FromThe Summit Daily via The Sky-Hi News (Lindsey Toomer):
The Blue River Watershed Group has completed the first phase of its Blue River Integrated Water Management Plan with the help of partner Trout Unlimited. The organizations have been working on the project for a couple of years now to gather information on the health status of the river.
Richard Van Gytenbeek, Colorado River Basin outreach coordinator with Trout Unlimited, said the project is a way to bring all stakeholders relating to Blue River water use together. He said the watershed group taking the lead on this project will ensure it is a continuously evolving document…
Kendra Fuller, executive director of the Blue River Watershed Group, said the first phase of the project was meant to gather information about the current and future uses of the river, looking at what kinds of data has already been collected. She said the second phase — which is currently underway — will mostly be to fill in the gaps of information that couldn’t be found in the first phase. The final phase will be implementing actionable steps to maximize benefits for all Blue River users, as well as protect the water as a resource.
The biggest information gap found in the initial phase is that the watershed group hasn’t determined why there are declining fisheries between the town of Silverthorne and Green Mountain Reservoir. Fuller said the second phase aims to find answers by looking at a comprehensive picture of the health of the river.
Researchers will look at geomorphology — the study of the shape and flow of the river — macroinvertebrates, algae and water temperature to connect all the dots of the river’s ecosystem, Fuller said…
Van Gytenbeek said completing Phase 1 of the plan allowed them to get a good baseline of information to start determining what factors are causing what problems in the river…
When splitting the Blue River into its three reaches, the key issues with each section are clear and unique to each portion of the watershed…
The first reach, which goes from around Hoosier Pass to the Dillon Dam, has seen some water quality issues due to a history of mining in the area. Fuller said while some restoration work has been done, there is still a lot more to do. She said fish surveys show that the fishery in this area isn’t great because of the mining and water-quality issues, and macroinvertebrate communities have been impacted, too.
While the biggest concern in the second reach from Silverthorne to Green Mountain Reservoir is the decline in fisheries, Fuller said this reach is heavily influenced by the Dillon Dam, including how and when water is released. She said this stretch of river used to be classified as a gold medal fishery, but the status was removed in 2016 because there were no longer enough fish to qualify. The loss of the gold medal status affects the river as a tourist attraction for fishing.
Fuller said the primary concern with the third reach of the Blue River, which goes from Green Mountain Reservoir until its confluence with the Colorado River, is high water temperatures. She said it has enough water to support the fish habitat but the temperatures have been exceeding the state’s temperature standards.
Further north, the river also has issues with streamflow changes based on how much water is being released from the Green Mountain Reservoir dam. Fuller said the amount of water released from the dam fluctuates greatly throughout the day and has an impact on the river’s ecosystem downstream, also creating safety issues for recreation if there are huge rises and falls in the water level…
Looking to the future
Another potential issue for Blue River streamflows is the fact that some Front Range water users have more water rights than they are using, Fuller said…
Fuller said it’s inevitable that local rivers will get lower due to a variety of factors like climate change and evolving Front Range water rights. Because of this, it’s essential to make sure our water is properly cared for as the Summit community continues to grow, she said.
While monsoon season does not conclude officially until the end of September, it is clear the summer weather pattern that typically brings a good deal of moisture to the Southwest has helped ease the drought’s grip on much of New Mexico.
Chuck Jones, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said the agency will not have figures on monsoon rain totals until early October, after the season has drawn to a close.
But a look at the U.S. Drought Monitor map for New Mexico — and the rest of the Southwest — shows substantial improvement over the past two and a half months. Many parts of the state that were bone dry at the beginning of summer have emerged mostly, or even entirely, from the drought.
Nowhere has that change been more dramatic than in the southeast corner of the state. According to the Southwest and California Drought Status Update issued June 24 by the federal government’s National Integrated Drought Information System, parts of seven counties in that corner of New Mexico were characterized as being in exceptional drought — the worst category — and every county in that region was suffering from severe, extreme or exceptional drought, the three worst categories.
Now, two and a half months later, the picture there is much different, as portions of six of those counties are now characterized as normal. Much of the remaining territory in the southeast corner of the state is classified as being only abnormally dry or experiencing moderate drought.
While other parts of the state also saw marked improvement — portions of 13 counties in New Mexico now are drought free, compared to parts of just two counties on June 24 — others have not been so fortunate. Many parts of central, southwest and northwest New Mexico that were locked in drought at the beginning of the summer remain that way, even though their status has improved, as well.
The drought continues to take a heavy toll on San Juan, McKinley, Rio Arriba, Bernalillo, Santa Fe, Las Alamos, Catron, Grant, Hidalgo and Luna counties, with each of those counties still showing substantial territory characterized as being in extreme drought, the second-worst category.
That’s not to say those locations are as bad off as they were even a month ago, when large portions of all those counties were experiencing exceptional drought. In fact, the percentage of the state that is classified as being in exceptional drought has declined from more than 50% at the start of 2021 to approximately 33% three months ago, 4.5% on Aug. 10 and 0% on Sept. 9. And while 21.2% of New Mexico was in extreme drought on Aug. 10, that percentage declined to 19.1% by Sept. 7.
According to drought.gov, this was the 32nd wettest August in New Mexico over the last 127 years. Las Cruces has enjoyed an especially good monsoon so far, having racked up 5.06 inches of precipitation over that period, the third-wettest monsoon on record, according to drought.gov.
San Juan County has not seen that kind of bounty, but it has experienced a relatively good monsoon season, at least by the paltry standards of recent years. Jones said Farmington has received 1.6 inches of moisture at Four Corners Regional Airport over the three-month period, a figure that nearly matches the 30-year average of 1.62 inches.
For the year, Farmington has drawn 4.31 inches of precipitation, which comes close to matching the figure of 4.68 inches the city has received on average through the end of August for the last 30 years. Over the last three decades, Farmington has averaged a total of 7.76 inches annually.
As of Sept. 7, the vast majority of San Juan County was still characterized as being in extreme drought, with only slivers of the southwest and southeast corners in severe drought. But on Aug. 10, approximately half the county was in exceptional drought, and now none of it is.
The work managed by the Fountain Creek Watershed, Flood Control and Greenway District can be “unrecognizable,” but its leaders want citizens to recognize the importance of its flood control projects, as well as understand why it’s crucial to find more funding.
One of those projects in Pueblo is the restoration of approximately 3,000 feet of the creek that runs under the US Highway 47 bridge near Jerry Murphy Road, completed in November 2018.
“It was $6.6 million for something you would drive by and not recognize, while at the same time it protects a major thoroughfare,” District Executive Director Bill Banks said while giving the annual tour of the district’s projects on Sept. 10.
In this instance, a 2015 flooding event catalyzed the Colorado Department of Transportation to partner with the district to realign the creek in order to protect the bridge. CDOT contributed $1.5 million to the project, which also included major landscaping design to provide bank and floodplain stabilization…
Another large project the district completed in June 2021 is a 2,600 feet stretch of the creek that ends at the 8th Street bridge on the East Side. That $3.4 million project narrowed the creek channel from 600 feet to an average of 150 feet. This both stabilized the channel and made it easier for the water to push sediment through, rather than dumping it haphazardly along the banks.
“A lot of conventional wisdom is to make a channel really wide in order to convey as much water as possible to prevent flooding,” said Aaron Sutherlin, who oversaw the 8th Street bridge project with Matrix Design Group. “When you make things as wide as possible, you lose the ability to transport sediment. What you get in a system is sediment that dumps out in places you don’t know where it’s going to go. That’s exactly what happened at this site.”
That project also built the creek to withstand up to 6,000 cubic feet per second, a so-called “100-year flood.”
That influx was a $50 million payout from Colorado Springs Utility to offset the impact of its water delivery system from the Pueblo Reservoir to the cities of Colorado Springs and Fountain. So far, Banks said the district has spent about $27 million from those funds and has identified over $200 million worth of projects.
Stream stage is an important concept when analyzing how much water is moving in a stream at any given moment. “Stage” is the water level above some arbitrary point in the river and is commonly measured in feet. For example, on a normal day when no rain has fallen for a while, a river might have a stage of 2 feet. If a big storm hits, the river stage could rise to 15 or 20 feet, sometimes very quickly. This is important because past records might tell us that when the stage hits 21 feet, the water will start flowing over its banks and into the basements of houses along the river — time to tell those people to move out! With modern technology, the USGS can monitor the stage of many streams almost instantly.
Hydrologists are able to convert stage height into streamflow volume by determining a rating curve for each site.
From the Environmental Defense Fund (Christopher Kuzdas):
In June, a portion of my neighborhood in Flagstaff, Arizona, was put on pre-evacuation notice due to a nearby wildfire. A few weeks later, storms dumped heavy rains over a burn scar from a 2019 fire that caused destructive floods through parts of town. So far, this summer has been our third-wettest monsoon season on record, a complete contrast from our two driest monsoon seasons on record in 2019 and 2020.
These extremes are just a few local examples of the havoc that climate change is causing around the world. Here in the West, we are now in uncharted territory with the first-ever shortage declaration on the Colorado River.
What the shortage declaration means
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation recently confirmed the Colorado River will be operated under never-before-used shortage rules, called a “tier 1” shortage, starting in 2022.
Under the rules defined by the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan (DCP), other agreements and the river’s operating guidelines, Arizona will absorb the brunt of this shortage. About one-third less water will flow through the Central Arizona Project canal to the Phoenix and Tucson areas, primarily impacting farmers. Nevada and Mexico will also see mandatory but smaller water cuts.
Even more concerning are water supply projections for 2023 and beyond.
Bureau of Reclamation projections forecast Lake Mead could fall close to a threshold where there are no rules outlining additional water cuts to avoid a crash to dead pool — when no water can flow out of Hoover Dam. This risk of an acceleration in plummeting water levels — which also jeopardizes water levels in Lake Powell — has prompted basin state representatives to initiate meetings to discuss additional actions that might be needed if water levels in Lake Mead fall below 1,020 feet.
