reservoir, extends from northern Arizona into southern Utah. A critical water source for seven Colorado River Basin states, it has shrunk dramatically over the past 40 years.
As the water drops, Glen Canyon – one of the most scenic areas in the U.S. West – is reappearing.
This landscape, which includes the Colorado River’s main channel and about 100 side canyons, was flooded starting in the mid-1960s with the completion of Glen Canyon Dam in northern Arizona. The area’s stunning beauty and unique features have led observers to call it “America’s lost national park.”
Lake Powell’s decline offers an unprecedented opportunity to recover the unique landscape at Glen Canyon. But managing this emergent landscape also presents serious political and environmental challenges. In my view, government agencies should start planning for them now.
A tarnished jewel
Glen Canyon Dam, which towers 710 feet high, was designed to create a water “bank account” for the Colorado River Basin. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation touted Lake Powell as the “Jewel of the Colorado” and promised that it would be a motorboater’s paradise and an endless source of water and hydropower.
Lake Powell was so big that it took 17 years to fill to capacity. At full pool, it contained 27 million acre-feet of water – enough to cover 27 million acres of land to a depth of one foot – and Glen Canyon Dam’s turbines could generate 1,300 megawatts of power when the reservoir was high.
Nearly every boat ramp is closed, and many of them sit far from the retreating reservoir. Hydropower production may cease as early as 2024 if the lake falls to “minimum power pool,” the lowest point at which the turbines can draw water. And water supplies to 40 million people are gravely endangered under current management scenarios.
These water supply issues have created a serious crisis in the basin, but there is also an opportunity to recover an amazing landscape. Over 100,000 acres of formerly flooded land have emerged, including world-class scenery that rivals some of the crown jewels of the U.S. national park system. https://www.youtube.com/embed/y7jm08U38c0?wmode=transparent&start=0 As Lake Powell recedes, it is uncovering formerly flooded land and things that past visitors left behind.
“On the walls, and back many miles into the country, numbers of monument-shaped buttes are observed. So we have a curious ensemble of wonderful features – carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds, and monuments … past these towering monuments, past these oak-set glens, past these fern-decked alcoves, past these mural curves, we glide hour after hour.”
Glen Canyon remained relatively unknown until the late 1940s, when the Bureau of Reclamation proposed several large dams on the upper Colorado River for irrigation and hydropower. Environmentalists fiercely objected to one at Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument on the Colorado-Utah border, alarmed by the prospect of building a dam in a national monument. Their campaign to block it succeeded – but in return they accepted a dam in Glen Canyon, a decision that former Sierra Club President David Brower later called his greatest regret.
The first goal of managing the emergent landscape in Glen Canyon should be the inclusion of tribes in a co-management role. The Colorado River and its tributaries are managed through a complex maze of laws, court cases and regulations known as the “Law of the River.” In an act of stupendous injustice, the Law of the River ignored the water rights of Native Americans until courts stepped in and required western water users to consider their rights.
Tribes received no water allocation in the 1922 Colorado River Compact and were ignored or trivialized in subsequent legislation. Even though modern concepts of water management emphasize including all major stakeholders, tribes were excluded from the policymaking process.
There are 30 tribes in the Colorado River Basin, at least 19 of which have an association with Glen Canyon. They have rights to a substantial portion of the river’s flow, and there are thousands of Indigenous cultural sites in the canyon.
Another management challenge is the massive amounts of sediment that have accumulated in the canyon. “Colorado” means “colored red” in Spanish, a recognition of the silt-laden water. This silt used to build beaches in the Grand Canyon, just downstream, and created the Colorado River delta in Mexico.
But for the past 63 years, it has been accumulating in Lake Powell, where it now clogs some sections of the main channel and will eventually accumulate below the dam. Some of it is laced with toxic materials from mining decades ago. As more of the canyon is exposed, it may become necessary to create an active sediment management plan, including possible mechanical removal of some materials to protect public health.
The creation of Lake Powell also resulted in biological invasives, including nonnative fish and quagga mussels. Some of these problems will abate as the reservoir declines and a free-flowing river replaces stagnant still water.
On a more positive note, native plants are recolonizing side canyons as they become exposed, creating verdant canyon bottoms. Restoring natural ecosystems in the canyon will require innovative biological management strategies as the habitat changes back to a more natural landscape.
Finally, as the emergent landscape expands and side canyons recover their natural scenery, Glen Canyon will become a unique tourist magnet. As the main channel reverts to a flowing river, users will no longer need an expensive boat; anyone with a kayak, canoe or raft will be able to enjoy the beauty of the canyons.
Other landscapes are likely to emerge across the West as climate change reshapes the region and numerous reservoirs decline. With proper planning, Glen Canyon can provide a lesson in how to manage them.
Washington, February 3, 2023 – The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service today published an action plan that outlines steps the agency will take to advance tribal consultation and strengthen Nation-to-Nation relationships with federally recognized Tribes.
“This is more than a document. This action plan solidifies a pivotal moment in our agency’s history. The Forest Service manages millions of acres of lands, including ancestral homelands of American Indian and Alaska Native Tribal Nations. We acknowledge the tragic history involving the forced displacement of Indigenous People and recognize that upholding our federal trust and treaty responsibilities to Tribal Nations is a responsibility and an ongoing journey for our agency.” said Forest Service Chief Randy Moore. “When we acknowledge this history and work to ensure our actions and investments are reflective of our commitment to a better future, we can build trust and repair relationships with Tribes.
“National forests and grasslands often include ancestral homelands that Tribes have stewarded for centuries. Indigenous Nations are a key partner in how we value, co-manage, and steward our Nation’s grasslands and forests. Understanding the perspective and wisdom of Indigenous people gives us an opportunity to reflect on our policies, programs and practices, the real-life implications they have on Indigenous peoples and what role we can play in rectifying historical or ongoing issues. With this plan as a guide, Forest Service employees will begin to implement a new way of working that will build trust and create innovative opportunities with Tribal Nations.”
The plan also emphasizes the agency’s unique, shared responsibility to ensure that decisions relating to federal stewardship of lands, waters and wildlife include consideration of how to safeguard the treaty rights and spiritual, subsistence and cultural interests of any federally recognized Tribe.
As part of this work, the Forest Service has renamed the State & Private Forestry deputy chief area to State, Private & Tribal Forestry to emphasize our commitment.
The action plan provides a framework for advancing existing laws, regulations and policies and is not intended to amend or establish new Forest Service policy or direction. Rather, the plan provides steps that can be implemented through existing programs and processes based on four focus areas:
Strengthen Relationships Between Indian Tribes and the USDA Forest Service.
Fulfill Trust and Treaty Obligations.
Enhance Co-Stewardship of the Nation’s Forests and Grasslands.
Advance Tribal Relations Within the USDA Forest Service.
On our commitment to “Enhance Co-Stewardship of the Nation’s Forests and Grasslands,” during the 2022 White House Tribal Nations Summit, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Dr. Homer Wilkes underscored the progress the Forest Service is making in the implementation of the Joint Secretarial Order on Fulfilling the Trust Responsibility to Indian Tribes in the Stewardship of Federal Lands and Waters (Order No. 3403), a policy framework to facilitate agreements with Tribes in the co-stewardship of federal lands and waters.
To date, the agency has signed 11 new agreements with 13 Tribes, involving eight National Forests, agreements that include a collective investment of approximately $4.1 million in FY22. These co-stewardship agreements, along with 60 others involving 45 tribes in various stages of review, represent a Forest Service FY22 investment of approximately $19.8 million in our shared commitment to advancing co-stewardship with tribes. The agreements also reflect an agency commitment to include consideration of how to safeguard the treaty, spiritual, subsistence, and cultural interests of any Indian Tribe by ensuring tribal governments play an integral role in decision-making related to the management of federal lands and waters through consultation, capacity-building, and other means consistent with applicable authority.
“The U.S. and Tribal Nations are working together to create more realistic and progressive relationships that honor and respect tribal sovereignty,” said Reed Robinson, director of the Forest Service Office of Tribal Relations.
“We are witnessing significant growth of American Indian & Alaska Native populations, cultural expression and ownership, and economic development. This moment is critical for Forest Service employees to lead from where they are, to acknowledge, plan, take consequential actions, and step through the aperture of opportunity that, right now, is wider than any other time in history.”
