“The world will be moving away from fossil fuel production,” David Gutzler, a professor at the University of New Mexico and member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told members of the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
Gutzler went on to paint a stark picture of New Mexico in a changing climate.
The mountains outside Albuquerque will look like the mountains outside El Paso by the end of the century if current trends continue, he said.
There will not be any snowpack in the mountains above Santa Fe by the end of the century, Gutzler added.
We have already seen more land burned by wildfires, partly because of changes in forest management and partly because of climate change, Gutzler said.
Water supply will be negatively affected in what is already an arid state, he said.
“It’s real. It’s happening. We see it in the data. … This is not hypothetical in any way. This is real and we would be foolish to ignore it,” Gutzler said.
The professor warned lawmakers that the state must get serious about greenhouse gas emissions now by expanding clean energy sources and mitigating the societal costs of moving away from fossil fuels.
That cost, though, will be a sticking point for Republicans. Many of them represent southeastern New Mexico and the Four Corners, where oil and mining are big industries.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers is proposing changes to state laws in a way he said will protect the rights of farmers in the Safford Valley who have been “scratching it out” to water from the Gila River.
But attorney Don Pongrace, who represents the Gila River Indian Community, said what Bowers proposes to do would effectively overturn and nullify a federal appellate court ruling, which said those upstream who have not used the water have forfeited those rights.
And he said courts have ruled those rights — and the water that goes with it — belong to the tribe.
“These people are not scratching out an existence,” he said of the farmers Bowers wants to help. “They’ve been stealing water from the community since 1870.”
Pongrace said if Bowers pushes HB 2476, the tribe will withdraw from the plan for how the state will deal with the expected shortage of water coming from Lake Mead. That’s crucial because the state is counting on about 500,000 acre-feet of water from the tribe, much of it to help Pinal County farmers deal with the cutback in Colorado River water.
“This is a direct assault on the community’s water rights,” Pongrace told Capitol Media Services.
“It’s a poison pill,” he said. “If this bill were to be considered and enacted into law, the community will withdraw its prior approval (of the drought-contingency plan) and, more importantly, its water.”
Bowers is undeterred.
“I’m not going to back down,” he said.
And he lashed out at the tribe for trying to link the issues.
“This is just showing their mentality to everybody who gets in their way,” Bowers said. “It’s all ‘Our way or no way.’”
Pongrace, however, said the community doesn’t see it that way.
He said on the one hand, the state is seeking the tribe’s cooperation and its water for the drought-contingency plan. That, he said, is inconsistent with the state moving to undermine the tribe’s claim to Gila River water.
He said the state can’t have both.
“This is not negotiable,” Pongrace said, saying he is speaking for tribal Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis.
“You cannot take actions like this without consequences,” he said of the Bowers legislation.
“He can decide to try to take this up,” Pongrace continued. “And the consequence he’s going to face as it stands right now, is essentially no DCP.”
At this point, he said he believes the tribe has the upper hand.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Erin McIntyre):
Three Mesa Creek Ditch water users, Andrea Clark, Tom Kirkpatrick and Dana Black, objected to the resort’s plans to divert the water during the wintertime, transporting it to a nearby reservoir and storing it for snowmaking and other uses…
In that trial, the ditch users argued the ski resort bought a 1- cubic-foot-per-second water right that didn’t totally belong to the seller. They also accused Powderhorn of buying the water on speculation, as it had no way to transport or store the water in question when it asked the state for permission to change the way the water was being used.
George Bevan, a former Mesa Creek Ditch Co. president who died in October, sold the water to the ski resort about three years ago. Powderhorn intended to divert up to 150 acre-feet of the water during the winter, transporting it more than a mile away across private property to the H.U. Robbins Reservoir or a small pond at the base of the resort, and use the water for snowmaking.
The ski resort planned on purchasing, leasing or condemning rights of way necessary to transport the water, according to previous court documents. Powderhorn has 42 snowmaking acres and wanted to expand its operations.
