“One thing we know when it comes to water, Arizonans are very innovative” — Kathryn Sorensen

The Central Arizona Aqueduct delivers water from the Colorado River to underground aquifers in southern Arizona. UT researcher Bridget Scanlon recommends more water storage projects like the aqueduct to help protect against variability in the river’s water supply. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

From The Arizona Daily Star (Tony Davis):

The total stored is nearly 3.6 million acre-feet of water in 28 sites across Pima, Pinal and Maricopa counties. That’s well over two years worth of CAP deliveries. They’ve stored another 600,000 acre-feet for Nevada.

The total tab has topped $330 million for the state and the Central Arizona Project to design and build storage basins and recharge water in them by artificial means.

But all that work has left a key detail unsettled: how to withdraw the bank’s water when needed.

No wells or other infrastructure exists to pump the water from recharge sites where nearly 25 percent of the water-bank water is stored, including one of the system’s largest recharge facilities. While water is also banked in some of the cotton, alfalfa and grain fields served by CAP water, and they do have infrastructure to get the water out, many of these facilities are far from urban and tribal users…

Tucson is better primed than most cities for water-bank recovery. The water bank has put more than two years worth of the city’s water needs into city-owned recharge basins in the Avra Valley, many miles west and northwest of the city limits.

City wells to pump that water out are already in place. But that’s mainly because Tucson Water’s original delivery of CAP water in the 1990s was so problematic that it had to switch to something more innovative and farsighted like recharging its supply. The city first delivered corrosive CAP water that rotted out many homeowners’ pipes. That fiasco led to a citizen-backed initiative requiring the city to recharge CAP water rather than run it through a treatment plant.

But in general, many major questions about water-bank recovery remain unanswered. They include: How, when and where will the water be recovered? Who will recover it? How will this be done legally, meeting contractual obligations? How much will it cost?

The water-bank water is stored mainly for the benefit of Tucson and Phoenix and their suburbs, and tribes such as the Gila River Indian Community and the White Mountain Apache Tribe. (The Tohono O’odham Tribe near Tucson is not in line for water-bank water.) Water users along the Colorado River also have a claim to some of the bank’s water.

There is a recovery plan, done in 2014, but to many city water agencies, it’s longer on concepts than details: “It’s a plan to plan,” says Kathryn Sorensen, the city of Phoenix’s water service director. She is secretary for the Arizona Water Banking Authority’s governing commission, and one of many municipal water officials who has pushed hard for a more thorough plan…

The 2014 plan reflects the longstanding, conventional wisdom that CAP cutbacks to cities and tribes wouldn’t start until the mid-2030s at the earliest.

Today, the outlook for Lake Mead and the river in general is worse. Shortages cutting off agricultural water are expected in the early 2020s. Urban shortages are considered possible by the mid-2020s and maybe even 2022, under the worst-case, least-likely scenario.

So water officials are now grappling with the nitty-gritty details of putting together a more complete recovery plan, perhaps by the end of 2018.

The effort is being led by a committee representing various water utilities and other interests, and shepherded by the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, which runs CAP, the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Arizona Water Banking Authority, which manages the water bank.

Wally Wilson, water service manager for the suburban Metro Water district, said that the big questions about recovery weren’t addressed before, “to the chagrin of many.”


“One thing we know when it comes to water, Arizonans are very innovative,” Sorensen said. “There are a lot of difficulties and a lot of uncertainties. But I know we’ll get there.”

Courts are blocking @POTUS’s attack on environmental rules

Scales of Justice

From The Washington Post (Juliet Eilperin):

Lawyer: “What the courts are saying is we’re going to enforce the laws that Congress wrote, and this administration is breaking those laws and needs to stop.”

Federal judges have ruled against the Trump administration three times in the last three days, arguing that the administration short-circuited the regulatory process in its push to reverse policies on water protections, chemical plant safety operations and the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. In each instance, the courts either reinstated the existing rule or delayed the administration’s proposal from taking effect.

On Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency’s move to delay new chemical and safety requirements was “arbitrary and capricious.” The day before, a judge on the U.S. District Court in South Carolina reinstated a rule in 26 states limiting the dredging and filling of streams and waterways on the grounds that the EPA had not solicited sufficient public input. And on Wednesday, a judge on the U.S. District Court of Montana ordered the State Department to conduct a more extensive environmental impact statement of the Keystone XL’s proposed route through Nebraska.

#Wildfire update #drought #ActOnClimate

Inciweb website screen shot August 20, 2018.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

Never mind the ear plugs and duct tape available in the Parachute camp’s supplies section on that early August day, and take that contracted food service as one example. Even said she received a food invoice for $7,000 for the previous day. She said a typical daily bill for two hot meals and a sack lunch that provide firefighters with the 6,000 calories a day needed for toiling long hours on the fire line can run close to $15,000, depending on the number of personnel on the fire.

Such expenses quickly add up. Last year, wildland firefighting cost federal agencies a record $2.9 billion, and the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management currently are on a pace this year to potentially exceed what they spent in 2017 for firefighting.

The interagency Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center estimates that as of Wednesday, 60 large fires in Colorado this year had cost $144,774,523.61. That’s for fires that covered 431,606 acres as of that day, and the price tag is expected to increase as active fires keep burning and as other costs tied to all the fires are all eventually tallied.

Altogether, through Monday, the center had received reports of 1,585 wildfires in Colorado so far this year, covering 438,307 acres. Center spokesman Larry Helmerick said that tally may not include a number of fires not yet reported to the center by the state and counties.

In 2012, another bad year for wildfires in Colorado, 426,403 acres burned in the state. In 2002, 619,000 acres burned.


Figuring mightily into firefighting price tags is aerial firefighting.

“This one’s pretty much an air show,” Even said in reference to the amount of helicopters and airplanes that were being used to drop water and retardant on the Cache Creek Fire as of early August. She said that it was likely racking up $200,000 or more in aerial firefighting costs per day, noting that the cost of retardant alone was going for $2.71 a gallon.

Two hundred thousand dollars here. Two hundred thousand dollars there. Before you know it, you’re talking real money.

As of Friday, the 2,520-acre Cache Creek Fire — which earlier this month had calmed down enough that the Rocky Mountain Blue management team had turned it over to a local management team, but more recently has flared up again — had a price tag of $4.9 million.

Three Western Slope fires are among the five-costliest in the state so far this year.

The 54,000-acre 416 Fire in the Durango area is the most expensive, at nearly $40 million, and the 12,600-acre Lake Christine Fire near Basalt has cost $17 million.

Those fires are pretty well tamed, but the still-growing Bull Draw Fire northwest of Nucla had a price tag of $6.6 million as of Friday, when its acreage stood at 27,320.

Putting a total price on the costs of wildfire firefighting isn’t a simple matter in part because the costs can be borne among multiple agencies. Cost-sharing agreements factor in things such as what proportions of a fire burn on federal, private or other land.

Some of the fire expenses are borne locally. Earlier this month, Garfield County commissioners authorized the Sheriff’s Office to spend contingency funds for what are expected to be $250,000 in county costs for a fire this year in the area of the Oak Meadows rural neighborhood outside Glenwood Springs. That fire’s total costs are estimated at $450,000.


Caley Fisher, spokeswoman for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, said that generally in the case of a fire that starts on private land, once it exceeds the capabilities of local responders, state assistance can be requested. If the state determines the fire is eligible for state responsibility, it assumes the costs, with ongoing involvement from local and county partners.

A number of state-level funding streams exist to help absorb costs. Forty-three of the county’s 64 counties voluntarily participate in contributing to an emergency fire fund, based on a formula considering their nonfederal forested acres and property tax valuation.

Resource mobilization funding exists to help local agencies during emerging fires, and a wildfire emergency response fund can be tapped through the governor’s office.

Fires qualifying as major disasters can tap Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement for up to 75 percent of eligible costs, if funding is requested while the fire is still burning.

The state also provides other assistance such as training, technical support, mutual aid equipment and aerial fire-detection and mapping flights.

Fisher said that for the state, this year is on pace to rival other major wildfire years such as 2002 and 2012 in terms of state-responsibility fires, acres burned and suppression costs.

