#Drought news May 18, 2023: Phenomenal rainfall totals led to significant reductions in drought coverage, especially from eastern #Colorado and northwestern #Kansas

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor website.

Click the link to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:

This Week’s Drought Summary

A complex, slow-moving storm system delivered heavy rain across much of the nation’s mid-section, but largely bypassed some of the country’s driest areas in southwestern Kansas and western Oklahoma, as well as neighboring areas. Still, the rain broadly provided much-needed moisture for rangeland and pastures, immature winter grains, and emerging summer crops. Significant rain spread into other areas, including the southern and western Corn Belt and the mid-South, generally benefiting crops but slowing fieldwork and leaving pockets of standing water. Excessive rainfall (locally 4 to 8 inches or more) sparked flooding in a few areas, including portions of the western Gulf Coast region. Little or no rain fell across much of the remainder of the country, including southern Florida, the Northeast, the Great Lakes region, and an area stretching from California to the southern Rockies. Warmth in advance of the storm system temporarily boosted temperatures considerably above normal across parts of east-central Plains, western Corn Belt, and upper Great Lakes region. Meanwhile, record-setting heat developed in the Pacific Northwest, setting several May temperature records…

High Plains

Phenomenal rainfall totals led to significant reductions in drought coverage, especially from eastern Colorado and northwestern Kansas into western North Dakota. Goodland, Kansas, received consecutive daily-record totals of 1.50 and 1.12 inches, respectively, on May 10 and 11. Daily-record totals topped 3 inches on the 11th in Imperial, Nebraska (3.56 inches), and Colorado Springs, Colorado (3.18 inches). That marked the wettest May day on record in Colorado Springs, toppling 2.34 inches on May 30, 1935. In Denver, Colorado, where 2.92 inches fell on the 11th, it was the wettest calendar day since May 6, 1973, when 3.27 inches fell. Denver’s storm total (4.40 inches from May 10-12) represented more than 30 percent of its normal annual precipitation. During the week ending May 14, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported double-digit improvements in topsoil moisture rated very short to short in several states, including Nebraska (from 66 to 46%), South Dakota (from 38 to 19%), and Colorado (from 45 to 35%). The rain also helped to revive winter wheat and benefited emerging summer crops. Still, even with the rain, Kansas led the nation on May 14 with 68% of its winter wheat rated in very poor to poor condition. In addition, the rampant storminess largely bypassed some of the extreme to exceptional drought (D3 to D4) areas in a strip extending from southwestern Kansas into eastern Nebraska…

Colorado Drought Monitor one week change map ending May 16, 2023.


Aside from some heavy precipitation in the central Rockies and environs, much of the West experienced warm, mostly dry weather. As a result, there were only minor Western changes to the drought-depiction, some due to further assessment of the impact of cold-season precipitation as the snow-melt pace accelerated. Indeed, a Northwestern heat wave—rare for this time of year—resulted in multiple monthly record highs, starting on May 14. On that date in Oregon, both Astoria and Seaside attained 93°F. Astoria tied a monthly record, originally set on May 16, 2008, while Seaside toppled its monthly mark of 86°F, attained most recently on May 19, 1978. Notably, Portland, Oregon, achieved highs of 90°F or greater on 4 consecutive days, from May 12-15. Prior to this year, Portland’s May record of three 90-degree readings occurred in 1947 and 1987, with only the latter being observed on 3 consecutive days (May 6-8, 1987). Meanwhile in Washington, Hoquiam (91°F on the 14th) posted a monthly record high, shattering the standard of 87°F originally set on May 29, 2007. With a high of 92°F on the 14th, Quillayute, Washington, tied a monthly record first achieved on May 7, 1987. Elsewhere, Western reservoir storage as a percent of average for the date reflected varying degrees of drought recovery. As May began, California’s 154 primary intrastate reservoirs held 28.6 million acre-feet of water, 104 percent of average. However, storage on that date in the Colorado River basin was 15.5 million acre-feet, just 48 percent of average. Still, the surface elevation of Lake Mead has risen nearly 9 feet since setting an end-of month record low of 1,040.92 feet in July 2022…


