Last year’s historic wildfire season increased the area that’s prone to flooding, causing “an abnormal year of flooding events” this year, climate researcher says.
Areas scorched during last year’s historic wildfire season could pose flash flooding risks through the summer as rain picks up speed along steep terrain in the burn scars, sweeping debris onto major roads.
While heavy rain is typical of the summer monsoon season, Colorado is seeing “an abnormal year of flooding events,” partly because of last year’s historic wildfire season and the increased area of scorched land, Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger said.
So far this year, mudslides along burn scars have caused dozens of road shutdowns, including along Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, resulting in severe delays in traffic or significant detours. And that’s likely to continue through the end of monsoon season due to the altered composition of the soil along burn scars, Bolinger said.
Instead of the rain soaking into the soil, Bolinger compared the rainfall along burn scars to rain hitting a car and immediately running off.
“Particularly in areas that have suffered from wildfires, specifically last year, what happens to the soils is that they almost repel that water,” she said. “Basically, the fire changes the composition of the soil so that water cannot get into the soil as it would in a normal situation.”
The flooding becomes more dangerous along steep terrain as rain slides runs the slope and picks up speed as it goes, Bolinger said. If the slope is next to a road, there’s exponentially more danger.
“With that slope, that is what gets your flash flooding as opposed to a regular flooding event,” she said.
Rain can erode steep terrain between 24 to 40 tons per acre each year during the first few years after a wildfire, according to the U.S. Forest Service…
In the past month, vehicle and recreational traffic through Glenwood Canyon has been shut down several times after mud washed from the Grizzly Creek burn scar onto roads and when the risk of flash flooding was high. Lanes in both directions closed again Thursday night, with no estimated time of reopening, after more rain swept massive debris piles debris along the road, the Colorado Department of Transportation said in a tweet.
“Part of it is is just luck — or bad luck — of where these fires happened, particularly the Grizzly Creek fire, which wasn’t a really huge fire, but its placement next to I-70 and in that steep terrain has really led to that one being one of the highest impact areas this summer for flooding,” Bolinger said…
One person died and several people were reported missing as of [July 23, 2021] after flash floods sent debris flowing into Poudre Canyon northwest of Fort Collins. Several homes were destroyed and buildings were damaged as trees, mud, rocks and structures washed into the river, causing debris to pile up six feet high in some places.
Parts of Colorado 125 and U.S. 40 in Grand County were closed for several hours after a mudslide fell along the East Troublesome burn scar Thursday.
But sometimes, there doesn’t need to be much rain for flooding to become a disaster.
“There’s not a perfect relationship between how much rain you get and the level of flooding. Even if we are not expecting a ton of rain, it could just be enough,” Bolinger said. “You want to make sure what you’re going into because even a little bit of rain can quickly change the situation where you are.”
Rain-flushed mudslides are not just in burn zones either. Heavy rains in Telluride and Avon this week buried roads and pedestrian trails in debris.
The Biden administration has an opportunity to help small forest owners become a more significant part of the carbon markets, earn an income on their land, and help with carbon sequestration.
The Biden administration has set its climate change policy agenda, with a broad call to engage rural America. But one approach lacking a laser focus is on incentivizing rural forest owners to use their land for capturing and storing carbon.
America’s forests and forest products already capture and store more than 750 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of nearly 15 percent of annual U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. With the right policies that enable voluntary action, the nation’s forests can do even more, with some estimates saying the U.S. could double this important contribution to climate mitigation.
“With the right tools and partnerships, American agriculture and forestry can lead the world in solutions that will increase climate resilience, sequester carbon, enhance agricultural productivity, and maintain critical environmental benefits,” the U.S. Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, said in a new progress report on using forests and agriculture to mitigate the impact of climate change.
One of those “right tools” must be action by the government to jumpstart carbon markets for small forest owners.
Families and individuals own the largest portion of forests – 36% – across the U.S. Research from the American Forest Foundation (AFF) and the U.S. Forest Service has found that these owners want to improve forest health, but the vast majority are not employing best practices due to the high costs associated with forest management.
Helping small forest owners access carbon markets would allow them to generate income from their land that can then be poured back into the trees for increased conservation and carbon capture. And generating income from carbon markets would provide a much-needed financial boost for forest owners, as many lack resources to sufficiently maintain their forests. One in three family forest owners has an annual income of less than $50,000.
If 2020 and the global COVID-19 pandemic will be remembered for shining a light on the realities of our connected world, then the summer of 2021 will be remembered for the mirror it held up to the realities of a warming and drying future for water in the Colorado River Basin.
We’re on the brink of the federal government declaring a water shortage, Lake Mead and Lake Powell have plummeted, and any sign of replenishing flows is precarious at best. But unlike COVID-19, this shortage has been on the horizon for decades. Water managers, scientists, and non-profits like American Rivers are sounding the alarm (and have been), about the realities of a simultaneously drying and ever-more-demanding West.
Concerns about drought and impacts to everything from fish to farmers are not political statements—they’re true ones, backed now by a bounty of science. The harsh reality of these truths is that the scale and pace of climate-related changes in the Colorado River Basin pose a gargantuan challenge, unprecedented in the history of water management.
It’s not that we haven’t made attempts to respond. Certainly, we have. Conservation efforts have long centered on balancing supply and demand, but these are in-the-moment and short-term responses to a very long-term challenge. What we need now is forward thinking strategies to adapt, respond to, and mitigate the steady, compounding, and extreme risks of climate change to economies, communities, wildlife, landscapes, and at the root of all of it—the rivers we rely on.
At this precipice, our future demands that we invest our time, energy, and financial resources boldly and immediately in strategies that will work—that will build for all of us the kind of future we want for our children.
A recent report to which American Rivers contributed entitled “Ten Strategies for Climate Resilience in the Colorado Basin,” authored by Martin & McCoy and Culp & Kelly, LLP, outlines those strategies (see below). To arrive at this list of top ten, report authors asked:
Could the investment help the Basin adapt to ongoing climate shifts?
To what extent would the investment reduce pressure on existing water supplies?
Would the investment help mitigate climate change?
Could the investments strengthen economic resilience in communities?
The resulting top 10 investment strategies for a more resilient future are:
Forest Management & Restoration – Prioritizing forest management and restoration to maintain system functionality and biodiversity
Natural Distributed Storage – Restoring highly degraded natural meadow systems to improve local aquifer recharge, water retention, reconnect historic floodplains, and support productive meadows and riparian ecosystems
Regenerative Agriculture – Promoting voluntary farming and ranching principles and practices that enrich soils, enhance biodiversity, restore watershed health, and improve overall ecosystem function and community health
Upgrading Agricultural Infrastructure & Operations – Upgrading diversion, delivery and on-farm infrastructure and operations, including irrigation systems
Cropping Alternatives & New Market Pathways – Developing on-farm operational shifts and market and supply chain interventions to incentivize water conservation, e.g. shifting to lower water-use crops
Urban Conservation & Re-Use – Incentivizing conservation technologies, indoor and outdoor conservation programs, and direct and indirect potable reuse
Industrial Conservation & Re-Use – Incentivizing modifications and upgrades to reduce water use and increase energy efficiencies
Coal Plant Retirement Water – Purchasing or reallocating water rights from closed or retiring coal plants to be used for system or environmental benefits, or other uses
Reducing Dust on Snow – Improving land management practices to reduce the dust on snow effect — which controls the pace of spring snowmelt that feeds the headwaters of the Colorado River.
Covering Reservoirs & Canals – Implementing solutions to reduce evaporation from reservoirs and conveyance systems
The full report outlines, in detail, not just the near-term next steps for moving these strategies forward but includes demonstration projects, investments and action-oriented research.
But it’s important to emphasize that these strategies can’t be implemented in a silo. “I” doesn’t work in these conditions. We all rely on rivers, and water, and their continued existence. Our ability to count on them well into the future will be dependent upon our willingness to develop cross-sector partnerships and basin-wide funding for these investments that can be cohesively implemented at a scale commensurate to the challenge. Local, state, and tribal governments must be on board. Our private land partners need voluntary measures and incentives, not mandates.
And we can’t wait for calls on the river, fallowed fields, and dry stretches to act. These investments in climate resilience for the Colorado River are needed now.
FromBizWest Media/Boulder Daily Camera (Lukas High) via The Sterling Journal-Advocate:
Predictability is critical for Colorado’s farmers and ranchers, who are grappling with increasing volatility related to climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Extreme weather is not new,” Colorado State University professor Becca Jablonski said during Colorado Proud’s “Growing, Evolving and Thriving Colorado Agriculture: Farmers and Ranchers” roundtable held [July 21, 2021]. “But it’s arguably getting worse.”
Wildfires and droughts have become annual features of the summer growing season and unexpected freezes during the spring and fall are becoming increasingly common.
“We’re really concerned about climate change and variability,” said Steve Ela, owner of ELA Family Farms. “We farm in small microclimates here in Colorado, and those microclimates are shrinking.”
Ela’s operation lost half its peach crop during a freeze last October…
Adoption of low water-use practices and crops could “help keep agriculture alive and keep farmers and ranchers on the land,” Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg said.
To complicate matters further, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on supply chains, making it more difficult for farmers and ranchers to source supplies and get their products to market.
Community-level networks “were really critical for learning to adapt” during the pandemic, Jablonski said…
Making quick pivots in response to unanticipated challenges requires a willingness to assume quite a bit of risk, she said, but farmers who are barely scraping by often cannot afford to take big chances.
Using controlled environment agricultural practices or shifting to heartier crops could help mitigate some risk, Jablonski said.
The crisis on the Colorado River is not waiting for the state of Colorado to develop a program to avoid water shortages.
That was the message that Colorado Water Conservation Board members received from some commenters at their regular meeting Wednesday. The state water board is investigating the feasibility of a program known as demand management, which would pay irrigators on a temporary and voluntary basis to not irrigate and instead use that saved water to meet downstream obligations on the Colorado River.
James Eklund, former head of the CWCB and one of the architects of the Drought Contingency Plan, which allows for the possibility of a demand-management program, urged the board in the public-comments portion of the discussion to take swift action on what he called arguably the largest water crisis Colorado has ever faced.
“Time is not your or our collective out. If you wait, that’s a decision that you make to determine whether or not we have a hand on the steering wheel as we move forward with this river,” he said. “The waiting is, I think, folly.”
In written comments, some environmental nonprofit organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Trout Unlimited, said they were in favor of a demand-management program and urged the state to move forward more quickly.
The state received the comments in response to a draft framework released in March of what a demand-management program could look like, with three tiers of implementation options, guiding principles, threshold issues, trade-offs and equity considerations. The framework matrix is based on the findings of nine workgroups assigned to tackle different aspects and challenges of a potential program.
In addition to written comments, Trout Unlimited Colorado Water Project’s director, Drew Peternell, also told board members at the meeting that the group has concluded that demand management should be one tool Colorado uses to avoid compact curtailment.
“We realize you are taking on some very tough issues, but I also want to urge you to pick up the pace,” he said. “Hydrology on the West Slope is not good. Additional shortages on the system are likely. They would be painful. Now is the time to get something done.”
Gail Schwartz, who represents the main stem of the Colorado River basin on the nine-member board, noted the gravity of the situation and invoked the warnings of 19th-century explorer and river runner John Wesley Powell, after whom the second-largest reservoir in the country and ground zero for many of the basin’s most pressing problems is named. In 1893, the prescient Powell said the American West was “piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply these lands.”
“I think that we are at this extraordinary moment in time,” Schwartz said. “This is a desert and we are going to empty every bucket, we are going to empty every river, and this is the inevitable unless we can develop the courage and the ability to step forward.”
The controversial water-banking program, which some fear could harm agriculture on the Western Slope, has sparked a lot of discussion but little agreement over the past two years. Some have expressed frustration with what they say is the state’s slow pace of a program rollout and want to begin pilot projects to test the program’s feasibility. Mark Harris, general manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, urged the board in his comment letter to take aggressive action.
“The only way to really raise the important questions and to identify the positive and negative consequences of our actions is to try something,” Harris said. “There is no other way to advance the agenda without taking some well-considered risk.”
Drought Contingency Plan
Under the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, signed by the seven Colorado River basin states, the Upper Basin (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming) can develop a program to send up to 500,000 acre-feet of saved water downstream to Lake Powell as a kind of insurance policy to bolster levels in the reservoir and help meet Colorado River Compact obligations. If the Upper Basin states were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the Lower Basin (Nevada, Arizona and California), as required by the 1922 agreement, it could trigger what’s known as a compact call, which would force involuntary cutbacks in water use.
Over the past two decades, climate change has been robbing the Colorado River system of flows, and levels in the river’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, have plummeted to record lows. Federal officials have begun making emergency releases from Upper Basin reservoirs to prop up levels in Lake Powell and preserve the ability to make hydroelectric power. But some water managers say unless this Upper Basin reservoir water is replenished with big snow next winter, the releases may be a one-time, stopgap solution.
In addition to the urgency imposed by the worsening hydrology, the clock is ticking on the storage agreement laid out in the Drought Contingency Plan, which allows for the development of a demand-management program. It expires in 2026, when a new round of negotiations begins. All four Upper Basin states must agree to move forward with a demand-management program; Colorado cannot go it alone.
Decision making roadmap
Despite the sense of urgency expressed by some members, the CWCB did not approve the next step forward that was recommended by staff: adopting a decision making roadmap, which sets out a timeline for determining if demand management is achievable and worthwhile for Colorado. Tackling whether demand management is achievable was set to tentatively begin in September, and looking into whether the program is worthwhile for Colorado was supposed to begin in November.
Schwartz made a motion to adopt the roadmap but later withdrew it after some board members said it was too broad, left too many questions unanswered and did not incorporate feedback from the board.
“I feel this roadmap is incomplete, and until I see the roadmap with the comments from the board, I don’t feel comfortable moving forward,” said Jackie Brown, who represents the Yampa and White river basins.
River District’s interests
Demand management was also a topic at the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s quarterly board meeting in Glenwood Springs on Tuesday. Amy Ostdiek, the CWCB’s deputy section chief for interstate, federal and water information gave a presentation on the state’s progress.
The River District, which represents 15 counties and advocates to keep water on the Western Slope, is conducting its own investigation into the feasibility of demand management through meetings with water users and plans to release a report of its findings. The River District has not yet taken a position on the potential program.
“My personal view is that we are going to keep pushing to protect the River District’s interests in a demand-management program, but we realize this is something necessary to move forward sooner rather than later,” said Peter Fleming, River District general counsel.
Board president Marti Whitmore, who represents Ouray County, asked staff to come up with a proposal with specifics on a demand-management program.
“The time is right to come up with something to put on the table for discussion purposes,” she said. “I’m just looking to break the logjam here, so we are talking some substance instead of just frameworks and process. It could be an opportunity for the River District to provide some leadership.”
CWCB board members plan to continue discussing demand management at an Aug. 18 workshop.
FromColorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):
Colorado’s Western Slope is considered a climate hot spot where temperatures are increasing faster than the global average. This warming has contributed to more than 20 years of dryness, which scientists are calling a megadrought.
Ranchers like Washburn are trying to adapt. That might mean having to give up ranching altogether.
Washburn is raising the sixth generation of kids on the ranch, which has operated in Crested Butte for more than 130 years. He said that just in the last 20 years, there’s been a noticeable difference in the amount of available water.
Washburn grows hay on his private acreage while his cows graze on federal land. Some of the smaller creeks and ponds that irrigate the government rangeland are drying up.
“Year-after-year of this continued drought, we’re seeing places that we didn’t think would ever go dry,” Washburn said.
One creek dried up three years ago. Washburn said his father-in-law had never seen that creek go dry in his life.
Without enough water on their federal pasture, Spann Ranch is bringing its cattle back to the private ranch weeks earlier than they’re supposed to. That’s a costly snag. Without open grazing, ranchers are forced to use their winter hay supplies early to feed their hungry cattle during the summer. When the hay runs out, they have to buy more…
Most of the farmland in this county is irrigated, meaning farmers and ranchers flood their crops and pastures with river water.
Farmers and ranchers started digging this system of trenches and ditches more than 100 years ago, transforming the landscape. What was once sagebrush and rocks are now meadows of hay and grass. Colorado’s agricultural industry depends on this water, but more than 20 years of deep drought has depleted this critical resource.
Washburn believes that the lack of water on the Western Slope will mean the end of his family’s ranching operation within his childrens’ lifetime…
[Andy] Spann believes his family can stay in agriculture, but the operation will need to change. Right now, their business is raising and selling calves. That requires a lot of hay to feed mother cows during the winter.
Instead, Spann said they might move to raising cattle during the warmer months and selling off any hay they are able to grow.
More drastic options include transitioning from cattle ranching to growing hay full-time — or even turning the livestock operation into a horse ranch, Spann said…
Bill Parker, another Gunnison County rancher, said his operation is already successfully adapting to climate change.
Parker learned hard lessons from previous droughts, including the historic drought of 2012 that forced him to sell off half his animals for close to a loss…
If a bad drought year is forecasted, ranchers like Parker won’t raise as many animals. That usually means less potential profits, but Parker raises grass-finished beef and lamb that fetch a premium when he sells the meat directly to wholesalers locally and online.
Parker said his family uses direct marketing to pocket as much of the retail dollar as possible. Without a middleman, Parker can make more money by raising fewer animals instead of feeding and caring for a large herd when it’s abnormally dry.
Parker also moves his livestock to warmer places in the winter so they can continue grazing on grass, which means his operation isn’t dependent on a good hay crop.
