Milestone #ColoradoRiver management plan mostly worked amid epic drought, review finds — @WaterEdFdn #COriver #aridification

From the Water Education Foundation (Gary Pitzer):

Western Water Spotlight: draft assessment of 2007 interim guidelines expected to provide a guide as talks begin on new river operating rules for the iconic southwestern river

At full pool, Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States by volume, but two decades of drought have dramatically dropped the water level behind Hoover Dam as can be seen in this photo. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

Twenty years ago, the Colorado River Basin’s hydrology began tumbling into a historically bad stretch. The weather turned persistently dry. Water levels in the system’s anchor reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead plummeted. A river system relied upon by nearly 40 million people, farms and ecosystems across the West was in trouble. And there was no guide on how to respond.

So key players across the Basin’s seven states, including California, came together in 2005 to attack the problem. The result was a set of Interim Guidelines adopted in 2007 that, according to a just-released assessment from the Bureau of Reclamation, mostly worked. Stressing flexibility instead of rigidity, the guidelines stabilized water deliveries in a drought-stressed system and prevented a dreaded shortage declaration by the federal government that would have forced water supply cuts.

Carly Jerla, one of the review’s authors. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

Those guidelines, formally called “Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead,” are set to expire in 2026 As stakeholders in the Colorado River Basin — including water agencies, states, Native American tribes and nongovernmental organizations — prepare to renegotiate a new set of river operating guidelines, Reclamation’s assessment is expected to provide a guide for future negotiations.

“We find that the guidelines were largely effective,” said Carly Jerla, modeling and research group manager with the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado River region and one of the report’s authors. However, the Interim Guidelines could not solve all of the challenges brought by what has become a two-decade-long drought in the Basin. Said Jerla: “We saw risk getting too high and needed additional assets.”

Preserving Lake Mead

With the guidelines as a foundation, those assets arrived in 2019 through drought contingency plans for the Upper and Lower Basin – voluntary reduction commitments that built a firewall against the likelihood of Lake Mead dropping to critically low levels.

Chris Harris, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California, said the guidelines achieved their objective, considering that the drought has essentially persisted since 2000. Even with the severity and longevity of the drought, the guidelines kept the two reservoirs at about 50 percent of capacity since 2007.

“To my mind that’s a pretty good marker that we were generally successful,” Harris said.

Matt Rice, who directs American Rivers’ Colorado Basin Program, argues that future river operating guidelines should factor in environmental considerations. (Source: American Rivers)

Reclamation’s review of the Interim Guidelines was released for public comment in October. It is expected to be finalized in December. After that, discussions are expected to begin to hammer out a new set of operating rules that would be ready to take effect when the existing guidelines expire in 2026.

Reclamation’s review, which was required under the guidelines, focused solely on how effectively the Interim Guidelines managed water shortages and storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. It did not include existing environmental management programs such as the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program that are independent of the guidelines. The 2026 guidelines should take a broader view, said Matt Rice, director of American Rivers’ Colorado River Basin Program.

“Not just looking at the two big buckets [reservoirs], but how do we ensure the river is healthy and has water for its environmental needs,” he said.

“How do we ensure that communities are considered, certainly the tribes, and how do we evaluate additional future demands, projects like the Lake Powell pipeline (a proposed project to deliver Lake Powell water to Southern Utah).”

Ensuring Tribal Participation

Tribal water rights are a key consideration to future Colorado River water use. Ten federally recognized tribes in the Upper and Lower Basins have reserved water rights, including unresolved claims, to divert about 2.8 million acre-feet of water per year from the river and its tributaries, according to Reclamation’s 2018 Tribal Water Study. These tribes anticipate diverting their full water rights by 2040.

Reclamation’s review emphasizes the need for listening to all voices, most notably tribes. Tribal representatives were largely overlooked in the development of the 2007 Interim Guidelines and tribes want to make sure their voices are heard when the next set of operating rules are drawn up.

“We hope that the review will remind Reclamation of the importance that Indian tribes have played in the stewardship of the Colorado River and underscore the importance of meaningful and sustained participation of the Lower Basin tribes in any future guidelines development regarding management of the Colorado River,” Jon Huey, chair of the Yavapai-Apache Nation in Arizona, wrote in a letter to Reclamation.

Jerla said Reclamation recognizes how important it will be to include the tribes in future discussions.

“We definitely heard that loud and clear,” she said. “I think the critical role that tribes have played in the activities since the Guidelines … their desire to be more involved and more included, they will absolutely be a key part of efforts going forward, no question.”

Balancing Water Uses

There is inherent tension in balancing Colorado River water uses between the two basins. Part of the problem is users in the Lower Basin can use Lake Mead as a bank account, having water released downstream to them as they need it. Lake Powell, on the other hand, sits at the bottom of the Upper Basin’s drainage and water that flows into Powell is largely beyond reach of Upper Basin users.

Lake Powell, behind Glen Canyon Dam, shows the effects of persistent drought in the Colorado River Basin. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

“The guidelines have been partially successful in that they have achieved their principal objective of preventing Lower Basin shortage, as well as establishing a Lower Basin conservation mechanism and avoiding litigation in the Basin,” said Amy Haas, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission. “However, from the standpoint of the coordinated operations of Lakes Powell and Mead, a secondary objective of the Guidelines, they have come up short.”

Haas pointed out that between 2015 and 2019, Lake Powell was required to release 9 million acre-feet of water annually under the Guidelines, even with poor inflows into Powell and below-average hydrology in the Upper Basin watershed. That’s more than has historically been required.

“Meanwhile, Lake Mead elevations have not substantially increased under the Guidelines due in large part to overuse in the Lower Basin, also known as the structural deficit,” she said. “These issues must be addressed in the post-2026 operational criteria.”

Protecting the Colorado River

Drought wreaked havoc on the Colorado River Basin between 2000 and 2004, with record dryness that depleted the combined storage of Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Conditions worsened quickly. At the beginning of the 2000 water year, the review said, the combined storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead was 55.7 million acre-feet. After the worst five-year period of inflow on record ended in 2005, that storage fell to 29.7 million acre-feet – a striking loss of nearly half of the water in the two anchor reservoirs.

Something new had to be done. The business-as-usual approach of determining drought conditions for the Basin on a yearly basis was not going to provide long-term stability or prevent conflict under such historic dryness.

“Failing to develop additional operational guidelines would make sustainable Colorado River management extremely difficult,” Reclamation’s review said.

The Interim Guidelines in 2007 opened the door for Lower Basin water users and Mexico to get creative about how water is managed and used. One example that grew out of the guidelines is Intentionally Created Surplus, allowing downstream parties to bank water in Lake Mead that they could draw upon later.

“One result of this new flexibility was that critical Lake Mead elevations could be protected through the conservation of this water in the lake,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “The Basin states, meanwhile, continued to seek ways to protect reservoir levels and the health of the Colorado River system.”

The Colorado River Compact divided the basin into an upper and lower half, with each having the right to develop and use 7.5 million acre-feet of river water annually. (Source: U.S. Geological Survey via The Water Education Foundation)

Saving Intentionally Created Surplus water in Lake Mead turned out to be a critical drought response tool, said Reclamation’s Jerla, ensuring that the lake’s water level did not drop to where water users would be required to take cuts.

Reclamation’s review of the Interim Guidelines notes that there are other areas of interest beyond its scope that should be considered in future discussions, such as impacts of river operations to environmental, recreational and hydropower resources, and more meaningful engagement of Basin partners, stakeholders, tribes and states.

The review notes that since the Interim Guidelines were adopted, Reclamation has expanded its long-term modeling assumptions and worked to identify appropriate methods for analyzing uncertainty.

“Even though the true probability of any combination of conditions … cannot be assessed, a wider range of hydrology and demand assumptions and attention to those ranges … are useful for supporting a common understanding of system vulnerability,” the review says.

The Next Set of Guidelines

The 2007 Interim Guidelines have set the table for the next version of a Colorado River operations agreement. In retrospect, things have generally occurred as expected, Jerla said.

“In terms of where the reservoirs landed, what types of releases Powell made and how successful the Intentionally Created Surplus mechanism became, that is all within the range of what we were projecting,” Jerla said. “It’s informative to know that now and use that thinking about how risk influenced our decisions and how that translates into the next set of action levels.”

Sustaining Lake Mead for the benefit of downstream water users in the Lower Colorado River Basin has been a key objective of the 2007 Interim Guidelines and the 2019 Drought Contingency Plans. (Source: Lighthawk via The Water Desk)

The Interim Guidelines instilled a degree of greater cooperation and innovation on the river and that has fostered partnerships, initiatives and actions that demonstrate what can be done in a Basin that is steadily getting drier.

“Those things have to continue,” Jerla said, adding that Reclamation’s review is one of many sources officials will consult as they draft the next set of guidelines.

Rice, with American Rivers, said he’s optimistic about the prospects of a broad group of stakeholders building the next set of Interim Guidelines.

“I am not suggesting that it’s going to be easy or straightforward by any means,” he said. “We certainly hope there will be greater participation from more stakeholders. The tribes are at the top of the list, but also nongovernmental organizations, which traditionally have not been part of these interbasin negotiations.”

The talks are likely to be frank and will explore thorny issues related to equitable water management.

Amy Haas, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, says the Lower Basin’s structural deficit must be addressed. (Source: UCRC)

Arriving at a satisfactory operational plan beyond 2026 means the Lower Basin’s structural deficit has to be addressed and balancing releases between Lake Powell and Lake Mead should be revisited to reflect actual hydrology, said Haas, with the Upper Colorado River Commission. “Also, the new guidelines should contain a mechanism whereby operations can be adapted and adjusted to meet changing conditions, something the current guidelines are not equipped to do.”

How the next set of river operating guidelines will take shape remains to be seen, but Reclamation’s review suggests the 2007 Interim Guidelines proved their worth in showing how water users can work together and think creatively, lessons that will be invaluable for the future.

The 2007 Interim Guidelines, the review said, “created the operational stability that became the platform for the collaborative decision-making that protected the Colorado River system from crisis.”

Scouring soil, sowing seeds and spending millions for wildfire recovery in Glenwood Canyon — The #Colorado Sun #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Grizzly Creek Fire August 11, 2020. Photo credit: Wildfire Today

From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

Glenwood Springs is spending more than $10 million on repairs and upgrades to water supply infrastructure following Grizzly Creek Fire.

The Grizzly Creek Fire was not even 10% contained. Jumbo jets still were dousing flames as firefighting teams from across the country scrambled to protect Glenwood Springs and a critical watershed above the Colorado River. And teams of scientists were in Glenwood Canyon, too, battling alongside firefighters.

Those hydrologists, biologists, geologists, archaeologists and recreation specialists are still there, even after the flames are gone, waging a behind-the-scenes battle to protect water and natural resources…

Burned Area Emergency Response — or BAER — teams typically come in when a fire is 50% contained to assess damage and create a multi-year restoration plan. Roberts and the Grizzly Creek Fire BAER crew were on the ground when less than 10% of the fire was contained as both forest and fire managers recognized threats to water supplies. In less than three weeks, they had a map detailing where the Grizzly Creek Fire burned hottest, which helped the Colorado Department of Transportation identify areas where rockfall hazards increased in the fire.

In a twist on the BAER assessment — which usually focuses on protecting resources after a fire — the team helped build an emergency communication plan that helped firefighters in the canyon, and identified areas where they could swiftly take cover in the event of rockfall or a sudden rainstorm that could sweep debris and rocks off canyon walls…

It was this early assessment that sparked an urgent plea for help from Glenwood Springs. As firefighters battled back flames on the western edge of the wildfire, the city’s leaders rallied politicians far and wide to acknowledge damage to the city’s water supply infrastructure. Barely three weeks after the wildfire sparked along Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, the city had a list of immediate work needed to protect the city’s watershed.

Sen. Michael Bennet prodded the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to unleash millions from the federal Emergency Watershed Protection program. Glenwood Springs was first in line, with a clear message that spring snowmelt, or even a rainstorm, could cripple the city’s water supply…

It didn’t take long for Glenwood Springs to identify immediate repairs and upgrades to protect water systems from expected sediment and debris flowing from scorched canyon walls. First on the list were intake systems on Glenwood Canyon’s Grizzly and No Name creeks. The city also needed an upgrade to a backup water intake on the Roaring Fork River, should the systems in the canyon go down. And finally, the city is eager to finish a long-planned bridge that could help residents flee a wildfire on the south end of town.

By early September, less than a month after the Grizzly Creek Fire started, the city had a list of $86 million in projects. And the money started flowing almost immediately.

The city secured more than $1 million from the NRCS’s Emergency Watershed Program for projects to protect intake infrastructure on No Name and Grizzly creeks, high above the Colorado River…

The Grizzly Creek Fire jumped Grizzly Creek north of Glenwood Canyon. (Provided by the City of Glenwood Springs)

The city asked the NRCS for wiggle room on the requirement that municipalities pay 25% of the total grant. The service agreed to an 80-20 split, which meant the city needed a little less than $200,000 to protect the structures that funnel millions of gallons of water a day into the city’s water treatment plant.

Work on the Grizzly Creek intake started first, with helicopters ferrying workers 3.8 miles up the drainage. The workers put in steel plates to protect the diversion and valve systems from debris that could clog the intake during the next big rain or spring melt. They stabilized the banks upstream and downstream of the intake, which required flying 11 cubic yards of cement up the drainage.

New plating at the Glenwood Springs water intake on Grizzly Creek was installed by the city to protect the system’s valve controls and screen before next spring’s snowmelt scours the Grizzly Creek burn zone and potentially clogs the creek with debris. (Provided by the City of Glenwood Springs)

The team finished in October and then turned to No Name Creek, where intake diversions and valves are accessible by truck. That work included similar protections as Grizzly Creek, plus a concrete wall to keep debris from hitting a city structure on No Name Creek.

The No Name work also included upgrades to a 1962 tunnel near the bottom of the creek, with new strainers and filters designed to remove bulky sediment before water reaches the treatment plant. The No Name work is ongoing but will be completed before the spring melt.

In addition to the intake repairs and upgrades, Glenwood Springs this month secured an $8 million loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The money was among the first awarded through the board’s 2020 Wildfire Impact Loan program, which streamlines funding for municipalities racing to protect watersheds after a wildfire. The program offers 30-year loans with no payment necessary for the first three years.

The $8 million will help design and construct new pipelines from the city’s pump station on the Roaring Fork River, which delivers water uphill to the Red Mountain Water Treatment Plant. Glenwood Springs has two water sources: the intake systems on No Name and Grizzly creeks and the pumps on the Roaring Fork River. The Roaring Fork water is a backup in case either of the intakes on the creeks above the Colorado River go down. But the intakes in Glenwood Canyon and the pumps on the Roaring Fork cannot run at the same time, and the city is building a second pipeline into the Red Mountain Water Treatment Plant so the two sources can deliver water simultaneously, if needed.

“This will give us a lot of resiliency moving into the future. Not just fire resiliency, but it gives us a lot of water resource resiliency,” said Matt Langhorst, the public works director for Glenwood Springs. “Having one water source is not acceptable. We need two or three and this would give us three.”

Glenwood Springs is applying for a Department of Local Affairs grant for the pipeline running from the Roaring Fork River, which would reduce its loan amount from the CWCB.

A third project, still part of that $8 million from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, will plan and construct a concrete basin above the Red Mountain Water Treatment plant that will mix water coming from the Grizzly Creek and No Name intakes with the water from the Roaring Fork River. The mixing basin helps remove sediment and creates a consistent type of water so technicians do not need to overhaul various treatment processes to accommodate different sources of water.

A fourth project — and the biggest — would upgrade the entire Red Mountain Water Treatment Plant, which has not been updated since 1977. An upgraded plant, with new technology, would be able to more quickly and efficiently remove sediment from higher volumes of incoming water…

Sprinkling special-made seeds

The Colorado Water Conservation Board’s emergency loan program was developed in response to the 2013 floods. The idea was to get emergency funds approved by the board ahead of time so communities do not have to wait through a prolonged application and review process. The board’s emergency loan program distributed $23 million in emergency watershed protection funding following the devastating floods in September 2013…

With the fire climbing out the canyon by the middle of September and the risk to crews reduced through communication plans and safety maps, Roberts’ BAER team of specialists started their work on emergency stabilization and long-term restoration.

They created a second burn severity map along with a satellite-derived data map of vegetation in the burn zone. The U.S. Geological Survey’s Landslide Hazards Program also created a similar map identifying areas where debris flow could be heaviest during a rainstorm.

The BAER team started hiking into the canyon, sometimes driving up to the top of the canyon and dropping in from above, and sometimes hiking up. They scoured the soil in burn areas for organic, woody debris and intact roots, which raise the likelihood of natural recovery. Roberts said new plants already are pushing through the charred topsoil.

“What we have seen to date is there is a lot of that organic material and native seed left in the soil that is allowing a lot to come back,” Roberts said, describing a patchy burn in a “mosaic” pattern. “We see good potential for recovery.”

[…]

Roberts and her team assisted the natural recovery process, sprinkling seeds as soon as rain and snow dampened the soil. They walked all the fire suppression lines where bulldozers hastily cleared entire swaths of forest and yanked out non-native weeds that took root. And they threw seeds everywhere.

Roberts collected native grass seed from the nearby Flat Tops to create a seed mix for Glenwood Canyon. The mix will produce resilient grasses that help stabilize soil and combat invasive weeds. The team’s reseeding of suppression lines is nearing completion as the snow piles deeper. The stabilization work will continue into next summer.

Emergency trail and road stabilization will pick up in the spring, when Roberts will move into the restoration phase, which includes aggressive mitigation to prevent non-native weeds and monitoring vegetation growth.

Researchers with Utah State University also joined Roberts in the field and launched a year-long study of how the Grizzly Creek Fire impacts runoff and erosion. The researchers expect the data — gathered from USGS gauges upstream and downstream of the burn zone as well as monitoring equipment inside the canyon — will help better calibrate the models used to predict debris flow in areas burned by wildfire.

Water officials working on draft of demand management concept — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

State water officials are hoping early next year to roll out a draft demand management proposal to help in evaluating the concept as a possible response to managing Colorado River water supplies in times of drought.

Creating a framework of what the program could look like isn’t meant to tie hands and say what the Colorado Water Conservation Board thinks it should look like, CWCB staff member Amy Ostdiek told the board in its meeting earlier this month. Rather, it’s aimed at giving everyone involved the ability to have something to respond to, with the hope of perhaps creating a better draft or a new concept, she said…

The CWCB, which sets state water policy, says demand management would involve temporary, voluntary and compensated reductions in consumptive use of Colorado River Basin water. This is expected to entail use reductions in municipal, agricultural and other uses, with agricultural cuts resulting from measures such as short-term fallowing of fields.

The idea is drawing particular scrutiny from entities such as the Western Slope’s Colorado River District due to concerns about potential economic impacts on agriculture-based communities. A recent study commissioned by a work group including the district found that the secondary economic impacts of paying western Colorado farmers to temporarily fallow fields could be similar to the secondary benefits from the spending of those payments. But it said the dollars from payment spending would flow to different businesses, perhaps shifting to larger towns and cities from smaller, ag-based towns.

Among other criteria for going forward, a demand management program would have to be found to be feasible by every Upper Basin state. This means looking at things such as availability of funding, whether a program would comply with state and federal laws, how it would be administered, etc.

The CWCB began evaluating the concept by establishing work groups involving experts and stakeholders from around the state looking at issues surrounding demand management.

With their input now in hand, the agency is taking the next step in investigating the concept. That will entail considering if it is achievable in terms of things such as funding, worthwhile when it comes to questions such as how much water would be stored, and ultimately advisable to pursue in Colorado.

CWCB plans to continue its evaluation in a public, collaborative way, involving water users, tribal entities, nongovernment organizations and other stakeholders in commenting on the draft proposal, Ostdiek said.

Becky Mitchell, the CWCB’s director, told the board at its meeting that fires and drought affected every Coloradan this year.

She said that with the climate changing and drought becoming more frequent and intense, it would be irresponsible for the CWCB not to look at every tool available to respond, including demand management.

Map of the Colorado River drainage basin, created using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65868008

‘#Megadrought’ and ‘#Aridification’ — Understanding the New Language of a #Warming World — The Revelator #ActOnClimate

Low flows on the Colorado River. Photo: Vicki Devine (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

From The Revelator (Tara Lohan):

New research reveals a creeping, permanent dryness expanding across the United States. It’s much more than “drought,” and researchers hope more accurate descriptions will spur critical action.

After nearly two decades of declining water flows into the Colorado River Basin, scientists have decided the word drought doesn’t cut it anymore. We need different terms, they say, to help people fully grasp what has happened and the long-term implications of climate change — not just in the Southwest, but across the country.