It will get hotter and drier
This unprecedented situation offers a glimpse into our future. Warming scenarios from the latest IPCC report suggest that we could exceed 2 degrees Celsius of warming around midcentury, with more than 5 degrees by the end of the century, in the absence of action to curb carbon emissions.
Why does this matter for the Colorado River? Colorado River flows are highly sensitive to warming, and aridification caused by climate change is already reducing the water flowing in the river. With each additional 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming, the Colorado River’s average flow drops by 9.3%, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Colorado River flows could be up to one-third less than the current average within a generation, unless meaningful and immediate reductions in carbon emissions are achieved.
The outlook for the Colorado River is overwhelming. But what our future looks like is still our choice. We can, and should, choose to pursue a just transition to a basin with significantly less water. While in no way comprehensive, below are four ways to get started on that path.
1. Reconcile water demand with our climate reality.
Reconciling demands with our climate reality, at the very least, will involve updating river operating rules, scaling up conservation programs and shifting away from outdated expansionism.
The rules that determine how we balance supply and demand, and the underlying rights and agreements that collectively determine who gets how much water and when, will play a major role in how we transition to a basin with less water.
River operating rules have become more flexible to some extent as they evolved through new agreements like the DCP. However, current river operating rules still don’t account for the full suite of climate change impacts, especially those impacts under more dire climate scenarios. While river operating rules are already a focus of discussion, updating them will require thoughtful leadership, as well as attention to climate and other social and environmental considerations.
Scaling up conservation programs such as system conservation in the Lower Basin and demand management in the Upper Basin will also play an important role. If not for water conserved in Lake Mead, a “tier 1” shortage would have occurred years ago. Our challenge moving forward will be expanding the scale and impact of these programs, and in the Upper Basin, moving much faster to do so.
To fully reconcile demands with our climate reality, we must also finally shift away from legacy expansionism and boosterism that still show up through unnecessary project proposals like the Lake Powell Pipeline. We can do more with less.
2. Address long-standing inequities.
Long-standing inequities should be addressed to ensure water security for all. Two of the many considerations are inclusive decision-making and fully recognizing tribal water rights.
Inclusive and transparent processes to make decisions are essential to developing solutions that account for multiple values and goals. In the past, decision-making was often exclusive and responded primarily to a narrow set of private interests. That is changing.
For example, Arizona’s DCP process included some tribes and conservation groups, and the process would not have been successful without the leadership of the Gila River Indian Community and the Colorado River Indian Tribes. More diversity at the table enables more creativity and better solutions.
Although the Colorado River Basin’s 30 sovereign Native American tribes have unique rights and claims to a significant portion of the Colorado River’s flow, not all are using their water for several reasons. Those reasons include aging or inadequate infrastructure; limited funding; and significant legal, policy and administrative barriers.
Overcoming such barriers to accessing Colorado River water and confirming and fulfilling tribal water rights will be critical for many tribes to achieve goals such as meeting basic water needs and securing livelihoods. Addressing those barriers is a step toward dealing with long-standing inequity and should be a priority for policymakers.
3. Take a whole-portfolio approach.
A whole-portfolio approach includes new watershed-focused actions to support communities in adapting to and mitigating the steadily compounding risks and extremes of climate change. The recently published Ten Strategies for Climate Resilience report describes a suite of local and watershed-scale projects to do just that, including forest health and restoration, naturally distributed storage, regenerative agriculture and new crop markets.
A whole-portfolio approach also necessitates adequate management and planning for our other water supplies. However, that’s not fully possible across a large part of the basin without changes in state-level water law and policy. For example, Arizona, which makes up almost half the landmass of the Colorado River Basin, already depends on groundwater for 40% of its annual water supply and will only become increasingly dependent on groundwater as Colorado River flows shrink. Arizona does not manage groundwater across most of the state, and local rural communities have little to no power to do so.
Changing this free-for-all approach to groundwater in rural Arizona is critical if we hope to have a water-secure future for all people in the basin.
4. Lead on climate.
More warming means less water in the Colorado River Basin. How much water dries up depends on how fast we can get off fossil fuels. Across the basin, and globally, freshwater agendas must start including actions to stop heating the planet. Climate leadership is water leadership.
The road ahead is difficult. But what our shared future looks like in the Colorado River Basin is our own choice. Let’s choose to collectively pursue a just transition to a basin with less water.
Could a $134 million pipeline recycling suburban water help wean communities off depleted aquifer sources? The latest complex solution for the arid, fast-growing West…
For the H20 molecules lying thousands of feet underground in the Denver Basin aquifer, trapped by millions of years of geologic shifts, there would be a long journey ahead.
Should they get sucked up a well owned by a northern El Paso County water agency, the water drops may first be sprinkled on a lawn in, say, the Woodmoor district east of Monument. From there, the water would sink back underground and flow downhill toward Monument Creek. On into Fountain Creek, and south toward the Arkansas River.
Then the drops would ripple past Colorado Springs, which is desperate to entrap more water of its own for future growth, and is pushing for unloved dams 100 miles away to bring more Western Slope water over the Continental Divide.
On the water would glide past Security, Widefield and other communities, which are struggling to secure clean water supplies of their own in the wake of contamination from polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) running off firefighting foam used for decades at a local military base.
Still going, the hardworking aquifer water then would pass farmland that will eventually be dried up by Woodmoor and other northern suburbs buying agriculture water for their own growth. At the town of Fountain, the water would pass a town that has slowed new homebuilding because it doesn’t have enough future supply for new water taps.
And then those precious H20 molecules would hit a curve of Fountain Creek where the Chilcott Ditch headgate looms like an ominous fork in the road of life: If Woodmoor and its allies get their way, the molecules they pulled from the timeless aquifer will get diverted here and sent into a $130 million-plus pipeline, to be shipped back north to the top of El Paso County. The journey for those molecules would begin all over again, in a project appropriately dubbed The Loop, until — in the official water rights phrase — the original aquifer water has been “used to extinction.”
But that only happens if El Paso County and local water agencies convince the keepers of the federal American Rescue Plan that the stimulus funds can be used for water projects like the Loop, and not just highways.
Can this tortured trip for the ancient, sandstone-filtered water really be the best solution to Colorado’s relentlessly expanding water demands?
“There’s something in it for everybody,” said Jessie Shaffer, Woodmoor Water and Sanitation District manager and a key proponent of the Loop…
Backers of the Loop idea say it would solve many problems at once.
It would reduce unsustainable withdrawals from the Denver Basin aquifers, with local water providers already on notice they need to find alternative sources. The pipeline would allow the homes in subdivisions north and east of Colorado Springs to use southern water rights they’ve already purchased but can’t access. And it would promote water recycling, considered a key to Colorado’s water use future, by allowing those northern areas to reuse aquifer water after it’s run off into Fountain Creek and shipped north again by the Loop.
From a purely practical standpoint, drilling new wells into the aquifer is getting so expensive that the suburban districts think twice even when they own the rights. As the aquifer sinks from overuse, drilling prices soar.
Williams mentioned a northern exurban community that spent more than a million dollars on a well to water its new golf course…
El Paso County grew by more than 17%, and more than 100,000 people, between 2010 and 2020. As developers work to build out planned communities in areas like Flying Horse or Banning Lewis Ranch, the county’s population is projected to expand by hundreds of thousands more in the coming decades.
State water engineers who control withdrawals from aquifers have allowed cities and other water buyers to take out water at a rate protecting a 100-year life for the underground pools. Alarmed at the drops in the Denver Basin pools, El Paso County changed the local standard to preserve 300 years of life for the aquifers. That was another push to local water providers to find other sources.
The Loop pipeline, Shaffer said, is a key to shifting “off of a finite and exhaustible water supply onto a long term, renewable and sustainable water supply.”
That’s where the American Rescue Plan, signed by President Biden in March, comes into the picture. State and local agencies will battle over the $1.9 trillion stimulus funding for years to come, but Colorado water officials are hopeful some grants can be used for drinking water supply projects. There also may be far more stimulus and infrastructure funding to come, in a building package awaiting final U.S. House approval and a greatly expanded recovery budget that may pass under reconciliation.
Governor Mark Gordon’s Colorado River Working Group will hold its first meeting from 9 am to noon on Sept. 7 in Rock Springs. The group will discuss important Colorado River matters and monitor potential impacts to Wyoming. The kickoff meeting will be open to the public and led by the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office.
The formation of the Working Group comes in response to continuing drought conditions in the Colorado, Green and Little Snake River basins and associated issues concerning Colorado River Basin management. The Governor’s charge to the Working Group is to discuss and share Colorado River information with interested stakeholders in the Green and Little Snake River Basins. It is a continuation of a coordinated and proactive outreach effort that has been underway in Wyoming since 2019.
This group is made up of representatives of key water use sectors in the Green and Little Snake River Basins. Working Group members are:
Ben Bracken — Green River/Rock Springs/Sweetwater Joint Powers Board (retired)
Brad Brooks — Cheyenne Board of Public Utilities
Senator Larry Hicks — Senate District 11
Representative Albert Sommers — House District 20
Jen Lamb — The Nature Conservancy
Aaron Reichel — Genesis-Alkali
Ron Wild — PacifiCorp
The September 7th meeting will be held at Western Wyoming Community College in Business Office Room #3650 A&B in Rock Springs. More information, including background materials and future meeting agendas, will be posted on the Colorado River Working Group web page on the Wyoming State Engineer’s website: https://seo.wyo.gov/interstate-streams/wyoming-colorado-river-working-group.
The federal agency that distributes electricity from hydropower plants in the Upper Colorado River Basin will ask its customers, including more than 50 here in Colorado, to help offset rising costs linked to Lake Powell’s inability to produce as much power due to drought.
The Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), which distributes Lake Powell’s electricity, is gathering public comments and asking its customers how best to cope with long-term drought conditions that have pushed Powell and other reservoirs to historically low levels.
As flows in the Colorado River have declined due to climate change and a 20-year megadrought, there is less water in its storage reservoirs and, therefore, less pressure to power the turbines, causing them to generate less electricity.