Most of the region remained free of drought, but moderate to exceptional drought (D1 to D4) persisted in parts of central and western Texas and across the northwestern half of Oklahoma. During the drought-monitoring period, ending on the morning of May 16, extremely heavy rain drenched the western Gulf Coast region, especially near the central Texas coast. On May 10, Palacios, Texas, measured 6.21 inches of rain—part of a very wet stretch that included an additional 3.93 inches on May 13-14. Heavy showers extended northeastward into southeastern Oklahoma, northern Louisiana, Arkansas, and western Tennessee. By May 14, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that topsoil moisture was rated 30% surplus in Arkansas, along with 29% in Louisiana. Farther west, however, serious drought impacts persisted, despite spotty showers. Statewide in Texas, rangeland and pastures were rated 51% very poor to poor on May 14. Any rain was generally too late for the southern Plains’ winter wheat, which is quickly maturing. More than half of the wheat—52 and 51%, respectively, in Texas and Oklahoma—was rated very poor to poor by mid-May. A recent estimate by the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicated that 32.6% of the nation’s winter wheat will be abandoned—highest since 1917—including 70.1% of the Texas crop…

Looking Ahead

Showers and thunderstorms will linger for the next couple of days across the lower Southeast, in the vicinity of a weakening cold front, with an additional 1 to 3 inches of rain possible in some areas. Meanwhile, another cold front will race eastward across the northern U.S., generating showers before reaching the Atlantic Coast on Saturday. Rainfall associated with the Northern cold front will be short-lived, with most locations receiving less than an inch. However, late-week thunderstorms may become heavy along the tail of the cold front, with 1 to 3 inches of rain possible in central and southern sections of the Rockies and Plains. Elsewhere, little or no precipitation will fall during the next 5 days along and near the Pacific Coast. The NWS 6- to 10-day outlook for May 23 – 27 calls for the likelihood of near- or above-normal temperatures and precipitation across most of the country. Cooler-than-normal conditions will be confined to parts of the South, while drier-than-normal weather should be limited to the Pacific Northwest and an area stretching from the mid-South and lower Midwest into the Northeast.

US Drought Monitor one week change map ending May 16, 2023.

States near historic deal to protect #ColoradoRiver: States and Interior Department are still wrestling over process, compensation for conserving a river that sustains millions — The Washington Post #COriver #aridification

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the article on The Washington Post website (Joshua Partlow). Here’s an excerpt:

After nearly a year wrestling over the fate of their water supply, California, Arizona and Nevada — the three key states in the Colorado River’s current crisis — have coalesced around a plan to voluntarily conserve a major portion of their river water in exchange for more than $1 billion in federal funds, according to people familiar with the negotiations. The consensus emerging among these states and the Biden administration aims to conserveabout 13 percent of their allocation of river water over the next three years and protect the nation’s largest reservoirs…But thorny issues remain that could complicate a deal. The parties are trying to work through them before a key deadline at the end of the month, according to several current and former state and federal officials familiar with the situation…

State officials have suggested they could make a deal on their own and are resisting a May 30 deadline to comment on the alternatives the federal government has laid out in that process, according to people familiar with the talks. The review process is intended to define Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s authority to make emergency cuts in states’ water use, even if those cuts contradict existing water rights. These developments represent a new phase in the long-runningtalks about the future of the river. For much of the past year, negotiations have pitted California against Arizona, as they are the states that suck the most from Lake Mead and will have to bear the greatest burden of the historic cuts that the Biden administration has been calling for to protect the river. But these states now appear more united than ever and are closing their differences with the federal government, even as significant issues remain unresolved…

Some water authorities in the West want to ensure that any deal that emerges would entail binding commitments among the Lower Basin states, which draw from Lake Mead and consume more of the river each year than the states of the Upper Basin: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

“We want to support the Lower Basin if they have significant additional reductions, verifiable, binding and enforceable,” said Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s commissioner for the negotiations. “Are we going to make a choice to do better? If we don’t want the secretary to manage us, can we show we can manage ourselves?”