Part of the deal Wyoming struck for sending its water down the Colorado River was that state residents would be able to tap electricity generated at Glen Canyon Dam. But that arrangement is becoming less tenable as water levels at Lake Powell required for hydro-power production continue to drop.
Sinjin Eberle, southwest communications director with the group American Rivers, explained in order to be able to generate electricity, Lake Powell can drop no lower than 3,490 feet.
“Figuring out how we’re going to manage this system in the face of a much smaller river is what everybody in the Colorado River Basin, whether you are in Wyoming or California, need to be concerned about,” Eberle said.
Glen Canyon Dam currently generates energy for nearly 6-million households in Wyoming, Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. Lake Powell water levels dropped to their lowest point since 1967 last summer, reaching 3,533 feet, and some warn the lake could dip below levels necessary for power generation as early as this spring, and have proposed demolishing the dam to help restore the Colorado River’s health and long-term viability.
If Lake Powell drops below Dead Power to Dead Pool status at 3,370 feet, water would no longer be able to flow through the dam to lower basin states. This year’s higher-than-average snow pack may provide short-term relief, but Eberle said it could take years of above-average precipitation to reverse decades of drought across the region, and added the challenges facing Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam are multi-faceted.
“Water-supply issues from a lingering 23-year drought, with impacts from climate change continuing to exacerbate those drought conditions,” Eberle said. “And then (we have) some of the fastest growing areas of the country demanding more water.”
When the Colorado River Compact was first negotiated in 1922, there were just 475,000 people living in the seven-state basin. Then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover projected that population could swell to two million people over time. But there are now at least 40-million people across the basin that depend on water from the river, Eberle said.
“This framework that was built in 1922 has lasted 100 years, but is also trying to support a system that is many, many times larger than the wildest imaginations of the framers when they built this compact,” he said.
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Click the link to read the post on the NOAA website (Emily Becker):
La Niña—the cool phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation climate pattern—weakened over the past month, and forecasters expect a transition to neutral conditions in the next couple of months. We’ll check in with the tropical Pacific to see how things are going before continuing the journey into understanding winter daily temperature variability that I started in December’s post.
The sea surface temperature in the Niño-3.4 region in the tropical Pacific came in at 0.75 °C (1.4 ˚F) cooler than the long-term average in January according to ERSSTv5, our most consistent historical dataset.
This is the second month in a row with that the Niño-3.4 anomaly (anomaly = ”difference from the long-term average”) has weakened, but it still exceeds the La Niña threshold of -0.5 °C. The most recent weekly Niño-3.4 anomaly, which comes from the OISST dataset, was just at that threshold, measuring -0.5 °C. (Take a look at Tom’s post for more details on the various datasets we use to track temperatures in the Pacific.)
Weekly measurements tend to bounce around (weather!), while ENSO is a seasonal pattern (climate!). Therefore, we won’t declare La Niña is over the moment the weekly value crosses the threshold—we’ll wait to be sure that the monthly average anomaly is in the neutral range (between -0.5 °C and 0.5 °C). The last time neutral conditions were present was summer 2021.
The atmospheric response to La Niña’s cooler-than-average ocean surface is an amped-up Walker circulation: stronger trade winds, stronger westerly (west-to-east) winds high up in the atmosphere, more rain and clouds than average over the far western Pacific, and drier conditions over the east/central Pacific. All of these characteristics were evident through January, indicating that the atmosphere is still reflecting La Niña.
Okay, okay, so La Niña is still here. But forecasters expect that a change is imminent, with an 85% chance that the February–April period will be neutral. This is based on the consensus of our computer models and bolstered by some physical observations, including the weakening oceanic anomalies at the surface and subsurface.
The subsurface provides a source for the surface. If there were still a lot of cooler water under the surface, we might be more hesitant to conclude that the transition to neutral conditions would happen soon. But as the animation above shows, the cold pool is getting smaller.
But will the neutral conditions we expect for spring precede an El Niño?? Tell us what we really want to know! Currently, El Niño has odds of about 60% for next fall—and after three La Niña winters in a row, it might seem inevitable—but there are some factors that provide uncertainty. There’s our old friend, the spring predictability barrier. Forecasts made in the spring tend to have lower accuracy, at least in part because spring is a time of transition for ENSO (other possible factors are still being explored), making it harder for models to get a grip on what direction things are going.
Also, the wide range of potential outcomes from the models (shown below) tells us that there is still a lot of uncertainty.
Each line in that graph shows a possible scenario for next fall and winter. The scenarios begin to diverge for two main reasons: the differences in how each model simulates certain small-scale physical processes and, for a given model, the very-slightly-different starting input that accounts for the fact that we can never observe the current state of the climate system perfectly. The predictions span from strong El Niño to (gasp!) a 4th-year La Niña. These extreme scenarios are unlikely, though, and the majority of the forecasts are in the neutral to moderate-El Niño range. More on climate models in this post.
In summary: La Niña is waning, and confidence is high that neutral conditions will be in place soon and will last through the spring and early summer. Chances for El Niño next fall are increasing, but we’ll have a better picture as we progress through and past the spring predictability barrier.
Daily temperature variability or bust!
To recap: over the last couple of posts, I’ve been looking into how ENSO affects the range of daily temperatures within a season. When it comes to ENSO impacts, we usually talk about the seasonal average temperature, but—as vividly illustrated by the two extreme cold-air outbreaks in the U.S. this winter—daily temperature is how we experience weather. So I examined the variability or range of daily temperature each winter over 1950–2020 and then checked if the range of variability was different in El Niño winters or La Niña winters compared to neutral winters. Details of my analysis are in the footnotes.
In December, I showed that the range of daily average temperature is wider during La Niña winters than during El Niño winters in nearly all of North America. The only geographic exceptions are the north-central region of the continent, Florida, and southern Mexico, all of which have lower variability during La Niña and higher variability during El Niño winters.
Then, in January, I checked out the average range of daily minimum and maximumtemperatures. It turned out that there is a very wide range of daily minimum temperatures (usually the overnight low temperature) in the center of the continent, with less variability toward the coasts, especially the Southwest. Looking at daily maximums (usually the daytime high), we found that there was less variability overall than with the minimum, except for the subtropical regions.
Breaking down the patterns into ENSO phase, the first thing we can say is that El Niño and La Niña have approximately opposite effects on both daily maximum and daily minimum, much as they did on the average temperature variability I showed in December. Where El Niño reduces variability, La Niña increases it, and vice-versa.
However, things are a little noisier than those average daily patterns were. This is expected; any time you get into more granular data—whether you’re talking about area or time span—your results get noisier. (Another example of this is the weekly vs. monthly sea surface temperature I talked about above.) I’ll make a few quick observations about these maps but leave you to compare them for your hometown or other areas of interest.
Looking first at the maps for La Niña winters, we find that much of the U.S. and Alaska experience an increased range of daily lows. The pattern of La Niña’s impact on the daily high temperature range is somewhat different, with variability decreasing in the northern half of the U.S. and increasing in the Southeast. However, there are some regions where both daily highs and daily lows change the same way during La Niña winters (increased range in the Southeast and in Alaska).
During El Niño, the range of daily low temperature is substantially reduced across most of the U.S. and Alaska. The range of daily highs, however, is slightly expanded or only slightly reduced over the U.S.
That’s all there’s space for this month. What ideas do you have for why these patterns vary the way they do? Let us know in the comments! Then next month, I’ll wrap things up with some explanations and thoughts about ENSO’s impact on daily temperature. Until then, stay cozy!
Details on the analysis:
The maps show the standard deviation of daily maximum or minimum temperature for each winter averaged over all winters 1950–2020 and the averages for La Niña and El Niño winters, as determined by the Oceanic Niño Index.
Daily temperature data: I used Berkeley Earth daily average temperature dataset. It’s also available here.
Years included: 1950–2020. Berkeley Earth is available through near-present, but the data I downloaded ended in 2020. I’ll update with 2021–2022, but I don’t expect the overall results to change.
Programming language: I used Python. Jupyter notebooks available upon request.
