The latest El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) diagnostic discussion is hot off the presses from the Climate Prediction Center

Click here to read the discussion. Here’s an excerpt:

ENSO Alert System Status: El Niño Watch

Synopsis: El Niño is favored to form in the next couple of months and continue through the
Northern Hemisphere winter 2018-19 (70-75% chance).

ENSO-neutral continued during September, but with increasingly more widespread regions of above-average sea surface temperatures (SSTs) across the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Over the last month, all four Niño index values increased, with the latest weekly values in each region near +0.7C. Positive subsurface temperature anomalies (averaged across 180°-100°W) also increased during the last month, due to the expansion and strengthening of above-average temperatures at depth across the equatorial Pacific. Convection was increasingly suppressed over Indonesia and around the Date Line. Low-level westerly wind anomalies were evident over the western and east-central Pacific, with some of the strongest anomalies occurring over the eastern Pacific during the past week. Upper-level wind anomalies were easterly over the east-central Pacific. Overall, the oceanic and atmospheric conditions reflected ENSO-neutral, but with recent trends indicative of a developing El Niño.

The majority of models in the IRI/CPC plume predict El Niño to form during the fall and continue through the winter. The official forecast favors the formation of a weak El Niño, consistent with the recent strengthening of westerly wind anomalies and positive temperature trends in the surface and subsurface ocean. In summary, El Niño is favored to form in the next couple of months and continue through the Northern Hemisphere winter 2018-19 (70-75% chance; click CPC/IRI consensus forecast for the chance of each outcome for each 3-month period).

Impacts of NIÑOs that form in winter on the CONUS, 1950 through 2009 via NOAA.

The latest “Intermountain West Climate Dashboard” is hot off the presses from the Western Water Assessment

West Drought Monitor October 9, 2018.

Click here to read the dashboard. Here’s an excerpt:

  • Water Year 2018 ended with a whimper, as extremely dry and very warm conditions prevailed over the region in September. Water-year precipitation and streamflows ended up at record- or near-record-low levels across most of Utah and Colorado, accompanied by record- or near-record-high average temperatures and evaporative demand. The cool and wet start to October dampened wildfire danger and raised hopes for the new water year, but deep deficits in soil moisture and water supply persist.
  • Dozens of stream gages in the Upper and Lower Green, White, Yampa, Colorado headwaters, Gunnison, Uncompahgre, Dolores, and San Juan basins saw their lowest September monthly flows on record. In late September, the Animas River ran below 100 cfs at Durango for the first time in 107 years of record. Water-year total streamflows were the lowest or 2nd-lowest on record at many gages in southwest Colorado, and at several gages in southern and eastern Utah. Unregulated water-year inflows to Lake Powell were the 3rd-lowest on record, after 1977 and 2002.
  • Statewide, Utah is at 54% of average reservoir storage for this time of year, versus 70% one year ago; Colorado is at 46% of average, versus 68% one year ago. As of October 9th, Blue Mesa Reservoir had dropped to its lowest level, 263 KAF, since 1987. Lake Powell held 11.0 MAF as of October 9th, the lowest level since 2014, and per the September 24-Month Study, the most-probable forecast for April 2019 is 9.0 MAF, which would be Powell’s lowest level since 2005.
  • September was an extremely dry month for the region, capping off a historically dry water year for most of Utah, Colorado, and southern Wyoming. Statewide, Water Year 2018 was the driest on record (since 1896) for Utah, while it was the 2nd-driest on record for Colorado, just ahead of 2002. September was much warmer than average for Utah, Colorado, and southern Wyoming, cinching a historically warm water year. For Colorado statewide, Water Year 2018 tied with 1934 and 2000 as the warmest on record, while for Utah, it was the 2nd-warmest on record, just behind 1934. Both states were 2.8 degrees F above the 1981-2010 normal.
  • Drought conditions emerged or worsened in multiple areas in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado during September. D3 and D4 conditions now cover virtually all of eastern Utah and Colorado’s Western Slope. As of October 2, 88% of Utah is in D2 or worse, and the remainder in D0 or D1; in Colorado, 64% is in D2 or worse, and 22% in D0-D1; and in Wyoming, 3% is in D2 or D3, and 37% in D0-D1. The 12-month EDDI map shows that relative to previous water years, evaporative demand over Water Year 2018 was the highest (ED4) or 2nd-highest (ED3) on record (since 1980) for much of the region.
  • The CPC seasonal precipitation outlooks for the month of October shows very strongly enhanced chances for above-normal precipitation for the region, largely reflecting the wet short-term forecasts as of October 1, i.e., precipitation that now has already fallen as of the 11th. The precipitation outlook for the October-December period shows slightly enhanced chances for above-normal precipitation for Colorado and southern Utah, consistent with the elevated odds of El Nino development by winter. Those odds are still at about 70%, per the IRI/CPC Probabilistic ENSO Forecast.
  • Water year 2018 closes as one of driest on record for upper #ColoradoRiver Basin — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification

    Drying in process on the Colorado River, where Lake Powell once stood, in early October 2018. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

    From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

    Colorado water managers are saying good riddance to water year 2018. It enters the history books alongside 2002 and 1977 as one of the driest on record for the Upper Colorado River Basin.

