“We ought to be able to figure out a way to get some water into #LakePowell without doing harm to anyone” — Patti Wells @AspenJournalism @cwcbbecky #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Looking upriver at the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers in late September, one of the driest years on record for the Colorado River system. Water managers in both the upper and lower basins are working to get more water to this point in order to bolster the low level of Lake Powell, which is not far downstream.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

The state of Colorado is now officially on board with a regional water strategy designed to keep enough water in Lake Powell behind Glen Canyon Dam to avoid violating the Colorado River Compact and keep generating hydropower at the dam.

At a meeting Thursday in Golden, the directors of the Colorado Water Conservation Board unanimously adopted a state policy giving its “full support” to proposed drought-contingency plans and agreements now being reviewed in both the upper and lower Colorado River basins.

“I think we’ve really done something important for the state today,” Russ George, a CWCB director from Rifle who represents the Colorado River basin within Colorado, told a meeting room filled with water managers, water users and water attorneys from around the state.

The new policy means Colorado, along with the other upper basin states of Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, can declare its support for the drought-contingency plans (DCP) and agreements at a mid-December meeting in Las Vegas of the Colorado River Water Users Association.

The lower basin states of California and Nevada also are in support of the agreements, but water managers in Arizona are still working through a series of contentious, complicated issues and have yet to reach consensus.

If consensus in both basins can be reached by mid-December, legislation may be introduced during the current lame-duck session of Congress.

A sense of urgency to do something about the falling water levels in Lake Powell has been growing, and was heightened in Colorado in 2018 by the hot and dry conditions.

Lake Powell on Friday, November 15 was at 44 percent full and at an elevation of 3,588 feet above sea level on the upstream face of Glen Canyon Dam. That’s 98 feet above the “minimum power pool” level of 3,490 feet.

The reservoir level has dropped by 38 feet in the last year, and water officials are concerned if dry conditions persist, the reservoir could reach the minimum power pool level within three years.

Operations, and reservoir levels, in Lake Powell are tied by regulatory guidelines with levels in Lake Mead, which is 38 percent full today. The new DCP storage pool in Lake Powell would be exempt from the operating guidelines, however, and would serve as a secure, and separate, savings account within Lake Powell for the upper basin states.

A graphic showing the 38-foot-drop in the surface level of Lake Powell over the last year, from the website, lakepowell.water-data.com. Regional water managers want to keep the reservoir above minimum power pool level of 3,490 feet.

Bridging the divide

The new Colorado state policy adopted Thursday was crafted by staff members at the CWCB, a state agency within the Dept. of Natural Resources, and the attorney general’s office to bridge the latest chasm that had emerged between water managers on the Western Slope and the Front Range.

Water officials on both sides of the Continental Divide want to store water in Lake Powell in a regulatory pool controlled by the upper basin, with the goals of first, keeping the reservoir levels high enough to keep producing hydropower at the dam, and second, high enough to continue to release enough water from the dam to meet the upper basin’s downstream obligations under the Colorado River compact.

But exactly how water that is now being consumed by farmers and ranchers and city dwellers will be conserved and sent downstream to fill the new pool in Lake Powell is uncertain, and a key issue is whether the state might require mandatory cuts in water use to fill the new pool to avoid a compact call.

The Western Slope, lead by the Colorado River District in Glenwood Springs, also wanted the state to help ensure that the creation of the new pool of water didn’t lead to a buy-and-dry of irrigated agriculture on the Western Slope.

And they wanted assurances that the state would use a public process to devise any new rules or laws requiring mandatory cutbacks in water use, should low water conditions persist.

Meanwhile, Front Range water interests wanted to make sure that the state didn’t tie its own hands and restrict its abilities to take steps to avoid a compact.

The confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers, in September 2018. Most of the water that flows into Lake Powell each year flows past this remote spot in Canyonlands National Park.

Responsive to concerns

The state’s new policy says it will use an open public process to create a “demand management,” or water-use reduction, program that incentivizes water users — primarily irrigators — to temporarily cut back on their consumptive use of water, in exchange for monetary compensation.

And if mandatory cutbacks in water use are ever necessary, “any alternative measures or rules for compact compliance administration” will be developed after “timely and extensive public outreach” and with “the goal, but not the requirement, of achieving general consensus within the state,” the policy says.

“The CWCB was very responsive to our request that they display state leadership in establishing a policy that going forward provides some security for the Western Slope and other regions of the state, and that no one region is going to suffer the brunt of a demand-management program,” said Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River District, after the meeting.

Mueller also said the CWCB “clearly separated demand management from some form of involuntary curtailment. It was very important to do that, as they are two different things.”