Click the link to read the article on The Gunnison Country Times website (Bella Biondini). Here’s an excerpt:
“We can only save the Colorado River system if we act together,” Upper Colorado River Commissioner Becky Mitchell said in a press release. “The CBMA (Consensus-Based Modeling Alternative) approach appropriately distributes the burden across the Basin and provides safeguards for the Tribes, water users, and environmental values in the Upper Basin.”
‘Who’s using all the water?’
Water use by basin has been historically uneven, but dry conditions along the Colorado River have continued to reduce the amount of water available for all users. While each basin is entitled to 7.5 million acre-feet per year under the 1922 compact, only the Lower receives that much. And its use has been steadily increasing. At the same time, approximately 1.5 million acre-feet is lost to evaporation or in transit as it travels to large desert cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas. The Lower Basin gets to keep this bonus, and its total allocation is not charged with the losses. Although Lower Basin users can pull more from large buckets of water upstream like Lake Powell in times of drought, those located at the headwaters of the Colorado River take their shortages directly from Mother Nature. Since 2019, use in the Upper Basin has declined by 22.5%, according to data from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The Upper Basin states have consistently argued that the source of the problem is overconsumption downstream, said John McClow, general counsel for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. During the same time period that use in the Upper Basin declined, use in the Lower Basin increased by 7% — equivalent to approximately 638,000 acre-feet or twice the current content of Blue Mesa Reservoir.
“Who’s using all the water? It isn’t us,” McClow said. “But we have no choice. We can’t decide how much we’re consuming. We can only consume what melts into the rivers.”
Reclamation has committed $125 million to a voluntary consumption reduction program in the Upper Basin through a partnership with the Upper Colorado River Commission. The Commission will select projects for implementation beginning in 2023 — reimbursing selected water users per acre-foot of water saved for the greater system. Exactly how many users will participate is unknown. There’s agreement that the Upper and Lower Basin states must work collectively to address the risk in the Colorado River system, said Executive Director Chuck Cullom.
“There’s also recognition that the Upper Basin activities are only effective if there’s companion action in the lower basin,” Cullom said.
For the last two years or so, federal Bureau of Reclamation officials have been fretting publicly about what might happen to Glen Canyon Dam as water levels continue to drop. Currently the surface of Lake Powell is perilously close to the penstocks, or the water intakes that lead to the hydroelectricity turbines. Once those are rendered inoperable, the only way to get water through the dam is via the river outlet works, or ROW.
That could be a problem. First off, there are no turbines on the ROWs, so there would be no hydropower generation. And as Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for water and science, noted last year, the dam was not built “to operate solely through the outworks for an extended period of time.” Bad things could happen, like cavitation of the ROWs, which could then threaten the very integrity of the dam. Something needs to be done.
Last week, the Bureau for the first time made public six alternatives the agency is considering:
Construct new, low- (3,245 feet) or mid-level (3,445 feet) power intakes through the dam that would utilize existing turbines, essentially lowering the “minimum power pool” level as much as 200 feet.
Connect the current ROWs — at 3,374 feet — to the current turbines or install new turbines so hydropower generation could continue until the lake reached “dead pool,” or falls below the ROWs (at which point no water can be released and the Grand Canyon will dry up).
Build a low-level bypass tunnel through the sandstone around the dam and install new turbines/power plant to allow for low-water releases with hydropower generation. (Simply reopening the original river diversion tunnels, built to allow for the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, was dismissed due to the fact that the openings are completely buried in silt. This bypass would be above the siltation level.)
Adjust Colorado River operations (e.g. release less water from Glen Canyon Dam, get people to stop using so much water, etc.)
Retrofit dam to allow it to generate hydropower through existing penstocks at slightly lower levels.
Invest in other power sources to offset hydropower losses.
Any of the first three options would be a major and expensive undertaking. And any of them would also allow Glen Canyon Dam to be operated at much lower lake levels, which would have consequences for Lake Powell, too. Already the reservoir looks radically different than it does at “normal” levels; try to imagine it 130 feet lower?
Currently, the surface of Lake Powell is sitting at 3,522 feet. Minimum power pool is 3,490. Dead pool is 3,370. The alternatives being considered would allow the minimum power pool level to drop to 3,390, according to the chart below (although, theoretically, a 3,285 foot intake would allow the level to drop another 100 feet before hitting dead pool).
That would not only reveal more hidden wonders, but would also cause the big slug of silt that is concentrated in the upper reaches of the reservoir to migrate further downstream. And it would wreak more havoc on recreation. I’ll leave you with a good Twitter thread from Zak Podmore mapping out Lake Powell at 3,285 feet.
Click the link to read the article on the NOAA website (Rebecca Lindsey):
Last week, NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information released a major update to the agency’s global surface temperature dataset. The new product tracks temperatures back to 1850, adding 30 additional years to the historical record, and it has complete geographic coverage over data-sparse areas at the poles.
In honor of the new release, Climate.gov has made a poster-size image showing global temperature patterns for every year in the new data set. Each year’s annual average temperature is compared to the 1991-2020 average, which makes it clear how long-term global warming has affected Earth’s temperature. The farther back in time you look, the colder the temperatures were (darker blues over larger areas) compared today.
Scattered among the blue globes in early decades are years with a wash of red across the eastern tropical Pacific, likely linked to El Niño, the warm phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation climate pattern. At the other end of the record, the pattern reverses, with the colder-than-average waters of La Niña standing out on maps that are otherwise dominated by warmer-than-average conditions. Now here’s a question for other map geeks: what would the series look like if we had compared each year to the 1851-1880 average? To the 20th-century average?
“There’s too little supply and too much demand,” said Brad Udall, a water and climate scientist at Colorado State University. “Ultimately, I think what we’re going to see here is some major rewriting of Western water law.”
“We’re seeing a collision right now between 19th century water law, 20th century infrastructure and 21st century population and climate change,” Udall added. “And how this works out is anybody’s guess.”
The snow and rain seen in the west this year isn’t enough to stabilize Lake Powell either, Andrechak said. “Now, the reality is, they’re all going to get a cut. Everybody should give,” he said.
“There’s no time left. The crisis is here. They don’t necessarily have to give it up forever. It might be temporary for several years until there’s improvements,” he said. But even if water levels do improve in the future, states cannot expect to return to former water usage entirely.
“Climate change is making sure that it’ll never get back to those levels,” Andrechak said.
At the heart of the feud is the “Law of the River,” a body of agreements, court decisions, contracts and decrees that govern the river’s use and date back to 1922, when the Colorado River Compact first divided river flows among the states. [ed. note: George Sibley argues the “Prior Appropriation” is the base of the Law of the River.]
But as California argues most strongly for strict adherence to this system of water apportionment, the other states say it makes little sense when the river’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, continues to decline toward “dead pool” level, which would effectively cut off the Southwest from its water lifeline. The Law of the River, they say, is getting in the way of a solution.
“We can argue about whether interpretations of the Law of the River match the physical reality,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “But if you end up in a courtroom arguing these points and something isn’t done, the Colorado River system is going to crash.”
California’s legal position is based on several factors, said James Salzman, a professor of environmental law at UCLA and UC Santa Barbara. First, the authors of the original Colorado Compact made the “fateful decision” to divvy up water for the river’s lower-basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada in absolute quantities instead of percentages. That means upper-basin states are obligated to deliver 7.5 million acre-feet per year to the lower states, no matter what, which “turned out to be a tragically bad design,” Salzman said. Additionally, the massive Imperial Irrigation District in California established senior rights to the water before the Colorado River Compact — meaning it holds high-priority rights to deliver the single largest share of the river’s water to Imperial Valley farmlands.
Arizona, by contrast, agreed to junior rights to the river in 1968 in exchange for building the Central Arizona Project, the system that transports river water through the state.
In other words, according to the Law of the River, if there’s not enough water to go around, states like Arizona are supposed to be cut off before California.
RIO GRANDE RESERVOIR, Colo — After 15 miles of pockmarked dirt road, the Rio Grande spreads wide in the shadows of the San Juan Mountains. It glitters, aqua, whitecaps whipped up by the wind. But even in the birthplace of the river lay the stark stains of climate change.
