Well, the West is Getting a Lot of Snow and Rain — Audubon #snowpack #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River flows through Gore Canyon in Colorado. Photo: Mitch Tobin/The Water Desk

Click the link to read the article on the Audubon website (Jennifer Pitt):

It’s early January, and while snow season in the Southern Rockies continues for another three months, we already see snowpack at 59% of the seasonal average. That is something to celebrate, as the Colorado River Basin has been in an extended drought going on 24 years, with consequences for people, birds and every other living thing that depend on rivers in this region. But the abundant start to the snow season does not mean Colorado River managers get a reprieve from their aggressive efforts to reduce water use and reform Colorado River operations.

In recent years we have seen “above average” early season snowpack turn into below average snowpack and far-below-average runoff. In 2021 for instance, 85% of average snowpack turned into runoff of 36%. A variety of factors created these dynamics, including fewer storms later in the snow season, warmer temperatures both increasing evaporation and evapotranspiration (evaporation from plants) and drying out soils which then soak up melting snow. Of course, we don’t yet know this how this year will turn out for Colorado River water supply. But we know it is too early to draw conclusions, other than – gee, sure would be nice if it keeps snowing.

With Colorado River reservoirs two-thirds empty, federal and state water managers have sounded alarms, pointing to the risk of infrastructure failure and even the ability to deliver water and hydroelectric power to tens of millions of people. The available storage space in the reservoirs can hold more than three years of the Colorado River’s average undepleted flow. So even a bomber snow season is not going to end the drought. Tom Buschatzke, who leads the Arizona Department of Water Resources acknowledged this in a recent interview with CNN:  “One good year doesn’t fix us—even a couple of good years doesn’t fix us…We’ve got to rebuild that bank account.”

With climate warming projected to increase, there’s an urgent need to balance Colorado River water uses with supply, even to reduce uses below supply so that there’s less risk to the dams, to people and to nature. Best to keep the pedal to the floor on reforming Colorado River management—because while winter storms are inherently good for water supplies, there is no guarantee winters will be long, sustained, or consistent.

#California Rejected a #ColoradoRiver #Water Use Plan and Now Has Its Own. But the Issue is Far From Settled — LAist #COriver #aridification

Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam on the border between Nevada and Arizona on the morning of Friday, April 8, 2022. (Tim Lenard/The Nevada Independent)

Click the link to read the article on the LAist website (Erin Stone), published Feb 1, 2023 2:44 PM:

This article was originally published by LAist on February 1, 2023

The seven states that draw from the Colorado River missed another deadline from the federal government to come up with an agreement to cut total water use by 2 to 4 million acre-feet.

Late Tuesday, California released its own plan after not signing on to a proposalagreed upon by six states to cut about 2 million acre-feet. Both plans agree we need to cut down a lot more on water use, but who shoulders the biggest cuts remains a question.

The Colorado River provides water to more than 40 million people and hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland in Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California, plus two Mexican states (Baja California and Sonora).

California gets the most water from the river of any state, and the river’s main reservoirs — Lake Powell and Lake Mead — are two of our biggest water sources in the Southland (Lake Powell is also a major source of clean hydroelectric power). The river has long been overused — and the climate crisis is pushing a reckoning with a century-old water rights law that many say is outdated in our hotter and drier reality.

Complicated Legal Rights

Last year, the federal government told the seven U.S. states that rely on the Colorado River to come up with a voluntary plan to cut total water use by 2 to 4 million acre-feet — or face federal mandates. For context, California is legally entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet of water from the river every year.

The All-American Canal conveys water from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley in Southern California. The Imperial Irrigation District is the largest user of Colorado River water. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Most of the legal rights to that water are held by farmers in the arid Imperial Valley. The next biggest bucket goes to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million people in cities across the Southland.

Lack of snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas and the crisis on the Colorado led to millions of people in Southland cities being put under outdoor watering restrictions. In Los Angeles, you can only water twice a week, though watering food gardens and trees by hand is allowed whenever needed. 

The crisis on the Colorado River could eventually bring more restrictions.

Two Proposals

After missing an initial deadline last August, on Tuesday six of the seven states released a proposal to cut water use by about 1.5 million acre-feet per year — calling on California to shoulder the biggest cuts.