Both Mueller and Bruce Whitehead, the general manager of the Southwestern Water Conservation District in Durango, thanked the CWCB board for listening to their concerns, and drafting a policy that attempted to address them.

“This was a hot topic,” said Whitehead.

Between the two, the Colorado River District and the Southwestern District represent all of the Western Slope. Both Mueller and Whitehead said they will recommend to their boards that they formally endorse the state’s policy at their upcoming board meetings.

The Front Range Water Council, an ad hoc group that includes the major municipal water providers between Fort Collins and Pueblo, sent the CWCB a letter of support for the DCP policy, urging adoption “without any changes.”

“Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of public input on this topic of critical importance to Colorado, and for developing a policy that will allow Colorado to engage in further processes that will protect our collective interests in the Colorado River and Upper Colorado River compacts,” said the letter, which was signed by Jim Lochhead, the CEO of Denver Water and the head of the Front Range Water Council.

Patti Wells, who represents the Denver metro area on the CWCB, said it was important that Colorado not be split by differences between the east and west slopes.

“There clearly is more that unites us in the ability for Colorado not to be subject to a compact call, then there is in the details of how we might avoid that,” she said.

She also challenged water managers to come up with a demand-management program that “makes everyone better off.”

“We ought to be able to figure out a way to get some water into Lake Powell without doing harm to anyone, and really making it a program that will benefit all the participants to the extent that we can,” said Wells, who recently retired as the general counsel for Denver Water. “I see no reason why we can’t approach this in that way, because we are Coloradans for God’s sake, and we are not anyone else.”

Still in drought, Colorado sees snowy, cold start to 2019 water year — @AspenJournalism @DWR_CO @CWCB_DNR

US Drought Monitor November 13, 2018.

From Aspen Journalism (Lindsay Fendt):

Colorado closed out its second-driest water year on record Sept. 30, with 72 percent of the state in some level of drought.

The water year, which started October 1 of 2017, was marked by abnormally high temperatures, low precipitation and some of the largest fires in Colorado history, but state climate scientists and hydrologists say the 2019 water year, which began Oct. 1, is off to a much better start.

“We are trending towards the path of a good or near-average water year,” Becky Bolinger, a research associate with the Colorado Climate Center, said at a statewide water-availability task force meeting Tuesday in Denver.

Colorado Drought Monitor November 13, 2018.

Still dry

October and the first half of November saw above-average precipitation and below-average temperatures in most of the state. While much of this precipitation along the Front Range will have little bearing on the water year as a whole, the heavy snowfall in the mountains near Grand Junction, on the Western Slope, will probably stick around until spring.

Despite a good start to the 2019 water year, water managers warn that a few early snowstorms will do little to lift Colorado from its water problems. The state has been in water-shortage conditions for almost two decades.

“I continue to be skeptical,” Russ George, a board member representing the Colorado River basin on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said during the board’s meeting Thursday. “We know — and we need to keep telling the public — that this moisture doesn’t solve the Lake Powell problem.”

Lake Powell, the largest reservoir on the Colorado River, has dropped more than 94 feet since the year 2000 and is now 44-percent full.

If the reservoir falls much further, it will be below “minimum power pool,” and water will not be able to flow through the penstocks in the upstream face of the dam down to turbines near the base of the dam.

And if water levels drop even further, the surface of the reservoir will be below the level of the outlet pipes in the dam, and not enough water will be sent downstream to meet the legal obligations of the upper basin states as required by the Colorado River Compact of 1922.

The threat of El Niño has also tempered water managers’ celebration about recent snowfall.

Climate models show an 80 to 90 percent chance for a winter El Niño. The weather phenomenon typically causes drier weather in the northern part of North America and wetter weather in the south.

Since Colorado falls in the middle of the continent, El Niño weather patterns are hard to predict for the state, but past El Niños have left most of the mountains on the Western Slope drier than normal and sent large amounts of snow to the state’s southeastern corner.

Although an El Niño could be bad news for Western Slope ski resorts and limit the mountain snowpack that feeds the rest of the state, it could help alleviate drought conditions in the Four Corners region.

This section of the state experienced its worst drought this year since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. To meet summer demand, the region drew down its reservoir storage to record levels and will need a wet winter to recoup those reserves.

“There’s a lot of winter to come, but that’s an encouraging start,” said Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map November 14, 2018 via the NRCS.

#ColoradoRiver District wants state policy on potential water-use cutbacks — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification @ColoradoWater @CWCB_DNR

A big beach on the lower Green River in late September is indicative of the low flows in 2018, which have caused water levels in Lake Powell to continue to drop. Plans to bolster flows in the reservoir by sending water down the Green and Colorado rivers is raising hard questions for Western Slope irrigators.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

Before the Colorado River District will support pending federal legislation allowing drought contingency plans in both the upper and lower Colorado River basins to proceed, it wants the state of Colorado to adopt a policy putting limits on a new water-use reduction program designed to bolster water levels in Lake Powell.