The term that’s caught the most attention lately is “megadrought.”

It’s not a new word, but it’s one that’s come sharply into focus in recent months, following a study published this April in the journal Science that found the North American Southwest has experienced an abnormally severe drought over the past two decades — its second driest stretch in 1,200 years.

Archaeological evidence has linked previous decades-long megadroughts to several historical societal collapses, including the Mayan civilization and Kublai Khan’s Yuan dynasty in China.

Let that sink in a minute if you need to.

The researchers, led by A. Park Williams of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, say this prolonged megadrought — which reached from Oregon and Idaho down to northern Mexico — would likely have been just a bad drought if not for climate change. The increase in temperatures from our burning of fossil fuels supercharged naturally varying conditions, creating one of the worst megadroughts in human history.

“The new study provided a nice basis to what many of us have felt now for a number of years,” says Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University, who was not involved in the research. “The basin has really entered a fundamentally different period than what we experienced during the 20th century.”

Lake Mead in 2017. Photo: Karen, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

That may not come as a surprise to those who have noticed that the Colorado River’s biggest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are now sitting half-empty.

But linking modern reality to the megadroughts of history is something new — and researchers say this and other changes to our language matter for the future.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2019 of the #coriver big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck

Hot Drought

The current megadrought in the Southwest is defined not so much by declining precipitation — although that did have an effect too — but by increasing temperatures from climate change. That’s going to continue to climb as long as we keep burning greenhouse gases.

Udall and Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, have spent more than a decade studying the effect of this warming on the Colorado River, a crucial water source in the West. The river irrigates 5 million acres of farmland, provides water to 40 million people in seven states — including in the West’s biggest cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Denver — and helps keep the lights on in the “city of lights,” among other towns.

This exploitation has come at an ecological cost, though. Thanks to diversions for our various human uses, the river now runs dry before it reaches the sea. More water rights have been allotted than nature can provide, which is undoubtedly a management issue (although a complex one to solve), but in the last two decades this is being more acutely felt.

In part that’s because less water is running off into the basin.

Udall and Overpeck found in a 2017 study published in Water Resources Research that Colorado River flows between 2000 and 2014 were 19% below normal. Reduced rainfall was partially responsible. But on average, they found, about one-third of the runoff decline resulted from warming temperatures from human-caused climate change.

Snowmelt is an important part of the freshwater system in the Colorado River Basin. Photo: NASA/ Thaddeus Cesari

Higher temperatures from this “hot drought,” as it’s also called, means more evaporation from water bodies and soil, more evapotranspiration from plants and more sublimation from snow. For the West, where water resources are stretched thin already, this can have far-reaching economic and ecological consequences.

Which brings us to another proposed change in the way we describe things.

In a 2018 paper the Colorado River Research Group, which includes Udall and Overpeck, called for new language to describe the scientific reality on the ground. The term “drought,” they wrote, wasn’t accurate.

“Aridification,” they argued, was a more fitting description.

The semantics here are important.

Aridification, they explained, “describes a period of transition to an increasingly water scarce environment — an evolving new baseline around which future extreme events (droughts and floods) will occur.”

Or more simply: Drought is temporary. Aridification is permanent.

This reinforces the fact that climate change isn’t a distant phenomenon, but one that’s already underway and causing life-altering changes. Depending on where you live, it’s causing more severe floods, destructive hurricanes, prolonged droughts or lengthened fire seasons.

And it’s here to stay, given our current course. The “new normal” of climate change could, like megadroughts, be felt for decades.

“We’ve been wanting to make the case that this is not a normal drought,” says Udall. “A drought implies that some kind of return to normalcy will occur in the near future, and that’s not what we’ve seen and not what the science tells us is likely to happen.”

Aridification Creep

This isn’t a problem contained to just the Colorado River basin or the Southwest, either.

Warmer summer temperatures are likely to reduce flows in other key western rivers, including the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, and rivers across California’s Sierra Nevada, other research has shown. And warming temperatures are driving similar changes further east, too.

A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined flows in the Missouri River, the country’s longest river, which cuts through the Midwest. The researchers, led by USGS scientist Justin Martin, found that during the first decade of the 2000s the Upper Missouri River Basin had drought conditions “unmatched over the last 1,200 years.”

The culprit? Warming temperatures from climate change that reduced runoff from snowfall in Rocky Mountain headwater streams that feed the Missouri.

Same story, different river.

But while that paper did occasionally use the term “megadrought,” it mostly characterized what’s happening in the Missouri as a “severe drought.”

Framing the problem in that manner, some say, may not be enough to convey the seriousness of the situation or to inspire action from water managers and the public.

To change the narrative, we have to change the framing, Udall and Overpeck argue in a new commentary published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in response to the Missouri River study. Thinking of what’s happening on the Missouri, and other rivers across the West, as a drought, they wrote, ignores the real and long-term effect that warming temperatures will have on our rivers.

“This translates into an increasingly arid Southwest and West, with progressively lower river flows, drier landscapes, higher forest mortality, and more severe and widespread wildfires,” they wrote, “not year on year, but instead a clear longer-term trend toward greater aridification, a trend that only climate action can stop.”

And that gets to about the only good news in any of the recent research. We know what’s causing the problem. We just need to do something about it.

A first step is making sure changes in water-management policy reflect scientific reality, and that’s where using language for planning that matches the task at hand becomes crucial.

Colorado River drought contingency plans signing ceremony in May 2019. Photo: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

Water managers traditionally use the past as a guide by examining the hydrologic record to calculate important baselines for the average high and low flows, the size of possible floods and the length of probable droughts.

But that’s all changing now “because the future is no longer going to look like the past,” says Eric Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and coauthor of the book Science Be Damned: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River. Now, he says, “water managers are trying to move forward in what we call ‘deep uncertainty’” — a process that requires planning for any number of plausible futures, including a very dry one.

We will get a chance to see what this looks like at the basin-scale as a seven-year process to renegotiate how the Colorado River is shared among its many uses is now underway.

Whether those at the table take to heart the scientific findings about the prognosis for “aridification” and “megadrought” will have big ramifications on the future ecological, economic and political health of the Colorado River basin.

Outside the basin the larger work continues as well.

“The sooner emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere are eliminated,” Udall and Overpeck concluded, “the sooner the aridification of North America will stop getting worse.”

Map of the Colorado River drainage basin, created using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65868008

#Snowpack news (November 29, 2020): #SanJuanRiver Basin = 121% of median

San Juan River Basin snowpack graph November 29, 2020 via the NRCS.

From The Pagosa Sun (Clayton Chaney):

Snow report

The Pagosa Springs area experienced multiple winter storms over the past week and is forecasted for more snowfall starting Thursday through Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Water and Climate Center’s snowpack report, the Wolf Creek summit, at 11,000 feet of elevation, had 10.6 inches of snow water equivalent as of 11 a.m. on Nov. 24.

That amount is 145 percent of the Nov. 24 median for the site.

The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River Basins were at 103 percent of the Nov. 24 median in terms of snow pack.

[River Report]

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the San Juan River was flow- ing at a rate of 113 cfs in Pagosa Springs as of 11 a.m. on Tuesday Nov. 24.

Based on 84 years of water records, the average flow rate for this date is 84 cfs.

The highest recorded rate for this date was in 1987 at 321 cfs. The lowest recored rate was 29 cfs, recorded in 1968.

Colorado snowpack basin-filled map November 29, 2020 via the NRCS.

Dry Gulch loan deactivated — The Pagosa Springs Sun #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #SanJuanRiver

Dry Gulch Reservoir site. Credit The Pagosa Daily Post

From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Chris Mannara):

During a meeting on Nov. 16, the San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) Board of Directors approved the deactivation of a loan the district currently has with the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB).

According to SJWCD President Al Pfister, the reasoning behind the decision is the state budget situation.

“The state was asking us whether we wanted to deactivate our existing loan of $1.9 plus million that we had applied for and had been approved contingent upon us getting a mill levy approved to pay for that,” Pfister explained during the meeting. “It’s been three years since that was initially approved and, I’ll say, standard procedure is to, basically, after three years of actions have been taken, they deactivate those loans.”

Pfister noted that he told CWCB that the district was fine with deactivating its loan at this time but, by doing this, it would not preclude the district from applying in the future.

“I just want to clearly emphasize that this does not in any way mean that we are not going to pursue a reservoir project in the future,” SJWCD board member John Porco added.

In conversations with CWCB representatives, Pfister explained that the CWCB indicated that CWCB would not take this decision to mean that SJWCD was not pursuing its San Juan River Headwaters Project…

The motion to approve the CWCB loan deactivation was approved unanimously by the SJWCD board.

In a follow-up interview on [November 23, 2020], Pfister explained that the loan that was deactivated was to enable the SJWCD to purchase additional lands that were needed to complete the district having ownership of the pool basin for the San Juan River Headwaters Project.

Additionally, the loan was for environmental work for the land exchange, Pfister added.

@CWCB_DNR approves second phase of investigation into demand-management program — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Water from the Colorado River irrigates farmland in the Grand Valley. The state of Colorado is looking into how to fund a program that would pay irrigators to reduce their consumptive use in order to send water downstream to a savings account in Lake Powell.Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

The state of Colorado will embark on the second phase of studying a potential water-savings plan, this time by developing a draft framework to test how the structure and design of such a program could work.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board approved at its regular meeting Nov. 18 a Step II Work Plan for its investigation into the feasibility of a demand-management program.

“People in my basin, including myself, are very excited to get down the road of this next phase,” said CWCB board member Jackie Brown, who represents the Yampa, White and Green river basins. “I think it will bring us a lot of certainty with where we end up on this really heavy issue.”

Since June 2019, eight workgroups composed of water experts from different sectors around the state have been hashing out the potential benefits, downsides and challenges of a voluntary and temporary program that would pay water users to cut back in order to leave more water in the Colorado River. The workgroups tackled eight subject areas: law and policy; monitoring and verification; water-rights administration and accounting; environmental considerations; economic considerations and local government; funding; education and outreach; and agricultural impacts. A ninth workgroup, led by the Interbasin Compact Committee, focused solely on equity.

Their work is now done. The results of a year’s worth of meetings, in-depth discussions and workshops resulted in a 200-page report, released in July.

A project management team, made up of state officials from the CWCB, the Division of Water Resources and the attorney general’s office, will now take the input from the workgroups and use it to begin Step II. The overarching goals of this phase are to figure out if demand management would be achievable, worthwhile and advisable for Colorado.

“Ultimately, again, the question is: Is demand management a feasible tool to protect Colorado water users against the risks and impacts of a potential curtailment, and can we create some additional benefits as well?” said Amy Ostdiek, CWCB deputy section chief for interstate, federal and water information.

At the heart of a potential demand-management program is a reduction in water use in an attempt to send water downstream to Lake Powell to bolster levels in the giant reservoir and meet 1922 Colorado River Compact obligations. If Colorado does not meet its obligation to deliver water to the lower basin, it could face mandatory cutbacks, known as curtailment.

Under such a program, agricultural water users could get paid to temporarily fallow fields and leave more water in the river, in order to fill a 500,000 acre-foot pool set aside in Lake Powell as a modest insurance policy. But developing a program raises many thorny questions such as how to create a program that is equitable and doesn’t result in negative economic impacts to agricultural communities.

In Step II, the project management team, with the help of consultants SGM, CDR Associates and WestWater Engineering, will develop a draft “strawman” framework of a demand-management program. Step II does not include a large-scale pilot program, but it leaves the door open to develop one in the future, potentially in collaboration with other upper-basin states. Ostdiek said the project management team should have the initial draft framework ready for the board to look at early next year.

CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell reminded board members that demand management is just one tool — but an important one — that the state is looking at to deal with looming water shortages.

“When we look at the challenge of a changing climate or a changing hydrology and the frequency and drought and the intensity of drought, it would be irresponsible of us not to look at every tool available,” she said. “I think this is the next, right, appropriate step.”

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Nov. 27 edition of The Aspen Times.

#Utah #conservation efforts update: “…we’re still 10 years out from the [#LakePowellPipeline]” — Zachary Renstrom #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

This $2+ billion project would pump 28 billion gallons of water 2,000 feet uphill across 140 miles of desert to provide just 160,000 residents in Southwest Utah with more water. Graphic credit: Utah Rivers Council

From The St. George News (Mori Kessler):

Last month, the Utah Division of Water Resources reported that water conservation efforts have helped meet growing population needs while postponing the need for water development projects.

While state officials primarily referred to water projects in northern Utah, the southwest corner of the state has also seen its own successes with conservation efforts during an ongoing drought, according to local water officials…

The state has launched several water conservation projects in recent years that Adams gave credit to Utah’s citizens and private sectors for embracing…

State conservation efforts have included the creation of regional water conservation goals and plans, water efficiency projects, the “Slow the flow” information campaign, rebates and the metering of secondary water sources…

Local efforts

In Southern Utah, Zachary Renstrom, the general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said the district has seen its own success with water conservation over the years thanks to collective efforts of the community. Much of that success, Renstrom said, has come through educating the public…

According to the latest data available from the Utah Division of Water Resources, Washington County’s per capita water use decreased 7.5% from 2010 to 2018…

Under regional water conservation goals – which includes Washington and Kane counties – the region is slated to reduce water use 14%, with 262 gallons per capita by 2030 and ultimately 22%, with 237 gallons per capita by 2065. The regional plan uses 305 gallons per capita per day as a baseline.

The water district either oversees, or is a partner in, several water conservation efforts and programs…

This includes demonstration gardens like the Red Hills Desert Garden, water-efficient landscape workshops, local media campaigns, the “Save the Towel” partnership with local hotels and spas, requiring water conservation plans from municipal customers, water-smart rebates and several other programs…

Has water conservation postponed the need for the Lake Powell Pipeline?

As with other water projects, some question whether conservation efforts in Southern Utah delayed the need for the Lake Powell Pipeline. Renstrom said they have but won’t for much longer.

“We’ve gotten to the point that we’ve conserved a big chunk of water already, and we’re still 10 years out from the pipeline,” Renstrom said. “When we start projecting 10 years out, it shows we’re going to get to a critical situation that will require us to have the Lake Powell Pipeline.”

[…]

Recently state and local water officials asked the Bureau of Reclamation to slow its timeline for the potential approval of the pipeline due to concerns raised by neighboring states that also rely on the Colorado River for water. The additional time will be used to review concerns and address them in a revised environmental study related to the project…

Drought and climate change

Pipeline aside, Renstrom said the climate is expected to become increasing dry with monsoonal rains being reduced to short-lived storms that drop large amounts of rain like the one that hit St. George in August.

“Yes, we are planning for a drier climate … and that’s one of the reasons we’re so adamant about our projects and making sure we have the resilience to withstand fluctuations in weather and the climate.”

[…]

The region has been in a drought for 16 of the last 20 years, Karry Rathje, a spokeswoman for the water district, said, adding that despite that, the county has been able to conserve water while a drying climate has gradually decreased supply…

However, both Renstrom and Rathje have said water conservation and the need for a secondary source of water for the county need to be pursued hand-in-hand in order to secure future water needs.

As pandemic hammers its finances, #Vail [Resorts] pulls out of state #cloudseeding program — @WaterEdCO #COVID19 #coronavirus #ColoradoRiver #COriver

Ullr: Guardian Patron Saint of Skiers

From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):

Vail Resorts Inc., one of the largest financial contributors to Colorado’s cloud seeding program, has dropped out this year, leaving a major hole in the program’s budget.

Cloud seeding is a practice in which silver iodide pellets are sprayed into storm clouds in an effort to trigger more snowfall and ultimately, in the spring, more snowmelt to feed the state’s streams.

Vail has been participating in the program for more than 40 years, state officials said.

Hard-hit by the pandemic, the ski resort company had planned to contribute $300,000 to this year’s effort, roughly 20 percent of the nearly $1.5 million the state spends annually, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), which oversees the program.

Vail officials did not respond to a request for comment, but their most recent financial statements indicate that the company’s revenues dropped nearly 70 percent for its latest fiscal year as the Covid-19 pandemic forced it to close its resorts early last spring.

According to its financials, revenues for its 2020 fiscal year ending July 31 came in at $503.3 million, down from $706.7 million for the prior year.

“We’re all hoping this is just a temporary suspension in funding from Vail,” said Andrew Rickert, who oversees the cloud seeding program for the CWCB. “Vail is the oldest partner we have in Colorado. They are very serious about the program, but no one is immune to these economic hardships.”

In addition to Vail, the cloud seeding program receives cash from several Lower Colorado River Basin states, who are interested in helping do anything they can to boost water supplies in the Upper Colorado River Basin, on whose flows they rely.

The state and several Front Range water utilities, including Denver Water, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and Colorado Springs Utilities, also help pay for the work.

This year the CWCB will oversee six permitted cloud seeding operations that span the state, from Durango to Winter Park and beyond. The operations are sited in areas most likely to produce snow and aid rivers.

Among the largest of these is a permit operated by the Colorado River District, which includes Grand, Summit, Eagle and Pitkin counties, according to Dave Kanzer, deputy district engineer for the Glenwood Springs-based water agency.

Vail’s cloud seeding program is nested within that area and its annual $300,000 contribution represents more than half the money typically spent in that four-county region, Kanzer said. If additional funding isn’t found, fewer cloud seeding generators will operate there this season.

“It’s a challenging time with respect to Covid-impacted budgets,” Kanzer said. “The overall program is alive and well, but it is a topic of concern.”

Kanzer and CWCB Director Becky Mitchell said the state is actively reaching out to other entities for additional funding for this year’s work, including states in the Lower Colorado River Basin and Front Range utilities.

As the current drought continues, forecasts for the winter indicate that the southern part of Colorado is likely to see light winter snows, while the northern part of the state is likely to see heavier accumulations. Overall, the state has a long way to go to make up for the dry summer and fall.

How much new snow and water seeding clouds actually produces has been difficult to detect, although scientists recently have produced studies indicating it can create new snow.

“Our scientists indicate we can increase water supplies by about 5 percent on an annual basis, with increased snowfall of 5 to 10 percent, although it’s highly variable,” Kanzer said.

Colorado and other Upper Colorado River Basin states have long used cloud seeding as a way to boost water supplies, and with this year’s drought it’s more important than ever that additional water be generated if possible.

“It’s especially acute coming after a pretty dry 2020,” Kanzer said.

“But we’re cautiously optimistic. As the year plays out we will try to carefully manage the resources that we have. I’m not optimistic that we will be able to fill the entire gap. But if we came up with a third [of the money lost], that will be a success in my mind.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Cloud-seeding graphic via Science Matters

As #LakePowell Recedes, River Runners Race To Document Long-Hidden Rapids — KUNC

Sand and silt are piling up on the Colorado River above Lake Powell, as water levels continue to fall due to persistent drought and encroaching aridification. Water managers from San Diego to Wyoming are working to find ways to keep the river’s reservoirs, and water delivery systems, functioning.

From KUNC (Molly Marcello):

Climate change and overuse are causing one of the Colorado River’s biggest reservoirs, Lake Powell, to drop. While water managers worry about scarcity issues, two Utah river rafters are documenting the changes that come as the massive reservoir hits historic low points.

For the past three years, Moab-based river runners Mike DeHoff and Pete Lefebvre have carefully photographed and mapped Cataract Canyon on their boating trips. For decades, Lake Powell buried the lower portion of the beloved canyon under flatwater. But now that the lake’s water levels are dropping, things are rapidly changing in the canyon…

The pair photograph these returning rapids year to year, illustrating in real time what it looks like as Lake Powell’s water levels drop and shift. Lefebvre says he was inspired by Chasing Ice, a 2012 film that documented shrinking glaciers from a sustained rise in global temperatures…

It wasn’t long before their hunt for new rapids sent them digging into the past. DeHoff has spent hours poring over old river maps, guidebooks, and historic photos in search of clues…

Their first “eureka moment” came when they correctly matched a 1921 photo from a survey of the Colorado River with one of their own. The picture shows a boat running through a dynamic stretch of Lower Cataract, where the reservoir’s mostly flatwater exists today. But Lefebvre says, some character is now coming back to the area.

“It started with just like a little ripple in the water to the surface, and then there was a little burble. And then oh, there was the tip of a rock sticking out,” Lefebvre said. “And then another rock was sticking out, and then eventually you start seeing this thing turn into a riffle.”

They named the area La Rue’s Riffle for E.C. La Rue, the U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist who took that photo nearly a century ago.

Fed up with the slow rate of guidebooks, the pair recently published their own supplemental river map on their website, Returning Rapids of Cataract Canyon. It lays out the freshest, gnarliest rapids of the lower canyon…

Cataract Canyon is becoming a well-known place to study what happens to an ecosystem when a reservoir recedes, and a river has a chance to return to a sense of former wildness.