Deep, bald scars pucker the mountaintops, shorn of trees. In older burn scars, grass grows, flowing in the first summer breezes. In the newer scars, the thin rows of trees list, blackened and cracked, only a skirt of green growth at their base to mark the passage of time.
Crisis on the Rio Grande is a multi-part series that travels along the river from Colorado through New Mexico and into Texas. Read more: A river wounded
The Rio Grande meanders south and east through Colorado’s San Luis Valley, a region of about 8,000 square miles spanning six counties, tucked between two mountain ranges. Agriculture drives the economy. More than 46,000 residents rely on $370 million generated by alfalfa, barley, potatoes, wheat, beef cattle and sheep.
“Now you just really feel that that’s all on a collision course with climate, and that may have some severe ramifications,” said valley farmer and rancher Kyler Brown as he passed over the low Rio Grande that cuts across his father-in-law’s farm in Monte Vista, Colorado. The valley’s way of agricultural life is imperiled.
The San Luis Valley depends on water, for the herds, the crops, for next year’s planting. And for mortgages, farm insurance, sometimes for the shareholders, sometimes for keeping the business in the family.
Average rainfall is only 7 inches to 9 inches annually.
Three-fourths of the water in the Rio Grande instead starts as snow, folded into the crevices of the mountains, slowly seeping through soil or streaming down to the riverbed.
The snowpack acts like a bank, a savings — water frozen for the future. In past decades, that meant cold snowmelt would start filling the rivers in April, peaking in June, eventually slowing through the autumn.
But warmer temperatures, less tree cover due to wildfires, more dust and thirsty soils from years of compounded drought prevent the just-melted snow from ever reaching the riverbed. Over the years, the smaller snowpack is becoming liquid earlier and changing the rhythm of the river.
In scarcity, relationships change
Though the San Juans had all of the snow they usually would in early spring 2022, it didn’t translate to a full river. Brutal May winds stripped away snowpack.
“There was a tension in my gut,” said Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District. “Because as the winds were howling, we knew we were losing snowpack. Every day, we were losing our opportunity to have flows in the river and put water in our aquifers.”
Threats are present. Farmers pump groundwater to make up for the river’s shortfalls, but that means falling groundwater levels. Populations swell on the Front Range around Denver, and downriver, too. And there’s always potential for devastating wildfire.
“We’re living on the knife’s edge with water,” Dutton said.
Water managers talk of new efforts to curb water use. They’re trying to change relationships between conservation groups, environmental nonprofits, farmers and the quasi-governmental irrigation districts.
Nathan Coombs, who manages the Conejos River District, said years of trust-building with groups typically at odds means there’s a greater willingness to face issues.
“Once we took down barriers of communication between project partners, we could start clearly seeing problems,” Coombs said. “If you want to solve those problems, you’ve got to talk to people you have never wanted to talk to before.”
It’s not perfect.
“Look, there’s always going to be a skunk at the picnic. I’m not saying everything is always totally kumbaya, but the biggest players for the vast majority are engaged.”
SAN LUIS VALLEY, Colo — Groundwater made the valley green, but climate change and over-pumping across time has depleted those water sources.
There are two aquifers underlying the valley. One is called the “confined aquifer,” trapped under an impermeable clay layer deep down, concentrated centrally. The other is a shallow “unconfined aquifer” generally found between 15 feet to 100 feet underground across most of the valley.
In certain spots in the valley, water used to gush out in artesian wells from the unconfined aquifer. But in recent decades, levels declined steeply after years of too many wells and too little recharge from the river or precipitation.
And the aquifers, explained Colorado State Engineer Mark Rein, take a double hit.
“There’s less water flowing naturally into aquifers that the wells rely on. At the same time,” he explained, “due to the lack of surface water, the wells are going to be more reliant on the aquifers.”
Farmers in the San Luis Valley have just eight years to stop the freefall of groundwater levels, or face the state shutting off wells.
In the valley’s most affluent district stretching between Alamosa and Saguache Counties, the aquifer declined 1.3 million acre feet by 1976, most of that over just 20 years. District officials submitted a plan to replenish the aquifer.
Rein acknowledged the efforts of Valley residents to reduce pumping, saying in June that it was too soon to tell if they could succeed in replenishing the aquifer before the 2031 deadline.
There’s a nexus Subdistrict 1 is dealing with, Rein said.
“We have this very rich culture in the San Luis Valley of irrigation, crops — and the economy is so dependent on it,” Rein said. “And at the same time, they’re facing a reality of less water.” One push to curb use might not go far enough. Another may go too far and erode culture and economy. “That’s what makes success more or less possible.”
All across Colorado, farmers have to offset any groundwater they pump either by submitting plans to water court for individual wells or joining a conservancy district in any of Colorado’s river basins.
People in the Rio Grande basin went further, carving up the basin into seven hyper-local subdistricts with a role in restoring the “balance between available water supplies and current levels of water use.”
Dutton, 36, brims with verve when she speaks about the river. Growing up on a potato farm, both her father and grandfather took on water leadership positions.
She said decisions at the local level were how changes were made to water policy.
The entities, the districts, the boards, they’re all made up of people that have a dog in the fight, she said. “They live and work in the community. They’re water users.”
Farmers in the valley taxed themselves, paying an additional fee for every acre-foot of groundwater they pumped to fund conservation measures.
Rio Grande and River Conejos conservation districts use the money to pay farmers to stay off their wells, to retire them, to retire fields, to purchase farmland. Or the funds go to creating a system of “water credits,” allowing farmers who need more water to buy from farmers who returned excess flows to the aquifer.
In 2022, the Colorado Legislature chipped in another $30 million out of federal coronavirus relief funds to buy land and retire irrigation wells along the Rio Grande.
The efforts are unique. Hundreds of wells were shuttered by the state in northeast Colorado in 2011.
“There were large-scale wells shut-offs, and those wells are still shut off,” Dutton said. “But here, we took the initiative as a community, and we said, ‘We want to regulate ourselves. We want to work together to make this work.’”
Recent cycles have not been kind, either. After a few frugal years of farmers cutting pumping recharged the aquifer some, bad drought struck again. Without much replenishment from the struggling river, the past three years nearly erased those gains for groundwater.
Even when, in 2021, the district’s farmers pumped the least they had in a decade — the aquifer still dropped to a new historic low.
“It was incredibly disheartening,” Dutton said.
When a near-record monsoon season doused the valley in the summer of 2022, with some places receiving double the annual average rainfall, the river still ran at only 67% of its long-term average.
“It really wasn’t a great year as far as streamflow goes,” Dutton said. “Hopefully enough people saw what was happening in May and made some choices to change their farming plan for the year.”
Time is running out. Subdistrict 1 has to replenish the unconfined aquifer by more than 900,000 acre feet, or face the state capping wells.
Despite all their efforts and sacrifices, Dutton said, “we’re anticipating seeing a significant drop in the aquifer.”
THE San Luis Valley premiere of “Where the Cranes Meet the Mountains,” a short documentary to commemorate the 40th Annual Monte Vista Crane Festival, is slated for Saturday, March 11 at the Ski Hi Events Complex.
Filmmaker Christie Bode-Skeie and Crane Festival volunteer Jenny Nehring joined The Valley Pod for a conversation on the making of the film and all events scheduled for the 2023 Crane Festival.
Listen to the full podcast episode with Christie Bode-Skei and Jenny Nehring: HERE
“We wanted to tell the story of how it feels to see the cranes at the Monte Vista Crane Festival and the impact of that to someone new to the Valley,” explained Nehring.
The film features South Fork artist Amanda Charlton Hurley, who is a new arrival to the Valley experiencing for the first time the sights and sounds of Sandhill Cranes. For Bode-Skeie, it was a perfect way to recreate her own initial experience with the Sandhill Cranes and bring that to life through the documentary.
“I really wanted to strike a deep emotional chord,” Bode-Skeie said, “and I think I had to put myself back in the place when I first saw the cranes in the Valley 10 years ago and what that experience was like and looking at it with fresh eyes. It’s so easy to take things for granted when it’s right in your own backyard.”
The documentary also gives a subtle nod to other attributes of the Valley for residents and tourists alike to appreciate and provides a sense of the small town vibe of Monte Vista and surrounding communities.