But the bleak reservoir levels outlined in that review date back to September and the weather has improved markedly since then. Abundant snow cloaked the Rocky Mountains over the winter and atmospheric rivers doused California’s drought. Water levels in the big reservoirs have started to rise. Colorado River experts have grown increasingly confident that the most draconian cuts in fact wouldn’t be needed, at least this year. And the $4 billion in federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act pledged to this problem meant that those that voluntarily gave up their rights to water would be well-compensated for it. Those conditions helped the Lower Basin negotiators come up with a plan to volunteer about 3 million acre-feet of cuts total until 2026, when a major renegotiation of the rules of the river is scheduled to begin. This scale of cuts is smaller than some of the most dire scenarios outlined in the environmental review if reservoirs had continued to plummet.

Map credit: AGU

Click the link to read “Western states and feds are closing in on a landmark deal to prevent Lake Mead from plummeting further” on the CNN webslite (Ella Nilsen). Here’s an excerpt:

Top water negotiators from California, Arizona and Nevada have discussed leaving 3 million acre-feet of water in Lake Mead over the next four years, the sources said – while cautioning negotiations with the US Interior Department were fluid and could change. The tentative amount would be around 10% of the states’ normal water allocation and would be in addition to previously agreed-to cuts that were negotiated in 2019 and 2007. The federal funding being offered for water cuts was part of $4 billion in drought relief funding passed in the Inflation Reduction Act. States and the US government are trying to clinch a framework agreement ahead of May 30, the end of the comment period for a dramatic environmental analysis released by federal officials last month. That analysis could force the three states to cut nearly 2.1 million additional acre-feet of their Colorado River usage in 2024 alone. At the time, top federal officials said publicly they hoped their proposal would spur discussion among states who have spent the past year sparring over cuts. Even though the states have struck an agreement among themselves, finalizing the details with the federal government could prove tricky. Outstanding issues include a proposal that some of the water cuts go uncompensated by the feds, and whether the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming will go along with the agreement…

Western water officials say a key goal this year is to build water elevation at Lake Mead. Some of that will be refilled naturally from the good winter runoff, but state officials said more should come from farmers, cities and tribes reducing their water use in exchange for federal dollars.

“What I’m hoping happens is people who were considering putting their water into the (federal water cut) program still do,” Arizona’s top water official Tom Buschatzke told CNN in April. “It’s a bit easier to do the conservation when you can be compensated and when it’s really wet, versus when it’s really dry and you’re looking at forced cuts – a lot more uncertainty about how far down Lake Mead could go and how big those cuts might get.”


Before this month’s breakthrough, California, Arizona and Nevada struck an agreement among themselves, which was unveiled to Deputy Interior Sec. Tommy Beaudreau and Touton at an April 21 meeting in Nevada, one source told CNN. But some new tensions between the states and feds have cropped up over the analysis produced by the Interior Department last month. States were hoping their plan for voluntary, compensated cuts could essentially happen in the place of federal action on the river, an idea federal officials pushed back on, according to one source familiar with the meeting. And there has also been haggling over what level Lake Mead would have to drop to in order for the federal government to be able to step in and make additional unilateral cuts.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

2023 #COleg: Protecting #Colorado’s #Water Resources & Pollinators: Governor Polis to Sign Bills into Law

This home is part of the City of Aurora’s water-wise landscape rebate program. Aurora City Council last month passed an ordinance that prohibits turf for aesthetic purposes in all new development and redevelopment, and front yards. Photo credit: The City of Aurora

Click the link to read the release on Governor Polis’ website:

BOULDER – Today [May 17, 2023], Governor Polis is signing bills into law today to protect Colorado’s water resources and pollinators. 

“With these exciting new laws, Coloradans will now have the opportunity to save water at their home, while also saving money, doing their part to be stewards of our environment with composting and recycling, and protect our pollinators,” said Gov. Polis. “We are also continuing to boost Colorado’s role as a national leader in the advanced industries sector, providing bold support to companies that find cures to deadly diseases, innovative solutions to the climate crisis, and keep Colorado at the epicenter of the aerospace industry.”