“We’ve taken some people who are highly trained scientists, and geologists, and whatever out there,” DeHoff said. “And it’s really neat to see their faces where they’re like, ‘I’ve been studying geomorphology for 15 years and here I am out here seeing it right before my eyes, happening faster than I can even believe it’s happening.’”

Whether due to overuse, prolonged drought, or political change, researchers are beginning to contemplate a future for a severely diminished Lake Powell. This October the reservoir dropped to just under 11 million acre-feet of water, or just 45% of its total capacity. With a dry and warm winter on the horizon in 2021, there’s no relief on the horizon.

The Returning Rapids project is showing a silver lining to a reduced reservoir, Lefebvre said. It’s not only about new thrills for rafters – they’re also watching an entire ecosystem shift.

“Instead of this monoculture of weeds and a mud canal…we’re getting all this character back with rapids, beaches, currents, eddies, animal life, and native vegetation,” Lefebvre said. “And so that’s how I see [Cataract Canyon] recovering. It’s a nicer place to be now.”

Lake Powell, created with the 1963 completion of Glen Canyon Dam, is the upper basin’s largest reservoir on the Colorado River. But 2000-2019 has provided the least amount of inflow into the reservoir, making it the lowest 20-year period since the dam was built, as evidenced by the “bathtub ring” and dry land edging the reservoir, which was underwater in the past. As of October 1, 2019, Powell was 55 percent full. Photo credit: Eco Flight via Water Education Colorado

“…all signs point to a future where every competing water use is a valid one and there isn’t enough water to quench them all” — Joanna Allhands #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From AZCentral.com (Joanna Allhands):

Opinion: We’ve known for years that a shortage is coming, but it’s alarming how quick the conditions are changing. The Colorado River system was not set up for this.

Glen Canyon Dam aerial. Photo credit: USBR

This warm, dry weather we’ve been having may be good for moving activities outside.

But it’s bad news for our water supply.

The chances are growing – and quickly – that a warm, dry winter could push Lake Powell to a trigger point about a year from now that could result in significantly less water for Lake Mead, which supplies about 40% of Arizona’s water supply.

That likely would push Mead into a first-time shortage declaration. And if the same thing were to happen the following year, it would likely plunge Mead into a more severe shortage – a depth from which the lake is unlikely to recover any time soon.

Like I said, bad news.

Why would Mead get less water?

The 2007 operational guidelines lay out how much water is released from the upstream Powell to the downstream Mead. In “normal” years (and yes, I use quotes because nothing about the Colorado River is normal these days), Mead gets about 8.23 million acre-feet.

That drops to 7.48 million acre-feet once Powell’s levels fall below a certain depth. This occurred once before, in 2014, and luckily, Mead was nowhere close to a shortage then.

But lake levels plunged that year and never recovered, even in wet years and despite millions of acre-feet of water that Arizona and others have stored in Mead.

The lake is currently less than 10 feet above its shortage elevation trigger of 1,075 feet. Yet a 7.48 million acre-feet release in water year 2022, which begins in October 2021, could drop levels on Lake Mead by nearly 20 feet.

That could plunge us into shortage

That would place us solidly into a Tier 1 shortage – which for Arizona, means no more Colorado River water for Pinal famers and some water lost from the non-Indian agricultural (NIA) pool, which is a rung higher on the priority list and despite its name, mostly supplies tribes and cities.

Should conditions persist and Mead get another 7.48 million acre-feet release in water year 2023, that would likely plunge us deep into a Tier 2 shortage, nixing most of the NIA water that some cities use for existing development and others had wanted to shore up their long-term supplies.

Without that water, cities will need to find other, more secure sources. Which means if the battle to transfer water from on-river communities to Queen Creek is fierce now, new ones are likely to get a lot fiercer.

How likely is this 7.48 scenario?

We’ve known for years that a shortage would eventually come to Lake Mead, and that when that happens, Arizona – the state with junior water rights – would be the first to face more severe consequences.

But it’s alarming how quickly the conditions are changing.

The chances of a 7.48 million acre-feet release have increased markedly – from less than 20% in April to more than 50% in August, depending on which hydrology forecast you use. The chances of a Tier 1 shortage on Mead were as high as 30% in August, up from roughly 10% in April.

That may not sound like a lot, but it’s enough to keep risk-adverse water managers up at night. Consider that a 1 in 5 chance of Lake Mead tanking was enough to drive ratification of the Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan, which buys time for the lake through mandatory cuts to our water supply.

So, what is provoking such quick forecast changes?

Last winter was relatively wet. It looked like we were on par for an average runoff year. But the ground was dry before all that snow fell, and as it began to melt, a lot of it sunk into the parched soil.

In the space of a few weeks, what looked like a decent runoff year turned into a mediocre one.

Then we had a record-breaking hot and dry summer. The soil is again parched.

But, unlike last winter, we are now in a relatively strong La Nina weather pattern, which historically has meant warm and dry winters for all but a small corner of the Colorado River basin.

It’s a double whammy. If this winter plays out as expected, we’ll have a meager snowpack that is unlikely to produce much runoff because warm winds blowing over the snow can suck out moisture. And much of what is produced could sink into the ground before it ever makes it to our reservoirs.

If this is the future, then what?

It’s early in the snow season, of course. Things could change.

But while few parts of the Colorado River basin were facing drought conditions a year ago, most are now in extreme or exceptional drought, the most severe categories.

And some worry that this could be the beginning of a multiyear string of similar dry conditions – a la what we saw most recently in 2012-13, the lead-up to the last 7.48 million acre-feet release on Powell.

The good news, if you want to call it that, is that Arizona’s water leaders already assumed that we’d already be in a Tier 1 shortage by now. We have plans to handle these shortages in the short term, even if the details – like forcing Pinal farmers back solely on groundwater – are less than ideal.

The more daunting challenge lies in 2026, when the drought contingency plan and the 2007 guidelines expire. Because, as bad as this winter may look, the science suggests we are in for many more of them as the Colorado River basin gets warmer and drier.

We have a system that assumes water allocations will be steady as she goes, when the best-case scenario may be one of feast or famine.

And all signs point to a future where every competing water use is a valid one and there isn’t enough water to quench them all.

How do we decide who gets what when a dwindling supply becomes even more volatile? That is the fundamental question we must now address.

Reach Allhands at joanna.allhands@arizonarepublic.com. On Twitter: @joannaallhands.

#Water lease agreement could help fish and help meet #ColoradoRiver Compact requirements — The Farmington Daily Times #COriver #aridification #endangeredspecies

From The Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):

The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and The Nature Conservancy hope to demonstrate that the strategic water reserve can help endangered fish recover while also providing the ability to meet water compact requirements in the San Juan Basin.

San Juan River. Photo credit: USFWS

The Interstate Stream Commission approved allowing ISC Director Rolf Schmidt-Petersen to continue negotiations with the Jicarilla Apache Nation to lease up to 20,000 acre feet of water annually that became available as it is no longer needed for operation of the San Juan Generating Station.

San Juan Generating Station. Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson

The Jicarilla Apache Nation acquired rights to water stored in Navajo Lake in 1992 and has the authority to lease this water to other entities to help the tribe. Up until recently, the nation has leased water to Public Service Company of New Mexico to operate the San Juan Generating Station.

Navajo Lake

But the potential of the power plant closing in 2022 as well as a reduction in the amount of water needed to operate it due to the closure of two units in 2016 means that this water is now available for the state to potentially lease.

The water would be placed in the strategic water reserve, which has two purposes: assisting with endangered species recovery and ensuring the state meets its obligations under water compacts. When needed, the water could be released from the reservoir to help with the fish or to meet the requirements of the 1922 Colorado River Compact…

Terry Sullivan, the state director of The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico, said the organization has been working on the San Juan River for 15 years trying a variety of restoration projects to help create habitat. The fish rely on slow backwaters for reproduction…

Sullivan said the water lease is a great step forward to achieve both compact requirements and benefits to endangered species.

The amount leased each year would depend on funding available. One of the details of the lease agreement that has not yet been determined is the price…

Peter Mandelstam, the chief operating officer for Enchant Energy, said in a statement that the company believes it has enough water rights without the Jicarilla Apache lease to successfully retrofit the San Juan Generating Station with carbon capture technology and operate it.

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

Consulting firm gives update on ongoing analysis pertaining to San Juan Water Conservancy District’s water rights — The Pagosa Springs Sun #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Chris Mannara):

An update was given on Wilson Water Group’s (WWG) efforts in completing a water use and water demand analysis for the San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) and completing a water availability analysis for the West Fork reservoir and canal water rights during a regular meeting on Monday.

WWG was hired by the SJWCD via a board decision at a Sept. 21 meeting for a cost of $19,050 and will complete the efforts by the end of 2020.

Currently, WWG has been working on its first task, which is to develop a water demand analysis strategy, Project Engineer Brenna Mefford noted, adding that the first task would be completed in the next week or so.

The next task, to complete a current water use and water demand analysis, will be completed soon after, Mefford explained.

Task three, which is to complete a water availability analysis, will be started in December, Mefford added…

If the SJWCD were to go through with diligence on the West Fork water rights, it would have to show it has a potential demand for the water and that the district needs it, Mefford explained, adding that the SJWCD needs to show water availability.

“Finally, you have to show that you have the means to develop that water and put it to that use that you had identified earlier,” she said…

“We’ve talked to most of the people we planned to try and fig- ure out how we’re going to lay out this analysis and now we’re going to move into task two, where we’re actually going to do the current water use and water demand analysis. For this task there are a few more people that we need to reach out to and have talks with about water demand,” Mefford said, adding that WWG will need to talk to PAWSD, for example.

Navajo Dam operations update: Turning down to 300 CFS November 21, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

In response to decreasing tributary flows, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 300 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 350 cfs on Saturday, November 21st, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

#GlenwoodSprings gets $8 million loan for water-system upgrades following #GrizzlyCreekFire — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River divides Glenwood Canyon slurry on the ridge from the Grizzly Creek Fire on Monday, August 24, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times via Aspen Journalism)

From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

Glenwood Springs has received approval for a loan of up to $8 million from the state to upgrade its water system to deal with the impacts of this past summer’s Grizzly Creek Fire.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board approved the loan for system redundancy and pre-treatment improvements at its regular meeting Wednesday. The money comes from the 2020 Wildfire Impact Loans, a pool of emergency money authorized in September by Gov. Jared Polis.

The loan will allow Glenwood Springs, which takes most of its municipal water supply from No Name and Grizzly creeks, to reduce the elevated sediment load in the water supply taken from the creeks as a result of the fire, which started Aug. 10 and burned more than 32,000 acres in Glenwood Canyon.

Significant portions of both the No Name Creek and Grizzly Creek drainages were burned during the fire, and according to the National Resources Conservation Service, the drainages will experience three to 10 years of elevated sediment loading due to soil erosion in the watershed. A heavy rain or spring runoff on the burn scar will wash ash and sediment — no longer held in place by charred vegetation in steep canyons and gullies — into local waterways. Also, scorched soils don’t absorb water as well, increasing the magnitude of floods.

The city will install a sediment-removal basin at the site of its diversions from the creeks and install new pumps at the Roaring Fork River pump station. The Roaring Fork has typically been used as an emergency supply, but the project will allow it to be used more regularly for increased redundancy. During the early days of the Grizzly Creek Fire, the city did not have access to its Grizzly and No Name creek intakes, so it shut them off and switched over to its Roaring Fork supply.

The city will also install a concrete mixing basin above the water-treatment plant, which will mix both the No Name/Grizzly Creek supply and the Roaring Fork supply. All of these infrastructure improvements will ensure that the water-treatment plant receives water with most of the sediment already removed.

“This was a financial hit we were not anticipating to take, so the CWCB loan is quite doable for us, and we really appreciate it being out there and considering us for it,” Glenwood Springs Public Works Director Matt Langhorst told the board Wednesday. “These are projects we have to move forward with at this point. If this (loan) was not an option for us, we would be struggling to figure out how to financially make this happen.”

Without the improvement project, the sediment will overload the city’s water-treatment plant and could cause long, frequent periods of shutdown to remove the excess sediment, according to the loan application. The city, which provides water to about 10,000 residents, might not be able to maintain adequate water supply during these shutdowns.

According to the loan application, the city will pay back the loan over 30 years, with the first three years at zero interest and 1.8% after that. The work, which is being done by Carollo Engineers and SGM, began this month and is expected to be completed by the spring of 2022.

Langhorst said the city plans on having much of the work done before next spring’s runoff.

“Yes, there is urgency to get several parts and pieces of what the CWCB is loaning us money for done,” he said.

The impacts of this year’s historic wildfire season on water supplies around the state was a topic of conversation at Wednesday’s meeting. CWCB Director Rebecca Mitchell said her agency has hired a consultant team to assist communities — through a watershed restoration program — with grant applications, engineering analysis and other support to mitigate wildfire impacts.

“These fires often create problems that exceed impacts of the fires themselves,” she said. “We know the residual impacts from these fires will last five to seven years at minimum.”

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Nov. 19 edition of the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent.

#Utah’s state engineer rejects plan to divert #GreenRiver water for #Colorado entrepreneur — The #SaltLake Tribune #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #endangeredspecies

The entrance to the popular Gates of Lodore stretch on the Green River, not far downstream from where Aaron Million of Ft. Collins has proposed to divert 55,000 acre-feet of water from the river each year and pipe it to the Front Range. There’s plenty of opposition to the idea, but there is also interest in the water in eastern Colorado.

From The Salt Lake Tribune (Brian Maffly):

Utah State Engineer Teresa Wilhelmsen has rejected a controversial proposal to divert 55,000 acre-feet of the Green River’s flow from Utah to Colorado’s fast-growing Front Range cities.

A detail of a map produced by Water Horse Resources, and published by the state of Utah, showing the proposed diversion point on the Green River, between Flaming Gorge Reservoir and the Gates of Lodore in Dinosaur National Monument. The red and white line represents a pipeline that heads northeast out of Utah, across a corner of Colorado, and into Wyoming, where it joins an alignment of another potential pipeline that is connected to the Green above Flaming Gorge.

Colorado entrepreneur Aaron Million has been pursuing this idea for more than a decade, resurrecting his pipeline proposal in 2018 after two prior failed attempts at approval. This time his firm White Horse Resources proposed a scaled-down pipeline tapping the Green below Flaming Gorge Dam at Browns Park and running 325 miles underground to Denver. Dubbed the “Green Sun Storage Hydro Power Project,” it would generate hydropower along its 3,800-foot decent from the Continental Divide to the Front Range.

Wilhelmsen found the proposal ran counter to policies Utah has been pursuing for decades regarding the recovery of endangered species of fish and the Beehive State’s own interest in developing its share of water in the Colorado River system…

Meanwhile, Wilhelmsen is considering Utah’s own proposal to substantially alter an 86,000-acre-foot water right associated with Flaming Gorge, moving the point of diversion downstream to feed the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline.

At a hearing before the state engineer two years ago, Million likened his project to the 140-mile pipeline across southern Utah to St. George, claiming there was sufficient flows in the Green to accommodate both diversions.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has previously twice turned down similar Green River diversions proposed by Million.

“This [latest] decision is a big win for the Green River as well as the people and endangered fish that depend on it,” said Taylor McKinnon, a senior campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We hope the state engineer’s decision is the final nail in the coffin of this absurdly greedy, irresponsible plan.”

[….]

Diverting the water at Browns Park would have undermined costly efforts underway to rescue some of the Green’s native fish, McKinnon and other environmentalists argued.

Click here to read the order.

Green River Basin

LM Collaborates with Gunnison County, #Colorado, to Ensure a Safe Water Supply — US Department of Energy

Here’s the release from the Department of Energy:

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Legacy Management (LM) is collaborating with Gunnison County, Colorado, to connect more domestic residences with private water wells within the groundwater contamination boundary at the former Gunnison uranium mill site to a municipal water supply.

“This is a major milestone that reflects LM’s mission of protecting human health and the environment,” said Jalena Dayvault, site manager for LM’s Gunnison, Colorado, Site. “Gunnison County Public Works Director, Marlene Crosby, worked diligently to get remaining domestic well users on-board so this project could move forward.”

The Gunnison site is a former uranium ore processing site located about a half-mile southwest of the city of Gunnison. The mill processed approximately 540,000 tons of uranium ore between 1958 and 1962, providing uranium for national defense programs. These ore processing activities resulted in contaminated groundwater beneath and near the site.

In 1994, a water treatment plant, storage tank, and distribution system were partially funded by DOE and installed to supply municipal drinking water to all residences within the contaminated groundwater boundary. This project was part of the remedial action plan at the former uranium mill site and is considered a protective measure in case the contaminated groundwater plume was ever to affect domestic well users within this boundary.

A small handful of homeowners with domestic wells in use before the cleanup continue to use those wells for drinking water. As part of LM’s long-term stewardship activities at the site, the office has monitored these wells annually to verify that mill-related contaminants have remained below U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maximum concentration limits for the groundwater.

Working closely with Gunnison County Public Works, LM made funds available in September 2020 to support Gunnison County Public Works in connecting more residences with domestic wells to the municipal water supply. Excavation work began in November to connect the first residence to the alternate water supply.

“We started putting a game plan together back in early January of this year, reaching out to homeowners to get their buy-in and preparing a scope of work and budget for the project,” said Joe Lobato, site lead for the Legacy Management Support Partner (LMSP). “The LM and LMSP team has a great working relationship with Gunnison County.”

This map shows the municipal water system that provides clean water to residents near the former uranium processing site. Credit: Department of Energy

The November 2020 newsletter is hot off the presses from the Water Information Program

Lake Nighthorse and Durango March 2016 photo via Greg Hobbs.

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt (Elaine Chick):

The Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District (ALPWCD) Celebrates Final Water Purchase from the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority

The Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District (ALPWCD) celebrates the Districts final purchase of the water from the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority.

On Saturday, October 17th the ALPWCD held a celebration at the Tribute Gardens at Lake Nighthorse commemorating the final payment option of their incremental purchase from the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority (CWR & PDA) for their share of 700 AF of depletion purchased as part of the Animas La Plata Project.

First authorized by the U.S. Congress on September 30, 1968 (Public Law 90-537), the Animas-La Plata Water Project experienced a few decades of delays due in part to political concerns, farming claims, environmental challenges, cost overruns and government funding issues. A breakthrough to the delays came with the Colorado Ute Settlement Act Amendments in December 2000 (Public Law 106-554).

Christine Arbogast, Kogovsek & Associates, lobbyist at that time with ALPWCD for the project, stated, “Advocacy is all about relationship. This project would not have happened if all of the partners for the project had not stuck together in that family relationship that is ALP.”

The Bureau of Reclamation began construction in 2003, with the reservoir filling to capacity on June 29, 2011 at a total cost of $500 million. Lake Nighthorse is named in honor of former United States Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo. The reservoir is part of the Animas-La Plata Water Project, providing water storage for tribal and non-tribal water right claim-holders on the Animas River in both Colorado and New Mexico.

The Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District was one of the seven original sponsors of the ALP Project: The other sponsors included the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Navajo Nation, State of Colorado, La Plata Conservancy District in New Mexico, and San Juan Water Commission in New Mexico.

The general purpose of the District includes, but is not limited to: “acquire and appropriate waters of the Animas and La Plata rivers and their tributaries and other sources of water supply by means of ‘works’ as defined in the ‘Water Conservancy Act’ and to divert, store, transport, conserve and stabilize all of said supplies of water for domestic, irrigation, power, manufacturing and other beneficial uses within and for the territory to be included in the District.”

The ALPWCD Statutory Project Allocation was purchased in advance on behalf of local entities by the Colorado Water and Power Resource Development Authority. ALPWCD being one of those entities, worked for many years to make that incremental purchase from the Authority, and now that water is in local hands and is being put to use. ALPWCD has made subsequent sales of their portion of the original allocation of that water that provides multiple benefits to the community. One of ALPWCD’s principle missions is to develop water for the benefit of the local community, and that has happened!

The City of Durango has purchased the remaining amount of the original ALPWCD Project Allocation from the Authority to firm up their future water supplies, and the La Plata West Water Authority and Lake Durango Water Authority have made subsequent purchases of water from the Animas-La Plata District which is being put to use for rural domestic water in the western part of La Plata County.

The Animas-La Plata Project is managed by the ALP Operations, Maintenance and Replacement, Association, and includes representatives from the project participants. (ALPOM&R Association). Recreation at Lake Nighthorse is managed by the City of Durango in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation.

Water projects can take decades to come to fruition, but after many years of hard work by countless individuals and organizations uses are occurring from this reservoir and associated project facilities. This is one more step in making the water in Lake Nighthorse of beneficial use to local communities!

