Registration is open for the “Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin Water Forum” Nov 13-14, 2019 @WaterCenterCMU #COriver #aridification

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Local communities work on river plans — Hannah Holm #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification @WaterCenterCMU

The Colorado River originates in Rocky Mountain Natonal Park and soon descends into the bucolic loveliness of Middle Park. Photo/Allen Best

From the Hutchins Water Center (Hannah Holm) via The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:

In late August, I had the good fortune to float down the Colorado River from Silt to Rifle on a bright, sunny day, with cottonwoods just starting to think about turning their leaves to gold. Our guides had never floated this section of river before — there are no big thrills in these river miles. It was beautiful, though. We saw a lot of ospreys and herons, and the traffic on nearby I-70 was unseen and almost inaudible.

Our boats were filled with experts on how the management of land and water affects the flows in the river, the vegetation on the banks, and the living environment for fish and the bugs they eat. One of my companions pointed out places where the cottonwoods were all mature, because the river hadn’t reached that part of the floodplain recently enough for new cottonwood seedlings to sprout. Others discussed a new fish passage around a diversion dam on a tributary stream that had opened up several miles of habitat for trout. We contemplated how algae levels on the river’s bed might be related to nutrients released from an upstream wastewater treatment plant, and observed places where logs placed in the bank had shifted erosion from one place to another, changing the course of the river.

These features of the environment, along with many others, determine what kind of experience people can have on the river, whether they are fishing, boating, or just watching the water flow by. Other factors beyond immediate, local control also affect people’s ability to enjoy the river and its tributaries, both for recreation and the practical work of growing crops and bringing water to household faucets. These include cycles of drought and flood and a worrying long-term decline in streamflows brought about by warming temperatures.

Policy decisions about how to continue to share a shrinking river between seven U.S. states and two countries also matter. If irrigators get paid to spread less water on their land, which is one conservation measure that state leaders are studying, the resulting reductions in seepage to groundwater could affect their neighbors’ wells and the amount of water that trickles back into streams in late summer and fall. And what will the cows eat if less hay is produced locally? But things could be worse if water users face legal requirements to cut back, which may happen if Colorado and the other upstream states fail to meet downstream obligations.

The Middle Colorado Watershed Council, which organized the Silt-to-Rifle float, is wrestling with all of these issues as they work in coordination with the Bookcliff, Mount Sopris and Southside Conservation Districts to develop an Integrated Water Management Plan. They are bringing together irrigators, local government officials, business people and scientists to learn more about connections and trade-offs between different local water uses, stream health and large-scale trends and policy decisions. The goal is to find opportunities to protect and enhance stream health and all the ways people enjoy water in communities from Glenwood Springs to DeBeque. Similar efforts, also known as Stream Management Plans, are underway in other parts of the state, including the Yampa Valley, the Eagle Valley, and the area around Gunnison and Crested Butte.

This kind of work, daunting in its complexity, is important for helping communities chart their own water futures in challenging times. You can learn more about the Middle Colorado plan at https://www.midcowatershed.org/iwmp, and you can learn how other Colorado communities are approaching the challenge at https://coloradosmp.org/.

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. She is also on the steering committee for the Middle Colorado Integrated Water Management Plan. 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.

The latest E-Newsletter is hot off the presses from the Hutchins Water Center

A chart from the Colorado River District’s Phase III risk study, showing average annual depletions from the Western Slope, including transmountain diversions, tied to both pre and post compact rights. Graphic credit: Colorado River District via Aspen Journalism

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

RISK STUDY RESULTS
Phase III of the Colorado River Risk Study spearheaded by Colorado’s Colorado River District and Southwestern Water Conservation District has yielded some modeling results on the risks of Lake Powell dropping to critical levels, as well as how various curtailment scenarios could impact Colorado River uses from different sub-basins in Colorado. The final report won’t be out until the end of the summer, but a slide show was presented at the Four West Slope Basin Roundtable meeting on June 20 in Grand Junction, and it is posted here.

#ColoradoRiver: 2019 State of the River meeting recap: “The long-term trend is that it’s drier” — Hannah Holm #COriver #aridification

Changing nature of Colorado River droughts, Udall/Overpeck 2017.

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Katie Langford):

Despite plentiful snowfall this winter and a rainy spring on the Western Slope, local water experts took a cautious tone at the 2019 State of the River meeting Tuesday night.

Snowpacks and inflow at reservoirs across the state are well above average, but that isn’t necessarily an indicator for the future, said Erik Knight, a hydrologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

There have been multiple examples of precipitation swinging from very dry to very wet and back again the next year, Knight said…

Hannah Holm, coordinator for the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, said while a wet year can give water users a break, it doesn’t change trends.

“The long-term trend is that it’s drier,” Holm said. “The overall precipitation trend is flat, but because of increased temperatures over that same time frame, the amount of water in the river is going down.”

Water users like towns and cities, farmers and the recreation industry are still collaborating on a solution for the problem of less water to go around, Holm said.

Mesa County State of the River meeting May 14 at Colorado Mesa University #ColoradoRiver #CORiver

A raft, poised for action, on the Colorado River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University:

The Mesa County State of the Rivers meeting will provide you with an update on this year’s snowpack, expected river flows and reservoir operations, as well as drought planning and information on an innovative project to help endangered fish in the Grand Valley.