She said that as of Monday, her agency has spent about $39 million on firefighting so far this year.

“There’s a lot of different variables that play into that … so it could be more,” she said.

She said that through the multitude of available funding streams, her agency and the governor’s office will be there to support local-level responders. But she said there is a need for more state funding to help fight fires and pay for work such as vegetation treatments to reduce fire risk and helping homeowners reduce the threat from wildfires.


Funding challenges also have bedeviled national agencies — most notably the Forest Service — that also would like to spend more on things such as prescribed fires and fuel mitigation, not to mention on nonfire agency programs, but have been increasingly spending on fighting fires instead.

Last year federal agencies spent nearly $3 billion fighting fires covering about 10 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Looking at data dating back to 1985, in only one other year, in 2015, did the agencies fight fires covering that much acreage, and the first time federal firefighting costs exceeded $1 billion was 2000.

Last year the Forest Service incurred a record $2.4 billion of the total federal firefighting cost. Agency spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said that as of Monday it has spent $1.8 billion this year.

The remaining $508,000 in federal firefighting costs last year was incurred by Department of Interior agencies. This year, Interior agencies so far have spent $338 million, the highest the department has spent at this point in any year, said Kari Cobb, a Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman at the National Interagency Fire Center. She said the BLM accounts for $223 million of that total.

Jones said fire seasons have grown larger, there have been more large wildfires, the average numbers of acres burned annually have grown and the number of homes in what’s known as the wildland urban interface has grown. Accordingly, firefighting funding has grown from 13 percent of the Forest Service budget in 1991 to 57 percent this year.

“That just leaves less and less money available for other programs,” said Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest, which covers much of Colorado’s central mountain region.
He expects the firefighting costs on that forest this year to be somewhere in the $25 million to $30 million range, which he believes would be a record amount. The Forest Service will bear some of the costs associated with the Lake Christine Fire and with the Cabin Lake Fire in Rio Blanco County, which by Friday was nearly 6,000 acres in size and had racked up at least $4.3 million in costs.

Fitzwilliams has watched the toll firefighting costs have taken on the budget of the White River National Forest during his nine years as supervisor there. When he arrived, the forest’s appropriated funds and other funding totaled close to $30 million, and now the total is about half of that. Some of the drop is due to the end of some bark-beetle infestation work, but Fitzwilliams said the cost of firefighting is largely to blame.


The impact has come as a result of what’s called “fire borrowing.” Jones said the Forest Service has historically determined its wildfire firefighting funding request each year based on the 10-year average of firefighting costs over the previous 10 years, adjusted for inflation.

Even with increases in that 10-year average, the agency’s costs have exceeded the average in all but three years since 2000. That has forced it to borrow funds from other forest programs to cover firefighting costs in some years, and in others to use money from unobligated sources, she said.

Fitzwilliams said fire borrowing in the Forest Service began for this fiscal year just this week, as the agency scrambles to make up for a projected shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars.

He said fire borrowing has meant the White River National Forest has seen a steady erosion of funding for everything from seasonal rangers to road and campground maintenance and repairs. He’s thrilled that Congress acted this year to address the fire borrowing problem (see related story).

“That is going to be extremely helpful that we won’t have to go through this every year,” he said.

Randy Eardley, another BLM spokesman at the National Interagency Fire Center, said there has been fire borrowing at the Interior Department as well, but typically money borrowed from other accounts would be repaid in subsequent years, whereas the Forest Service has been borrowing year after year. He noted that Interior’s firefighting costs are a lot less than the Forest Service’s, which partly reflect that Forest Service fires typically burn in heavier fuels, for longer periods of time, and can be more complex to fight.

Eardley said the passage by Congress several years ago of what is called the FLAME (Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement) Act made something of a difference, reducing some of the fire borrowing by providing access to a separate account of firefighting funds after a certain level of spending was surpassed.

“But it didn’t really solve the problem,” he said.

Randi Spivak, director of the public lands program for the Center for Biological Diversity, said firefighting should occur to protect lives, but her group wants to make sure that federal agencies don’t receive a blank check for suppression and their activities are accountable and effective.