U.S. Forest Service approves protection of Colorado’s Sweetwater Lake, but big questions remain

Sweetwater Lake, Garfield County, Colorado. Photo credit: Todd Winslow Pierce with permission

From The Colorado Sun (Jason Blevins):

Interior Sec. David Bernhardt’s order on Friday requires new provisions for Land and Water Conservation Fund allocations, further clouding the Great American Outdoors Act.

The White River National Forest’s request for Land and Water Conservation Fund money to permanently protect Garfield County’s Sweetwater Lake — a pristine oasis surrounded by public lands — has been granted.

But the agency did not say how much of the requested $8.5 million from the fund will be distributed. That’s just one of several recent examples of foot dragging by Trump Administration land managers who have missed critical deadlines imposed by the Great American Outdoors Act, a sweeping public lands bill that President Donald Trump promoted to help buoy Republican senators facing tough re-election bids in the West.

The Forest Service on Friday released its 2021 list of Land and Water Conservation Fund projects for state grants under the Forest Legacy Program and for land acquisition. The list was due Nov. 2 as part of the passage this summer of the Great American Outdoors Act, which promised to whittle down an estimated $20 billion in deferred maintenance on public lands and directed $900 million a year into the Land and Water Conservation Fund. (The fund is supported by oil and gas royalties paid by energy companies exploring and drilling on federal land and water.)

The Great American Outdoors Act requires the Forest Service and the Department of Interior to submit “a detailed description of each project, including the estimated expenditures from the fund for the project for applicable fiscal years,” by Nov. 2. Both agencies missed that deadline. The list released Friday by the Forest Service also lacked the dollar figures required by the legislation.

As an added twist, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Friday issued an order that added new provisions to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, including severe limitations on the Bureau of Land Management’s ability to add new acreage. Bernhardt’s Secretarial Order 3388 prioritized land acquisitions by the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the BLM.

A vague list he scripted last week distributing $900 million worth of Land and Water Conservation Fund money sent just $2.5 million to the BLM for land acquisition, and dismissed six projects that had been previously trumpeted by the Trump Administration during the summer’s cheerleading for the Great American Outdoors Act.

“That is consistent with the disdain Bernhardt has had for the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” said Aaron Weiss, the deputy director for the Center for Western Priorities. “He tried to defund it for three years and now he’s throwing sand in the gears before he leaves. Really, these guys are just making it up as they go along right now because they know it doesn’t matter. They are going to be gone soon.”

Bernhardt’s order also requires both the approval of state governors and local county leaders for all federal land acquisition. The Garfield County Commissioners have long opposed adding federal land in their county but they do support the protection of Sweetwater Lake…

In the final line of Friday’s order, Bernhardt added a legally questionable clause.

“The termination of this order will not nullify the implementation of the requirement and responsibilities effected herein,” he wrote.

A workaround emerges

But there is another option for seeing the Great American Outdoors Act fully deployed. Congress could force Bernhardt and the Forest Service to fund all the projects that were part of the promotions for the legislation. And lawmakers appear to be preparing to do just that.

The U.S. Senate’s Appropriations Committee on Tuesday released funding recommendations for the Interior Department and Forest Service with specific projects and dollar amounts. The committee plan directs $54.1 million to the BLM — a $51.6 million increase over Bernhardt’s plan — and $120 million to the Forest Service for land acquisition. The committee’s list for LWCF acquisition projects includes $8.5 million for the Forest Service for Sweetwater Lake.

Sweetwater Lake and the surrounding 488 acres has been owned for decades by private developers who pondered a luxury retreat, a golf course and even a water-bottling facility. The White River National Forest’s request for Land and Water Conservation Fund support was among the agency’s Top 10 priority projects for 2021.

Officials with the White River National Forest directed all calls about plans for Sweetwater Lake to the agency’s national press office, where spokeswoman Babete Anderson said there was no more information to share…

When, or if, the land becomes part of the National Forest System, the White River has a long list of priorities for Sweetwater Lake, including improvements to the water supply on the property and upgrades to a campground and boat launch.

The agency is in talks with Colorado Parks and Wildlife about a shared management plan at Sweetwater Lake that could lead to the property becoming a new state park.

“Sweetwater checks some important boxes for CPW and what we want stuff to look like. There is obviously water recreation and we also like the location as close as it is to I-70,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton. “Then there’s the access it provides to federal land, just a massive amount of land. So yes, there are many reasons we want to be part of that conversation with the Forest Service. We are in a mode right now where we are looking at other parcels. The governor has let his intention be known that he wants more state parks.”

The 77-acre Sweetwater Lake and more than 400 acres surrounding it could be open to the public if a conservation plan shifts the property into the White River National Forest. (Provided by The Conservation Fund via The Colorado Sun)

Why understanding #snowpack could help the overworked #ColoradoRiver — The Deseret News #COriver #aridification

Horseshoe Bend.

From The Deseret News (Amy Joi O’Donoghue):

The U.S. Geological Survey is in the beginning stages of learning more about this river via an expanded and more sophisticated monitoring system that aims to study details about the snowpack that feeds the river basin, droughts and flooding, and how streamflow supports groundwater, or vice versa.

Begun earlier this year, the probe is part of a larger effort by the federal agency to study 10 critical watersheds throughout the country by expanding its monitoring capabilities.

According to the research agency, it maintains real-time monitors that provide data on the nation’s water resources, including more than 11,300 stream gauges that measure surface-water flow and/or levels; 2,100 water-quality stations; 17,000 wells that monitor groundwater levels; and 1,000 precipitation stations.

While that may seem like a lot, the network falls short of meeting the demands of modern-day analysis. The monitors in place cover less than 1% of the nation’s streams and groundwater aquifers and were designed to meet the needs of the past, according to the agency.

The USGS will be installing new monitoring equipment and enhancing existing streamgages in the headwaters of the Colorado and Gunnison River Basin (Upper Colorado River Basin) beginning in 2020, subject to availability of funding. Credit: USGS

Because of this, the agency is investing in the Next Generation Water Observing System, which will tap sophisticated new monitoring capabilities resulting from recent advances in water science.

The effort will also bring together the knowledge and expertise of agency scientists, resource managers and other stakeholders to determine water information needs not only now, but into the future.

The system will use both fixed and mobile equipment — including drones — to collect data on streamflow, evapotranspiration, snowpack, soil moisture, water quality, groundwater/surface-water connections, stream velocity distribution, sediment transport and water use.

When it comes to the Colorado, understanding snowpack is critical because the Upper Colorado River Basin supplies about 90% of the water for the entire Colorado River Basin — with about 85% of the river flow originating as snowmelt from about 15% of the basin at the highest altitudes.

The lower basin is arid and depends upon that managed use of the Colorado River system to make the surrounding land habitable and productive.

“New monitoring technology is essential to addressing many issues associated with our annual water balance in the Upper Colorado River Basin,” said Dave “DK” Kanzer, who is deputy chief engineer at Colorado River Water Conservation District.

Next Generation Water Observing System: Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin — @USGS #COriver #aridification

Colorado River. Photo credit: USGS

Here’s the release from the USGS (Chad Wagner):

The Next Generation Water Observing System provides high-fidelity, real-time data on water quantity, quality, and use to support modern water prediction and decision-support systems that are necessary for informing water operations on a daily basis and decision-making during water emergencies. The headwaters of the Colorado and Gunnison River Basin provide an opportunity to implement the NGWOS in a snowmelt-dominated system in the mountain west.

The USGS Next Generation Water Observing System (NGWOS) is generating integrated data on streamflow, groundwater, evapotranspiration, snowpack, soil moisture, water quality, and water use. When fully implemented, the NGWOS will intensively monitor at least 10 medium-sized watersheds (10,000-20,000 square miles) and underlying aquifers that represent larger regions across the Nation.

The USGS will be installing new monitoring equipment and enhancing existing streamgages in the headwaters of the Colorado and Gunnison River Basin (Upper Colorado River Basin) beginning in 2020, subject to availability of funding. Credit: USGS

The USGS has selected the headwaters of the Colorado and Gunnison River Basin (Upper Colorado River Basin) in central Colorado as its second NGWOS basin. This decision was based on rigorous quantitative ranking of western basins, input from USGS regions and science centers, and feedback from targeted external stakeholders in the west.

The Upper Colorado River Basin is important because nearly all flow in the Colorado River originates in the upper basin states and runoff from the Upper Colorado River Basin is nearly three times that of other basins in the area. Thus, the Upper Colorado River Basin is particularly critical for downstream users.

Long-term drought conditions facing the Upper Colorado region, interstate ramifications of the drought, water-quality issues, stakeholder support, and alignment with Department of Interior and USGS priorities make the Upper Colorado an ideal basin to implement the USGS’s integrated approach to observing, delivering, assessing, predicting, and informing water resource conditions and decisions now and into the future. Of note, a newly released (October 2019) Federal Action Plan for Improving Forecasts of Water Availability includes a milestone to pilot long-range water prediction in the Upper Colorado River Basin, an activity that will greatly benefit from the newly selected USGS NGWOS basin.

An integrated data-to-modeling approach in the Upper Colorado River Basin will help improve regional water prediction in other snowmelt dominated systems in the Rockies and beyond. The approach is useful for addressing issues of both water availability and water quality and for evaluating the effects of both short-term climate perturbation (for example, fire, insect mortality, drought) and long-term climate change.

Water Resources Challenges in the Colorado River Basin

The Colorado River supplies water for more than 40 million people and nearly 5.5 million acres of farmland across the western United States and Mexico. The Colorado River and its main tributaries originate in the mountains of western Wyoming, central Colorado, and northeastern Utah. The large amount of snowmelt that feeds the Upper Colorado is central to water availability throughout the Basin. In 2019, urgent action was required to prevent previously developed rules from potentially reducing Colorado River water allocations to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico due to declining water levels in the two largest reservoirs within the Colorado River Basin—Lake Powell and Lake Mead. A Colorado Drought Contingency Plan was signed in April 2019.

NGWOS Characteristics

  • State-of-the-art measurements
  • Dense array of sensors at selected sites
  • Increased spatial and temporal data coverage of all primary components of the hydrologic cycle
  • New monitoring technology testing and implementation
  • Improved operational efficiency
  • Modernized and timely data storage and delivery
  • Briefing sheet

    The USGS Next Generation Water Observing System Upper Colorado & Gunnison River Basin: Briefing sheet

    Snowpack news: Wolf Creek Summit SWE = 8.1″ #ColoradoRiver #COriver #SanJuanRiver #aridification

    From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Clayton Chaney):

    Snow report

    According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Water and Climate Center’s snowpack report, the Wolf Creek Summit, at 11,000 feet of elevation, had 8.1 inches of snow water equivalent as of 2 p.m. on Nov. 11.

    That amount is 169 percent of the Nov. 11 median for the site.

    The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River Basins were at 148 percent of the Nov. 11 median in terms of snowpack.

    River report

    With more winter storms rolling through Pagosa Springs and the surrounding areas, the San Juan River flow spiked to over 300 cfs on Nov. 8. As of 2 p.m. on Nov. 11, the river flow at the U.S. Geological Survey station in Pagosa Springs was listed at 58.1 cfs.

    Based on 84 years of water records, the average flow rate for this date is listed at 99 cfs.

    The highest recorded rate for this date was in 1987 at 340 cfs. The lowest recorded rate was 13 cfs, recorded in 1951.

    The San Juan Water Conservancy District Invites Public Participation in Budget Decision — The Pagosa Daily Post #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Swim class on the San Juan River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From the San Juan Water Conservancy District (Al Pfister) via the The Pagosa Daily Post:

    As is custom and per State procedures, the San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) is in the process of developing our 2021 budget.

    Our draft 2021 budget sets the framework for our activities in the coming year. In an effort to better communicate with our district taxpayers as to how we can provide the appropriate amounts of water under wet and drought conditions, we are inviting you to a public meeting and hearing on November 16, 2020 at 5:00pm via ZOOM to discuss our proposed 2021 budget.

    We have developed our proposed 2021 budget to be used to set the framework for activities that we will implement in the accomplishment of our mission. Our mission is to ensure water resources are available for beneficial use to those who do provide water (such as the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District) for the community. This may come in the form of consumptive uses like agriculture, municipal, fire protection, and industrial pursuits. This may also mean non-consumptive uses such as recreational, wildlife habitat, and aesthetics.

    Our main focus with the 2021 budget will be implementation of our Strategic Plan that will deal with the challenge of serving the water needs of the majority of Archuleta County. We look forward to seeing and hearing from you on November 16. If you would like more information or want to discuss the budget and associated issues, please contact me or any board member whose contact info is listed on our website — http://www.sjwcd.org — under the “About Us” tab. The website also has the draft 2021 budget, our draft Strategic Plan, the meeting agenda, and the ZOOM information.

    Accomplishment of our mission must take place in accordance with Colorado water law (including the prior appropriation doctrine), and following the direction set forth in the Colorado State Water Plan.

    The Colorado Water Plan (Plan) was completed in 2015 and is based on three foundational elements: interstate compacts and equitable apportionment decrees (ie. each of the States are entitled to a certain amount of water as detailed in the respective compacts), Colorado water law, and local control. The Plan is the result of several years of statewide collaborative efforts and discussions about how the water needs of Colorado residents and downstream users will be met. “It sets forth the measurable objectives, goals, and actions by which Colorado will address its projected future water needs and measure its progress- all built on our shared values”. As a headwaters state we need to be actively involved in ensuring our water needs and rights are met, while also complying with interstate compacts.

    The San Juan River, and its tributaries, contribute water needed to comply with local water rights user’s needs, as well as several interstate compacts (Colorado River Compact 1922, Rio Grande River Compact 1938, Upper Colorado River Compact 1948, others). Admittedly, how all these water rights needs are met is a very complex and confusing scenario, under which SJWCD is charged with accomplishing our mission under State statute. Nonetheless, the Water District is responsible for ensuring the conditional water rights owned by the District taxpayers are utilized to meet our shared water needs. In order for the District to better understand how the District’s taxpayers want that to happen, we need your input.

    We hope to finalize our Strategic Plan that outlines our implementation of the statewide Plan in the next couple months.

    Al Pfister is Board President for the San Juan Water Conservancy District.

    Shoshone power plant outages concern Glenwood Canyon #water users — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    The Shoshone hydro plant in Glenwood Canyon, captured here in June 2018, uses water diverted from the Colorado River to make power, and it controls a key water right on the Western Slope. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    It has been a rough year for operations at the Shoshone hydropower plant in Glenwood Canyon.

    First, ice jammed the plant’s spillway in February, damaging equipment that required repair. The plant came back online in July but was able to generate electricity for only a few weeks before the Grizzly Peak Fire burned down its transmission lines.

    According to the plant’s owner, Xcel Energy, the electricity impacts of the outages at the 15-megawatt generating station have been minimal, and the utility expects the plant to go back online this week. But while the electric grid can manage without the plant, the outage presents a much bigger threat to the flows on the Colorado River because the plant has senior water rights dating to 1902.

    This means that any water users upstream with junior rights — which includes utilities such as Denver Water that divert water to the Front Range — have to leave enough water in the river to meet the plant’s water right of 1,250 cubic feet per second when the plant is running. When the Shoshone makes a call, the water makes its way through the plant’s turbines and goes downstream, filling what would otherwise often be a nearly dry section of river down toward Grand Junction.

    A Shoshone call keeps the river flowing past the point where it would otherwise be diverted, supporting downstream water uses that would otherwise be impossible on this stretch of river. But when the plant is down, as it has been for most of 2020, that call is not guaranteed.

    The Grand River Diversion Dam, also known as the “Roller Dam”, was built in 1913 to divert water from the Colorado River to the Government Highline Canal, which farmers use to irrigate their lands in the Grand Valley. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

    “Historically, what the Shoshone plant has done is kept a steady baseflow, which makes it easier for irrigators down here to be able to divert their own water right,” said Kirsten Kurath, a lawyer for the Grand Valley Water Users Association, which represents agricultural water users. “When the river goes up and down, it takes a lot of operational effort.”

    The Shoshone water right also supports important nonconsumptive water uses. It provides critical flows needed for fish habitat and supports a robust whitewater-rafting industry in Glenwood Canyon. When the river drops too much below 1,250 cfs, it can create for a slow and bumpy ride.

    Glenwood Canyon/Colorado River. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

    “Customers get off and think, ‘Ugh, it would have been more fun to go to Disneyland,’ ” said David Costlow, the executive director of the Colorado River Outfitters Association. “Much lower and you are really scraping down that river and at some point you just pull the plug.”

    The nearly year-long outages at Shoshone have many on the river worried. When the plant is down for repairs or maintenance, it does not make its call on the river allowing users upstream — including those that pipe water to the Front Range — to begin diverting. The Shoshone call can be the difference between the water remaining on the Western Slope or being diverted to the Front Range. Long outages, such as this one, reveal the vulnerability of the water on which so many rely.

    “It’s a critically important component to the way that the Colorado main stem water regime has developed over more than a century now,” said Peter Fleming, the general counsel for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “It’s sort of the linchpin or the bottom card.”

    Water interests on the Western Slope have made some headway in recent years to maintain the status quo on the river even when Shoshone is down. Most of the major junior water-rights holders upstream of the plant — including Denver Water, Aurora and the Colorado Big Thompson Project — have signed on to the Shoshone Outage Protocol (SHOP). When the protocol goes into effect, as it has this year, these diverters have agreed to manage their diversions as if the Shoshone Plant — and the call — was online.

    The agreement has been in operation for about a decade, helping to maintain flows during periods where the plant has undergone repairs or maintenance. The agreement was formalized in 2016 with a 40-year term. While the outage protocol has staved off major drops in the Colorado River flow over the years, the agreement is not as secure as water users that rely on Shoshone’s flows would prefer.

    “SHOP is the best alternative that we have right now, but it doesn’t completely restore the flows,” said Kurath. “And one of the other problems right now is that it’s not permanent.”

    For water users downstream of Shoshone, SHOP has three major issues. First, it is only guaranteed for 40 years, which for water planners is considered a short time frame. Second, the agreement does not include every upstream diverter, meaning that it doesn’t completely restore the flows to the levels where they would be if the Shoshone plant were on. Third, the agreement allows some of its signatories to ignore SHOP under certain water-shortage scenarios.

    Despite the drought this year, the conditions never reached a point where SHOP’s signatories were able to opt out of the protocol, so the agreement went into effect when river levels dropped. But even though SHOP worked this year, the long outages at the Shoshone plant highlight the uncertainty of the plant’s future.

    “We’ve always been nervous about it,” Fleming said. “It’s an aging facility, it doesn’t produce a ton of power, and we don’t know how long it’s going to be a priority to maintain and operate.”

    The River District has been working to negotiate a more permanent solution for the Shoshone water rights for years. They have considered everything — from trying to buy the Shoshone plant outright to negotiating with diverters on the river to make something such as SHOP permanent.

    The Shoshone outages have given these efforts renewed importance. In a recent board meeting of the River District, Fleming said that resuming talks with Denver Water that had stalled during the pandemic is a top priority.

    While Fleming would not elaborate on the specifics of the ongoing negotiations, all options have the potential to impact many water users on the river — even those who aren’t at the negotiating table.

    “We don’t approach this like we have water rights that we don’t have,” Costlow said. “But our business depends on water, and it depends on water levels that make water fun.”

    This story ran in the Nov. 13 edition of The Aspen Times.

    Aspinall Unit operations update November 12, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #GunnisonRiver

    Will the West figure out how to share #water? — The Deseret News

    From The Deseret News ( Sofia Jeremias):

    Can farmers stop cities from buying their water rights and drying out agricultural land?

    Flood irrigation in the Arkansas Valley via Greg Hobbs

    Crowley County relied on water from the nearby Arkansas River, and had over 50,000 acres of irrigated farmland until a spate of water sales took place in the ’70s and ’80s. (An acre-foot of water is enough to meet the needs for two families in a year.)

    By 2002, only about 6,000 irrigated acres remained, and by 2017, the number had dropped to roughly 4,600.

    In the dry and arid West, where little rain falls, irrigation is the life blood of farming.

    As droughts become more persistent and urban growth across the Mountain West continues to skyrocket, agricultural communities are increasingly worried about losing their water to far away cities — turning the towns into dust bowls with few job prospects.

    Photo of Crowley County by Jennifer Goodland

    Since 2010, the West’s large cities and small towns have seen an average population growth of 9.1% and 13.3%, respectively. From 2018-2019, Utah, Idaho, and Colorado were the top three fastest growing states in terms of new housing.

    At the same time, the West is experiencing one of its worst droughts in years. More than a third of the West is experiencing “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, and 72.5 million people are living in areas “affected by drought,” The Washington Post recently reported.