WAPA has had to nearly double the amount of extra power it has had to buy this year to ensure it can meet its contract obligations to its customers.
“It’s all bad news, but it isn’t necessarily unexpected,” said WAPA spokesperson Lisa Meiman.
WAPA power is among the most sought-after in Western states because it is sold at cost and because it is a renewable power resource, something highly valued in places such as Colorado, where utilities are working to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.
WAPA often buys extra power if for some reason its customers’ electricity needs don’t match up with its hydropower production on a given day. It delivers power over a 17,000-mile transmission grid to six states and 5 million people.
But as flows in the Colorado River have shrunk, those purchases have become larger and more frequent.
Last year it bought an extra 413,000 megawatts of power. This year it has already purchased 833,000 megawatts of additional power, according to Meiman, and the agency expects that number to grow this year and likely again next year as the drought continues with no relief in sight.
This year, because of the power demands of the West’s growing population and the need for air conditioning to combat ultra-high temperatures, power costs are already soaring.
Last year WAPA paid $25 per megawatt for its replacement power, Meiman said. This year it is paying $33 per megawatt, a 30% jump.
In Colorado, WAPA sells power to some of the state’s largest electric utilities, such as Tri-State Generation and Transmission, as well as cities, small towns and rural electric co-ops.
“We’re watching the situation closely,” said Natalie Eckhart, a spokesperson for Colorado Springs Utilities, which is a WAPA electric customer and which also draws a significant portion of its water from the Colorado River system.
“The bottom line is we care about this on all fronts,” Eckhart said.
Few expected power generation at Lake Powell to decline so quickly. The Colorado River Basin serves seven U.S. states and 30 Native American Tribes. For months, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Upper Colorado River Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming have been nervously watching what’s known as the minimum power pool level at Powell, the lowest elevation at which power can be produced, which is 3,490 feet. If the reservoir drops lower than that, all hydropower production will stop.
In July, as water levels at Powell continued to plummet, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, as part of the Upper Basin’s Drought Contingency Plan, began emergency releases of water from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa, and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs to boost levels and protect Powell’s hydropower production.
And while those releases are expected to help keep the turbines functioning, the releases won’t be enough to restore them to full production, leaving WAPA little choice but to look at restructuring the way it sells power and to raise its prices.
WAPA is forecasting a 35% increase in its costs, but is working to minimize the impact on utilities that purchase its power and anticipates a 12% to 14% rate increase as early as December. Some utilities are preparing to buy power elsewhere, when possible, to reduce their costs.
Holy Cross Energy, a rural electric co-op based in Glenwood Springs that is also a WAPA customer, has spent years converting its power portfolio from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources including wind, solar and biomass, as well as hydropower.
While WAPA electricity comprises just 3% of its power portfolio, Holy Cross CEO Bryan Hannegan is worried that this renewable, low-cost power source is in jeopardy if flows from the Colorado River into Lake Powell continue to decline, as they are projected to do.
“It’s one of the cleanest and lowest-cost sources of power for a whole range of utilities,” Hannegan said. “It’s been a bedrock on which we built the West. For it not to be available … it’s a big deal.”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Every month the Bureau of Reclamation attempts to peer two years into the future of the Colorado River and its reservoirs.
Reclamation’s 24-month study is a staple forecasting product for the federal agency that manages a chain of dams in the watershed, including those that control lakes Mead and Powell, the country’s largest reservoirs — and currently two of its most consequential. The reservoirs are a key source of drinking water for about 40 million people, plus they store water that irrigates millions of acres of farmland and generates electricity for the Southwest. The reservoirs are also alarmingly dehydrated right now — about one-third full, the lowest since they were first filled. The entire basin is on alert.
The 24-month study, in the simplest terms, projects water levels for the next two years at 12 federal reservoirs in the Colorado River basin. Produced monthly, it’s one of several forecasting products that give water managers a sense of possible futures. It is also the foundation of essential water management decisions in the basin. Reclamation’s other forecasts, updated less frequently, look at mid-term (five years out) and long-term (multiple decades) scenarios.
Typically nested in wonkish obscurity, the 24-month study acquired newfound public prominence in recent weeks. The August results are the most important of all the months because they determine how much water will be released in the following year from Mead and Powell. Because Mead is so low, the August results triggered the first-ever Tier 1 shortage on the lower Colorado River, a declaration that means mandatory cuts in water deliveries in 2022 to Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico. Because Powell is so low, dam managers will release a comparative trickle of water next year, so little that Mead is likely to plunge even lower.
More eyes than usual on a technical product that was designed to guide reservoir operations means more potential for misinterpretation, especially by people unfamiliar with the study and its assumptions. Carly Jerla, Reclamation’s senior water resources program manager, said that the study has its defined uses but also its limits.
“It’s important to understand that we’re not saying that this is what we think is going to happen this year,” Jerla told Circle of Blue about the reservoir levels outlined in the 24-month study. “We’re not saying, ‘Plan for this and only this because we have crystal ball knowledge of what is going to happen.’”
Reclamation’s models, in fact, are not a crystal ball. Critics say that they are not pessimistic enough about the potential for extremely dry years. But as the Colorado River basin dries due to a warming planet, Jerla and others are actively considering how best to convey to the public and water managers alike the looming risks to water supplies and to prepare people, at least mentally, for the possibility that reality could turn out much worse than the forecast had projected…
Accurate mid-term weather forecasts, those that extend out a couple weeks and up to a year, are notoriously difficult to achieve, said Jeff Lukas, an independent climate researcher in Colorado who has worked in the basin for 20 years. It’s especially true in the mountainous terrain of Colorado and Wyoming, where the Colorado River and its main tributaries have their headwaters. Well-known seasonal patterns like the cyclical warming of the eastern Pacific during El Nino years can indicate wetter or drier, but without substantial precision.
Because the future is hazy, the models instead rely on the recent past as a guide, Lukas said. “We’re basically saying in the absence of real prognostic information, we’ll substitute history.”
Here’s how that works. The 24-month study process begins with the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center, a team of scientists operating within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Their task is to assess what the rivers might do.
The River Forecast Center starts with current land and water conditions: soil moisture, snowpack, stream flow. From that baseline hydrologists feed their model, one by one, with historical weather observations from the years 1981 to 2015. In effect, it’s as if the temperature and precipitation from each year were repeated in today’s world. That produces 35 possible hydrological futures, each representing the past laid on top of the present.
The Bureau of Reclamation team takes those hydrological futures and uses them in its model of the Colorado River system. The aim of this system model, which includes water inflows and water uses, is to simulate reservoir levels as well as hydropower generation. Fed by the output from the hydrological model, the system model also produces future scenarios, called runs.
The middle result — the most probable — is the one that is presented in the main 24-month study report. It’s the result that determines how Mead and Powell will be operated. It’s called the most probable because it’s in the middle, if each of the runs was ordered from wettest to driest. It means that historically half the time it was wetter than the middle result and half the time it was drier.
There are drawbacks to this approach. The runs are not assessed as to how likely they are to occur, which means that a repetition of each of the past years is considered equally likely. The problem: there are more wet years in the 1981 to 2015 period than dry ones. (Runoff in 1983, for instance, was so extremely high that it almost broke Glen Canyon Dam.) Because of this imbalance, the middle result is arguably skewed toward wetter conditions, Lukas said.
Jerla said there is no scientifically valid way to privilege the likelihood of one outcome over another.
An update of the River Forecast Center’s data sets will soon help reduce the skew. Cody Moser, a senior hydrologist at the Center, told Circle of Blue that data from the years 2016 through 2020 will be added this fall. Instead of 35 historical hydrologies fed through the models, there will be 40. Adding the drier recent years will push the most probable outcome to a drier result, with reservoir projections in the 24-month study likely pushed downward at the same time…
The 24-month study is most associated with the most probable scenario. But recently Reclamation has expanded its offerings to include two other reservoir scenarios, now produced monthly: the minimum probable and the maximum probable. The minimum probable is the tenth percentile, meaning the third or fourth driest of those 35 historical hydrologies. The maximum probable is the ninetieth percentile, or the third or fourth wettest historical hydrology.
For the minimum probable, the tenth percentile of flows is used in the first year of the 24-month study, but the second year of the study is calculated with the twenty-fifth percentile, under the assumption that consecutive extremely bad years would not happen.
If you look only at the most probable result, you’re not seeing how bad things might plausibly get. Lake Mead today, when it is one-third full, sits at elevation 1,068 feet. The most probable elevation for July 2023 is 1,037 feet, when Mead would be 26 percent full. The minimum probable elevation for that date is 1,027 feet, when the gasping reservoir would be 23 percent full.
That’s a significant difference in elevation, and if the drier scenario came about it would change basin operations. But even the minimum probable has a flaw. It is not as pessimistic as it could — or maybe should — be.
“The minimum probable does not represent a worst-case scenario,” Jerla said. “If you wanted to be the ultimate pessimist, which I think probably makes sense given where the system is, things could be worse than what is provided in that minimum probable because it is only the tenth percentile.”
In other words, the minimum probable is not the minimum possible. There have been years in the last two decades with worse river flow conditions than what is represented by the minimum probable. Things could be drier still.
As Jerla puts it regarding the minimum and maximum probable: “There is an area above and below those that have futures that folks should be aware of.”
Reclamation already runs its five-year projections with what it calls “stress test” hydrology. This scenario is a replication of the years 1988 to 2019, and represents hotter and drier conditions that have settled over the basin. Udall and others argue that Reclamation should consider running its models with an even more stressful test: the years 2000 to 2004, the last time that Lake Powell almost crashed.
“That five-year period is really unique,” Udall explained. Annual runoff averaged 9.4 million acre-feet, a fraction of what coursed through the river throughout the last century. The average annual runoff in the years for the stress test hydrology is about 13.3 million acre-feet. That makes the first years of this century unique, Udall said. And frightening. “There’s nothing like it in the 20th century. It’s stunning how bad a period it is, and we could be in the middle of that right now.”