That was the clear message from the River District board that general manager Andy Mueller said he received during a passionate discussion during a district meeting Tuesday.

“Most of the board is saying that at a bare minimum we have to have the state, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, affirm that there are in fact some sideboards and protections from the risks we face,” Mueller said, in summarizing the board’s discussion. “We’ve got to have some principles that guide the way this program is set up, and its consistency with the state water plan.”

Mueller said the program has to be consistent with the state water plan, there has to be an equitable distribution of wet water coming from both the Front Range and the Western Slope, and the program has to be voluntary, temporary and compensated.

“This board is not OK with the idea of a mandatory curtailment to fill a demand management pool,” Mueller said. “We don’t feel that there is legal or statutory authority for such a program.”

The concerns of the River District directors stem from an ongoing multi-state effort to create and gain approval for “drought contingency plans” in the lower and upper basins.

The lower basin states include California, Arizona and Nevada, and the upper basin states include Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada.

And as part of the regional “DCP” effort, it is anticipated that federal legislation will be required to implement changes to how water is managed in the upper and lower basins, with the goal of keeping enough water in Lake Mead and Lake Powell to keep those massive reservoirs functioning in the face of an ongoing 18-year drought.

The proposed changes include modifying the current regulations that guide how much conserved, or saved, water can be stored in Lake Mead by lower basin entities.

The changes include developing a plan to release water in a coordinated fashion from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs, which can send water down the Green, Colorado and San Juan rivers, respectively, to Lake Powell.

And the changes include creating a legally secure pool of water in Lake Powell to be filled with water conserved after fallowing fields, primarily, in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.

Officials from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City who are working on the drought contingency plans say legislation will be submitted to Congress during the lame-duck session after the midterm elections.

And it’s widely assumed that such legislation will pass only if there is no opposition from entities that would be affected, such as the Colorado River District, which represents 15 Western Slope counties.

Mueller said Wednesday he was “cautiously optimistic” that the CWCB, a state agency that manages water planning, will adopt a guiding policy at its November board meeting about the creation of a demand management program.

And a senior CWCB official Wednesday offered reasons for Mueller’s optimism, including that such a policy is now being drafted for the board’s consideration.

“The policy statement will be informed by the public testimony, letters received, and the feedback we’ve heard from stakeholders around the state in the past year of aggressive public outreach,” said Brent Newman, who is the section chief of CWCB’s Interstate, Federal and Water Information Section and the state agency’s point person on Colorado River issues. “Because we’re hoping to respond and provide CWCB leadership to concerns that our partners and stakeholders have raised, it will likely address these issues.”

Newman also emphatically told the river district’s directors Tuesday that the state is not working on a mandatory curtailment program to avoid a call on the river system under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

“Not myself, not the CWCB staff, not our board, not the Attorney General’s Office, not the division of water resources, not the state engineer, none of us at the state are assessing or recommending any kind of mandatory anticipatory curtailment scenario,” Newman said. “That is not in our books. Yes, we’ve had some water users say that if voluntary, temporary and compensated isn’t sufficient, you may have to look at this. We are not doing that.”

It was also made clear during the river district’s meeting that “anticipatory mandatory curtailment” of water rights in Colorado is seen as a direct threat to family-run farms and ranches on the Western Slope.

“If we want to push the Western Slope to the brink, where people start to actually sit down at the kitchen table and consider whether or not they ought to sell the farm to some outside-the-Western-Slope interest, this is how we get there,” said Marc Catlin, who represents Montrose County on the River District’s board, and also represents District 58 in the Colorado House.

After Catlin’s comments, many other River District board members said they agreed.

“This just shows how important it is to get the demand-management program right, and that we don’t rush into a demand-management pool in Lake Powell before we’ve had this discussion and before we’ve agreed to a policy and principles to guide us,” said Tom Alvey, the current president of the district’s board, who represents Delta County. “From all the perspective of water users on the Western Slope, there is huge concern about this.”

Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and water in the Colorado River basin in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift newspapers. The Times published this story on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018.

A first-ever ‘call’ on the #YampaRiver as the climate veers warmer & weirder — The Mountain Town News

Floating the tiger, Yampa River, 2014. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

In late August, as reservoirs levels declined across the American Southwest, Erin Light issued something common in most river basins of Colorado but which had never been done on the Yampa River. She issued a “call.”

When a call is issued, those with newer or younger water rights must cease their diversions from the river and its tributaries until the older or more senior rights are satisfied. This system is called prior appropriation. Eighteen states in the West use aspects of prior appropriation to sort out who gets how much water and when.