He’s also adopted other climate-friendly ranching techniques. Instead of letting his sheep or cattle overgraze one spot, he moves them around using a portable electric fence. Parker said this allows him to control the health of his soil.
The technique, called rotational grazing, keeps the animals from eating all the plants before they can grow the deep roots that help hold moisture in the soil. Healthy soil and plants also absorb carbon from the atmosphere, which can help fight climate change.
Parker could get federal drought insurance and get compensated during dry years, but he doesn’t. He said he wants to take responsibility for ranching in the arid West, a burden that’s growing heavier as the climate warms.
Here’s a guest column from Phil Weiser and Bob Rankin that’s running in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:
From the very founding of our state, our predecessors recognized that, in Colorado, life is inscribed in water. This truth is even written on our Capitol walls beneath the gold dome. As we continue to grapple with the implications of a changing climate and an ever-growing population, one thing is clear — the water management challenges we face require collaboration, innovation, planning, and major funding.
From the San Luis Valley to the Western Slope to the Eastern Plains, our communities depend on water for our agriculture, our outdoor recreation economy, and our lives. But we cannot simply stand pat and continue a status quo in the face of a growing population and decreasing water supplies on account of reduced snowpack.
We must invest in water infrastructure with a sense of urgency — so we can deliver win-win solutions. And we need to do this now as we have unprecedented opportunity to utilize federal and state funds. Our forecast for state revenues for the next few years rebounded dramatically from the initial hit from the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of that, the American Rescue Plan Act provides Colorado $3.8 billion to recover from the pandemic and invest in our future. Water projects are one such investment in which these funds can and should be invested. Furthermore, Congress may very well send additional funds to Colorado this summer through a bipartisan infrastructure package. To be sure, there are competing demands for these funds, such as investing in broadband infrastructure for unserved areas. At the top of the list, however, we should prioritize water infrastructure.
We believe investment from these combined sources will dramatically strengthen Colorado’s water security and enable us to implement water management projects called for by the Colorado Water Plan. These funds will not address every need, or even every high-priority project, but they will drastically accelerate construction and maintenance work, such as repairing pipes and water leaks, on the systems we rely upon to deliver safe and clean water to our communities.
Colorado has both a vision and a strategy — as well as priorities — for how to allocate funding for water projects. The Colorado Water Plan, adopted in 2015, represents a visionary promise for how Colorado will manage its water resources. For starters, we are committed to protecting all of Colorado and not allowing wholesale “buy and dry” situations. When “buy and dry” plans are implemented, which has already happened in some rural counties, those plans spur the decline of rural communities’ infrastructure, undermine their agriculture, damage the economy, and hurt the local population. There are many cautionary tales in rural Colorado warning us that this is not how to manage water.
The Water Plan also calls for significant investments in water infrastructure, storage, and conservation efforts to meet tomorrow’s water needs. In particular, the plan identified billions of dollars in needs across water supply, infrastructure, recreation, and the environment over the next 30 years. Currently, as noted by the water plan, a fraction of the state budget goes toward water projects. We need to prioritize such investments.
In the Colorado Water Plan, we have a broad roadmap to invest in Colorado’s water future. But right now our biggest challenge is funding. With continued growth on the horizon, planning for the future of water management will become even more important. And to fulfill the plan’s vision, it will take billions of dollars. To be sure, the General Assembly has commendably found both some one-time funding and dedicated funding streams to fund the water plan in recent years. But to properly fund Colorado’s water will take billions more.
Colorado can have a bright future that enables our entire state to thrive. Ensuring that future, however, is going to require smart and innovative investments in how we manage our water. By investing a meaningful portion of the billions provided to Colorado under the American Rescue Plan Act, we can shore up critical water infrastructure that will enhance our resilience going forward, and deliver dividends by strengthening rural communities, creating jobs for agricultural and outdoor recreation centers, and ensuring water resources are protected for the next generation. We have the available resources now to do it and should come together to make the investments called for by the Colorado Water Plan. We both stand ready to work and support the effort to do just that.
Phil Weiser is the attorney general of Colorado. Bob Rankin is a state senator and represents Garfield, Grand, Jackson, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Routt, and Summit counties.
Tackling the challenges surrounding climate change and water supply will require collaboration and creative thinking, Colorado’s top water leaders and senior federal officials agreed Thursday.
More than a dozen state officials and water leaders from across the state met at Denver Water’s Operations Complex with Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to discuss the impacts of climate change, the ongoing drought across the Colorado River Basin and how leadership and collaboration at every level will be needed to help address it.
After the discussion, Jim Lochhead, Denver Water’s CEO/Manager, welcomed the group — which included Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo, Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette, Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg — to a news conference at the utility’s Administration Building, completed in 2019, that is itself a demonstration of the future of water and water efficiency in an urban setting.
Lochhead said the roundtable also included a discussion of the investments Denver Water is making in watershed health, through its From Forests to Faucets program that includes partners at the state and federal level, water conservation, resiliency and sustainability.
Haaland said she was glad to tour “this beautiful building” and praised the roundtable for bringing a wide range of people together for a thoughtful and important discussion…
Greenberg said it meant a lot to the people working across Colorado’s agriculture sector to know issues surrounding climate change were “top of mind” at both the state and federal level…
Attendees at the water leaders’ roundtable discussion were:
Deb Haaland, Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Tanya Trujillo, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, U.S. Department of Interior.
Davis Raff, Chief Engineer, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Carly Jerla, Senior Water Resources Program Manager, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Diana DeGette, U.S. Representative for Colorado’s First Congressional District.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
Colorado Lt. Governor Dianne Primavera.
Kate Greenberg, Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture.
Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
Rebecca Mitchell, Director, Colorado Water Conservation Board.
Jim Lochhead, CEO/Manager, Denver Water.
Christine Arbogast, representing Colorado Water Congress.
Peter Fleming, General Counsel, Colorado River Water District.
Jim Broderick, Executive Director, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservation District.
Ken Curtis, General Manager, Dolores Water District Manager (retired).
Steve Wolff, General Manager, Southwest Water Conservation District.
Jennifer Pitt, Colorado River Program Director, National Audubon Society
Diane Carman’s opinion column this morning touches on the cost of moving sustainability and resilience forward in Denver Suburb:
For decades, we’ve heard that a reckoning was coming.
Climate change would threaten our fundamental way of life in the West. After years of neglect, essential parts of our infrastructure would fail. The bills for the costs of maintaining our essential services — kicked willy-nilly down the road to a murky unidentified date in the future — would come due.
We ignored it all, blithely turning up the air conditioning, watering our lawns and tuning out the scientists, the engineers, the city managers.
Now that reckoning has arrived.
If you don’t believe me, just ask the folks in Westminster. They can tell you all about the connections between climate change, infrastructure and money.
Officials from Westminster’s water and sewer departments began warning that the 50-year-old facilities were worn out.
The storage tanks for the city’s water, the pipes and pumps delivering it, and the sewage treatment systems were shot. Concrete was flaking away, pipes deteriorating, pumps becoming unreliable.
The city council looked at the mountain of evidence and made the only responsible choice: it voted to upgrade the system.
To pay for it, the council also voted to raise the rates for water and sewer customers and, since the cost of the projects was estimated in the tens of millions, the increased fees were significant, especially for high users.
When the summer of 2020 came and the thermometer hit 90 or above for a record-setting 75 days, the good folks of Westminster sprinkled their lawns like they always had (maybe not blithely but still …) and the resulting water bills blew their minds.
Still in deep denial of reality, a group of Westminster activists mobilized as Water Warriors to recall several city council members for their failure to kick the problems down the road once more.
The effort was an expensive bust, with the recall of only one council member, Jon Voelz, making it onto the ballot, only to fail spectacularly in the special election last week.
But this war is far from over.
Several Westminster council members will face re-election in November and surely water rates will be an issue. Those who routinely flood their lawns with 20,000 gallons or more each month and pay the highest rates are not about to give up the fight for their right to Kentucky Bluegrass — drought and system failures be damned.
But Westminster is hardly unique. In fact, it’s really Everytown, USA. Its water war is a mere skirmish in the seething national debate about how to face the reckoning now upon us.
The facts are indisputable.
After years of drought in the West, reservoirs, water tables and rivers are at historic lows.
California is forced to forced to choose between leaving enough water in the streams so that salmon can survive and drawing enough to grow crops. Ranchers across the West are reducing their stocks as it becomes more apparent that they won’t be able to feed them. Customers who rely on hydroelectric power face shortages as water levels drop and heat waves stretch even into Canada. Fishermen have been asked to abide by a voluntary ban on angling in the mighty Colorado River.
At the same time, critical infrastructure from bridges and highways to the antiquated electric grid have been left to degrade for most of a century, risking public health and safety for lack of political will.
The backlog of delayed infrastructure projects in Colorado alone is huge: $10 billion for safe drinking water, $9 billion for transportation, $4 billion for wastewater systems … the list goes on.
But while nobody would say the Westminster water wars have been easy (or cheap), the outcome so far is cause for mild optimism.
Mayor Anita Seitz has listened to constituents’ concerns both about the condition of the water system and the painful rate increases and has chosen not to duck the issue for mere political expedience. Instead, she and other council members are working to help the community understand the problem and what the future holds.
Acres of green lawns, long a symbol of abundance, now represent reckless profligacy. Failure to address the crumbling infrastructure can only bring more serious and expensive problems down the road. An unwillingness to fix the problems now will only cost the community more in the future.
“Every single member of council swears an oath to our charter. And our charter dictates that we need to set rates of our utility to meet the operating needs of that utility,” Seitz said. There’s not much “wiggle room.”
She’s right. Whatever wiggle room we had to address climate change and meet our infrastructure needs is long gone.
In this summer of heat domes, wildfires, droughts, floods and structural failures, that message should be loud, clear and irrefutable.
Take it from the folks in Westminster, it’s time for action.
Lake Powell will soon hit its lowest level since Glen Canyon Dam started trapping the Colorado River’s water in 1963 — even with emergency releases of water from reservoirs upstream.
The Bureau of Reclamation announced Thursday that the lake elevation will soon drop below 3,555.1 feet above sea level, the record set in 2005, back near the start of a 20-year dry cycle plaguing the Colorado River Basin.
“Lake Powell’s elevation is expected to drop another two feet by the end of July, and will likely continue to decline until next year’s spring runoff into the Colorado River begins,” the bureau said in a news release.
The level has dropped 145 vertical feet since 1999, when the lake was full. Since then, Lake Powell — straddling the Utah-Arizona border — has lost about 16 million acre-feet and is just 33% full. On Thursday, the elevation was 3,555.55 feet, less than 6 inches above the record low.
The level has dropped 145 vertical feet since 1999, when the lake was full. Since then, Lake Powell — straddling the Utah-Arizona border — has lost about 16 million acre-feet and is just 33% full. On Thursday, the elevation was 3,555.55 feet, less than 6 inches above the record low…
Meanwhile, various projects remain on the drawing board in Utah and other Upper Colorado River Basin states that would divert even more water from the Colorado. Utah, for example, is fully committed to its $1.5 billion Lake Powell pipeline proposal, which would move 86,000 acre-feet a year to Washington and Kane counties, and has recently established the Colorado River Authority of Utah to advanced the Beehive State’s claims to the river.
Last week, the Bureau of Reclamation authorized the release of 181,000 acre-feet over the next five months at three reservoirs, mostly from Flaming Gorge Dam on the Green River. Conservationists like John Weisheit of Living Rivers say that move is merely buying time, forestalling the day when Lake Powell will no longer function as a reservoir.
“Emptying the upstream reservoirs is … like burning your furniture to stay warm,” said Weisheit, paraphrasing a famous quote from Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac.” “It’s an act of desperation. … Everything is breaking. We have exceeded the limits of nature.”
Originally an afterthought, recreation has become Lake Powell’s most important and visible role for many Westerners who explore the 185-mile lake by boat to play, camp and fish. Now most of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area’s boat ramps are either unusable or difficult to use, and the marinas could become inoperable.
On Monday, the National Park Service closed the lake’s Dangling Rope Marina, the only place to get fuel in the 100-miles stretch between Wahweap and Bullfrog, at least through the end of the year. Houseboats can no longer be launched at Wahweap, although they still can be retrieved for now.
“It has not taken a whole lot of rain to move what has moved so far so I anticipate there will be more movement in some of those same drainages but it’s hard to measure and know exactly so much,” said Elizabeth Roberts, an ecologist with the White River National Forest who has spent most of the past year planting grasses in the burn scar to stabilize soil and restore damaged terrain.
The seeds Roberts and her team sow will eventually become the rooted plants that keep soil from moving in the dozens of debris fields that funnel into Glenwood Canyon’s Colorado River. But since the Grizzly Fire burned into winter last year, she’s racing to get seeds into every path of scorched earth. Many of the Grizzly Creek Fire’s 32,631 acres are in steep, rocky chutes where seeds would not take anyway.Everyone knew the runoff and rains of 2021 would pose a threat to Glenwood Canyon. The City of Glenwood Springs spent more than $10 million on emergency watershed protection projects that included replacing and upgrading water intakes and filtering systems in the No Name and Grizzly Creek drainages where the city collects its water.
Swift protection for the highway from rain-loosened debris was much more difficult, if not impossible…
The U.S. Geological Survey created a landslide hazard map following the Grizzly Creek Fire that identified dozens of drainages where the likelihood of debris flows was increased if the area saw only 15 minutes of rain that fell at a rate of roughly an inch an hour. That map was spot on. Debris flows that shoved tons of mud onto the highway have come from three separate areas where the USGS estimated the chance of debris flows was between 40% and 100%.
Forest and transportation officials were working with models, so the actual amount of mud coming down and where it might end up was impossible to predict…
Roberts has been doing most of her seeding work on the rim above the canyon. She’s been surprised to see lots of natural vegetation coming back in the first year. The growth of herbaceous shrubbery — known as forbs, which are neither grassy nor woody, like snowberry, chokecherry and fireweed — has been “quite significant,” Roberts said.
That’s been helpful because forest botanists are generally speeding native grasses, which can take a couple years to firmly establish, depending on the health of the soil…
Mitigation in the narrow canyon is complicated. The stretch of interstate built between 1980 and 1992 is an engineering marvel, heralded not only for its ingenious efficiency but how its minimal footprint protected as much of the canyon as possible. When a fire hit perhaps the worst place on Interstate 70 for a burn scar, there just isn’t much room for barriers and other strategies for protecting roads from rain-riding debris. That isn’t stopping CDOT from trying to find ways to divert flows of mud and rock.
Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor.
US Drought Monitor map July 20, 2021.
High Plains Drought Monitor map July 20, 2021.
West Drought Monitor map July 20, 2021.
Colorado Drought Monitor map July 20, 2021.