The next update of the five-year projections will come out in early September. Five years is a tricky time frame to analyze, Jerla said. It’s far enough in the future that current conditions lose their predictive power. But it’s close enough to be relevant for farmers, city utilities, and marina operators — all of whom need to plan for near-term water supply. Jerla and her colleagues are trying to thread that needle, thinking hard about how to “provide the public with a good understanding of future outcomes and future risks without confusing the heck out of them.”
As coal mining fades, a diverse coalition of Moffat County residents and leaders is planning for the next chapter with a focus on protecting resources while managing recreation and tourism.
How can northwest Colorado entice and manage visitors, protect natural landscapes like the Green River’s stunning Gates of Lodore and prop up an economy girding for the looming departure of coal mining?
“As our coal leaves, what do we have left?” asks Jennifer Holloway, the executive director of the chamber of commerce in the town of Craig, where she grew up. “We have an amazing experience that can change lives. How can we share that, but also protect it?”
Three years ago, Moffat County “had some challenges with our identity,” Holloway says, describing how her father, when she was little, walked away from the family farm to work in the better-paying coal mines. “Not everyone had a coal job, but we focused on coal and neglected other things.”
Those other things — like tourism, agriculture and outdoor recreation — are no longer being neglected. It’s been a year since Tri-State Generation and Transmission and Xcel Energy announced they would be closing their coal-fired electrical plants and nearby coal mines starting in 2028. The closures will cost northwest Colorado as many as 800 jobs.
A community-based transition plan focuses on growing the region’s tourism and recreational amenities while protecting agricultural heritage and natural resources. The communities of Moffat County, downstream from the bustling resort of Steamboat Springs, are essentially a blank slate. They are taking cues from other Western Slope communities, hoping to glean lessons on what works and what does not. And the wheels are turning.
“Our community is on the cusp of doing great things, transformational things,” Holloway says.
Craig has applied for a $1.8 million federal grant for the roughly $2.7 million Yampa River Corridor Project, which hopes to revamp boat ramps and add a whitewater park as part of an effort to bolster the region’s appeal with river runners and paddlers. An additional phase of the plan would build a trail connecting Craig to the Yampa River…
First in line for state’s new rural assistance program
Nathan Fey, the head of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office has joined the Office of Economic Development and International Trade in recruiting students from the University of Colorado to map recreational assets in Moffat County as well as business infrastructure.
That case study will inform a larger project that will include local residents in shaping how northwest Colorado is presented to both visitors and outdoor recreation businesses. That larger project is part of Colorado’s new Rural Technical Assistance Program, or RTAP, which offers rural communities technical education that deploys online tools to help community leaders identify needs and build a plan for future growth. The second phase of the rural program involves technical assistance for planning and finally the state will help the community implement its strategic plan.
Moffat County is among the first communities to go through the new Rural Technical Assistance Program.
Say, for example, a snowmobile business or manufacturer approaches the state with an idea about relocating to Colorado. Fey can suggest Craig and Moffat County, offering maps of snow trail systems where the company can test designs as well as insights into supply chain management, broadband and commercial space. And residents in the community would already have expressed interest in welcoming that kind of business.
As he gazes up at massive sandstone cliffs above the Green River near its confluence with the Yampa River, [Andrew Grossman] riffs on what a shifting valuation for tourism economies might look like. Is it attracting wealthier visitors who leave more money in the community? But what if those high-rollers arrive on a private jet and emit that much more carbon than a less affluent visitor? One thing that is going away: the former yardstick for measuring success that was based solely on numbers of visitors.
“Maybe it’s time we apply a triple bottom line that considers resident sentiments, carbon footprints and economic benefit?” Grossmann says. “We have to reshift our value proposition.”
Parks service officials issued the order because Elk Creek’s floating dock and marina are likely to hit the lake’s bottom. Eric Loken, the head of operations at the marina his family has managed for more than 30 years, said the early closure is cutting six weeks out of his five-month season…
A 20-year, climate change-fueled megadrought has dealt a double blow to Blue Mesa this summer. The dry conditions have led to lower levels directly, but the lake is also hurting from drought problems in other states.
For the first time, the federal government is taking emergency action by taking water from Blue Mesa to help out another reservoir — Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border. Loken said the withdrawals hurt more given Blue Mesa’s low water levels…
The states that share Colorado River water agreed to this plan in 2019. Low levels in Lake Powell would trigger an emergency release from three reservoirs upstream…
The water taken from Blue Mesa is being used to make sure hydroelectric power turbines at Lake Powell can keep spinning and generating electricity for millions of people in the West, including customers in Colorado.
John McClow, a lawyer for the Upper Gunnison River Conservancy District, said this scenario is what Blue Mesa and the other reservoirs were built for in the 1960s — drought emergencies, not recreation. It’s a bank of water that states can tap when they need to…
Although the water in Blue Mesa has always been earmarked for Lake Powell if Colorado needed help meeting its legal obligation to send more flow to downstream states, McClow said the timing of the release was unnecessarily disruptive. He wishes the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation would have waited to take the water until October when lake tourism starts slowing down.
Erik Knight, a Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist, said that while the timing of the water releases might have hurt the lake, it improved rafting and fishing downstream of Blue Mesa, including parts of the Gunnison River that were so low that commercial rafting was likely to have been canceled.
Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:
AT THE END OF A UNIQUE WATER YEAR, COMES A UNIQUE WATER SEMINAR.
Water year 2021 was a wake-up call for water users across the Western Slope of Colorado. Extreme or exceptional drought conditions persisted for months as dry soils and historic high temperatures lowered streamflow. Agricultural users faced impossible choices while local municipalities dealt with aging water infrastructure in the wake of devastating wildfires. Downstream, Lake Powell dominated national headlines with plummeting levels, and the Drought Contingency Plan played a role years earlier than most expected.
Yet many of the stories which came out of this incredibly difficult year were ones of innovative solutions and never-before-seen partnerships. Collaborative projects upgraded irrigation infrastructure, increased streamflow, and even delisted 66 river miles from the Impaired Waters list.
Setting historic precedents in hydrology, 2021 also did much to highlight the ability of water users to reach across their differences in order to build a future for West Slope water together.
Wake-up Call on the Colorado River is a seminar which will face the harsh economic and environmental realities of this past year, along with a study of practical solutions and future collaboration.
With lower, warmer water levels in the Yampa River during this extreme drought year, town of Hayden employees are carefully watching operations at the water plant this summer to continue to alleviate taste or odor issues for the town’s 1,100 water taps…
[Bryan] Richards said the usual time of heightened summer concern for low water levels and thus increased algae is lasting longer this year, starting about one month earlier than usual in early July rather than the normal early August. Water levels have dropped at the intake on the Yampa River at the water plant north of town, and water temperatures at the intake have increased by 3 to 5 degrees above normal, rising as high as 75 degrees. Lower, slower, warmer water leads to more algae production…
Fortunately, major improvements to the Hayden water treatment plant during the past three years are working to help mitigate the algae increases, said Town Manager Mathew Mendisco. He said the town spent a total of $2.3 million in water system and plant upgrades with half of the funding coming from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and other funding from a citizen-approved bond measure. The plant was first built in 1978…
Town of Hayden water users have been under outdoor water restrictions this summer that mimic city of Steamboat Springs restrictions and resulted in a 3% decrease in overall water use compared to the past three years, even though the watering season started earlier this dry year, Richards said. Hayden water users will need to continue water conservation efforts when the town’s 1 million gallon water tank on hospital hill goes offline for a planned refurbishment starting with the tank drained by the end of August through project completion Oct. 20, Richards said.
Mendisco said the town secured $989,000 in low-interest financing to upgrade the tank through a state revolving loan fund managed by the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority. The town qualified for a 1.5% interest rate based on its status as a “disadvantaged community” dealing with the impacts of the transition from coal.
The town has a 500,000-gallon water tank near Yampa Valley Regional Airport, so officials do not anticipate impacts to water customers when the larger water tank is off line.
Water users in Ouray County are hoping to satisfy water shortages with what they say is a multi-beneficial reservoir and pipeline project. But the Ram’s Horn reservoir, Cow Creek pipeline and exchange are facing opposition from the state of Colorado and others.
The complicated, three-pronged project proposes to take water from Cow Creek and pipe it into Ridgway Reservoir, take water from local streams via ditches and store it in the reservoir, and build a new dam and reservoir on Cow Creek. This stored water would eventually be sent downstream to be used by the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association (UVWUA).
The project applicants — Ouray County, Tri-County Water Conservancy District, Ouray County Water Users Association and the Colorado River Water Conservation District — say they need 20 cubic feet per second of water from Cow Creek. Cow Creek is a tributary of the Uncompahgre River with headwaters in the Cimarron mountains. Cow Creek’s confluence with the Uncompahgre River is below Ridgway Reservoir, which is why an upstream pipeline would be needed to capture the water and bring it into the reservoir.
The applicants are also seeking to build Ram’s Horn Reservoir on the upper reaches of Cow Creek, which would hold about 25,000 acre-feet of water behind a 260-foot-tall and 720-foot-long dam. Ram’s Horn would help regulate what are known as diurnal flows during spring runoff — streamflows are higher during the day as the snow melts with warming temperatures, and lower at night as snow re-freezes. UVWUA says they can’t adjust their headgates to capture the high point of this daily fluctuation in flows, leaving the water to run downstream unused. The project would capture these diurnal peaks.
Goal to prevent a call
The goal of the project is to prevent the UVWUA — one of the big senior water rights holders in the Gunnison River basin — from placing a call on the river.
When the UVWUA, which owns the Montrose & Delta Canal and has a 1890 water right, is not able to get its full amount of water, it places a call on the river. This means upstream junior water rights holders, like Ouray County Water Users, have to stop using water so that UVWUA can get its full amount. According to a state database, the M&D Canal has placed a call three times this summer, most recently from July 12 to 22. In 2020, the call was on for nearly all of July and August. Under Colorado water law, the oldest water rights have first use of the river.
By releasing the water stored in either Ridgway or Ram’s Horn reservoirs to satisfy a UVWUA call, Ouray County Water Users Association would then be able to continue using its own water.