Light, as the division engineer for Colorado Division of Water Resources, administers the labyrinth of water rights in the Yampa River Valley. Water goes to ranches, a power plant, and other purposes, each occupying a specific place in the pecking order as determined by volumes, locations and, above all, date of adjudication. That’s the way it works when a river is under administration. Some Colorado rivers have been under administration since the late 1800s.

Until this summer, the Yampa was different. Those with legally adjudicated water rights took what they thought was theirs. Calls had been placed on tributaries, but not the river itself.

Then in late August, Light announced that those with water rights on the rivers’ main stem awarded since 1951 would have to cease diversions until those older, or seniors, had been satisfied. By mid-September, as irrigators slowed their demands and cooler temperatures eased losses from evaporation and transpiration, Light edged the call back to those rights junior to 1960. Last week, she suspended the call altogether.

Droughts hit the Yampa and many other river basins in Colorado hard this year. But this drought may best be viewed as part of an extended 21st century drought caused more by temperature increases than precipitation declines. It’s part of a clear trend of a warming and more erratic climate.

Ted Kowalski says the water call on the Yampa should be understood within the context of these hotter, drier times in the American Southwest. A former Colorado water official who is now senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation’s Colorado River Initiative, Kowalski calls the Yampa River the first domino to fall.

Lower streamflows in all the rivers of the Colorado River Basin that produce declining reservoir levels represent the additional dominoes.

This is starkly demonstrated, says Kowalski, by the fact that reservoir storage in the Colorado River Basin has reached its lowest level since the late 1960s. That’s when the newly created Glen Canyon Dam was starting to create Lake Powell.

“All of this underscores the importance of developing and adopting and agreeing to drought contingency plans so that we can effectively manage if and when there is less water in the system,” says Kowalski. The work begins, he says, with conservation.

Conserving water in the 20th century

Far into the 20th century, conservation had a different connotation in the West. Managing water in the Colorado River Basin meant building dams and creating reservoirs, all with the intent of ensuring none of the water was “wasted” by flowing into the ocean.

Hoover Dam plugs the Colorado River on the Nevada-Arizona border. Photo December 2012/Allen Best

Nearly all this major hydraulic engineering was done on the tab of the federal government. Downstream, first Powell and then Mead, the second largest and largest reservoirs in the nation, respectively, provide most of the storage. If separated by 300 miles and the Grand Canyon National Park, the two reservoirs fundamentally operate in tandem, as a Colorado River Research Group report in August noted. They are “essentially one giant reservoir (bisected by a glorious ditch),” the report said in a nod to the Grand Canyon.

Reservoir levels rise after big snow years, but in the 21st century the more common trend has been decline.

Evidence emerging in recent years suggests the Colorado River’s decline can best be explained by rising temperatures instead of reduced precipitation. In a 2017 paper, Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University, and Jonathan Overpeck, the dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability, attributed two-thirds of water declines to temperature rather than precipitation. Not only is more water evaporating, they said, but plants have been transpiring more water.

“This is the kind of drought we will have to deal with in the future,” Overpeck said at a water conference in Santa Fe during April.

Doug Monger testifies to the warmer weather. A native of the Yampa Valley, he remembers 45-below temperatures, once in the 1980s for two days straight. Down the valley in Maybell, the temperature in that same cold spell hit 61 below. (It had also hit that same low in 1979.)

“I always prayed for climate change and global warming,” he jokes.

Now, he’s getting that warming. “We never had 90 degrees, and now it’s nothing to have 90-plus days for five or six days in a row.”

That heat has been taking a toll on the snow. About three-quarters of the precipitation in the Colorado River Basin originates as snow. Colorado itself provides 70 percent of the water in the river.

In the Yampa Basin, most of the snow collects in an elevation band of between 8,000 to 10,000 feet. The river originates on the flanks of the Flattops Wilderness Area as the Bear River, gurgles playfully along at the foot of the Gore Range and then, drawing more water from the usually snow-laden Park Range, hooks westward at Steamboat Springs for a 100-mile journey to Dinosaur National Monument.

Beyond Dinosaur, the Yampa’s water eventually flows into the Utah desert and Lake Powell.

The Park Range has a reputation as the snowiest place in Colorado. A gauge at 10,285-foot Buffalo Pass, located northeast of Steamboat Springs, reported 80 inches of water contained in the much deeper snowpack by early May on a recent, snow year.

When spring arrives in years such as that, the Yampa gushes through Steamboat Springs well into summer. Flows needed for commercial tubing during summer represent one measure of winter’s legacy. Tubers are not allowed to use the river until flows drop below 700 cubic feet per second. That commonly isn’t possible until after the Fourth of July.

This year, snowpack was better than in Southwest Colorado. Still, it came weeks early and was altogether modest in its surge. Tubing season in Steamboat began June 11. Commercial tubing season ended a month later, when it is usually starting. City and state wildlife officials asked all tubers and others river users to stay out. The river was dropping to 85 cfs, considered a critical threshold, and warming as it did, hitting 75 degrees, reported the Steamboat Pilot at the time.

“If the river’s getting above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, the aquatic life is severely stressed, and this is the time of year when they’re feeding, and they’re getting ready for winter,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, the city water resources manager for Steamboat Springs.

No relief came with summer, hot and dry. Clouds produced just a few drops.

Water infrastructure in 21st century

Light, the water engineer on the Yampa since 2006, tells a complicated story of why the first call was made this year and not during prior years. Water rights always get complicated. The immediate repercussion will be that investments will necessarily be made in the devices that assure flows. In the Yampa River it was a point of pride that there was no call, unlike places like the South Platte Basin. But almost everybody agrees it was inevitable.

The Yampa River had almost no flows at Deerlodge Park, at the entrance to Dinosaur National Park, when this photo was taken in mid-August. Photo/Erin Light via The Mountain Town News

That inevitably stems in large part to trends in hydrology. In 20th century hydrologic records, three drought years stand out: 1935, 1955, and 1977. Now, in this still young century, there have been three more: 2002, 2012 and 2018.

“When you look at temperatures that were 5 to 10 degrees above average every day, that has to raise eyebrows about what the climate is saying,” she says.

Changes in the Yampa River Basin have not been well documented, but anecdotally at least comport with statewide trends reported in a 2015 report to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. That report, “Climate Change in Colorado,” says statewide average temperatures had increased 2 degrees F during the previous 30 years, with daily minimum temperatures warming more than maximum temperatures. Timing of snowmelt and peak runoff had shifted earlier in spring by one to four weeks. Snowpack as measured by April readings had been mainly below-average since 2000.

Anecdotal evidence of this abounds around Steamboat. Local ranchers long measured a winter’s severity by how deep it accumulated on their barbed wire fences. The 20th century produced many three-wire winters, enough snow to hit the top strand. Three-wire winters seldom come anymore. Last winter snow failed to reach the bottom wire. In some places, the was no snow at all on the ground, says Ken Brenner, who grew up on a ranch south of Steamboat Springs and is now president of the Upper Yampa River Water Conservancy District Board of Directors.

Light says the Snotel automated snowpack measuring sites fail to tell the full story. The stations maintained by the federal government’s Natural Resources Conservation Service record snow and water content at 8,000 to 10,000 feet. Some years, they report robust snow that cannot be seen in snow depths on the valley floor. This leaves locals wondering how this snowpack could be anywhere near normal. The rising levels for snowpack argue for a different monitoring system, says Light, one that captures dynamics of the low-elevation snowpack.

Water infrastructure for 21st century climate

Climate change models predict sharply increased temperatures in coming decades, Models also predict greater variability of precipitation, more extremes of both wet and dry. That could provide an argument for more reservoirs. The Yampa River has just 2 percent of Colorado’s reservoir capacity, but the river provides a much larger percentage of the state’s overall flows. The Gunnison River, with about the same runoff on average, has three giant federal dams, part of the same Congressional authorization in 1956 that created Lake Powell.

The Yampa, White, and Green Basin Roundtable, a decision-making body created by the Colorado Legislature, agree that instead of giant reservoirs, the basin could benefit from smaller reservoirs, discretely located, such as on tributaries, to serve specific needs, reports Light, the state’s liaison to the roundtable.

Monger does see the need for storage on the Yampa River. It could help Colorado manage its water so as to ensure it can meet its commitments to other states in the Colorado River Basin. “Let’s keep it in my backyard rather than sending it down to Lake Powell and have it be subject to the Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Interior,” says Monger, a Routt County commissioner as well as a delegate to the Colorado River Water Conservation District. Higher elevation storage, he says, will reduce evaporative losses from Lake Powell, about six and a half feet a year off the surface.

About 90 percent of the Yampa’s total annual flows go downstream out of Colorado, ultimately to Lake Powell. That reservoir provides Colorado and other upper-basin states in the Colorado River Basin the ability to meet requirements for delivery of 8.3 million acre-feet annually to Arizona, California, and Nevada at Lake Mead.

That obligation of 7.5 million acre-feet plus the upper basin’s share for Mexico was derived by negotiators who met at a resort near Santa Fe in 1922. Disregarding contrary evidence, they assumed at least 16.5 million acre-feet average annual flows in the river and probably more. That rarely has been the case. In the hotter, drier 21st century, flows have been just 12.4 million acre-feet, say Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

At a recent conference called “Risky Business on the Colorado River,” Kuhn warned against overdrawing Lake Powell, Lake Mead, and other reservoirs.

“When you build reservoirs, you have to have some water. You have to have a little bit of money in the bank. We can’t bankrupt the system. We have to find ways to cut back before we bankrupt the system.”

In Vail on Wednesday, Kuhn took his vision of difficulty for the Colorado River a step further. As long as greenhouse gas emissions go untamed, he said, “there is no bottom” to how hot and how dry the Colorado River Basin could become.

It’s not that the past hasn’t also been drier. Kuhn looks to the past to warn against even more difficult times on the Yampa River and in the Colorado River Basin altogether. The evidence comes from examinations of batches of trees at eight different sites in the Colorado River Basin above Lee Ferry, located just above the Grand Canyon and below Lake Powell.

Dendrochronologists can estimate precipitation by the growth of tree rings. Using that technique, they have charted wet and dry periods since 1434.

Tree-ring research indicates there have been much more severe 19-year droughts in the Colorado River Basin than the current one—and without the impact of human-induced higher temperatures. Graphic via The Mountain Town News

“A number of folks claim that the current 19-year period of 2000-2018 is the driest 19 year period on the Colorado River. That’s nonsense,” says Kuhn, pointing to the graph. In the past there have been droughts both longer and deeper. (Above, see estimated river flows at Lee Ferry, at the top end of the Grand Canyon, from 1434 to 2018. For underlying data, see http://treeflow.org).

Those droughts occurred without the rising temperatures of today. “If these past 19-year droughts were to happen with today’s temperatures,” he adds, “things could be much worse.”

This article was published in the Oct. 4 issue of Mountain Town News, a weekly e-magazine. To subscribe, see options in the red boxes in the top-right corner of the http://mountaintownnews.net webpage.

#ColoradoRiver District GM unveils manifesto on water-use reductions — @AspenJournlism @ColoradoWater #COriver #crdseminar

A slide presented by Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, on Sept. 14, 2018 at the district’s seminar called ‘Risky business on the Colorado River.’ The slide shows how water from the Colorado River system, within the state of Colorado, is used.

From Aspen Journalism (Brent Gardner-Smith):

Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River District, presented six principles last week to guide an emerging federal and state program designed to reduce water use in order to avoid a compact call on the Colorado River.

Mueller spoke at a seminar produced by the River District in Grand Junction that attracted 265 people. The theme of the seminar was “Risky Business on the Colorado River.”

(Also see, “River planning muddied up?” by Dennis Webb in Grand Junction Sentinel on Sept. 14).

The first two principles Mueller described Friday at the meeting relate to a legal bucket-within-a-bucket that the upper-basin states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming plan to create through federal legislation in Lake Powell, which would allow the three states to control water that they deliver to the big federal reservoir through a demand management, or water-use reduction program.

The River District’s first principle is that such a storage program in Lake Powell should be “free of charge” and designed “for the benefit of the upper basin to avoid a compact violation.”

The district’s second principle says water stored in Lake Powell from a demand-management program should “not be subject to equalization or balancing releases from Lake Powell.”

That principle stems from a set of interim guidelines approved in 2007 by the upper-basin states and the lower-basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada that seek to use water from Lake Powell, when it is at certain levels, to keep Lake Mead operational.

Mueller and other upper-basin regional water managers think the guidelines, which expire in 2026, now allow the lower basin to take more water than they deserve under the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

Mueller told his audience that the demand-management pool to be created in Lake Powell is “for preventing lower-basin entities from sucking too much water down that river.”

So, the second principle is meant to protect the upper basin from the lower basin.

The other principles are designed to either protect the Western Slope from the state, which is discussing potential mandatory cutbacks in water use in order to avoid a compact call, or from the Front Range, which may support such a measure, according to Mueller.

Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River District, addressing a crowd of 265 water managers, users and stakeholders in Grand Junction on Friday at a River District seminar called ‘Risky business on the Colorado River.’ Mueller spelled out six principles the River District wants the state to embrace as it develops a ‘demand management’ program designed to get the state’s water users to reduce their water use in order to bolster levels in Lake Powell.

Depletions

The River District’s board members are determined to protect agricultural interests on the Western Slope, which use about 1.4 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River system every year, mainly for irrigating alfalfa fields and pastures.

By comparison, Front Range cities use about 360,000 acre-feet of water a year from the Colorado River Basin through their transmountain diversion systems, which are junior to the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

And if those cities have that water cut off in the face of a call under the compact, Mueller said they would come buy out willing irrigators on the Western Slope and dry up their fields.