California didn’t sign on, citing its senior water rights (the current rules say California is last to lose its water amid a shortage). In response, state officials released another plan that leaves the bulk of water cuts over the next few years to Arizona and Nevada (which have both faced unprecedented cuts to their usual shares over the last two years). California would curb its own water use 9% through 2026, when the current water shortage rules expire.

Both plans would lead to 2 to 3 million acre-feet of water cuts in 2024, but big disagreements remain on how to achieve those cuts.

That lack of consensus could spur federal mandates and lawsuits from the states, which could delay solutions. The current rules expire in 2026. By then, the states and federal government will need a more permanent plan for Colorado River water use. 

A final decision on the plan until then is expected by summer.

The Rockies are having a snowy winter, but not all of that #water will make it to the #ColoradoRiver — KUNC #COriver #aridification #snowpack

West snowpack basin-filled map February 15, 2023 via the NRCS.

Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:

New data show a snowy start to 2023 for the Colorado River basin. Inflows into Lake Powell, the nation’s second largest reservoir, are currently projected to be 117% of average during spring runoff thanks to heavy winter precipitation in the Rocky Mountains… Snow in Colorado is an important factor in determining the amount of water that will flow into the Colorado River system each year. About two-thirds of annual flow starts as snow high in the mountains of Colorado. Across the state, snow totals are almost all above average, with most zones showing 120 to 140% of normal for this time of year. Northwest Wyoming and central Utah, which also contribute to the basin’s water supply, posted January snowfall totals that nearly broke precipitation records. Many parts of Utah are showing snow totals above 170% of average, boosting the odds of above-average runoff in the spring, and fostering memorable seasons for the area’s ski resorts

New data from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center show heavy precipitation through much of the Colorado River Basin states – especially Utah, Wyoming and Arizona.

In the Colorado River’s Upper Basin – which includes parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico – the strongest precipitation fell in southwestern Colorado. The Gunnison, Dolores and San Juan rivers all saw January precipitation that ranged from 160 to 200% of average. Meanwhile, the lowest January precipitation totals were along the Eagle River in central Colorado, and the Green River above Fontenelle Reservoir in Wyoming. The Lower Colorado River Basin – which includes parts of Nevada, Arizona, and California – also saw strong precipitation. The Virgin, Little Colorado and Verde rivers all saw January precipitation above 200% of normal. Rain and snow in the Lower Basin is typically less important for the Colorado River’s flow, but is helpful for plants, farms and ranches and wildfire mitigation…

When it comes to predicting the amount of water in the Colorado River each year, snow totals don’t tell the full story. Scientists look to soil moisture for a clearer picture of how much water will actually reach the places where humans divert and collect it. This year, soil moisture in the mountains is well below average. That could prevent some melting snow from ever reaching the Colorado River. That soil acts like a sponge, soaking up water before it has a chance to flow downhill to streams and lakes. Scientists have recorded years with 90% of average snowpack, only to see 50% of average runoff into reservoirs.

Does #Colorado need #water-use standards given the impacts of #aridification?: Agriculture uses the vast majority of water in Colorado, but its cities depend upon #ColoradoRiver diversions. That just might be a problem. Some solutions? @BigPivots #COriver

Leyden area lawn. Photo credit: Allen Best

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

Let me give you a precise example of what we’re talking about. An infill housing development took shape a couple of years ago near the Arvada High School in metropolitan Denver.

My midnight walks—it’s safer to walk then—often take me up that hill above the baseball diamond where grass was planted next to a row of mini-mansions. Rarely, if ever, will anybody set foot on that basketball court-sized plot of grass save to mow it.

Why was the turf planted? Likely because that’s the way it was always done. What I know with greater certainty is that roughly 75% of the water for this municipality comes from tributaries of the Colorado River. And I also know that these water rights—Arvada gets water from Denver Water—are junior to the 1922 Colorado River Compact. Water did not begin flowing through the Moffat Tunnel until 1936.

Huffing up the hill past this ornamental turf, I ask myself, “Don’t they know that adding turf in metro Denver or, for that matter, Grand Junction, during this time of rapid climate change is deeply problematic? Doesn’t this qualify as either terribly ignorant or, just perhaps, arrogant?”