A free chili dinner will be served at 6:00; the program will begin at 6:30.

Date And Time
Tue, May 14, 2019
6:00 PM – 8:00 PM MDT
Add to Calendar

Location
CMU University Center Ballroom
1451 North 12th Street
Grand Junction, CO 81501

The latest E-Newsletter is hot off the presses from the Hutchins Water Center

Slide from Becky Mitchell’s presentation at the recent Water Course shindig from the Hutchins Water Center.

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

WATER COURSE MATERIALS POSTED
Presentation slides and some streaming links for the Hutchins Water Center’s recent 3-evening Water Course are now posted here. Topics included CO Water Law, Impacts of Drought & Aridification, and Drought Contingency Planning, and we had a stellar slate of speakers.

After a year of water challenges, will this be the year for a solution? — Hannah Holm #snowpack #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map January 12, 2019 via the NRCS.

From the Hutchins Water Center (Hannah Holm) via The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:

Last year was a bad water year in Colorado and the Colorado River Basin. A record-low snowpack on the Grand Mesa and the rest of our high country was followed by low streamflows, stressed fish, and thin hay harvests. The Grand Valley was spared the worst, thanks to senior water rights and upstream reservoir storage, but the city of Grand Junction got nervous enough to impose outdoor watering restrictions for the first time. In the Colorado River Basin, the combined storage in all Colorado River Basin reservoirs dropped to 47 percent of capacity last year. Runoff into Lake Powell was only 43 percent of average.

In 2018, we also heard scientists saying that we weren’t just experiencing a drought, but a long-term process of aridification. With drought, you can expect that better days lie ahead. With aridification, not so much.

Water leaders in the states that share the Colorado River seemed to be coming to terms with its limits, as draft “drought contingency plan” (DCP) documents were circulated. The draft DCP sets out a plan for water delivery cuts in the lower basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada and the authorization for a special pool in Lake Powell to save voluntarily conserved water from the upper basin states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. This pool would help keep lake levels high enough to generate hydropower and ensure that the upper basin states stay in compliance with downstream delivery obligations.

Approval of the plan got hung up in Arizona, however, which faces the twin challenges of having to take the only immediate, severe cuts under the plan and the need to get approval from its state legislature. This led the Commissioner of Reclamation to issue a stern warning that if all the Colorado River Basin states don’t approve the DCP by Jan. 31, she will initiate federal action to make the delivery cuts necessary to keep reservoir levels from crashing. So, 2018 wasn’t exactly a banner year for water decision-making, any more than it was for snow.

How is 2019 looking? Hydrologically much better, although not quite better enough to rid the region of drought. Locally, we have a normal amount of snow on the Grand Mesa. The mainstem Colorado River Basin in Colorado, on which most Grand Valley agriculture depends, is even a hair above average for this time of year. The Gunnison Basin is at about 96 percent. The southwestern Colorado river basins have about three times the water in their snowpack that they did at this time last year, but it’s still only 78 percent of average. Long-range forecasts show continued drought, and spring runoff into Lake Powell is forecast to be just 66 percent of average. There’s a lot of dry soil out there to soak up snowmelt before it can reach rivers and streams.

In terms of water decision-making, it’s way too early to make any judgments on how 2019 will stack up. We don’t yet know if stemming overuse in the lower basin will be done collaboratively or only through top-down federal action.

Closer to home, our decent snowpack is giving us time to carefully and deliberately make the kinds of water decisions that can help our communities stay ahead of crisis. Promising work is underway on many fronts.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board will be working to develop a voluntary, compensated “demand management” program to cut water use and protect water levels in Lake Powell.

The board will be seeking input, and it will be up to us to provide it in order to make sure any such program doesn’t hurt more than it helps. Stakeholder groups are working to better understand their water supply vulnerabilities through integrated water planning projects, in hopes of identifying ways to improve resilience. Ditch companies and individual farmers continue to move forward with efficiency projects to make the best use of every drop, and many residential property owners are replacing lawns with native plants.

Whether these efforts will add up to enough to keep us out of trouble with our downstream obligations and keep our communities vibrant remains to be seen. It will depend in part on our luck with the snow, and in part on how much energy and careful thought we put into the kinds of efforts described above.

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 at http://www.coloradomesa.edu/water-center.

From The Albuquerque Journal (Steve Knight):

Holiday storms that dumped snow across the state have built the snowpack in the northern mountains of New Mexico to normal or near-normal levels. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on Friday reported that snowpack in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which feeds the Rio Grande, was 106 percent of its median level over a period of 30 years and snowpack in the Jemez River Basin was 97 percent of normal.

However, according to Royce Fontenot, senior hydrologist with the Albuquerque office of the National Weather Service, more snow is needed in the Four Corners area and in the large headwater basins in southern Colorado…

Snowpack in the Rio Chama Basin near the Colorado state line was 71 percent of normal, and the Animas River Basin was about 85 percent.

The San Juan River Basin in Colorado and New Mexico has about 73 percent of its median snowpack. The Upper Rio Grande Basin was also at 73 percent of normal.

Snowpack in New Mexico and southern Colorado feeds New Mexico’s reservoirs, rivers and streams during spring runoff and provides water for irrigation and recreation. It’s measured in snow-water equivalent, which reflects the amount of water contained in the snowpack at a location if the entire snowpack were to melt.