But Boyd ruled the most water that Bevan could have used, historically, for watering his livestock from Oct. 1 to April 1 each year is only 6 or 7 acre-feet, at most.
While he decreed that Bevan owned the right to use 1 cubic foot per second of the water Powderhorn purchased from him, he ruled the water right had been used at much lower levels than the ski resort argued.
Bevan testified he kept a maximum of 400 cows at the location over the winter, using the water right for livestock.
A water engineer testified that amount of cattle would consume as much as 7 acre-feet of water over the course of a winter, and the judge used that amount to determine the historic use of the water right. An acre-foot is equal to 325,851 gallons, enough water to cover a football field a foot deep…
The issue of who owns exactly how much winter water in this section of the Mesa Creek Ditch remains unresolved, but the judge ruled that Powderhorn has the right to use the historical amount of water Bevan used and sold to the resort.
The judge also ruled the ski resort is one of only nine original claimants of the winter water right on the ditch, meaning other users who believed they had the right to use the water over time may be doing so illegally.
It’s unclear whether Powderhorn will opt to apply to use the lesser amount of water for snowmaking or pursue its plans to transport the water from Mesa Creek to the ski area. The judge denied the ski resort’s application in this instance but did not prevent it from reapplying in a future application.
The judge’s ruling leaves the ski resort with the option of reapplying to use 7 acre-feet of water over the course of a winter for snowmaking, one-fifth the amount Powderhorn wanted to use.
As water levels in Colorado decline, the long-term impact on the Western Slope are concerning to area water experts. The worry is that water demands down river and on the Front Range will dry up the Western Slope and change the character of this area of Colorado.
Last fall the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) released a policy statement on water demand management and compact administration, which addresses the way in which water in Colorado will be managed to meet downriver demand requirements. The document is a response to the “worst hydrologic cycle in the historic record,” which began in the year 2000, and a need for drought contingency plans to meet Colorado water compact demands, according to the policy statement.
This work comes at a time when the local reservoir, Blue Mesa, which serves as a storage for meeting downstream water demands, has remained steady at the lowest point it’s been at all year, coming in at 7,438 feet, or just eight feet above the 1977 record low.
Bill Trampe, board member for the Colorado River Water Conservation District (CRWCD), shared concerns with the Gunnison Board of County Commissioners last month about demand management for the Western Slope, and potential implications for all industries that utilize water on this side of the Rocky Mountains—especially in the face of Front Range expansion and its financial abundance.
Chief of these concerns was the threat of involuntary, uncompensated demand management—Front Range entities buying up water rights on the Western Slope or municipal condemnation of Western Slope agricultural operations, both of which would “change Western Colorado,” according to Jim Pokrandt, community affairs director for the CRWCD.
The CWCB policy statement explains that “continued drought or worsening water supply conditions in the Upper Colorado River Basin could increase the risk” of Lake Powell storage declining below critical levels for operation, and “mandated curtailment of the exercise of water rights to maintain compliance with the Upper Colorado River Basin and Colorado River Compacts.”
In response to this risk, the CWCB worked with myriad stakeholders and government entities to develop a “drought contingency plan that can help minimize and mitigate the risks associated with consistently below-average water supplies in the Colorado River Basin.”
“What the West Slope is adamant about is that a voluntary, compensated, temporary demand management plan be created,” Pokrandt says. “The alternative is uncompensated, forced curtailment [for water users].” The biggest concern facing voluntary, compensated, temporary demand management is a lack of funding.
An example of voluntary, compensated demand management is paying ranchers to fallow hay fields for a season or more, but as previously reported in the Crested Butte News, this isn’t a great deal for ranchers because it can take years for the quality of hay to return to what it was pre-fallow.
But as Pokrandt says, “Colorado will need to find a source for demand management compensation.” He explains that without compensation, “We would see many current agricultural [entities] go out of business and their water rights sold. In other words, we would have a massive shift in water rights ownership that would not be in the best interest of western Colorado.” However, Pokrandt writes that the Gates Family Foundation, a philanthropic foundation contributing to the quality of life in Colorado, “just funded and facilitated a discussion on dedicated Colorado Water Plan funding to cover this subject.”