    According to Colorado’s 2015 Water Plan between 500,000 to 700,000 acres of irrigated land in the state could disappear by 2050 due to urbanization.

    While places like Colorado’s Front Range, home to a corridor of the state’s largest cities from Denver to Boulder, continues to grow and climate change exacerbates drought conditions, the discourse over water is only going to get more tense.

    Water markets didn’t consider the ripple effects

    Heimerich, who is originally from New York, met and married a girl from Crowley County and they decided to move there in 1987 after his wife was offered a job as a nurse practitioner.

    His father-in-law was a farmer, and he decided to try his hand at the business.

    Heimerich’s father-in-law was one of the few who refused to sell his water rights in the past decades…

    In Crowley, water wasn’t just sold from one farmer to another, or even to nearby cities. Instead, the water flowed out of the county and to Colorado Springs, Aurora and Pueblo (towns between 50 to 100 miles east of the county).

    Because farmers in Crowley organized their farms around joint irrigation canals, once a certain percentage of the farmers that owned shares in a canal sold out, it made maintenance (from repairing breaks in lining to removing vegetation) more difficult and a heavier burden on those left behind.

    Heimerich said the water sales were like a divorce, or the splitting of assets after a family member has died and didn’t leave a will: “It’s that kind of underlying tension, and there’s no real forethought to what the long-term consequences are going to be.”

    Or, as one Crowley County farmer told a newspaper in 1992, “The ones who sold their water sold out their county.”

    […]

    Permanent dry up, like the one time sales that happened in Crowley, happens for a few different reasons: One is if there’s a water shortage that affects both cities and farms, another is water shortages that affect only agriculture, and another is an increased demand for water in areas outside of agriculture.

    What happened in Crowley County was so dire that it has since become the poster child for the negative consequences of “buy-and-dry,” when water goes from supplying farms to cities…

    Plus, the large swaths of dried out farmland have also created ecological problems — from dust to weeds…

    Straight line diagram of the Lower Arkansas Valley ditches via Headwaters

    A new way to share water

    People in Colorado, and other states in the West, have been looking into alternatives to “buy and dry” — a way to balance booming urban populations, water shortages and the needs of agriculture.

    In the past, the roll of water courts in Colorado wasn’t to consider the ripple effects that water sales have on the communities when large amounts of land go dry, said Scott Campbell, a conservation planner and water consultant. “We just need to figure out better ways to help manage our water sources.”

    One of the solutions that’s been gaining traction is water sharing agreements. Campbell has been a proponent for a new kind of water market: one where water is a “cash crop,” something farmers can lease to municipalities (rather than a one-off sale) and provides another form of stable income…

    However, despite a handful of pilot programs, water sharing agreements have yet to become ubiquitous, although they originated in California nearly two decades ago.

    Palo Verde, California, farmers started leasing water to the Metropolitan Water District in Southern California in the early 2000s. A similar agreement occurred with the Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California…

    In March, Utah’s governor signed a water banking bill, which would allow farmers to lease water to municipalities. And in Wyoming, ranchers were paid to forgo irrigation and instead let their water run down the rivers that feed Lake Powell and Lake Mead…

    Eric Hanagan is a fifth generation farmer in Otero County. He farms about 1,500 acres, primarily vegetables, seedless watermelons, cantaloupes, peppers and tomatoes, along with a few alfalfa fields…

    Hanagan began participating in a water leasing agreement a few years ago. A third of his farmland is fallowed (i.e. he does not plant crops) each year. The water is then leased to municipalities…

    Hanagan’s land is irrigated by the Catlin Canal, one of many irrigation ditches that feeds water from the Arkansas River to the surrounding land.

    His farm is one of six on the canal that participates in the lease-fallowing program. Farms that leased their water received about $700 dollars per fallowed acre according to the 2019 report from the Lower Arkansas Valley Super Ditch Company…

    Will cities and farmers accept alternatives at greater scale?
    It remains an open question whether or not cities in the Mountain West will be open to leasing rather than buying water rights and permanently drying up farms.

    “It just gives us a level of certainty and control that you don’t get as part of a rotational leasing program,” said Alan Ward, the division manager for water resources for Pueblo, another city in the Arkansas Basin that has been experiencing moderate population growth in the past few years.

    In 2009, Ward started to worry about the impacts of climate change, making the water they receive from the Colorado River less reliable. So the city of Pueblo started purchasing water in an irrigation ditch east of the city…

    Bessemer Ditch circa 1890 via WaterArchives.org

    While Pueblo doesn’t need the water they’ve purchased just yet — they currently lease the water back to farmers, some are worried about what will happen when the city does need the water it purchased.

    “They are poised to dry about 5,000 acres of some of our best production ground in the state,” said Campbell, who is working on an effort called the Bessemer Project, which aims to retain some of the irrigated land along the Bessemer where water rights were sold to Pueblo.

    “Unfortunately what happened in this sale, and what happens in a lot of these buy and dry deals, is that some of the best farm ground could be dried.”Campbell hopes to try a variety of different methods to keep some the best irrigated land along the Bessemer ditch in production — from rotational fallowing to water sharing to using more efficient ways of irrigating.

    #ColoradoRiver District plan offers ideas for spending on #water projects after tax passage — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel

    The Grand River Diversion Dam, also known as the “Roller Dam”, was built in 1913 to divert water from the Colorado River to the Government Highline Canal, which farmers use to irrigate their lands in the Grand Valley. Photo credit: Bethany Blitz/Aspen Journalism

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

    The district plans to use 14 percent of the new revenues to shore up its finances, funding existing staff positions and business expenses after financial difficulties in recent years. The rest is to be used to partner with others on projects focused on agriculture, infrastructure, healthy rivers, watershed health and water quality, and conservation and efficiency.

    District spokesman Jim Pokrandt said the district board will be discussing the project spending at a Dec. 10 meeting where it will be looking to revise its 2021 budget now that the tax has passed.

    He said it’s too early to call out any specific project that might be funded at this point, as more analysis and board approval will be required. However, in its July resolution to put the tax measure on the ballot, the district board also adopted a fiscal implementation plan elaborating on how it intends to spend the funds. That plan included specific examples of possible projects the money could help pay for. The district didn’t commit to pursuing those specific projects should the tax pass, noting in its plan “uncertainties associated with most projects related to permitting, litigation, additional funding and other third party actions.” Rather, the projects are representative of the types of projects it intended to pursue, and also are ones that have been endorsed by basin roundtable organizations in the Colorado, Gunnison and Yampa/White/Green basins.

    “Those projects listed in the plan are illustrative of the kind of work that we want to do, and indeed some of them could come to fruition in the next year or two,” Pokrandt said.

    In the Colorado River Basin, the examples the district gave include rehabilitation of the Grand Valley Roller Dam, which was built in 1913 and is the point of diversion for several large senior irrigation rights in the Grand Valley, and maintaining flows secured by the senior Shoshone hydroelectric plant water right in Glenwood Canyon.

    That plant is owned by Xcel Energy and is more than 100 years old, and questions about its longterm viability have the district and others looking for solutions for maintaining the plant’s nonconsumptive right, which is crucial to maintaining river flows through Glenwood Canyon and all the way to Grand Junction.

    Among several possible projects in the Gunnison Basin are the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association Westside Valley infrastructure improvement project, which would modernize and improve water diversion, delivery and other infrastructure; and the Paonia Reservoir and Fire Mountain Canal rehabilitation, which would involve implementing a sediment control system.

    Among possible Yampa/White/Green river basin projects are addressing an algae problem on the White River, and assisting with efforts to build a possible new water storage project in the lower White River basin. The state is challenging a proposed White River reservoir project in water court, questioning the need for the amount of water the reservoir would supply, according to recent reporting by the nonprofit aspenjournalism.org website.

    Pokrandt said that while it’s helpful to projects’ chances for them to be on the district’s implementation plan list, funding could go for things that aren’t listed, and that the district may not even know about now.

    #FortCollins #water restrictions end Tuesday, with completion of work on the outlet at Soldier Canyon dam — The Rocky Mountain Collegian

    The Soldier Canyon Dam is located on the east shore of Horsetooth Reservoir, 3.5 miles west of Fort Collins, Colorado. The zoned earthfill dam has an outlet works consisting of a concrete conduit through the base of the dam, controlled by two 72-inch hollow-jet valves. The foundation is limey shales and sandstones overlain with silty, sandy clay. Photo credit Reclamation.

    From The Rocky Mountain Collegian (Nicole Taylor):

    The mandatory water restrictions in Fort Collins are scheduled to end Nov. 10. On Nov. 8, Darin Atteberry, Fort Collins city manager, signed a declaration to end the restrictions.

    The restrictions were put in place on Oct. 1 as a level IV restriction due to the Horsetooth Outlet Project. The repairs were successfully completed over the past month with the help of backup pumps and community efforts, according to the announcement…

    Recent concerns for the water supply with the recent drought conditions and the Cameron Peak fire also played a role in the water reduction.

    The residents managed to reduce water use by 35% within the first day of restrictions, according to the HOP page on the Fort Collins Utilities website. The community then stayed below the 15 million gallons a day request since Oct. 14 rather than the usual 35-40 million gallons.

    #Drought moves one state toward water speculation — Writers on the Range #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    West Drought Monitor November 3, 2020.

    From Writers on the Range (Dave Marston:

    There’s a concept called “demand management” in the news in Colorado, and here’s a simple definition: Landowners get paid to temporarily stop irrigating, and that water gets sent downstream to hang out in Lake Powell.

    It’s an idea long talked about because of increasing drought and the very real danger of both Lake Mead and Lake Powell dropping into “dead pool” where no hydropower can be generated. But fears keep arising about what water markets mean. To some rural people, the idea of separating water from the land sounds like heresy.

    Here’s how Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District sees it: “Just talking about demand management has already attracted deep-pocketed investors, whose motives are money and not for maintaining a healthy river.”

    But James Eklund, former head of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and who shares credit for creating Colorado’s version of demand management, thinks setting up demand management in Colorado is crucial.

    “We need to act now,” he said. “Last winter and spring, where 107 percent snowpack turned into 52 percent runoff, was proof we’ve entered a deadly phase where millions of acre-feet of water need to be stored in Lake Powell.”

    These days, Eklund is a lawyer for the New York investment company, Water Asset Management (WAM), whose land purchases in Mesa County have sounded alarms about outsiders speculating on water. State Sen. Kerry Donovan, Democrat from Vail, has co-sponsored what could be called an anti-WAM bill, aimed at beefing up the state’s water anti-speculation laws.

    “If we don’t do demand management correctly,” Donovan warned, “we are going to create a commodity-based situation where water goes to the highest bidder.”

    Eklund’s rejoinder: “Like it or not, we live in a capitalist system.”

    […]

    Jim Lockhead, president of Denver Water, argued that by not putting demand management into place, increasing drought could bring about a crisis: “Water rates would spike in cities, just as farm income and output would plunge region-wide.” Without demand management, Lockhead predicted, there would be “an economic black hole.”

    To test demand management, four municipal water districts, including Denver Water, funded a pilot program in 2015-2019. It stored 175,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead by paying irrigators in Arizona, California and Nevada to fallow fields and forgo cultivation.

    Applications rose annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which funded 53 percent of the study. The rest, 47 percent, came from the four water districts and the Walton Family Foundation. Eklund wants the same players to back Colorado’s program, the first of the Upper Basin states to attempt demand management.

    “BuRec built all the dams possible (and) they should steer into conservation,” Eklund said.

    But to gain participation in the pilot program, water prices were set at levels that boosted farm incomes above what agriculture alone would produce. That raise in income also increased the value of their land.

    Mueller doesn’t like what that could lead to: “That will squeeze out future mom-and-pop operators. Ninety-five percent of Western Slope irrigators are owner-operators and we don’t want that declining.”

    Although the Colorado Water Conservation Board hasn’t ironed out how to “shepherd” the water downstream or who will round up willing sellers, investors from outside of Western Colorado are already buying up land with senior water rights.

    “We are seeing large, well-financed purchasers — ostensibly agricultural organizations — coming into the Gunnison basin,” said Steve Anderson, who manages the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, a canal company in Montrose County. In Delta County, the Conscience Bay Company, operating out of Boulder, bought the 3,000-acre Harts Basin Ranch, with senior water rights on the Grand Mesa.

    Yet, the new owners are hardly quick-buck artists. They have expanded the cattle herds, improved irrigation and hired locals.

    For the new water owners, it’s a waiting game until demand management exists and water comes with a price. As drought worsens, the owners of these senior water rights — whether they are from New York City or Texas — could well be sitting on a fortune.

    #2020 Delivers Setbacks For Some Long-Planned Western #Water Projects — KUNC #GilaRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    Lake Powell, behind Glen Canyon Dam, shows the effects of persistent drought in the Colorado River Basin. (Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

    From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

    2020 has been a tough year for some of the Colorado River basin’s long-planned, most controversial water projects.

    Proposals to divert water in New Mexico, Nevada and Utah have run up against significant legal, financial and political roadblocks this year. But while environmental groups have cheered the setbacks, it’s still unclear whether these projects have truly hit dead ends or are simply waiting in the wings.

    The watershed’s ongoing aridification, with record-breaking hot and dry conditions over the last 20 years, and lessened federal financial support for large-scale water projects is adding more pressure on projects that attempt to divert water to fast-growing communities or slow the purchase of agricultural water supplies.

    In New Mexico, a “solid plan” fails to materialize

    For years, environmental journalist Laura Paskus has been following the twists and turns of a proposed project in New Mexico’s southwest corner, called the https://www.sfreporter.com/news/coverstories/2020/10/07/dead-in-the-water/

    Introduced in 2004, when Arizona settled tribal water rights with the Gila River Indian Community, the diversion was billed as a way to provide much needed water supplies for four, mostly rural New Mexican counties.

    “The most recent plan was to build this diversion in the Cliff-Gila Valley,” Paskus said. “And to provide water to irrigators,” like farmers and ranchers.

    What propelled the project forward was a federal subsidy to cover some of the costs associated with planning and building. Thorny questions over the project’s total cost, its eventual operation and the financial burden of those who would receive the water were present from the start, Paskus said, but the idea of leaving federal dollars unspent kept the effort alive for more than a decade.

    “But there was never a really solid plan of how it would be built, or how it would be paid for,” she said. [ed. emphasis mine]

    Failure to come up with a plan finally sank the proposal in June this year. The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, which had thrown its weight behind the project five years earlier, voted to stop spending money on environmental reviews related to the diversion. Roughly $17 million had already been spent on engineering plans and consultants over the years…

    “Swamp Cedars” (Juniperus scopulorum) and associated pond, wetland and meadow in Spring Valley, White Pine County, Nevada. Photograph by Dennis Ghiglieri from http://images.water.nv.gov/images/Hearing%20Exhibit%20Archives/spring%20valley/WELC/Exhibit%203030.pdf

    Legal troubles for the Las Vegas pipeline

    A similar drama played out in Nevada earlier this year. For decades water providers in Las Vegas have pursued a $15 billion plan to pump groundwater from northern Nevada, and pipe it 300 miles south to the fast-growing metro area in the Mojave Desert…

    The Southern Nevada Water Authority, the agency pushing for the pipeline, hit legal hurdles this past spring. Just as the coronavirus pandemic was taking hold, a judge denied some water rights associated with the project. A month later the water authority chose not to appeal and tabled the pipeline altogether

    This $2+ billion project would pump 28 billion gallons of water 2,000 feet uphill across 140 miles of desert to provide just 160,000 residents in Southwest Utah with more water. Graphic credit: Utah Rivers Council

    Litigation threat puts Utah pipeline on notice

    Rising costs have long been at the heart of criticism over the Lake Powell pipeline, a proposal to spend upwards of $2 billion to build a 140-mile water pipeline from the beleaguered Colorado River reservoir to rapidly expanding communities in southwest Utah.

    But you can now add political and potential legal troubles to the mix of factors that could put the pipeline’s future in question. And seeing the successes in other parts of the Southwest are giving Utah’s environmental advocates hope that it too can be derailed completely.

    “The state of Utah is proposing to divert Colorado River water down the Lake Powell pipeline simply to use more of its water rights out of the Colorado River,” said Zach Frankel, director of the Utah Rivers Council, one of the groups opposed to the pipeline.

    But opposition to the pipeline doesn’t end with environmentalists. Political pressure from other users on the river is slowing it down. In September, in the midst of a new environmental review from the Bureau of Reclamation, every other state that relies on the river besides Utah teamed up to say the project has too many unresolved issues to move forward…

    Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2019 of the #coriver big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck

    The lesson here, according to Paskus, is that many of these proposals rely on outdated ideas about our relationship to water in the arid West, and that plans will have to change as the region warms.

    Map of the Colorado River drainage basin, created using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65868008

    #Loveland council to study update to raw #water master plan, water fees, November 10, 2020 — The Loveland Reporter-Herald

    Looking east toward the Chimney Hollow Reservoir site, which is just this side of the red ridge. On the other side is Carter Lake Reservoir and beyond that, the Loveland area.

    From The Loveland Reporter-Herald (Max Levy):

    The plan was first approved in 2005 as a way of ensuring that the city has enough water without having to cut back, even in a once-in-a-century drought. It was updated by the council in 2012.

    Prepared by city staff members, the update includes several major recommendations. First, the city recommends using a model created by Spronk Water Engineers to continue prepping for a major drought, which was modeled based on the historic drought Colorado faced in 2002.

    While the plan encourages water conservation as a buffer and a way of ensuring water security in the event of an even more severe drought, the plan notes that it is not “a tool to directly reduce future demands in long-term planning.”

    A target of 30,000 acre-feet remains the city’s long-term goal for water demand. Currently, Loveland has access to a firm yield of about 25,210 acre-feet per year, which should increase by about 5,680 acre-feet by 2031, if the Chimney Hollow Reservoir west of Loveland and the Loveland Great Western Reservoir in east Loveland are completed as recommended.

    The master plan projects the resulting 30,890 acre-feet would be enough to support the city until 2056.

    Loveland customers used about 13,129 acre-feet of treated water last year, or about 0.166 acre-foot per person.

    Points of the recommended policy on developer contributions to the city’s raw water portfolio include:

  • Requiring at least half and allowing up to 100% of most contributions to be made in the form of Colorado-Big Thompson Project water, cash-in-lieu or cash credits in the Loveland Water Bank.
  • Decreasing the value of a C-BT credit from 1 acre-foot to 0.9 acre-foot.
  • Adjusting credits for ditch shares based on the content of the Spronk analysis.
  • Removing the 5% administrative cost on the cash-in-lieu fee and placing no limit on the amount of cash-in-lieu transactions, as long as they’re dedicated to a specific project.
  • Tying storage fees to the estimated cost of storage at Chimney Hollow Reservoir.
  • Including a fee of $482 per acre-foot in the native water storage fee to cover the engineering and legal costs of changing the use of native water in Colorado’s water courts.
  • Changing the name of the native water storage fee to the “storage fee.”
  • The plan also leaves open the possibility of the city exploring the use of untreated water for irrigation, taking into account “concerns of cross-contamination and the relatively high expense of building a new utility in already developed parts of the community.”

    Updates to water-related fees would go hand-in-hand with the plan and reflect the increasing costs of the Chimney Hollow project and C-BT water.

    For the cash-in-lieu fee, in addition to eliminating the 5% administrative add-on, the new calculation would divide the average annual C-BT price by 0.9. Previously, the fee was tied to the average price over the past three to six months.

    The native water storage fee would increase by between $15,132 per acre-foot of native water to $21,772 per acre-foot, depending on the source.

    Raw water impact fees would increase for commercial, irrigation and some residential taps and would be phased in over a period of two to 10 years.

    Loveland’s council will not vote on the items Tuesday, but members will give direction to the staff before the proposal comes back for a future vote.

    #Drought planning hinges on #DemandManagement, reaching an agreement could be challenging — The #Farmington Daily Times #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #DCP

    From The Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):

    The four states in the upper basin, including New Mexico, are working on demand management plans to reduce the risk they will be mandated to reduce water use to fulfill obligations of the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

    While this could reduce the risk to the water users, New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission Director Rolf Schmidt-Petersen told the San Juan Water Commission that he is not highly optimistic that the upper basin states can reach an agreement about demand management and storage. He said coming to an agreement on these topics will take a while…

    The San Juan River, below Navajo Reservoir. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    Recognizing that drought could strain the limited supplies in the river, both the upper and the lower Colorado River basins have created drought contingency plans. One key element of the upper basin plan is demand management. This means water users can be paid to temporarily reduce their water consumption and the water saved through that method would be placed in one of the upper basin reservoirs, such as Navajo Lake.

    If a situation arose where the upper basin could not reach its contractual obligation to deliver water to Lake Powell, the water stored in one of those reservoirs would be released to meet those requirements.