In addition to the “Where the Cranes Meet the Mountains” documentary, the 40th Monte Vista Crane Festival will feature a keynote address by George Archibald, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation. The International Crane Foundation is celebrating its 50th year and bringing Archibald in to speak was a natural fit for Monte Vista’s 40th Crane Festival, said Nehring.
Tickets to the documentary premiere and to Archibald’s keynote address are available at mvcranefest.org.
MISSOULA – More than three times as many houses and other structures burned in Western wildfires from 2010 to 2020 than in the previous decade, and that wasn’t only because more acreage burned, according to a new analysis from the University of Montana and its partners.
Human ignitions started 76% of the wildfires that destroyed structures, and those fires tended to be in flammable areas where homes, commercial structures and outbuildings are increasingly common.
“Humans are driving the negative impacts from wildfire,” said lead author Philip Higuera, a UM fire ecologist and professor, who wrote the assessment during a sabbatical at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Human fingerprints are all over this. We influence the when, the where and the why.”
Most measures of wildfire’s impact – for example, expansion of wildfire season into new months and the number of structures in flammable vegetation – are going in the wrong direction, Higuera said. But the new finding, published Feb. 1 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences-Nexus, also means that human action can lessen the risks of wildfire damage.
“We have levers,” he said. “As climate change makes vegetation more flammable, we advise carefully considering if and how we build in flammable vegetation, for example.”
During Higuera’s visiting fellowship at CIRES, he worked with several researchers to dig into the details of 15,001 Western wildfires between 1999 and 2020.
Burned area increased 30% across the West, the team found, but structure loss increased much more, by nearly 250%. Many factors contributed, including climate change, our tendency to build more homes in flammable ecosystems and a history of suppressing wildfire.
Ph.D. student Maxwell Cook, a co-author from CIRES/CU Boulder, said the forcible removal of Indigenous people from landscapes played a role by all-but-eliminating intentional burning, which can lessen the risk of more destructive fires.
“Prescribed fire is an incredibly important tool, and we have a lot to learn about how people have been using fire for centuries,” Cook said.
In the new assessment, the team found some horrible years for wildfires. Sixty-two percent of all structures lost in those two decades were lost in just three years: 2017, 2018 and 2020, Cook said.
And some states had it much worse than others. California, for example, accounted for more than 77% of all 85,014 structures destroyed during 1999-2020.
Across the West, 1.3 structures were destroyed for every 1,000 hectares of land scorched by wildfire between 1999 and 2009. Between 2010 and 2020, that ratio increased to 3.4.
Importantly, Higuera and his colleagues also found variability among states in how much burning occurred and how many structures were lost in wildfires. Montana sees less structure loss relative to the West as a whole, and most burning is from lightning ignitions. California, on the other hand, sees high losses from wildfires and burns much more overall.
The paper concluded that all states could benefit from policies that address human-related ignitions, especially during late summer and fall and near developments, as well as policies that address fire-resistant building materials and consideration of nearby vegetation.
Finally, the authors said climate change mitigation is also essential. Longer fire seasons – a result of climate change – mean that human-related ignitions are more consequential, leading to more destructive wildfires in the fall and early winter when they were once rare.
About three-quarters or more of those polled identified as extreme or serious problems issues such as the levels of water in Colorado rivers, lower snowpack, availability of water for farming and ranching, wildfire conditions, and more frequent drought…Eight-four percent of respondents said they viewed out-of-state investment firms and hedge funds buying Colorado water rights, as has happened in Mesa County, as being very threatening to water availability on the Western Slope, and the same percentage consider out-of-state water interests like California to be very threatening. Seventy-eight percent said they consider foreign governments buying Colorado water rights to be very threatening, and 62% view water users from other parts of the state such as Denver and the Front Range as being very threatening…Four out of every five respondents said they would support a small tax increase dedicated to the river district to use easements to protect water, by employing land conservation agreements to pay willing agricultural producers to preserve their water right and keep that water in western Colorado…
Weigel said 53% of respondents in the eastern part of the district said water users from other parts of the state are very much a threat, even though it didn’t rank among their top-five perceived threats.
Updated water plan focuses key action areas to spur statewide water development, conservation
DENVER – Today [January 24, 2023], to meet Colorado’s most critical water challenges, the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) unanimously approved the finalized 2023 Colorado Water Plan. First released in 2015, the Water Plan provides a comprehensive framework to guide collaborative action from water partners, agencies, and Coloradans. From securing supplies that provide safe drinking water to improving farm irrigation to rehabilitating streams—the 2023 Water Plan targets specific, key actions to contribute to a stronger, more water-resilient Colorado.
“In Colorado, water is life,” said Colorado Governor Jared Polis. “Colorado’s Water Plan sets a vision for vibrant communities, successful farming and ranching, thriving watersheds, and climate resilient planning. I’m excited to see how the updated plan supports a more resilient future here in Colorado for years to come.”
Governor Polis championed approval of $17 million this year to kick-start local-level implementation of the Water Plan and is proposing $25.2M, including $12.6M General Fund, for the Water Plan Grant Program, which supports statewide water projects by providing grants and loans in collaboration with local partners in his FY 2023-2024 budget.
The 2023 Colorado Water Plan builds on the successes that followed the initial release of the pioneer plan in November 2015. For example, in recent years: water conservation efforts have decreased statewide per capita water use by 5 percent, water outreach and messaging reached 2.7 million people, and in 2019 Colorado voters passed Proposition DD to dedicate funding for the Colorado Water Plan grants program.
“We are excited about this much-anticipated update. Seven years ago, the CWCB released the original Water Plan—and now, guided by state-of-the-art data and innovative tools, the 2023 Plan puts Colorado’s values into a set of actions that tackle the specific challenges and opportunities of our state,” said Becky Mitchell, CWCB Director. “The 2023 plan will spark the action we need across all sectors to build a better water future in Colorado, setting the stage for future decision-making and water resiliency.”
Now, the 2023 update maintains the values and priorities of the original plan, while reframing actions into four key areas: Vibrant Communities, Robust Agriculture, Thriving Watersheds, and Resilient Planning. Within these four interconnected areas, a list of approximately 50 actions for partners and 50 actions for the state aim to address themes such as equity, climate resilience, water conservation, land use, education, and more. The Water Plan Grant Program welcomes projects and programs that fall in five major funding categories: Water Storage and Supply, Conservation & Land Use, Engagement & Innovation, Agricultural projects, and Watershed Health & Recreation.
Colorado’s water challenges impact everyone from local leaders to stakeholders to families in their own backyards. The CWCB encourages people from all walks of life to get involved with Colorado’s Water Plan: whether that’s by practicing personal water conservation, getting involved in critical water initiatives—or applying for a Water Plan grant, or encouraging local organizations to pursue a grant to advance projects that build water resilience.
Throughout the development of the Colorado Water Plan, engaging with the public has been critical for the CWCB. The team conducted a year-long public engagement phase to incorporate all Colorado’s voices, hosted a public comment period, held workshops, and encouraged Coloradans to share their own water conservation success stories and commit to action through a water conservation pledge.
In total, the public comment period yielded over 528 pages of comments, 1,597 suggested edits to the plan, and more than 2,000 observations. Comments came in a variety of formats including letters, emails, survey responses, feedback at events, and public listening sessions. Of those comments, about 60% were either already captured in the plan or were addressed by modifying the draft plan.
“I congratulate the Colorado Water Conservation Board, staff and all the Colorado water stakeholders who contributed to the 2023 Colorado Water Plan,” said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “The Plan provides an important vision and roadmap for Colorado’s water future which faces increased challenges from climate change, population growth and changing water demands. But working together we can meet these challenges and ensure our Colorado communities, agriculture and environment will continue to thrive for generations to come.”
CWCB will celebrate the release of the Water Plan on January 24, 2023, at Improper City in Denver from 5-9 p.m. The celebration is open to the public, and will feature speakers, live music, and recognition of 14 local water heroes who were instrumental in bringing the updated Plan to fruition. The Basin Water Heroes include Garret Varra (South Platte Basin), Bob Peters (Metro), Carl Trick (North Platte Basin), Daniel Boyes (Rio Grande Basin), Ken Brenner (Yampa/White/Green Basin), Mark Shea (Arkansas Basin), Carrie Padgett (Southwest Basin), Jason Turner (Colorado Basin), Kathleen Curry (Gunnison Basin); as well as the following Community Water Heroes: Ronda Lobato, Ernest House Jr., Jared Romero, CREA Results, and Water Education Colorado.
