Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought date from the US Drought Monitor. (Updated with the change maps that were not available at publishing time.)
US Drought Monitor map May 11, 2021.
West Drought Monitor map May 11, 2021.
High Plains Drought Monitor map May 11, 2021.
Colorado Drought Monitor map May 11, 2021.
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
This U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) week saw deterioration in drought-related conditions on the map across areas of the West, including California, Oregon, Washington, Utah, and Montana. Moving into dry season, California is expecting drought impacts to intensify during the summer months as snowpack runoff is forecasted to be below normal and reservoir storage levels at the state’s two largest reservoirs (Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville) are at 48% and 41% of average, respectively. In response to the deteriorating conditions, Governor Newsom expanded the coverage of his recent drought emergency declaration to include an additional 39 counties statewide. In the Southwest, Lake Powell is currently 35% full and Lake Mead is 38% full with the total Lower Colorado system at 43% full (compared to 52% full at the same time last year) as of May 10, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. In New Mexico, the state’s largest reservoir along the Rio Grande is currently at 12% full. In Arizona, the Salt River Project is reporting the Salt River system reservoirs at 79% full, the Verde River system at 32% full, and the total reservoir system at 73% full (compared to 98% full a year ago). In the High Plains, portions of eastern Colorado and Wyoming saw improvement in drought conditions in response to recent rainfall events and improvement in soil moisture levels. In the Midwest and Northeast, beneficial rainfall during the past two weeks has helped reduce areas of drought on the map. In the South and Southeast, heavy rainfall impacted portions of the region during the past several weeks, leading to reductions in areas of drought in response to improved soil moisture and streamflow levels…
On this week’s map, areas of the region—including Colorado and Wyoming —saw improvements, including a reduction in areas of Extreme Drought (D3), Severe Drought (D2), and Moderate Drought (D1) in response to rainfall during the past week and above-normal precipitation during the past 30-to-60-day period. During the past 60 days, the percentage of normal precipitation has been ~150 to 300% of normal. Moreover, NASA SPoRT is showing soil moisture levels (0 to 10 cm depth) ranging from the 70th to the 98th percentile. Conversely, abnormally dry soils and areas of dry vegetation are being observed in far western portions of Colorado and Wyoming. In terms of streamflow activity, 7-day average streamflows are much below normal (<10th percentile) across much of western Colorado, southwestern Wyoming, and northern portions of North Dakota. Average temperatures for the week were mainly below normal (2 to 12 deg F) with the greatest negative departures observed in the Dakotas. According to the latest (May 10) USDA North Dakota Crop Progress and Condition report, topsoil across the state was rated 52% very short and 28% short with subsoil moisture supplies rated 52% very short and 29% short. In Colorado, reservoir storage levels statewide (end of April) are below normal at 85% of average compared to 104% of average last year. Storage levels were notably below normal in the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan Basins at 57% of average compared to 95% of average last year at the same time. In terms of NOAA NCEI’s climatological rankings, North Dakota observed its driest 6- and 9-month periods on record. On a climate-division level, western Colorado’s Climate Division 2 (Colorado Drainage) observed its driest April on record, as well as its driest 12-month period on record…
Out West, approximately 84% of the region is currently in drought on the map with 47% in Extreme Drought (D3) or Exceptional Drought (D4). On this week’s maps, drought intensified in areas of California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Utah as dry conditions continued this week across most of the region. In California, areas of Exceptional Drought (D4) expanded on the map in the southern and eastern Sierra in response to very poor snowpack conditions during the 2020–2021 Water Year. In the southern Sierra, the Tulare Basin 6-Station Precipitation Index for the Water Year to Date (WYTD) is currently showing its 2nd driest Water Year on record—only slightly ahead of the driest year on record back in the 1976–1977 season. In the central Sierra, the San Joaquin 5-Station Index is currently observing its 3rd driest WYTD on record and in the northern Sierra, the Northern Sierra 8-station Index its 2nd driest WYTD on record. In response to deteriorating conditions across much of California, Governor Newsom expanded the drought emergency declaration to cover 39 additional counties across the state, including counties in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River watersheds. In Arizona, the U.S. Forest Service is reporting a drought-related die-off of juniper trees across portions of central and northern Arizona in Prescott and Kaibab National Forests. In addition, reports are coming in from northern Arizona that ranchers on the Coconino Plateau have been hauling water for cattle and wildlife for the past month because dirt stock tanks are completely dry. In northwestern Oregon, areas of Severe Drought (D2) and Moderate Drought (D1) expanded on this week’s map as streamflow and soil moisture levels continue to degrade. In southwestern Montana, areas of Moderate Drought (D1) expanded on the map in response to below-normal precipitation during the past 30-to-90-day period, low streamflows, and reductions in irrigation allotments. In the Upper Colorado River Basin, May through July streamflow volumes are forecasted to be less than 60% of average and inflow into Lake Powell is forecasted to be 28% of normal. According to NOAA NCEI, the West Climate Region (California and Nevada) had its 6th driest April on record and its 3rd driest October through April period on record. Likewise, the Northwest Climate Region (Idaho, Oregon, and Washington) had its 3rd driest April on record. In the Southwest Climate Region (Four Corners states), the last 12- and 24-month periods were both the driest on record for the region. At the state level, California observed its 6th warmest April on record and Arizona observed its 10th warmest…
Across portions of the region, the active pattern continued with significant rainfall accumulations observed in portions of eastern Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi where 7-day totals ranged from 2 to 8 inches. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), 7-day average streamflows were above normal across much of the region—particularly in southeastern Texas and southern Louisiana where streamflow percentiles were greater than the 90th percentile. On the map, isolated rainfall activity (1 to 2 inches) this week led to some minor improvements in southern and north-central Texas, whereas portions of the Texas Panhandle and the Trans-Pecos region of western Texas saw some deterioration in drought-related conditions and an expansion of areas of drought on the map. In west-central and northern Oklahoma, short-term precipitation deficits and areas of below-normal soil moisture led to a slight expansion of areas of Abnormally Dry (D0) on the map. For March and April, precipitation across the South Climate Region was slightly above normal (40th wettest). However, at the state level, Louisiana observed its 8th wettest April on record with the cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans observing their 2nd and 5th wettest April, respectively…
The NWS WPC 7-Day Quantitative Precipitation Forecast (QPF) calls for moderate-to-heavy liquid accumulations ranging from 2 to 4+ inches across the Gulf Coast region of Louisiana and Texas, as well as the eastern halves of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and areas of the lower Midwest. Lesser accumulations (generally <1 inch) are expected across the Southeast, parts of the Mid-Atlantic, and the Northeast. Out West, dry conditions are forecasted with the exception of areas of eastern New Mexico, Colorado, and areas of Wyoming that are expected to receive accumulations of <1.5 inches. The CPC 6-10-day Outlook calls for a moderate-to-high probability of above-normal temperatures across much of the conterminous United States with the exception of Southern California, western Oregon and Washington, and the Southeast where there is a moderate probability of below-normal temperatures. In terms of precipitation, there is a moderate probability of above-normal precipitation across the northern Rockies, the Plains states, and areas of the Upper Midwest. In contrast, below-normal precipitation is expected across the Pacific Northwest, Northern California, portions of the Southwest, and the Eastern Tier.
Here’s the release from the Center for Biological Diversity (Melissa Hornbein, Taylor McKinnon, Grant Stevens, Brett Henderson, Natasha Léger, Jeremy Nichols):
Conservation groups filed a lawsuit [May 10, 2021] challenging the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service’s 2020 approval of a plan that allows fracking across 35,000 acres of Colorado’s Western Slope. The North Fork Mancos Master Development Plan allows 35 new fracking wells in the North Fork Valley and Thompson Divide areas of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests.
Today’s lawsuit says federal agencies violated the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws by failing to fully assess the potential for water pollution and harm to the climate, and by refusing to analyze alternatives that would minimize or eliminate harm to the environment. The plan would result in about 52 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution, equivalent to the annual pollution from a dozen coal-fired power plants.
“The Trump administration charted a course to destroy public lands and our shared climate,” said Peter Hart, a staff attorney at Wilderness Workshop. “This master development plan is a 30-year commitment to the disastrous ‘energy dominance’ agenda which ignored significant impacts on the communities and spectacular values of the North Fork. We are determined to hold our federal government accountable to a more sustainable future for Colorado’s public lands, wildlife, people and climate.”
“Fossil fuel development and sustainable public lands don’t mix, especially in the roadless headwaters of the Upper North Fork Valley,” said Brett Henderson, executive director of Gunnison County-based High Country Conservation Advocates. “This project is incompatible with necessary climate change action, healthy wildlife habitat, and watershed health, and is at odds with the future of our communities.”
“We are in a megadrought in the North Fork Valley and the Western Slope. The water used to frack in the watershed risks precious water resources and only exacerbates the climate and the water crisis,” said Natasha Léger, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Community. “This 35-well project is the beginning of much larger plans to extract a resource which should be left in the ground and for which the market is drying up.”
“This dangerous plan promises more runaway climate pollution in one of the fastest-warming regions in the United States,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re suing to force federal agencies to stop ignoring the climate emergency. Like the planet, the Colorado River Basin can’t survive a future of ever-expanding fossil fuel development.”
“It is past time for the federal government to meaningfully consider climate change in its oil and gas permitting decisions,” said Melissa Hornbein, attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “Gunnison and Delta Counties have already exceeded 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming; the project failed to meaningfully analyze impacts to climate, roadless areas, and the agriculture and ecotourism centered economies of the North Fork Valley. More drilling is projected to harm Delta County’s tax revenue, not help it. These communities need land management that serves the public interest.”
“This case is about confronting the Trump administration’s complete disregard of law, science and public lands,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “We can’t frack our way to a safe climate and we certainly can’t afford to keep letting the oil and gas industry run roughshod over Colorado’s irreplaceable and vital public lands.”
Colorado’s Western Slope is already suffering from severe warming. The Washington Post recently featured the area as the largest “climate hot spot” in the lower 48 states, where temperatures have already risen more than 2 degrees Celsius, reducing snowpack and drying Colorado River flows that support endangered fish, agriculture and 40 million downstream water users.
In January 574 conservation, Native American, religious and business groups sent the then president-elect a proposed executive order to ban new fossil fuel leasing and permitting on federal public lands and waters. In February the Biden administration issued an executive order pausing oil and gas leasing onshore and offshore pending a climate review of federal fossil fuel programs. In June the Interior Department will issue an interim report describing findings from a March online forum and public comments.
Fossil fuel production on public lands causes about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution. Peer-reviewed science estimates that a nationwide fossil fuel leasing ban on federal lands and oceans would reduce carbon emissions by 280 million tons per year, ranking it among the most ambitious federal climate-policy proposals.
Oil, gas and coal extraction uses mines, well pads, gas lines, roads and other infrastructure that destroy habitat for wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. Oil spills and other harms from offshore drilling have inflicted immense damage to ocean wildlife and coastal communities. Fracking and mining also pollute watersheds and waterways that provide drinking water to millions of people.
Federal fossil fuels that have not been leased to industry contain up to 450 billion tons of potential climate pollution; those already leased to industry contain up to 43 billion tons. Pollution from the world’s already producing oil and gas fields, if fully developed, would push global warming well past 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
The Western Environmental Law Center uses the power of the law to safeguard the wildlife, wildlands, and communities of the American West in the face of a changing climate. As a public interest law firm, WELC does not charge clients and partners for services, but relies instead on charitable gifts from individuals, families, and foundations to accomplish our mission.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Conservation groups are suing federal agencies to challenge their approval last year of a proposal by Gunnison Energy to drill 35 oil and gas wells across some 35,000 acres of the upper North Fork Valley.
The groups say the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service violated federal laws by failing to properly assess the climate impacts of the project or analyze alternatives that would have minimized environmental impacts.
The suit was brought by the Western Environmental Law Center, on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop, WildEarth Guardians, Citizens for a Healthy Community in Paonia and High Country Conservation Advocates in Crested Butte.
The project’s location is in Gunnison and Delta counties west of McClure Pass. Some 25,800 acres of the affected acreage is U.S. Forest Service land, 8,648 acres are private and 468 involve BLM land.
The company plans to drill wells down and then out horizontally into the Mancos shale formation from five well pads, three of them new. It has estimated the project could produce up to 700 billion cubic feet of gas over 30 years. That equates to about 2.5% of the gas consumed in the United States last year.
The project also would require about 21 million gallons of water to hydraulically fracture each well, the company has estimated. And conservation groups said in a news release that it would result in about 52 million tons of greenhouse gas pollution, which they said is the same as what a dozen coal-fired power plants emit in a year…
The suit says that in evaluating the project, the BLM and Forest Service failed take a hard look at methane emissions related to the project. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. The suit also says the agencies failed to use “tools or methods generally accepted in the scientific community to evaluate the impact” of the project’s greenhouse gas emissions, such as the social cost of carbon and global carbon budgeting.
For the first time in a year, the Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins areas are no longer experiencing drought or abnormal dryness.
The return to normal for some of the state’s most populous areas comes after several waves of spring rain and snowstorms.
But the improved conditions come with a big caveat: Much of western Colorado remains in severe and exceptional drought, part of a regional pattern affecting the Southwest.
Conditions have improved in the areas around Colorado Springs and Pueblo as well, receding from severe and extreme drought into only moderate drought…
The precipitation patterns this winter favored the northern areas of the Front Range, she said.
“It’s typical for a La Niña winter,” Bowen said about the winter weather pattern affecting North America this year…
Becky Bolinger, the assistant state climatologist at the Colorado Climate Center, said the drought still affecting the western part of the state fits with a trend over the past two decades…
Forecasts now predict southern Colorado has a higher-than-normal chance for large wildfires through June, [Peter] Goble said, and the same heightened risk of large wildfires for all of western Colorado through July.
Binational Water Conservation Making the Colorado River More Sustainable for People and Birds
**Este artículo se puede encontrar en español**
The Colorado River is flowing again in its delta. This is a big deal for a river that has not flowed through its delta in most years since the 1960s, resulting in an ecosystem that is severely desiccated and devastated.
Thanks to commitments from the United States and Mexico in the Colorado River binational agreement—Minute 323 – 35,000 acre-feet of water (11.4 billion gallons) dedicated to create environmental benefits will be delivered to the river from May 1 to October 11. The expectation is that this will create and support habitat for birds like the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Yuma Ridgway’s Rail, and Vermilion Flycatcher, and give life to the many plants and animals in this ribbon oasis of green in the midst of the Sonoran Desert.
The last time the two governments cooperated to put water for the environment into the Colorado River was in 2014, when they released a “pulse flow” of water from Morelos Dam (the furthest downstream dam on the Colorado River, located at the U.S. – Mexico border). For eight glorious weeks, the Colorado River was conjured back to life in its final 100 miles. Birds took notice (bird abundance increased 20% from the previous year, and species diversity increased 42%) and local communities celebrated with a spontaneous river fiesta that went on for weeks.
This time, the water will flow for more than five months. Thanks to lessons learned from scientists who studied the 2014 pulse flow, the water will be less likely to infiltrate into the ground, and more likely to fill the river channel providing environmental benefits all the way down to the Gulf of California. System operators are using Mexico’s canal system to bypass Morelos Dam and the driest parts of the channel, delivering the water into the river some 45 river-miles downstream. There it will fill the river where the channel is already wet, maximizing water use efficiency. The scientists’ design optimizes the location and timing of flow to support the hundreds of species of birds that use the delta, and the floodplain habitats they rely on.