    The details about demand management are still being worked out and, on Nov. 4, representatives from the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission provided the San Juan Water Commission with an update on those efforts.

    Schmidt-Petersn said there is only a small chance that there will be a call on the river that would require the upper basin to curtail use, but the demand management proposal will protect the water users if such situation arose.

    Currently, New Mexico is in the stakeholder outreach process of developing a demand management plant, according to Ali Effati, who presented on behalf of the Interstate Stream Commission.

    Effati said demand management could be easier to set up in New Mexico than in other upper basin states due to the proximity to Lake Powell, however there are still questions that remain such as how to shepherd the water that is released to meet the compact requirement and make sure that it makes it into Lake Powell.

    All four upper basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico — must agree on demand management and storage, as must the Upper Colorado River Commission. This type of agreement may be hard to achieve, Schmidt-Petersen warned, as each state works to protect its own interest in the Colorado River water.

    San Juan Water Commissioner Jim Dunlap, who represents rural water users, emphasized the importance of having a way to meet the Colorado River Compact requirements even if a drought reduces the flows significantly in the rivers.

    Navajo Lake

    New Mexico currently does not use all the water that it is allocated and Dunlap said that furnishes a “false benefit” to the lower basin states and could lead to challenges if New Mexico chose to increase its utilization of its allocated water.

    Farmington Community Works Director David Sypher highlighted an area that could create challenges: how to fairly share the burden of water shortages. If a drought does occur, entities will have to cut back. But Sypher said the City of Farmington has already invested in efforts to conserve water such as leak detection, storage and maintenance. This has led to higher water rates for customers.

    Sypher said conservation is a huge part, if not the most important part, of demand management.

    #SanJuanRiver streamflow report #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Clayton Chaney):

    After a recent storm that dropped nearly 2 feet of snow across the southern San Juan Mountains, the San Juan River has seen a rise in its flow rate compared to recent readings. Last month, a record low flow rate was set.

    According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the San Juan River was flowing at a rate of 48.4 cfs as of 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 3.

    Based on 84 years of water records, the river is still flowing below the average rate of 117 cfs for this date. The highest recorded rate for this date was in 1987 at 657 cfs. The lowest recorded rate was 22 cfs, recorded in 1956.

    A boater, John Dufficy, makes his way down the lower end of the San Juan River toward the take-out, in 2014. Photo Credit: Aspen Journalism/Brent Gardner-Smith

    From email from Reclamation (Susan Novak Behery):

    In response to increasing tributary flows, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 400 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 300 cfs on Monday, November 9th, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

    The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

    Voters overwhelmingly pass #ColoradoRiver District tax hike — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification

    A boater paddles the Roaring Fork River near Carbondale May 16, 2020. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

    Western Slope voters have overwhelmingly passed a proposal by the Colorado River Water Conservation District to raise property taxes across its 15-county region.

    According to preliminary results as of 10:45 p.m. Tuesday, encompassing about 246,245 ballots, about 72% of voters said yes to the measure. Saguache County was the lone county to vote against the measure.

    Pitkin County voters passed ballot question 7A with 80% in favor, despite three of five county commissioners and Pitkin County’s representative to the River District board John Ely opposing the measure. Nearly 69% of voters in Mesa County, which has the largest population base in the district, supported the measure.

    The River District announced that the measure had received voter approval in a news release at 7:55 p.m. Tuesday, saying the organization is ready to get to work implementing water projects across the district.

    River District general manager Andy Mueller said the results prove that water is the one issue that can unite voters in western Colorado.

    “It was the one issue that’s not partisan, that was about uniting a very politically diverse region,” he said. “Everybody is so sick of the nasty, divisive, partisan politics. People with (Donald) Trump signs and (Joe) Biden signs voted for the same thing.”

    Ballot measure 7A raises property taxes by a half-mill, or an extra $1.90 per year for every $100,000 of residential home value. The measure will raise nearly an additional $5 million annually for the River District, which says it will use the money for fighting to keep water on the Western Slope, protecting water supplies for Western Slope farmers and ranchers, protecting drinking water for Western Slope communities, and protecting fish, wildlife and recreation.

    According to numbers provided by the River District, the mill levy will increase to $40.28 from $18.93 annually for Pitkin County’s median home value, which at $1.13 million is the highest in the district. In Eagle County, where the median home value is $660,979, the mill levy will increase to $23.63 from $11.11 annually.

    Property owners can expect to see the mill-levy increase on their 2021 tax bill.

    The proposal received wide support among county commissioners, agricultural organizations and environmental groups.

    Eagle County Commissioner and River District board member Kathy Chandler-Henry, who also served as vice-chair of the political action committee Yes on 7A, said it would have been nearly impossible for the River District to protect Western Slope water without the tax increase.

    “I’m glad people throughout the district saw the value in that, even though it’s a tough time to be asking for a tax increase,” she said. “I think that’s a huge win and a huge vote of confidence in the work the River District’s been doing.”

    The River District, based in Glenwood Springs and created by the state legislature in 1937 to develop and protect water supplies in western Colorado, spans Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Gunnison, Garfield, Rio Blanco, Routt, Moffat, Mesa, Delta, Montrose, Ouray, Hinsdale and Saguache counties.

    The River District’s fiscal implementation plan for the revenue that would be raised by the tax hike says 86% would go toward funding water projects backed by roundtables and local communities. Those projects would fall into five categories: productive agriculture; infrastructure; healthy rivers; watershed health and water quality; and conservation and efficiency.

    This story ran in The Aspen Times, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the Summit Daily News, the Vail Daily, the Steamboat Pilot and Today and the Sky-Hi News.

    The Colorado River Water Conservation District spans 15 Western Slope counties. River District directors are asking voters this fall to raise the mill levy.

    #ColoradoRiver managers turn eyes to new #LakePowell-#LakeMead deal — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel #COriver #aridification

    From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

    A 2007 deal creating guidelines governing how Lake Powell and Lake Mead are operated in coordination isn’t scheduled to expire until 2026. But water officials in Colorado River Basin states are already beginning to talk about the renegotiations that will be undertaken to decide what succeeds the 2007 criteria.

    “I think the guidelines have been a big success,” John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said Wednesday during the 10th annual Upper Colorado River Basin Water Forum. The forum is put on by Colorado Mesa University’s Ruth Powell Hutchins Water Center and this year is taking place online due to the pandemic.

    The 2007 criteria dictate how much water must be released each year from Powell into Mead, in an effort to equalize water levels in the two reservoirs. The criteria are important to Colorado and other states in the Upper Colorado River Basin because those states rely on Powell water storage for meeting long-term delivery obligations to downstream states based on a 1922 interstate compact.

    Amy Haas, executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, which represents Upper Basin states, said she thinks the 2007 guidelines have reduced the “safe yield” of water for the Upper Basin. Even with low inflows into Powell, the guidelines resulted in releases of 9 million acre-feet a year of water from Powell every year from 2015-19, compared to the 8.3 million acre-feet negotiated average minimum objective, she said.

    Entsminger called that a simplistic analysis that cherry-picks data. He says his entity’s modeling indicates that under the 2007 criteria there is more water in Powell and less in Mead than otherwise would have been the case.

    Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said that with the guidelines in places, Powell water levels largely have remained around 50% of capacity “through some horrendously dry years” and only three or four years of above-average inflows.

    The criteria encourage water conservation and provide rules for determining water shortages and reducing water use by Arizona and Nevada.

    Entsminger said the 2007 agreement increased cooperation and communication among states in the river basin, provided certainty by operating the two reservoirs together, and headed off litigation only two years after states were close to going to the Supreme Court over river water issues…

    Those states are evaluating the possibility of demand management measures to temporarily curtail agricultural, municipal and other use during droughts. The goal is to bolster Powell levels with water that could be reserved for compact delivery obligations. But Haas said it’s important to assess the risk of curtailment of Upper Basin uses occurring as well. Such a curtailment has never happened.

    Bracing for a dry, warm winter — The #CrestedButte News #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From The Crested Butte News (Kendra Walker):

    Between the lack of moisture this spring, summer and fall, rising temperatures and a heads-up statewide wildfire season, the Gunnison Valley continues to feel the severe effects of drought as we head into what’s expected to be a warmer than average winter season.

    According to the United States Drought Monitor’s latest update…every region of Colorado is currently in at least moderate drought, with more than 21 percent of the state in the most severe “exceptional” category. The last time the entire state of Colorado had been in drought was July 2013. Most of Gunnison County is one level below, in “extreme” drought, with the northwestern tip in the “exceptional” category.

    West Drought Monitor November 3, 2020.

    Water levels

    Water availability is a growing concern as we experience less and less precipitation and rising temps. Due to such dry soil moisture conditions and early warm temperatures this past spring, last winter’s average snowpack dried up very quickly and the water supply in Gunnison County “was literally disappearing before our very eyes,” said Sonja Chavez, general manager for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD).

    According to Chavez, peak water flows occurred about two weeks early and quickly fell. Blue Mesa’s projected max fill capacity this summer was approximately 604,000 acre-feet, only about 72 percent of maximum capacity. The Taylor Reservoir’s highest fill this summer was about 80,000 acre-feet, only about 75 percent to 80 percent full.

    “We knew things were really dry and we knew we weren’t going to have a lot of water, and were likely going to have a deficit at the end of the year,” said Chavez. So the UGRWCD, in partnership with the Taylor Local Users Group (TLUG), made the decision to forego typical fall water releases from Taylor Reservoir in order to provide enough water for water users this summer.

    This, said Chavez, meant agricultural water users would finish their only hay crop of the season, forego any potential second cut and not put fall water on their fields. “Upper Gunnison users had to go into their irrigation season having less water available to them,” said Chavez, which will then affect their crop supply. Bill Trampe of the Colorado River District estimates that hay crops around Gunnison were at 50 percent to 60 percent of normal.

    The water adjustments were also intended to let recreational water users make the most of a limited seasonal water supply. But the lower water levels limited the boating season, impacted water temperatures in the fisheries and ended up funneling anglers to certain segments of the rivers. This then put more pressure and impact on those river sections experiencing higher concentrations of people…

    Winter forecast

    Even though Colorado already experienced a couple of early wet snow storms this fall, bringing a little moisture to our soils and helping to tame the wildfires, Chavez said the combination of warm weather in between storms and already dry soils are not reassuring looking ahead to 2021. “The soils are like a sponge,” she said. “If the soils are wet going into winter and the water freezes and stays there, the soils will melt come spring and help get the crops going. But if you don’t have that and you go into the next season dry, it’s much harder to fill that crop.”

    […]

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) annual winter outlook calls for a drier-than-average and warmer than average winter season in Colorado, especially for the southern half of the state. This, according to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL), will likely lead to an escalation of the drought we are experiencing.

    Gunnison River Basin. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69257550

    Millions in new taxes approved for #WestSlope, #FrontRange #water districts — @WaterEdCO

    From Water Education Colorado (Sarah Kuta):

    Water won big in Colorado on Election Day as voters in two multi-county districts approved property tax increases to fund water projects and programs.

    Voters in two local water districts — the Colorado River Water Conservation District on the West Slope and the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District on the Front Range — said yes to ballot measures that will generate millions of dollars in new money for conservation, water education, stream health, storage and agriculture.

    Based on vote totals as of 4:30 a.m. this morning, 72 percent of voters in the Colorado River District approved ballot issue 7A, with nearly 28 percent voting against the measure.

    Meanwhile, 69 percent of voters in the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District approved a separate ballot issue 7A, with 31 percent voting against.

    Though statewide funding for water projects has historically been a tough sell for Colorado voters, local initiatives with a more direct connection to residents are finding more success at the polls in recent years. These 2020 water funding ballot measures come on the heels of similar successes in 2018, when voters in Denver, Eagle, Chaffee and Park counties approved tax increases, new taxes, and tax extensions for water and land-focused initiatives.

    “Passing any type of fiscal measures statewide in Colorado is going to continue to be an extreme challenge but it’s a much different story on the local level and the regional level,” said Matt Rice, director of the Colorado Basin Program for American Rivers, which supported the Colorado River District measure. “People in Colorado like to make their own decisions locally about fiscal issues, but also about how we manage and protect and restore our rivers for the environment, for agriculture and for local economies.”

    In deciding to ask voters for more money this year, the two districts’ leaders cited factors like growing demand for water, drought, higher temperatures, population growth, declining oil and gas revenue, and declining property tax levels under the state’s Gallagher Amendment.

    Those reasons resonated with voters on both sides of the political spectrum across the state. On the West Slope, for example, voters in right-leaning counties like Mesa and Montrose and left-leaning counties like Pitkin and Summit approved the ballot measure. (Of note: Nearly 80 percent of voters in Pitkin County approved the ballot measure, despite opposition by three county commissioners and the county’s representative on the district’s board.)

    “It’s really a testament to what can happen if people put aside partisan differences on water issues,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District. “Voters in Colorado are seeing the effects of rising temperatures, changing climate and the impact it’s having on water resources, and they know that we need to adapt and mitigate and that it’s going to cost money to do that.”

    An angler casts a line on the Roaring Fork River upstream of Basalt in Pitkin County. West Slope voters said yes to millions in new taxes for the Colorado River District. Credit: Jerd Smith, Fresh Water News

    West Slope says yes

    In the large Colorado River District, which includes 15 counties and some 500,000 residents, voters approved a mill levy increase that will double the district’s budget by generating an additional $4.9 million every year starting in 2021.

    The district spans an area that covers 28 percent of the state and encompasses the Colorado River and its major tributaries, which include the Yampa, the White, the Gunnison and the Uncompahgre rivers.

    With the passage of the ballot measure, West Slope voters approved a median residential property tax increase of $7.03 per year for residents of Grand, Summit, Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield, Routt, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Mesa, Delta, Ouray, Gunnison and parts of Montrose, Saguache and Hinsdale counties. The increase represents an additional $1.90 per year for every $100,000 of home value.

    The district, which has 22 employees, will use the new funding for projects related to agriculture, infrastructure, water quality, conservation, efficiency, and other key priority areas determined by local communities and river basin roundtables.

    District leaders say they will also stretch the extra money further by using it to solicit matching funds from state, federal and private sources.

    Water funding on the Front Range

    It was also a historic night for the St. Vrain and Left Hand Water Conservancy District, where voters approved a property tax increase for the next 10 years. This is the first time in nearly 50 years — since its founding in 1971 — that the district has asked voters for more funding.

    The district’s board thought long and hard about how best to approach voters — and whether this was the right year to do it. But in the end, their approach paid off.

    “The discussions were good and essentially resulted in consensus and agreement with the board,” said Chris Smith, board vice president representing district 3, which encompasses northwest Longmont and parts of unincorporated Boulder County. “It was all done in a very thoughtful manner, which speaks a lot to having a board that represents, geographically, the entire watershed.”

    Smith said he was happy to see the West Slope ballot measure pass, too.

    “The people of Colorado have really keyed in on the importance of water,” he said. “There are so many new people moving to Colorado, it’s good to see that they’re carrying on that mantle of protecting our most important resource.”

    The St. Vrain and Left Hand district encompasses some 500 square miles along the St. Vrain and Left Hand creeks in Boulder, Weld and Larimer counties. Voters agreed to a mill levy increase from 0.156 mills to 1.25 mills through 2030.

    The tax increase will generate an additional $3.3 million per year for the district starting in 2021, up from the $421,000 generated annually by the current mill levy. On a $350,000 home, the tax increase represents an additional $2.61 per month; on a $500,000 commercial building, it’s an extra $15.10 per month.

    District leaders say they will use the extra money for projects related to water quality, river and creek health, water education, agriculture, storage and conservation, among others.

    Sarah Kuta is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado. She can be reached at sarahkuta@gmail.com.

    #Colorado officials set sights on ponds without water rights — @AspenJournalism #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    A canoe floats in the Milvich family pond in Old Snowmass. The Colorado Division of Water Resources issued a cease-and-desist letter because the pond, which does not have a legal water right, was taking water out of priority. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett):

    Rebecca Milvich has many fond childhood memories of playing in the pond on her family’s Old Snowmass property, which they purchased in 1985.

    Every summer, the pond off Little Elk Creek Avenue in Old Snowmass, became the neighborhood hangout as Milvich and her siblings and friends swam and paddled a canoe. Still today, the pond, which is filled by a ditch branching off Little Elk Creek, brings the family joy as they admire the ducks, fish and muskrats that live there.

    “Those are the passions that are wrapped around it,” Milvich said. “It’s very personal. It’s something that has enhanced our quality of life a thousandfold. Our ability to have a water feature has changed our lives for the better, for sure.”

    But on Sept. 22, the Milvich family received a cease-and-desist order from the Colorado Division of Water Resources that said they had to stop filling their pond because of a downstream call on the Colorado River, in which water users junior to the Grand Valley irrigators’ water rights had to be shut off.

    It turned out the Milvich family did not have a legal water right for their pond, making them one of the most junior water users on the Colorado River system and one of the first to be curtailed.

    “We were from Southern California and we missed having the beach,” Milvich said. “And my dad was excited to purchase an actual piece of property that had water on it, totally not knowing that we were in some ways for these last 35 years breaking some rules and regulations. We had absolutely no idea.”

    The Milvich family’s pond is not the only one in the area lacking a water right. DWR officials say undecreed ponds throughout the region are depleting the Colorado River system in a time when a climate change-fueled drought makes it more important than ever to account for every last drop of water.

    The Glenwood Springs-based Division 5 engineer’s office issued five cease-and-desist orders for ponds without water rights this season in the upper Roaring Fork Valley. And officials say there are many more ponds like these out there. Some of them are recently built for fire protection.

    The main concern with these ponds is water loss to the Colorado River system through evaporation. The bigger the surface area, the more water that is lost.

    “A lot of the depletions are pretty small, but it’s death by a thousand cuts,” Division 5 Engineer Alan Martellaro said. “When you have these all over the place, they add up at some point.”

    According to Colorado water law, anyone is allowed to divert water from a stream simply by putting it to beneficial use as long as it does not harm senior water-rights holders. To protect their ability to keep using the water and save their place in line, most users make their water right official by getting a decree through water court. This enshrines the water right in Colorado’s system of prior appropriation in which the older the water right, the more powerful it is.

    “It’s a good idea because it protects your standing,” Martellaro said. “It protects your priority. That’s the whole point of a water right.”

    That means ponds without a decree are last in line and are the first to be shut off when there’s a downstream call from irrigators in the Grand Valley, which have much older water rights — one from 1912 and one from 1934. Known as the “Cameo Call,” these irrigators can control all junior water rights upstream of their diversion at the roller dam in DeBeque Canyon.

    Most summers, Grand Valley irrigators “call” for their water when streamflows begin to drop. In general, the drier the year, the earlier the call comes on. This year, the Cameo Call first came July 30 and went off at the end of irrigation season Oct. 26.

    As long as the call is on, junior upstream water rights must be shut off or “curtailed” so that the downstream irrigators can get the full amount of water to which they are legally entitled. It is up to the division engineer’s office to decide exactly how to administer the call and which junior water rights to curtail, but undecreed water use is generally the first to go.

    “When the call is on, they are stealing somebody else’s water if they don’t have a water right,” said Bill Blakeslee, water commissioner for District 38, which encompasses the Roaring Fork River watershed.

    Blakeslee said he doesn’t like to issue cease-and-desist orders, and his goal is to educate people about the Colorado River system.

    “We don’t like to do our business this way, but this is one of the tools we use to help people understand we don’t have as much water as we used to and we all need to take steps to preserve as much as we can,” he said. “It makes a statement to the general public that we are in a drought situation, so let’s not do things that continue to contribute to further loss of water.”

    Even though the ponds are causing water loss to the river system at all times, Blakeslee said he can apply the pressure of the law only when there is a call.

    “I can’t enforce the rules until the call goes on the system,” he said.

    Rebecca Milvich has many fond childhood memories of playing in this pond on her family’s property in Old Snowmass. Officials from the Colorado Division of Water Resources say ponds without a water right, such as this one, are depleting the Colorado River system. Photo credit: Heather Sackett/Aspen Journlism

    Compact call

    The Milviches were supposed to have stopped diverting water out of priority within 10 days of receiving the order or else face enforcement actions such as having to pay the state’s costs and legal fees. But Martellaro said his office so far has not fined the owners of any of the five ponds and won’t as long as they are working toward a solution. And since the Grand Valley call is now off the river, the issue is less urgent — for the moment.

    Colorado is entering a period of tighter accountability for some water users as Lake Powell’s levels continue to drop and the threat of a compact call looms larger in a warming West.

    A compact call could occur if the upper-basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) can’t deliver the 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year to the lower-basin states (Arizona, California and Nevada), as required by the Colorado River Compact, a nearly century-old binding agreement. Upper-basin water managers desperately want to avoid this scenario.