Evaporation and transfer loss is a meaningful starting point, Brad Udall, a water and climate scientist at Colorado State University, said. But the country’s two largest reservoirs, lakes Powell and Mead, are already at historic lows and waiting until they sink further to make cuts doesn’t make sense.
“Let’s cut the crap,” Udall said. “We don’t have elevation to give away right now.”
All told, the six-state plan doesn’t save the smallest amount of water required by the federal government. Evaporation, transfer loss and the tiered water cuts to the lower basin combine to save as much as 1.95 million acre-feet…At a minimum, the states must save 2 million acre-feet a year, federal officials announced last summer, but now water experts are wondering whether the basin must save three times that much, more than Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming combined use in a single year…The existing proposal isn’t enough to qualify as a long-term plan, but it might be enough for the basin to survive until it can agree on one, Udall said.
Federal officials’ reaction to the plan remains unclear. After the states published it Monday, a representative for U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton canceled a Tuesday morning interview with The Denver Post and directed questions to the U.S. Department of Interior, which offered no additional insight.
Two proposed pumped water storage projects that could expand Colorado’s ability to store renewable energy – one in Fremont County and another between Hayden and Craig in the Yampa River Valley – are moving forward.
Colorado will need green energy storage of some type if it is to attain its mid-century goals of 100% renewable energy. Solar and wind power are highly variable and cannot be turned off and on, like coal and natural gas plants are.
So the search is on for ways to build large-scale storage projects to hold the energy wind and solar generate. Lithium-ion batteries are part of the answer and are being rapidly added to supplement wind and solar. But they typically have a short life span, while pumped water storage hydropower projects can operate for decades.
Pumped water storage has been refined in recent decades but the basic principles remain unchanged. Water is released from a higher reservoir to generate power when electricity is most in demand and expensive. When electricity is plentiful and less expensive, the water is pumped back up to the higher reservoir and stored until it is needed again.
This technology even today is responsible for 93% of energy storage in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. That includes Cabin Creek, Xcel Energy’s 324-megawatt pumped storage unit near Georgetown. It was installed in 1967.
“These pumped-storage projects are anathema to the modern way of thinking,” says Peter Gish, a principal in Ortus Climate Mitigation, the developer of the Fremont County pumped water storage project.
“But once built and operating, the maintenance costs are very, very low, and the system will last, if properly maintained, a century or longer. The capital investment up front is quite high, but when you run the financial models over 30, 50 or 60 years, this technology is, hands down, the cheapest technology on the market for [energy] storage.”
Ortus Climate Mitigation wants to build a 500-megawatt pumped water storage facility on the South Slope of Pikes Peak above the town of Penrose in Fremont County. This facility – essentially a giant battery for energy storage – would require two reservoirs.
Gish hopes to have a permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2026. Construction would take up to five years after the permit is approved.
In the Yampa Valley, another developer continues to plug away at a potential application for a site somewhere between Hayden and Craig. Still another idea is said to be in formulation in southwestern Colorado, but no details could be gleaned about that project.
Phantom Canyon, as Ortus calls its project in Fremont County, would require 17,000 acre-feet of water for the initial fill of the two reservoirs to be augmented by about 1,500 acre-feet annually due to losses from evaporation.
The company says it has accumulated water rights.
Gish, a co-founder of Ortus, says his company is “keenly aware” of water scarcity issues in Colorado and looks into ways to reduce the evaporative loss and hence shave water needs. One option is to place solar panels over the reservoirs, producing energy while shading the water. On a vastly smaller scale, that has been done at the Walden municipal water treatment plant in north-central Colorado.
Unlike an unsuccessful attempt by Xcel in 2021 to build a pumped water storage project in Unaweep Canyon on federal land in Western Colorado, the Ortus project near Pikes Peak would involve only private land. The company has exclusive purchase options for 4,900 acres. It also has secured 12 easements for pipeline access from the lower reservoir to the Arkansas River.
Proximity to water sources matters, and so does the location relative to transmission. Penrose is about 30 miles from both Colorado Springs and Pueblo and major transmission lines.
The company last year laid out the preliminary plans with Fremont County planners and hosted a meeting in Canon City to which environmental groups and others were invited. By then, FERC had issued a preliminary permit which is the start of the permitting process. Gish, who has worked in renewable energy for 25 years, says no potential red flags were noted.
“I have found that the local stakeholders are the first people you need to talk to about a project like this,” Gish says, “If you are able to get local support, the rest of the pieces will tend to fall into place. If not, the rest of the process is a much more difficult proposition.”
In Western Colorado, Xcel faced local opposition but also the more daunting process of permitting for a project on federal land. In the Craig-Hayden area, Matthew Shapiro, a principal in green energy company Gridflex Energy, had been examining sites that are on private land. Work continues on geological assessments and other elements, but he says that a “lot of other pieces need to come together before there is real progress.”
In addition to having water, that portion of the Yampa Valley also has the advantage of transmission lines erected to dispatch power from the five coal-burning units that are now scheduled to close between 2025 and 2030.
Shapiro hopes to also use Colorado-sourced water to generate electricity in a pumped-storage project on the North Platte River in Wyoming. Gridflex Energy filed for a license application with FERC last week for the project on Seminoe Reservoir.
“Very few projects have made it that far since the turn of the millennium. It’s a pretty big deal,” Shapiro said.
Long-time Colorado journalist Allen Best produces an e-journal called Big Pivots and is a frequent contributor to Fresh Water News.
A preliminary analysis of potential modifications to the dam emerged during a virtual meeting held by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which is also reviewing options for averting a collapse of the water supply along the river. These new discussions about retooling the dam reflect growing concerns among federal officials about how climate change is contributing to the Colorado River’s reduced flows, and how declining reservoirs could force major changes in dam management for years to come…
Roerink and two other people who listened to the webinar told The Times that cost estimates for several alternatives ranged from $500 million to $3 billion. The agency will need congressional approval and will have to conduct an environmental review to analyze options. The Bureau of Reclamation’s presentation, given by regional power manager Nick Williams, included some additional alternatives that wouldn’t require major structural modifications of the dam. Those options included adjusting operations to maximize power generation at low reservoir levels, studying ways of using the existing intakes at lower water levels, and making up for the loss of hydroelectric power by investing in solar or wind energy…
According to a slide presentation shown at the meeting, officials see potential hazards in some of the six alternatives. Piercing the dam’s concrete to create new low-level or mid-level intakes, for example, would entail “increased risk from penetration through dam,” the presentation says. They also describe risks due to possible “vortex formation,” or the creation of whirlpools above horizontal intakes as the water level declines. Their formation could cause damage if air is pulled into the system. The presentation says one alternative would involve lowering the minimum power pool limit and possibly installing structures on the intakes to suppress whirlpools, but it said this still would not allow for the water level to go much lower.
Click the link to read the article on the Writers on the Range website (Richard Knight):
High on a mesa where everyone can see it, a trophy house is going up in the northern Colorado valley where I live. Some of my neighbors hear that the house will be as big as 15,000 square feet. Others say it will take three years to complete. Whether that is valley gossip or truth, the house is now the center of everybody’s attention.
Until this happened, my valley seemed to offer much of the best of what Colorado has to offer, including views of a snow-capped mountain range, and spread out below, irrigated hayfields with black cows on tan rangeland. But now, right in the center of the valley, will be one person acting out a lack of consideration for others.
Gigantic trophy houses seem to signal, “I built here to see, but also to be seen.” It’s a jarring reminder that we in the New West are remaking the Old West in our own image, a job that apparently requires a drastic redoing of topography. These big homes seem to follow a pattern of complicated rooflines, lots of windows that reflect the light and “ego gates” at the beginning of driveways.
Most of us in this valley delight in what we’ve been able to see from our front door: Uninterrupted ridgelines, cliffs, and the rounded slopes that converge to make foothills, which then rise into mountains. Nature made these views, and we’ve been fortunate to have them in our lives every day.