Audubon and its partners in Raise the River—the non-governmental organization (NGO) coalition working to restore the Colorado River Delta—are excited to see this sophisticated approach to environmental water delivery. Scientists will study the flow again this year in order to add to our understanding of how to best use the limited supply of water available for the environment.
The agreement that made these flows possible—Minute 323—lasts through 2026. The agreement also commits more than $30 million for water conservation infrastructure in the Mexicali Valley. The water savings will improve local resilience to global warming, increase the water supply stored in Lake Mead, make additional water available to water users in the United States, and create additional water supply for the environment (the coalition of NGOs will also contribute from a local water trust). Minute 323 also ensures that the United States and Mexico conserve Colorado River water and share in shortages when supplies are low. In the context of a drought on the Colorado River that has persisted since 2000, and the expectation of climate change exacerbating drought conditions, these provisions create water supply reliability for both people and nature.
This spring, water for the Colorado River Delta creates a renewed sense of hope. Over the next few months we have the opportunity to see what a small volume of water can do to revive the remnant ecosystem, to nurture its birds, and gift local communities with the return of their river. We can be reassured that, at least in parts of the delta, the Colorado River lives again. In an extraordinarily dry year, deliberate management of water to sustain the environment is the kind of management we will need throughout the Colorado River Basin to ensure that persistent drought and long term impacts of climate change do not lead to the end of river ecosystems in the arid West.
FromThe High Country News [May 13, 2021] (Sharon Udasin):
Through partnerships and exchanges, the community is ensuring that its members have long-term access to their own resources while helping solve broader water supply problems.
A riverbed that has been parched since the end of the 19th century — a portion of the historic lifeblood of the Gila River Indian Community — is now coursing again with water, luring things like cattails and birds back to its shores.
“You add water and stuff just immediately starts coming back naturally. Birds have returned and it’s just such a different experience,” says Jason Hauter, an attorney and a community member. “It’s amazing how much has returned.”
The revival of this small segment of the 649-mile (1045-kilometer) Gila River, which has served the tribes that make up the Gila River Indian Community — the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and the Pee-Posh (Maricopa) — for roughly 2,000 years, was an added benefit of a grassroots infrastructure overhaul, known as “managed aquifer recharge,” or MAR, which aimed to restore the local groundwater basin. The MAR project has not only secured a water supply for local agriculture, but it has also generated a stable source of income and strengthened the community’s ties to tradition.
“The land started to heal itself, reinvigorate itself,” says Governor Stephen Roe Lewis, who recently began his third term as leader of the Gila River Indian Community.
Hauter credits Lewis and his colleagues for ensuring that community members have long-term access to their own resources while helping solve broader water supply problems in the region through innovative partnerships and exchanges with neighbors.
“They are very thoughtful about future generations, but they also recognize they live in this larger community and that you have to collaborate,” Hauter says. “Encouraging your neighbors to have good water practices, but also helping your neighbors, is good water policy.”
A particularly longstanding claim to water rights
The ins and outs of water management and usage in the West are complex. In a region where every drop is important, questions about water — such as who gets what, how it’s moved from one place to another, and who pays for it — are vital to communities’ capacity to survive and thrive. These decisions are often based on century-plus-old legal doctrines that don’t always fit neatly into a modern, warming world — or address longstanding disregard for Native American tribal nations’ rights.
Western U.S. states adhere to legal doctrines called “prior appropriation” — sometimes referred to as “first in time, first in right” — linked to the mid-19th century Gold Rush and the Homestead Act, through which miners and farmers were able to claim and divert water sources for “beneficial use” — defined by activities such as irrigation, industry, power production and domestic use. A 1908 Supreme Court case ruled that the federal decision to establish Native American reservations inherently meant there would be sufficient water for those reservations. The priority date for water rights on these reservations therefore had to match the date of establishment, meaning that many tribal nations’ water rights took precedence over those of most existing users. During the past few decades, these nations have largely opted for settlements with the relevant federal, state and private bodies, rather than entering extensive and costly litigation to recover their water rights.
These settlements allow tribal nations to take part in the competitive markets that have long ruled water in the West. These markets involve things like selling water rights, getting money for helping mitigate drought and accruing “credit” from the Arizona Water Banking Authority by storing water in underground basins administered by the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
One such pivotal settlement came in 2004: To resolve tribal water rights claims, Congress passed the Arizona Water Settlement Act, which allocates a set amount of water each year to the Gila River Indian Community, drawing that water budget from a variety of sources in Arizona. The community had a particularly longstanding claim to water rights due to its two-millennia history of farming, curtailed when miners and white settlers began diverting water following the Civil War. The governor’s late father, Rodney Lewis, devoted his career as Gila River Tribal Attorney to fighting for a just water settlement.
“It was the theft of our water, so this was a generational historic struggle to regain our water,” Lewis says. “We were and we still are historically agriculturalists, farmers. Our lineage, our ancestors were the Huhugam. And the Huhugam civilization had pretty much cultivated the modern-day Phoenix area in central Arizona.”
“They were master builders,” he adds, referring to complex water systems and canals that he says rivaled those of the Nile Valley.
As more and more nations regain control of their water resources, they are securing a critical provision for the long-term financial prosperity of their people and protection of their lands.
Mutually beneficial partnerships
As often occurs in tribal water rights settlements, the 2004 agreement served to restore the Gila River Indian Community’s claims to the river and its tributaries without displacing the descendants “of those who committed the original sin,” says Hauter, a partner at the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, which currently serves as outside counsel for the Community.
Toward that end, Hauter says, “really, what’s provided is an alternative supply.”
That alternative supply comes from the Central Arizona Project (CAP), an infrastructural behemoth that conveys about 1.5 million acre-feet (1.85 billion cubic meters; one acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons) of water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona each year. Serving as the single largest renewable water supply for the state of Arizona, the 336-mile (540-kilometer) system was authorized by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, soon after which construction by the Bureau of Reclamation began. Three years later, the Central Arizona Water Conservation District — a multi-county water district — formed to repay the federal government for the project’s costs and oversee regional water supply.
Through the 2004 settlement, the Gila River Indian Community has the single largest CAP entitlement — bigger than that of the city of Phoenix — at 311,800 acre-feet (385 million cubic meters), Hauter explains. Finding mutual benefit in helping quench the thirst of the surrounding region, the community entered into various water exchanges and leases that delivered about 60,000 acre-feet (74 million cubic meters) to Phoenix and other municipalities annually and left about 250,000-acre-feet (308 million cubic meters) for its own purposes, according to Hauter.
But this sudden surplus from the CAP actually posed a problem.
Pumping water from the project, community members understood, would eventually become prohibitive due to water transport and associated electricity costs. The Lower Colorado River Basin Development Fund, managed by the U.S. Department of Interior, covers the Fixed OM&R (operation, maintenance and replacement) for certain Arizona tribes with settlements, but funding is only projected to last until 2045, Hauter explains.
The community was using only about 50,000 acre-feet (62 million cubic meters) for irrigation purposes, leaving about 200,000-acre-feet (247 million cubic meters) unused, Hauter says. Because any unused CAP water can be remarketed by the state, Arizonans began counting on the community to not use its full share.
With the legal guidance of Hauter and his team, the community launched a strategic venture to store, share and sell much more of its CAP water in 2010.
The first such partnership occurred with former water supply rival the Salt River Project, the name of the utilities responsible for providing most of Phoenix’s water and power. Had the community decided to enter litigation to recover its water rights, rather than settling, the Salt River Project could have faced enormous supply losses.
But the former rivals instead became partners, after identifying that the Salt River Project’s underground storage facility (USF), the Granite Reef Underground Storage Project, was an ideal place to store a portion of the CAP allocation the Gila River Indian Community was not currently using. The partnership has enabled the Salt River Project to withdraw water from storage — while maintaining a “safe yield,” or making sure any water that is taken from aquifers is replenished. In return, the community has gained long-term storage credit, Hauter explains. Such storage credit enables the holder to bank CAP water and, when necessary, recover the water for future use.
The community also stores water in groundwater savings facilities (GSF), including one operated by the Salt River Project and another south of the Gila River operated by the Maricopa Stanfield Drainage District. While a USF physically stores water in the aquifer through direct recharge, a GSF is an “indirect” recharge facility that uses CAP water instead of pumping local groundwater.
In what Hauter described as an “in lieu” agreement, the community provides the operators of these GSF facilities with a renewable water supply — another portion of its CAP allocation — and so reduces the Salt River Project and Maricopa District’s need to extract groundwater. In return, the community gets storage credit for the water that can remain in the ground.
“Everything we needed was at the river”
While these external collaborations bolstered the resilience of the community, as well as that of the arid surrounding region, Gila River residents only really saw the revival of their long-lost local waterway when community leaders launched a homegrown storage initiative. Recognizing the value in keeping some unused CAP resources at home, they chose to establish a network of managed aquifer recharge (MAR) sites. This type of underground storage allows for the free flow of water from a naturally permeable area, such as a streambed, into an aquifer, as opposed to “constructed recharge” sites that involve injecting water into percolation basins by means of a constructed device.
In order to implement these plans, the Gila River Indian Community came to an agreement with Arizona to acquire state regulatory permits for the MAR projects, despite the fact that tribal nations have sovereign control over water management. As a result of this decision, the community has been able to market long-term storage credits in a sort of environmentally friendly banking system that allows more groundwater to stay in the ground.
“They realized they could get multiple benefits from deciding to have their project permitted per the Arizona regulations,” says Sharon Megdal, director of The University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center.
“They voluntarily chose to abide by the regulations for storage and recovery and therefore come under the whole credit accrual and accounting system,” she continues, stressing that not only can credits be used to recover water when needed in the future, but they can also be purchased by outside entities, which creates a revenue stream for the community. “That’s really exciting.”
Three MAR facilities are already operating on the reservation today: MAR-5, the Olberg Dam underground storage facility, permitted in 2018; MAR-1B, the Cholla Mountain underground storage facility, permitted in 2020; and MAR-6B, a western and downstream expansion of MAR-5, which came online a few months ago. Construction of MAR-8, located downstream from MAR-5, will be complete in a few years, according to Hauter.
Hauter adds that it was only while planning the initial MAR-5 site that community members envisioned the riparian restoration program that served “to recreate the river,” allowing cattails and other plants to blossom and enabling community members to create baskets and traditional medicines. Although the idea of restoring the river was secondary to the storage plans, Hauter says that its flow is intrinsic to the community’s culture.
“The tangible benefit for most members is really having the river back to some degree,” Hauter adds. “It wasn’t something the settlement intended to accomplish, but the settlement gave the community the tools to make it happen.”
Lewis and his father, who had already retired at the time, used those tools to see the first MAR site to fruition. The Lewises and their colleagues understood the benefit in adopting innovative methods for accumulating water at their future storage site.
“He truly saw the MAR-5 as a living testament to our historic tie to the Gila River,” the governor says, adding that his father considered the facility an opportunity to “return the flow of the river.”
With the revived river flow, the riparian habitat quickly began blossoming, including 50 documented species of birds within the first year of MAR-5’s operations, Lewis says. An interpretive trail now weaves through the once arid wetland, providing educational signposts and offering sacred cultural spaces for spiritual practice, Lewis explains. Elders are now taking advantage of the plants and silt available to engage in traditional basket weaving, medicine making and pottery, he adds.
“They still remember the river sometimes flowing and the smell of the water,” Lewis says.
In recent years, before the opening of the MAR-5 site, the channel filled with water only in particularly wet seasons involving floods or heavy snowpack upstream, according to Lewis.
“Everything we needed was at the river,” he adds. “That was our lifeblood.”
Continuing to plan for a drought-ridden future
In conjunction with the opening of the MAR facilities, the community cemented a pivotal agreement in 2019 with the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District (CAGRD), a groundwater replenishment entity operated by the Central Arizona Water Conservation District. Through this agreement, CAGRD leases 18,185 acre-feet (22 million cubic meters) of the community’s CAP water and stores the majority of that water in the MAR sites, while receiving long-term storage credits in return from the Arizona Water Banking Authority. Only if the MAR facilities are full is CAGRD allowed to store the leased water elsewhere, Hauter explains.
Alongside the MAR projects, the community has also been rehabilitating existing wells and building new ones in order to create a backup supply for agricultural use when Gila River flow is minimal. Well water is less expensive than CAP water, since wells can recharge naturally during storms — so much so that such events collectively add at least 100,000 acre-feet (123 million cubic meters) to the community’s annual water supply, according to Hauter.
The community took additional steps to reroute its CAP supplies after the federal government and the seven Colorado River Basin States implemented their drought contingency plans, meant to elevate water levels in Lake Mead, in 2020. As part of that regional effort, Hauter explains, the Community is providing a total of at least 200,000 acre-feet (247 million cubic meters) of water to be stored in Lake Mead from 2020 to 2026, when the drought contingency plans expire. For its contribution, the Community gets money through the Arizona Water Bank and the Bureau of Reclamation.
Only through the community’s creative collaborations and homegrown projects has so much of its CAP entitlement been able to help replenish Lake Mead, Hauter says. Today, the community has reduced its CAP water usage for irrigation to 15,000 acre-feet (19 million cubic meters) per year, while its CAP water storage capacity in the MAR projects is up to about 40,000 acre-feet (49 million cubic meters) per year. After construction of MAR-8 is complete, total CAP water use for storage and irrigation will reach about 75,000 acre-feet (93 million cubic meters), Hauter says.
As the community’s leaders continue to plan for a drought-ridden future, they are evaluating whether it will be necessary to use more of its CAP allocation for their own needs. At the moment, much of the reservation’s agriculture involves water-intensive crops like alfalfa, feed corn and cotton. An overhaul of the farming infrastructure, according to Hauter, would require “changing attitudes about how food is grown” and incorporating more efficient technologies, as well as encouraging farming among younger people.
Overall, Hauter says, “it’s an exciting future for the community, and it will be interesting to see what happens in the next 20 or so years.”
Lewis is confident that the community’s agricultural tradition will remain strong, particularly due to the younger generation’s concerns for social justice, equity and environmental issues.
“We want to provide opportunities for our community members to re-engage in any way in our agricultural heritage,” he says. “We’ve always been innovators, going back to the Huhugam with their amazing engineering.”
In addition to the commercial company Gila River Farms, which is owned by the tribe and employs community members, Lewis says that local family farms continue to thrive. Lewis also says that “there’s a big push” for young people to obtain degrees in agro-business, hydrology, water engineering and other relevant fields that will provide them with a livelihood while working for their community — a place that has become even more special to them during the pandemic year.
“It’s a public health emergency that we’ve been going through,” Lewis adds. “But at the same time, I think this is an opportunity where you see a lot [of] our younger generation that are wanting to learn who it is to be from the Gila River Indian Community.”
“A total win-win”
While the MAR projects and the larger water exchange deals serve to safeguard the community’s water supplies, Hauter says he’s uncertain as to whether neighboring tribal nations could replicate this model. Other tribes, he explains, might have different agricultural interests or economic concerns, as well as varying geological and hydrological conditions.
In Megdal’s opinion, at least one aspect of the community’s strategy could be replicable regardless of geography: the strategic accrual and marketing of long-term storage credits in permitted recharge facilities. The Gila River Indian Community has diversified its portfolio of storage credit and sales through “multiple vehicles,” she explains, including its MAR projects, the Salt River Project partnership, and its transfer of credits to CAGRD.