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
Active weather prevailed across much of the South, East, and Midwest, as well as parts of the Plains, into the middle of July, followed by a southward shift in widespread shower activity. Meanwhile, a robust monsoon circulation provided limited Southwestern drought relief, particularly in parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado. Farther north and west, however, little or no rain fell in California, the Great Basin, and the Northwest, where dozens of wildfires were in various stages of containment. Smoke and other particulate matter from those fires carried downwind at various atmospheric levels, producing hazy skies and reducing air quality—in some cases thousands of miles from the points of origin. Dry weather extended eastward across the nation’s northern tier as far east as Lake Superior, while heavy rain eased or eradicated drought in the remainder of the Great Lakes region, along with the Northeast. In the driest areas of the northern and western United States, drought’s impact on water supplies, as well as rangeland, pastures, and a variety of crops, was further amplified by ongoing heat. Weekly temperatures averaged as much as 10°F above normal from the interior Northwest to the northern High Plains. On July 19, temperatures as high as 110°F were reported in eastern Montana. Another pocket of hot weather was centered over the middle Atlantic States. In contrast, near- or slightly below-normal temperatures dominated the Plains, Midwest, and South…
Scattered showers largely ended early in the drought-monitoring period. Meanwhile, extreme heat returned across northern portions of the region. Agricultural drought impacts across the northern High Plains remained widespread and severe, despite spotty showers. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, topsoil moisture on July 18 was rated 86% very short to short in North Dakota, along with 84% in South Dakota and 74% in Wyoming. Rangeland and pastures were rated at least one-half very poor to poor in Wyoming and the Dakotas, led by South Dakota at 78%. On July 18, North Dakota was the national leader in oats rated very poor to poor (50%; tied with South Dakota), along with soybeans (41%) and corn (32%). South Dakota led the nation, among major production states, in sorghum rated very poor to poor (29%). Nationally, the U.S. spring wheat crop was rated just 11% good to excellent and 63% very poor to poor on July 18, the lowest overall condition at this time of year since July 18, 1988, when the crop was categorized as 7% good to excellent and 73% very poor to poor. Initial estimates released by USDA on July 12 indicated that the 2021 U.S. spring wheat production will be down 41% from last year, while yield will be down 37%. If realized, the 2021 U.S. spring wheat yield of 30.7 bushels per acre would be the lowest since 2002…
Showers associated with the Southwestern monsoon circulation provided limited drought relief in Arizona, New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado, while drought generally worsened across the northern Rockies and interior Northwest. The Western drought continued to act on multiple time scales, ranging from a few weeks (mostly agricultural impacts) to two decades (ecological and hydrological effects). Dozens of wildfires, primarily across northern California and the Northwest, continued to burn through hundreds of thousands of acres of timber, brush, and grass, aided by hot, dry conditions, dry soils, and ample fuels. Wildfire smoke continued to degrade air quality in many areas of the country, well outside the West. In southern Oregon, the nation’s largest active wildfire—the lightning-sparked Bootleg Fire—has consumed more than 394,000 acres of vegetation and has destroyed at least 184 structures. Meanwhile, Washington led the country in several drought-related agricultural categories, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On July 18, Washington’s topsoil moisture was rated 98% very short to short—highest on record since the beginning of the 21st century. Prior to this year, the Washington state record of 89% very short to short had been set on September 10, 2017. Washington also led the country on July 18 in very poor to poor ratings for rangeland and pastures (96%), spring wheat (88%), and barley (63%). In addition to Washington, at least one-half of the rangeland and pastures were rated very poor to poor on that date in Montana (89%), Arizona (88%), Oregon (74%), Utah (72%), Nevada (65%), and Wyoming (52%). Partly due to the stunning drought-related impacts on agriculture, extreme to exceptional drought (D3 to D4) was broadly expanded across eastern Washington and environs, as well as parts of Montana and neighboring states. Moving to longer-term impacts, some of the West’s largest reservoirs and lakes continued to exhibit startling declines. The surface elevation of Lake Mead, on the Colorado River behind Hoover Dam, fell 135 feet in the 21-year period from July 1, 2000, to July 1, 2021, from 1,204 to 1,069 feet above sea level. By July 20, Lake Mead’s elevation stood at 1067.79 feet. Prior to the 21st century, Lake Mead’s surface elevation briefly fell below 1,100 feet only during two drought periods: 1955-57 and 1964-65. Since March 2014, the lake’s end-of-month surface elevation has been continuously below 1,100 feet—and currently stands at a record low since impoundment occurred more than 80 years ago. Farther upstream, water is being released from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming and Utah to boost the level of Lake Powell for the purpose of guarding hydropower generating capability. Elsewhere in Utah, the surface elevation of the Great Salt Lake fell to 4,191.4 feet on July 20, tying the previous record low set in 1963. In California, 154 primary intrastate reservoirs gained just 1.7 million acre-feet of water during the 2021 melt season, barely 20% of the historical recharge average of 7.9 million acre-feet. At the end of June, the 154 reservoirs held just 62% of their typical volume for this time of year—and had lost 16.6 million acre-feet of water (49% of the original volume) over the last 2 years. Current California storage (17.5 million acre-feet) is less than 5.8 million acre-feet above what those reservoirs held on June 30, 1977, which was the year when statewide storage ultimately fell to a record-low end-of-month volume of 7.5 million acre-feet at the end of October. Finally, the punishing Western drought has been accompanied by record-setting high temperatures. The most recent northward shift in heat occurred as monsoon-related showers intensified across the Southwest. By July 19, Glasgow, Montana, reported a maximum temperature of 110°F—the highest reading in that location since July 18, 1936. It was also Glasgow’s third-highest temperature (tied with June 17, 1933) on record, behind only 113°F on July 31, 1900, and 112°F on July 18, 1936…
Patches of dryness (D0) and moderate drought (D1) have been relegated to a few areas in Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. Broadly, there are few drought-related impacts in the South. Frequent summer rain events have maintained adequate to abundant soil moisture. On July 18, Mississippi led the region with topsoil moisture rated 33% surplus, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture…
The interaction between the Southwestern monsoon circulation and a weak cold front will result in locally heavy rain in the Four Corners States but only light showers on the drought-stricken northern Plains. Five-day Southwestern rainfall totals could reach 1 to 3 inches or more, mainly in parts of Arizona, western New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado. Meanwhile, little or no rain will fall in the Pacific Coast States, northern Great Basin, northern Rockies, and central and southern Plains. Flash drought could become a concern across the central and southern Plains and upper Midwest, where building heat will accompany the dry weather. Meanwhile, significant rainfall (1 to 2 inches or more) should be limited to the Great Lakes and Northeastern States, as well as parts of the Southeast. Higher totals may occur in peninsular Florida. Elsewhere, a significant hot spell will persist into next week across an area centered over the northern Plains, with heat-related impacts reaching into the northern Rockies, Intermountain West, central Plains, and upper Midwest.
The NWS 6- to 10-day outlook for July 27 – 31 calls for the likelihood of hotter-than-normal weather nationwide, except for near-normal temperatures in the Northeast, Desert Southwest, and southern and western Alaska. Meanwhile, near- or below-normal rainfall in much of the country should contrast with wetter-than-normal weather across the Intermountain West, northern Great Basin, and western Alaska.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) recently shared alarming news about the unprecedented conditions on the Colorado River and I’ll attempt to explain their complicated projections. Reclamation, the agency that oversees federal water management across 17 western states, publishes some pretty wonky information, even to those of us who regularly interface with this agency and rely on its analyses.
Just last month, in June, Reclamation shared their new 5-year projections for the Colorado River Basin to further assist drought management within the Basin. They share these projections a few times every year. The big news is that the water situation on the Colorado River is worse than folks anticipated when adopting the shared shortage agreements called the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans (DCPs) adopted in 2019.
To jump to the conclusion: Reclamation’s projections signal that we urgently need to do more than the DCPs envisioned because of the increasingly hot and dry conditions in the basin. Reclamation has continued to revise their projections throughout this shockingly dry spring, resulting in really dire projections for water storage and distribution. In other words, less water for people, and less water in streams that benefit birds, fish, and a robust recreational economy.
We’ve arrived at the time when the limits of the Colorado River are being reached.
What does this mean for birds? Birds rely on the riparian habitats of the Colorado River and its tributaries and aquatic birds have come to rely on the big reservoirs on the river too. Surveys of aquatic birds at Lake Powell have documented dabbling ducks, diving species, shorebirds, and more. American Coot and Western Grebe are common. Gadwall, Common Goldeneye, Redhead, and Green-winged Teal have also been observed. The habitats created by Lake Powell have existed for less than 60 years and can change with the lake level, which can affect birds.
You may recall that the main reservoirs on the highly-plumbed Colorado River—Lake Powell and Lake Mead—sometimes “equalize” in water accounting flows. Lake Powell is the receiving reservoir from the Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico) meaning that it stores water that runs downstream from these states. Lake Mead is the distributing reservoir for the Lower Basin states (Arizona, Nevada, and California) and Mexico meaning that water deliveries to each of these places comes from available water in this lake (and legal water rights, of course). The amount of water in Lake Mead—the largest reservoir in the country—determines how much water a state has available for their Colorado River water users.
Reclamation projects that Lake Mead water levels are, for the first time ever, so low that they will require cuts in water Lower Basin water deliveries, operating in Tier 1 shortage. And they say there is a greater than 99% chance of this shortage in 2022 and a high risk (greater than 80% probability) that Lake Mead will remain under shortage operations for at least the next five years, perhaps with even more aggressive cuts.
Severe drought conditions are also triggering emergency response (outlined in the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement as part of the DCP here on page 7) whereby Reclamation will release water from reservoirs further upstream to address declining water levels at Lake Powell and protect the ability of the Glen Canyon Dam to generate hydropower. Representatives from Reclamation and the Upper Basin states just announced they will release water from Flaming Gorge and other reservoirs.
If we have another bad water year, elevations at Lake Mead could even be lower than before Lake Powell was created. It’s getting to the bottom for both of these reservoirs.
Why does this matter? These unprecedented and exceptional drought conditions are a signal to all of us to take steps to ensure the river flows long into the future and address water security for people and wildlife. The entire Colorado River Basin is in crisis.
Climate change is here. We have a very limited window to begin implementing innovative tools that are at our disposal in order to adapt to and mitigate climate change. In addition to reductions in carbon emissions and other large-scale solutions for our planet, Audubon continues to focus on federal and state investments in climate resilient strategies that will help stabilize water supplies and better assist economic sectors and ecosystems adapt to changing conditions. Future water projections by Reclamation – and future agreements on the Colorado River – need to account for climate extremes.
The effects of prolonged drought and climate change affect everyone in the basin. Our way of life is at stake—millions of acres of farmland and ranches, urban and rural communities, recreation on rivers and lakes, our economies, as well as incredible bird life. Our work is more urgent and more difficult. Please join us in advocating for climate solutions that benefit the Colorado River and other important rivers in the West. Sign up for updates here.
Here’s the release from Colorado Springs Utilities:
Pikeview Reservoir, a popular fishing spot in central Colorado Springs and part of our water system, has tested positive for blue-green algae. While the reservoir is still safe for fishing, humans and pets are prohibited from entering the water until further notice. Anglers are directed to thoroughly clean fish and discard guts.
Pikeview has been removed as a source for drinking water until the reservoir is determined to be clear of the algae. There are no concerns about this affecting water supply for the community.
“It’s our responsibility to provide safe, reliable drinking water to our community and to always consider public safety at our reservoirs. We will continue to closely monitor our reservoirs and take appropriate actions,” Earl Wilkinson, Chief Water, Compliance and Innovation Officer said.
We conduct more than 400 water quality tests a month and collect approximately 12,000 water samples throughout our water system annually. With the increased risk of the blue-green algae, we are increasing the frequency of testing reservoirs at lower elevations.
In the past several years, there’s been increasing occurrence of toxic blue-green algae in reservoirs across the United States, forcing limitation of recreational access to the bodies of water for public safety.
Sickness including nausea, vomiting, rash, irritated eyes, seizures and breathing problems could occur following exposure to the blue-green algae in the water. Anyone suspicious of exposure with onset of symptoms should contact their doctor or veterinarian.
High up on Colorado’s Independence Pass, a narrow, winding road weaves through the evergreens and across mountain streams, up and over the Continental Divide at more than 10,000 feet. At one point that road crosses a canal.
It’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, but that canal is part of water infrastructure that makes life on Colorado’s Front Range possible.
The state has a geographical mismatch between where water shows up and where much of the population has settled.
“Wherever you are in this state, you’re either at the source of the drinking water supply, you’re in the middle of the drinking water supply, or you’re at the end of the tap,” said Christina Medved, outreach director at Roaring Fork Conservancy. “So on the Western slope, we are at the source of the water.”
About 80% of Colorado’s water falls on the western side of the state. Much of it is high-mountain snow and rain that eventually trickles down into streams and rivers like the ones on Independence Pass.
But about 80% of Colorado’s people live on the east side of the mountains. Because of gravity, that water doesn’t flow to them naturally. Instead, Colorado’s heavily-populated Front Range relies on a massive plumbing system to keep drinking water flowing to its taps.
For a century and a half, engineers have carved up the mountains with tunnels and canals that pipe water across the state through trans-mountain diversions. Some of that infrastructure is nestled near the high-alpine headwaters of the Roaring Fork River, which eventually flows through Aspen and Glenwood Springs on its way to the Colorado River. Near Lost Man reservoir, a dam and tunnel create a juncture between water that will follow that natural path westward to the Colorado, and water that will be diverted eastward through the mountains and onto cities such as Colorado Springs.
A tunnel through the mountains draws in water that will pass through two reservoirs and the Arkansas River on its way to the southern portion of the Front Range. Water diverted from the Colorado River basin, through trans-mountain diversions, makes up 60 to 70% of the water used by Colorado Springs. Denver, Greeley, Fort Collins and smaller municipalities on the Front Range also rely heavily on Western Slope water.
And these kinds of set ups aren’t confined to Colorado. Similar systems bring water to big cities all across the region. Salt Lake City, Albuquerque and Los Angeles rely on canals and tunnels to ship faraway water into their pipes. New ones are in the works on the Front Range and in southern Utah.
But these systems aren’t without critics.
“When you first learn about it, the concept of a trans-mountain diversion is crazy,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “It seems wrong. It seems antithetical to the health of the river. And I have to say all of that’s true.”
His organization was set up in the 1930s to oppose these diversions and ensure that there is enough water for people on the Western side of the state…
The issue is, contemporary environmental values aren’t written into the West’s water law. Instead, water use is defined by regulations written when Colorado first became a state in the 1800s. The rules say that if you have rights to use water, it doesn’t matter if you want to use it hundreds of miles away from its source – even if that requires miles of cross-mountain plumbing to do so.
At this moment, there is less water to pull from in every part of the state. The Front Range escaped from drought after steady spring rains, but those high-mountain areas that usually provide a dependable source of water for all of Colorado are experiencing a different fate. The western slope is deep in the second year of drought conditions, leaving snowpack and river flows lower than they should be.
Mueller thinks that only sharpens the need for the Front Range to curtail its water use. Although they retain the legal right to use a certain amount of water, he’s asking them to use less – which he says will promote the health of rivers and their ecosystems west of the divide.
On the Front Range, those on the receiving end of diversions say they are listening to their western counterparts when they put up distress signals during particularly critical times. They also say deliberate conservation work is paying off in the longer term. Nathan Elder, water supply manager for Denver Water, said over the past two decades, per capita water use in his district is down by 22%.
“Everyone in Colorado needs to decrease their use,” he said…
Amid tension between demands for water on both sides, exacerbated by extreme drought conditions, is the fact that there is not much of an alternative. Colorado’s water system is built to accommodate the fact that the majority of its people and the majority of its water are far from each other. Without fundamental changes to the bedrock of water law, those asking for water will have to work within a system built on trans-mountain diversions…
Some contingency planning – within the reality of a diversion-centric system – is already in place. In Colorado Springs, which receives some of the flow diverted from the top of Independence Pass, re-use practices are helping the city get more mileage out of the water it’s apportioned.
Abby Ortega, water resources manager for Colorado Springs Utilities, said reused water accounts for 26% of the city’s total portfolio and the city relies heavily on storage to get through dry years like this one.
But climate change threatens to increase the frequency and intensity of droughts, which has water managers on edge and looking more intently at ways to maximize what’s available.
“Every water planner in the state has some worry with the rapidly declining hydrology on the Colorado river,” Ortega said.
Late on Friday afternoon, July 16, the consumer protest organization calling itself Unbottle & Protect Chaffee County Water (“UPCCW”), a Colorado non-profit corporation, delivered a notice from the law offices of John Barth, of Hygiene, Colorado to the Chaffe Board of County Commissioners, and Chaffee Planning Director Dan Swallow. Interestingly enough, the notice did not include the county attorney’s office.
In it, the group issued a set of complaints; in their view, Chaffee County has failed to follow the required permitting procedure for issuance of a 1041 permit. The group’s basis for that claim; that the county plans to review a draft of the proposed 1041 permit and conditions at the upcoming July 20 BoCC meeting, but that it hasn’t yet made the document available. It also issued its own set of permit conditions.
The UPCCW group takes the position that since the BoCC hasn’t yet made that draft available, the failure to do this constitutes a violation of the law. Further, it claims that the county violated the law by voting to approve the issuance of a 1041 permit for the project, before considering a draft proposal of the 1041 permit and conditions.
The UPCCW was formed specifically to protest the Nestlé Waters North America/BlueTriton 1041 permit. Its nonprofit membership includes residents of Chaffee County opposed to the renewal of a 1041 permit for Nestlé Waters North America — now BlueTriton Brands.
That permit allows the company to pump spring water from Ruby Mountain Spring, on property Nestlé owns in Chaffee County, transfer it to its pumping station in Johnson Village, then trucking it to its Denver bottling plant.
The notice goes on to state that the county didn’t reopen public comments during the last session (this, after multiple public sessions with the most extensive public comment ever held in the county on a proposal, and formal notification of the process laid out to be followed). The group’s complaint; that by not specifically seeking their input on the language of the 1041 permit conditions as it has been drafted, that this also constitutes a violation of the law.
The document also cites numerous state statutes for what it claims; then makes an assertion that it is their perception that Chair Greg Felt has a conflict of interest that should have prevented him from ruling on this. In fact, in what many will consider an audacious request, it asks that the BoCC’s July 6 decision to approve the permit be rescinded and that Mr. Felt recuse himself from the proceedings.
Felt has addressed the issue of conflict of interest not once, but twice during the proceedings. While the protest groups make reference to his role as the Vice–Chairman of the Upper Arkansas Water Conservation District (UAWCD) it’s stated as a perceived conflict; the mission of the UAWCD is to secure and manage water resources to meet the needs of the Upper Arkansas River Valley.
During their July 6 session, following the 2 to 1 vote on the permit, which ended months of lengthy questions and debate, the BoCC openly discussed the necessary timing to proceed with a new 1041 permit, and the development of what will be complex conditions. They pushed county legal, which was concerned about the tight timeframe, to get a first draft ready for them to review in the public meeting on July 20, which they explained would be the beginning of the permit development public process.
Once, or if, the BoCC finalizes a written resolution containing the conditions of the permit renewal, the issuance of that resolution and written 1041 permit will trigger the statute of limitations for any challenges to the BoCC’s actions under Colorado Rule of Civil Procedure 106.
Click here to read the newsletter and to follow the links in the article. Here’s an excerpt:
Drought in the Southwest is a “hot” topic, and its effects wreak havoc on all aspects of life as we know it. The 20-year drought across the US West is taking a major toll on the Colorado River with extreme low flows and high temperatures. Lakes Powell and Mead are at historic lows. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation warned that Lake Mead is likely to fall to levels in June/July that could trigger the first federal water shortage declaration, with water use restrictions across the region.
We are seeing negative impacts on our fish life, agriculture/ranching water supply, urban water supply, forest, soil and river health, and environmental impacts in general. Trees in Western forests have been dying at an alarming rate over the past two decades due to droughts, high temperatures, pests and fires.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, more than 93% of the U.S. West is in drought conditions, and nearly 59% of the area is experiencing extreme or exceptional drought, the two worst conditions, indicating widespread risk of crop loss, fire and water shortages.
While I don’t mean to spout doom and gloom, we are witness to the impacts of climate change and it is a serious situation in the West. The impact that changing drought and fire regimes will have on forests in the future is still unclear.
As continuing greenhouse gas emissions warm the planet and drive moisture loss, increasing the frequency, duration and intensity of droughts, research shows the U.S. will likely witness more widespread forest fires, tree death and water scarcity.
In a new study conducted by researchers from The University of New Mexico, they have found that wildfires — which have been increasing in frequency, severity and extent around the globe — are one of the largest drivers of aquatic impairment in the western United States, threatening our water supply. The research, “Wildfires increasingly impact western U.S. fluvial networks,” was published recently in Nature Communications.
So, what can be done about it?
A variety of government agencies and community advisory groups (CAGS) are actively working on conservation policy and ways to help mitigate some of the water challenges ahead.
Even though the legislature had to cut 3.5 billion from the 2020 budget due to COVID, it was able to restore millions of dollars for a variety of education and infrastructure projects and small business. It also made for considerable amounts of funds to be dedicated to wildfire prevention and mitigation, water education, and Colorado’s Water Plan, including its statewide and basin grant programs.
A few of the water related bills included:
House Bill 1260, which transfers $15 million in state general funds to the Water Plan Implementation Cash Fund to be spent by the Colorado Water Conservation Board on grants to help meet the plan’s goals. HB 1260 moves $5 million into CWCB’s Water Supply Reserve Fund for the state’s basin roundtables.
Senate Bill 240, also takes advantage of stimulus money and transfers $30 million in general fund revenue to the CWCB Construction Fund for grants to restore, mitigate and protect watersheds from wildfire-induced erosion and flooding.
House Bill 1008, helps fund watershed protection efforts by authorizing local governments to band together and form special improvement districts empowered to levy property taxes for wildfire mitigation and forest health projects.
Senate Bill 234 creates the Agriculture and Drought Resiliency Fund in the Colorado Department of Agriculture to help the state prepare for and respond to drought. It transfers $3 million in general fund revenue to the new fund to support agricultural water projects and recovery of grazing lands affected by wildfires
The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) is continuing to investigate the feasibility of a Demand Management program, which would involve temporary, voluntary and compensated reductions in consumptive use to bank water in Lake Powell as a hedge against future shortfalls on the Colorado River, as one option to ensure that Colorado and the three other upper basin states comply with Colorado River Compact delivery obligations.
Citizens can check out the Water Smart and Water Wise resources and programs, as well as the Water Information Program website. The public can participate in the local basin Roundtable meetings, join a Citizens Advisory Group, and participate in water conservation efforts. If you are not aware of the Colorado Water Plan you can check out the executive summary here. Water Education Colorado and the Statewide Water Education Action Plan (SWEAP) has a lot of great resources for Water Education’s role in achieving sustainable water for Colorado by 2050.
Since mid-May, Woodland Park residents and businesses have confronted Level 2 water restrictions conditions, which can affect their daily and weekly watering habits.
Property owners can only water their lawns so often, and the restrictions impact big commercial users, like the Shining Mountain golf course in Woodland Park. Area linksters will be forced to abide by cart-path-only rules for some time due to the lingering drought and because of the city’s limited availability of H2O…
With all the recent rainfall, locals may be wondering why these restrictions are still in place. The story is complicated, as much of the city’s water supply depends on sources some 200 miles away.
According to drought.gov website, in collaboration with The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, (NOAH) and National Integrated Drought Information System, (NIDIS), no one in Teller are affected by drought at this time. Drought.gov states that May of 2021 was the 24th wettest period in 127 years, at 1.52 inches above normal for Teller County.
However, drought.gov also states that 36.4-percent of Colorado is under a “severe drought” and 30-percent of the state is under “extreme drought” conditions. The western slope of Colorado is where the majority of these “severe” and “extreme” drought conditions exist. The western slope headwater drainages are the major source of the city’s augmentation water.
As a result of the drought conditions on the western slope, On July 1, a declaration of a drought emergency for Western Colorado by Gov. Jared Polis opened up federal and state dollars to help those most affected by the lack of moisture. As of July 1, the US Drought Monitor lists 18 counties as being in extreme or exceptional drought.
Drought conditions are so bad on the Colorado river, that water storage in Lake Mead is at historic lows. Lake Mead, the largest US reservoir, and fed by the Colorado River — fell below the elevation of 1,075 feet. It has hit that mark only a handful of times since the Hoover Dam was finished in the 1930s, but it always recovered shortly after. It may not this time, at least not anytime soon…
Lake Mead is currently 16 feet below where it was this time last year and the reservoir is only 37-percent full.
The second largest reservoir in the Colorado river basin, Lake Powell, is not faring any better.
Lake Powell is down 35 feet from last year and sits at just 34-percent of the lake’s total capacity…
According to Wiley, “The amount of water in a share varies according to the source. Our shares never get cut off. We always own those shares. It’s the production of those shares (amount per share). The production is controlled by the amount of precipitation and snowpack and then how water rights are allocated. The only thing that happens is in a dry year the yield (amount) is less on those shares.”
Denver Water today [July 14, 2021] filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Boulder County, asserting the county is overreaching its authority and jeopardizing a federally ordered reservoir expansion critical to a safe and secure water supply for one quarter of the state’s population while risking long-planned benefits for the West Slope environment.
For nearly two decades, Denver Water has conducted an exhaustive and comprehensive planning and permitting process at the direction and oversight of six federal and state regulatory agencies. That process culminated last year in a final order to commence expansion of Gross Reservoir from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has final authority over the expansion project because Gross Reservoir occupies federal lands specifically designated for hydropower production.
For years, Denver Water has also attempted good faith efforts to work with Boulder County to secure county permits, including through two attempts at an intergovernmental agreement, robust engagement with county staff and neighbors, and participation in a local land-use review known as the “1041 process.” Unfortunately, Boulder County has been unreceptive and is using the 1041 process to frustrate the project, extending and delaying its review to the point that it is now placing the entire project at risk.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON NEED FOR THE PROJECT
It is hard to overstate the importance of the expansion of Gross Reservoir to the future of the Denver region. It will offer crucial protection to the utility’s water supplies from the urgent threat of catastrophic wildfire and prolonged drought — the same forces that nearly 20 years ago combined to threaten Denver Water’s ability to ensure drinking water to its customers.
This risk to clean water supplies is even higher today, in an era of rapid climate change and increasing periods of extreme weather. Last year’s record wildfire fire season, which generated the three largest forest fires in Colorado history, only just missed triggering major impacts to Denver Water’s supplies. Water providers to the north haven’t been as lucky, unable to treat some supplies running black and brown with ash produced by the Cameron Peak fire. Denver Water must act now to mitigate these risks.
The Gross Reservoir expansion conforms in every way to benchmarks in Colorado’s Water Plan, a plan developed through statewide and bottom-up guidance from eight major river basins over two years and published in 2015. That plan calls for increasing the capacity of existing reservoirs as a key element in creating 400,000 acre-feet of additional storage in the state by 2050.
The State of Colorado, in comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, expressed its support for the Gross Reservoir expansion and has identified it specifically as fitting within the kind of project defined as necessary in Colorado’s Water Plan: “A significant portion of Colorado’s future needs will be met with the implementation of projects and planning processes that the local water providers are currently pursuing, including the Moffat Collection System Project” (aka Gross Reservoir expansion).
The reservoir expansion also addresses the significant need for additional supplies in the metro region, as referenced in the Water Plan’s 2019 technical update. That update projected metro Denver demand will increase by 134,000 acre-feet to 280,000 acre-feet by 2050 against a 2015 baseline and the area likely will experience a supply shortfall, even accounting for the Gross Reservoir expansion and other water projects, a drop in per-capita use, and further conservation and reuse.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON DEVELOPMENT OF THE PROJECT
Denver Water’s diligent and earnest work to build partnerships across the Continental Divide, conduct significant and ongoing environmental mitigation for the project and work closely with regulators since the early 2000s has earned the project the support of major environmental groups, Grand County and each of the last five governors of Colorado. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment concluded the project would result in net water quality improvement on both sides of the Continental Divide.
The dam, when built in the 1950s, was designed to be raised. In the 1980s, amid discussion of the Two Forks project southwest of Denver (later vetoed by the EPA) a coalition of environmental groups recommended the expansion of Gross Reservoir as a viable, environmentally stable project. “We feel that additional capacity at Gross Reservoir is an environmentally acceptable and cost-effective way of increasing the overall yield of the system,” the coalition wrote. It included representatives of the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and Trout Unlimited, among several other groups.
Denver Water also worked industriously with local governments and citizen groups on the West Slope to address the impacts that putting more water in an expanded Gross Reservoir would have on streams in Grand County. Those talks, often intense, and spanning half a decade, resulted in the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement in 2013, an unprecedented cooperative effort involving 18 signatories and 40 partner organizations that began a new era of collaboration and conflict-resolution between Denver Water and the West Slope.
Expanding Gross Reservoir locks in a key component to that agreement: Denver Water would place a geographic limit on its service area, putting to rest fears the utility would continue to expand its reach to an ever-sprawling suburban ring. The utility also agreed to several measures that would provide more water to West Slope rivers, towns and ski areas and invest in improvements to aquatic habitat. The landmark concord also affirmed that with the Gross Reservoir expansion, Denver Water would benefit from more flexibility in its system, and it would use that flexibility to address stream flow and stream temperature concerns more nimbly and readily in Grand County.
Additionally, Denver Water worked with the cities of Boulder and Lafayette to establish an environmental pool in Gross Reservoir to provide additional water in South Boulder Creek during low-flow periods. Water in that pool would also supplement supplies for those two cities. Many of these commitments, however, depend on the project going forward and are therefore in jeopardy through Boulder County’s actions.
As planning for the expansion moved ahead, the utility undertook a proactive strategy to reduce demand. It deployed a water recycling facility to reduce its dependence on West Slope water supplies, embarked on a conservation program renown nationally for its success — cutting per capita water use by 22% between 2007 and 2016 — and has now undertaken direct efforts at water efficiency that pinpoint savings opportunities at the individual customer level. These are only a sample: The utility remains committed to innovation to drive further savings and expand water reuse as a core part of its strategy, work that will continue to be essential even with an increase in storage at Gross Reservoir.
In short, the effort to build civic and regulatory support for the Gross Reservoir expansion has been persistent, inspired and earnest. The future of the region, its access to clean, safe drinking water, protection of its urban tree canopy and environment, and its economic development rest in large part on the ability of Denver Water to protect water supplies from emerging threats, develop a climate-resilient system and remain prepared for the demands that will result from continued growth within its service area in metro Denver.
DENVER WATER STATEMENT ON BOULDER COUNTY’S PROCESS
Boulder County is endangering the project through delays, repeated and expanding requests for information — information demands that duplicate the already completed federal permitting process in which Boulder County participated — the potential for months of additional hearings and the fact that two of the county’s three commissioners have already publicly stated their opposition to, and desire to stop, the expansion project.
Further, the county’s land use director informed Denver Water on June 29 that the utility — despite over nine months of diligent and painstaking work to respond to Boulder County’s ever-expanding queries — failed to provide sufficient information to county agencies about the project, setting the project up for failure and rendering further involvement with the 1041 process futile.
These actions also put engineering and construction deadlines at risk, threaten to disrupt FERC-ordered timelines and risk other permits and actions necessary for successful completion of the project. A project of this size and complexity requires extensive preplanning, substantial resources and a highly skilled design and construction team. Delays resulting from Boulder County’s refusal to timely process the 1041 application add substantial costs and cause permitting, procurement and logistical issues that seriously disrupt Denver Water’s ability to execute the project.
In summary, the actions of a single local jurisdiction, Boulder County, threaten to derail and undermine a federally permitted and state supported project vital to a safe and secure water supply for one-quarter of Colorado’s population. This presents an unacceptable risk to a critical project spanning nearly 20 years and involving intensive review by environmental agencies at the federal and state levels and the engagement of dozens of organizations and communities across the metro area and the West Slope.
For that reason, Denver Water must seek relief in federal court. The complaint further details Denver Water’s attempts to work with Boulder County, the reasons that federal law preempts Boulder County’s claimed authority over the FERC-licensed expansion project, and the basis for Denver Water’s request that the court prevent Boulder County from further delaying and derailing the project.
State officials are preparing for a future with less water by developing rules and guidance for water users to measure how much they are taking from streams.
State Engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources Kevin Rein is planning a rule-making process on measurement devices that includes stakeholder input. Although state engineers in each water division have the authority to enforce the requirement of measurement devices, Rein said drafting more formal rules through an administrative rule-making process, instead of an ad hoc push like in the Yampa River basin, would affirm that authority. Rules would also include specific technical guidance on the best types of flumes, weirs and meters to use for different types of diversions.
“The idea about rule-making is that we would have consistent guidance across the basin, developed through a formal process,” Rein said. “One thing I’ve found is that when you have stakeholder involvement in the development, then you have stakeholder buy-in during the implementation.”
Yampa/White/Green river basin
Division 6 Engineer Erin Light is still taking a lenient stance with water users in the White and Green river basins while the measurement rules are developed. In fall 2019, Light ordered nearly 500 water users in the Yampa River basin to install measuring devices to record their water use and initially received some push-back from agricultural water users unaccustomed to measuring their diversions.
In March 2020, Light issued notices to water users in the White and Green, but decided to delay sending formal orders after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the economy. Orders are still on pause while Rein’s office develops the measurement rules, which would apply across the Western Slope.
“It made more sense to wait for the measurement rules to at least get started, maybe not necessarily get completed, but allow Kevin to get out and start doing the stakeholder meetings and encourage these structures to be installed without orders,” Light said.
Compliance is gradually increasing across the basin, but at a slower pace than Light would like. In January 2020, 49% of diversions in the Yampa River basin did not have a measuring device; as of April 2021, 42% were still without one. White River basin compliance has improved from 83% without a measuring device to 68% over the same time period; water users in the Green have gone from 69% to 49%. As a whole, Division 6 has gone from 55% of diversions without measuring devices to 46%.
“I would have hoped that we would have had more compliance at this point,” Light said. “I look at those numbers and think we still have some work in front of us and how are we going to accomplish our goal, which is to assure that all of these structures that we maintain records on have operable headgates and measuring devices.”
In some basins on the Western Slope, nearly all diversions already have measuring devices. For example, in the Roaring Fork and Crystal river basins, about 95% of the structures have devices, according to Colorado Department of Natural Resources Communications Director Chris Arend. That’s because there has traditionally been more demand and competition for water in these basins, he said.
Water shortages drive measurement push
The push for Western Slope diverters to measure their water use comes down to impending water shortages. Division 6, in sparsely populated northwest Colorado, has traditionally enjoyed abundant water and few demands, but as climate change tightens its grip on the West, there is less water to go around. Calls by senior water users have gone from unheard of to increasingly common in just the last few years.
“We definitely have systems on call that have never been on call,” Light said of current conditions in the Yampa.
A call occurs when a senior water rights holder is not getting their full amount they are entitled to. They place a call with state engineers, who shut off more junior water rights users so the senior user can get their full amount. Under Colorado’s prior appropriation system, the oldest water rights have first use of the river.
“If you don’t have a measuring device during a call, we are shutting you off, period,” Light said.
As the threat of a Colorado River Compact call and the possibility of a state demand-management program grow, state officials say the need to measure water use grows, too.
A compact call could occur if the upper-basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — were not able to deliver the 75 million acre-feet of water over 10 years to the lower basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — as required by the 1922 compact. Colorado water managers desperately want to avoid this scenario, in part because it could trigger mandatory cutbacks for water users.
If a compact call were to play out, measuring devices would be crucial, because as Rein says, you can’t administer what you can’t measure.
“We need to better measure what has been diverted, so having measurement rules and therefore measuring devices in place will be critical to prepare for and implement compact administration, should it happen,” he said.
The state is also currently exploring a potential demand management program, which would temporarily pay irrigators to not irrigate and leave more water in the river. The goal would be to boost water levels in Lake Powell and avoid a compact call. But in order to participate in the voluntary program, feasibility of which is still being evaluated, irrigators need to first measure their water diversions.
“We would have to know how much they were using in the years before, before we can give them credit for not using it,” Rein said.
Low interest in grant funding
One of the reasons Light originally paused enforcing the measurement device requirement in the White River basin was to give conservancy districts time to secure grant money to help irrigators pay for the potentially expensive infrastructure. But there was not much interest from water users in getting grant money, according to Callie Hendrickson, executive director of the White River & Douglas Creek Conservation Districts.
“We did not proceed with (securing grants),” she said. “We didn’t hear from very many people that they were seeking funding.”
The story was similar on the Yampa. The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District had a $200,000 pot of money — half of it state grant money and half from the district — to reimburse water users for installing measuring devices. Irrigators can get 50% of their costs covered, up to $5,000 through the first tier of the grant program. According to Public Information and External Affairs Manager Holly Kirkpatrick, despite a very simple application process, the program has doled out just under $40,000 so far for about 20 projects.
“I had certainly hoped to have more interest in the first year of the program,” she said.
As Rein plans for webinars and meetings with water users later this summer and fall, the situation in the Colorado River basin grows more dire. The Bureau of Reclamation this week began emergency releases from Upper Basin reservoirs to prop up levels in Lake Powell to try to maintain the ability to produce hydroelectric power at Glen Canyon Dam.
“I recognize the value in having measurement rules as soon as possible because, yes, they would be extremely helpful if we need to take measures toward compact administration,” Rein said. “Having more data sooner rather than later is important.”
Water, always an important topic in our area, will be the focus of this month’s meeting. In July, we will learn about the work of the Upper San Juan Watershed Enhancement Partnership (WEP), a local organization working to address the management of this precious resource.
Al Pfister, on behalf of the WEP, will be presenting the results of data collected in Phase II of the WEP’s assessment of the environmental, recreational and agricultural infrastructure needs in the Upper San Juan River. The WEP’s data collection is a part of the implementation of the Colorado Water Plan of 2015 in the development of a Stream Management Plan/Integrated Watershed Management Plan. The WEP’s data collection efforts were done to assess local environmental, recreational and agricultural infrastructure needs in the face of a warming and drying climate.
Pfister is a semi-retired fish and wildlife biologist who has worked in seven western U.S. states dealing with endangered species issues, trying to find a balance between conserving imperiled fish, wildlife, plants, herptiles and invertebrates, while still allowing the various uses (development, recreation, grazing, timber harvest, energy development, etc) to coexist. In addition to his work with WEP, he serves on the board of the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership and on the board of the San Juan Water Conservancy District. He is a past board member of the Weminuche Audubon Society.
Audubon meetings are open to the public. Please come with your questions about this important management tool. We hope to be able to return to in-person meetings this fall if conditions allow.
The National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) shows 100 percent of Archuleta County is in moderate drought, with almost three-quarters of the county in severe drought and just over the half the county is in extreme drought.
The NIDIS website notes that under a moderate drought stage, dry-land crops may suffer, range- land growth is stunted, very little hay is available and risk of wildfires may increase.
The NIDIS website also notes that 71.17 percent of the county is in a severe drought stage.
According to the NIDIS, under a severe drought stage, fire season is extended.
Additionally, the NIDIS website notes that 51.04 percent of the county is in an extreme drought, mostly in the western portion of the county.
The NIDIS website notes that, under an extreme drought stage, large fires may develop and pasture conditions worsen.
According to the NIDIS, 6.24 percent of the county, in the southwestern portion, is in an exceptional drought stage.
Under an exceptional drought stage, agricultural and recreational losses are large and dust storms and topsoil removal are widespread.
For more information and maps, visit: https://www.drought. gov/states/Colorado/county/ Archuleta.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the San Juan River was flowing at a rate of 92.2 cfs in Pagosa Springs as of 11 a.m. on Wednesday, July 14.
Based on 85 years of water records at this site, the average flow rate for this date is 328 cfs.
The highest recorded rate for this date was in 1995 at 1,550 cfs. The lowest recorded rate was 10.9 cfs, recorded in 2002.
As of 11 a.m. on Wednesday, July 14, the Piedra River near Arboles was flowing at a rate of 62.3 cfs.
Based on 58 years of water records at this site, the average flow rate for this date is 266 cfs.
The highest recorded rate for this date was 1,160 cfs in 1979. The lowest recorded rate was 9.44 cfs in 2002.
With federal officials expected to announce a water shortage at Lake Mead next month, this would be an ideal time for Utah officials to kill off that state’s insane plan to divert a huge amount of upstream water to fuel development in the St. George area.
On Thursday, a diverse group of Colorado River stakeholders gathered near Hoover Dam called on Utah to do just that, and pressed for a moratorium on other projects that would divert water from the river.
This wasn’t simply people from other states ganging up on Utah, either. One of the most strident speakers was Zach Frankel from the Utah Rivers Council, who blistered the officials in his state who were backing the pipeline for St. George.
“While the Lower Basin is going on a diet of cutting its water use, we should not allow the Upper Basin to go to an all-you-can-eat buffet of water waste,” Frankel said.
Well put, neighbor.
The Utah pipeline would suck 86,000 acre-feet of water per year from Lake Powell to St. George, where it would be used to grow crops, maintain the grass lawns that are common in the area and to expand development.
Not only is this pipeline unconscionable given the dwindling water supply of lakes Powell and Mead, but the water would be going to a community whose residents are water hogs already. As Frankel pointed out, water usage in Washington County, the home of St. George, averages 306 gallons per person per day — about three times the usage in more water-conscious places like Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Plus, to give some perspective to the amount of water involved in the project, consider that Nevada’s entire annual allotment from Lake Mead is 300,000 acre-feet. (An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre of ground 1 foot deep, or about 326,000 gallons of water.)
That allotment is all but sure to get a haircut soon, with the looming water shortage declaration by the feds. We’ll lose about 21,000 acre-feet total in mandatory and voluntary cuts. But since Nevada has learned to live with less, we currently use only 256,000 acre-feet per year, meaning we’ll still fall below the 279,000 acre-feet we’ll have after the cutbacks.
Decline of Lake Mead. Graphic credit: Brad Udall via InkStain
Graphic credit: Brad Udall via InkStain
Meanwhile, though, there’s no indication that years of dwindling flow in the Colorado River will reverse themselves anytime soon. To the contrary, long-range forecasts of snowmelt and rain runoff in the Colorado River watershed suggest that what’s happening now shouldn’t be considered a drought but rather a normal condition.
With Lake Mead at just 36% capacity and shrinking, it’s important to note that the Utah pipeline project isn’t the only one of its type. There are more than a dozen proposed dams and diversions upstream of Southern Nevada in the Upper Basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico.
That was another point of emphasis from the group of stakeholders last week at Lake Mead, which included business operators, agricultural interests, Native American advocates and more. They urged all Southwestern states to recognize that their own water projects would affect the entire region and the millions of Americans who rely on the Colorado River.
“No flow, no future,” said Brea Chiodini, tour boat operator and member of the Laughlin-Bullhead City River Flow Committee.
Putting a moratorium on every current project might be extreme, but at the very least the criteria for approval should be stiffened to reflect the upcoming shortage and the long-term outlook.
One thing is crystal clear, though: The Utah pipeline needs to be shelved. The upcoming water shortage declaration gives officials in the Beehive State an opportunity to terminate the project and save face. If they don’t act on their own, though, it’s a no-brainer that federal officials should put a stake in the heart of this horrible proposal.
It is simply madness that as the Colorado River reaches its lowest levels in recorded history that we’d be proposing a new water diversion upstream,” Frankel said. “At some point, we have to put our foot down and stop this madness.”
Again, a voice of reason from Utah. Frankel’s fellow state residents should listen to him.
It’s been said we no longer have fire seasons; we have fire years.
We all remember a year ago when fires ravaged our state and smoke choked the Colorado skies, leading to some of the most unhealthy air quality in the world and making the atmosphere glow red. Many of us remember checking in on friends and family, preparing go-bags in case the unthinkable happened, and watching flames tear through communities and places that had once been peaceful locations for recreation and communal gathering.
The same pattern has begun again.
What might not have been immediately obvious is that those fires have had long-term and damaging impacts on our natural infrastructure — watersheds, rivers, and waterways — hurting native fish populations, sending water quality to dangerously low levels, and weakening local economies. And, before Colorado has even begun to recover from last year’s devastating fire season — which saw the three largest fires in state history — fires have already started this year on the West Slope, forcing evacuations, road closures, and more. The recovery efforts and specter of last year’s blazes are still present as we begin to grapple with another intense and potentially catastrophic year. One bad fire season perpetuates another, and the cycle continues.
Of course, fire is a natural part of a healthy forest ecosystem, and serves an ecological purpose; however, fire severity and frequency has been exacerbated by a combination of historical fire suppression and climate change. Today’s fires behave differently — and more destructively — than the type of fire that’s critical to forests’ ecosystems. This is why drought resilience and preparedness coupled with thoughtful wildfire mitigation and watershed restoration are all essential to prioritize; and why we’re grateful for the upwards of $65 million put towards these issues by the Colorado General Assembly and signed by Governor Polis this year. Moreover, at a recent convening of the Western Governors’ Association, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris reinforced the need for — and their support of — greater resilience to climate change, drought, and wildfire. Local, state, and federal lawmakers are increasingly recognizing the urgency of our climate, drought, and fire crises, and understand the urgent need to work together now to address it.
Impacts Far and Wide to Our Rivers and Water
The effects of wildfires go well beyond the local burn scar; they impact entire watersheds and ecosystems, often for years. For example, the recent string of mudslides along the I-70 corridor in Glenwood Canyon and elsewhere throughout the state are the direct result of fire-damaged soil that can’t soak up heavy rains fast enough. The lack of tree root structure combined with dry soil leads to mudslides, causing infrastructure damage and, at its worst, loss of life.
Within streams, rivers, and riparian areas, the debris left behind by fires can impact water quality and fish health. Ash and debris flow into nearby waterways following fires, and often overwhelm water treatment plants, fill reservoirs with sediment, or lead to the need for costly repairs and maintenance. Around 80% of the United States’ freshwater supply flows from forested areas, which means forest fires will leave burn scars, ash, and other contaminants in watersheds, runoff from which will ultimately make its way into water treatment centers that send water to our homes.
In healthy forests, natural infrastructure acts as a filter for sediment and other pollutants that could otherwise wash downstream. In burn scars, where foliage and root systems are either gone or struggling to come back, this nature-based filtration system no longer exists. This puts even more pressure on towns and municipalities to treat contaminated water. (Following the 2002 Hayman Fire over 175,000 trees were planted in the South Platte River watershed to bolster natural infrastructure in the basin. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough, and the water quality remains below average.)
Fish, too, are dramatically impacted by fires both during and after the acute burn period. When a fire burns near a riverbed, heat causes the water temperatures to rise, oftentimes past the point that fish can reproduce or even survive. Changes to water chemistry during and after fires can cause devastating algal blooms and make the aquatic environment’s pH inhospitable to other life. A scientist studying the aftermath of a fire in alpine lakes discovered that the area’s fish had five times the amount of mercury as fish that weren’t affected by fire. And, the sediment runoff damages fish habitats and hurts the fishes’ ability to feed or reproduce. In 2018, following the 416 Fire, scientists estimated that around 80% of the Animas River’s fish population died off due to flooding and debris.
When fish are impacted by wildfires, the people, industries, and communities that rely on healthy fish populations also suffer. This summer, Colorado Parks and Wildlife asked anglers not to fish along a 120-mile stretch of the Colorado River due to high temperatures, low flows, and sediment runoff from wildfires, all of which are making it more difficult for fish to survive.
Prolonged drought only leads to a greater chance of fire, with dry forests and blistering temperatures. Governor Polis recently declared a State of Emergency in Western Colorado as the area enters its second consecutive year of “exceptional” drought — the highest classification given by the U.S. Drought Monitor — and a long-term megadrought continues to grip the entire Western United States.
What can we do to protect our rivers?
Understanding that fires, rivers, and communities exist within a connected ecosystem is the first step to mitigating the long-term impacts of drought and wildfire. The fires that hurt our towns, agricultural land, and favorite recreation areas also harm our rivers, watersheds, wetlands, and wildlife.
To ensure Colorado is ready to meet the challenges to our rivers and waterways posed by more severe and intense wildfires, we need to:
Work to ensure the Colorado Water Plan 2022 update reflects the need for an inter-connected understanding and management of watersheds, forests, and ecosystems. All of us need clean and reliable water, and for that we need healthy watersheds. Environmental priorities should be considered in every section of the Water Plan, as all other water needs are direct
ly related to water flowing from resilient, healthy, natural systems.
Educate ourselves and our friends, family, and community members about fire safety; and use that knowledge to work conscientiously on our own actions and impacts to reduce the risk of fire in our neighborhood watersheds.
Prioritize funding and continue to urge state, local, and federal lawmakers to increase funding and capacity for wildfire mitigation, prevention, and research and resilience to climate change, ensuring that state programs have the money necessary to develop and implement new strategies to address our ever-expanding wildfire seasons.
Things might seem dire, and they are. We must take action. There are steps we can take right now to reduce the risks wildfires pose to Colorado’s rivers. One such step is visiting the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s website and providing comments on the upcoming 2022 Water Plan update to ensure that environmental needs are met and that the Water Plan treats forests and rivers as the intertwined ecosystem they are.
This need for action and availability of solutions should increase our urgency and inspire us to work diligently towards resilience to climate change to ensure the health of our waters and watersheds now and into the future.
The Calwood Fire approaches Boulder, CO. Photo credit: Malachi Brooks via Water for Colorado
Smoke from the East Troublesome fire looms over Granby Reservoir. Photo credit: Evan Wise via Water for Colorado
Bent lodgepole pine in some areas revealed intensity of the wind. Photo/National Park Service via Big Pivots
Photo credit: Sylvan Fire Information Facebook page
This sign along the highway between Craig and Dinosaur, in northwestern Colorado, tells of a fire in 1988 that burned 15,000 acres, then the most in Colorado’s recorded history. The Cameron Peak Fire in 2020 burned nearly 209,000 acres. Photo credit: Allen Best via Big Pivots
Governor Jared Polis today signed an Executive Order memorializing a verbal disaster declaration from June 23, 2021, for the Muddy Slide Fire in Routt County. The Executive Order enables State agencies to coordinate for fire suppression, response, consequence management, and recovery efforts.
The images that define this drought are etched into the creek beds and hillsides of Summit County, their importance drawn out by experienced eyes that know how the land should look.
For one Summit County rancher whose operations cover vast swaths near Wyoming, the emblem might be the bare creek that’s never run dry this early, or the grass last year that grew so dry and brittle it blew away with the wind.
For a dairyman in Hoytsville, it might be the yellowing field that’s next to a still-green one, the result of hard choices after irrigation water was cut off earlier than in memory.
For a South Summit rancher and water official, it might be the hay they’re harvesting at almost half the yield of what it should be, or the low reservoirs that just keep emptying.
That official, Dave Ure, speaking just after a tour of waterworks facilities in Summit County, put the situation in stark terms.
“We are in the worst drought in the state of Utah’s history right now, and the only thing compared to it is the droughts back in 1895 and 1933,” Ure said.
The Ures have been in South Summit for 135 years. Dave Ure is a former politician and current trustee of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, which oversees many of the water sources in Summit County.
Ure said water will still flow from household taps, contending that the situation isn’t close to threatening culinary water, at least for those who are connected to a larger municipal system. Water will be diverted from agriculture users long before that happens, Ure said.
But that doesn’t mean the impacts will be confined to farmers and ranchers. Food prices can be expected to go up, Ure said, and wildfire risk will likely remain elevated. The drought might change the landscape itself, possibly hastening a trend of developing farmland into subdivisions.
Those impacts remain on the horizon, for now, but the impacts on farmers and ranchers are already here…
[Jeff] Young traced the current shortages to last summer. He said the 2019-2020 winter provided good water, but that it stopped raining in June and didn’t start snowing until November. A summer and fall without water was something he hadn’t seen before…
The dryness persisted into the winter, and even though there was a below-average snowpack, the season total was not devastating. But the drought was waiting underneath, with soils as dry as had ever been measured.
Ure said there is normally about 500,000 acre-feet of runoff water in the entire Weber Basin catchment area…
Young said the higher-elevation springs on the ranch are still producing, but that the lower areas are bone dry. He said the drought was already beginning to affect the underground aquifers.
Earlier this season, he went to the creek to fix what he thought was a problem with the water-capturing infrastructure.
“I was naive. I thought I had to fix the diversion, but there was nothing to get,” he said…
The Browns have water stored in a reservoir dug by their ancestors in 1883. But that reservoir was down significantly this year, and once that water is used, their fields will no longer be irrigated.
They won’t be able to grow as much feed for their cattle as they normally can, meaning they’ll have to buy it.
Hay prices have skyrocketed, they said, driven up by the lack of supply as well as the number of people who are in the market for feed.
Mike Brown flipped his phone over and showed a social media post from a friend asking if anyone had hay for sale…
With the drought forcing ranchers across the region to sell off portions of their herds, animals don’t fetch the same prices they once did.
All three said they had or were planning to sell significant portions of their stock.
Mike Brown said he has to call days ahead to reserve an appointment to send animals to slaughter. The packing plants are full, he said.
Liquidating the stock might get the ranchers out of debt, but it might not raise enough capital to restart a ranching or farming operation after the drought passes.
Moving the animals comes with transportation costs and the added challenge of finding areas unaffected by the drought, which stretches across much of the West…
Challenges to come
There aren’t many small ranching operations left in Summit County, Ure and others said, and this drought might just drive them out.
Young said it would likely change who’s in the ranching business, possibly opening the door to larger agriculture operations.
Ranchers could also opt to sell to housing developers…
Farmland that may have been profitable might not be so now, and the real estate market is red hot. Ure said he’d heard of several recent transactions in the Kamas area in which land sold for “outrageous prices.”
Summit County Councilor Chris Robinson, who owns or co-owns hundreds of thousands of acres in Utah and elsewhere, including Ensign Ranches, said one silver lining of what he called the “megadrought” is that it’s putting the appropriate level of scrutiny on water use…
Ure predicted that over the course of the summer, governments would start announcing water-conservation regulations. Some options include reducing the amount of grass installed in new development and incentivizing a switch to drought-resistant landscaping.
Young, Ure and Mike and Glen Brown agreed that if the drought persisted into next year, it would compound the problem to perhaps unmanageable levels.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Patti Aaron):
The Bureau of Reclamation today released the July 24-Month Study, confirming declining hydrologic conditions for the Colorado River system. To protect Lake Powell’s target elevation, the study incorporates the implementation of drought operations under the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement (DROA).
The July 2021 Operation Plan for Colorado River System Reservoirs 24-Month Study (July 24-Month Study) shows that the Lake Powell water year 2021 predicted unregulated inflow volume has decreased 2.5 million acre-feet in the six-month period between January and July 2021. The current forecast for WY2021 is 3.23 maf (30% of average).
In addition, 5-year projections released by Reclamation last week predicted a 79% chance that Lake Powell would fall below the DROA target elevation of 3,525 feet within the next year. That target elevation provides a 35 vertical-foot buffer designed to minimize the risk of dropping below the minimum power pool elevation of 3,490 feet, and balances the need to protect the infrastructure at Glen Canyon Dam and meet current operational obligations to the Lower Basin States of Arizona, California and Nevada.
Consistent with DROA provisions to protect Lake Powell’s target elevation, the July 24-Month Study includes adjusted releases from the upstream initial units of the Colorado River Storage Project Act to deliver an additional 181 thousand-acre feet of water to Lake Powell by the end of December 2021. The additional releases are anticipated to be implemented on the following schedule:
The releases detailed above are in addition to the already established releases determined by operational plans for each of the identified facilities. The additional delivery of 181 kaf is expected to raise Lake Powell’s elevation by approximately three feet. The additional releases from the upstream initial units do not change the annual volume of water released from Lake Powell to Lake Mead in WY2021, as those volumes are determined by the 2007 Interim Guidelines.
Reclamation publishes a 24-Month Study for Colorado River System reservoirs each month. The August 24-Month Study will set the operating conditions for Lake Mead and Lake Powell for the upcoming year. Reclamation will also release an update to the 5-year projections in early September.
Reclamation and the Colorado River Basin states continue to work together cooperatively to closely monitor projections and conditions and are prepared to take additional measures in accordance with the DROA.
Reclamation remains committed to reducing the collective risk of both Lake Powell and Lake Mead falling to critical elevations and will continue to work with entities in the Colorado River Basin to ensure that both facilities continue to function as authorized to meet the natural, municipal and agricultural needs of the basin.
Colorado’s scariest wildfire in 2020 was not its largest. East Troublesome shocked because of its sprint and then its leap. It grew by 87,000 acres in a fiery dash across the headwaters of the Colorado River and past Grand Lake, most of that in just a couple hours. Smoke plumes rose 40,000 feet. The winds, variously estimated at 50 to 100 mph, were strong enough to bend over lodgepole pines.
Then embers vaulted across two miles of treeless tundra at the Continental Divide, raining into the Estes Valley, Red flags early & often
Five red flag warning days had been issued by the National Weather Service in Routt County, reported the Steamboat Pilot in its June 22 issue, compared to 9 in all of 2020.
To the west in Moffat County, 18 red-flag warnings had been issued compared to 25 all of last year.
The Pilot explained that red flag warnings are based on metrics that include humidity, wind, how long conditions are forecast to last and how dry some of the fuels, like grasses, are in an area. When issued, the warnings mean conditions make fires more likely to start and spread at the eastern gate to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Nothing like this had ever occurred in modern Colorado history.
Eight months later, Colorado again had something extraordinary, a record-smashing heat wave in mid-June. Two Colorado towns, Alamosa and Cortez, had six consecutive days of record high temperatures. Leadville, Grand Lake, Dillon, and Del Norte had five straight days of record highs. In Vail, one town employee reported having gone to South Carolina to see a son—and being shocked to find the heat was no worse than that of Eagle County.
It’s not just new temperature records, but the jumps. Grand Junction, for example, shattered an old record by 4 degrees.
In the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, the margins were even greater. Portland’s all-time high of 107 degrees was obliterated, with a new record of 112 degrees.
More shocking was the heat in British Columbia. “If you were drawing up a list of possible locations for hell on Earth before this week, the small mountain village of Lytton in Canada would probably not have entered your mind,” said the Guardian on July 3. The community of 250 people in the foothills of two mountain ranges registered a high of 121 degrees, surpassing anything ever recorded in Las Vegas and tying the all-time record in Death Valley.
Both phenomena—the East Troublesome Fire and the heat domes of June and early July—are likely manifestations of the warming climate.
It’s going to get worse, warn climate scientists, much worse. Temperatures will rise. Wildfires will become larger, more unpredictable. Welcome to the age of megafires.
In the steps of California
California has been getting megafires and, inevitably, so will Colorado, says Mark Novak, the Vail fire chief. When that happens—most likely in the next 10 to 15 years, he believes—Colorado will look back on East Troublesome and other fires during the shocking 2020 fire season as, well, not so shocking.
“I can’t tell you exactly at what point,” says Novak, “but we will look back and say, ‘Remember when Pine Gulch (a 2020 fire near Grand Junction) and East Troublesome seemed like a really big fire?’”
Before arriving in Vail in 2014, Novak saw a progression during his 30-year career on the West Coast.
“What we’re seeing today in Colorado is very similar to what California was seeing in the early years of the 2000s, from 2003 to 2007,” says Novak. “I believe that in 10 to 15 years we will see the same type of fire that California was seeing in 2017, 2018 and 2020. I think that (East Troublesome) was just the first case of what we will see in the future.”
In November, just weeks after the East Troublesome made its run, Novak told Vail Town Council members their community can someday expect something similar.
“I am here to tell you that fire burned extremely well and extremely fast through every fuel type,” he said. “It burned literally through aspen groves, it burned through beetle kill, it burned through green stands, it burned through sage (brush). It burned through farmers’ fields that were stubble. This was not necessarily a beetle-kill problem,” he said. “We should not rationalize that this kind of fire would not occur in Vail.”
“You scare me to death every time you speak,” a town council member responded.
Colorado, like California, has been seeing progressively larger fires, but on a different order of magnitude.
As Colorado’s ski areas came of age after World War II, fires were rare. There were fires, such as the one in 1994 west of Glenwood Springs that killed 14 firefighters amid the pinyon and juniper covered hillsides of Storm King Mountain. But in Vail, Aspen, and other headwater communities, wildfires were so distant that little attention was paid to flammability of buildings. In Vail, shake shingles were required. In Summit County, regulations discouraged removal of trees.
Fires in the 21st century have been larger, more frequent, and more destructive.
The year 2002 was a harbinger. A dry winter was followed by a warm and windy spring. In early June, three wildfires broke out almost instantaneously, one of them the Coal Seam Fire in Glenwood Springs. Surveying the state’s forests by planes that first Sunday, Colorado’s governor, Bill Owens, solemnly told reporters, “All of Colorado is on fire.”
The governor was widely ridiculed, but since then most of the state has been on fire. Most damaging were blazes in the foothills along the Front Range urban corridor. The Fourmile Canyon Fire west of Boulder destroyed 172 homes and other structures in 2010, the most destructive wildfire to that time. Then came 2012, hot and dry. High Park Fire killed one person and destroyed 248 homes west of Fort Collins. Days later, the Waldo Canyon Fire killed two people and destroyed 346 homes on the outskirts of Colorado Springs.
Flames have begun to singe Aspen, Vail, and other ski towns. In 2018, the Lake Christine Fire in the El Jebel-Basalt area incinerated 12,588 acres and nearly shut down electrical deliveries to Aspen during the Fourth of July weekend. Another fire, Grizzly Creek, shut down Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon for almost six weeks in 2020.
Fires covered fewer than 100,000 acres during the decade of the 1970s. Just last year, 650,000 acres burned in Colorado (and another 176,000-acre fire burned in a border-straddling fire that was mostly in Wyoming).
California covers a third n more ground than Colorado. But the area burned last year, 4.4 million acres, was six times that of Colorado.
Vail’s Novak began his career fighting fires in the San Diego area in 1984. At the time, fires of 5,000 to 10,000 acres were considered large.
In 1990, he relocated to the Lake Tahoe Basin, on the California-Nevada border. The year 2007 was a pivotal one. One of the houses he had grown up in Southern California burned. At Tahoe, a major fire called Angora burned 250 houses within four hours. One of his children’s teachers lost her home, as did firefighters and police officers. Wildfire, more than before, had become personal to Novak.
Angora provoked a shift in attitudes in the Tahoe Basin. Forest thinning, which had been adamantly opposed, became more accepted. That fire now doesn’t make California’s top lists based on size, destruction, or deaths. The largest to date was 2020’s August Complex Fire, which covered more than a million acres, followed by the Mendocino Complex Fire of July 2018 that burned 459,000 acres. Deadliest was later that year. The Camp inferno killed 88 people at Paradise. Many others have killed 10, 15, or 25 at a time.
Hot and dry, off the charts
Fire in Colorado’s Rockies, as in California’s Sierra Nevada, has always been a part of forest ecosystems.
The frequency varies depending upon vegetation. In the foothills above the Front Range urban corridor, forests of Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir evolved with low-intensity, fast-moving fires that occurred every few decades.
On the Western Slope, in places like Aspen and Vail, the fires have historically occurred every 120 to 250 years. Frequency increases in the lower-elevation pinyon and juniper forests. Intervals in the higher-elevation spruce and fir forests lengthen to 400 years or more.
Fires are natural. Even big fires are natural, as charcoal collected from the mud of lakes and the scars of trees demonstrate. What we see now is not natural.
It begins with rising temperatures. The Colorado River Basin—including Aspen and Vail and the location of the East Troublesome Fire—have warmed 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 2000 as compared to the 20th century average. This, according to a report by Western Water Assessment, is likely warmer than at any time in the past 2,000 years.
A 2009 paper by Connie Woodhouse, of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and others, compared the 21st century warming with a notably warm period of 1,000 years ago. During that period from 900 to 1300 AD, the Northern Hemisphere was warmer than all but the most recent decades. Drought was a companion. The worst 10-year period was 1146 to 1155. That, perhaps not incidentally, was about the time the ancestral Pueblo – as the Anasazi are now more commonly called—began emigrating from the Four Corners area.
Mike Metcalf, an archaeologist based in Eagle, takes the long view. His work has examined human habitation of Colorado and other Western states since the glaciers rapidly retreated 13,500 years ago. “Somebody who has studied climate tends to be skeptical of simplistic explanations,” he says. “There are so many things, so many variables that control climate.”
But the warming and consequent aridification of the last few decades defy conventional explanations. “The amount of drought in the West is off the charts,” says Metcalf.
A study published in 2020 in the journal Science concluded that climate change has made drought conditions 46% worse between 2000 and 2018.
Drought, as conventionally understood, no longer serves a useful purpose in describing what is being measured. Instead, some are using the word “aridification.” The effect can be seen in the reduced runoffs of the Colorado River into Lake Powell. The river flowed 543,000 acre-feet this year, compared to the May average of 2.34 million acre-feet since Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1966. In 2020, the winter snowpack was actually pretty good, but the runoff was subpar. This year, with drying soils sopping up more amounts of moisture, the fast-falling levels in the giant reservoirs in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada have become a national story. As Metcalf points out, the trends just keep accelerating.
Now comes new evidence that high-elevation forests in Colorado since 2000 have burned at a rate greater than at any time in the past 2,000 years. To draw this conclusion, the University of Montana’s Philip Higuera, a fire ecologist, and two colleagues waded into the work of paleoecologists who had plumbed the depths of 20 lakes to document the fire history.
Twelve of the lakes were in the Park Range near Steamboat Springs. Others lakes were on the southeast side of Rocky Mountain National Park, near Estes Park.
Comparing the fire record of recent years with that 2,000-year history, Higuera and his co-authors, the University of Wyoming’s Bryan Shuman and University of Montana doctoral candidate Kyra Wolf, came up with a startling conclusion: The frequency of fire in high-elevation forest has shrunk from once every 230 years on average in the last two millennia to about 120 years during the current century.
Warm, dry conditions provide the overarching cause of increased burning in high-elevation forests.
“It isn’t unexpected to have more fire as temperatures rise,” said Wolf, the co-author. “Our records show that fire tracked past variations in climate just as it does today. What’s striking is that temperatures and correspondingly fire are now exceeding the range that these forests have coped with for thousands of years—largely as a result of human-caused climate change.”
This wasn’t necessarily unexpected, although the timing may be. For decades, scientists have predicted that climate warming will increase wildfire activity in high-elevation forests beyond the historical range of experience, said Higuera—who spoke in March at a session sponsored by Carbondale’s Wilderness Workshop.
“It’s sobering to see that it’s clearly happening, and early in the 21st century—not in 2050, not in 2075, but in 2020,” he said.
Very limited tool box
We don’t know exactly how hot it will get. That’s partly because we don’t know whether the atmospheric pollution can be bent down. The rate of accumulating carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, has not abated in the 21st century even as the science around the risk has solidified.
We’re polluting the sky as if there were no tomorrow. The observatory located at an elevation of 11,135 feet at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa has documented the pollution of carbon dioxide. CO2 levels in 1958 stood at 320 parts per million, a relatively modest increase from pre-industrial times. In 2013 the levels surpassed 400 ppm This year its hit 420.
Staying in this fast lane, what temperatures will that produce in Aspen, Vail, and other ski towns in Colorado? A study expected to be issued later in July will paint a more definitive picture of that future heating in headwater communities.
A 2016 study along the northern Front Range by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization delivers a glimpse of that hotter future. Fourteen days with temperatures greater than 80 degrees were recorded during the late 20th century at a site in the foothills west of Boulder comparable in elevation to Aspen and Vail. This is projected to more than double in the next decade or two. By the time today’s toddlers reach retirement age, there will be 100 days.
“We will be hotter and we will be drier,” says Stephen Saunders, a former undersecretary in the Department of the Interior who was the lead author of that study. “If you have increased temperature and the same amount of precipitation, you will indeed be drier.”
That observation was demonstrated last week in a PowerPoint presentation by Russ Schumacher, the Colorado state climatologist. The first slide shows standardized precipitation index for Colorado since 1900. There are periods of wet and periods of dry—including during the 21st century. But the standardized evaporation-transpiration chart—transpiration is what a plant “exhales” in response to heat—tells a very different story during the 21st century. There are no peaks in the 21st century; only valleys of drought. The warming atmosphere is absorbing moisture from the ground and from vegetation.
Measurements conducted by federal agencies at the Garfield County Airport in Rifle, on Hardscrabble Mountain near Eagle and in Summit County bear this out. One measure of the dryness, called the thousand-hour test, showed the moisture content in wood on Hardscrabble dropping from 12% on June 1 to just 8% at mid-month. “From a wildfire behavior standpoint, you don’t necessarily like to see 8%,” said Ryan Hughes, a fuels specialist for the U.S. Forest Service. Five days later after that measurement, the Sylvan Lake Fire broke out south of Eagle.
Tom Veblen, now a professor emeritus of forest ecology at the University of Colorado Boulder, has studied wildfires in Colorado from almost every angle: tree rings, lake deposits, journals of explorers and 19th century newspaper accounts. We know 1847 was a fiery year, and so was 1851.
Also 1879, the year that Vail’s Back Bowls became mostly treeless, the result supposedly of “spite” fires set by Ute Indians, although the evidence is lacking, he says. It was a dry year, the only time fires in high-elevation forests spread, and fires and prospectors were everywhere—including, at that point, in the hamlet that soon became Aspen.
What annoys Veblen most is the phrase “healthy forests.” The metaphor, contained in the title of a 2004 federal law and also a 2021 Colorado law, powerfully draws on an analogy to human health. It also misleads in the context of high-elevation forests, says Veblen, and it was misused, he says, to characterize the East Troublesome Fire.
Areas covered by East Troublesome included large swaths of trees killed by bark beetles during an epidemic of the last 25 years. If bark beetles always have been in a fandango with forests, they came on particularly strong with rising temperatures and drought in the 21st century. The argument has been made that those trees killed by beetles need to be removed, to abate fire danger. Scientific studies in the last decade don’t leave that idea standing. One of them, by Hart and colleagues in 2015, found that prior beetle kill is not causing an increase in the extent or severity of fires of Western states.
“The fuels are the needles,” explains Veblen. “Once needles turn (red) and fall to the ground, to the forest floor, we actually have a decline in the ability of fires to spread through the crowns, through the canopy of the forest,” he says.
“What we are seeing is an increase in fire, yes, and an increase in bark beetle activity, both of which are driven by climate change, both driven by warmer conditions.
“Within the research community and also within the fire management community over the last 5 to 10 years there has been a greater realization how all of those changes are being driven by climate change,” he says. “But there is still a tendency to hold onto some of the old narrative.”
Thinning of forests, he says, has little value except in areas adjacent to communities and structures. “The people in the fire mitigation business are very motivated to use the tools they have, but those tools are very, very limited.”
Heat domes and climate change
There’s no escaping the rising temperatures. If the atmospheric emissions ended tomorrow, temperatures will continue rising for decades. “That is baked into our system,” says Veblen.
“It’s just going to get hotter,” says Brad Udall, a climate scientist at Colorado State University who has conducted ground-breaking research on aridification of the Colorado River Basin. His 2016 study with Jonathan Overpeck found that roughly half of the “drought” could be attributed to rising temperatures. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Colorado was hot last August when the Cameron Peak Fire broke out in the Medicine Bow Range, north of Rocky Mountain National Park. Another fire, the Williams Fork, broke out about the same time in the area north of the Eisenhower Tunnel. For a time, those in Winter Park and Fraser worried that the fire might sweep across the Vasquez Range and make a run on their communities.
Another heat wave engulfed Colorado last September, if nowhere near as intense as those of June, either in the Southwest or in the Pacific Northwest.
“Increasing frequency and intensity of heat waves are where probably the most robust connection exists between a warming climate and extreme weather,” says Schumacher, the state climatologist. “Numerous studies of heat waves in different parts of the world have shown that they have become much more likely. It takes a particular weather pattern to set up for something like this to happen (in this case, the very strong high pressure or heat dome), but all indications are that these situations are made more likely by climate change.”
Writing in the New York Times last week, former Roaring Fork Valley resident Susan Joy Hassol made the same point in an essay co-authored with climate scientist Michael Mann. “Record-breaking hot months are occurring five times more often than would be expected without global warming,” they wrote.
In Colorado, this shift seems to be playing out by extending the “hot season,” says Schumacher.
The East Troublesome fits in with that pattern of lengthening wildfire season, 75 days longer than in the 1970s. It broke out on Oct. 14, the last day of the first rifle-hunting season. It spread somewhat slowly from a remote area between Kremmling and Grand Lake for almost a week. Then, on Oct. 20, came the winds, hot and fast, by some estimates 100 mph. It’s likely a miracle that only two lives were lost that evening, those of two elderly people who had chosen to shelter in place.
“When you get fire behavior like that, there’s not a whole lot you can do to stop it,” said one firefighter. “That’s equivalent to trying to do something with a Category 5 hurricane.”
The wind and the heat picked up twigs and needles and lofted them across the Continental Divide. Grand Lake, at the west entrance, escaped serious damage, likely the result of mitigation work done over the last decade. But lodgepole pine near the entrance to the national park just a few miles away testify to the heat and the winds, drooping like spaghetti.
Estes Park itself appeared sure to go up in flames as both the Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires approached. Sharon Brubaker, among the 6,700 residents of the community, didn’t wait to find out. She loaded her 2-year-old grandson into her car and fled, despite fears of another threat: covid. “It was a gut reaction,” said Brubaker. “I looked at the sky and I knew that I needed to get out of here.”
Novak, the fire chief in Vail, had been working the Cameron Peak Fire, helping defend homes. When the flames came roaring at them, they abandoned the effort. That, he says, is the philosophy of firefighters in Vail and elsewhere. They will prep and leave, not stay and defend.
Later, talking to his town council, Novak emphasized that Vail could easily see the same congruence of weather that caused East Troublesome’s extreme fire behavior. A fire starting in Eagle or Gypsum could roar up the valley through Vail and across Vail Pass into Summit County. That’s what happens in megafires—or a gigafire, as California’s first million-acre fire has been called.
Paul Cada helped protect the YMCA of the Rockies near Estes Park as the East Troublesome fire roared in. “I saw what extreme fire looks like when it was coming into Estes Park,” he says.
Since 2014, Cada has worked in Vail as the town’s wildland program manager. It has been his job very fundamentally to prepare Vail for fire.
Vail, like other mountain communities, has evolved what it considers a mountain aesthetic. Wooden shake shingles, long a manifestation of that aesthetic, were banned on new housing in 2007. In 2020, the town adopted a new wildfire plan. Newer building codes require masonry exteriors and frown on decks that could be ignited by embers thrown from a mile away, as occurred in East Troublesome.
Some changes have been painful, facing opposition. One of them significantly discourages use of vegetation amid houses, rows of trees—that might catch on fire. Houses need strong fire-resistant berths of 30 to 60 feet.
A former Forest Service ranger likened Vail’s response at one time of wanting to fire-proof the forest so that houses could be put amid the trees. Now, there’s a new approach—one that doesn’t totally preclude fire, but can improve the odds.
“You don’t necessarily have to control extreme fire behavior to prevent significant loss to a community,” he says. “What you do need to do is prepare the community for that, and that’s really the approach we are taking in Vail. We are not necessarily able to stop or even control the extreme fire behavior that we will likely see one day. It’s about making sure our community is prepared to respond to it when it happens but also be able to bounce back as quickly as possible.”
Vail has been aggressively trying to reduce fire risk along its flanks as well as in its subdivisions. Even so, both Cada and Nowak emphasize the limits of their work. It will not preclude extreme fires. The right combination of hot days and drought —well, that’s when megafires happen.
Jerry Fedrizzi and his wife, Jan, have taken the onus of personal responsibility to heart. They grew up in Glenwood Springs, have lived in Eagle since 1968, but have a cabin at about 8,300-foot elevation above Glenwood Springs. The days of 30 below in Eagle have become distant memories, he said on a hot June day while describing his continued work to remove vegetation from around their cabin. A fire official who studied their work gave them a 90% favorable rating, he reported proudly.
The temperature in Eagle was predicted to hit 97 degrees the next day, an unprecedented mark, and the wind was “just awful,” he said.
Not one prone to despair, Fedrizzi was nonetheless troubled. “It’s grim,” he said, “and I don’t know what will happen in the next 10 to 20 years.”
A slightly different version of this story was published in The Aspen Times Weekly. Also in the e-journal were these stories:
6 of 8 hottest years in Colorado since 2012
Six of the eight warmest years in Colorado’s historical record have occurred since 2012.
“What we would have thought as a warm summer 75 years ago is now considered a cool summer in Colorado,” said Russ Schumacher, the Colorado state climatologist, on a webinar sponsored by the AAAS Colorado Local Science Engagement Network.
That temperature increase has quite a bit of impact on water volume, he said.
And warming will continue.
“We have high confidence that (warming) will continue if greenhouse gas emissions continue that course that we are on.” It’s just a question of how much,” he added.
Laurna Kaatz, the climate scientist at Denver Water, made the same point. She described the East Troublesome Fire as having “all the hallmarks of climate change.”
Will forests come back as before?
We have more higher temperatures and more wildfires. What will this mean in the future?
At least in the foothills along the southern Front Range, that’s likely to result in fewer trees. A 2020 University of Colorado Boulder-led study of 22 burned areas dominated by Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir found that they failed to bounce back as compared to regions burned 100 years prior.
“This study and others clearly show that resilience of our forests to fire has declined significantly under warmer, drier conditions,” said Thomas Veblen, now a professor emeritus of forest ecology and a study co-author.
Conclusions of that study do not directly apply to higher-elevation forests such as those found in around Aspen, Vail, and Steamboat Springs—except in this regard: “We can expect to have an increase in fire continue for the foreseeable future,” Veblen said.
Red flags early & often
Five red flag warning days had been issued by the National Weather Service in Routt County, reported the Steamboat Pilot in its June 22 issue, compared to 9 in all of 2020.
To the west in Moffat County, 18 red-flag warnings had been issued compared to 25 all of last year.
The Pilot explained that red flag warnings are based on metrics that include humidity, wind, how long conditions are forecast to last and how dry some of the fuels, like grasses, are in an area. When issued, the warnings mean conditions make fires more likely to start and spread.
Completion of the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project is expected to move back a few years since the project intends to use facilities at the San Juan Generating Station for its future water delivery.
Members of a state legislative committee were told this week by a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation official that the bureau decided to use the existing system that intakes water from the San Juan River to help deliver water to the Navajo Nation and the City of Gallup once the pipeline is completed and operational.
Pat Page, manager of the Bureau’s Four Corners Construction Office, explained that among the apparatuses that will be acquired are the diversion dam, pumping plant and reservoir.
The tribe is the primary beneficiary of the project through its water settlement for the San Juan River Basin in New Mexico. The project will also serve Gallup and the Jicarilla Apache Nation – through a separate lateral…
Extension of the project’s completion date from 2024 to 2029 is due to upgrades of existing structures and construction at the site, he explained.
However, it is also viewed as a cost savings because the original plan was to build a new diversion system off an irrigation cancel downstream, Page added.
The bureau is continuing negotiations to acquire the facilities from the power plant’s owners.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Monsoonal moisture in the area this week is helping take the edge off the drought, however so slightly, but also is creating concerns about flash flooding in areas, including the Pine Gulch Fire burn scar north of Grand Junction.
The National Weather Service recorded 0.12 inches of rain Tuesday at the official recording station at the Grand Junction Regional Airport. Jeff Colton, a warning coordination meteorologist for the weather service, said other moisture readings for the day were spotty around the region, ranging from just a trace in Fruita and a tenth of an inch in Palisade to more than a half-inch in Orchard Mesa…
Cody Moser, a hydrologist with the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, said during a conference call with reservoir operators, local irrigation entities and others Wednesday that Tuesday’s precipitation in the region was heaviest in the Roaring Fork Valley…
Colton said the recent moisture is occurring after a strong high-pressure ridge that had brought hot temperatures to the region broke down, allowing monsoon moisture to come up from the south…
The pulses of monsoonal moisture are becoming a bit more frequent, which Colton said is providing hope for Colorado and some other area states in the grip of drought.
STILL BEHIND ON RAIN
Grand Junction had received just 0.14 inches of rain at the airport all month through Tuesday, and just 2.28 inches of precipitation all year, compared to 4.37 inches through the same date in a normal year.
Still, Colton said this summer is starting to feel like the old days, with an active monsoon season developing. The region saw little monsoonal moisture the last few years…
He said the moisture is slowing down fire activity in the state, but has been kind of hit or miss. Northwest Colorado didn’t get as much rainfall Tuesday, and the most critical burn conditions in the region remain there, he said. The Morgan Creek Fire outside Steamboat Springs had burned more than 3,800 acres as of Wednesday, but officials there said Wednesday that precipitation was helping to temper the blaze.
Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor website.
US Drought Monitor map July 13, 2021.
West Drought Monitor map July 13, 2021.
High Plains Drought Monitor map July 13, 2021.
Colorado Drought Monitor map July 13, 2021.
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
The U.S. experienced the extremes this week, with expansion of drought in the West, a robust Southwest Monsoon in the Southwest, a tropical storm making landfall in the Southeast, and extreme flooding in southeastern Texas. In the West, mid-level ridging has resulted in much above-normal temperatures for the western third of the CONUS, exacerbating drought conditions in the Pacific Northwest, northern Great Basin, Northern Rockies, and along the Front Range. Above-normal temperatures also pushed into the northern High Plains, warranting further deterioration of drought conditions in locations where rainfall remained below-average for the week. The central and eastern Corn Belt was a battle ground of sorts, with some locations seeing improvement with this week’s heavy rainfall, while other locations missed out, warranting some degradation due to antecedent dryness. New Mexico and West Texas saw targeted reductions in drought coverage due to heavy precipitation associated with the robust Southwest Monsoon. In the eastern U.S., Tropical Storm Elsa made landfall and moved up the East Coast leaving in its wake a large swath of more than 2 inches of rainfall, with several locations receiving 5 to 10 inches of rainfall. The extra-tropical transition of Elsa warranted moderate drought (D1) removal along the Virginia/North Carolina border with 1-category improvements elsewhere along Elsa’s path up the East Coast. Frontal activity prior to Elsa’s passage warranted improvements to interior areas of the Northeast. Fire risk remains high across the West…
The western half of the High Plains Region experienced above-normal average temperatures this week underneath a mid-level ridge, while the eastern half experienced below-normal average temperatures, associated with increased cloud-cover and heavy rainfall for several locations. Improvements were mainly designated to the Middle Missouri River basin, encompassing parts of eastern South Dakota and northeastern Nebraska, which received more than 2 inches of rainfall (more than 1 inch above-normal for the week). Elsewhere in the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas, below-normal precipitation coupled with antecedent dryness warranted several 1-category deteriorations. In the western half of the High Plains Region, deteriorations were more a function of above-normal temperatures helping to exacerbate ongoing drought conditions in the Eastern Rockies and along the Front Range. Furthermore, this region is void of snowpack due to the below-normal rainy season in the West leading up to this period of above-normal temperatures since Spring, which has caused further depletion of soil moisture, stream flows, and ground water in many locations…
Extreme, record-breaking heat leading up to this week has resulted in rapid deteriorations in drought conditions across the Pacific Northwest, northern Great Basin, and Northern Rockies. Although the largest positive temperature anomalies shifted southward into the Desert Southwest and Four Corners Region this week, above-normal temperatures persisted across in the northwestern CONUS, resulting in continued degradations of drought conditions from the Pacific Northwest eastward to central Montana. A small area of improvement was warranted in northeastern Montana, where 1 to 2 inches of rainfall resulted in modest improvements to soil moisture and short-term SPIs. Farther southward in New Mexico, the robust Southwest Monsoon has resulted in drastic improvements in recent weeks. This week is more of the same, with several 1-category improvement across central and eastern portions of the state. In some cases, moisture has seeped several feet into the soils, at least down to 200 cm (per NASA SPoRT and ground reports). Improved shallow ground water conditions also support the improved depiction this week. However, fire concerns remain across the West as a whole, as there have been nearly 40 new wildfires reported since July 10 (89 as of July 14)…
A localized area of low pressure brought severe flooding to much of southeastern Texas, with many locations in and around the Houston metro area receiving 10 to 15 inches of rainfall. Some of the precipitation associated with this system made it farther westward, resulting in 1-category improvements (D0 and D1) along the Rio Grande. Western Texas, and extending into New Mexico, is experiencing improved ground conditions with this week’s rainfall, but also with antecedent conditions related to the early onset and robustness of the Southwest Monsoon, warranting 1-category improvements in the Trans-Pecos region and western parts of the Panhandle. Farther east in the Tennessee Valley, D0 coverage was reduced for many locations receiving 2 inches or more of rainfall. However, where the heavier amounts were not observed, short-term deficits continue to mount, with parts of northeastern Tennessee experiencing an expansion of abnormally dry (D0) conditions, with a small area deteriorating to moderate drought (D1) conditions, where 90-day deficits have increased to around 6 inches…
During the next 5 days (July 15 to 19), the West Coast, much of the Great Basin, and the Northern Rockies are favored to remain dry. Conversely, precipitation associated with the Southwest Monsoon is expected to continue across the Four Corners Region. In the eastern half of the U.S., a frontal boundary extending from the Central Plains to the Great Lakes is expected to move southward toward the Gulf Coast, bringing with it the potential for many areas from the Central Plains and Mississippi Valley to the East Coast to receive more than an inch of rainfall, with the highest amounts (2 inches or greater) extending from the Central Plains to the eastern Great Lakes. Maximum temperature anomalies are expected to increase across the Northern Tier (10°F to 15°F positive anomalies), while the southern half of the CONUS will experience seasonal to below-normal temperatures (less than 10°F negative anomalies).
The CPC 6-10 day extended range outlook (valid July 20 to 25) favors enhanced odds for above-normal temperatures across much of the West and Northern Tier eastward to the Great Lakes, underneath anomalous mid-level ridging. Enhanced odds for below-normal temperatures are favored across much of the Southern Tier of the CONUS and into the Northeast, associated with a weakness in the ridge in the west-central CONUS and troughing in the East. Below-normal precipitation across the Northern Tier is associated with the anomalous ridge over the western-central CONUS, with below-normal precipitation probabilities extending to the Northeast. An enhanced Southwest Monsoon favors increased precipitation chances in the Southwest and large portions of the Great Basin. Above-normal precipitation probabilities along the Gulf Coast and westward into Texas are associated with a mean frontal boundary. In Alaska, mid-level troughing over the Bering Strait increases odds for below-normal temperatures and above-normal precipitation across the Southwest and West Mainland, respectively, and eastern Aleutians. The eastern Alaska Mainland and Panhandle favor above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation, respectively, underneath a mean ridge.
Here’s the release from the Environmental Protection Agency:
[July 12, 2021], the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Draft Contaminant Candidate List 5 (CCL 5), which provides the latest list of drinking water contaminants that are known or anticipated to occur in public water systems and are not currently subject to EPA drinking water regulations. As directed by the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA’s CCL 5 identifies priority contaminants to consider for potential regulation to ensure that public health is protected.
“This important step will help ensure that communities across the nation have safe water by improving EPA’s understanding of contaminants in drinking water,” said EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Radhika Fox. “On PFAS, the agency is working with the scientific community to prioritize the assessment and regulatory evaluation of all chemicals as contaminants.”
The Draft CCL 5 includes 66 individual chemicals,12 microbes, and three chemical groups – per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), cyanotoxins, and disinfection byproducts (DBPs). These contaminants have been identified as agency priorities and contaminants of concern for drinking water. PFAS are proposed as a group, with the exception of PFOA and PFOS because the agency is moving forward with national primary drinking water standards for these two contaminants. This action is in keeping with the agency’s commitment to better understand and ultimately reduce the potential risks caused by PFAS.
CCL 5 was developed under an improved process that included new approaches to rapidly screen a significantly larger number of contaminants, prioritizing data most relevant to drinking water exposure and the potential for the greatest public health concern, and better consideration for sensitive populations and children. EPA continues to collect data and to encourage further research on the listed contaminants to better understand potential health effects from drinking water exposure before making any regulatory determinations.
EPA plans to consult with the Science Advisory Board (SAB) on the Draft CCL 5 in the fall of 2021. The agency will consider public comments and SAB feedback in developing the Final CCL 5, which is expected to be published in July 2022. After a final CCL is published, the agency will undertake a separate regulatory determination process to determine whether or not to regulate contaminants from the CCL.
Developing the CCL is the first step under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) in potentially regulating drinking water contaminants. SDWA requires EPA to publish a list of currently unregulated contaminants that are known or anticipated to occur in public water systems and that may require regulation. EPA must publish a CCL every five years. The CCL does not create or impose regulatory burden on public water systems or state, local, or Tribal governments. EPA has completed four rounds of CCLs since 1996. The last cycle of CCL, CCL 4, was published in November 2016. EPA began the development of the CCL 5 in 2018 by asking the public to nominate chemicals, microbes, or other materials for consideration for the CCL 5. The agency received 89 nominations and evaluated the nominated contaminants and other contaminant data and information in developing the Draft CCL 5.
FromThe Montrose Daily Press (Cassie Knust and Anna Lynn Winfrey):
The City of Montrose welcomed the public to roam around the nearly completed structure, which will hold 1.5 million gallons of water. In lieu of a formal presentation, city officials mingled with the crowd of curious citizens in and around the tower as the sun began its descent on July 12.
To build the water tower, Cory Noles explained that giant pieces of steel were welded together into 8-foot tall rings that were stacked on top of each other. Noles is the general superintendent of Ridgway Valley Enterprises, a commercial contractor on the project.
Despite the 135-foot height, Scott Murphy, the city engineer for Montrose and the project lead, said that the foundation is only 5 feet deep from ground level because the dirt in the area bodes well for a tall structure.
The water that is scheduled to fill the tower this November is sourced from the general city water system, which comes from the Project 7 Water Authority’s treatment plant on the east side of town.
Water towers help stabilize water pressure throughout the city. Murphy said that the tower fills up during lower demand periods, so when demand is high on hotter days, water pressure can stay constant.
The tower, which cost approximately $5 million, addresses the city’s need for water storage and prepares the city for continued growth on the western side of the Uncompahgre river.
In the case of an emergency water break, the tower can hold enough to provide the town with water for up to four days. Murphy said that only one line crosses the Uncompahgre river to the western side of town, so if a disaster struck and the pipe was obliterated, the water tower ensures that people would still have water.
The water tower is slated to sustain another period of growth in Montrose, and the city has made long-term plans to ease the construction of another tower in the future…
The project is scheduled to be completed by November of this year. Some pandemic-related shortages have caused minor delays, but the project is still slated to be completed on time…
The tower will be painted a lighter color to blend into the landscape. Murphy said that the tower will be emblazoned with the logo for the city, but artsier designs may be considered in the future.
It’s going to be difficult for legislators to strengthen Colorado’s already strong water anti-speculation laws, but that’s what a study group is looking at.
Joe Frank, manager of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District, told his board’s executive committee Tuesday it will be tough for the study group to come up with viable recommendations to the legislature.
The study group was authorized by Senate Bill 20-048 during the 2020 legislative session. The bill “requires the executive director of the department of natural resources to convene a work group to explore ways to strengthen current anti-speculation law and to report to the water resources review committee by August 15, 2021, regarding any recommended changes.”
Frank said the 18-member working group, which has been meeting since November 2020, is “a pretty diverse group,” and that has caused some concerns about the viability of recommendations that it may propose.
“The hard part, in my mind, is how you distinguish between traditional speculation and investment speculation, and how you protect people’s property rights,” Frank said. “How do you tell a landowner who he can and can’t sell his property to? (Some states have) laws about selling (farmland) to people outside the state, but I’ve talked to some (Colorado) tenants whose out-of-state landowners are really good landlords.”
Water speculation is generally thought of as buying water rights without having an immediate beneficial use for the water, hoping to later sell the water for a profit. The concern is that agricultural water would be taken off the land and sold out-of-state. Current water law requires that anyone buying water shares or buying ag land with a water right must have an immediate beneficial use for the water.
That has led to the practice “buy and dry,” in which cities and utilities buy agricultural land and use the water for their own purposes. One example is when Sterling purchased the Scalva Bros. farm in the early 2000s so it could use the farm’s strong water right to augment pumping for municipal use. Although the water is still being used to irrigate crops on the farm, eventually it will have to be taken off the cropland and the land returned to a natural state.
Board member Gene Manuello said anti-speculation legislation can be a double-edged sword. He referred to a 2009 Colorado Supreme Court decision in which the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District and San Juan Water Conservancy District were denied permission to build Dry Gulch Reservoir. Trout Unlimited sued the districts claiming their projections of water needs over the coming 50 years were excessive and amounted to water speculation.
The high court ruled that the Pagosa area water districts, which supply water to nearly all of Archuleta County, had not sufficiently demonstrated a need for the amount of water they claimed, based on projected population growth and water availability over a 50-year planning period…
A report on recommendations from the study group is due in mid-August, Frank said.
In other business Tuesday the executive committee when into executive session to discuss legal and negotiation issues concerning the proposed Fremont Butte project. That project would store excess South Platte River runoff in Prewitt Reservoir and a new reservoir south of there, to later be pumped upstream for use by the Parker Water and Sanitation District.
FromThe Douglas County News-Press (Thelma Grimes):
As afternoon rainstorms have continued through spring and early summer, officials of the Centennial Water and Sanitation District, the water provider in Highlands Ranch, warn residents that the community is still under a drought watch designation.
“A drought is not just about precipitation,” said Swithin Dick, water rights administrator for Centennial Water. “Precipitation is one part of the equation, but you also have to look at snowpack, water runoff, demand and water supply.”
Centennial Water monitors the water supply for the community daily. On July 7, Centennial Water’s reservoir storage was 8,048-acre feet, or 47% of 17,200 acre-feet total capacity. Centennial Water’s median storage level for July over the past 10 years has been 8,904 acre-feet, or 52% of the capacity…
“Despite the precipitation we have received over the past month, the storage level in our reservoirs has declined,” Dick said. “This is because community water demand has increased, which is offsetting the water we have been able to capture.”
Dick said water supplies are based on water rights priority in the region. Water rights determine who is able to capture the water for use…
Centennial Water has three stages for measuring drought condition. In April, the Centennial Water Board of Directors approved the lowest stage level, drought watch. The drought watch designation is for residents in Highlands Ranch, Solstice, and portions of northern Douglas County.
If drought conditions get worse, the board can approve two new stages, Drought Stage 1 and Drought Stage 2, which would mean higher fees to further encourage residents to practice water conservation.
For instance, a resident who uses between 101% and 120% of the allotted amount, rates would go from $5.52 per 1,000 gallons to $6.95 under a Stage 1 designation. Under a Stage 2 designation, rates would increase to $8.38.
Plummeting reservoir levels at Mead and Powell solidify Arizona cutbacks next year and near-future threats to all the Compact states, from Colorado to California
blunt new report based on June runoff conditions from the Colorado River into Lake Powell and Lake Mead shows the reservoirs fast deteriorating toward “dead pool” status, where stored water is so low it can’t spin the massive hydroelectric power generators buried in the dams, and large swaths of Arizona farmland going fallow.
The enormous, life-sustaining buckets of water in the drought-stricken West are emptying so fast that the Bureau of Reclamation added a new monthly report – on top of three already scheduled this year – to keep up with the dam
The bureau said the loss of water is accelerating, confirming projections that massive water restrictions will begin in 2022 for the three Lower Basin states in the seven-state Colorado River Compact. Conservation groups believe Arizona will lose more than 500,000 acre-feet of water usually delivered by the Colorado in 2022 through voluntary and mandatory cuts, forcing significant reductions to irrigated farming in the desert state. Some, but not all, of Arizona’s share will be replaced in trades using water already “banked” in the reservoirs.
Decline of Lake Mead. Graphic credit: Brad Udall via InkStain
Graphic credit: Brad Udall via InkStain
The bureau’s report for June, added on to previously scheduled reservoir updates for January, April and August, paints a dire picture. As snowpack runoff disappeared into dry ground instead of hitting the reservoirs, engineers calculated a 79% chance Lake Powell will fall below its minimum target water height of 3,525 feet above sea level next year.
That minimum provides only a 35-foot cushion for the minimum water level of 3,490 feet needed to spill water into the electric turbines. The bureau said there is now a 5% chance Lake Powell falls below the minimum needed to generate any power in 2023, and a 17% chance in 2024 — the odds are going up with each new report.
Lake Mead, which feeds the three Lower Basin compact states of Nevada, California and Arizona, is in even worse shape. The compact requires declaration of restriction-triggering “shortage condition” if Mead hits 1,075 feet or lower. Mead is falling now, and the bureau affirmed the shortage declaration will happen in August. Las Vegas, a short drive from Mead and Hoover Dam, hit 117 degrees on July 10, and longtime local users are alarmed at how fast the pool is evaporating into desert skies.
Mead is also in great danger of hitting “critical” elevations of 1,025 feet, a sort of emergency-stop minimum, and the minimum pool for generating power at 1,000 feet, the bureau’s new report said. The chances of draining past the minimum by 2025 are now 58%, and the chances of falling below a power pool that year are 21%.
Weather plus climate change
Long-term climate change is being exacerbated by a short-term drought lasting more than 20 years in the West, scientist and water engineers say. Even with a future snowpack bonanza – not currently in the forecast – the compact reservoirs will remain in deep trouble, said John Berggren, water policy analyst for the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates.
The Colorado River basin’s latest snowpack was just about 100% of normal, Berggren noted, but delivered only 50% of normal runoff into the river and the giant reservoirs. Water is soaking into parched ground or evaporating entirely before it can contribute to stream flows.
“It’s startling how with each new projection, you had thought it can’t possibly get worse,” Berggren said. “Even just a year or two ago, most people would have thought these projections are pretty far away from ever happening.”
Major water cutbacks for the Lower Basin states are now an unavoidable reality, Berggren said. “This just shows that we no longer have the luxury of thinking it’s a decade down the road.”
“The June five-year projections for the Colorado River System reaffirm this is a serious situation,” Wayne Pullan, Upper Colorado Basin regional director for the Bureau of Reclamation, said in a statement about the latest river modeling. “We are actively engaged with the Colorado River Basin states and other partners to respond to changing conditions to avoid critical elevations at Lake Powell.”
The original compact between Upper Basin states – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – and the Lower Basin was negotiated in 1922. It was given real teeth in 2019 with a Drought Contingency Plan that first penalizes Lower Basin states if levels and inflows into Powell and Mead fall below trigger points.
Upper Basin states face future cutbacks in water use as well if they can’t deliver agreed-upon amounts of water to the basin separation point at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, just above the Grand Canyon. Colorado water engineers, agricultural interests and utilities are in ongoing discussions and experiments on how best to leave more in the Colorado should those downstream treaty calls eventually come.
Mexico is also part of the historic compact. Some states are negotiating with Mexico to build ocean water desalinization plants near the Pacific Ocean, so that Mexico could use that water and the states could keep more river water.
Colorado tries to refill the Yampa
Colorado water managers, meanwhile, are working quickly to mitigate some of the intense near-term impacts of recent drought, including along the severely depleted Yampa River in northwest Colorado, which is a tributary of the Colorado River.
On July 8, the Colorado Water Trust bought 1,000 acre-feet of water in Stagecoach Reservoir, with an option to buy 1,000 more, for releases over the rest of the summer into the Yampa to keep fish alive and keep the river basin healthier in hot temperatures. The Water Trust has made similar purchases in other years, but will likely have to release the water far earlier than usual this season in order to prevent high water temperatures and stagnant flow that stress fish and hurt their spawning chances.
After spending about $46,000 on the July purchase, the trust has spent just under $500,000 to buy water from Stagecoach’s reserve since 2012. In announcing the deal, the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District noted the late-May stream flow into Stagecoach was at less than 10 cubic feet per second, when it should have been more than 100 cfs. The district said it has separately released more than 1,500 acre-feet of its own water from Stagecoach so far this year in order to support river health.
Cash donors to buy the Stagecoach water include the Yampa River Fund, the Yampa Valley Community Foundation and the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, among others. Tri-State operates coal-fired electricity generating units down the Yampa to the west of Stagecoach.
From the Community Agriculture Alliance via The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Libby Christensen):
Many of you reading this article are fortunate to get to call Routt County home. Clearly after this year, word has gotten out, and we have seen an influx of new folks lucky enough to own land in our community. With this incredible opportunity, comes incredible responsibility.
In an effort to assure that everyone is stewarding this limited resource and to reduce potential conflicts, the Community Agriculture Alliance and CSU Extension are teaming up again to offer the 101 Land Stewardship class.
This course is for folks new to Routt County or to owning land in Routt County, real estate agents and anyone interested in learning more about agriculture and land stewardship. The six-week course is offered on Wednesday evenings, beginning on Sept. 15 through Oct. 20.
A wide variety of topics will be covered throughout the course. Participants will be taught how to identify common plants, weeds, grasses, and trees in the area. The course will cover the relationships between humans, soil, plants, and water.
At the end of the course, participants will be more aware of their surroundings and understand how land management decisions impact the land, water, and people around them.
Grazing and Ranching Stewardship will cover ranching in Routt County including a conversation about the impacts of wildlife on livestock and humans and vice a versa. Local experts, who represent multigenerational land stewards in Routt County, will be on hand to teach the class and to provide real world examples of positive ranch stewardship.
The Water Stewardship class will show learners how both nature and man can alter and/or improve waterways. Participants will be introduced to several different types of irrigation systems and how they work. Local experts will also provide an overview of basic Colorado water law.
In Preparing for Fire, instructors will review what steps you can take to prepare yourself, your animals, and your home for wildfire.
Community Stewardship conversations will focus on how to be a good neighbor, covering proper weed management, fence laws, and the Routt County Master Plan.
Wrapping it all together in our last class Stewardship with a Purpose, we will discuss how soil, water, animals, plants and air should all be considered when making plans to manage property.
Land stewardship is a responsibility that we owe not to the generations before us, but to those who come after us. Our forefathers thought enough of us to take care of the land so that we could use it for our benefit, and we have the opportunity to do the same for the generations who follow us.
The Land Stewardship 101 course will help you learn how to become a better steward of your property, benefiting you, your neighborhood, your community, your children, and anyone else who calls or will call our valley home.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Travis Duncan):
Due to low flows and warm water temperatures, Colorado Parks and Wildlife is asking anglers to voluntarily avoid fishing after noon on sections of the Yampa River that run through the boundaries of CPW’s Yampa River State Park and Yampa River State Wildlife Area, both located just west of Hayden, Colo. CPW is also asking anglers to avoid fishing after noon on the 1.5-mile section of the Elk River that runs through CPW’s Christina State Wildlife Area to the northwest of Steamboat Springs. These voluntary fishing closures go into effect on Tuesday, July 13.
Update to voluntary fishing closure on section of Colorado River
On July 7, CPW placed a full-day voluntary fishing closure on the Colorado River beginning at the Highway 9 bridge in Kremmling downstream to the Highway 13 bridge in Rifle. Environmental conditions have recently improved between Kremmling and State Bridge due primarily to upstream reservoir releases. As a result, CPW is lifting the voluntary, full-day fishing closure in place upstream of State Bridge while the voluntary, full-day fishing closure remains in effect from State Bridge downstream to the Highway 13 bridge in Rifle.
“We are continuing to closely monitor changing environmental conditions, and appreciate anglers’ patience and cooperation relative to implementation and removal of fishing closures,” said CPW Northwest Region Senior Aquatic Biologist Lori Martin. “Other waters that may see closures in the immediate future include sections of the Colorado River upstream of the Williams Fork River confluence, the Fraser River, and the upper Yampa River.”
Anglers should be aware that most of the major rivers on Colorado’s Western Slope are experiencing adverse conditions heading into the hottest days of summer. Follow the Leave No Trace Principle to “Know Before You Go” to the West Slope this summer and check out conditions related to mandatory and voluntary fishing closures: https://cpw.state.co.us/thingstodo/Pages/StatewideFishingConditions.aspx
The Chatfield Reservoir south of Littleton was built as a flood control measure after the devastating floods in 1965 and is the centerpiece of a beloved state park. But it now serves a new purpose: providing more water storage for the Front Range without adding a major footprint. After a three-decade planning process, the reservoir level was raised 12 feet and storage space has been reallocated to add 20,600 acre-feet of storage, including an environmental pool of up to 2,100 acre-feet.
“At first blush, this doesn’t sound so complicated. You’re taking water storage that already exists and making it multi-purpose storage without any impacts to the dam itself,” says Charly Hoehn, general manager of the reallocation project. But it was the first project of its kind in the state, so Hoehn’s team had to act as “guinea pigs” on permitting and mitigation issues.
While the project didn’t require new dam construction, it was not without challenges. State park facilities had to be moved, and there were environmental concerns, like the removal of trees and wetlands to accommodate the higher water level. The Audubon Society of Greater Denver unsuccessfully sued to stop construction, citing impacts to birds and the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse. Polly Reetz, the Audubon conservation committee chairperson, says she continues to question “whether this would even work at all” with the project’s relatively junior water rights and doesn’t think it was worth impacting “a very important birding area.”
Other green groups worked with project organizers on a mitigation strategy that placed a value on each piece of land that would be affected (accounting for impacts to wetlands and animals), then found other areas to offset any damage. The result was significant restoration to flows on nearby Plum Creek and bank stabilization primarily upstream on the South Platte River to prevent erosion. The environmental pool will accommodate timed releases to help address some low-flow conditions downstream on the South Platte River. Final approval and the completion of mitigation work in 2020 allowed the new storage to begin, but Hoehn says that the low spring runoff allowed only a “marginal amount” to be stored in its first year.
Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Karina Puikkonen):
Ranches are critical to the Rocky Mountain region, serving as the West’s water towers, food providers, land stewards and hubs of local economies and communities. With ranch managers now in high demand but in short supply, Colorado State University’s new Western Ranch Management and Ecosystem Stewardship program is designed to help fill the gap and preserve this critical role.
The new graduate-level program in the Warner College of Natural Resources builds on the expertise of college researchers, faculty and staff. Warner College professors have worked on sustainability and improving rangelands and the environment with ranchers, farmers and herders around the world, from Colorado to Mongolia.
“CSU and our college provide the perfect starting points for this new program,” said Dean John Hayes. “We have an incredibly strong group of researchers in several departments, including ecosystem science and sustainability, forest and rangeland stewardship and in the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory in the Warner College. It’s an honor to have been approached by members of the ranching community to launch this program and to partner with them.”
A business, natural resource and place of retreat and respite
Ranch owners view the forests and rangelands on their properties through multiple lenses: as a business growing traditional and non-traditional livestock, as a place offering hunting and fishing opportunities, as a natural resource with forest management and preservation needs, and as a place of retreat for themselves and guests. Managing all these values requires a unique combination of knowledge, skills and experiences.
Photo credit: Paul Evangelista via Colorado State University