In Colorado, we’ve resumed our conversation about how we use water and, more broadly, the type of development we want to see. Gov. Jared Polis made housing a central portion of his state-of-the-state address in early January—and he cycled around again and again to frame it within an ecosystem of impacts and goals, including water. He mentioned water 24 times in his address:

“Let me be clear – housing policy is climate policy.

Housing policy is economic policy.

Housing policy is transportation policy.

Housing policy is water policy.”

On Jan. 26, in an address to the Colorado Water Congress, Polis made it a little more clear what he has in mind. He called for a “comprehensive approach to housing to preserve our water resources.” He cited multiple benefits for revised land-use policies: reduced traffic, saved money for consumers and – most important, he added, it “limits demand on water resources.”

Polis said the Colorado Water Conservation Board will lead a study on integrating land use and water demand.

Front yard in Douglas County’s Sterling Ranch are sparse on turf. Houses use well below the average volumes for Colorado. Photo/Allen Best

This 21-member Urban Landscape Conservation Task Force is to include representatives from 8 water utilities, 2 conservation districts, 2 environmental NGOs, with the balance to come from areas of expertise and interests such as stormwater, equity, and urban planning.

Looming over the three-day Water Congress conference was the future of the Colorado River. Attorney General Phil Weiser and Becky Mitchell, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, both spoke from the same script. They said Colorado has kept within its limits as specified by the compact. The problems of the Colorado River are due very fundamentally to overuse by the lower-basin states, particularly California.

“Denial is not just a river in Egypt,” Weiser said.

Mitchell reported that Colorado and the three other upper-basin states in 2020 used altogether 3.5 million acre-feet compared to the 7.5 million acre-feet Colorado River Compact apportionment. The lower-basin states used on the order of 10 million acre-feet. The upper basin states live within what the climate delivers, she said, while the lower-basin states have lived beyond their means, steadily draining the federal reservoirs, both big and small. “They must do something, they must do it now,” Mitchell said.

On Jan. 30, an agreement was announced among six of the seven states – California was the hold-out. It didn’t impress many people.

“Let’s cut the crap,” Brad Udall, who has emerged in the last decade as one of the most insightful observers of the Colorado River, told The Denver Post. “We don’t have elevation to give away right now,” a reference to elevations of the two big reservoirs, Mead and Powell.

Some homes in Erie have almost football field-sized back yards. Photo/Allen Best

Sounds simple enough. We wear the white hats. Yet Eric Kuhn, a former long-time manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said it’s not really that simple. He’s parsed the agreements at length in a book he co-authored called “Science Be Dammed,” a history of the Colorado River Compact, as well as various other papers and studies.

Kuhn said it’s not a given that Colorado municipal water providers—most of whom have water rights junior to the Colorado River Compact—will always be able to access the Colorado River and its tributaries. And having no water is not an option.

“Curtailment of those junior users is not acceptable at any time in the future,” said Kuhn.

But the only logical place for growing towns and cities to expand their water portfolios is from water users with senior appropriations, namely agriculture.

Kuhn and Jennifer Gimbel, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board from 2008 to 2013, in November completed a report commissioned by the Common Sense Institute. It’s called “Adapting Colorado’s Water Systems for a 21st Century Economy and Water Supply.”

When we spoke several days after the water conference, Gimbel reminded me that it was written for a business audience understanding that it needed to include the water community. “It was our opportunity to tell the business community ‘pay attention, because what happens with water is going to affect our economy one way or another.’”

This is from Big Pivots 67, a reader-supported e-journal covering climate change and the resulting energy and water transitions in Colorado.

Useful to this understanding is the Common Sense Institute’s mission statement:

“Common Sense Institute is a non-partisan research organization dedicated to the protection and promotion of Colorado’s economy. CSI is at the forefront of important discussions concerning the future of free enterprise in Colorado and aims to have an impact on the issues that matter most to Coloradans.”

The report cites the need for demand-mitigation measures such as removing non-functional turf in new development. They cite the examples of Sterling Ranch, a tiny project in Douglas County where the developers, because they had little water, were forced to figure out how to minimize water use. They also cite Aurora, which last year adopted regulations that dramatically ratchet down water for new development.

They say this must become more common as Colorado’s population grows.

“Lacking statewide or regional standards, home developers are free to choose cities with less strict conservation standards,” they wrote. “Regional approaches are needed.”