    “I guess you could say one of the elephants in the room is the interstate compact situation,” Blakeslee said.

    So what are the Milviches’ options to remedy the situation? In order to be allowed to keep using water for the pond when a call is on, they must replace that water to the system. One possibility is getting a contract for an augmentation plan with a local water-conservancy district to release water from Ruedi Reservoir to make up for depletions from the pond. The Milviches have met with an engineer to assess their options.

    Whatever they decide, securing a water right through water court can be a lengthy, expensive process.

    “We are definitely terrified about that reality,” Milvich said.

    Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative journalism organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Nov. 2 edition of The Aspen Times.

    #ColoradoRiver District Issue 7A: Voters overwhelmingly pass River District tax hike — The #Aspen Times #COriver #aridification

    The Colorado River Water Conservation District spans 15 Western Slope counties. River District directors are asking voters this fall to raise the mill levy.

    From Aspen Journalism (Heather Sackett) via The Aspen Times:

    According to preliminary results as of 10:45 p.m. Tuesday, encompassing about 246,245 ballots, about 72% of voters said yes to the measure. Saguache County was the lone county to vote against the measure.

    Pitkin County voters passed ballot question 7A with 80% in favor, despite three of five county commissioners and Pitkin County’s representative to the River District board John Ely opposing the measure. Nearly 69% of voters in Mesa County, which has the largest population base in the district, supported the measure.

    River District general manager Andy Mueller said the results prove that water is the one issue that can unite voters in western Colorado. [ed. emphasis mine]

    “It was the one issue that’s not partisan, that was about uniting a very politically diverse region,” he said. “Everybody is so sick of the nasty, divisive, partisan politics. People with (Donald) Trump signs and (Joe) Biden signs voted for the same thing.”

    Ballot measure 7A raises property taxes by a half-mill, or an extra $1.90 per year for every $100,000 of residential home value. The measure will raise nearly an additional $5 million annually for the River District, which says it will use the money for fighting to keep water on the Western Slope, protecting water supplies for Western Slope farmers and ranchers, protecting drinking water for Western Slope communities, and protecting fish, wildlife and recreation.

    According to numbers provided by the River District, the mill levy will increase to $40.28 from $18.93 annually for Pitkin County’s median home value, which at $1.13 million is the highest in the district. In Eagle County, where the median home value is $660,979, the mill levy will increase to $23.63 from $11.11 annually.

    Property owners can expect to see the mill-levy increase on their 2021 tax bill.

    The proposal received wide support among county commissioners, agricultural organizations and environmental groups…

    The River District’s fiscal implementation plan for the revenue that would be raised by the tax hike says 86% would go toward funding water projects backed by roundtables and local communities. Those projects would fall into five categories: productive agriculture; infrastructure; healthy rivers; watershed health and water quality; and conservation and efficiency.

    Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. For more, go to aspenjournalism.org.

    #Colorado’s #EastTroublesomeFire megafire — The Mountain Town News #ActOnClimate

    East Troublesome Fire. Photo credit: Brad White via The Mountain Town News

    From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

    Troublesome questions about where we’re headed during our hotter, drier, longer summers in Colorado

    East Troublesome, now the second largest fire in Colorado as defined by acreage, appears to have started on Oct. 14 within a mile or so of my first backpack trip 40 years ago.

    My days of backpacking have ended. These very large, very strange fires such as East Troublesome will almost certainly become more common in coming decades. For about a decade, wildfire specialists have been using a new word to describe those of another dimension: megafires. Colorado this year has had three wildfires that crossed the threshold of the simplest metric, 100,000 acres in size.

    East Troublesome hurtled past that metric in less than 90 minutes. Like at least one other fire, it appears to have created its own weather. And then there’s the weirdness of the timing. It started in mid-October, traditionally a time of down comforters and, if not every year, most years in the mountains, snow on the ground.

    The largest fire in Colorado history is now the Cameron Peak Fire. It started Aug. 15 and has now reached 209,000 acres. The East Troublesome Fire is second at 194,000 acres. Both remain live fires. The third largest fire, Pine Gulch, north of Grand Junction, also occurred this year, covering 139,000 acres before being declared completely contained in September. Partly in Colorado, but mostly in Wyoming, is the Mullen Fire, at 177,000 acres.

    Smoke from the Mullen Fire along the Wyoming-Colorado border as seen from the Snowy Range in Wyoming on Oct. 6. Photo/Allen Best

    But first, about that backpack trip. In 1980, I was living in Kremmling, a small town with a blue collar and cowboy boots. The busiest bar was called the Hoof ‘n’ Horn. Most people worked at the Edwards Hines sawmill, one of several sawmills in the region, or at the Amax Henderson molybdenum mill, which was “up” the Williams Fork Valley 25 miles away.

    About backpacking, I knew nothing. My equipment was laughable, more suitable for a city park than a stretch of country rarely visited by people except cowboys during roundup time. A girlfriend drove me up Colorado 125, the road between Granby and Walden, and then onto a Forest Service road, and dropped me off.

    It rained hard that night, lightning crashing fiercely, and there were bumps in the night, probably cattle and maybe elk, but I thought for sure bears. Then the sun came up. I had caught the bug. Exploring places beyond the roads became a passion. A decade later I had become an avid backpacker and a pretty good backcountry skier, too.

    The East Troublesome fire started Oct. 14 and would have been a record fire in the 20th century and, by 21st century standards it was still respectably large. But in the dull, gray sky along Front Range, it was indistinct from the smoke of the Cameron Peak Fire and then the fire near Boulder called CalWood.

    We had watched the CalWood fire that Saturday evening from a restaurant in Boulder, the last one along Broadway before it joins Highway 36. The fire had started about seven hours before and was already, I believe, the largest in Boulder County history. Sitting outside at the restaurant, we could see the fire flaring in the distance, maybe 10 miles away. I didn’t realize how personal it was to people in the next socially distanced table until later. Cathy, my companion, who still has good hearing, said they were people who had homes in the fire area. One was calling his insurance agent.

    Like a volcanic eruption

    On Oct. 21, a week to the day after East Troublesome had started, I saw a Facebook post showing a giant plume of smoke as seen from Park Meadows, in Denver’s South Metro area. I assumed one of these Front Range fires had blown up. It had been another unseasonably warm day. The person who posted the photo compared it to Mt. Vesuvius erupting.

    Later, the story has been pieced together. The fire had advanced to northeast of Hot Sulphur Springs but still east of Colorado 125, the highway that goes from Windy Gap—west of Granby a few miles—north to Willow Creek Pass and to Walden.

    Brad White, the fire chief for Grand County Fire Protection District No. 1, whose service territory includes most of the affected area other than Grand Lake, says the fire made a run toward evening, as the sun was getting low in the sky. The fire had been burning a mixture of live and dead trees in the Kinney Creek area northeast of Hot Sulphur Springs. In 90 minutes, pushed by winds from the southwest, the fire rushed to Rocky Mountain National Park and across Trail Ridge Road. By White’s calculation, that’s a distance of 17 miles.

    Slow-burning fires spread by the ground, often from tree crown to tree crown. This fire, during its runs, leaped great distances, a process called spotting. Visiting the charred remains of Columbine Lake, a housing development west of Grand Lake, White and others found a burning fist-sized ember—a piece of burning tree that they believe was hurled into the sky and came down miles away, like hail.

    The East Troublesome fire was large by conventional Colorado standards, having covered a large area north of Hot Sulphur Springs. Then, in one evening it sprinted past Grand Lake and across the Continental Divide.

    The current issue of Wired magazine tells of something similar, but set in Redding, Calif. An employee of the Forest Service, Eric Knapp, barely escaped a fire alive. The assumption he had made was that the fire would spread in typical fashion, on the ground. It instead created a giant column of fire and smoke, like a tornado, and then spread ashes and embers. That is what nearly killed the Forest Service fire expert and many of his neighbors. It sounds like something similar happened with the East Troublesome fire.

    A key paragraph from that story:

    “Knapp knew this could signal a once rare and dangerous phenomenon known as plume-driven fire, in which a fire’s own convective column of rising heat becomes hot enough and big enough to redirect wind and weather in ways that can make the fire burn much hotter and, with little warning, spread fast enough to trap people as they flee.”

    Michael Kodas, the Boulder-based author of a 2017 book called “Megafire,” says Cameron Peak, East Troublesome and Pine Gulch fires all produced what are called pyrocumulus clouds, basically thunderheads. In the case of Pine Gulch, it produced lightning. Lightning from such smoke-born clouds can make the fire worse or spread it.

    So far, though, Colorado has escaped what has now been observed in California: tornadoes caused by wildfires. They’ve been nicknamed firenadoes.

    But the East Troublesome fire had enough wind to sprint hard across Grand County. White’s estimate bears repeating: This fire ran 17 miles in 90 minutes. And 105,000 acres in an evening. To put that into perspective, Colorado’s largest forest fire until 2020 was the Hayman Fire of 2002, which covered 138,000 acres. It’s largest single-day run was 60,000 acres.

    The Troublesome fire got big and did so fast in a month when fires are rare. It also leaped across the Continental Divide. In some areas, where the Continental Divide in Colorado is forested and relatively low, that wouldn’t be all that notable. But in this case it leaped across two miles of rock and tundra to start a fire that quickly forced the evacuation of the east side of Estes Park, including the downtown area, and eventually the entire valley. In published reports, firefighting experts described it as so rare as to cause head-scratching.

    It may have created its own weather, as big fires can do. Some anecdotal reports gleaned second-hand describe intense winds. From Fraser, about 30 miles to the south, Andy Miller, with whom I worked almost 40 years ago at the now-defunct Winter Park Manifest, said he saw tall columns of smoke, thunderhead-type formations. Atop this cloud of smoke were lenticulars, which commonly are at 40,000 feet.

    On the outskirts of Granby, Patrick Brower and his wife and children had packed their car that Wednesday. The town was under a pre-evacuation order, but some areas on the mesa north of the high school were ordered to evacuate. That afternoon, there had been a steady stream of evacuees flowing through Granby—people from Grand Lake and the Three Lakes area—driving by his former office at the Sky-Hi News. Police did a good job of getting people out of harm’s way, he says, just as they had in Granby in 2004.

    “It was scary for sure, because there were massive, massive clouds of smoke,” he says. “But the fire was still west and north of Granby.”

    Brower has a habit of sticking around until the last minute. In 2004, when he was still editor and publisher of the newspaper, Brower fled through the back door of the newspaper office just as the bulldozer of the small-town terrorist Marvin Heemeyer crashed through the front door.

    Heemeyer nursed his grudges against the world in Grand Lake, the town of knotty-pine-sided buildings at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. It mostly escaped the fire.

    Despite the greenery evident in the foreground of this photo, there was a stench all around such as being amid 10,000 smoldering campfires. Photo/Allen Best

    On Saturday, 11 days after East Troublesome made its big run, I drove to Granby and then Grand Lake. An electric sign at the entrance said, “Locals only please.” My companion and I instead followed Highway 34 to the blockade at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. In the background of Grand Lake were giant hillsides of charred, dead trees. Immediately along the highway, only a few areas had burned. Nearly all the houses remained standing. The Grand County Sheriff had estimated the loss of 100 houses. I suspect considerable luck. Easily, hundreds of houses could have burned if the wind had been in a slightly different direction.

    Munching on our ham sandwiches, the car windows open, because it was warm, almost hot, we smelled the stench, the stink of being in a landscape of 10,000 campfires. It became unpleasant, almost sickening. We wondered what it would be like to live amid that strench for days, even weeks.

    This is from the Nov. 2, 2020, issue of Big Pivots. To join the mailing list go to BigPivots.com

    President Trump famously blamed environmentalists in the case of California’s fires this summer with his comment that “you gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean the forest.” The general grievance that I heard in Trump comments was that it’s those darned environmentalists wanting nature pure and pristine. If only the logging industry were allowed to get out the harvest.

    In fact, sawmills in Colorado during the 20th century did cut a lot of wood. The mill in Kremmling when I was there ran 12 to 14 million board-feet a year. When Louisiana-Pacific came in, it did 20 million board feet. I assume the mill in Walden had some comparable numbers to the earlier Kremmling mill. These mills would mostly have had access to the wood on national forest lands in the East Troublesome fire area.

    Then came the beetle epidemic. There had been a fairly significant epidemic in the lodgepole pine that dominates that country in the early 1980s. Then, in 1996, a much, much bigger epidemic, first along Keyser Creek, near the molybdenum mill where I had once worked, then spreading outward: the Fraser Valley and Winter Park, Grand Lake, Summit County and Vail, Steamboat Springs and along I-70 near the Eisenhower Tunnel.

    Some of this wood has been harvested, such as for wood pellets at a new mill in Kremmling. More in recent years has been used to produce electricity at a plant at Gypsum.

    Mostly it was left standing or it fell down. The economics of wood in Colorado just aren’t that good. To make electricity, for example, requires a subsidy. Even so, it makes no sense to haul the wood more than 70 miles. And the dimensional timber from Colorado’s mostly scrawny lodgepole pine just isn’t worth that much. Bigger trees in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, that’s where the money is. As for the beetle killed trees, they begin twisting and cracking fairly soon after they’ve died.

    Suppressed fires

    A century of fire suppression also mattered. Fires had been big in the 19th century in Colorado. There were big fires in the 1850s and then again in 1878. The latter fires were attributed to Ute Indians and were called spite fires. Maybe, maybe not. Better authenticated are the fires set by prospectors to study the rock outcrops more easily. We do know that Vail’s famous Back Bowls lost their trees in 1878.

    This federal policy of fire suppression in landscapes that are fire prone has been written about often, and in various ways. In “The Big Burn,” Timothy Egan wrote about the fire in northern Idaho that covered three million acres in 1910 and triggered the fire-suppression policy in the new federal agency created to manage the forest reserves. In his delightful novel “English Creek,” Ivan Doig created a central figure who was dogged by a disquieting past that never comes out until late in the book. He had, we learned, let a fire get out of hand.

    The East Troublesome fire burned to the shores of Granby Reservoir in one or two places but more generally had a northeasterly trajectory. Photo/Allen Best

    In 1988, by which time I was in Vail, the harm of fire suppression had become apparent. That was the year that Yellowstone was “lost.” But – the ecologists insisted – fire is natural in forests, even if the scale in Yellowstone was mind boggling: 1.2 million acres. Colorado that summer was smoked up by the I Do fire west of Craig, named because a firefighter got married the day lightning caused the fire. It covered 15,000 acres. At the time, it was Colorado’s record.

    In Vail in the 1990s, the Forest Service tried to reintroduce fire to improve game habitat. There was bitter opposition, although fire did occur after I left. Trees were cut, mostly with more thought to aesthetics and biology, along Red Sandstone Road north of Vail and in the Buffehr Creek area. And swathes of forest on the south—think ski mountain—side of Vail were thinned of wood in the first decade of this century after the big drought, the big fires of 2002, and the bark beetle left forests red and then needle-less.

    In Summit County, the pivot may have been even greater. I greatly oversimplify here, but think of public policy that went from thou-shalt-cut-no-trees to thou-shalt-cut-trees.

    Climate change matters, too—immensely so. During my years in Kremmling, it routinely got to 20 and 30 below. Most memorable was the January morning in 1979 when the thermometer at the Phillips 66 gas station next to where I lived registered 62 below. That wasn’t an official record temperature, but it’s as cold as it gets on Colorado’s record books. Nowadays, In Fraser, the self-described “icebox of the nation,” it got to 14 below last week. During mid-winter it can get to 30 below. But that’s not routine, like in the good, cold days.

    Then add to that warming trend this year’s exceptional heat. It wasn’t particularly a dry winter at the headwaters of the Colorado River where the East Troublesome fire began. But spring came early, and summer turned hot.

    Many homes along Highway 34 and west of Granby Reservoir were spared, perhaps the result of the luck of winds. Photo/Allen Best

    This August was the driest and hottest on record in much of Colorado. By mid-month, several fires were raging: The Williams Fork fire began almost precisely at the epicenter of the bark beetle epidemic from 1996, near where I had worked during that year of my first backpack trip. There was Grizzly Creek above Glenwood Canyon, which shut down Interstate 70 for two weeks, causing bumper-to-bumper traffic across South Park as people took the long, long detour through Gunnison to get to Denver. But after a a snowstorm in early September, it got hot again. I was in the Steamboat area a few days before that East Troublesome fire began, and it had been 85 degrees at an elevation of almost 8,000 feet. Yikes.

    The current issue of Foreign Affairs has an article by Michal Oppenheimer of Princeton University titled: “As the World Burns: Climate Change’s Dangerous Next Phase.” He talked about wildfires and cyclones, disparate, but alike in important ways, and increasingly common:

    “Soon, some once-in-a-lifetime catastrophes will become annual debacles. As temperatures rise, the odds that such events will occur at any specific location in a given year are growing quickly, particularly in coastal areas,” wrote Oppenheimer. He went on to make the case for adaptation getting equal billing with mitigation.

    Bruce Finley, writing in The Denver Post, riffed on the same theme of accelerating impacts of climate change. The headline was: As Colorado wildfires burn, fears that climate change is causing “multi-level emergency” mount.

    A heavy wool blanket

    Megafires—including 2020’s Cameron Peak, East Troublesome, and Pine Gulch—are burning hotter and longer, with record destruction this year of 700,000 acres in Colorado and 6 million acres around the West. The smoke that exposed tens of millions of people to heavy particulates, health researchers say, will pose an even greater risk to public health in years to come.

    The U.S. Interagency Fire Center defines a megafire by its size: more than 100,000 acres. By that count, Colorado has had three alone this year after having just one before in 2002.

    Kodas, the “Megafire” author, dislikes a simple metric of size in deciding when to apply mega to a fire. Impacts also matter, and by that measure none of this year’s fires caused near as much damage as those along the Front Range in years past: Waldo Canyon at Colorado Springs, Four Mile west of Boulder and High Park west of Fort Collins.

    Colorado, he agrees, has entered a new era of wildfires: a time of larger fires more resistant to suppression and fires outside what has typically been considered wildfire season. In this, Colorado has company with California but also other parts of the world, he says. Next year may not be as bad as this year. Every year won’t look the same. But the trend is clear.

    There’s also something else, as was hinted by the October fire near Boulder.

    “We will see bigger fires and I think we will also see fires closer to and more threatening to our infrastructure, our communities, our homes,” he says. “That’s when these fires will really become mega.”

    Fires, some of them very big, have always been a part of our ecosystems. In the early 1600s, for example, there was a giant, stand-replacing fire in the Fraser Valley. But in the 20th century, it was still possible to describe the high-elevation forests on the Western Slope as “asbestos forests,” the threat of fire was so remote. We’ve lost that illusion. Now we have the unnatural created by accumulating greenhouse gases like a heavy wool blanket on top of what is natural.

    In 1980, during my first backpack trip, the accumulation of greenhouse gases measured at Mauna Loa stood at 338 parts per million. This year we hit 411 ppm.

    East Troublesome, foremost among the several giant fires in Colorado during 2020, tells me we’ve entered a new era. Call it a Big Pivot.

    Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at allen.best@comcast.net or 303.463.8630.

    #SteamboatSprings: City, Botanic Park partner to help mountain whitefish spawn in Fish Creek — Steamboat Pilot & Today

    this 16 inch long Mountain whitefish (Prosopium williamsoni) was caught and released in the McKenzie River near the town of Blue River, Oregon on September 1, 2007. By Woostermike at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by OhanaUnited., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5099696

    From The Steamboat Pilot & Today (Shelby Reardon):

    As a Yampa River Botanic Park team member, [Jeff] Morehead removes the diversion dam on Fish Creek under U.S. Highway 40 every year. The water flows through two arches under the road, and the dam keeps the water level high enough in one of them so water diverts to the Yampa River Botanic Park.

    Each fall after Halloween, the park closes and Morehead removes the dam. This year, as requested by Steamboat Springs Water Resources Manager Kelly Romero-Heaney and Public Works City Engineer Ben Beall, Morehead removed the structure a bit earlier. Additionally, he created a wing dam of rock and fabric to divert the water through one arch instead of two, deepening the flow of water.

    “I was just happy to help,” said Morehead. “You could tell the fish were going right past me while I was doing it. I was like, ‘Holy crap, this is absolutely working.’”

    Without the diversion, waterflow through both arches isn’t deep enough to allow the fish to swim and jump through the box culvert steps. The middle arch has one large step of about 18 inches, according to Morehead, which would be nearly impossible for the fish to leap over.

    “It’s staircased in a way that the drops are like 18 inches and there’s a long flat that approaches the staircase, so the whitefish can’t really swim and get a jump over that 18 inches.”