The Glenwood Springs-based River District, which advocates to keep water on the Western Slope, is a co-applicant of the project.
“This (project) is consistent with the River District’s goals and objectives with supporting our constituents and making sure they have a reliable water supply,” said Jason Turner, River District senior counsel.
Potential impacts to fish, instream flows
But some state agencies, environmental groups and others have concerns about the project. Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Colorado Water Conservation Board have both filed statements of opposition to the application, which was originally filed in December 2019, amended in January and is making its way through water court. CPW claims that its water rights in the basin, which it holds for the benefit of state wildlife areas, fisheries and state parks, could be injured by the project. CPW owns nearly a mile of access to Cow Creek on the Billy Creek State Wildlife Area.
Between August 2019 and January 2020, CPW recorded water temperatures of Cow Creek and found they exceeded a state standard for trout. A report from CPW aquatic biologist Eric Gardunio says that the proposed project would likely cause an even bigger increase in water temperatures, resulting in fish mortality.
“The flow and temperature analysis for Cow Creek indicates that the water rights application has the likelihood to damage or eliminate the native bluehead sucker population as well as the rest of the fishery in the downstream end of Cow Creek through the degradation of water quantity and quality,” the report reads.
While less water in Cow Creek could result in temperatures that are too high for trout, water released from the proposed Ram’s Horn reservoir could be too cold for bluehead suckers.
“There’s going to be some changes to temperature and what our temperature data has outlined is that the species are at their extreme ends,” Gardunio said. “It’s nearly too cold for bluehead sucker and it’s nearly too warm for trout, so changes in temperature are going to have an impact to one or the other of the fishery.”
“The application does not present sufficient information to fully evaluate the extent to which the CWCB’s instream flow water right may be injured,” the statement of opposition reads.
Environmental group Western Resource Advocates also opposes the project. Ram’s Horn Reservoir, with conditional water rights owned by Tri-County Water Conservancy District, is one of five reservoirs planned as part of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Dallas Creek Project, which dates to the 1950s. Ridgway Reservoir is the only one of the five that has been built.
The third piece of the proposed project is what’s known as an exchange, where water would be conveyed via existing ditches connecting tributaries above Ridgway Reservoir. The exchange water would be stored there and released when senior downstream water users need it, which would benefit upstream water users. In addition to Cow Creek, the applicants are proposing to take water from Pleasant Valley Creek, the East and West Forks of Dallas Creek, Dallas Creek and the Uncompahgre River to use in the exchange.
Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 4 Engineer Bob Hurford laid out the issues his office has with this exchange in his summary of consultation. He recommended denial on the exchange portion of the application until the applicants list the specific ditches participating in the exchange and their locations, and agree that they are responsible for enlarging the ditches so they can handle the increased capacity of water.
“I have to have actual ditch names, the owners of the ditches have to be willing to participate and it has all got to be tracked to a tenth of a cfs,” Hurford said. “It’s not a loosey-goosey thing. It has to be dialed in and defined precisely.”
Another criticism of the project is that it won’t provide water directly to water users in Dallas Creek, which according to a report by Wright Water Engineers, is the most water-short region of the Upper Uncompahgre basin. Even if Dallas Creek water users participate in the exchange, in dry years still there may not be enough water in local creeks for them to use.
“This project has been sold as the savior of agriculture in Ouray County but this project will not provide wet water that would not otherwise be available to anybody that is an ag producer,” said Ouray County water rights holder and project opponent Cary Denison. “I don’t know one irrigator who is saying we need to build Ram’s Horn Reservoir.”
The project application is making its way through water court and applicants say they are continuing to negotiate with opposers. A status report is due in October. Attorney for the Ouray County Water Users Association and River District board representative Marti Whitmore said they want to make sure it’s a multi-purpose project that benefits everyone.
“Fish flows and recreation uses are important, so we are just trying to work out terms and conditions that are a win-win for everyone,” she said.
Aspen Journalism covers water and rivers in collaboration with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Aug. 30 edition of The Aspen Times.
Here’s Part 1 of the series from The Alamosa Citizen (Mark Obmascik):
The water supply of the San Luis Valley faces pressure as never before
THEY all remember when the San Luis Valley brimmed with water.
South of San Luis, Ronda Lobato raced the rising floodwaters in San Francisco Creek every spring to fill sandbags that protected her grandparents’ farm.
North of Center, potato farmer Sheldon Rockey faced so much spring mud that he had to learn to extract his stuck tractor.
Outside Monte Vista, Tyler Mitchell needed only a hand shovel on the family farm near Monte Vista to reach shallow underground flows in the Valley’s once-abundant water table.
Today those tales of plentiful water seem like a distant mirage. Ten of the past 11 years have delivered below-average snowpacks for the upper Rio Grande basin, with this year’s snowpack measuring just 58 percent of normal at the key May 1 measurement. All but one of the main local reservoirs were less than half-filled.
Farmers face significant cutbacks from wells now and likely from river flows and irrigation ditches later this season.
Against this stark backdrop of drought, three other vast changes loom.
The biggest is a state court judgment that came after decades of excessive well pumping by valley farmers and ranchers. Local irrigators now must restore 400,000 acre feet of water – more than 1.3 million people in metro Denver use in an entire year – to Valley groundwater systems within 10 years.
A second challenge is a plan by former Gov. Bill Owens and a metro Denver business group to pump and divert additional deep groundwater from the San Luis Valley to new buyers outside the San Luis Valley, likely on the Colorado Front Range.
And the third long-term issue is a forecast for flows to be reduced even further, perhaps as much as 30 percent, because of climate change, according to Colorado’s Rio Grande Implementation Plan.
Buffeted by drought, court orders, climate change, and Front Range diversion plans, the water supply of the San Luis Valley faces pressure as never before.
Shortages loom. Cuts seem inevitable.
“Our demand for water has far exceeded our supply for years, and now our supply is in a 20-year downward trend,” said state Sen. Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. “We keep facing drought after drought. The sense of urgency continues to build.”
It all threatens the way of life for the 46,000 residents of the San Luis Valley, where agriculture is the driving economic force. Farming and ranching account for $340 million of sales each year while providing 18 percent of the region’s jobs. That puts agriculture behind only the government as a source of local employment. About one of every three dollars of basic income in the San Luis Valley comes from agriculture.
The San Luis Valley is the nation’s No. 5 producer of potatoes – behind only the tates of Idaho, Washington, Wisconsin, and Oregon – and a leading supplier of quinoa and alfalfa hay. (The Colorado Potato Administrative Committee says the San Luis Valley is the No. 2 producer in the U.S. for fresh potatoes.)
In a region long beset with poverty – one of every four Valley residents is impoverished, nearly double the statewide rate – farming and ranching have offered one economic success story. In Saguache County, the annual net income, or profit, per farm was $113,000, says the US Department of Agriculture census. Net income per farm in Rio Grande County was $105,000.
But all those jobs, all that money, hinge on one thing: an ample and dependable water supply.
“The climate of the San Luis Valley is arid, and a successful agricultural economy would not be possible without irrigation,” says the U.S. Geological Survey.
Average annual precipitation on the Valley floor is 7 to 10 inches, but potatoes, for example, need an additional 14 to 17 inches of irrigation water during the growing season. Alfalfa hay, the Valley’s top crop by acreage, requires up to 24 inches for a crop.
This adds up to an enormous thirst. According to state water engineers, San Luis Valley agriculture accounts for 810,000 acre feet of consumptive water use per year.
By contrast, the Denver Water Department needs only 247,000 acre feet of water to supply the 1.3 million people within its city and suburban service boundaries.
In other words, metro Denver requires only one third as much water as the San Luis Valley to produce a gross domestic product 60 times greater – a $202 billion annual economy vs. a $3.3 billion economy.
Because the San Luis Valley has so much water being put to comparatively low economic use, metro Denver water developers continue to focus a covetous eye on Rio Grande diversions.
After the AWDI proposals of the 1980s and the Gary Boyce plan of the 1990s, the Gov. Bill Owens-backed Renewable Water Resources proposal is the latest push to take advantage of relatively low prices to pipe water out of the San Luis Valley.
In the crosshairs is one of the oldest agricultural traditions and cultures in Colorado.
The first surface water right in Colorado, appropriated in 1852, is the People’s Ditch near San Luis. With a series of community irrigation canals called acequias, Hispanic settlers soon started growing food in the high desert with water from the Conejos, Rio Grande, Alamosa, Culebra, San Luis, Saguache, Carnero, and Trinchera, among other rivers and creeks.
By the 1870s, as much as 50,000 acres in the San Luis Valley was irrigated. After the arrival of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, that number soared to 400,000 acres by the 1880s. By 1900, demand for water in several valley streams already outstripped the natural supply.
Farmers responded by building reservoirs, and, especially, digging wells. By the time of World War I, the San Luis Valley was home to at least 5,000 groundwater wells. The rush was on. Underground supplies seemed endless.
Until they weren’t. In 1972, Colorado water officials ordered a moratorium on construction of new wells in most of the valley, and then ended new appropriations of groundwater in the rest of the valley in 1981, which was one of the worst snowpack years on record, with just 11 percent of normal on May 1.
Luckily, that one terrible year of drought in 1981 was followed by six successive years of some of the best snowpacks in the recorded history of the Rio Grande Basin. From 1982-1987, few worried much about groundwater because the rivers were flooding.
Another run of giant snowpacks in the mid-1990s helped to keep the pressure off groundwater pumping – while helping to build the memories of valley residents like Ronda Lobato, Sheldon Rockey, and Tyler Mitchell.
“I remember the snowbanks being bigger than me – the winters were so long and cold,” said Lobato, whose aunt and uncle lived along San Francisco Creek. “When the runoff came, we had to fill sandbags to protect against flooding. Today there is no water in San Francisco Creek. It doesn’t run at all.”
Farming is never easy, but water shortages make it even tougher, said Tyler Mitchell.