They suggest regional conservancy and conservation districts might be a vehicle in lieu of statewide standards. They also cite WISE, the project in metro Denver and several of its suburban water providers, particularly those on the south side.

Lake Powell has been about a quarter-full. The snowpack looks strong now, but it’s anybody’s guess whether there will be enough runoff come April and May to substantially augment the reservoir. May 2022 photo/Allen Best

The report, if broad-ranging and data-rich, also has a vagueness to it on this point. Gimbel says that lack of specificity was intentional. “The idea of demand-management measures in the report was left vague for a reason,” she says. “We purposefully did not develop it more, to allow discussion already taking place to maybe morph into broad action.”

“We have to do more with less,” said Kuhn. He cited projected population growth of 1.6 to 1.8 million new residents by 2050, most along the Front Range, but also the probability that the warming climate will make less water available, particularly from the Colorado River.

At several times during their Water Congress presentation, Gimbel and Kuhn acknowledged that state-wide standards would be an uphill struggle. In Colorado, towns, cities, and counties have traditionally called their own shots on land use and other development questions.

This is starting to shift, though. It is clear in Colorado’s agenda on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But even here, there’s a balancing act. Legislators—with the consent of Polis—have told the investor-owned utilities they must meet carbon reduction goals. They have delivered the same mandate to Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which operates in ways that somewhat resemble those of Xcel.

But legislators left alone the municipal providers and the independent electrical cooperatives, instead choosing to persuade. It always helps, though, when the market is marching at a fast pace in the same direction.

In what I see as a direct parallel, the state recently has started to apply pressure to local jurisdictions to get ready for electrification in their building codes. There’s some wiggle room for local jurisdictions, but it’s not the free-for-all of yesteryear. Climate change forces a more urgent focus on issues we would have faced anyway but for other reasons.

Colorado has been having this water conversation for a while. In 2014, Ellen Roberts, then a state senator from Durango, and Don Coram, then a state representative from Montrose, introduced a conservation bill called “Limit Use of Ag Water for Lawn Irrigation.”

Local governments didn’t want the state stepping in. And there was pushback from the ag sector. “If it’s water intensive, are you going to tell us that we can’t grow that?” one agriculture sector representative responded.

In the end, the bill became a study bill, the idea directed to an interim committee for further study. That, notes Roberts, is where bills commonly get sent to die. In this case, though, the conversation continued—and that was what she had intended all along.

“My concern was that if we waited for that to happen naturally, it might never happen or it would be so slow that it would have no meaningful impact,” she says.

If the proposal was watered down, so to speak, even some legislators from the Western Slope who might not vote for it were “appreciative that somebody was willing to walk the plank on the topic.” In Durango itself, support ranged from those on the far left to those on the far right of the political spectrum.

The same issues that Roberts encountered are still very much alive.

Aurora, if lately a shining light for advocates of demand-management policies, harbors skepticism of mandates. “Aurora must retain control of what our city looks like,” says Greg Baker, the city’s spokesman. Guidelines could be acceptable—and smaller water municipalities could very well use help in delivering incentives.

This said, Aurora is open to discussion “and it needs to be a proportional discussion,” says Baker. “We don’t want to tell agriculture how to use their water, but they account for 85% of water use in this state.”

On Jan. 31, in a legislative forum sponsored by Empower our Future, a Boulder County energy-focused organization, I asked State Sen. Fenberg, the Senate president, if the legislative broad brushes to advance the Polis land-use agenda could be described. He didn’t deliver specifics, but he did a good job of describing the dynamics of what he called a “third-rail issue.”

“It will come down to what things should stay at the local level and I think the vast majority will remain at the local level.” That said, he continued, the question remains of how we go about this in ways to advance Colorado’s other goals.

More issues have become statewide in nature. More state funding has been advanced for funding to expand housing. Water use is associated with housing, so the state has a connected interest, he suggested.

“Because of that, I think people have started asking more questions. If it is a state problem, shouldn’t the state be more involved in either solving the problem or stopping the problem from getting worse?”

It will be, he concluded, a “tough conversation.” Laws governing water move slowly, and speakers at the Water Congress repeatedly said it is wise to move cautiously. Can the rapidly changing water story in the Colorado River Basin and the changing climate that is producing the crisis abide caution?