“They are able to meet their objectives including having riparian benefits and river benefits and sell the credits — because the credits are then recovered elsewhere … For them, it’s like a total win-win,” Megdal says, adding that she considers the community’s achievements to be “a bellwether project.”
Already, she says, the Tucson-region Tohono O’odham Nation has begun selling some credits to CAGRD. Acknowledging that the two cases involve varying geological and legislative circumstances, Megdal stresses that the Gila River Indian Community has demonstrated the benefits of the storage and credit accrual system.
“These long-term storage credits are the most marketable part of the water system,” Megdal says. “It’s an emerging market, and the Gila River Indian Community has emerged as a key leader in that market.”
“I see this example of a tribal nation entering voluntarily into an intergovernmental agreement with the state so that all the parties can develop these mutually beneficial exchanges or marketing transactions in a voluntary way,” she adds. “It’s really a notable innovation.”
Sharon Udasin is a Boulder-based journalist, with specialties in environment, water and energy.
This article, produced jointly by California Health Report and High Country News, is part of a collaboration that also includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism, Circle of Blue, Columbia Insight, Ensia, New Mexico In Depth and SJV Water. It was made possible by a grant from The Water Desk, with support from Ensia and INN’s Amplify News Project.
This story was supported by a grant from The Water Desk, with support from Ensia and the Institute for Nonprofit News’s Amplify News Project.
EL NIÑO/SOUTHERN OSCILLATION (ENSO) DIAGNOSTIC DISCUSSION issuedby
CLIMATE PREDICTION CENTER/NCEP/NWS
and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society 13 May 2021 ENSO Alert System Status: Final La Niña Advisory
Synopsis: La Niña has ended, with ENSO-neutral likely to continue through the Northern Hemisphere summer (67% chance in June-August 2021).
During April, the tropical Pacific Ocean returned to ENSO-neutral conditions as the coupling between the atmosphere and ocean weakened. Sea surface temperatures were near-to-below average across most of the equatorial Pacific Ocean in the past month. The Niño indices have generally trended toward normal during the last several months, except for the easternmost Niño-1+2 region, which was -0.7oC in the past week. Subsurface temperature anomalies continued to increase due to a downwelling Kelvin wave, which reinforced the positive temperature anomalies along the thermocline. Low-level easterly wind anomalies were weakly present in the east-centralPacific, but were westerly in the far western Pacific Ocean, while upper-level wind anomalies remained westerly across the central and east-central tropicalPacific. Tropical convection became near average around the Date Line in the past month, with suppressed convection evident over Indonesia. Overall, the ocean and atmosphere system reflected a return to ENSO-neutral.
Most of the models in the IRI/CPC plume predict a continuation of ENSO-neutral through the Northern Hemisphere summer 2021. The forecaster consensus agrees with this set of models through the summer, and then begins hedging toward cooler conditions as the Northern Hemisphere fall approaches. La Niña chances are around 50-55% during the late fall and winter, which is in alignment with forecasts from the NCEP Climate Forecast System and North American Multi-model Ensemble. However, there is typically large uncertainty with forecasts made in the spring, so confidence in ENSO-neutral for the coming seasons is highest. In summary, La Niña has ended, with ENSO-neutral likely to continue through the Northern Hemisphere summer (67% chance in June-August 2021; click CPC/IRI consensus forecast for the chances in each 3-month period).
Beavers, known for their work ethic, tenacity and sometimes destructive instincts, are making a comeback in the worlds of science and water as researchers look for natural ways to restore rivers and wetlands and improve the health of drought-stressed aquifers.
“The concept of beavers and their ability to restore streams is not new,” said Sarah Marshall, an ecohydrologist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Natural Heritage Program who has been studying these semi-aquatic rodents for years. “Now we have a body of groundwater and sediment capture studies that have really resonated with folks who are managing water, especially with these nagging problems of drought and earlier snowmelt.”
This fall, Colorado Headwaters, a nonprofit that advocates for protecting and restoring headwater regions in the state, is sponsoring a beaver summit, a conference designed to unveil some of the latest ecological research on creatures once valued only for their glossy fur.
“The idea is to drive the knowledge to the general public and legislators so they have a better handle on how to address this,” said Jerry Mallett, Colorado Headwaters founder and president.
Beaver advocates would like to see more funding for research, new programs, such as a beaver census, and better integration of wetland restoration efforts in headwaters areas.
Before beavers were nearly trapped out of existence in the mid-1800s, they inhabited high mountain wetlands and river basins across Colorado and the West. They played an important ecological role, according to Marshall. Their dams trapped water, allowing it to flood wetlands and soak into underground aquifers. Those same dams also trapped sediment, enhancing habitat for fish and other wildlife.
But beavers also did their fair share of damage as the West was settled, garnering a reputation for damming irrigation ditches and flooding culverts and roads, angering ranchers and city dwellers alike.
Even in urban areas, beavers are considered a nuisance because their never-ending dam building often floods city parks and harms trees.
But Marshall is hopeful that events such as the upcoming summit as well as ongoing education of policy makers and the public on the benefits of the water-related work beavers do will help improve their reputation.
“One of the most important things about how beavers help streams is that they are very dynamic. They don’t just create a dam. They move around in watersheds creating systems that are constantly changing.
“By creating a series of dams they do everything from refilling alluvial aquifers to physically trapping sediment and creating physical habitat for rare species such as boreal toads and trout,” she said.
Carlyle Currier, president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, said beavers remain a sore topic in the agricultural world because their dams often harm expensive irrigation systems and cause flooding.
“Certainly they can be a nuisance if they’re in the wrong place,” Currier said.
There is also concern that if beavers significantly alter how water moves through a stream, it could injure water rights.
Currier said he and his ranching colleagues are willing to listen to what the beaver scientists are recommending.
“The devil is always in the details,” he said. “But in headwaters areas, you could argue that they do more good than harm.”
The Colorado conference, slated for Oct. 20 and 22 in Avon, comes on the heels of similar confabs that have been held recently in California and New Mexico, Mallet said.
As drought and climate change cause widespread reductions in river flows and aquifer levels, researchers and others are re-evaluating how wetlands and rivers evolved. They are hopeful that the furry architects and general contractors who originally helped shape them can be restored and put to work again in a way that aids everyone, Marshall said.
“We built all of this infrastructure and managed land in a context that did not include beavers. As we’re changing how we view them culturally, there is an opportunity for co-existence,” Marshall said.
“People are starting to realize that when you have beavers in a stream reach you have nice green grass growing along the banks for your cattle. It’s a fascinating path that we are on. People are starting to see them in a new light,” Marshall said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at email@example.com or @jerd_smith.
This year’s event will include panels and presentations on climate change, Colorado landscaping aesthetics, social change, community education programs, and much more! There will be a special keynote address from Leander Lacy, Interim Alliance Director of Denver Metro Nature Alliance and host of The Green Mind podcast.
Watershed Summit 2021, or “Shed ’21” as we like to call it, is produced through a collaborative partnership between the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Denver Water, Aurora Water, the One World One Water (OWOW) Center, Resource Central and Denver Botanic Gardens.
Reservoirs, snowpack in good shape for coming South Platte irrigation season
Recent wet weather has lifted parts of northern Colorado, especially Logan County, out of drought status, but forecasters say that’s probably a temporary situation. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 60-day forecast for most of northern Colorado, including the South Platte Basin, is a 60-percent chance of less than normal precipitation and slightly higher than normal temperatures.
The runoff and storage situation for the Lower South Platte Valley seems particularly bright, with snowpack in the South Platte Basin higher than normal, thanks to late-winter snowstorms in the high country. Local reservoirs are full or nearly so, and should fill completely before demand for irrigation water begins. A spot check of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District’s point flow chart showed approximately 650 cubic feet per second flowing past Sterling at mid-day Wednesday.
Statistically, NOAA’s data site showed that, so far, 2021 is the 29th driest year to date in the 127 years that records have been kept, the county had the 53rd driest February over that same time period and, as of April 30, about 14.5 percent of people in Logan County still are affected by drought.
And the “coaches,” websites and dealers need to emphasize how much consumers’ annual operating costs will drop when they’re not paying $3 a gallon for gas, changing the oil every six months, and handling thousand-dollar repairs of combustion engines.
Reliability and performance. Some of the EV-curious still seem to think, advocates say, that storage batteries spontaneously combust, or that the complex electronics are always going haywire, or that their relatively small vehicle will drive like a low-powered sewing machine. That’s where the marketing and education side need to double down on the lower costs of long-term maintenance in EVs, which have far-fewer moving engine parts than their gas cousins.
Moravcsik and others like to emphasize the drivability of EVs — and not just the sportier Teslas. Even the smallest EV sedans and hatchbacks on the market have far-faster and more-responsive acceleration than a comparable gas engine. Electric cars have no lag when you step on the accelerator, making highway entrances a sport instead of a nightmare.
Drought conditions in April increased in much of western Colorado, as already dry conditions were made worse by well-below-average precipitation, the Colorado Water Supply Outlook stated in its May report.
Higher temperatures in the high country worsened the situation with substantial loss of snowpack, which fell to 72 percent of median statewide by the end of April…
Statewide, 33 SNOTEL sites saw the lowest precipitation on record, while 15 other sites recorded the second-lowest precipitation on record for April. Most of those SNOTEL sites were west of the Continental Divide.
Dry conditions will impact water storage for the coming summer months. Reservoir storage in all river basins, except the South Platte and Arkansas, saw a decrease in relative storage. Statewide reservoir storage is 84 percent of normal, a percentage point drop from April.
An above-average warm and dry April caused a decline in forecasted water supplies. All basins west of the Continental Divide are now forecast to have streamflow volumes below 60 percent of average. East of the divide, conditions are a little better, with forecasts for the South Platte and Arkansas river basins anticipating streamflow volumes at 88 and 71 percent of average, respectively.
Streamflow forecasts for much of Colorado are discouraging, with most of the rivers seeing volumes well below normal.
West of the Continental Divide, runoff conditions are deteriorating. In western Colorado, below-average precipitation and higher temperatures have reduced snowpack. Forty-one of the streamflow forecast points are predicted to have a top-10 lowest runoff volume on record.
The Gunnison Basin, the Yampa-white-Little Snake River Basin and the San Miguel-Dolores-Animas-San Juan River Basin are all projected to be below 50 percent of average streamflow volumes.
Snowpack in the Arkansas River Basin is below normal at 76 percent of median. Precipitation for April was 41 percent of average, which brings the water year-to-date precipitation to 83 percent of average.
Reservoir storage at the end of April was 69 percent of average, compared to 91 percent in April 2020.
Current streamflow forecasts range from 81 percent of average on the Cucharas River near La Veta to 64 percent of average on Chalk Creek near Nathrop for May to July.
As our climate changes, rising temperatures and drought conditions have intensified across the Colorado River Basin. This overstretched river system is also seeing rapid growth in the population that relies on it. Overuse has impacted agricultural water availability, native fish and many birds and plants that rely on streamside habitat and the river itself.
Problems like these can seem daunting from a bird’s eye view. Solutions must come from within the communities themselves—and through many innovative, thoughtful collaborations along the way.
That’s where the Maybell diversion comes in. Located on the lower Yampa River, a tributary to the Colorado River, the Maybell diversion provides water for 18 agricultural producers in northwest Colorado. The diversion structure, built in 1896, channels water through a broken, antiquated headgate into the Maybell Ditch, an 18-mile canal that flows roughly in line with the river and irrigates hay pasture and ranchlands.
The Maybell Diversion
The Maybell reach of the Yampa is home to abundant wildlife, including four endangered fish species, whose free movement depends on healthy river flows. While boaters enjoy paddling through Juniper Canyon, the reach of river with the Maybell diversion is known for hazardous conditions at high and low flows. Landslides and large boulders block the river, creating challenges for inexperienced boaters. Drought conditions exacerbate low flows and create awkward conditions for passage of boats and fish alike.
“Maybell is the largest diversion on the Yampa and it was a high priority for the community to address the need for infrastructure improvements,” explains Diana Lane, director of Colorado’s Sustainable Food and Water program at TNC.
In partnership with the Maybell Irrigation District, The Nature Conservancy is working to rehabilitate the diversion and modernize the headgate, ensuring that the diversion provides water to the users who need it. At the same time, TNC is coordinating with the recreation community to ensure safe passage of watercraft through the new diversion. As a result of this project, we hope that the Yampa will see increased ecological connectivity and resilience to climate change and that the irrigators will have improved control of their irrigation system.
Upgrading the Ditch, Headgate and Diversion
The three parts of the project—lining the ditch, replacing the headgate and rehabilitating the diversion—will improve efficiency, water flow and habitat for native fish. Ditch lining, completed in November of 2020, repaired a section that was previously unstable, erosive and leaky.
The next two steps occur together. Replacing the headgate with a new, remotely operated one will allow more flexibility for adjusting flows based on irrigators’ needs and local flow conditions. For example, when supplemental water is released from Elkhead Reservoir upstream for the benefit of endangered fish, the new headgate can be adjusted to ensure the water stays in the critical habitat reach. At the same time, diversion rehabilitation will repair the damage that’s been done by historic erosion and improve passage for boats and fish.
“This is an exemplary multi-benefit project with agricultural, environmental and recreational elements that were brought to our attention by the community,” notes Jennifer Wellman, TNC’s project manager. “Working directly with the water users, we have an opportunity to rectify the diversion while paying attention to what the river needs. Drought conditions highlight that everyone benefits from flows in the river.”
Through our partnership with the Maybell Irrigation District, these projects create a better future for the diversion. Partnerships like these are crucial to cementing a better future for the Yampa River.
This project is supported by strong local partnerships with Friends of the Yampa, the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable, Moffat County and the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. Funding from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART program and potential grants from other agencies help support the multi-benefit project overall. The mosaic of public and private funds contribute to much-needed improvements to the Yampa River that mesh with community-driven solutions to drought and river protection. By modernizing the Maybell diversion and ditch operations, the Yampa River will see improved flows and function for years to come.
One Piece of a Larger Puzzle
The success of this project is tied to the larger story of the Colorado River Basin. As rivers throughout the basin are being stretched to a breaking point, the 30 native fish species that are found nowhere else in the world face an increasingly uncertain future. These waters also feed habitat that supports an amazing array of the West’s wildlife.
“We’re trying to get ahead of the curve. I think if we all work together, we can come to a solution. If we don’t do that, then the next generation might not have the water they need,” says Camblin, of the Maybell Irrigation District.
As work continues on the Maybell Ditch, it represents a win for agriculture, recreation and the environment that the economy relies on, and for the fish that have called this river home for thousands of years.
From the Community Agriculture Alliance (Andy Baur) via The Craig Daily Press:
The Yampa River Fund steering committee recently awarded $200,000 to six projects during its 2021 grant cycle. As designed, the YRF funded projects that enhance river flows, restore riparian and instream habitat, and improve infrastructure for a healthier river. One of the projects, permitting for the Maybell Diversion Restoration Project, is an excellent example of how the YRF supports multibenefit projects that help water users while benefiting river health and recreation as well. When completed, the Maybell Diversion Project will result in significant positive impact to the Maybell agricultural community, endangered and native fish habitat, and recreation interests. What makes the Maybell project a great fit for the YRF is it stands to create a positive impact in all river users, the economy and the environment for decades to come.