The point Pokrandt makes is that Front Range utilities can “wave around their checkbooks and buy out Western Slope producers who could not resist the money,” which as he explained previously, would cause a shift in water rights ownership on the Western Slope. For those who do resist, Pokrandt says, the “Colorado Constitution allows for municipal condemnation of agriculture,” meaning a government agency can forcibly buy property for fair market value for a public purpose, according to the law of eminent domain.
“This would change the face of western Colorado from an economic, landscape, cultural, recreational and environmental perspective,” says Pokrandt…
This work will involve organizing stakeholders, water entities and the public in tackling specific problems, including: federal legislation to create a demand management pool in Lake Powell where saved water can be stored; finding money to pay producers to not use water that can be sent to Lake Powell; legal protections to make sure water is actually getting to Lake Powell, also known as “shepherding,” a way to account for the water so amounts are known and recognized; and understanding what temporary fallowing does to the economy, particularly secondary impacts from producers earning money without paying for seed purchases, equipment, etc.
Here’s Part I of a series about the Colorado River from Jim Robbins writing for Yale360. Click through and read the whole article (and enjoy the beautiful photographs). Here’s an excerpt:
As the Southwest faces rapid growth and unrelenting drought, the Colorado River is in crisis, with too many demands on its diminishing flow. Now those who depend on the river must confront the hard reality that their supply of Colorado water may be cut off.
The Never Summer Mountains tower over the the valley to the west. Cut across the face of these glacier-etched peaks is the Grand Ditch, an incision visible just above the timber line. The ditch collects water as the snow melts and, because it is higher in elevation than La Poudre Pass, funnels it 14 miles back across the Continental Divide, where it empties it into the headwaters of the Cache La Poudre River, which flows on to alfalfa and row crop farmers in eastern Colorado. Hand dug in the late 19th century with shovels and picks by Japanese crews, it was the first trans-basin diversion of the Colorado.
Many more trans-basin diversions of water from the west side of the divide to the east would follow. That’s because 80 percent of the water that falls as snow in the Rockies here drains to the west, while 80 percent of the population resides on the east side of the divide.
The Colorado River gathers momentum in western Colorado, sea-green and picking up a good deal of steam in its confluence with the Fraser, Eagle, and Gunnison rivers. As it leaves Colorado and flows through Utah, it joins forces with the Green River, a major tributary, which has its origins in the dwindling glaciers atop Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, the second largest glacier field in the lower 48 states.
The now sediment-laden Colorado (“too thick to drink, too thin to plow” was the adage about such rivers) gets reddish here, and earns its name – Colorado means “reddish.” It heads in a southwestern direction through the slick rock of Utah and northern Arizona, including its spectacular run through the nearly 280-mile-long Grand Canyon, and then on to Las Vegas where it makes a sharp turn south, first forming the border of Nevada and Arizona and then the border of California and Arizona until it reaches the Mexican border. There the Morelos Dam — half of it in Mexico and half in the United States — captures the last drops of the Colorado’s flow, and sends it off to Mexican farmers to irrigate alfalfa, cotton, and asparagus, and to supply Mexicali, Tecate, and other cities and towns with water.
While there are verdant farm fields south of the border here, it comes at a cost. The expansive Colorado River Delta — once a bird- and wildlife-rich oasis nourished by the river that Aldo Leopold described as a land of “a hundred green lagoons” — goes begging for water. And there is not a drop left to flow to the historic finish line at the Gulf of California, into which, long ago, the Colorado used to empty.
Nature, in fact, has been given short shrift all along the 1,450-mile-long Colorado. In order to support human life in the desert and near-desert through which it runs, the river is one of the most heavily engineered waterways in the world. Along its route, water is stored and siphoned, routed and piped, with a multi-billion dollar plumbing system — a “Cadillac Desert,” as Marc Reisner put it in the title of his landmark 1986 book. There are 15 large dams on the main stem of the river, and hundreds more on the tributaries.
The era of tapping the Colorado River, though, is coming to a close. This muddy river is one of the most contentious in the country — and growing more so by the day. It serves some 40 million people, and far more of its water is promised to users than flows between its banks — even in the best water years. And millions more people are projected to be added to the population served by the Colorado by 2050.
The hard lesson being learned is that even with the Colorado’s elaborate plumbing system, nature cannot be defied. If the over-allocation of the river weren’t problem enough, its best flow years appear to be behind it. The Colorado River Basin has been locked in the grip of a nearly unrelenting drought since 2000, and the two great water savings accounts on the river — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — are at all-time lows. An officially announced crisis could be at hand in the coming months…
Most of the water in the Colorado comes from snow that falls in the Rockies and is slowly released, a natural reservoir that disperses its bounty gradually, over months. But since 2000, the Colorado River Basin has been locked in what experts say is a long-term drought exacerbated by climate change, the most severe drought in the last 1,250 years, tree ring data shows. Snowfall since 2000 has been sketchy — last year it was just two-thirds of normal, tied for its record low. With warmer temperatures, more of the precipitation arrives as rain, which quickly runs off rather than being stored as mountain snow. Many water experts are deeply worried about the growing shortage of water from this combination of over-allocation and diminishing supply.
There is tree ring data to show that multi-decadal mega-droughts have occurred before, one that lasted, during Roman Empire times, for more than half a century. The term drought, though, implies that someday the water shortage will be over. Some scientists believe a long-term, climate change-driven aridification may be taking place, a permanent drying of the West. That renders the uncertainty of water flow in the Colorado off the charts. While not ruling out all hope, experts have abandoned terms like “concerned” and “worrisome” and routinely use words like “dire” and “scary.”
“These conditions could mean a hell of a lot less water in the river,” said Jonathan Overpeck, an interdisciplinary climate scientist at the University of Michigan who has extensively studied the impacts of climate on the flow of the Colorado. “We’ve seen declines in flow of 20 percent, but it could get up to 50 percent or worse later in this century.”
Even in rock-ribbed conservative areas, those who use the water of the Colorado say they are already seeing things they have never seen before — this year state officials in Colorado cut off lower-priority irrigators on the Yampa River, a tributary of the Green, and recreation had to be halted, for example — and have grudgingly come to believe “there is something going on with the climate.”
Jeff Lukas, who authored the [Western Water Assessment] briefing, says water managers throughout the Colorado River watershed should brace themselves for diminished streams and the decreasing likelihood of filling the reservoirs left depleted at the end of 2018.
That dire prognosis comes even as much of the southern Rocky Mountains have seen a regular stream of snow storms this winter.
“The snowpack conditions for Colorado and much of the intermountain West don’t look too bad,” Lukas says. “They range from ‘meh’ to ‘OK.’”
Snowpack in river basins that feed the Colorado River range from 75 percent to 105 percent of normal. The entire Upper Colorado River Basin’s snowpack is sitting at about 90 percent of normal for this time of year.
So with an ‘OK’ snowpack in the mountains we should be in the clear, right? Not necessarily. If you’re just looking at snowpack to gauge how well a winter is going — you’re doing it wrong, according to Lukas.
The record hot and dry conditions throughout 2018 sapped the ground of its moisture. Leading into this winter, “that puts us in a deep hole,” Lukas says.
Put another way, throughout the southwest, we’re living in a drought hangover. And it’s going to take a lot more snow to pull us out of it.
Lake Powell, the first major reservoir the Colorado River hits on its journey throughout the southwest, is currently projected to see 64 percent of its average inflow. That translates to a one-year deficit of more than 5 million acre-feet of water. One acre-foot is enough water to supply roughly one to two households for a year.
“That’s not as bad as what happened last year, but it’s pretty close,” Lukas says. “That’s going to just drain the big reservoirs — [Lakes] Powell and Mead — even further.”