But more and more, houses that resemble castles are sprouting on ridgelines and hilltops, here and all over the mountains. And sometimes it’s ordinary houses or trailers that get built on ridgelines, interrupting the natural flow of the land.
Where only a few years ago our eyes might find comfort in tracing a ridge’s backbone — wondering how it got to be named White Pine Mountain when no white pines grow there — now we look at manmade structures that irritate the eyes.
People who have lived in my valley for decades share a different style. Appreciating what a winter wind can do to steal warmth from inside a house, they looked for sheltered areas to build. They saw it made sense to build low, tucking a home against the south side of a hill or cliff.
Most yard lights were few and hard to see, as were their homes. But the new Western lifestyle broadcasts yard lights at night for all to see, just as the homes are conspicuously visible during the day.
In this newfangled West that has “ranched the view,” people apparently need to stand out to enjoy an amenity lifestyle. Will these new folk ever take time to appreciate the human and natural histories of the place they live in now, to show respect for the land and its natural beauty? Will they learn to be considerate of neighbors and not take away from the views that define where we live?
It’s shameful to think that just as we first moved into the West to exploit its valuable resources, we now exploit the last resource our region has to offer — its heart-stopping beauty.
There is some good news, because in many parts of the West we are learning how to sustainably log, graze, divert water and develop energy. I hope it’s not too late for us to also realize the value of fitting into the land as residents, to keep intact our ridgelines, mesas, mountains and valley floors. Once a house caps a hilltop, however, that view is irretrievable, gone forever.
I hope we can learn how to value homes that blend with the land in shape, color and location. Maybe a new generation of home builders, architects, and developers will lead the way in paying due respect to our region’s natural beauty.
But I’m afraid that it’s too late for our valley. The great writer Wallace Stegner told us that the task of Westerners was to build a society to match the scenery. From what I see, we’re not doing the job.
Richard Knight is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit that hopes to inspire lively conversation about the West. He works at the intersection of land use and land health in the American West.
Golden could require all-electric in new construction by as early as January 2024.
The city council Tuesday evening gave staff members direction to continue working on a roadmap but with additional research and public meetings to resolve concerns about a proposed requirement for on-site renewable generation that some community members see as problematic.
Crested Butte was the first jurisdiction in Colorado to ban natural gas. The regulations it adopted last August allow natural gas only within special cases, such as for restaurants and other commercial uses, in the 100-plus lots remaining to be developed.
As Colorado jurisdictions go about updating their building codes, several are still undecided about whether to ban natural gas or other fossil fuels for space and water heating. Some have decided to lay the ground-work for all electric without actually raising that bar. Many, perhaps most, have given no thought to the day of all-electric buildings.
Towns, cities, and counties have until July 1 to update their building codes to recent iterations of the national standard or accept a code being drawn up by a state committee identified in 2022 legislation.
Golden is not facing that deadline as it has already adopted the 2021 national building codes. Instead, it is being pushed by its own climate action goals, which correspond with the Paris Accord of 2017. To hit its targets, Golden will have to achieve 100% renewables for heating by 2050.
As was observed at the council meeting, the first step in achieving that ambitious goal will be to stop digging a deeper hole. Building new houses that burn natural gas digs the hole deeper because they will ultimately have to be retrofitted. The city has 9,459 buildings.
“Every new building that is constructed and every existing building that is retrofitted without efficiency and electrification as a primary objective works directly against the City’s Goals,” says a report given to the city council members.
In raw numbers, this all-electric requirement will have marginal impact in that Golden is land-locked. That limits new construction to infill or to replacement of existing buildings. In the last five years, Golden has had no more than 17 new single-family houses in any given year. The maximum for one year was 8 commercial buildings.
If modest in numbers by itself, Golden’s work can best be understood in the broader context of local communities looking to reinvent our energy systems. Golden studied what others are doing in Colorado and beyond and expects that others will in turn study what Golden has done.
The efforts to crowd out natural gas from buildings constitutes the most easily identified story. Theresa Worsham, the sustainability director for Golden, emphasizes that each community’s needs are likely to be different, and its decarbonization plans need to be similarly different.
What works for Denver is entirely appropriate there, “but it does not suit Golden,” she says. “That is why we are coming up with a lot of solutions across many communities. Golden’s plan works for our scale and size and might also work for other jurisdictions similar to Golden.”
After adopting a resolution aligning the city’s goals with those of the Paris Accord in 2017, Golden in 2019 adopted its climate action goals and then, in 2020, began assembling the document that more narrowly addresses emissions from buildings. Two city-appointed commissions—the Community Sustainability Advisory Board and the Planning Commission—were principally responsible for creation of the recommendations, called “A Roadmap to Net-Zero Buildings.”
In addition, 12 community members with a diversity of interests and backgrounds were enlisted to participate in the Energy Code Stakeholder Group.
Others from the city’s affordable housing, building and planning staffs were also engaged, and several dozen public meetings were held, some with the specific intent of inviting comment from builders and others.
The report to the city council identified four strategies. One would require owners of commercial buildings of 5,000 square feet or more to track their emissions. The state now has a similar requirement for buildings 50,000 square feet or more. The idea is to get building owners and managers to understand their emissions with the potential for instituting programs in the future that may seek to reduce emissions. Among the city’s goals, adopted with the Paris agreement, is to squeeze energy use in all buildings by 15% through efficiency measures.
Another strategy—given virtually no attention at the city council meeting—would commit the city to further research during 2023 about how to convert existing buildings toward net-zero all-electric in coming years.
Still to be worked out is how the policy will address building retrofits. Ken Jacobs, a member of the sustainability committee for six years who remains involved, suggests the most effective policy would trigger the net-zero requirement if the remodeling is extensive enough to require new heating systems. Building professionals may have other and better ideas, he says. But in any case, retrofits will be more complicated than new builds.
Where Golden’s work stands most prominently is the proposed requirement for on-site renewable generation. This proposed requirement comes from core assumptions by the Golden groups who worked on these recommendations. While it might easily be possible to import all of Golden’s electricity from distant wind and solar farms, the groups concluded that the city has a moral responsibility to generate electricity locally. This also has the advantage of furthering the city’s interests in resilience.
The proposed regulation would require that on-site energy storage be deployed or off-site solar via solar gardens located in Golden. The last resort would be purchase of renewable energy credits for renewable energy systems located in Colorado.
This on-site requirement provoked nearly the only red flag. Articulating that concern was Angela Schwab, principal architect at AB Studio.
She said she supports sustainability goals, including the 100% net-zero goal. However, it may not work well in the case of some commercial properties and other special properties, such as those with view and other considerations, she said.
To illustrate her concerns, she cited her work on the Astor House, a stone hotel built in 1867, when Colorado was a territory and Golden was its capital.
The building has been expanded to accommodate an art gallery but also improve accessibility as required for buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Regulations for such buildings preclude solar on the roofs.
Solar panels could be located on the ground, but that would have conflicted with the planting of trees and the planned open space.
Golden’s city staff and advisory board will be working over concerns centered around the on-site renewables requirement in coming weeks and months.
Click the link to read the article on the Pagosa Springs Sun website (Josh Pike). Here’s an excerpt:
Heavy snows have come again to Pagosa Country, with sites in Archuleta County receiving be- tween 6.1 and 13.1 inches of snow in the storms between Tuesday, Feb. 14, and 11 a.m. on Feb. 15, according to the Community Col- laborative Rain Hail and Snow Network website. Higher snowfall totals were concentrated in the northern and southern portions of the county, with the highest reported precipitation amount reported north of Pagosa Springs near Piedra Road.
A 6 a.m. Feb. 15 report from Wolf Creek Ski Area indicates that Wolf Creek had received 22 inches of snow in the previous 24 hours and 25 inches in the last week, bringing the midway snow depth to 101 inches and the year-to-date snow- fall total to 275 inches. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Water and Climate Center’s snowpack report, the Wolf Creek summit, at 11,000 feet of elevation, had 26.3 inches of snow water equivalent as of 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 15. The Wolf Creek summit was at 121 percent of the Feb. 15 snow- pack median.
The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River basins were at 134 percent of the Feb. 15 median in terms of snowpack.