“There is some waste going on,” she said.

She said studies show retardant often is used in the wrong place, like in wilderness, or at the wrong time of day, sometimes with the goal of easing worries among the public and politicians even if it’s not effective.

“The Forest Service needs to start looking at this and spend those dollars more effectively,” she said.


Spivak believes it’s important to do more prescribed burning, let more naturally ignited fires burn where possible, put more focus on creating defensible space around homes, and have local governments take action to not allow homes to be built in dangerous, fire-prone areas.

Fitzwilliams agrees with the need to focus on residential development in wildland areas. He said another looming factor is a changing climate that is resulting in longer wildfire seasons, record temperatures and fuel dryness, and more extreme fire behaviors such as fires making downhill runs at night, like when the Lake Christine Fire burned three homes.

“As many firefighters that I’ve talked to this summer have said, the (fire-behavior) norms are out the window. What we thought we knew often doesn’t apply anymore,” he said.

He said the Forest Service can work to do fuel mitigation, but it doesn’t have much control over the weather or climate and building homes in the wildland-urban interface.

“This is a three-headed monster and we’re only dealing with one head of the monster,” he said.

Eardley said fire seasons used to move around the country, starting in the Southeast early in the year, then moving to the Southwest, and so on. Now there’s more overlap between fire seasons in various parts of the country, raising the concern about the potential for fatigue for firefighters who used to sometimes get some down time between regional fire seasons.

In an extreme fire year like this one, a focus for officials like Fitzwilliams is the safety of firefighters and the public. Having once had to knock on a family’s door and tell them their son had died fighting fire, he never wants to repeat that experience.

“We cannot take the risk of losing someone to protect trees or houses. Human life is too precious,” he said.

Fitzwilliams said the White River National Forest’s strategy this year also is on initial attacks designed to put out fires as fast as possible.

“I can’t afford another big fire,” he said.

From Yale Climate Connection:

By July 4th this year, numerous fires were burning in Colorado — the 416 Fire near Durango, and the Spring Creek Fire in the southern part of the state have been the biggest so far.

As everyone knows, fires destroy and reshape ecosystems, but they also affect the freshwater supplies we eventually drink. Water providers, like that in Fort Collins, Colorado, spend a lot of effort making sure that when their customers turn on the tap, clean water comes out. And if there have been fires in the watershed, providers don’t want the water to smell smoky – like you’re drinking out of a canteen near a campfire.

Until recently, says Jill Oropeza, water quality services manager for Fort Collins Utilities, there hasn’t been much research about how wildfires change the chemistry of water and what utilities would have to do to treat it. She said, “The High Park Fire which happened in 2012 was the first time that we had seen some really major and sustained impacts on water quality in the Poudre River, so we were suddenly needing to understand what is our new normal in this watershed.”

The High Park Fire was started by lightning six years ago, about 15 miles west of Ft. Collins, and it destroyed nearly 260 homes, burned more than 85,000 acres, and killed one person. The fire surrounded parts of the Cache la Poudre River – one of the two water sources for Ft. Collins.

The city reached out to the research community to help answer questions about how fires affect what comes down the river afterwards. They turned to Fernando Rosario, an associate professor, in the University of Colorado’s Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering Program, who, with funding by the Water Research Foundation and the National Science Foundation, studied the issue. He began with much fieldwork and then took his research into the lab because, obviously, one can’t go start a new fire in the field to see what happens.

Rosario collected soils and litter from areas where fires occurred in order to simulate wildfire conditions by dissolving them in water. He then created wildfire-impacted water that matched some of the properties that were observed in the High Park Fire.

Next he did studies to see how to effectively treat those waters. One major problem that confronted water utilities was the amount of carbon the water contained. Oropeza with Fort Collins Utilities says they had to develop specific treatment requirements to get rid of as much of the organic carbon as possible.

The reason they have to get rid of the carbon is because it can interact with chlorine they use to treat the water and create disinfection byproducts that are carcinogenic and strictly regulated by the EPA. Ironically, the chemical used to treat water can become a contaminant if there are too many other contaminants in the water.