“I remember as a kid being able to dig with a shovel to find water. Now I might have to go 30 feet to find it,” said Mitchell, whose family runs 18 center pivot irrigation rigs. “The ditch water used to go all summer long. Now we’re lucky to get one month, and some ditches do only a few weeks. We don’t have enough surface water to grow cash-value crops every year.”
The mid-1990s were the heyday of San Luis Valley agriculture, said potato grower Sheldon Rockey, and that era changed the way of thinking for a generation of farmers.
“I remember when the river flooded three years in a row. I got the tractor stuck in the mud,” Rockey said. “There was a lot of money made without worrying much about water. The issue with the older crowd of farmers is that they were so successful for so long. Now that we’re in drought, it’s hard to change your thinking.”
The bountiful water years of the 1980s and 1990s in the San Luis Valley have flipped the typical generational divide in farming. Because they lived through the wettest times, the older farmers tend to have a brighter view than the younger farmers, local agricultural officials say.
“Farming is an optimistic profession,” said Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and Rio Grande Basin representative on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “People my father’s age have seen farming here at its best, when we had giant years for water. But the data and science don’t give me many reasons to think those days will come back around.
“If the big water years do come back, that would be tremendous. But I don’t want us to ignore the freight train coming at us right now.”
That train began blasting its horn about 20 years ago.
State water engineers long had been concerned about well-pumping by valley irrigators, but the connection between groundwater and surface water was not clearly understood. Starting in January 1976, engineers began monitoring the level of valley aquifers. Groundwater declined steadily but gradually, which led to the state moratoriums on drilling.
However, 2002 was the driest on record for the Rio Grande Basin, with a May snowpack of just 6 percent. With little available surface water, valley irrigators turned underground for supplies.
The result: In just one year, engineers recorded a 400,000 acre foot drop in Vvalley aquifers. That is a huge amount of water – a single acre-foot is enough to support two families of four people for a year.
In response to the vast agricultural overpumping came a flurry of laws, regulations, and court actions.
For the past decade, valley irrigators have been under a court order to maintain a sustainable aquifer system. That means restoring at least 400,000 acre feet to underground supplies, officials say. (Engineering studies say the unconfined aquifer actually has been drained by as much as 1 million acre feet since 1976.)
Little progress has been made to return that water in the past 10 years. Now irrigators face a 2031 deadline to repay the water debt.
Still, 5,000 irrigation wells continue to pump in the valley, including 3,000 in the key Subdistrict 1 north of Monte Vista and west of Hooper.
The $426,000 state Rio Grande Implementation Plan was blunt: “Because the sustained and lingering drought since 2002 has not been matched with a decline in agricultural consumptive use, use of the aquifers is unsustainable.”
What local water officials now fear is a replay in the San Luis Valley of what happened to irrigators on the South Platte River, where years of over-pumping by farmers, combined with a resulting state court order, led to the 2006 shutdown of 440 wells and the pumping curtailment of hundreds of others.
In the San Luis Valley, the clock is ticking. A reckoning awaits.
“Shutting down wells – there are people here who can’t survive that,” said Simpson, the state senator. “We are 10 years into this plan to create and maintain a sustainable aquifer system, but we are not yet back to where we started. There are no easy solutions.”
Scientists say it won’t get any easier. Because of climate change, a study by the Bureau of Reclamation, Sandia National Laboratories, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers forecasts even more challenges for water users in the Upper Rio Grande Basin:
Flows will decrease by 33 percent by 2100 at the Rio Grande near Del Norte, Conejos River near Mogote, Los Pinos River near Ortiz, and San Antonio River at Ortiz. Flows will decrease by 50 percent at the Rio Grande near Lobatos.
Peak river flows will come earlier, shifting from June to May.
Fewer water rights will be served. From 1950 to 1999, the average junior-most water right to be served in June on the Rio Grande was a 1910 priority, but by 2100 it will be an 1890 priority.
“We are an incredible agricultural community, but we don’t have the water supply we used to,” said Dutton, the Rio Grande representative on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “There are more people who want water than there is water available. We are facing scarcity.”
Here’s Part 2 in the series from The Alamosa Citizen (Mark Obmascik):
Plan to pipe water to Front Range has big backers, few specifics
THE Front Range executives who want to export water from the San Luis Valley to sell elsewhere are clear about a few things:
They have money. They are backed by former Gov. Bill Owens. And they think their plan will benefit the Valley.
Beyond that, however, details remain sketchy.
Where exactly would the Renewable Water Resources project be built? Who are the investors? How much would it cost? What’s the project timetable? Who are the local supporters? Where are the customers?
Also: If this project will truly help the San Luis Valley, then why are the political, water, and farm leaders of the Valley overwhelmingly against it?
“We know San Luis Valley citizens are looking forward to jobs and an uptick in the local economy as a result of our project moving forward,” said Renewable Water Resources executives in a prepared statement. “Citizens responded favorably to the more than $50 million community fund – run by the community – that would be created to address critical issues which could include public education, economic diversity, senior assistance programs, conservation efforts, law enforcement, mental health services, and more.
“We have asked the unelected Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board the following question, ‘What are you for?’ This question has been met with silence other than falling back on the status quo which means higher taxes and more regulation for the valley’s struggling farms and ranches.”
Local officials say Renewable Water Resources is not to be trusted.
“They continue to use false information to describe and promote their project,” said Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and the Rio Grande Basin representative on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “I don’t think people will fall for a bunch of falsehoods.”
Valley native Ken Salazar – the former U.S. Secretary of the Interior, U.S. senator, state Attorney General, and current U.S. ambassador to Mexico – said the project would proceed “over my dead body.”
Local opponents of the plan formed a group, Protect Our Water, that lists as members: 15 local water districts and entities; 22 cities and towns; 22 conservation and environmental groups; and two farm groups. It lists statements of opposition to the RWR proposal from eight separate local governments, including the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, the city of Alamosa, and Mineral and Rio Grande counties.
The group says it is organized around a main principle: “There is no water available to move outside the San Luis Valley.” It has a web page dedicated to correcting what it says are RWR’s numerous misstatements about the project.
RWR executives say they can’t be specific about project locations, timetables, or costs because they are focused on winning Valley support and filing a legal case in Colorado’s water court, which could take three to five years to process. That case would help determine whether the San Luis Valley has enough water for RWR to legally export without hurting existing users.
In general, RWR says it wants to build a wellfield northeast of Moffat. A pipeline would carry water north along state Highway 17, more than 1,000 feet up and over Poncha Pass, to some uncertain location.
Though a few Front Range cities such as Aurora and Colorado Springs draw some water from the Arkansas River basin, most metro Denver utilities rely on the South Platte River, a more distant location that would require a much longer pipeline and additional pumping costs for RWR.
RWR says it has no identified customers for its proposed project. Executives have been pitching it to utilities on the Front Range.
The financial incentives for RWR: Wholesale water prices are five to 10 times higher on the populated Front Range than in the agricultural San Luis Valley.
In the San Luis Valley, RWR proposes to drill nearly a half-mile into the Valley’s deep aquifer to pump out 22,000 acre-feet of water per year. At the same time, RWR says it will buy and retire 31,000 acre feet of water currently used in the Valley for irrigated agriculture. As a result, RWR says a “surplus of 9,000 acre-feet will go back into the San Luis Valley’s shallow section of the aquifer.”
The company says it is “investing $68 million to pay local farmers and ranchers who voluntarily wish to retire their water rights above market rate.”
In addition to the purchase of those water rights, RWR said it will donate $50 million to a locally controlled community fund. The company expects that fund to generate $3 million to $4 million per year in contributions for local causes.
RWR also has agreed to donate a 3,000-acre ranch for use as elk habitat near the Baca National Wildlife Refuge south of Crestone.
“To give the above numbers some context,” RWR said in a statement, “the poverty rate of the San Luis Valley is greater than 35 percent and the average median household income is under $26,000. We do believe our commitments to the community will better the valley.”
However, many questions remain unanswered. RWR declined to make available any project executives, including Owens, governor of Colorado from 1999-2007, for an interview for this story, insisting instead that all questions be written and answered via email.
After years of water overuse, Valley irrigators now are operating under state orders to reduce consumption by hundreds of thousands of acre feet. Local water officials remain dubious that RWR can legally remove more water from a system already facing significant cutbacks.
On top of the existing legal challenges, local engineers are girding for hydrologic changes caused by climate change. One state study estimated streamflows in the upper Rio Grande basin will plunge by a third in the next 80 years because of climate change.
Project opponents now must toe a fine line politically. Though they want to highlight the current water shortages because of court rulings, continuing drought, and climate change, they don’t want farmers to give up hope and sell to RWR.
In a Valley dominated by agricultural business, exporting water for other uses will throttle the future economy of the San Luis Valley, RWR opponents say. They point to the example of Crowley County in the lower Arkansas River Valley, where irrigators sold their supplies to Front Range cities, allowing a few farmers to reap big paydays at the expense of the rest of the southeastern Colorado economy.
An irrigator who drops out of a local ditch makes it harder economically for remaining farmers to continue to operate and maintain the ditch.
Many local farmers say buy-and-dry policies threaten the future of agriculture in the Valley.
“Our community is centered on water and farming, and I hope the community sticks together,” said potato farmer Tyler Mitchell. “But in the grand scheme of life, money talks. If the price is right, you might see people sell. I really hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Mitchell and other farmers are heartened by the Valley’s history of defeating other water export proposals.
In the 1980s, former Gov. Dick Lamm and American Water Development Inc. sought to develop and export as much as 200,000 acre-feet per year from the Valley’s confined aquifer. After five years of litigation and a lengthy trial, AWDI lost in court.
In the 1990s, Stockman’s Water, led by Monte Vista native Gary Boyce, purchased the Baca Ranch and proposed to export 150,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Valley. Boyce lost two statewide votes and struggled in water court. The Nature Conservancy bought the Baca Ranch in 2002.
Most political leaders in the Valley supported a drive to convert the Great Sand Dunes into a national park partly to help prevent water exports from the Valley. In 2008, the state granted a water right to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve for the groundwater beneath its boundaries.