The River District’s third principle is that any use-reduction program in the upper-basin states must be “voluntary, temporary and compensated” and “must reflect proportionate contributions from each upper division state.”

Mueller said the River District supports a “guided market” approach to paying water users to use less water and let it flow instead to Lake Powell.

“What we’re opposed to is some form of mandatory uncompensated curtailment of water rights, whether it is pre- or post-compact,” he said.

The fourth principle is that there must be “no injury to other water rights.”

The fifth principle is that there must be “no disproportionate impacts to any single basin or region with Colorado.”

Mueller said Friday that the demand-management program must “make sure that the pain that comes with the reducing consumption of water is actually equitably distributed and applied to all users, everybody with a straw in the river.”

Mueller explained that the post-1922 water rights in the Colorado River basin are roughly split equally between the transbasin diverters on the Front Range and users on the Western Slope.

“These junior water rights that are diverting significant amounts of water to the Front Range, along with our junior water rights on the West Slope, are the ones that need to be willing to share in this demand-management program, in the intentional reduced use,” Mueller said.

The sixth principle is that a demand-management program must be consistent with what’s known as “the conceptual framework” in Colorado’s 2015 water plan relating to future potential transmountain diversions.

“We’re not going to curtail our uses on the West Slope and send demand-management water down to Lake Powell, only to have another transmountain diversion come in and suck water to the East Slope,” Mueller said. “That’s what the state agreed to when it agreed to the state water plan, and we’re saying that needs to be upheld.”

One of the slides in Andy Mueller’s presentation deck on 9.14.18.

Bar fight?

Mueller’s last slide said “the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state engineer should agree to abide by these principles and not go beyond them without unanimous agreement among those entities charged with protecting the state.”

He plans to deliver that message to the CWCB when it meets Wednesday in Steamboat Springs.

On Tuesday, the River District also released a series of letters and a draft resolution on the issue, including a letter from the River District and the Southwestern Water Conservation District to the CWCB board, a draft resolution from the River District and Southwestern they want the CWCB to approve, a letter from the Colorado Basin Roundtable to the CWCB, and a letter from the Front Range Water Council to the CWCB.

The letter from the Front Range Water Council, an ad hoc collection of the largest water providers on the Front Range, was dated Sept. 13. It includes a reference to the possibility of a non-voluntary water curtailment program in the upper Colorado River basin states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.

“If the quantity of conserved water made available through a voluntary compensated demand management program is not sufficient to ensure compliance with the Colorado River Compact,the state of Colorado and the Upper Colorado River Commission may need to adopt alternative measures to generate water for storage in an Upper Division storage account,” the letter states. “We will work with the state of Colorado to develop an alternative mechanism for generating conserved water for the Upper Division storage account.”

In its letter to the CWCB, the Colorado River District and the Southwestern River District, stressed the need for consensus, and their inclusion, on any sort of mandatory curtailment program.

“We are concerned about recent discussions that a demand management program might morph into a mandatory ‘anticipatory curtailment’ program or something else that has not been publicly vetted,” said the letter. “That is the reason we request that the CWCB adopt of (sic) formal resolution or policy-statement regarding a demand management program, and that the CWCB commit that such a program be consistent in particular with Principle 4 of the Conceptual Framework set forth in the Colorado Water Plan.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Vail Daily and other Swift Communications outlets on the coverage of rivers and water.

September 2018 #Drought Update — @CWCB_DNR

Click here to read the update and to check out their graphics:

In response to persistent and prolonged drought conditions throughout the southern half of the state and along the western border, the Governor activated the Colorado Drought Mitigation and Response Plan for the agricultural sector on May 2, 2018, additional counties in northwest Colorado were added this month; information can be found HERE.

With only three weeks left in the 2018 water year, October through August of this year has been the third warmest and the fourth driest October through August period in the 123 year record. Warm and dry conditions continued to persist in Western Colorado in August and early September.

  • SNOTEL water year to-date precipitation statewide is 68 percent of average, but ranges from 49 percent of average in the Southwest basins to 86 percent of average in the South Platte River Basin. The Rio Grande is at 54 percent of average; while the Gunnison is at 58 percent. The Arkansas is faring slightly better at 63 percent, while the northern basins of the Colorado and Yampa- White are at 76 and 75 percent of average, respectively.
  • High temperatures, and below average precipitation have led to increasing water demand across much of the state. Reservoir storage, statewide is at 82 percent of normal, with the Arkansas, Colorado, Yampa- White, and South Platte all above 90% of average for the end of August, despite recent declines. Storage in the Upper Rio Grande basin is 88% of normal. The Southwest basins of the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas & San Juan, and Gunnison have seen significant decreases in reservoir storage and are now at 48 and 59 percent of normal, respectively.
  • Agriculture has been heavily impacted this growing season by both high temperatures, drought, and hail. Hay prices are higher than in the last few years and producers are concerned about finding enough feed for cattle resulting in continued sell off. The Governor is likely to issue an executive order relaxing restrictions on trucks carrying hay into Colorado.
  • Long term forecasts indicate an increased likelihood of above average temperatures for September through November. Southwestern Colorado is forecast to continue to benefit from additional monsoon moisture and has an increased likelihood of above average precipitation into Fall.
  • ENSO-neutral conditions are likely to continue through September with El Niño conditions likely to develop in the fall. El Niño could bring an increased chance of wet extremes for southeastern Colorado this winter.
  • Reservoir storage remains strong, 82% of average for the end of August statewide. Water users with access to storage, especially municipal water suppliers, have been able to avoid major restrictions on water use operations by relying on storage.
  • Western Colorado has seen above normal and record warm temperatures for the water year to date.
  • 4th driest in 123-year record (behind WY 2002, WY 1934, WY 2012), -4.55” below the 16.67” average.
  • #Drought news: @CWCB_DNR Water Availability Task Force meeting recap

    From ColoradoPolitics.com (Marianne Goodland) via The Cortez Journal:

    The Colorado water year, which ends Oct. 31, looks to be the fourth driest on record since the state began tracking water supplies 123 years ago.

    Southwest Colorado is expected to set a record for the lowest precipitation and driest water year on record, according to water officials who met Tuesday to review the state’s water supplies. Statewide, 2018 looks to be about the fourth driest, behind 1934, 2002 and 2012, with precipitation (rain and snow) about 4.55 inches below the statewide average of 16.67 inches.

    The [Water Availability Task Force] meets monthly to review precipitation and water levels at about 80 reservoirs scattered throughout the state. The review covers a water year – Nov. 1 to Oct. 31.

    It has not been a good water year for most of Colorado. It started out badly with the warmest November on record, according to Zach Schwalbe of the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University. And this water year shapes up to be the third warmest on record, behind 1934 and 2000, at about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above the yearly average of 47.1 degrees.

    Southwest Colorado has been exceptionally warm – a record, according to Schwalbe, – in addition to being exceptionally dry. Delta and Ouray counties alone were 4 degrees warmer than usual in August, Schwalbe said.

    For example, a precipitation station at Mesa Verde National Park has recorded 7 inches of water this year. The average is about 20, he said.

    The one bright spot has been northeastern Colorado, which has received above-average precipitation over the past two months, although it came with a fair amount of hail that caused considerable damage to farm crops in the region. One task force member from the area said his rain gauge was dented from baseball-sized hail, something he said has never happened before.

    Schwalbe also spoke about hopes for an El Niño year, which would bring above-average moisture through the winter months. Experts predict about a 70 percent chance of a “moderate” El Niño year, but it won’t help all of Colorado. Forecast maps show northeastern and southeastern Colorado likely to see the most benefit.

    At the same time, however, Schwalbe said that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts the next three months will be above average in temperatures.

    Colorado’s reservoirs have taken major hits during the summer, with higher than normal water demands, according to municipal water officials. Thornton is expected to join the list of Front Range communities with voluntary water restrictions, an action that is expected to be approved this week by the City Council, according to John Orr of Thornton. Those restrictions, which would limit lawn-watering to three days a week, could become mandatory next month, he said.

    Colorado Springs already has voluntary water restrictions in place, said Justin Zeisler of Colorado Springs Utilities.

    Demand on reservoir storage to cover agricultural, municipal and recreational water needs has drawn down water levels almost everywhere in the state.

    Brian Domonkos, a hydrologist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, reported that statewide, Colorado’s reservoir levels are at 82 percent of average and at about 50 percent full. Compare that with 2017 – at this same time last year, levels were at 120 percent of average.

    The South Platte River basin, which has 32 of the state’s 80 reservoirs, is at 105 percent of average; 19 reservoirs are above 50 percent full and only one – Elevenmile – is listed at being at capacity, or full.

    The Arkansas River basin, which covers southeastern Colorado, is also in good shape, because of above average rainfall in August.

    The reservoirs tied to the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan rivers are dramatically low.

    The same story is repeated in the Gunnison River basin, where Blue Mesa reservoir, the second largest in the state, is at 39 percent of capacity.

    Domonkos said the Gunnison basin has seen record low precipitation this year, but received above average rainfall in the first 10 days of September.

    If you are so inclined click here to view Coyote Gulch’s Twitter feed hash tag #cwcbwatf from the meeting yesterday.