One finding as a part of Rosario’s research was that different levels of heat on soils factored into the amount of organic carbon that was released.

His team observed that while a high-temperature fire may result in more ash and sediment and might be more damaging to the watershed, the high temperatures caused lower amounts of carbon to be released from the soil than a low- to mid- temperature fire.

A lower temperature wildfire may be less damaging to the watershed, but by releasing more organic carbon, it creates more problems for water treatment professionals – and likely higher utility bills for consumers.

Oropeza says that before the new research no one was looking at how to treat wildfire-affected water. She says that the insights will allow providers to be more prepared, which can help to keep costs down for consumers.

And as far as global warming, she adds that because the number and intensity of fires influenced by climate drivers will likely increase, the requirements for water treatment will likely grow as well.

Reprinted with permission of H2O Radio, a Yale Climate Connections content-sharing partner.

From The Guardian (Ashifa Kassam):

About 566 wildfires are currently burning across the province [British Columbia], prompting the evacuation of 3,000 people

About 566 wildfires are currently burning across the west coast province, prompting the evacuation of some 3,000 people. Another 18,000 residents have been warned that they may have to flee their homes at a moment’s notice.

So far this year more than 1,800 fires have charred some 380,000 hectares (939,000 acres), making it the province’s fourth worst fire season since it began keeping track in 1950.

The fires have left a wide swath of western Canada, including metro Vancouver, blanketed in a thick layer of smoke and haze. Public health officials are warning residents in some regions to avoid strenuous exercise and stay indoors as much as possible.

More than 3,000 firefighters – from across Canada and as far away as Mexico and New Zealand – are working to contain the fires. Some 200 Canadian armed forces personnel are expected to be deployed in the coming days to help the province.

Officials said the decision to declare a state of emergency was based on advice from the province’s wildfire service.

“Public safety is always our first priority and, as wildfire activity is expected to increase, this is a progressive step in our wildfire response to make sure British Columbia has access to any and all resources necessary,” Mike Farnworth, the province’s public safety minister, said in a statement.

It marks the second year in a row that the province has declared wildfires a state of emergency; last year saw a record-setting 1.2m hectares (2,965,264 acres) scorched by fires raging in the province.

Climate change is having an impact, Farnworth said on Wednesday.

“We know that the fire season is starting earlier,” he told reporters. “And each year is different. The bulk of the fires – what we have seen this year – have been lightning-caused.”

The fires have sent huge plumes of smoke wafting across British Columbia, blotting out the sun and darkening skies.

“Ash has been falling like snow,” Shannon Hatch of Fort Fraser, a community in northern British Columbia that was put on evacuation alert this week, told the Globe and Mail. “Yesterday in the afternoon, it was pitch black, like nighttime.”

Congress Must Act Now to Preserve the Land and Water Conservation Fund — Westword

Roxborough State Park photo via Colorado Parks and Wildlife

From Westword (Paul Lopez):

Enacted into law in 1964, LWCF provides funding for the acquisition and management of federal, state and local public lands nationwide so that all Americans can enjoy access to the outdoors — and in a wonderful compensation improving local economies and community well-being. It is the only federal program devoted to the continued conservation of our national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, wilderness, Civil War battlefields and developing state and local parks.

Remarkably, LWCF does not cost taxpayers one dollar — it is funded using a small portion of the royalties paid by oil and gas companies to drill offshore. The fund is authorized for $900 million annually, but that has occurred only once since its inception.

Ensuring access to the outdoors for everyone is more than just a concept; it’s our Colorado way of life. It’s a value that every community, people and culture hold dear. As a Mexican American and native Coloradan, I believe the conservation of our land is a central value of our heritage for generations. In fact, recent results of a poll from the respected Colorado College Conservation in the West bear that out in six western states, showing that 75 percent of Latino voters support continued funding of the Land and Water Conservation. Simply put, protecting our land preserves our nation’s history.

In our home state of Colorado, LWCF has been a huge benefactor over the past five decades, contributing approximately $268 million to places like the Rocky Mountain and Great Sand Dunes national parks and hundreds of state and local park projects, including acquisitions at Golden Gate Canyon and Roxborough State Parks — investments that have helped to shape Colorado’s impressive $28 billion annual outdoor recreation economy.