This morning in Boulder at Harlequin’s Gardens, Governor Polis was joined by First Gentleman Marlon Reis, state lawmakers and advocates as he signed the bipartisan SB23-178 Water-wise Landscaping In Homeowners’ Association Communities sponsored by Senators Sonya Jaquez Lewis and Perry Will, Representatives Karen McCormick and Mandy Lindsay to remove HOA barriers to water-wise landscaping, and giving Coloradans opportunities to save water with the way they plan their yards. 

Native solitary bee. Photo: The Xerces Society / Rich Hatfield

Also this morning, at Long’s Gardens, Governor Polis was joined by First Gentleman Reis, legislators, and advocates as he signed into law SB23-266 Neonic Pesticides As Limited-use Pesticides sponsored by Senators Kevin Priola and Sonya Jaquez Lewis, Representatives Kyle Brown and Cathy Kipp to protect pollinators from harmful toxins. Taking action to save consumers and local governments money and making it easier for consumers to understand what are and are not compostable products, Governor Polis signed into law SB23-253 Standards For Products Represented As Compostable sponsored by Senator Lisa Cutter, Representatives Meg Froelich and Karen McCormick. He also signed SB23-191 Colorado Department Of Public Health And Environment Organics Diversion Study, which directs the agency to examine how to improve the diversion of organic materials away from landfills. That bill was sponsored by Representatives Junie Joseph and Cathy Kipp, and Senator Lisa Cutter. 

Later this afternoon at MSU Denver’s Advanced Manufacturing Sciences Institute, Governor Polis will sign the bipartisan SB23-066 Advanced Industry Acceleration Programs sponsored by Senators Cleave Simpson and Chris Hansen, Representatives Shannon Bird, and Mike Lynch to ensure Colorado continues to lead the advanced industry sector, extending the successful Advanced Industry Acceleration programs for a decade. This high-impact initiative provides critical support to advanced industry companies in Colorado so that they can innovate and develop new products and services.

#Colorado Supreme Court considers historic case that could broaden public access to rivers and upset years of #water law — Water Education Colorado #ArkansasRiver

Photo credit: Colorado Parks & Wildlife

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education website (Caitlin Coleman):

The Colorado Supreme Court heard this month the case, years in the making, of an angler seeking river access that could have wide-reaching implications for public access to wade and fish certain river stretches in Colorado.

Beyond expanding or restricting fishing access, the court’s decision could also have “monumental consequences for water rights in Colorado,” according to an April 2022 brief from Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser. The state argues that the case could open the door to what’s known as the public trust doctrine, a move that could upset years of water law and impact how water rights are administered.

The lawsuit pits the State of Colorado and water users against the recreation industry and thousands of people in Colorado who believe that the public should have access to streams, even through segments on private lands.

The case, The State of Colorado v. Roger Hill, was initiated more than a decade ago, after Hill waded into the Arkansas River to fish. But private landowner Mark Warsewa, who, with Linda Joseph, owns the land adjacent to that stretch of river, pelted Hill with small stones, shooing him away from fishing on their land. Upon return to his car, Hill found a note threatening that if he returned to the stream, he would be arrested for trespassing on the property.

In 2018, Hill sued Warsewa and Joseph in federal court for Arkansas River access where the river flows past their property, arguing that the state owns the riverbed, and the public has a right to wade, walk, stand and fish there. The case moved to Colorado district court, where it was initially dismissed. But it was heard by the Colorado Court of Appeals in January 2022, and that court agreed that Roger Hill does have standing and sent the case back to the lower court.

Concerned, Weiser weighed in, asking the state’s Supreme Court to intervene in the suit. According to Weiser’s memo, if the state’s high court upholds the Court of Appeals’ decision, it could “disrupt settled agreements for the use of state rivers,” “threaten statewide collaborative efforts providing public fishing access,” upset the “settled expectations” of landowners and water right holders, and “encourage dangerous behavior.”