According to the state’s Rio Grande Implementation Plan, it was the first nonconsumptive water right issued by the state of Colorado. “The water right precludes any withdrawal of water from the aquifers that would cause injury to the park’s environments, which are dependent on the groundwater,” the state plan says.
The Valley’s extensive wetlands and river habitats support at least 13 threatened and endangered species and more than 260 species of birds, including a major spring and fall flight of sandhill cranes and the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher.
Still, Sean Tonner, former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Bill Owens, led a drive to buy 11,500 acres of the Rancho Rosado from the former holdings of Boyce, who died in 2016.
The result is the current RWR project proposal, led by Tonner and backed by Owens and other former members of his gubernatorial administration.
(A detailed explanation of the history of San Luis Valley water export proposals, conducted by the University of Colorado Law School, is here.)
“Because of our project offerings – with this proposal – we can enrich the local economy, bring more jobs to the area, support essential non-profits and community groups, and improve the health of the area’s aquatic habits and wildlife,” RWR said in a statement.
The Protect Our Water coalition strongly disagrees.
“A plan being proposed by Renewable Water Resources will remove water from the Valley and permanently dry up at least 10,000 acres of farmland,” the group says. “It could also negatively impact the environment, including streams, rivers, The Great Sand Dunes National Park, refuges, wetlands, fish and wildlife. Water sustains our economy and lifestyle.
“There is no water available to move outside the San Luis Valley.”
As federal water managers declared the first-ever official Colorado River water shortage last week, a top official said he’s confident Wyoming will responsibly implement its plans to store and divert even more flows from the troubled waterway.
The Department of the Interior on Aug. 16 said it would reduce water diversions to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico in 2022 after a scheduled August review set the restrictive sideboards for releases next year.
Despite that curtailment, Wyoming plans to corral another 115,000 acre-feet annually by building and modifying dams and their operations to potentially allow more diversions.
At the same time, Wyoming is fleshing out its Drought Contingency Plan and a “demand management” program that could see voluntary reductions in diversions before users in the state might be cut off. Wyoming doesn’t expect curtailments to happen next year, unless drought, aridification and climate change unexpectedly exacerbate the decline in Lake Powell.
In a press call announcing the downstream diversion reductions, a regional Bureau of Reclamation director appeared unfazed by the potential impacts of Wyoming’s dam-building plans.
“Wyoming has exercised foresight in the work of their Wyoming Water Development Commission,” said Wayne Pullan, the BOR’s director for the Upper Colorado River Basin, “and with our long history with Wyoming we’re confident that they’ll pursue any future projects responsibly, fully aware of the context of the hydrology and the difficulties on the Colorado River.”
Wyoming’s representative to the Upper Colorado River Commission, which will decide how any curtailments in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico will be borne, said his cohorts are “very concerned about the hydrology this basin faces.” A Drought Contingency Plan that’s been adopted in skeleton form “does provide the tools to help manage what we’re seeing now, as troubling as that is,” commission member Pat Tyrrell said at the press call.
Wyo forges ahead with dams…
Pullan would not comment on specific ongoing Wyoming projects, at least five of which in the Green River and Little Snake River basins would collectively control an additional 115,000 acre-feet at an estimated cost of $123 million.
“It is worth noting that one of the purposes of the Colorado River storage project is to assist states, making use of their apportionment under the [1922 Colorado River] Compact,” Pullan said. Wyoming has not developed or appropriated its full share of the water entitled under that historic agreement, state officials have said.
The compact and apportionment among the seven states and Mexico, however, is based on an annual supply of at least 15 million acre-feet, an amount experts say the river basin no longer produces. Further, Wyoming believes the lower basin’s Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico have historically overused their share while upper division states have not exploited their full rights.
At least one group has called for a moratorium on new storage or diversion projects in the basin until the seven states and Mexico can address what’s widely seen as claims to flows that no longer exist. Wyoming still deserves its share, state officials believe.
“We aren’t obligated to sustain overuse anywhere else,” Tyrrell said in an interview, “to the detriment of our existing demands here in Wyoming.”
Tyrrell offered one scenario where an ongoing dam project could be immediately affected by less runoff. At the Big Sandy Dam in Sublette County, the Bureau of Reclamation is raising the structure to impound an additional 12,900 acre-feet for irrigation.
“That’ll come under a more recent priority date,” Tyrrell said, meaning the new storage area will be among the first to be cut off if lower-basin shortages creep upstream. The doctrine of prior appropriation that governs water use in Wyoming recognizes the first-in-time water appropriation to be first-in-right when shortages occur.
“If we are, for example, under any kind of curtailment,” Tyrrell said, Big Sandy “won’t be allowed to fill.
“It will put no more additional stress on the system if it’s not allowed to fill up,” he told WyoFile.
Other new dams, reservoir enlargements or operational changes that would give Wyoming access to more water would be subject to separate sideboards depending on whether they are built, what priority of appropriation they might impound, who owns them and other factors.
The amount of water involved in the Wyoming projects is “very small in comparison to Lake Powell,” Tyrrell said. Powell holds some 20 million acre-feet of what’s called active storage — the amount that can actually be used.
The downstream reductions — 18%, 7% and 5% of Arizona, Nevada and Mexico’s annual apportionments respectively — amount to 613,000 acre-feet. That’s about 3% of Powell’s storage or, seen another way, about 10% more than Wyoming’s average annual usage of basin flows.
The impact of any additional consumptive use in Wyoming — which could approach the 115,000 acre-feet contemplated in Wyoming’s dam plans — “is very, very small in comparison to what might be stored in Lake Powell,” Tyrrell said.
“I believe the environmental impact statement for Big Sandy found there would be no significant impact to reservoir elevations downstream by an enlargement,” he said.
Wyoming’s legal team stands behind water developers, assistant attorney general Chris Brown said as he echoed Tyrrell’s overview. “We are certainly not obligated to sustain overuse in other places in the basin on the backs of Wyoming water users, either current or future.”
Water developers, including Wyoming itself, understand the priority system and risks associated with constructing impoundments to hold back flows. In the face of dwindling supply, some wonder whether new structures might become stranded assets — facilities built under one scenario that can’t be used as intended in a new reality.
A professor of natural resources law at the University of Colorado Law School expressed skepticism about Wyoming’s basin-wide plans. “That seems like a bad investment,” Mark Squillace said in an interview.
… and plans for curtailments
Already the Bureau of Reclamation has activated provisions under its Drought Response Operations Agreement to release water from Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming and Utah. Pullan called the action a “small ‘e’” emergency release that will help keep the level at Powell high enough to continue generating valuable electricity.
The Flaming Gorge releases and others also help the four upper-basin states meet their water-flow obligations under the 1922 compact, Wyoming’s Tyrrell said. The dwindling flows, he said, “threaten to get worse.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.
During his tenure as Utah governor, Gary Herbert repeatedly stressed that water is the only limiting factor to the state’s growth.
That day is here for the nation’s fastest-growing state, and water managers are scrambling.
Drought is gripping 17 states in 95% of the service area of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and half of that area is experiencing severe or extreme conditions.
Those states stretch from the West, into the Southwest and the Great Plains region of the United States. Aside from Utah, victims of this megadrought are Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, California, Nevada, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
It has become so severe at Utah’s Lake Powell, emergency releases were instituted from three upstream reservoirs to prop up its levels and to help keep power generation functioning at Glen Canyon Dam, which produces enough electricity for 336,000 households. On top of that, Colorado River allocations were reduced for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico due to the first water shortage in history being declared for the river.
In a five-year period, the nation’s two largest reservoirs — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — saw their capacity drop by half. They are now the lowest they’ve been since they started filling decades ago.
When the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced the 18% reduction for Arizona, the 7% cut for Nevada and the 5% curtailment for Mexico, the historic first underscored how dismal the situation is in the Colorado River Basin.
“The announcement today is a recognition that the hydrology planned for years ago that we hoped we would never see is here,” said Camille Calimlim Touton, the bureau’s deputy commissioner…
According to the latest information from the U.S. Drought Monitor, 60 million people across nine states in the West are having their lives touched by what’s been described as a 100-year drought…
The Upper Colorado River Basin, which covers Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, is experiencing its driest 22 years on record.
Lake Powell dropped 145 feet from 2000 to 2005, directly attributed to a record low runoff in 2002 of just 24% of average.
The Great Salt Lake slipped below its lowest recorded elevation, documented in 1963.
Utah water managers are dipping into emergency supplies in the state’s reservoirs and most, if not all, irrigation companies are cutting the season short by weeks.
Tage Flint, general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District that operates multiple northern Utah reservoirs, said conditions are dire…
Flint fears as the spigots for secondary water are turned off — and if September ends up hot and dry — households and businesses will turn to using treated water for landscaping needs…
How did we get here?
“It’s been pretty dramatic in how bad meteorologically it has been from an impacts point of view,” said Jon Meyer, a climate scientist with Utah State University’s Utah Climate Center.
Meyer said last year the drought was severe — with the driest summer and fall on record — but reservoirs were able to “buffer” that dryness in urban areas particularly.
When last winter’s below average snowpack began to melt, record dry soils stole the moisture…
Echoing Herbert’s concerns on water and growth, water law expert Melissa Reynolds warned if conditions persist, cities and the state throughout the arid West will face tough choices.
“We could see restrictions on new connections,” said Reynolds, an attorney with Holland & Hart. “I do think if we continue to see conditions like we have in 2021, more and more water providers may consider stopping new water connections. Lack of source capacity is a limiting factor on development.”
With even some “first in time” or the oldest, most senior water rights going dry or getting curtailed this year, Reynolds said impacts are widespread for the economy…
Agriculture and water
When it comes to Utah consumption, some critics point to the agricultural community as a big water waster in a state that is the second-driest in the nation.
They complain about the water it takes to grow alfalfa, admittedly a cash crop but one that is critical to support Utah’s ranching community.
Craig Buttars, commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, editorialized in the Deseret News that what most people don’t realize is that due to the Utah drought, farmers and ranchers have had their water cut from 70% to 75% this year compared to last.