The City and County of Denver alone has received nearly $4 million in LWCF grants that have supported over 75 projects; $1.2 million of LWCF money was invested along the South Platte River, which began a renewal of Denver’s downtown that continues today. If you’ve ever visited Confluence Park or Denver’s popular Washington Park, then you have enjoyed the benefits provided by the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

These city parks and others provide a wonderful place to gather with the extended family, eat and enjoy recreation together. Physical activity for our children is critical and, as such, the protection of parks, enabled by LWCF, should be a high priority for all people — no matter the zip code.

We are all fortunate in Colorado to have both senators Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner fully on board with permanently authorizing LWCF. With only weeks remaining before the expiration date, now is the “do or die” time for the rest of Congress to get on board and keep the bipartisan promise made to protect America’s public lands, water resources and cultural heritage. Without the certainty of LWCF renewal, Americans everywhere will be deprived of current and future opportunities to enjoy our Great Outdoors, whether that is a wildlife preserve or a community ballpark.

At zero cost to taxpayers, why would any member of Congress want that to happen?

Born and raised in Denver’s westside, Paul D. Lopez has been a Denver city councilman for District 3 since 2007.

How #Colorado’s water law affects you and our rivers — @AmericanRivers

Prior appropriation example via Oregon.gov

From American Rivers (Fay Augustyn):

In Episode 12 of We Are Rivers, we discuss the complicated nature of water law in the West. Listen in to learn more about how water law affects you and the rivers you love.

Water in the West is inherently complicated. A complex web of laws, compacts, and a little thing called “prior appropriation” dictates how and when people and entities are allowed to use water in the West, such as cities and towns, farms and ranches, and industry. This ability is what we call “owning a water right,” and explains much of how the West has been settled over the last century, and how many of the economic forces that affect our daily lives are driven by these water rights. Listen in to learn more about how water law affects you and the rivers you love.

Prior appropriation is the backbone of our water law system. Perhaps you’ve heard of “first in time, first in right,” – this phrase refers to the water law system. Prior appropriation allows individuals or entities who first apply water for a beneficial use to be entitled to that appropriation into the future (and has priority over subsequent users). Holding a water right doesn’t actually imply ownership over the water (water in Colorado is “owned” by the people) but is instead the right to use the people’s water for a beneficial use like agriculture, municipal water, and now more recently, in benefit of the environment as in-stream flows.

Even if the term “water rights” leaves you scratching your head, and you call a western state your home, you still are impacted by them. There’s a fairly high chance that you use water connected to a water right, (unless you have your own well or diversion). Water running through pipes in cities and towns across the West are likely municipal water obtained through a water right held by city or town. Your community has to have a water right themselves to divert and distribute the water that ends up in your home. Agriculture, industry, and even our rivers and streams all depend on the legal structure managing our water.

Join us in this month’s episode of We Are Rivers as we navigate through the complicated nature of water law in the West, including prior appropriation, instream flow rights, and the history of water law.

#Drought news: Aspen Enacts Mandatory Water Restrictions

West Drought Monitor August 16, 2018.

From the Associated Press via USA Today:

Extremely low water levels have forced the city of Aspen to declare a stage 2 water shortage for the first time in history.

The Aspen Times reports Aspen City Council approved the move Monday. Aspen Utilities Portfolio Manager Margaret Medellin says she anticipates stage 2 restrictions to remain in effect indefinitely.

Under the restrictions, Aspen water customers must not water lawns more than three days a week and no more than 30 minutes per sprinkler zone per day.

Restrictions also include no watering native areas more than two days a week and no watering lawns between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

From News Deeply (Emma Penrod):

Large reservoirs have buffered urban areas in the Southwest from the worst of the year’s dry conditions, but rural farmers and ranchers are bearing the brunt of water shortages and the economic fallout.

Farmer Scott Sunderland runs the numbers on his smartphone and the outlook is bleak. He needs $250,000 just to pay the taxes and debts he owes on the 700-acre farm he’s managed for more than three decades. If he’s lucky, he’ll have $220,000 by the end of the season.

“If the drought holds on another year,” he said, “we’re going to have to start liquidating … But once you start down that road, it’s almost a dead end.”

Chester, an unincorporated community in central Utah, has been hit by “exceptional” drought conditions, the most severe rating issued by the United States Drought Monitor. For much of the southwestern U.S., this past winter has marked one of the driest periods in recorded history.

Population centers in the West have been relatively insulated from the disaster, protected by large reservoirs capable of storing water for multiple years. But rural towns and the farmers and ranchers who populate them have been devastated. In many cases, struggling farmers have already been pushed off more fertile lands by urban development. Now, some of the remaining ones hope to sell out and scrape together enough cash to retire, while others have already begun to look for new jobs.

“It’s hard to paint a picture because a lot of the time when people talk about drought, you just shower less and water your lawn less,” said Cassidy Johnston, a rancher in Capitan, New Mexico. “In town, yeah, your lawn may be yellow, but here, you may have to move and sell the business your family has had for generations.”

A Regional Crisis

More than half the western U.S. is currently experiencing some level of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Sparsely populated areas in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona in particular are grappling with dry conditions of historic proportions – many small irrigation companies are reporting water shortages the likes of which have not been seen since the 1970s.

This isn’t necessarily because these areas got less snow over a disastrously dry winter than some of the surrounding environs, said Troy Brosten, a Utah-based hydrologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service. The main issue is the lack of water storage in some remote areas.

Despite the lack of snowfall this past winter, Brosten said, larger reservoirs started the year with plenty of water left over from last year. These reservoirs are still mostly full, so the areas that draw from them haven’t experienced actual water shortages.

But some smaller reservoirs only have capacity for enough water to last about one year, Brosten said. They rely on each year’s snowpack to provide the following summer’s irrigation water. This year, there simply wasn’t enough snow to replenish their reserves.

Many farmers are increasingly reliant on these smaller reservoirs and water systems, said Kate Greenberg, who oversees western chapters of the national Young Farmers Coalition from her office in Durango, Colo. Farmers who once held senior rights in more secure reservoirs have, in some cases, opted to escape pressure from urban development by selling their lands and moving their operations further afield. The situation has been exacerbated by government policies to encourage water managers to secure water for urban growth by buying out farms, Greenberg said.

This was the fate of the Sunderland family farm, which was originally located in Lehi, Utah – a city that in a few short years has been completely transformed by the arrival of several big-name software companies, including Adobe.

The family knew that the new property in Chester was “drier country” when they moved more than 30 years ago to avoid being crowded out by development, Scott Sunderland’s brother Edwin said. But they were willing to take the risk so they could expand their operation and hopefully increase their earnings potential.

But compared to even a decade ago, Scott Sunderland added, Chester’s water doesn’t seem to go as far as it used to.

Chester doesn’t have access to a full-sized reservoir, but gets its water from a series of pipelines and storage ponds, said Edwin, who now manages a small portion of the family property. They started the season, he said, with about half their total water capacity. By July 4, the water was gone.

From The Rio Blanco Herald-Times:

Last Friday, Colorado Parks and Wildlife began releasing cooler water from Lake Avery in an ongoing effort to keep coldwater fish in the river alive as tough, drought conditions persist.

Trout have adapted to thrive in water temperatures between 50-60 degrees. According to CPW, some sections of the White River have exceeded 70-plus degrees consistently since early June. In addition, water flow in portions of the river have been running at or below the 25th percentile of the historical median in recent weeks.

When flows are low, water is susceptible to warming quickly and dissolved oxygen levels drop, leading to significantly stressed fish. They gather in residual pools and become easier to catch. Even if returned to the water immediately, stressed fish hooked under these conditions could quickly perish.

In addition to the water release, CPW has implemented a voluntary fishing closure between 2 p.m. and midnight on both north and south forks of the White River, from the boundary of the National Forest through the main stem down to the bridge at Rio Blanco County Road 5, west of Meeker.

CPW has implemented additional voluntary fishing closures across the region, due to similar conditions.