In December 2022, the Colorado Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and to look at one question only: Whether Roger Hill has the right to even bring the lawsuit, a principal known as standing. The court heard oral arguments on May 2[, 2023].

The Colorado Supreme Court hears arguments May 2, 2023 in a case that could help introduce a public trust doctrine in Colorado. Credit: Caitlin Coleman/Water Education Colorado

“We’ve been focusing on standing for five years now,” said Hill’s attorney Mark Squillace, a University of Colorado law professor, last month during a talk at the University of Denver Water Law Review’s 2023 Symposium. “The argument we’re making is that Roger Hill has the right to stand on the bed of the river which is held by the state in trust for the people if the court is able to determine, which we think it will, that the Arkansas River at this particular location is navigable for title.”

This is the federal “equal footing doctrine,” which says that upon entering the union, a state gains title to the beds of streams that are navigable. For Colorado that means looking at navigability in 1876.

To be considered “navigable for title,” a river must have been used for commerce at the time of statehood using the type of boat or watercraft that would have been used at that time, Squillace said. This “trust” idea comes in if, indeed, the river was navigable in 1876, in which case, the state should be holding the riverbed “in trust” for the people.

During oral arguments, Supreme Court justices focused much of their questioning not on navigability but on the public trust doctrine.

The doctrine is a common law principle which provides that a state hold “in trust” for the public, the public right to navigable waters and the lands beneath them — it must be adopted at the state level.

“The Colorado Supreme Court has held, multiple times, that there is no public trust doctrine,” said Eric Olson, who represented the state on May 2 for the Colorado Attorney General’s Office. Olson has since left the AG’s office.

Establishing a public trust doctrine would require either an amendment to the state constitution or a change in how the Supreme Court interprets the constitution. This case could introduce a public trust doctrine in Colorado.

The Colorado Water Congress, a group that represents water interests in Colorado, opposes any move toward establishing a public trust doctrine because it could undo the way in which the state constitution has been interpreted and interfere with the state’s prior appropriation system of water rights.  The state constitution says that water is the property of the public and is subject to appropriation — currently, Coloradans also have a private property right to put water to beneficial use.

According to a fact sheet by the Colorado Water Congress, establishing a public trust doctrine would threaten the state’s “first in time, first in right” prior appropriation system, placing more emphasis on the public’s ownership of water rather than the rights of private water users. The Colorado Water Congress also argues that a public trust doctrine could prohibit or limit the consumptive use of water, alter the timing of diversions, and could invalidate or interfere with existing water rights.

If the court sides with Hill,  it would be “destabilizing” said Steve Leonhart, an attorney with the firm Burns, Figa and Will who represents Colorado Water Congress.

“Common law public trust is problematic in itself. If standing is allowed [in State of Colorado v. Hill], what kind of a can of worms could it open for other litigation?” Leonhart asked. “It would just be the beginning of potential litigation up and down the Arkansas River, potential litigation on other streams, potential litigation on land rights but also on water rights,” he said.

But Squillace said other states have public trust doctrines that allow more public access to streams.

“In virtually every other state in the country, the state enjoys broad access rights,” Squillace said during oral arguments. “We’re worse than any other state. One of the things the state is doing in this case is protecting wealthy private landowners. If the public is entitled to have access to those waterways, that’s something the court should protect.”

Groups who filed briefs in support of Hill include American Whitewater, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and Colorado River Outfitters Association. Those who filed briefs in support of the state’s arguments include Colorado Water Congress, the landowners, the Colorado Farm Bureau, and the Pacific Legal Foundation.

When Colorado’s high court will rule on the case isn’t clear yet, but attorneys said a decision could come by the end of the year.

Caitlin Coleman is a contributor to Fresh Water News and is editor of Water Education Colorado’s Headwaters Magazine. She can be reached at caitlin@wateredco.org.

Map of the Arkansas River drainage basin. Created using USGS National Map and NASA SRTM data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79039596