Stream flow for the San Juan River at approximately 11 a.m. on Feb. 15 was 66.3 cubic feet per second (cfs), according to the U.S. Geological Service National Water Dashboard. This reading is up slightly from last week’s reading of 55.9 cfs at 11 a.m. on Feb. 8. According to a Feb. 13 press release from Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) Manager Justin Ramsey, Lake For- est and Village Lake are full.
At its Jan. 30 meeting, the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation Dis- trict (PAWSD) Board of Directors discussed state-mandated modi- fications to the Vista Wastewater Treatment Plant that come with a potential cost of $15 million during a public hearing on a potential State Revolving Fund (SRF) loan for the project. The modifications are intended to improve nutrient removal and allow the plant to comply with new state nutrient standards. Nutrient removal involves the removal of nutrients such as phosphorus or nitrogen, which can be damaging to drinking water and aquatic environments in high quan- tities, from wastewater.
According to the Colorado De- partment of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), such nutrients from the Vista plant could impact both nearby drinking water wells and the Piedra River, claims disputed by PAWSD.
The hearing opened with PAWSD District Manager Justin Ramsey ex- plaining, in response to a question from board member Gene Tautges, that PAWSD is currently pursuing a “political route” in its efforts to delay the modifications and that it had some initial communication with Colorado Sen. Cleave Simpson.
Holy Cross Energy aims to distribute 100% emission-free electricity to its 55,000 members in the Aspen, Rifle, and Vail areas by 2030. How will it do that?
Tri-State Generation and Transmission, Colorado’s second largest utility, has a different but related problem. It wants to best use infrastructure associated with its coal-burning operations at Craig after the last unit closes before 2030.
One clue may lie in Pueblo. There a pilot program testing a new technology for long-duration energy storage will be deployed by Xcel Energy and Form Energy by the end of 2025. The new iron-air batteries will be able to use chemical processes to store electricity and then discharge it for up to 100 hours.
The new battery technology has been reported to be 10 times less expensive than lithium-ion batteries. Iron is abundant in the United States, and the batteries are non-flammable.
In announcing the pilot projects, Bob Frenzel, the chief executive of Xcel, said the 100-hour batteries at Pueblo and at a coal site in Minnesota “will strengthen the grid against normal day-to-day, week-to-week, and season-to-season weather variability, in addition to extreme weather events, including severe winter storms and polar vortex events.”
Duration of storage matters entirely as electric utilities add low-cost and emissions-free renewables. Short-duration storage, such as the lithium-ion batteries installed in conjunction with a new solar farm near Glenwood Springs in 2022, can help. They provide two to four hours of storage.
With 100 hours of storage, utilities can smooth the highs and the lows of renewables. Consider Uri, the week of cold in 2022 when wind on Colorado’s eastern plains ceased for several days. Utilities cranked up turbines burning natural gas that was suddenly in high demand. Consumers are still paying off those bills. Tri-State even resorted to burning oil.
Summers have brought inverse problems of spiking demand caused by heat. In 2021, it got so hot in Portland that electric lines for trains melted, and some people without air conditioning literally baked to death in apartments. Colorado regulators worry whether the state’s utilities can handle such weather extremes.
Iron-air batteries alone are unlikely to solve the intermittencies of renewable energy or the havoc produced by a warming and more erratic climate. This pilot project does represent a notable effort to explore whether they can be scaled.
“This is an exciting new frontier for energy storage in Colorado,” said Mike Kruger, chief executive of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association, a trade group of 275 members. “This announcement goes to show that when there is clear policy, American companies can innovate to meet the electric power sector’s needs.”
Holy Cross Energy has been diversifying its supplies, both locally and regionally, but still depends largely upon wholesale deliveries from Xcel. The Glenwood Springs-based cooperative in 2022 delivered 50% emissions free electricity but has a goal of 100% just seven years from now.
Sam Whelan, the vice president for finance at Holy Cross, said that increased reliability by Xcel will help Holy Cross reliably deliver electricity to its members.
Holy Cross has been investigating its own options—and has had conversations with Form Energy. It will look at many alternatives, including green hydrogen and pumped-storage hydro, each with problems but also promise.
“You have to start something, and you have to start in small increments as well,” says Whelan.
The solar industry, he also started small. “It was not that long ago that solar costs were significantly higher,” he observed. Now, solar has become competitive. “It will take these incremental storage projects to prove out and hopefully pave the way.”
Tri-State, at a recent meeting with stakeholders, also reported that iron-air storage technology was among several options for Craig being studied once the coal plants there close. Transmission lines already exist, capable of carrying renewable energy to the site to be stored – and then released as needed.
Xcel may have gleanings about how they will act at scale and be used to manage the grid by 2026.
Will these new batteries eliminate need for expensive natural gas plants designed for use to meet peak demands? Such plants are expensive to build, and they do produce emissions. Too soon to tell, says Robert Kenney, the president of Xcel Energy’s Colorado division.
“If we see success with this program, we will explore how we can expand it and scale it up further. But to what extent it will displace ‘peaker’ plants or any other technology, that would be the learning that we would expect to come out of the pilot itself. So stay tuned.”
My research group spent three years collecting water data and other information from 28 water utilities that serve a total of 23 million people in the American Southwest. The task wasn’t easy: 39 researchers were involved in collecting data from 45 different utility employees. Each of these utilities we surveyed is dependent on the Colorado River for some portion or all of their water supplies. You can find our full results in this paper from the Journal of Water Resources Management & Planning.*
Overall, cities dependent on the Colorado River have done a fantastic job of managing their total water use under very high rates of growth. They’ve cut their water use by 18% while their populations grew by a whopping 24% during 2000-2020.
Big cities are doing a much better job with water conservation than smaller cities. Cities with more than 1 million residents cut their water use by an impressive 24% but water use in small cities actually grew by 3%. This is due to two factors: smaller cities are growing very fast, yet they don’t have the financial capabilities to invest in water conservation programs.
Key to big water savings is being able to get your customers to substantially reduce their average daily use of water, known as “Gallons Per Capita per Day” (GPCD). On average, big cities (>1 million pop.) were able to lower their Total GPCD by 35%. Medium cities (100,000-1 million pop.) lowered their GPCD by 30%, and smaller cities (less than 100,000 pop) lowered it by 25%.
But even with impressively lower per-capita needs, smaller cities simply grew too fast (median=42% growth) to keep their overall water demands in check.
Some of the primary water conservation strategies being applied in these 28 cities include offering rebates for replacing old water-guzzling toilets and other plumbing fixtures, and paying homeowners and businesses to rip out lush green lawns and replace them with drought-tolerant and often native shrubs, flowers, and grasses. Many cities also used water rate structures to control water use, such as by increasing the cost per gallon as water use rises.
Not Much Help for the Colorado River, though….
Unfortunately, those impressive water conservation efforts didn’t do much for the Colorado River, because total use of the river by the 28 cities we surveyed actually increased slightly during 2000-2020. That means that cities are taking less water from other water sources — such as their local rivers or from groundwater, or from desalination or water reuse — but not reducing their pressure on the Colorado River.
Water Conservation is Still Largely Untapped
Based on the fact that per-capita water use varied greatly among our 28 cities (low of 80 to a high of 286 in Total GPCD), there’s clearly room for the under-performing cities to tighten up their water belts. In larger cities, there is still great potential for reducing outdoor water use, or tapping into ‘alternative’ water supplies, such as reusing water more thoroughly, capturing stormwater, or encouraging homeowners and businesses to harvest rainwater.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority — which supplies water to nearly 1.4 million residents in Las Vegas, Nevada — is a great example of water conservation’s potential. During 2000-2020, the city reduced its total water use by 10% and lowered its Total GPCD by 47%, even while its service population grew by a staggering 69%! Yet the water authority has set an admirable goal of lowering its GPCD by another 23% by 2035.
*Note: If you are unable to access our paper using the link in the first paragraph above, please drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you a copy.
First the bad news from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center’s mid-February forecast – this year’s runoff into Flaming Gorge, which is at record low thanks to Drought Response Operations Agreement releases to prop up Lake Powell, is forecast to be below average this year, at 86 percent of average. At some point we’ve gotta refill this hole.
But the Lake Powell forecast continues to hover well above the “average” line, currently sitting at 117 percent.