    According to preliminary numbers from the Bureau of Reclamation, water year 2018, which ended Sept. 30, had the third-lowest unregulated inflow into Lake Powell at 4.62 million acre-feet. That’s just 43 percent of average.

    Only 1977 and 2002 saw less water flow into Lake Powell from the upper basin, at 3.53 million acre-feet and 2.64 million acre-feet, respectively.

    The average yearly inflow is 10.8 million acre-feet.

    The months of August and September 2018 were the third- and fourth-worst months for unregulated inflows into Lake Powell behind only July and August of 2002.

    The unregulated flow in August was just 2 percent of average. Lake Powell is currently 46 percent full.

    “We know if we have another drought, the risk of draining Lake Powell is real,” said Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the Colorado River Water Conservation District and chairman of the Colorado Basin Roundtable. “If we have another year as bad as this one, you’re going to see lots of discussions about who’s going to take reductions. We really need three, four, several years of average or above-average snow years to get us out of this pickle.”

    Low flows in the Roaring Fork River just above Rio Grande Park, in July 2012. Water year 2018 surpassed 2012 as third driest in terms of inflow into Lake Powell from the Upper Colorado River Basin. Photo credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

    Roaring Fork conditions

    Locally, the Roaring Fork watershed was extremely dry this water year. The region was plagued by record-low snowpack — the lowest snow-water equivalent ever recorded for some dates at the McClure Pass and Independence Pass SNOTEL sites — sparse runoff, record-low streamflows and a hot, dry summer.

    Low flows were prevalent across Colorado during the last two weeks of the water year, which runs from October through September. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s drought information system, 30 percent of U.S. Geological Survey stream gauges in the intermountain West reported record-low seven-day-average stream flows for the last two weeks of September, including some in the Roaring Fork watershed.

    On Sunday, the last day of the water year, the USGS river gauge on the Roaring Fork at Stillwater Road just east of Aspen showed the river flowing at 19 cubic feet per second, beating the previous minimum flow of 21 cfs in 1977.

    Flows on the Crystal River were similarly low. Above Avalanche Creek and above a series of diversion structures, the river was running at nearly 46 cfs, lower than the previous record low of 48 cfs in 1977.

    At the river gauge near the state fish hatchery and downstream from several diversion structures just outside of Carbondale, flows dribbled down at just under 7 cfs Sunday.

    Colorado Department of Water Resources Engineer for Division 5 Alan Martellaro said the summer’s weak monsoons exacerbated conditions caused by little snowfall.

    “We had a bad snowpack,” Martellaro said. “It was not the worst, but then we have had an incredibly dry summer, a total lack of rain. I think when we start analyzing it, we are going to find the flows in late summer are unprecedented. We have done some things we have never done before.”

    Martellaro is referring to curtailment on the lower Crystal in late July. Amid rapidly dropping flows, the district 38 water commissioner turned down the headgate of the Lowline Ditch, which he determined was diverting too much water. The ditch diversion did not exceed its legally decreed amount; the problem was that it was violating new state guidelines regarding wasting water.

    According to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, many sites around western Colorado rank as the driest since recording began for water-year precipitation, including McClure Pass, Schofield Pass and Independence Pass.

    Statewide, the water year precipitation average at all SNOTEL sites measured just 21.4 inches, which is 64 percent of average — the second-lowest on record behind only 2002.

    “It was pretty consistently dry throughout the entire year,” said Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the NRCS Colorado Snow Survey. “February may have been the only month where we had near-normal precipitation across the state.”

    Paonia Reservoir was at 7 percent full at the end of September. Water year 2018 ranked as the third driest in the Colorado River Basin. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

    Reservoirs low

    In some instances, reservoir releases have come to the rescue of downstream anglers, fish and ecosystems.

    Releases from Ruedi Reservoir will continue through October to bolster flows for endangered fish in what’s known as the 15-mile reach, a notoriously dry section of the Colorado River between the Palisade area and the confluence with the Gunnison River in Grand Junction.

    [Reclamation has been releasing water from] Ruedi Reservoir.

    Periodic releases from Green Mountain Reservoir near Kremmling also boosted summer flows in the Colorado River. But that water will need to be replaced this winter by snowfall, Martellaro said. Ruedi Reservoir is currently 63 percent full while Green Mountain Reservoir is nearly 46 percent full.

    “Where we have large reservoirs that can supplement the flows, yeah, we’ve gotten by,” Martellaro said. “But even that is coming to an end. We are running out. It remains to be seen what the snowpack is like to refill these large holes we’ve put in these reservoirs.”

    Water year 2018 Upper Colorado River Basin precipitation accumulation via the NRCS.

    “The days of water abundance are gone” — Jen Pelz

    Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia

    From The Santa Fe New Mexican (Andy Stiny):

    The Santa Fe-based organization [Wild Earth Guardians] filed notice that it wants the New Mexico Court of Appeals to review a district judge’s refusal to force the Office of the State Engineer to prove that the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District is entitled to water it uses under permit.

    “The appeal looks to compel the State Engineer to require the District actually prove it has used the large quantity of water it claimed upon receiving its permits from the State in 1925,” WildEarth Guardians said in a news release. “Despite the clear mandate under its permits, the District has long avoided confirming its use with the hope of continuing to control and divert the entire flow over the river in perpetuity.”

    The district’s diversion of water from the Rio Grande for hundreds of farmers has been a source of contention, especially in dry years when the riverbed has gone mostly dry below the Albuquerque area, threatening the survival of species such as the Rio Grande silvery minnow…

    “The days of water abundance are gone,” Jen Pelz of WildEarth Guardians said in a statement. “The reality of these times demands that the basic limitations on water use are met. Our litigation seeks just that, to enforce key provisions of state water law to safeguard and conserve water for our rivers.”

    Latest: Wildfire smoke deaths could double by century’s end — @HighCountryNews #ActOnClimate

    Waldo Canyon Fire. Photo credit The Pueblo chieftain.

    From The High Country News (Carl Segerstrom):


    Wildfire smoke is creating a public health crisis. Last year, nearly every county in Montana was declared a disaster area. As wildfires raged, respiratory-related visits to emergency rooms spiked (“Montana’s tough summer,” HCN, 12/11/17). In Lolo, Montana, officials installed new air filters in schools to improve air quality. But without dedicated government programs to combat smoke, Western communities could be taxed by the impacts of future fire seasons, which are projected to worsen with climate change.


    This year, scientists from Colorado State University and other institutions analyzed the situation and made a grim prediction. A study published in August in the journal GeoHealth estimates that the number of deaths related to wildfire smoke in the United States could be as high as 44,000 per year by 2100 — more than double the current rate of about 17,000 deaths per year. Even as humanity reins in similar pollution from industry and car emissions, climate change will further boost wildfires’ deadly smoke.

    Carl Segerstrom is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email him at

    The Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District tentatively approves the proposed $1.35 million 2018 budget

    Illustration shows water availability, in blue circles, compared with demand at various places along the South Platte River. The yellow area is the study area. (Illustration by Stantec).

    From The Sterling Journal-Advocate (Jeff Rice):

    The Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District’s board of directors tentatively accepted the 2019 budget. Technically, the district’s budget will soar to $1.35 million next year, but like the 2018 budget, much of that is in the form of grants for specific water study projects.

    The district will manage almost $350,000 in Colorado Water Conservation Board grant funds to create the South Platte Regional Development Concept. The project, being done by the South Platte Regional Opportunities Working Group, would help identify viable water storage projects in the South Platte basin.

    Another grant, this one for $236,245 from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, would be used by the Northeast Colorado Water Cooperative to find ways to develop infrastructure for water exchanges, primarily when water augmentation plans are involved.

    The $1.35 million figure also includes $316,312 in leftover funds from the 2018 budget. Actual operating expenses for the conservancy district are budgeted at just under $760,000 for 2019.

    #Arizona cuts from the #drought contingency plan = moving target #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Gila River watershed. Graphic credit: Wikimedia

    From The Phoenix New Times (Elizabeth Whitman):

    Arizona’s efforts to deal with the effects of drought on the Colorado River hit a rough patch Wednesday, after the Central Arizona Project shared updated and previously undisclosed data indicating that possible water cuts would be more extensive and severe than expected.

    Farmers and ranchers remain first in line to lose water, but tribal communities and cities, which were slated previously to lose some water from the Non-Indian Agriculture, or NIA, pool, would now likely lose much more under Arizona’s Drought Contingency Plan.

    Based on the new numbers, “a Drought Contingency Plan would cut about half of the NIA pool,” said Cynthia Campbell, water resource manager adviser for the city of Phoenix, who is an alternate on the steering committee and was present at Wednesday’s meeting. “Not a small sliver. A big chunk.”

    As water levels at Lake Mead continue to decline, the federal Bureau of Reclamation gives it a 52 percent chance of slipping below 1,075 feet — that is, hit an official shortage — by 2020. Arizona is part of a multistate effort to negotiate water cuts that would prevent reservoir levels from falling further.

    Within Arizona, these contentious Drought Contingency Plan talks have centered around figuring out ways to lessen the impacts of water cuts, especially on agriculture. These negotiations, in turn, are based on a list of water orders provided by the Central Arizona Project that shows how much water CAP’s customers plan to buy.

    Those water orders matter because the amount of water that’s distributed to agriculture depends on how much water other users, who get priority, consume first. The more water they use, the less remains for agriculture and the NIA pool, which is next in line. But the order numbers weren’t all there until this week…

    By using numbers from previous years, when customers ordered less water, CAP had been understating the impact of drought cuts on the NIA category, from which many cities, including Phoenix, draw water, Campbell added.

    It all became clear at a working group meeting Wednesday, when CAP revealed the new numbers.

    Broken down by year, the numbers showed that water orders for 2019, which were finalized just last week, are slated to rise in the coming year. CAP also shared the figures for water orders in 2016, 2017, and 2018, previously undisclosed, showing that these orders steadily have ticked upward in recent years. Those numbers, shown below in photocopies, were presented during the closed working group meeting. They were also shown on screens during the steering group meeting, which is open to the public, but they were not made available online with other materials from the open meeting.

    In 2016, users in two priority categories, Indian and Municipal/Industrial, ordered a total of 807,000 acre-feet of water from CAP; in 2017, 882,000 acre-feet, and in 2018, 907,000 acre-feet…

    Draft numbers for next year sit at 933,000 acre-feet for users in the two categories. If orders for water remained around 2017 and 2018 levels, water cuts under the Drought Contingency Plan would take out just a splash of the NIA pool. Using the projected 2019 numbers, they would gobble up more than half of the pool — and the overall trend is that usage is rising…

    So the Drought Contingency Plan is supposed to bridge the gap between the 2007 guidelines and the year 2026, the year those guidelines end. But negotiations over the rights to water from the Colorado River are beyond contentious, and they are excruciatingly complex…

    Imagine a pitcher of water and five cups. Which cups are filled first and how much water each one receives is dictated by a pecking order, defined by an amalgam of laws, rules, negotiations, and lawsuits.

    Now imagine that the source of the water starts to dry up, and you’re not going to have as much water as you expected. The cups that are first in line are ordering more water than ever, as is their legal right. What do you do? Do you try to make sure all five glasses still get some water? Or do you let the last cups in line run dry? If the people drinking from the first-filled cups don’t drink everything, should you pour that excess into a separate pitcher and redistribute it among the glasses that are last in line? What about using excess water you stored away over the course of years?

    That is the simplified version of what the Drought Contingency Plan is trying to figure out. The pitcher of water is the Colorado River, and the five glasses are groups that include, in order of priority, tribal communities and municipalities/industries, non-Indian agriculture, and agriculture, which gets whatever is left over after the others have quenched their thirst.

    The newly revealed numbers prompted fierce comments on Wednesday. Steering committee members and other stakeholders argued over the ramifications of the number and vowed to protect their access to water.

    Some suggested that the new numbers showed that an agriculture mitigation pool, already a point of contention, would grant farmers more water than they would have received under the 2007 guidelines.

    “I think the principle of mitigation is to mitigate, not to ameliorate,” said Don Pongrace, an attorney for the Gila River Indian Community, who spoke at but does not sit on the steering committee. He suggested that the new numbers indicated that creating a mitigation pool for agriculture under the DCP would give them more water than they would have received under the 2007 guidelines and thus undermine the entire point of the DCP.

    Agricultural interests vehemently disagreed.

    “That would be the end of the agricultural economy in Pinal County,” Paul Orme, representing Pinal County agriculture, declared during the meeting. “In 2019, we have for some reason, some drastic change in these water orders that has some potentially devastating impacts on the ag pool. We should drill down. … Why were those orders made in 2019, and what is those extra water going to be used for?”

    It’s not clear why CAP made these detailed numbers public only on Wednesday, and an explanation from CAP about the numbers it had been using was not clear. DeEtte Person, a spokesperson for CAP, told Phoenix New Times that CAP had been providing numbers from 2018, and that it was only last week that CAP finalized orders for 2019.

    “The question was raised, ‘Oh, are you now using the numbers from your most current numbers you just got last week?’” Person said. “The answer was, ‘No, we’ve been using the numbers we’ve been using all along.’ And so I think that just confused people.”