The project is moving forward through a partnership between The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Maybell Irrigation District (MID). The goal is to reconstruct the historic Maybell diversion and modernize the headgates in the lower Yampa River. TNC, MID, Friends of the Yampa and other partners are committed to increasing water users’ control of irrigation water while improving aquatic habitat by removing impediments to flow as well as facilitating boat and fish passage at the Maybell diversion. Safer and reliable water infrastructure will bring increased economic benefits to the communities in the lower Yampa basin. In addition, this project supports recovery of four endangered fish while meeting agricultural irrigation needs and increasing ecological connectivity, water security and resilience to climate change.
Located in the designated critical habitat reach of the Yampa, downstream of Juniper Canyon, the MID currently withdraws water through two broken and antiquated headgates into the Maybell Ditch. Built in 1896, the ditch is approximately 18 miles long and is one of the largest diverters on the Yampa River. Though the diversion infrastructure historically served the users well, it is impacted by critically low flows during times of drought and water scarcity.
Stakeholders and community members view the project as critical to remedying chronic low-flow and obstacles to boat and fish passage in the lower Yampa. The project received funding in 2019 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable to finalize engineering designs, specifications and permitting for construction to begin in 2022. TNC and partners are in the process of fundraising and working with the Maybell community to schedule construction and develop a path forward.
Created by Imgur user Fejetlenfej , a geographer and GIS analyst with a ‘lifelong passion for beautiful maps,’ it highlights the massive expanse of river basins across the country – in particular, those which feed the Mississippi River, in pink.
The Arizona Legislature on Tuesday made a formal request asking Congress to fund a study to determine the feasibility of pipelining Mississippi River floodwater to the Colorado River.
House Concurrent Memorial 2004 passed the Arizona Senate by a 23-7 vote and the Arizona House by a 54-6 margin. A memorial is not a law, but a legislative measure containing a request or proposal, asking other parties outside the Arizona Legislature’s jurisdiction to take action. HCMs have no official standing or effect, but serve as a public record of the request presented for consideration.
The memorial was introduced by Rep. Tim Dunn, R-Yuma. Rep. Leo Biasiucci, R-Lake Havasu City, is among co-sponsors.
It asks that “the United States Congress fund a technological and feasibility study of developing a diversion dam and pipeline to harvest floodwater from the Mississippi River to replenish the Colorado River and prevent flood damage along the Mississippi River.”
It also states that “If shown to be feasible, the United States Congress implement the diversion dam and pipeline as a partial solution to the water supply shortage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead and the flood damage that occurs along the Mississippi River.”
Lake Powell and Lake Mead are the two major reservoirs on the Colorado River. Both are at historically low levels and likely will trigger a Tier 1 water emergency in Arizona later this year or in 2022.
The memorial notes the low water levels of both reservoirs and the “historic flooding in 2011 and 2019 along the Mississippi River” that caused 11 deaths and more than $9.5 billion in damage.
It asks that the request be sent to the President of the U.S. Senate, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the governors of states on the Mississippi River — Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Wisconsin — as well as Arizona’s 11 members of Congress.
“Arizona has long been at the forefront among Western states in supporting the development and implementation of pioneering, well-reasoned water management policies,” Dunn said, a line straight out of the HCM he crafted. “Arizona and the other six Colorado Basin states are in the 20th year of severe drought and experiencing a severe water shortage. Water levels are at critical levels, jeopardizing the water delivery and power generation. A new water source could help augment Colorado River supplies.
“One promising possibility involves piping water that is harvested from Mississippi River floodwaters. Diverting this water, which is otherwise lost into the Gulf of Mexico, would also help prevent the loss of human life and billions in economic damages when such flooding occurs. This concept is already being proven in Denver, where floodwater is being successfully harvested from the Missouri River to help alleviate its water shortage.”
Durango La Plata Airport has only received 2.56 inches of precipitation so far in 2021. The average there is 4.36 inches through May.
The snowpack in the southwest part of the country was very low this season from October through May — a typical result of a La Nina weather pattern. Colorado was mostly spared the major snow deficit thanks to some well-placed upslope storms east of the Continental Divide, but the southwest corner of the state did get caught up in the lack of snow.
And what little snow there was in southwest Colorado this season is melting out fast.
A few mountain weather stations are showing that the winter snowpack has already completely melted out. For example, the Snotel site on Lizard Head Pass shows no snow left on the ground there as of May 9 – that’s more than three weeks earlier than normal.
One of the areas hardest hit by the lack of snow in southwest Colorado is McPhee Reservoir, the fifth largest in the state.
“This is likely to be our fourth worst year in runoff,” said Ken Curtis, the general manager of Dolores Water Conservancy District, which manages McPhee Reservoir. “We have had other bad years like 2002 and 2018, but in both cases, we did have more carryover.”
He said in previous bad snow years, there had been enough water left over from the previous year to carry over into the low year.
This year is unfortunately following another poor runoff season in 2020. Curtis said there was average snowpack above the reservoir last year, but only about 34% of the expected snowmelt actually made it into the reservoir.
He said McPhee is currently 50 feet below average and not expected to fill any higher. That will put a lot of hardship on primarily famers.
Curtis said there’s about 30,000 acres of farming between Cortez and Dove Creek, along with all the farms on the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation that depend on water from McPhee.
He said those areas do not have senior water rights.
In response to a forecast for increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 500 cfs on Wednesday, May 12th, starting at 0400 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).
The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell. Please be advised, due to the dry conditions this year, more release changes than usual may occur.
Join the Colorado River District and the Community Agriculture Alliance for the Yampa Valley State of the River to learn more about current issues in the Yampa River Basin, from the Flattops to Dinosaur.
Understand more about your river, your water, the potential for a call on the river this summer and what the proposed over appropriation designation on the Yampa means for your water use. In presentations and discussions at the meeting, speakers will also give information about funding for Yampa River Basin water projects and updates on our water supply as we enter another summer of drought. Attendees will also hear about plans to manage the watershed and keep water flowing in the Yampa in hot, dry years.
If you cannot attend the webinar live, register to receive a recording of the webinar in your email inbox to watch later.
Welcome – Colorado River District and Community Agriculture Alliance
Colorado River District’s Partnership Project Funding Program – Colorado River District Director of Strategic Partnerships Amy Moyer
Water Supply Updates and Drought in the Yampa River Basin – Colorado Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger
These conservation efforts build on five decades of NOAA’s work connecting people to places by conserving and restoring special marine, coastal and Great Lakes areas for the benefit of all Americans. This important work includes:
NOAA recently tripled the size of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary to protect 14 reefs and banks that are habitat for recreationally important fishing.
NOAA will soon publish a final rule regarding a proposal to designate a new sanctuary, the Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary in Lake Michigan. When finalized, the designation will expand public and recreational access to the area’s 36 known shipwreck sites.
NOAA and the State of Connecticut are working together to designate a new National Estuarine Research Reserve, expected in January 2022, which will create a “living classroom” for research and education on Long Island Sound.
Area snowpack improved in April but is back on a melting trend. According to the latest numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s measurement sites, the snowpack level at Copper Mountain peaked at the beginning of April at 12.4 inches of snow-water equivalent — the amount of water held in the snowpack. The snow-water equivalent dropped to 10.6 inches in mid-April and increased to 12 inches by Friday, April 30.
The snowpack has declined in May and is currently sitting at 9.8 inches of snow-water equivalent on Copper Mountain, or 82% of the 30-year median. The upper Colorado River basin, which Summit County falls into, is at 65% of normal snow-water equivalent as of May 10.
“Things aren’t looking so good right now,” National Weather Service meteorologist Bernie Meier said. “We’ve melted out about a third of the snowpack already.”
Meier said cool and snowy days like Monday, May 10, slow down the melting process and add a bit to the snowpack, but overall, he expects the snowpack to remain below normal. He said the snowpack usually melts out between June 10 and 20…
According to the National Weather Service’s almanac, only 9 inches of snow was recorded in April at the Dillon Weather Station — almost half the area’s normal April snowfall of 17.3 inches.
So far, May is closer to average with a total of 3 inches as of Monday morning and more on the way with through the remainder of the storm. Through May 10, normal snowfall for the Dillon station is 3.3 inches.
Though not much snow accumulated, drought conditions have improved in Summit County, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The county is still in a drought, but the severity has lessened to a severe drought in the northern portion of the county and a moderate drought in the southern portion of the county, according to the Drought Monitor’s severity scale. As of April 27, the northern portion of the county was still in an extreme drought.
As the drought outlook for the Western U.S. becomes increasingly bleak, attention is turning once again to groundwater – literally, water stored in the ground. It is Earth’s most widespread and reliable source of fresh water, but it’s not limitless.
Groundwater flows through tiny spaces within sediments and their underlying bedrock. At some points, called discharge areas, groundwater rises to the surface, moving into lakes, rivers and streams. At other points, known as recharge areas, water percolates deep into the ground, either through precipitation or leakage from rivers, lakes and streams.
Groundwater depletion can also cause wells to run dry when the top surface of the groundwater – known as the water table – drops so far that the well isn’t deep enough to reach it, leaving the well literally high and dry. Yet until recently, little was known about how vulnerable global wells are to running dry because of declining groundwater levels.
There is no global database of wells, so over six years we compiled 134 unique well construction databases spanning 40 different countries. In total, we analyzed nearly 39 million well construction records, including each well’s location, the reason it was constructed and its depth.
Our results show that wells are vital to human livelihoods – and recording well depths helped us see how vulnerable wells are to running dry.
Millions of wells at risk
Our analysis led to two main findings. First, up to 20% of wells around the world extend no more than 16 feet (5 meters) below the water table. That means these wells will run dry if groundwater levels decline by just a few feet.
Second, we found that newer wells are not being dug significantly deeper than older wells in some places where groundwater levels are declining. In some areas, such as eastern New Mexico, newer wells are not drilled deeper than older wells because the deeper rock layers are impermeable and contain saline water. New wells are at least as likely to run dry as older wells in these areas.
– Sell the property. This is often considered if constructing a new well is unaffordable. Drilling a new household well in the U.S. Southwest can cost tens of thousands of dollars. But selling a property that lacks access to a reliable and convenient water supply can be challenging.
– Divert or haul water from alternative sources, such as nearby rivers or lakes. This approach is feasible only if surface water resources are not already reserved for other users or too far away. Even if nearby surface waters are available, treating their quality to make them safe to drink can be harder than treating well water.
– Reduce water use to slow or stop groundwater level declines. This could mean switching to crops that are less water-intensive, or adopting irrigation systems that reduce water losses. Such approaches may reduce farmers’ profits or require upfront investments in new technologies.
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– Limit or abandon activities that require lots of water, such as irrigation. This strategy can be challenging if irrigated land provides higher crop yields than unirrigated land. Recent research suggests that some land in the central U.S. is not suitable for unirrigated “dryland” farming.
State and local agencies can distribute groundwater permits in ways that help stabilize falling groundwater levels over the long run, or in ways that prioritize certain water users. Enacting and enforcing policies designed to limit groundwater depletion can help protect wells from running dry. While it can be difficult to limit use of a resource as essential as water, we believe that in most cases, simply drilling deeper is not a sustainable path forward.
FromColorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):
Most ranchers sell their cattle to a meat company for the going price, so there’s often little profit or incentive to invest in significant environmental improvements to their land. Something as simple as planting trees among pastures is expensive, especially across hundreds or thousands of acres.
“These kinds of things are great for biodiversity and take carbon out of the atmosphere and create all this public benefit and conserve water,” said Anthony Myint. “But they can’t sell the beef for an extra dollar.”
Restore Colorado is a simple idea, but Myint hopes it will have a big impact. Restaurants and other food businesses donate 1 percent of their profits to fund farming and ranching projects that suck carbon from the atmosphere through plants that take in the greenhouse gas and store it in healthy soil. Some see regenerative agriculture as a key way to reduce the amount of CO2 in the air worsening climate change…
Boulder started Restore Colorado through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and teamed up with Myint, who founded well-known Mission Chinese Food in New York and San Francisco and first started crowd-funding carbon-farming grants in California…
To give farmers extra financial support to invest in climate-friendly agriculture, Myint thinks the food industry should take cues from the energy industry. Electricity customers, for example, can pay a little extra on their utility bills to support clean energy or elect to buy power from a solar farm…
McCauley Family Farm in Longmont is one of the first in Colorado to get a grant from this program. Farm manager Marcus McCauley said one way he will use the money is to create more silvopasture, where trees are grown on grazing land. Those trees can provide a windbreak for the grass, and the protection and shade can help keep moisture in the ground during a drought…
All of these things mean healthier soil on McCauley’s farm. That healthier soil means the trees and grass suck even carbon out of the air. And healthier plants mean McCauley’s pasture-raised chicken and sheep are more nutritious — and they do less damage to the land…
The Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Soil Health Initiative supports regenerative agriculture projects with a five-year, $5 million agreement with the USDA. Cindy Lair, who manages the Colorado State Conservation Board program, said she thinks the Restore Colorado concept would be “cool to take statewide and find more ways to link food consumers to their food.”
“We have such a tendency to be so disconnected from where our food is produced,” Lair said. She sees Restore Colorado as a way to help people make that connection. Lair said the state is paying close attention to the Boulder program and wants to “see if we can help build on it.”
Here’s the release from the NRCS (Brian Domonkos):
An exceptionally dry April, along with warmer mountain temperature exacerbated already dry conditions in much of Colorado. Precipitation in April ranged from a high of 83 percent of average in the South Platte River Basin to as low as 29 percent of average in the combined San Miguel-Dolores-Animas-San Juan river basin. NRCS Hydrologist Joel Atwood notes, “Many SNOTEL sites reported record low precipitation for April west of the Continental Divide. Snowpack has also declined in all basins except the South Platte, due to higher temperature and below-average precipitation.” As of May 9th, all basins in the state have snowpack below 80 percent of median except the South Platte river basin, which has 102 percent of median snowpack.
Statewide reservoir storage declined by a percentage point over last month, where all basins except the South Platte river basin saw a decline in relative storage. The combined Yampa-White-North Platte and the South Platte river basins ended April with above-average storage at 106 and 101 percent of average, respectively. On the low end, the combined San Miguel-Dolores-Animas-San Juan and the Arkansas river basins ended April with 57 and 69 percent of average reservoir storage, respectively.
Recent precipitation that has helped improve water supply in the South Platte river basin has had little impact on the rest of the state. Dry conditions have persisted in much of the state since last summer, and a dry April only compounded current drought conditions. NRCS Hydrologist Atwood continued to comment that “With much of the snowpack in many basins already melted out, persistent dry soil conditions, and little hope for substantial precipitation moving into summer, runoff volumes will continue to be meager.” All basins west of the continental divide are forecasted to have streamflow volumes between 34 and 73 percent of average. The South Platte river basin, which has the best water supply outlook in the state, has streamflow volume forecasts range from 90 to 104 percent of average.
In response to a forecast lull in flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a temporary increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 400 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 600 cfs on Tuesday, May 11th, starting at 0400 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).
The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell. Please be advised, due to the dry conditions this year, more release changes than usual may occur.
While peak flows can vary, the Yampa River generally peaks in late May to early June, while Butcherknife Creek, Burgess Creek, Spring Creek, Soda Creek and Walton Creek can peak significantly earlier in the year. This past week, the Yampa River increased to nearly 700 cfs.
The Streets Division will supply sand and sandbags for residential properties that need them on a case-by-case basis. Sandbags will need to be filled and placed by the homeowner. Contact the Streets Division at 970-879-1807 during normal office hours or dispatch at 970-879-1144 after hours to request this service. Commercial properties and residential neighborhoods with frequent needs must acquire their own sandbags. Those experiencing a flooding emergency should call 911.
NOAA released new climate normals for the United States this week. This is something that takes place every 10 years. The new normals use weather data from 1991 through 2020. The previous 30-year normals used weather records from 1981 through 2010.
The new normals show that over the past 10 years average temperatures have warmed for most of the lower 48 states when looking at the data from an annual perspective. There is an area with cooler temperatures stretching from Montana to the Dakotas. All of Colorado has warmed over the last decade with the biggest changes found in the southern part of the state.
As far as precipitation goes, a large part of the United States has become wetter over the last decade, which is something one would expect in a warmer world if there is a source to provide moisture. That’s because warmer air can hold more water vapor and water vapor contains energy that fuels storms.
You may notice that a lot of the wetter locations are east of the Rocky Mountains. Summertime wind patterns and the Gulf of Mexico play a big role in this. A predominant flow of wind from the south transports warm, humid air to that part of the country, setting the stage for afternoon showers and thunderstorms.
But the southwest United States, including Colorado, is trending drier when looking at the new climate normals. A warmer, drier climate can spawn severe long-term droughts and other hazards such as wildfires and water shortages. Unfortunately we’ve seen a lot of this in the past several years.
Fort Collins City Manager Darin Atteberry signed a Declaration and Order for a voluntary Water Shortage Watch pursuant to Fort Collins City Code Section 26-167(a) and the Water Shortage Action Plan (WSAP). The Water Shortage Watch and corresponding voluntary water restrictions (water-saving actions) went into effect Thursday, April 29 for Fort Collins Utilities water customers.
The Water Shortage Watch has been enacted due to possible limitations on Utilities’ ability to treat Cache la Poudre River supplies following the Cameron Peak Fire. Runoff and thunderstorms may cause sediment and ash from the burn area to flow into the river. This erosion, in addition to irrigation demands during what is projected to be a hot and dry summer, has the potential to create a water shortage.
Upon determination that a watch is no longer needed or that conditions have worsened, the city manager will publish another Declaration and Order, either declaring the end of the watch or indicating the need for mandatory water restrictions following guidelines identified in the WSAP. For more information on the WSAP, visit fcgov.com/WSAP.
A Water Shortage Watch is a voluntary action level in the WSAP, used when our community is experiencing conditions that may lead to a water shortage. During a watch, all Fort Collins Utilities residential and business customers are encouraged to voluntarily reduce water use based on best practices for efficient outdoor and indoor water use. There are no water rate increases or citations associated with a watch.
The voluntary water-saving actions implemented during a Water Shortage Watch follow measures under WSAP Action Level I, including limiting lawn watering to two days a week, no watering between 10 a.m. and 6 ppm, and using a shutoff nozzle on hoses, including while hand watering and washing vehicles at home.
Water pollution concerns have prompted the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to issue separate notices to two developers in Grand County.
In Kremmling, Blue Valley Ranch received notice dated April 13 for allegedly failing to submit monitor data for its wastewater treatment plant since December 2019. For that violation, Blue Valley Ranch faces a $3,000 fine.
At the Grand Park development in Fraser, a state representative inspected the Elk Creek Condos, the Meadows and a storage facility in early April and found the facilities were discharging “sediment-laden stormwater” into Elk Creek and the Fraser River.
In the report, the inspector noted there were no control measures around multiple locations at the Elk Creek Condos and the Meadows that allowed stormwater discharges or increased the potential for them…
Altogether, regulators found three sites they believed were operating in violation of the Colorado Water Quality Control Act, its regulations or a discharge permit.
In addition, based on inspections in September 2019 and August 2020, Elk Creek Condos and the Meadows were found to have incomplete stormwater management plans, multiple stormwater control measure concerns and incomplete inspection records. The storage facility on Old Victory Road is alleged to not have a discharge permit.
The notices alleged that “Grand Park Development failed to implement, select, design, install, and maintain control measures in accordance with good engineering, hydrologic, and pollution control practices to minimize the discharge of pollutants from all potential pollutant sources.”
The state also issued a notice of violation for the Mill Avenue apartments for starting construction without a discharge permit, but Lipscomb said state officials did so by mistake. The project had a permit under the Grand Park name before it was updated later with the Byers Peak Properties, according to permit documents provided by Grand Park.
Lipscomb said he expects that all of the notices will be addressed without consequence. Grand Park has 30 days from April 20, when the notices were issued, to respond to each alleged violation. A response has already been sent regarding the Mill Apartments.
If the state rejects the developer’s responses, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment could impose up to $10,000 per day in penalties. The state could also require Grand Park to hire a consultant to ensure compliance.
The notices state that the CDPHE investigation is ongoing and may supplement the notice with additional violations and required further actions.
CDPHE also issued a notice of violation to Blue Valley Ranch for failing to submit monitoring data for its wastewater treatment plant since December 2019, and the ranch is required to begin submitting the monitoring data for the treatment plant.
The notice received by Blue Valley Ranch adds that the CDPHE investigation is ongoing and may supplement the notice with further violations and required actions.
Like Grand Park, Blue Valley Ranch has 30 days to respond. Blue Valley Ranch representatives did not return the newspapers’ requests for comment.
Anyone who listens to weather reports has heard meteorologists comment that yesterday’s temperature was 3 degrees above normal, or last month was much drier than normal. But what does “normal” mean in this context – and in a world in which the climate is changing?
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has released updated “climate normals” – datasets that the agency produces every 10 years to give forecasters and the public baseline measurements of average temperature, rainfall and other conditions across the U.S. As the state climatologist and assistant state climatologist for Colorado, we work with this information all the time. Here’s what climate normals are, how they’ve changed, and how you can best make sense of them.
What are the new normals?
NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information released the new set of normals, covering 1991-2020, on May 4, 2021. Climatologists have been performing calculations on data from long-term observing stations around the country for a wide range of parameters, including high and low temperature, precipitation and snowfall.
The data also includes more detailed statistics, like the normal number of days below freezing or those with more than an inch of snowfall. NOAA puts data from individual stations onto a grid to enable the creation of useful maps for the entire country, even in places with relatively few observing stations. This provides a wealth of information for anyone interested in the climate of a specific area.
Why are normals updated?
The World Meteorological Organization sets international standards for climatological normals, defined as a 30-year periods that are regularly updated. The idea is to have global consistency for analysis. The 30-year normals also create a benchmark that represents recent climate conditions and serves as a reference for assessing current conditions.
Climate change highlights the need for regularly updating these normals. For the past 10 years, weather professionals have used the 1981-2010 climate normals as our reference. But we’ve observed above-average temperatures much more frequently than below-average temperatures from 1991-2020 for much of the U.S. Updating the normals is a way to calibrate to our most recently observed climate.
And as the climate continues to change, the further away in time we get from the “normal” period, the less representative that period will become. Using a very long period of time, or not regularly updating the period, could lead to including observations that would be extremely unlikely in our climate today.
On the other hand, there are situations in which it makes sense to consider periods longer than 30 years – for example, to understand long-term changes to the climate or to monitor extremes.
The concept of ‘normal’ in weather and climate
An old saying, often attributed to Mark Twain, asserts that “climate is what you expect, and weather is what you get.” Calculations of normal climate conditions for particular locations show how this works.
For example, data from the long-term weather and climate observing station in Fort Collins, Colorado, where we work, shows that precipitation in summer (June, July and August) over the 30 years from 1991 to 2020 varied significantly from year to year. The lowest summer rainfall was 1.48 inches in 2002 and the highest was 14.79 inches in 1997. Most years, it’s somewhere between 3 and 5 inches.
But few years match the average value, just shy of 5 inches. So even though we call this the “normal” amount of rainfall, in most years the total is higher or lower – sometimes by quite a bit.
Looking at summer temperatures from the same station, let’s compare the previous 30-year period, 1981-2010, with the most recent 30-year period, 1991-2020. The data shows a shift toward higher temperatures between the two time periods. The normal summer temperature increased by nearly 1 degree, from 69.6 to 70.4 F. This “new normal” for the past 30 years reflects climate warming that has occurred both locally and globally.
Across the continental U.S., the temperature rose by about 0.5 F on average from the 1981-2010 to 1991-2020 period. The new average is 1.2 F warmer than that of the 20th century. A couple of exceptions are cooling observed in the spring over the Northern Great Plains and cooling over the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic in November. December shows the greatest amount of warming.
Precipitation is more variable than temperature from year to year and decade to decade. As a result, the changes in normal precipitation represent a mix of effects from long-term climate change and natural variations.
Overall, the 2010s were very wet in much of the central and eastern U.S. and dry in the west, and the normals reflect that. Average annual rainfall in Houston increased by over an inch, to 55.6 inches per year, while at Phoenix, Arizona, it dropped from an already dry 8.02 inches to a parched 7.22 inches per year.
On a monthly basis, some of the most notable patterns to emerge are widespread drying in November, particularly over the Gulf states and along the Pacific Coast, and a wetter pattern over the eastern half of the country in April.
Shifting to new climate normals can have counterintuitive effects. For example, in the next few years there may be a better chance that you’ll see what are now described as cooler-than-normal temperatures in a given day or month. Using Fort Collins again as an example, before the update, a summer average temperature of 70 F would have been slightly warmer than normal. Now that same summer would go down as being slightly cooler than normal, even though it would still be warmer than around 100 of the 127 years in the history of that location.
Meteorologists and climatologists are already starting to incorporate these new normals into our work. But when you hear the term “normal,” keep in mind that it reflects a 30-year snapshot and represents a different reality today than it did 30, 60 or 100 years ago.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Two local irrigation districts are looking to replace the aging Grand Valley Power hydroelectric plant by the Colorado River near Palisade with a new, adjacent plant after deciding against trying to keep the old plant running.
The Orchard Mesa Irrigation District and Grand Valley Water Users Association expect to spend some $10 million, not counting cash spending and in-kind contributions to date, on what is to be called the Vinelands Power Plant. It will replace a plant that dates to the early 1930s.
The existing plant is owned by the federal Bureau of Reclamation but administered by the two local irrigation entities, with Orchard Mesa Irrigation overseeing day-to-day operations and Grand Valley Water Users diverting water for it. The local entities hold a lease of power privilege contract granted by Bureau of Reclamation to operate and maintain the existing plant, and will be negotiating a new lease with the agency for the new plant.
Those negotiations take place in public, and are scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. on Monday in a virtual meeting on a Microsoft Teams platform. Information on joining the meeting may be obtained by contacting Justyn Liff at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-248-0625.
A 30-minute public comment session will follow a scheduled two hours of negotiations, and negotiations will continue on another day if needed, said Ryan Christianson, water management chief for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Western Colorado Area Office.
Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, said the hope is to begin construction on the new plant this fall and to have it operating within a year or so afterward.
The irrigation entities had been proceeding on parallel tracks, both pursuing continued operation of the existing plant and considering the possibility of replacing it…
Only one of the current plant’s two turbines is being used now. Harris said if the plant were rehabilitated, it could produce up to about 3.5 megawatts of power, compared to close to 5 megawatts for the new one.
Power from the plant had been sold to Xcel Energy, but starting this year, it is being sold to Holy Cross Energy, based in Glenwood Springs.
Harris said the new plant will be owned 51% by irrigators and 49% by Idaho-based Sorenson Engineering, which will build it. Harris said the company has built several power plants for the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association.
The Palisade plant will be built on land owned by the Bureau of Reclamation and by Orchard Mesa Irrigation. The project also makes use of fairly senior federal water rights and a federal canal to supply the plant, which are also reasons why the lease with the Bureau of Reclamation is required.
For the plant’s owners, the project will produce revenues from selling power to Holy Cross. Harris said irrigators also benefit because water that supplies the plant also improves the ability to get irrigation water into a canal at the upstream “roller dam” diversion point at times when the Colorado River is running low.
However, the dam has broader benefits as well. Harris said the Bureau of Reclamation holds a water right for the plant of 400 cubic feet per second in the summer and 800 cfs in the winter. That water helps bolster flows immediately downstream in what’s known as the 15-mile reach, an area of critical importance for four endangered fish because water levels can fall so low between where irrigation diversions occur for Grand Valley uses and the Gunnison River meets the Colorado River downstream.
Keeping a power plant operating protects the federal water rights and helps in ensuring compliance with Endangered Species Act requirements to protect the fish, which Harris said benefits not just local irrigators but numerous other water diverters on the Colorado River in the state, including diverters of water to the Eastern Slope.
The plant’s benefit to the fish has helped in securing a lot of partner funding for the new plant, from sources such as the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, Bureau of Reclamation, Colorado Water Conservation Board and Colorado Water Trust.
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed a clear connection between access to clean water and public health, according to Navajo tribal member Bidtah Becker.
Becker is part of a group called the Water & Tribes Initiative that advocates for water access in Indian Country. She said the pandemic has made it easier to ask Congress for money to solve the problem.
“The conversation has shifted from, ‘Oh no, you could never get that amount of money.’ And there’s always a little subtext of, ‘Are you really deserving of that money?’” she said. “Now it’s like, ‘Yes. Everybody needs clean drinking water. No questions asked.”
Becker said a significant amount of funding is needed to bring clean, running water to every Native American household in the U.S.
Her group hired University of Utah law professor Heather Tanana to compile a report on the issues tribes in the Colorado River Basin face when it comes to clean water delivery. Tanana, who is Navajo, looked at four components: lack of infrastructure, contamination, increasing demand and insufficient maintenance funding.
“Even though we only looked at the Colorado River Basin tribes, we can confidently say every tribe in the U.S. is dealing with one of these issues,” she said.
Wind blowing down from burned forests caressed a knoll where leaders from the Biden administration and Congress sat in camp chairs Friday, looking over charts showing massive new fire breaks along Colorado’s Front Range, mobilizing to combat cascading climate warming impacts…
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a key player in carrying out President Joe Biden’s climate agenda, anchored this summit, calling the intensification of wildfires in the West a crisis and declaring “now is the time to dramatically infuse resources into forests.”
Americans “are becoming more sensitive to climate change, and forests play an incredibly important role. We’re committed to a net-zero U.S. agriculture industry by 2050, but that won’t make any difference if our forests continue to burn up… Hopefully people will see the necessity of investing,” Vilsack said in an interview.
Details of a proposed solar farm in western Pueblo County were discussed during a virtual public meeting Thursday. The Turkey Creek Solar Farm, if approved by Pueblo County Commissioners during the permitting process, will be built by 174 Power Global of Irvine, California, to supply solar power for Black Hills Energy. It will be located just north of U.S. Highway 50 one mile east of the Fremont/Pueblo County line. Approximately 1,200 to 1,400 acres will be used for the project, according to Ed Maddox, project development lead for 174 Power Global. The land will be leased from Gary Walker of Walker Ranches.
“We do consider both lease agreements and purchase options with land owners,” on projects like Turkey Creek, Maddox said. “In this particular case the land owner is a large local land owner who wants to continue to own and operate the ranch as it is, and leasing provides the best solution.” The permitting process is expected to take the remainder of the year with construction starting in 2022. “Over the 12- to 14-month construction period for Turkey Creek, we will have an average of about 300 workers during construction and that will vary from a minimum of about 150 to 450 or more workers during peak construction,” said Stephanie Lauer, environmental permitting manager for 174 Power Global. Once the solar farm begins operations in 2023, “We will have about three to five full-time workers who are responsible for daily maintenance of the facility and monitoring of all the systems,” Lauer said.