    There used to be a third arch, but as of summer 2019, a sidewalk underpass filled the far right arch. That left the far left arch as the only viable option for fish to get upstream.

    With more water flowing through the arch, it allowed whitefish to swim upstream and spawn in the waters of Fish Creek. Development and low water levels have made it harder to access their main spawning tributary for the fish living in the headwaters of the Yampa. The whitefish spawn, or lay their eggs, in early to mid-October. The eggs will hatch in the spring before the waters reach their peak flow.

    As seen in a video taken and edited by Morehead, the whitefish seem to have utilized the access point to Fish Creek.

    Whitefish populations in the Yampa River Basin have been dwindling for years, so, as part of the Yampa River Health Assessment and Streamflow Management Plan adopted in 2018, the city of Steamboat Springs vowed to “promote native fish populations from further decline and promote range expansion where possible.” The Fish Creek diversion is just one way the city is working to accomplish that task.

    The mountain whitefish isn’t endangered, but its numbers are falling in the Yampa River Basin, where it’s one of two native salmonids in the area, the other being cutthroat trout. The species is also found in Colorado in the White River Basin. They live in the Northwest in cool waters of high elevation streams, rivers and lakes, particularly in Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

    While they are thriving in other areas of the country, including the White River Basin, they are struggling in the Yampa River Basin as noted in samples taken from the river every few years, most recently conducted by Billy Atkinson, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

    A huge reason for their decline is the non-native northern pike. Pike are predacious fish and feed on the whitefish. There have been efforts to control the pike population in the area, which is another goal of the Yampa River Health Assessment and Streamflow Management Plan.

    Mountain whitefish are doing well in the White River, where there are no northern pike to prey on the native fish. There are other ecological factors that can be attributed to the whitefish’s success in the White River basin, but no pike is the biggest difference between that system and that of the Yampa River.

    Predation is just one issue plaguing the whitefish.

    The whitefish, which can grow up to 2 feet, loves cold water in high elevations. A 20-year drought in Colorado has brought on some particularly rough water years, though, lowering the flow in rivers across the state.

    The Yampa River was extremely low this year, closing to usage Sept. 2 when the streamflow dropped below 85 cubic feet per second. Shallower water is warmed by the sun far easier than deeper water, causing stress to fish that prefer cooler temperatures.

    Thankfully, there are already efforts in place to improve this on two fronts. The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District releases water from Stagecoach Reservoir to improve river flow and prevent the loss of fish habitat when the water line lowers.

    Additionally, the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council and Retree have been planting young trees on the banks of the Yampa in designated spots. When they grow, the trees will provide shade to the river, helping maintain lower temperatures.

    This year, with water levels so low, the end of summer river closure extended into the fall to put less stress on the entire Yampa River ecological system. With low flow, fish, such as the mountain whitefish, concentrate in small pools due to limited resources.

    Pagosa Area Water & Sanitation District discusses new #Colorado #wastewater regulations, new #drought surcharge plan — The #PagosaSprings Sun

    Wastewater Treatment Process

    From The Pagosa Springs Sun (Clayton Chaney):

    The new regulations would require PAWSD to treat wastewater so that it is cleaner than the water initially taken in through their river diversions, Ramsey explained. This would mean the treated wastewater that gets discharged downstream would be cleaner than the water PAWSD takes in upstream.

    Ramsey went on to explain how treating the wastewater to that extent may not be worth it, given the next water district to pull from that water source is over 100 miles away.

    According to Ramsey, this would be upward of a $12 million capital investment project.

    When asked in a phone interview about where the funding needed for a project like this would come from, he said, “We have no idea, that’s the problem.”

    The board also discussed the possibility of raising the monthly sewer service base charge from $32 to $47 in 2025…

    In the meeting, Ramsey ex- plained that PAWSD could fight the state on the imposed regulations.
    PAWSD has already hired an at- torney to assist with the matter. According to Ramsey, PAWSD chose to hire attorneys with Law of The Rockies, who are currently representing Mt. Crested Butte in its dispute…

    According to Walsh, the revised intergovernmental agreement with the Pagosa Springs Sanitation Gen- eral Improvement District (PSS- GID) “clearly stated that expansion and/or modification was a joint expense.”

    PAWSD and the PSSGID entered into the agreement for PAWSD to treat the PSSGID’s wastewater.

    Drought surcharge plan

    The board also discussed the possibility of implementing a new drought surcharge rate plan. The new plan would include five stages of drought, progressing from a vol- untary stage to stage four.

    The triggers used to determine the drought stage would include the San Juan River flow rate and the Hatcher Reservoir water level, along with the call date on the Four Mile diversion and the date when snowpacks on the mountains have melted away.

    According to a presentation from Ramsey, for the voluntary through stage two categories, there would be no extra sur- charge for up to 4,000 gallons of water used in residential units per month. For stages three and four, there would be a surcharge of $7.68 per unit.

    According to the presentation, for the voluntary stage and stage one, there would be no surcharge for residential units using more than 4,000 gallons of water a month. In stage two, a “2x stan- dard tier rate fee” would be ap- plied when using more than 4,000 gallons. Stage three would incur a “surcharge and a 3x standard tier rate fee” and stage four would in- cur a “surcharge and a 4x standard rate fee” for residential units using more than 4,000 gallons of water a month.

    These new rates have not been applied yet, and according to Ramsey, PAWSD will be conducting a water usage study before imple- menting a new plan.

    Degrees of #warming: How a hotter, thirstier #atmosphere wreaks havoc on #water supplies in Pitkin County — @AspenJournalism #ActOnClimate #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    The Crystal River runs low outside of Carbondale on September 1, 2020. With average temperatures warming in summer months by as much as 3.5 degrees since the 1950s in Garfield County, streamflows are trending down as peak runoff comes earlier and more water is sucked up by evaporation and dry soils, stressing available water supplies in late summer and fall. Photo credit: Dan Bayer/Aspen Journalism

    From Aspen Journalism (Catharine Lutz):

    In November 2018, Marble Town Manager Ron Leach received a letter that he said was a wake-up call.

    The letter was a notice from the Colorado Division of Water Resources that the town’s water rights had been “out of priority” for four weeks the previous August and September because of a call placed by a senior water-rights holder downstream on the Crystal River.

    During drought years — and 2018 was an extreme one, with the Crystal running at less than 5% of average after peaking in May, several weeks earlier than usual — junior water-rights holders may have to curtail their water usage until the senior call is satisfied.

    “Drought and water supply have been on people’s minds for a long time around here, but we’ve never gotten a letter like that,” Leach said.

    The letter urged the Marble Water Company — the private nonprofit entity that delivers water to the town’s approximately 150 residents and a handful of businesses — to create a plan of augmentation, which is an alternate source of water such as a storage pond. Without augmentation, the letter warned, a call could subject Marble to a cease-and-desist order on its municipal water wells.

    Several other neighborhoods that get their water from the Crystal also narrowly dodged a bullet that August. The same call put more than 40 homes in Carbondale at risk of not having water, according to Town Manger Jay Harrington.

    “Firefighting capability was an issue, too,” Harrington said. “That’s where we had to scramble.”

    Carbondale officials were able to make an emergency arrangement with another senior water-rights holder on the Crystal to temporarily borrow water to supply the homes. And they quickly set in motion plans to avoid the situation in the future. In essence, the town is shifting the supply for some of its water needs from the heavily irrigated Crystal to the more reliable Roaring Fork, as the town has three wells that draw from the Roaring Fork aquifer, and has the option to develop more wells. The town also owns 500 acre-feet of water in Ruedi Reservoir it can use to offset its well depletions from the Roaring Fork aquifer.

    Up in Marble, Leach doesn’t have multiple, redundant water supplies to serve his constituents. Noting that Marble’s water supply barely exceeds peak summer demand, an engineering firm’s preliminary recommendation was for an 11-acre-foot reservoir, which would require 3 to 4 acres of flat ground.

    “The town of Marble doesn’t have cash to do anything like that,” said Leach, who added that space in the constrained mountain valley might also be a hurdle. “There’s no easy solution.”

    Still, Leach is confident something will get figured out — a state-funded water study of the Crystal was recently approved, he said — but a very dry 2020 has underscored that the water issue is not going away anytime soon. During what’s now widely accepted as a two-decade-long drought in the Colorado River basin, temperatures have risen, summer rains can’t be relied on and streamflows have dropped, with earlier peak flows sometimes leaving little water in streams by late summer. The state’s letter to Marble noted that “it is reasonable to assume that this administration scenario could happen more frequently in the future.”

    To those who deal with water day to day, there’s no question climate change is here and its impacts are being increasingly felt in the summer.

    “It all starts with climate change — that’s the big picture,” said Leach. “What’s happening in Marble, this is the micro-example.”

    Other Roaring Fork municipalities are also grappling with climate-caused water supply issues. The city of Aspen, which provides municipal water from free-flowing Maroon and Castle creeks and has seen Stage 2 water restrictions enacted two of the past three summers, is creating a 50-year water plan — driven in part by climate-change impacts — that may include expanded water storage. In Basalt, the 2018 Lake Christine Fire came close to cutting power supplies, which could have caused the failure of pump stations that deliver water to users. And after one of Glenwood Springs’ water sources was temporarily shut down during this summer’s Grizzly Creek Fire, debris, ash, mudslides and fire retardant pose lingering hazards.

    “We need to continually work on our water systems as we continue to adapt to climate change,” said Harrington. “We are going to have to figure out how to slow it down, but in the meantime, we need to take climate change into our planning.”

    “We need to continually work on our water systems as we continue to adapt to climate change,” said Harrington. “We are going to have to figure out how to slow it down, but in the meantime, we need to take climate change into our planning.”

    Marble Town Manager Ron Leach is looking for ways to augment the town’s water supply, which comes from the Crystal River aquifer. In 2018, that supply was threatened when the river was running too low to satisfy all water-rights holders. Photo credit: Catharine Lutz/Aspen Journalism

    The heat is on

    Warming temperatures, linked to increased global greenhouse-gas emissions, are the catalyst that impacts other key conditions in the mountains, including lower snowpacks and streamflows; earlier snowmelt and runoff peaks; more precipitation in the form of rain than snow; more frost-free days; and lower soil moisture.

    As average temperatures rise in all seasons, heat waves like the one that gripped Colorado during the summer of 2020 are becoming more common. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, average temperatures from May to October in Pitkin and Garfield counties have risen more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1950s. Some months are warming faster than others. In Pitkin County, June, July and September have warmed by nearly 3 degrees since 1950, while in Garfield County, June and September are 3.5 degrees warmer.

    A 2019 report prepared for the town of Carbondale hints that warming has accelerated in the 21st century, with three of the five warmest years on record over the past decade. Also, this past August was the hottest on record for Colorado. In Aspen, the average temperature of 66.9 degrees in August was 5.6 degrees above normal.

    Marble Town Manager Ron Leach is looking for ways to augment the town’s water supply, which comes from the Crystal River aquifer. In 2018, that supply was threatened when the river was running too low to satisfy all water-rights holders. Credit: NOAA via Aspen Journalism

    Noting that 12 of the hottest 14 years in western Colorado have occurred in the past 18 years, Colorado River Water Conservation District general manager Andy Mueller said at a recent conference that “the biggest change in temperatures has been occurring within our district and eastern Utah, which is a real problem when you look at the fact that we’re the area that produces the most-significant amount of water in the entire rivershed.”

    Scientists are in broad agreement that as long as greenhouse-gas emissions continue to rise — or even level off — temperatures will follow suit.

    Projections for the region range depending on emissions scenarios, but nearly all of them forecast at least another rise of average temperatures of 3 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century and a rise of approximately another 10 degrees by the end of the 21st century. To put this into perspective, a warming Aspen could have the climate of Carbondale or Glenwood Springs, while Glenwood would look and feel like Grand Junction in a few decades.

    This graph shows the range of average maximum temperature increases projected for Carbondale under both and high and low emissions scenario. Credit: NOAA via Aspen Journalism

    The atmosphere taketh away

    Local summer precipitation trends are less clear. Monsoon rains — or the lack thereof — drive great swings year to year in summer precipitation, which is usually dwarfed, in terms of volume, by winter precipitation in the form of snow. Historical data shows no clear trends. A report prepared for the town of Carbondale says that average precipitation in the 20th century and since 2000 are about the same.

    Still, the summer of 2020 capped a decade of multiple dry summers. Colorado this year saw its third-driest April-July period, according to the National Weather Service, and the 2.5 inches of precipitation Aspen had from June through August was nearly 2 inches below normal. It was the fourth summer in a row with below-average precipitation and the driest in that stretch — even the summer of 2018 saw more rain.

    Precipitation projections are also not very clear — although some experts suggest that precipitation could decrease in the summer and increase in the winter. But whether there’s a little more or a little less rain and snow in the future — and the latest models show a long-term decline in the Colorado River Basin — scientists say it doesn’t matter.

    Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2019 of the #coriver big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck

    “There’s more uncertainty in how much precipitation is going to change and less uncertainty about how much temperature is going to change,” said hydrology expert Julie Vano, who is research director at Aspen Global Change Institute. “And the effect of just having warmer temperatures means more water is leaving the system.”

    Jeff Lukas, a researcher on NOAA’s Western Water Assessment team, put it this way: “A warming atmosphere is a thirstier atmosphere.” In the Roaring Fork Valley, he said, only about a third of all precipitation makes it into streams and rivers; the other two-thirds is reclaimed by evapotranspiration, which is the combination of evaporation from surfaces and what plants absorb then release. Since evapotranspiration is driven in large part by temperature, as temperatures rise, the amount of water in rivers declines.

    “The atmosphere giveth and the atmosphere taketh most of it away,” said Lukas. “Warming is the factor — across all seasons and all water-cycle processes — that draws moisture away from the land surface before becoming runoff.”

    A table showing hydroclimate trends from Western Water Assessment’s “Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology State of the Science” report.

    The flow is low

    After more than a century of diversions, dams, storage projects and other stream manipulations, it’s complicated to calculate trends in natural streamflow, the term for the amount of water in a river. But streamflow, also called runoff, has perhaps the most direct effect on water availability. And trends are not looking good.

    Since 2000, according to a recent report, the average annual volume of water in the upper Colorado River basin, from its headwaters to Lees Ferry (just below Lake Powell in Arizona), has dropped 15% below the long-term average from 1906 to 2019. Published last April, the Western Water Assessment’s “Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology State of the Science” report synthesizes all of the recent studies and data on this massive topic. The report’s authors compiled ever-increasing evidence about how rising temperatures are contributing to less water in the Colorado River, which supplies the needs of 40 million people. Although precipitation is still an important factor, some research shows that warming accounts for up to half of the water loss. One study calculated that every 1 degree Fahrenheit of warming decreases runoff by 7.5%.

    Jeff Lukas, a researcher on NOAA’s Western Water Assessment team, has calculated that between 2000 and 2018, the Roaring Fork River at Glenwood Springs had 13% less water than the 20th century average, which in large part is attributable to declining peak flows, shown here in this graph. Credit: Lauren Lassalle/Aspen Journalism

    Declining streamflows are also found up the Colorado’s tributaries. Taking into account water that would’ve been in the stream if it weren’t for diversions and ditches, Lukas calculated that between 2000 and 2018, the Roaring Fork River at Glenwood Springs had 13% less water than the 20th-century average. Analyzing data on the Crystal River near Redstone, he calculated a 5% drop in annual mean streamflow since 2000, compared with the latter half of the 20th century, but a 10% decline during drier years.

    In that same analysis of the Crystal, Lukas found that the date of peak streamflow had shifted one week earlier since 2000: from reliably arriving in June to sometimes coming in May. Multiple studies across the Colorado basin have similarly calculated a one- to four-week earlier runoff — which means that high-country snowpacks are melting earlier, so that the highest volume of snowmelt rushing down those streams is coming earlier in the spring.

    But an above-average snowpack doesn’t mean an equivalent runoff, as this past year has shown. After a good winter followed by a warm, dry spring and summer, just 55% of the upper Colorado’s runoff made it into Lake Powell.

    “The expectation that this amount of snow leads to this amount of runoff — we’re just not seeing as much as we did in the past,” said Vano, the hydrology expert.

    Projections on how runoff will change in the coming decades from Western Water Assessment’s “Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology State of the Science” report.

    Earlier peak runoff and lower flows mean less water (especially in drought years) in late summer and early fall, a critical time for irrigation, recreation and natural systems. From late July through October, the Crystal River upstream from Carbondale has been flowing below half of average, lower than the instream flow water right held by the state for that stretch of river — but since irrigation rights are senior to the conservation right, there’s often no recourse. For example, that is what happened in August on another tributary of the Roaring Fork, when the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which holds 1,700 instream-flow rights throughout the state, requested administration of its instream rights on Hunter Creek, acknowledging that it would likely be “a futile call.”

    “A river is not a river without water in it,” said Heather Tattersall Lewin, science and policy director for the Roaring Fork Conservancy.

    As with higher temperatures, declining streamflows and earlier runoff are certain into the future, but how much will depend on emissions. A 2006 report by the Aspen Global Change Institute calculated that by 2030, peak runoff for the Roaring Fork River at Woody Creek will occur in May rather than June. And by 2100, the lingering snowpack we see on the high peaks in June will no longer exist, which means less water in the stream all summer. Add in increased demand from growth and diversions, and future Roaring Fork River flows through Aspen could go below required instream-flow levels for nine months of the year.

    Downstream in Glenwood Springs, the Roaring Fork’s late summer flows could decline by 30% to 50% by 2070, according to a 2018 analysis by Lukas.

    “Changes to water will touch nearly everything,” he said. “All the risk is on the dry side.”

    The Crystal River showing a fraction of its normal summer volume in September. Water supply challenges related to climate change have been evident along the waterway as warmer summer temperatures stress streamflows. Photo credit: Dan Bayer/Aspen Journalism

    The underlying factor

    Another important factor to consider is one we don’t really see: soil moisture.

    One of the metrics used to calculate drought severity, soil moisture has been studied locally by the Aspen Global Change Institute since 2013. This short period of record may preclude discerning any trends about whether local soils are getting drier, but the data does show how moisture levels can have a domino effect season to season.

    Elise Osenga, community science manager for the institute, likens the soil to a sponge. A dry sponge, like dry soil, absorbs more water than when it’s wet, while a wet sponge, like saturated soil, lets the excess run off. The water that the soil doesn’t absorb goes into streams.

    “Climate change is more likely to dry soils in the spring,” said Osenga, who explained that peak snowmelt and peak soil saturation happen around the same time in the mountains. “When that happens, we’ll see soils dry earlier in the summer and become more dependent on summer rain — which is problematic when we don’t get those rains.”

    The Aspen Global Change Institute has been tracking local soil moisture since 2013. In each of the past three years, soil moisture has dipped well under the 2013-2017 average for most of the summer.

    Each of the past three years, soil moisture in Pitkin County has dipped well under the 2013-2017 average for most of the summer. The drought year of 2018 saw an early snowmelt and soil drying, but fall rains helped soils recover, auguring well for the next year. Most remember the record snows of late winter and spring of 2019, but the lack of rain that summer dried things up. And 2020 largely mirrored 2018, although 2020 saw slightly better soil moisture until late summer.

    This year, things may have cooled off since August, but drought conditions have worsened, with all of Colorado, as of Oct. 22, in some form of drought and 78% of the state in extreme or exceptional drought. This doesn’t bode well for spring.

    With soil moisture, said Osenga, “what happens in September and October is actually really interesting, because it plays a big role in determining whether we start the next spring already at risk of a drought versus in better shape.”

    With multiple dry years over the past two decades, some scientists are wondering if we’re entering a period of megadrought, which hasn’t been seen in several hundred years.

    “It might be a combination of natural variability plus climate change — a double whammy,” said Vano.

    No single drought is evidence of climate change, Lukas said, but “what we’re seeing since 2000 is that climate change is stacking the deck. We’re more prone to the deep droughts, the ones that sneak out of left field like in 2020.”

    And even with good planning, that’s sure to make water managers in Marble and Carbondale and throughout the Colorado River basin nervous.

    “We do see changing conditions, whether attributable to increased demand/development by water users, drought or long-term climate change,” wrote Colorado water commissioner Jake DeWolfe in an email. “Any of them leads to the same problem: a shortage of water. We are involved in planning for the future likelihood that we will need to limit, if not curtail, uses in Colorado to meet the needs of downstream states.”

    An abridged version of this story ran in The Aspen Times on Oct. 30.

    Navajo Dam operations update: Turning down to 400 CFS November 2, 2020 #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

    From email from Reclamation (Susan Behery):

    In response to increasing tributary flows, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 400 cfs on Monday, November 2nd, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).

    The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.

    The San Juan River, below Navajo Reservoir. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism