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SNOWPACK ABOVE RUNOFF FORECAST
Official forecasts for spring runoff into Upper Colorado Basin reservoirs are below average, despite an above-average snowpack. This is due to low soil moisture resulting from a dry summer and fall. Details are in this forecast discussion from the Colorado Basin River Forecasting Center.
From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Hannah Holm):
Our rivers are shrinking, populations are rising, and many rural communities are suffering from drought and economic dislocation.
Urban water use is declining, despite population growth, and communities are transforming their rivers from utilitarian conveyances into playgrounds and economic development engines.
Farmers and conservation organizations are partnering to help fish, and scientists are developing better forecasting tools, which will help everyone plan better for whatever quantity of water is coming their way.
All these statements are true, and they were among the messages delivered by speakers at the Upper Colorado River Basin Water Forum at Colorado Mesa University on Nov. 13-14.
As reported by the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel and KUNC, participants were warned that the Upper Basin States of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming are at risk of getting into trouble with the terms of the 1922 Compact between the states that share the Colorado River. A “demand management” program to compensate water users for voluntary, temporary cuts in their Colorado River water use is the most commonly discussed “insurance policy” for managing this risk. The upper basin states are studying the feasibility of this option now.
The risk of failing to meet downstream obligations, and therefore facing mandatory, uncompensated water use cuts, is real. However, as other speakers at the forum demonstrated, our regional water challenges go far beyond compact compliance, and state officials aren’t the only ones with the capacity to take action.
Even without compact trouble, many agricultural communities are regularly short of water, because the mountains don’t always catch enough snow for the fields we want to irrigate. The Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch Enterprise, which operates southwest of Cortez, and irrigates with water from the Dolores Project, often gets less than their full supply. Enterprise managers respond by adjusting their crop plans in accordance with spring supply forecasts and employing highly efficient sprinkler technology. They also run a mill to add value to their corn crops, which brings more dollars per drop to the tribe, as well as more employment opportunities.
Urban communities have also responded to water stress with leak detection programs, pricing strategies and consumer education that have significantly dropped per capita consumption – with a big assist from more efficient toilets and appliances. New technologies and policies for cleaning up sewage to potable standards, individuals’ choices to install water-thrifty landscapes, and denser development patterns offer the promise of further stretching supplies.
Wildfires have been getting fiercer, as a result of beetle kill, hot and dry climate conditions and years of suppression that let fuels build up. Most of our rivers originate in high mountain forests, and when those forests burn hot and intense, subsequent storms can wash fish-choking ash and sediment into streams and foul up water diversion infrastructure. Speakers from southwest Colorado discussed how federal, state and local groups, including private sector forest product firms, are working together to improve forest health and resilience through thinning and prescribed fire, as well as by educating property owners on creating defensible spaces around buildings.
At the same time as our rivers have begun shrinking (on average), we’ve started expecting more from them: in addition to supplying water to our taps and fields, we want them to continue to nurture native fish and provide us with enjoyable boating experiences. Speakers working in the Price River watershed in Utah described how conservation organizations have built relationships with local farmers and brought resources to the table to improve how diversions, ditches and reservoirs serve all these interests.
The examples above demonstrate that those of us who care about the Colorado River, its tributaries and its communities don’t have to limit ourselves to wringing our hands over the seemingly intractable challenge of balancing supply and demand on the Colorado River and sit passively by, hoping that state, federal and tribal leaders will find a good fix. Getting involved in those discussions is good, but so is getting to know your neighbors on your local stream, learning how water works in your community, and finding ways to work together on whatever your particular challenges are. In addressing those challenges, you might even end up contributing to basin-wide solutions.
Hannah Holm coordinates the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, which promotes research, education and dialogue to address the water issues facing the Upper Colorado River Basin. Support for Hutchins Water Center articles is provided by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. You can learn more about the center at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/water-center.
From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Demand management “is a form of insurance,” Anne Castle said at the ninth annual Upper Colorado River Basin Water Forum, which continues today and is presented by CMU’s Ruth Powell Hutchins Water Center…
Castle and John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program, recently released a report evaluating the risk of future curtailment of river water use in Upper Colorado River Basin states under a 1922 river basin compact. The report discusses the concept of working to take an insurance-based approach to address the risk of curtailment.
“As with any form of risk, you can insure against it,” Castle said…
Earlier this year, Congress approved legislation allowing implementation of drought contingency agreements involving both Upper and Lower basin states. The agreements are aimed at helping keep water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead from falling so low as to jeopardize hydropower production and force water supply reductions. In the Upper Basin, an agreement allows in part for any water conserved by possible demand management programs to be stored in a separate account in Lake Powell to protect the reservoir’s water levels.
Colorado and other Upper Basin states since have begun exploring the possibility of pursuing demand management programs. Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said at Wednesday’s forum that in Colorado, nearly 100 members of work groups have been meeting as the state begins “to investigate just the feasibility of that program.”
Colorado is looking into issues surrounding the idea of a possible program involving temporary, compensated, voluntary reductions in use by agricultural and other water users.
Castle said demand management is complex and “not an easy solution but it does give us the opportunity to plan and we can hedge our bets a little bit.”
Castle said a legal question surrounds whether the 1922 [Colorado River Compact] requirement not to deplete water means a requirement to deliver it.
If it only means don’t deplete, the Upper Basin is fine as as long as it doesn’t use more than 7.5 million acre feet a year under the 1922 compact, she said. But if it must deliver that much, it bears all the risk of climate change and reduced river flows in future years, she said…
Meanwhile, climate scientists have projected a 20 to 30% reduction in the river’s flows by mid-century, and a 35 to 55% drop by the end of the century…
She said demand management would have costs, including payments to water users and secondary impacts. Some on the Western Slope want to ensure that temporary cutbacks in use aren’t borne disproportionately by agricultural users, harming rural economies.
Castle said the costs of curtailment need to be considered as well, and those costs could be greater, could last longer and potentially can’t be planned for.
Curtailment would particularly affect municipal transmountain diversions of Colorado River water to the Front Range, because those generally involve more junior water rights.
But Castle and Fleck note in a white-paper, summary version of their report, “While that might sound superficially attractive to West Slope agricultural interests, such a prospect could motivate affected municipal water providers to buy or lease pre-Compact West Slope irrigation water rights, possibly in substantial volume. Although these would almost certainly be market-based, arms-length transactions, the resulting economic impact could be geographically concentrated and tremendously disruptive to commodity supply chains and rural communities.”
The full report may be found at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3483654. The white paper is available at https://www.getches-wilkinsoncenter.cu.law/wpcontent/uploads/2019/11/Summary-of-Risk-Assessment-White-Paper.pdf.
From KUNC (Luke Runyon):
Declining flows could force Southwest water managers to confront long-standing legal uncertainties, and threaten the water security of Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.
A new paper by Anne Castle at the University of Colorado-Boulder and John Fleck at the University of New Mexico identified many risks facing the basin. These risks need to be addressed in order to avoid disaster for the Colorado River, a water source relied on by more than 40 million people in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, the paper’s authors wrote. (Some of Castle’s work receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also supports KUNC’s Colorado River coverage).
Much of the risk lies in the relationship between the river’s two basins. Ambiguity exists in the language of the river’s foundational document, the Colorado River Compact. That agreement’s language remains unclear on whether Upper Basin states, where the Colorado River originates, are legally obligated to deliver a certain amount of water over a 10-year period to those in the Lower Basin: Arizona, California, and Nevada.
According to that document, each basin is entitled to 7.5 million acre-feet of water, with the Lower Basin given the ability to call for its water if it wasn’t receiving its full entitlement. That call could result in a cascade of curtailments in the Upper Basin, where cities and farmers with newer water rights would be shut off to meet those downstream obligations. That’s a future scenario water managers need to acknowledge and plan for, Castle argues…
Back in the early 2000s the Colorado River basin saw one of its driest periods on record. Castle and Fleck’s analysis suggests that if that the dry period from 2001 to 2007 were to repeat, within a few years the river’s biggest reservoirs would decline so rapidly that the threat of a Lower Basin call would become much more real.
In the long term, Castle said, the risk grows even higher. Layer on climate change models, which project that the river will likely experience significant declines in coming decades, and “things get pretty serious pretty quickly,” Castle said.
Much like the calculation of whether or not to buy insurance to hedge against a catastrophic or costly loss of home, car or health, Castle said the Upper Basin states need to fully explore what kinds of risks they’re facing when it comes to water supplies from the Colorado River.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
CO DEMAND MANAGEMENT GROUPS
The state-led work groups investigating feasibility and technical issues related to a potential program to trim upper basin demands on the Colorado River are continuing to meet. You can find the schedule of upcoming meetings and reports from past meetings here.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
RIVER DISTRICT SEMINAR TALKS
The Colorado River District’s annual seminar drew a big crowd and featured speakers with provocative ideas, like a “grand bargain” to cap upper basin uses in exchange for lifting the threat of a compact call by the lower basin. You can access video of the talks and the slides presented here.
Click here to view the Twitter storm from the seminar.