The White River within Rio Blanco County is renowned for excellent fishing, drawing thousands of anglers from across the world to catch the large rainbow, cutthroat and brook trout that typically thrive in these waters.

“It’s a great place to fish, but the White River fishery is also a critical resource that local residents depend upon for their livelihoods,” said deVergie. “Whether you run a hotel, a restaurant or an outfitting business, everyone up here has a vested interest in conserving this important natural resource.”

Since the voluntary closure went into effect last week, deVergie says he has seen excellent cooperation from the public. He stresses it could be a while before things improve.

“Now that we have a little more flow in the river, we are asking irrigators to leave as much of it as they can in the river for the benefit of the fish,” said deVergie. “Until we get some moisture, the release is one of the last remaining options we have to help prevent extensive fish mortality in the White River.”

Through an agreement with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, CPW can release water from Lake Avery to help the Board meet their instream flow right of 200 cubic feet per second. The goal is protecting aquatic life in Big Beaver Creek downstream of Lake Avery, and the White River downstream to the confluence with Piceance Creek.

The terms of the agreement allow for releasing 20 cfs up to 120 days. CPW will monitor water-quality conditions and fish to gauge the effects of the additional water, adjusting the release from Lake Avery as conditions warrant.
Due to similar climate conditions at the time, CPW released water from Lake Avery in 2012. Per the terms of the agreement, the agency can release water from the reservoir only one more time prior to 2022.

CPW recommends honoring all voluntary closures, fishing at higher altitude or fishing early when it’s cooler. Anglers should consider using barbless hooks, land fish quickly and release them quickly. Wet your hands before handling and let them go immediately, preferably without removing them from the water.

For more information about conditions on the White River, contact CPW’s Meeker office at 970-878-6090.

For general information about fishing in Colorado, visit the CPW website.

From The Durango Herald (Jennifer Oldham):

In the state known as the “mother of rivers,” the third–warmest and driest period in more than a century is wreaking havoc on waterways that provide the economic lifeline for rural communities and high–alpine habitat for Colorado’s signature fish, the greenback cutthroat trout.

The extremes of temperature and precipitation – too much of one, too little of the other – have grounded rafting companies in places that usually offer white-knuckle rides. With water barely lapping over jagged rocks, some outfitters have moved operations to rivers fed by reservoirs higher up in the parched Rockies.

“Boats can get piled up and people can get hurt if they flip, and guides were having to use their backs to pull the rafts off of rocks,” said Alan Blado, owner of Liquid Descent Rafting, which is based about 40 miles west of downtown Denver. “We didn’t want them to get injured.”


Summer 2018 came after a rough winter in which some areas received 30 percent of what once was typical snowpack. A warm spring thawed drifts early, causing rivers to peak in May, weeks before the busy summer season. Severe to exceptional drought now covers two–thirds of Colorado, and some of the worst wildfires in state history have broken out.

In a warming world , the fight for water can push nations apart — or bring them together — The Texas Observer #RioGrande #ActOnClimate

Map of the Rio Grande watershed. Graphic credit: WikiMedia

Here’s the introduction to a nine-part series about cross-border river administration from The Texas Observer:

The Rio Grande Valley of Texas is one of the fastest-growing places in the United States. Already hot and arid, and growing hotter, the booming, heavily Latino region depends almost entirely on the shriveling Rio Grande for water. Considered one of the most endangered rivers in North America, the Rio Grande provides drinking and irrigation water to 6 million people and 2 million acres of farmland on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border. Droughts and heat waves in the Valley are becoming more intense, exacerbating water scarcity.

Despite opinion surveys showing that Valley residents are deeply concerned about how climate change is affecting them, local and state officials are paying little heed to their constituents. According to a 2013 federal study (pdf), even before accounting for climate change the region is expected to run a “staggering” water supply shortage of almost 600,000 acre-feet in 2060. At the same time, some Texas border cities have been at the forefront of water conservation, and the US and Mexico have found ways to cooperate on protecting the Rio Grande.

This nine-part collaboration between the Texas Observer and Quartz explores the complexities of border water in search of answers for how people can work together in a hotter, drier world.