Additional local labor will be needed several times a year for vegetation mowing and washing of the panels. The solar panels will be aligned in rows running north to south and will be attached to a tracking system which allows the panels to track the sun from east to west as it moves. “They will be 10- to 14-feet high when they are tilted to their highest position,” Maddox said. When motorists are driving on U.S. 50 they will see portions of the solar farm, but the panels will not obstruct the view of the mountains, Maddox said.
Travelers will not be affected by glint or glare from the panels because of their dark grey color which will absorb light, not reflect it. Wildlife fencing will ensure pronghorn, elk and cattle will be able to access the underpass that allows animals to move under the highway.
The solar farm will generate enough electricity to power 46,000 homes each year, said Taylor Henderson, project developer for Out- shine Energy. Only a handful of questions came from the audience. One local landowner asked how the construction will impact traffic on Stone City Road. Lauer said she did not think the road will be used as workers will get to the site at two access points along U.S. 50.
Early this year, five of Gallup, New Mexico’s 16 water wells stopped producing water, including two of its biggest. After a few days of maintenance, two worked. The other three were out of commission for more than a month. Had it happened in summer, the city might have asked residents to dramatically reduce use…
The shortage isn’t wholly surprising — 20 years ago, the city decided it could limp along on aging groundwater wells with dropping water levels until a new water project began delivering San Juan River water in late 2024. The project is also connecting nearby Navajo communities, where many residents lack running water, an issue the Navajo Nation says is long past due and in need of a fix. But now a potential four-year delay could force a growing number of people to rely on these strained groundwater sources. A plan to keep taps from running dry will come with a price tag.
The situation highlights how precarious water has become for this city of almost 22,000 in western New Mexico and offers a peek inside the complicated mix of relationships, creativity and familiarity with multiple government agencies that’s required to manage water in the 21st century.
Gallup sits in the high desert along the red sandstone mesas of the Colorado Plateau. For much of its history, it has functioned as an industrial town and a bustling commercial center. Named in 1881 after railroad paymaster David L. Gallup, freight trains and Amtrak still rumble through, in addition to a steady flow of semi-truck traffic around the exits for Interstate-40. Surrounded by the Navajo Nation, on the first weekend of the month the town swells by 100,000 as people stream in for supplies. Those with no running water at home fill water containers. People do laundry, wash cars, go out to eat.
For decades, the Navajo Nation bordertown has relied on groundwater stored in sandstone layers deep underground. With no nearby rivers, wells tapping that water have been the city’s only option. But because annual rain and snowfall don’t replenish the water, levels have dropped over recent decades. In the 1990s, the city projected shortages by as early as 2010.
“Not only was Gallup running out of water, everybody was running out,” said Marc DePauli, owner of DePauli Engineering and Surveying, which the city has hired to work on the water systems. About 20 smaller surrounding water systems had “straws in the same bucket,” all leaning on dwindling reserves.
Help is coming in the form of the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, the result of a historic agreement that settled Navajo Nation claims to water in this arid region of the Southwest after decades of discussions.
Consisting of two major pipelines that run through Navajo communities in western New Mexico, the project will bring water from the San Juan River to within reach of some of the one in three homes without it on the Navajo Nation. One of the pipelines, the Cutter Lateral that branches to northwest New Mexico, is complete. The other, the San Juan Lateral, will move 37,700 acre feet of water each year for 200 miles along the western edge of the state, up to 7,500 acre-feet of which will come as far south as Gallup. In the future, the city will rely largely on water from the San Juan…
The water was supposed to flow by 2024, but a new design proposed by the Bureau of Reclamation will now likely push that date back by three to four years, putting Gallup in a tight spot, monetarily and water-wise. The construction delay coupled with the city shouldering more demand will require new wells to supply everyone until water from the San Juan arrives.
Thursday morning, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet released a statement welcoming a new federal initiative that supports a Senate effort he began in 2019. The Biden Administration’s “America the Beautiful” initiative is focused on achieving the conservation goal of conserving 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 through locally-led and voluntary efforts.
“Land and water conservation is a critical part of our effort to tackle the climate crisis. This report is a strong start and lays out a vision that aligns with the kind of conservation efforts we know to be successful in Colorado — efforts that take a locally led, collaborative, and inclusive approach and bring into the fold the private landowners, farmers, and ranchers who are already stewards of our natural resources. It’s the same approach that brought together the ranchers, hunters, anglers, and local elected leaders who worked for over a decade to draft the CORE Act.”
Bennet went on to say he was glad to see the administration’s commitment to empowering local communities to drive the process.
Here in Chaffee County, as in many other western counties and states, local conservation efforts have often been the driving force behind conservation efforts. In the past four years, they have also been the voice of local opposition to the opening of public lands to commercial development, and the marring of pristine public land and natural resources.
Last week, Utah State University hosted a webinar for natural resource professionals to discuss a drought reporting network called “Condition Monitoring Observer Reports.” Through a mobile app, Utah citizens can document drought impacts and submit their observations to a database used by state and university drought researchers and scientists. The data can help give scientists a more qualitative, detailed understanding of on-the-ground conditions and impacts of drought. Are farmers’ crops, or ranchers’ grazing areas, being affected? Are recreation areas changing? Photographs showing a location in a wet year and later in a dry year can give helpful comparative references.
Details like these, giving a fuller picture of what it means to be in a condition of drought, are increasingly important to scientists, policy-makers, and citizens of the Southwest as we grapple with the ongoing dry conditions. On March 17, Utah Governor Spencer Cox declared Utah to be in a state of emergency due to drought; 90% of the state is considered to be in “extreme” drought, and the entire state is in at least “moderate” drought. All of Grand County is in the “extreme” category, and some of the county is in the even more severe “exceptional” drought category.
An extreme demonstration of the drought is the current level of Lake Powell, which is nearing historic lows. At the beginning of the 2021 water year, the lake was at 48% of capacity, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. In an April 15 update, the bureau reported that the lake had dipped even further to just 36% of capacity at the end of March.
The lake’s current shoreline looks very different than in higher water years; one family of visitors even discovered a shipwrecked boat, now completely emerged from the receded water. Receding waters have stranded boat ramps and drained marinas, however, the low lake levels could have much graver consequences than altered recreation experiences.
The lake level at the end of March, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, was about 3,567 above sea level. If the level drops to 3,525 feet above sea level, normal hydropower production and water releases from the lake are at risk.
The 2019 Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, agreed upon by the states who rely on the Colorado River for water, dictates that if reservoir levels reach critical lows, Upper Basin states will need to initiate drastic conservation measures to increase those water levels.
Water conservation has been a concern locally, with the Moab City Council holding discussions in recent months about Moab Valley water resources. The Glen Canyon aquifer provides most of Moab’s drinking water, and scientific studies in recent years have raised concerns about “safe yield” levels, or how much water per year it is safe to draw from the aquifer while still allowing it to recharge. Marc Stilson, regional engineer for the Utah Division of Water Rights, gave a presentation at the May 4 Grand County Commission meeting, updating elected officials on the division’s recent work. A six-year study by the U.S. Geological Survey, to which the state Division of Water Rights contributed, attempted to determine how much groundwater is in the valley.
Here’s the release from the Vail Recreation District via The Vail Daily:
The 2021 Eagle River Water & Sanitation District Vail Whitewater Race Series is almost here.
The Vail Recreation District offers five events on Gore Creek on Tuesdays from May 11 to June 8. This is a chance to test your paddling skills and compete against others. Register for individual races or the whole series.
For 2021, the Vail Recreation District is excited to introduce a new title sponsor for the series, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District.
“The Vail Whitewater Race Series is a great example of how our community thrives on water. Whether it’s snow, our rivers, or the safe water we deliver to homes and businesses every day, clean water is vital to our quality of life,” said Eagle River Water & Sanitation District’s Diane Johnson. “As stewards of our rivers, we encourage everyone to reduce their impact on local streams by reducing their outdoor water use.”
The Vail Recreation District also partners with the Town of Vail and Alpine Quest Sports to put on these exciting races, held at the Vail Whitewater Park on Tuesday evenings beginning at 5:30 p.m. The first four races start at the Covered Bridge in Vail Village and end at International Bridge.
The last race on June 8 will start at the Ampitheater Bridge in Ford Park. Overall series prizes will be awarded following the final race.
The races will be divided between three categories including kayak (under 9-feet-6), two-person raft (R2) and stand-up paddleboard (SUP) with different course challenges every week. Open to paddlers ages 16 and up with intermediate to expert abilities, the skills to run Class III whitewater in your chosen craft are required. The two-round format will consist of an individual time trial with results determining the seeding for the second round, a head-to-head race.
Please note that for 2021 the Vail Recreation District has limited rafts for use, so the R2 category will be limited to 15 teams. Preregistration is highly encouraged.
An after-party will also be hosted in Vail Village each week with prizes awarded to the winners of all three categories. For the first race on Tuesday, the after-party will take place at the Altitude Bar & Grill. All race participants over 21 will receive free beer courtesy of New Belgium Brewing Company!
Registration is available at http://www.vailrec.com/register. Series registration for kayak and SUP participants is $60 and series registration for R2 participants is $80 per team.
Individual race registration for kayak and SUP participants is $15 preregistered or $20 day-of, and $20 preregistered or $30 day-of for R2 teams. Preregistration is highly encouraged and ends at 5 p.m. the day before each race. If space is still available, on-site, day-of registration will begin at 4:30 p.m. at the Vail Whitewater Park and all participants should be present at the safety talk at 5:15 p.m.
Every registered participant at each race will be entered to win a $1,000 gift certificate from Hala Gear that can be used towards a board and paddle package of their choice. The winner will be drawn after the final race so make sure you attend that last after-party!
The Vail Recreation District will be following all state and county COVID-19 guidelines for this upcoming race season.
For more information, visit vailrec.com, call the VRD Sports Department at 970-479-2280 or email email@example.com.
Be sure to check out this short, but great video overflight of 3 dam systems that are being proposed to be built within the Little Colorado River Gorge. These dams would significantly impact unique cultural landscapes that are important for several Indigenous tribes, as well as impact critical, natural habitat for the endangered Humpback Chub. […]
Click here to read the discussion from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center. Here’s an excerpt:
The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center (CBRFC) geographic forecast area includes the Upper Colorado River Basin, Lower Colorado River Basin, and Eastern Great Basin.
Water Supply Forecast Summary
Early May water supply volume forecasts are below to much below normal throughout the Colorado River Basin and Great Basin. Upper Colorado River Basin water supply forecasts range between 15-75% of the 1981-2010 historical April-July average. Great Basin water supply forecasts are 10-70% of average. Water supply guidance as a percent of average decreased by 10-20% across the majority of the Upper Colorado River Basin and decreased by 5-15% across the majority of the Great Basin over the past month. Many April-July volume forecasts fall in the bottom (driest) five on record. Water supply forecast ranges (percent of normal) by basin are listed below.
April average temperatures were slightly below normal across the north and slightly above normal across the south. April precipitation was mostly below to well below normal across the Upper Colorado Basin and Great Basin. Several SNOTELs in the San Juan, Gunnison, and Yampa River Basins were below the 10th percentile for April precipitation. Below normal soil moisture and snowpack conditions in addition to below average April precipitation and relatively mild (near normal) April temperatures across the Upper Colorado River Basin and Great Basin lead to mostly below normal and in some cases record low observed April flows (unregulated streamflow volumes) across the region. A number of streamflow sites had record low April flows with many locations falling in the bottom five of their period of record.
Snow water equivalent (SWE) at the majority of SNOTEL stations across the region peaked between 70-85% of the normal peak SWE. Early May SWE conditions are below to much below normal (median) throughout the CBRFC forecast area. Upper Colorado River Basin SWE conditions generally range between 50-75% of the 1981-2010 historical median and Great Basin SWE generally ranges between 30-60% of normal.
April-July unregulated inflow forecasts for some of the major reservoirs in the Upper Colorado River Basin include Fontenelle 380 KAF (52% of average), Flaming Gorge 450 KAF (46%), Green Mountain 150 KAF (55%), Blue Mesa 340 KAF (50%), McPhee 81 KAF (27%), and Navajo 325 KAF (44%). The Lake Powell inflow forecast is 2.0 MAF (28% of average), a 17% decrease from April.
In response to increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 400 cfs on Saturday, May 8th, starting at 0400 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).
The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell. Please be advised, due to the dry conditions this year, more release changes than usual may occur.
During April, the average temperature of the contiguous United States was 51.9°F, 0.9°F above the 20th-century average. This ranked in the middle third of the 127-year period of record. The year-to-date (January-April) average contiguous U.S. temperature was 40.7°F, 1.6°F above average, ranking in the warmest third of the record. The April precipitation total for the contiguous U.S. was 2.03 inches, 0.49 inch below average, and ranked as the 14th-driest April in the 127-year period of record. This was the driest April since 1989. The year-to-date precipitation total was 8.63 inches, 0.85 inch below average and ranked in the driest third of the January-April record.
The preliminary count of 73 tornadoes reported in April was the lowest April total since 53 tornadoes were reported in 1992 and was also nearly half of the April 1991-2010 average of 155 tornadoes.
This monthly summary from NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information is part of the suite of climate services NOAA provides to government, business, academia and the public to support informed decision-making.
Temperatures were above average across much of the West Coast, Southwest, Northeast, Great Lakes and parts of southern Texas and Florida. Maine ranked fifth warmest on record for April.
A large portion of the southern Plains and Gulf Coast states experienced below-average temperatures, as did portions of the northern and central Rockies, northern and central Plains and the Tennessee Valley.
The Alaska April temperature was 23.6°F, 0.3°F above the long-term average, ranking in the middle third of the 97-year period of record. In general, the interior portions of the state were cooler than average, while the Aleutians experienced above-average temperatures for the month.
Despite the mild average, large temperature swings were seen throughout the month as records were set for both coldest temperatures seen so late and warmest temperatures seen so early in the season across portions of Alaska.
Bering Sea ice cover for April was 80 percent of average and the highest for April since 2016.
A majority of the Lower 48 experienced below-average precipitation during April with four states across the West ranking among their 10-driest Aprils on record. Oregon ranked third driest while California ranked fifth driest on record for April. Precipitation was above average across portions of the northwest Great Lakes, New England, Midwest, southern Plains and Gulf Coast.
April is climatologically either the driest or second-driest month of the year across Alaska. For April 2021, precipitation received was above average for the state as a whole. Fairbanks saw significant April snowfall with more than 16 inches reported for the month — its second-highest April total on record.
According to the April 27 U.S. Drought Monitor report, 48.4 percent of the contiguous U.S. was in drought, up nearly 4.5 percent since the end of March. Drought conditions intensified and/or expanded across the eastern Great Lakes, Northeast, northern Rockies, northern Plains and the West Coast. Drought intensity and/or severity lessened across portions of the Upper Mississippi Valley, southern Plains and central Rockies.
Temperatures were above average over much of the West, northern Plains, Great Lakes, Northeast and Southeast. Maine ranked fifth warmest on record for the first four months of the year. Below-average temperatures were primarily found across portions of the southern Plains.
The Alaska January-April temperature was 11.1°F, 0.8°F above the long-term average and ranked in the middle third of the record. Temperatures were below average across portions of the Southeast Interior, Northeast Gulf and Cook Inlet regions and above average over much of the Bristol Bay and Aleutian regions.
Below-average precipitation extended from the West Coast to the northern Plains and from the southwestern Great Lakes to the Northeast, and across southern Texas. North Dakota ranked driest for this four-month period while Montana and Connecticut ranked seventh and ninth driest, respectively. Above-average precipitation was limited to portions of the central Plains, northwest Great Lakes, central Gulf Coast and parts of the Southeast.
Precipitation across Alaska for the January-April period ranked in the wettest third of the 97-year record.
Steamboat Springs has been seeing some much needed rain to start the month of May, which is historically the wettest month of the year for the Yampa Valley.
The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, which is a collection of volunteers that submit data to the Colorado Climate Center, have observed about 0.3 inches of rain in Steamboat since Sunday…
Despite recent rain, however, water experts say it’s not enough.
“There hasn’t been a tremendous amount of rain, and it is pretty standard for us to get some spring rain, so I don’t think it is going to overcome the deficit that we were already in,” said Erin Light, Division 6 engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.
Light placed water restrictions on the river last year and in 2018, but it is still too early to know if that will be needed this year. She said they are working with the Colorado River District to find ways to avoid a call, potentially releasing water from Elkhead Reservoir.
If a call is avoided, Light said it would likely be because of this collaboration. Still, reservoir releases don’t necessarily fix the problem.
“It doesn’t eliminate the fact that there may be no more stream flow left in the river,” Light said. “It is very possible that we are going to get to a point where our natural stream flow runoff has gone to nothing, and the only thing we are seeing in the river is reservoir water at certain locations.”
This is what happened at the end of summer 2020 and in 2018 to trigger the call.
Light said she is mainly looking at stream flows particularly farther down the river. She focuses on the gauges near Maybell and Deerlodge Park that are both in Moffat County, downstream from many irrigators that pull from the Yampa River west of Steamboat.
“You can only put so many straws in the river before you start to run out of water,” Light said, adding that both of the gauges have hit record lows in recent weeks…
At 10 a.m. Wednesday, both gauges showed flows were only about 20% as strong as they were this time last year. When looking at three-month outlooks, it suggests this summer will be both hotter and drier than normal, Light said.
Steamboat typically receives about 2.5 inches of rain in May, according to the 30-year average from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The year of COVID-19, a yoyo ride with China exports, processor uncertainty, head-spinning pricing, the rising reality of a drought devastating rangelands, and the need to fight off swarms of animal rights attacks, not the least of which is the Initiative 16, aimed at terminating livestock husbandry, leaves the typical meat producers gasping for breath and fighting for his/her life.
While demand is up well over last year and prices are climbing, Colorado ranchers face some uncertain times. Consumers will be facing higher prices, especially in the food service industry. Packers say there is plenty of beef in the pipeline. But demand is raising numbers. Last year a tenderloin was selling at about $8 a pound. The uptick in wholesale prices has the same cut now selling for double that. One would think this is good medicine for cattle producers. But other factors are at work. One is the lack of water…
The Forest Service and BLM managers are presently looking at dropping permit carrying numbers by as much as 20 to 40%. For a permit allowing, say 15 cows per section, that is a call for serious herd culling…
Daris Jutten, a member of the Uncompahgre Water Users Association board looks at the situation from a water manager and rancher perspective.
“I think it (the cattle count) has to be going down. The whole west is in a serious drought,” he says. On the numbers, Jutten sees maybe 30% less turned out to grass (turned onto summer range) in the west, as a whole.”
Kurt Sanburg, longtime Bostwick Park operator, says about the moisture, “We haven’t received a 10th of an inch yet but it’s drizzling (on Monday this week). I will be reducing our number of cows pretty significantly. I will drop the cow count by as much as 25%,” he says.
Meanwhile, another Sanburg, Hugh, who ranches a lot of the southern slope of the Grand Mesa, is looking at down numbers as are his neighbors. “There have (already) been some reductions around here due to the drought conditions. I don’t have a crystal ball, but if the severe drought conditions persist through the summer, I would expect to see more movement of cattle within the drought affected areas.”
Sanburg is referring to moving cattle off the range, in other words culling. All the while, praying for rain…
Colorado fed cattle prices bottomed out in July of last year at about $91/cwt. The prices have been up and down and up again until April 22, when they hit $123. But, with costs continuing to go up and range capacity falling, marginal producers will be looking at slim times. That is a sad thing to report considering the rocket ride that whole beef prices are on as restaurant ramps up from the Covid-19 crater of last year.
The slaughter count on all beef is hovering in the high range, although below the peak last year that occurred just before the drastic tumble when the COVID and packer crises hit.
It’s been a noticeably wet and snowy start to the year in Denver. In fact, it’s been the wettest start to a year since the early 1940s.
The Mile High City has seen close to 8 inches of precipitation this year already thanks to the big March blizzard bringing us the equivalent amount of moisture as a monsoon thunderstorm as well as multiple over-performing weather events after that.
Annually, Denver picks up just over 14 inches of precipitation, leaving us well ahead of schedule as we head into the hot, summer months…
Most of the recent storms have been helping out the northern Front Range and the northern Front Range only. Areas near Grand Junction, Telluride, Durango, Pagosa Springs and Glenwood Springs are suffering from severe and exceptional drought and have been for quite some time.
Since May 2019, select areas across the Western Slope and southwest Colorado have seen the rainfall deficit grow to over 20 inches, but most areas have a deficit between 12 and 20 inches over the past two years. The drought that has been ongoing in this area of the state has been growing in size and intensity, leaving the upcoming summer a season with looming fire and water supply concerns.
The Standardized Precipitation-Evapotranspiration Index measures drought in an area based on the size and duration and until recently, the worst SPEI reading for the Western Slope came in 2002 with a value of -1.7. The current SPEI index is sitting at -2.1, the worst that has ever been seen since records started in the late 1800s and a very concerning number as we head into the hot, dry months.
As the national climate advisor, Gina McCarthy has the ear of President of Joe Biden in all matters climate.
But in the opening session of the 21st Century Energy Transition Symposium on Tuesday, she barely mentioned climate except to vaguely affirm “the science” and to describe the Biden response to climate change as a “very different framing than we’ve had before.”
The framing she described is that of opportunity in the clean energy economy—including the potential for Colorado to be part of the solutions needed in the energy shift.
“We have to look at the opportunities (in a clean energy economy) and get people excited about the benefits it brings to them,” she said before describing cleaner air and jobs.
“(Biden) embraced this not as a wonky science problem but fundamentally a people problem,” she said.
McCarthy described her job as sitting at the table with the cabinet secretaries, making sure that there’s a climate change overlay in all matters, whether housing or transportation, and helping knit together the response. It isn’t to be just an Environmental Protection Agency problem or a Department of Energy problem.
“It has to be a whole government approach because without that we would lose these synergies and these momentums,” she said.
Biden, she said, saw the response to climate change delivering answers to how we get out of the pandemic and restart the economy. Economic strategies that result in investment of “tremendous resources in a way that wins the clean energy future” will also fuel economic growth. As for covid and climate, addressing their challenges both require acceptance of science.
Another major driver of Biden’s view of domestic policy was the new lens of equity, including that of environmental or energy justice. The pandemic showed that impacts did not hit all communities equally, and by extension, energy systems of the past had more deleterious impacts to some groups than others. This understanding should be seen less as a challenge than a reckoning, said McCarthy.
Not all answers to reducing greenhouse gas pollution are yet evident, even if there are strong winds in the sails of renewable generation of electricity. That’s OK, she said.
“We don’t always need the answer,” she said. “We need to be leaning forward and looking at where we want to go.”
That was a theme in the two-day conference. In session after session, speakers described both clear direction going forward in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from energy, but uncertainties that they hope will be resolved in the next 5 to 10 years.
“That we don’t have all the answers shouldn’t be a barrier to action in the short term,” said Bryan Willson, executive director of the Energy Institute at Colorado State University.
“We don’t need to let the perfect get in the way of the good,” said Steven Hamburg, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. If uncertainties should not delay forward movement of the broad strokes of action, he counseled caution to avoid “big and expensive mistakes.”
Executives at Colorado’s two largest electrical utilities, Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation & Transmission, described a similar mix of bold actions and uncertainty.
In 2020, coal-fired generation delivered 26% and natural gas 38% of electricity distributed by Xcel. The company projects coal generation will fall to 4% and natural gas 16% by 2030.
That remaining coal-fired power will come from Comanche 3, the only coal-fired plant in Colorado that Xcel plans to continue operating, but at a reduced rate. Why not also close Comanche 3?
Alice Jackson, chief executive of Xcel’s Colorado division, explained that continuing operation of Comanche 3 will ensure a softer financial transition for Pueblo County, where the plant is located. The plant will also be needed to ensure reliability, as storage needs technological advancement and lower prices. “It’s really a broad evaluation and not just one factor,” she said.
Tri-State also awaits some technological innovation. It plans to close its three units at Craig in 2025, 2028 and 2029. Duane Highley, the chief executive, said Tri-State has closely been monitoring technological innovation in hopes of technology that can store energy for days, not just hours. “We’re looking hard at hydrogen and also looking at ammonia,” he said. QUESTION
Transmission also figures prominently into the thinking about the energy systems of the next decade. One Colorado energy official calls it the “secret sauce” necessary for deep decarbonization.
In Colorado, electrical demand is projected to grow 50% in the next 30 years as we electrify transportation and, a little more slowly, replace fossil fuels in heating our homes and water. Xcel has proposed investment of $1.7 billion in new transmission lines in eastern Colorado. Other utilities have not yet played their cards.
But some energy analysts see need for even more ambitious investment in a grid that better links different parts of the country so that renewable energy can be matched with demands.
The Texas disaster in February helps illustrate why. Texas was ill-equipped for the deep freeze. It lost natural gas generation because of lack of winterization. But it almost completely lost wind generation, which plummeted from 68,000 megawatts to 2,000 megawatts as the storm began dropping a rare three-inch snowfall on Houston. Had Texas been connected with regions of the country where the sun was shining or the wind blowing, it might have imported enough power to keep on the lights.
It wasn’t just Texas, though. The same loss of wind generation that accompanied the deep freeze posed worrisome problems to Fort Collins-based Platte River Power Authority, which issued a precautionary warning. Tri-State also noted the loss of wind generation in the still atmosphere that accompanied the cold.
More transmission can allow utilities to draw on a broader menu of renewables in such situations, even on a daily basis. The Great Plains boast great winds, the Southwest blazes with solar.
How is this knitting together to be done? Transmission in western states must inevitable cross the vast public lands. In Colorado, 36.2% of the state is administered by federal land agencies, principally the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. New Mexico is close behind at 35%. Wyoming is 48%. In Utah, it’s 70%.
“On public lands, as important as they are, a balance has to be struck,” said McCarthy, “but the balance cannot get in the way of effectively addressing climate change, which is an existential threat to all of us.” And, she added, hewing to the sales pitch of the Biden administration, “to take advantage of the economic benefits that a clean energy jobs provide.”
McCarthy, a live wire herself in her public appearances, also pointed to the joint announcement by the federal transportation and energy departments of a plan to expand use of rights of way for highway and railroads for transmission. This will help more expeditious investment in transmission, she said.
“There are probably 20 areas where we would be able to immediately make investments in transmission in ways to utilize those rights of ways to open up new transmission and opportunities for renewable energy,” she said.
Colorado has a goal of 80% decarbonization of the electrical grid by 2030 and 50% decarbonization of its economy altogether. Biden had offered a far more aggressive target, 100% decarbonization of the electrical grid by 2035 and a 50% to 52% economy wide target.
To push this decarbonization of electricity, McCarthy said she leans toward a clean energy standard, as advocated by Holy Cross Energy, an electrical cooperative, and 12 other utilities from New York to California, in a letter sent to Biden in April. The letter called for a federal requirement that electrical utilities be able to supply 80% of their power from non-carbon sources by 2030 as compared to 2005 levels.
“If you nationalize, you get some terrific opportunities,” said McCarthy. “Most of us are shifting from cap and trade, because of the complexity, but looking more at direct investments and things like the clean electricity standard.”
Carbon pricing, she added, “is not something that is going away. I just find it less satisfying.”
In all this, the Biden administration sees need for more research. McCarthy mentioned technological innovations that have occurred in the last 50 years since the United States put Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the moon. The federal government has often played a role in instigating technological innovation, she said, using federal funds to spur innovation and investment in the private sector.
McCarthy said the Department of Energy has billions of dollars of loans and an accelerator that uses the green bank model.
Colorado State University has already played a role in the Biden administration’s view of innovation, Ritter told McCarthy in what he described as a “shameless plug.”
A group of researchers and academics at CSU was the source of an idea contained in the Biden campaign Energy and Environment Platform. That idea, to create an advanced research project agency for climate, also called an ARPA-C, within the Department of Energy, has become part of the Biden budget proposal.
It would stand alongside the existing ARPA-E, which is devoted to technical solutions. For example, it recently announced a $35 million grant program for ideas to reduce emission of methane from oil and gas supply chains, coal mines and other sources.
CSU’s idea, Ritter explained, is to offer a multi-disciplinary—and not purely technical approach—to climate solutions. Those in the social sciences would be included.
“When you are making a shameless plug, it’s good to be telling the truth,” McCarthy replied. “It’s well deserved.”
Reservoir expected to reach only about 90% of capacity this summer
The dry, warm month of April prevented the snowpack from building and sunk the chances to fill Ruedi Reservoir this summer, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation…
The snowpack in the upper Fryingpan Valley was only about 60% of median as of May 1, he said. Forecasts are for runoff into the reservoir to be only about 55% of average…
Ruedi Reservoir is at about 60% full right now. It holds 102,000 acre-feet of water. It would need about 42,000 acre-feet to fill.
Current projections are for it to reach about 90,000 acre-feet this summer, according to Miller…
The Roaring Fork River basin, like much of Colorado and the Western United States, has been battling a prolonged drought. AccuWeather Inc. reported Wednesday that 75% of the Western U.S. is experiencing drought conditions. About 21% of the areas are facing exceptional drought, which is the most extreme…
A lower water level in the reservoir also will mean lower releases into the lower Fryingpan River through the summer. Water levels won’t be as high as usual in late spring and early summer, so there won’t be a disruption to the Gold Medal trout stream.
However, low water levels and high summer temperatures are a regular cause for concern. The Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy has sounded the alarm in past summers about high water temperatures stressing trout.
Water releases could increase in June once downstream entities that possess senior water rights make a “call” for water for agricultural uses, Miller said.
April Long, director of the Ruedi Water and Power Authority, said the reservoir is used to meeting numerous water needs in the Roaring Fork Valley and on the Colorado River system. It is hard to know the full impact of the reservoir not filling, she said.
In response to forecast warmer weather and increasing flows in the critical habitat reach, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 500 cfs on Friday, May 7th, starting at 0400 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).
The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell. Please be advised, due to the dry conditions this year, more release changes than usual may occur.
Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.
US Drought Monitor map May 4, 2021.
West Drought Monitor map May 4, 2021.
High Plains Drought Monitor map May 4, 2021.
Colorado Drought Monitor map May 4, 2021.
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
This U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) week saw an active weather pattern with severe weather observed across portions of the central and southern Plains, Texas, mid-South, Midwest, and the Northeast. In Texas, 7-day rainfall accumulations ranged from 2 to 10+ inches leading to significant improvement in drought-related conditions across the state. Likewise, areas of northeastern Colorado and portions of the central Plains received much-needed rainfall (2-to-4-inch accumulations) leading to improvements on the map. Out West, 83% of the region is currently in moderate-to-exceptional drought with the most severe conditions centered on the Four Corners states, California, and Nevada. In California, conditions deteriorated on this week’s map in response to a combination of factors including back-to-back dry water years, above-normal temperatures, below-normal snowpack, and drought impacts (agricultural, ecosystem health, water supply, recreation)…
On this week’s map, areas of the region—including Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming—saw improvements, including a reduction in areas of Severe Drought (D2) in southwestern Nebraska and northwestern Kansas as well as in areas of Moderate Drought (D1) in northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming. In northeastern Colorado, 2 to 4+ inches of rainfall were observed during the past week, which provided a timely boost in soil moisture conditions for recently planted crops. Elsewhere, areas of Extreme Drought (D3) expanded in northern South Dakota and southern North Dakota. In northwestern South Dakota, the town of Lemmon saw its driest January through April period on record with only 0.71 inches of precipitation observed. The South Dakota State Extension and the North Dakota State Climate Office are both reporting drought-related impacts in their respective states, including poor water quality for livestock and dry stock ponds. In western North Dakota, dry conditions and strong winds have been exacerbating fire-related conditions as firefighters are battling two wildfires in the Dakota Prairie Grasslands. Average temperatures for the week were above normal across the region with positive temperature anomalies ranging from 2 to 9 deg F above normal…
On this week’s maps, areas of drought expanded across California, Oregon, and Washington following a very dry April. In California, areas of Extreme Drought (D3) expanded across the northern and central Sierra Nevada, as well as in areas of the San Joaquin Valley where water deliveries have been severely reduced due to the poor snowpack conditions across the Sierra (59% of normal on April 1 statewide) and below normal reservoir conditions. For the Water Year (since October 1), precipitation across most of California has been much below normal (bottom 10th percentile) with some locations—including areas of southeastern California, and the greater Bay Area—experiencing record or near-record dryness. In Marin County, the Marin Water District declared a water shortage emergency on April 20 in response to Marin’s total reservoir storage level dipping to 50% of capacity, whereas average storage for the date (May 4) is normally 90% of capacity. California’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville, were at 50% and 42% of normal, respectively, on May 4. Across the region, statewide reservoir storage levels were below normal in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, and Washington according to the NRCS on April 1. On the Colorado River system, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (May 5) is reporting Lake Mead at 38% of capacity while upstream Lake Powell is 35% full. In Oregon, drought-related conditions continue to deteriorate in western Oregon after a dry April. On the map, areas of D1 to D4 expanded in Oregon this week in response to a rapid decline of the mountain snowpack across the Cascades in addition to anomalously dry soils and well-below-normal streamflow levels. For the week, average temperatures were above normal (2 to 10 deg F) across most of the West, with the exception of areas of southeastern Arizona and southern New Mexico where temperatures were 2 to 9 deg F below normal…
On this week’s map, widespread improvements in areas of drought were made across Texas (and southern and eastern Oklahoma) in response to significant precipitation accumulations (ranging from 2 to 10+ inches) with areas along the Texas Gulf Coast and the Hill Country receiving the heaviest accumulations. The slow-moving front that entered the region last week brought severe storms with frequent lighting, tornados, and softball-sized hail that caused extensive property damage with damage estimates expected to exceed $3 billion. This week’s rainfall significantly improved soil moisture levels across much of Texas, but negative soil moisture anomalies remained across the Trans-Pecos and the Texas Panhandle regions according to the NASA Crop-CASMA. According to Water Data for Texas (May 4), monitored water supply reservoirs are currently 83.6% full, with most of the reservoirs in the eastern half of the state ~80% to 100% full and reservoirs in the western half of the state generally <50% full. Average temperatures for the week were below normal (2 to 10 deg F) in the Trans-Pecos, Edwards Plateau, and southern High Plains regions of Texas, whereas the rest of the region was above normal with the greatest anomalies (5 to 15+ deg F) observed in eastern Texas…
The NWS WPC 7-Day Quantitative Precipitation Forecast (QPF) calls for moderate-to-heavy liquid accumulations ranging from 2 to 4+ inches across the mid-South and lower Midwest while portions of the Plains, Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and the Southeast are expected to receive <1-inch accumulations. In the Intermountain West and Pacific Northwest, light precipitation (<1-inch accumulations) is forecasted for areas of the central and northern Rockies, and portions of the Cascades. The CPC 6-10-day Outlook calls for a moderate-to-high probability of above-normal temperatures in the Far West, Southwest, Great Basin, and Florida while a high probability of below-normal temperatures is forecasted across most of the Eastern Tier. In terms of precipitation, there is a moderate probability of above-normal precipitation across areas of the central and southern Plains, as well as the southeastern tier of the U.S. Below-normal precipitation is expected across the Pacific Northwest, Great Plains, and areas of the Intermountain West.
Here’s the one week change map ending May 4, 2021.
Just for grins here are US Drought Monitor maps for early May for the past few years.
A network of streams, lakes and marshes in Florida is suing a developer and the state to try to stop a housing development from destroying them.
The novel lawsuit was filed on Monday in Orange county on behalf of the waterways under a “rights of nature” law passed in November. It is the largest US municipality to adopt such a law to date.
The listed plaintiffs are Wilde Cypress Branch, Boggy Branch, Crosby Island Marsh, Lake Hart and Lake Mary Jane.
Laws protecting the rights of nature are growing throughout the world, from Ecuador to Uganda, and have been upheld in courts in India, Colombia and Bangladesh. But this is the first time anyone has tried to enforce them in the US.
The Orange county law secures the rights of its waterways to exist, to flow, to be protected against pollution and to maintain a healthy ecosystem. It also recognizes the authority of citizens to file enforcement actions on their behalf.
The suit, filed in the ninth judicial circuit court of Florida, claims a proposed 1,900-acre housing development by Beachline South Residential LLC would destroy more than 63 acres of wetlands and 33 acres of streams by filling and polluting them, as well as 18 acres of wetlands where stormwater detention ponds are being built.
In addition to seeking to protect the waterways’ intrinsic rights, the suit claims the development would disrupt the area’s hydrology and violate the human right to clean water because of pollution runoff from new roads and buildings.
Chuck O’Neal, president of campaign group Speak Up Wekiva who will be representing the wetlands in court, told the Guardian he looks forward to giving them a voice. “Our waterways and the wildlife they support have been systematically destroyed by poorly planned suburban sprawl. They have suffered in silence and without representation, until now.”
The housing development, known as the “Meridian Parks Remainder Project”, needs a development permit from the city of Orlando and a dredge-and-fill permit from the Florida department of environmental protection to proceed. The suit seeks to block these from being issued.
O’Neal said he hopes the court “reaches beyond current conventional thinking” in considering the case. “This is how the evolution of rights has occurred in western law since the signing of the Magna Carta through the abolition of slavery, through women’s suffrage and through court decisions such as Brown vs the Board of Education and most recently the acceptance of marriage equality.”
Thomas Linzey, senior legal counsel at the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights who helped secure Orange county’s rights of nature law last year, said: “Given the rampant development that’s occurred in Florida over the past 30 years, and the power struggle between the state government and local government over these issues, there are multiple grounds for a court to hold that the development cannot proceed as proposed.”
State work group trying to balance risks from investors, negative impacts to agriculture
Melting snow and flowing irrigation ditches mean spring has finally arrived at the base of Grand Mesa in western Colorado.
Harts Basin Ranch, a 3,400-acre expanse of hayfields and pasture just south of Cedaredge, in Delta County, is coming back to life with the return of water.
Twelve hundred of the ranch’s acres are irrigated with water from Alfalfa Ditch, diverted from Surface Creek, which flows down the south slopes of the Grand Mesa. The ranch has the No. 1 priority water right — meaning the oldest, which comes with the ability to use the creek’s water first — dating to 1881.
What makes the ranch unique among its Grand Mesa-area neighbors is its owner. Conscience Bay Company, a Boulder-based private real estate investment firm, bought the property in 2017.
That fact alone has brought its owners scrutiny from neighbors and Western Slope water managers. Conscience Bay and its president, Eli Feldman, have been accused of water speculation — which means buying up the ranch just for its senior water rights and hoarding them for a future profit.
That is an accusation Feldman denies.
“Any time you come into a place that you’re not from, people are curious at best and skeptical and concerned at worst,” he said.
The ranch raises organic beef using regenerative techniques that operators say are better for soil health. Conscience Bay holds grazing permits on tracts of public land in western Colorado and Utah where the cattle feast on grass before being sent to California to be finished, slaughtered and sold under the brand name SunFed Ranch.
To the charges that he’s doing something untoward by investing in the ranch’s land and abundant water rights, Feldman said he’s just like any other major water user in the state putting it to beneficial use. The ranch is using the water to irrigate, he said.
“We’re growing grass and feeding it to cows and trying to improve the ground, improve the soil health and make a business out of it,” Feldman said.
Speculation work group
The conversation around water speculation has been heating up in Colorado in recent months. At the direction of state lawmakers, a work group has been meeting regularly to explore ways to strengthen the state’s anti-speculation law. The topic frequently comes up at meetings of Western Slope water managers: the Colorado River Water Conservation District, basin roundtables and boards of county commissioners.
Investments such as Feldman’s have been of interest to the work group, which consists of water managers and users from around the state and is chaired by Kevin Rein, state engineer and head of the Division of Water Resources.
“I think it’s a valid concern because they do see unusual parties, large parties that, again, aren’t the typical parties, purchasing those water rights, and so that’s the concern,” Rein said. “Are they speculating or are they purchasing just so they can flip it, as people say, in a few years for more money?”
Under Colorado law, a water-rights holder must put their water to “beneficial use,” meaning continuing to use the water for what it was decreed in order to hang onto it. But Colorado also treats the right to use water as a private-property right. People can buy and sell water rights, change what the water is allowed to be used for and, if given a court’s blessing, move the water from agricultural use to growing cities.
This system, used widely in the western United States, creates an opening for investors who see water as an increasingly valuable commodity in a water-short future, driven by climate change. A private-equity fund, Water Asset Management, is now the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association, which provides water for farmers in the intensely irrigated valley, a short drive from Harts Basin Ranch. The purchases of the New York City-based company have raised suspicions among water managers and prompted the formation of the speculation work group.
Similar concerns have cropped up in agricultural communities throughout the West. A water transfer in Arizona from agricultural lands on the Colorado River to a rapidly expanding Phoenix exurb recently stirred up controversy. In Nevada, Water Asset Management is trying to market water held in an underground aquifer.
Colorado’s current anti-speculation doctrine is based on case law that says those seeking a water right must have a vested interest in the lands to be served by the water and must have a specific plan to put the water to beneficial use.
The work group has identified the following risks from speculators: investors’ obtaining a monopoly over a local water market; large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands; less water availability for other water users; and violation of Colorado’s values to see a vital public resource traded as a commodity.
Potential risks and solutions
The potential solutions to these risks are many, according to a draft document. The work group is exploring several of these, including creating a process to determine the intent of the purchaser; taxing profits from the sale of water rights at varying rates to encourage beneficial use and to discourage profiteering; imposing time limits on turnover of ownership to discourage short-term “flipping”; encouraging local governments to police investments through their 1041 powers; and creating a public-review process for water transfers that exceed some threshold.
The group has not coalesced around any of these potential solutions, but state officials said they are zeroing in on using the water court process to evaluate transfers as a way of spotting speculation.
The work group is supposed to submit a report, along with any recommendations from members, to state officials by August. But so far, the group has had a difficult time making sense of the thorny questions raised by these issues. Even trying to define what speculation is (and isn’t) and who is considered a speculator has been a struggle.
“It’s one thing to point at something and say, ‘Oh, that’s probably speculative.’ Another to actually put the legal definition on it,” said Alex Funk, agricultural water-resources specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Funk is also a member of the work group.
Discussions so far about reining in speculation have focused on the intent of the buyer. Can the state determine whether someone who is purchasing water rights intends to grow hay or build a residential subdivision? Or are they solely focused on the water rights’ future value? And how do you tell the difference?
“Do we want to protect against certain types of intent?” Rein said. “And then how do we determine that?”
Predetermining a water-right purchaser’s intent could prove to be a difficult task, akin to stopping a crime before it’s actually committed. Funk invoked the 2002 film “Minority Report,” in which a police detective (played by Tom Cruise), with the help of three psychics, tracks down would-be murderers and arrests them before any gun goes off.
“There aren’t speculation police running the state and breaking up these investments, right?” Funk said.
Financial water speculation
A draft report by the work group attempts to define two different types of speculation.
The first is traditional water speculation, which involves obtaining a water right without any plan or intent to put that water to beneficial use. The intent is to obtain a desirable priority date and then sell the water right to others who have a beneficial use.
This type of speculation has been addressed before in Colorado water law in what is known as the High Plains case. In 2005, the Colorado Supreme Court determined that a water-investment company was speculating because its plan for using the water was too expansive and nebulous, and the plan did not identify either the structures through which the water would be diverted or the specific locations where the water would be used.
The second type of speculation — and, because of WAM’s dealings in the Grand Valley, the one on which the work group is more focused — is financial water speculation. The work group defines this as the purchase and use of water rights with the primary purpose of profiting from increased value of the water in a short period of time. Financial water speculation may run counter to Colorado’s prior-appropriation doctrine because the primary intent is profit rather than beneficial use.
The concerns over speculation tap into a deep-seated anxiety that is prevalent in Western farm towns: the transfer of water from agriculture to cities. There are real examples of agricultural water being sold to cities, sometimes derisively described as “buy and dry,” and some rural communities have suffered economically as a result.
In some ways, the work group’s discussion of how to prevent speculation is really a broader discussion of how to prevent water transfers away from agriculture. The group has identified the large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands as the No. 1 risk from speculators. Part of Funk’s job is to head up a program of “alternative transfer methods,” which allow cities to temporarily buy or lease water from agriculture, but without the severe economic impacts.
“I think the issue with speculation is that what on paper might seem a very sort of small, isolated issue, as soon as you start sort of unpacking it a little bit, it’s essentially all the problems that Western water and rural communities are facing in, like, one issue,” Funk said. “So, as soon as you start unraveling it, you start running into other forces at play that are really beyond the state’s control or any one individual producer’s control.”
Impacts to ag
The work group is walking a fine line to come up with ways to deter speculation while not harming traditional agriculture producers in the process. In a big-picture sense, irrigators may worry about the impact to their community and way of life if all their neighbors sell to hedge funds. But when it’s their turn to receive a check for their water rights, they don’t want regulators doing anything that would make the process harder or devalue the ranch they have put their lives into, including restricting whom they can sell to.
It’s an oft-repeated adage that a rancher’s land and water rights are their 401(k) or their child’s college fund, and some say any new rules aimed at speculators should not make it more difficult for traditional ag producers to cash out if and when they want.
So far, the investment firms active in western Colorado have continued to lease their land back to farmers, or farm it themselves.
Carlyle Currier, a rancher in Molina and president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, has a seat on the Colorado River Basin Roundtable and his family has ranched in the Grand Mesa area for more than a century. Currier said until the investors attempt to sell it off, they’re not doing anything illegal.
“If the government can tell (someone) they can’t buy a farm and farm it, well, then they could tell me that, too. And I don’t want them telling me that,” Currier said.
The speculation discussion is also set against the backdrop of a potential demand-man