Four months ago, the outlook for the Colorado River was so dire that federal projections showed imminent risks of reservoirs dropping to dangerously low levels. But after this winter’s major storms, the river’s depleted reservoirs are set to rise substantially with runoff from the largest snowpack in the watershed since 1997. The heavy snow blanketing the Rocky Mountains offers some limited relief as water managers representing seven states and the federal government continue to weigh options for cutting water use…
“It’s a great snowpack,” said Bill Hasencamp, manager of Colorado River resources for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. “It gives us breathing room. It gives us a little bit of space to negotiate.”
Hasencamp said the runoff should eventually raise Lake Mead’s level by 20 to 30 feet, which might return it toward an “equilibrium level,” though both major reservoirs are still expected to remain well below half-full…The historic snow and rain in California this winter has also allowed the district to “back off on the Colorado River supplies,” which will in turn help boost water levels at Lake Mead, Hasencamp said.
A state-backed coalition of conservation groups is launching an unprecedented push that would pay private landowners to save 3.3 million acres of natural terrain from development. That’s a small portion of Colorado’s total 66 million acres, which include nearly 40 million acres of private property. Robust real estate activity and new construction, bringing high-end houses and commercial buildings to once-pristine mountain valleys, has added urgency to the effort…
Saving 3.3 million acres of private land within ten years — the goal Keep It Colorado announced Wednesday at the Denver Botanic Gardens — would match the amount of private land protected against development since 1965, according to data in a “Conserving Colorado” strategy unveiled after a $300,000, 18-month planning effort. Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Great Outdoors Colorado provided funding. Private land conservation increasingly is seen as essential for enduring multiple threats: cascading impacts of climate warming, including droughts, heat waves, wildfires, erosion, extreme storms; degradation of ecologically sensitive areas; water scarcity; and economic challenges that threaten to drive ranchers and farmers out of agriculture.
A Nature Conservancy analysis recently identified 16 million acres of “climate-resilient” private property in Colorado that is critical for wildlife survival under harsher climate conditions. Keep It Colorado members planned to prioritize land in river valleys that benefits existing human communities as well as wildlife.
Protecting natural terrain depends on landowners who prioritize the ecological health of their property and agree to conservation easements — agreements that block future development. Ownership stays private. Landowners receive compensation for the value of development rights they give up through state-level property tax breaks, which Keep It Colorado leaders propose to increase, along with creating new federal tax incentives and future payments to landowners for “ecosystem services.”