He warned those reductions have forced ranchers to sell off cattle and resulted in crop yields far below normal, which will mean higher food prices…
Utahns’ love affair with green lawns has been a target of water providers as they push people to replace water-sucking turf with vegetation more suitable to the state’s climate…
How much vegetation must remain — an issue of aesthetics for some communities — varies from area to area, however. That has led some conservation-minded residents to question why there is a requirement at all…
Meyer, from USU, said as periods of extended and intense drought continue to persist, Utah may have to come to grips with abandoning its concerns over aesthetics and being more mindful of water use.
Drought may very well change how Utah looks, and how it grows.
Driving throughout New Mexico and Arizona, Meyer noted, there is an absence of lush green turf. In its place, there is vegetation that is more practical in an era of climate change.
The Colorado River at Kremmling in Grand County will enjoy a big bump in flows from August into October as Denver Water pays off a hefty water debt.
The rising flows — an addition of more than 300 cubic feet per second (more on that later) sent from Wolford Mountain and Williams Fork reservoirs — serve as a good example of how Colorado’s intricate system of water rights can drive river flows higher when they might typically be lower as autumn settles in.
In this case, it works like this: A dry year created conditions that now require Denver Water to “pay back” water to the West Slope.
Why? Let’s stick with the easy version.
An agreement that emerged over 50 years of Byzantine legal fights allows Denver to move water from Dillon Reservoir in Summit County to the Front Range when it needs the water for its customers.
But — and this is a big “But” — if another big reservoir called Green Mountain (that’s the very long reservoir you drive past as you cruise Highway 9 between Silverthorne and Kremmling) — doesn’t fill up in the spring and summer, Denver Water has to make up the difference later in the year.
Stay with us here. Take a look at the map that accompanies this story to help.
Years like this, when Denver Water has to refund water, are called “substitution” years. There have been big substitution years, when a lot of water is involved in the refund, in dry years such as 2002, 2004, 2012 and 2013.
This year is shaping up as a big one, too; one of the largest. In all, the utility expects to release about 37,600 acre-feet from Williams Fork and Wolford to make up what Green Mountain, a reservoir operated by federal Bureau of Reclamation, lacked this year.
That’s a lot of water — close to the capacity of Gross Reservoir, the big Denver Water reservoir in the foothills northwest of Denver. An acre-foot is roughly enough water to serve three or four households for a year.
But wait, you say. Water from Williams Fork and Wolford won’t find its way to Green Mountain, since the Green Mountain Reservoir is on the Blue River and those two reservoirs send their water into the Colorado River, not the Blue.
(Also, water can’t flow upstream from the Colorado River into Green Mountain Reservoir. Take another look at the map in this story.)
That’s OK, as the point is to make up for flows in the Colorado River that would otherwise be augmented by releases from Green Mountain. In short, the releases keep the flows moving on the West Slope.
Now, back to those flows. Releases are expected to add an additional 400 cubic feet per second to the Colorado River in August, 320 cfs in September, and then decrease somewhat to an extra 200 cfs in the first two weeks of October.
How much water is that?
Quite a bit. If you think in terms of gallons (think of the gallon of milk at the grocery story), a cubic foot contains about 7.5 gallons. So 300 cubic feet per second means about 2,250 gallons of water per second added to the river flows. (Think about that many milk jugs floating by each second).
While it’s a lot of water to pay back — and it means Denver Water will need to draw down its supplies in Wolford and Williams Fork quite a bit — it could have been even more.
But a wet spring on the Front Range kept sprinklers off and demand low. Monsoons returned this year as well, boosting flows on both sides of the Continental Divide. All of that allowed Denver Water to reduce what it moved from Dillon Reservoir, through the Roberts Tunnel, to the Front Range.
Which, in turn, allowed a bit more water down the Blue River and into Green Mountain and reduced the “substitution” amount to be repaid.
If you’ve stuck with us until now, we raise a toast to you, salute your interest in a puzzling topic, and hope that this boost in late season flows in the Colorado River brings a smile to all of us inspired by the beauty of a moving stream.
Knowing where cold water is likely to stay cold is critical for conservation. But “cold” is more than just a number on a thermometer. Dams do not adequately support cold-water ecosystems.
Dams poorly mimic the temperature patterns California streams require to support the state’s native salmon and trout — more than three-quarters of which risk extinction. Bold actions are needed to reverse extinction trends and protect cold-water streams that are resilient to climate warming, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE by the University of California, Davis.
The study helps identify where high-quality, cold-water habitat remains to help managers prioritize conservation efforts.
“It is no longer a good investment to put all our cold-water conservation eggs in a dam-regulated basket,” said lead author Ann Willis, a senior staff researcher at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences and a fellow for the John Muir Institute of the Environment. “We need to consider places where the natural processes can occur again.”
The uncommon cold
Understanding where cold water is likely to stay cold is critical for conservation. But “cold” is more than just a number on a thermometer. The term represents the many factors that combine to create cold water capable of supporting aquatic ecosystems.
Water managers deliver cold water from reservoirs to streams to support aquatic life. But Willis said this assumes that all cold water is the same — akin to giving blood to another person without understanding their blood type and health status.
While previous studies have suggested that dams can be operated to achieve ideal temperatures, few tested that hypothesis against the temperature patterns aquatic ecosystems need.
The UC Davis study assessed stream temperature data from 77 sites in California to model and classify their “thermal regimes,” or annual temperature patterns. It found the state’s reservoirs do not adequately replicate natural thermal patterns, making them incapable of supporting cold-water species effectively.
“I’m an engineer; I thought we could operate ourselves into success, but the science doesn’t support that,” Willis said. “It’s not a question of whether we remove a dam, but which dam, and how we need to restructure how we manage water. Or we need to be willing to take responsibility to be the generation that says, ‘OK, we’re letting this ecosystem go extinct.’”
What about the drought?
Drought often tempts people to double-down on hard-infrastructure solutions for water storage.
“We falsely equate dams with water security,” Willis said. “More storage does not mean more water. A giant, empty refrigerator doesn’t help you if you’re starving. The same is true for water.”
Of California’s 1,400 dams, only one very large and highly engineered dam — Shasta — stood out in the study as replicating natural cold-water patterns.
The study does not suggest removing all dams. However, considering removing “deadbeat dams” where there are critical ecosystems could help restore natural processes and support fish, people and biodiversity amid climate warming.
Key cold-water conservation candidates include streams highly influenced by groundwater, such as in the Cascade Range, and places where water easily infiltrates the soil, such as Northern California’s Feather River.
“Classifying these streams and understanding their thermal regimes is an effective way to focus our time and money on the places most likely to make a difference,” Willis said.
The study’s co-authors include Ryan Peek and Andrew Rypel of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.
Funding for this research was provided by internal support from the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences and the John Muir Institute of the Environment.
Colorado officials plan to measure use more precisely and pay farmers to send more to Lake Powell
As federal authorities impose the first-ever mandatory cuts in how much water Arizona, Nevada and Mexico take from the Colorado River, the states higher up the river face rising pressure to divert less.
That has Colorado officials embarking on an effort to install measuring devices across the Western Slope to precisely account for just how much farmers, ranchers and cities siphon out. The state is also developing a program to pay farmers, cities and industries to use less of their allotted shares of river water so that more could be banked in Lake Powell to meet the state’s legal downriver obligations to California, Arizona and Nevada.
All of this comes after the summer’s emergency draw-down of Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison and other federal reservoirs to leave more water in the 1,450-mile river.
Monday’s [August 16, 2021] declaration by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation orders Arizona to cut the water it draws from Lake Mead by 18% (512,000 acre-feet), Nevada by 7% (21,000 acre-feet) and Mexico by 5% (80,000 acre feet). The cuts must begin next year.
The feds also declared that Colorado and its upper basin neighbors (Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) will be allowed to deliver a little less water next year to Lake Powell, reducing the amount measured at the top of the Grand Canyon from 8.23 million acre-feet to 7.43 million acre-feet. That’s because shrinking mountain snow, drought and heat are depleting headwaters, authorities said.
Still, average annual flows of water in the Colorado River Basin have decreased by 19% since 2000, federal records show. And water levels in the Lake Powell and Lake Mead have been falling steadily for years as 40 million people tap the river. This year’s record low levels (both about a third full) triggered the declaration.
New projections unveiled by federal hydrologists that the river basin will dry out faster than previously expected may trigger additional cuts before 2025 based on states’ agreed-on operating procedures.
“It’s all connected, one river system, and we’re just in different points of pain,” said Taylor Hawes, Colorado River program director for The Nature Conservancy.
Colorado Division of Water Resources director Kevin Rein met with ranchers and farmers around western Colorado last month seeking guidance on how best to install flumes and other devices to measure how much water they divert…
Meanwhile, Colorado Water Conservation Board officials have scheduled a working session this month to consider expansion of pilot program efforts to pay farmers, cities and industries to use less water, which analysts have said could cost the state hundreds of millions.
Board director Rebecca Mitchell, who also represents Colorado in negotiating with other states over the river’s water, said headwaters users “understand the risks and vulnerabilities we face due to severe drought and a potentially hotter and drier future.”
The Colorado River District and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) is releasing up to 677 acre-feet of water from Elkhead Reservoir to provide relief to farmers and ranchers in the Yampa Valley impacted by severe drought conditions…
Various agencies and water groups have worked to keep restrictions or “calls” off of the Yampa River for junior water rights holders, but if the drought persists as it has in recent weeks, there is potential that a call may be inevitable. The last call was placed on July 29, the third call in the river’s history, though it was later rescinded on Aug. 2.
Marielle Cowdin, director of public relations at the Colorado River District, said that the release was made possible by the Yampa River Flow Pilot Project, which received $50,000 in funding.
“We have been managers at Elkhead Reservoir of certain pools of water that exist there,” Cowdin said. “So when the call came on the Yampa, earlier this month, we worked in partnership with the Department of Water Resources and their division engineers to release some water to take the call off the Yampa — at least for a temporary time — so that junior water users would not have their water rights curtailed for that short amount of time.”
Because of potential calls in the future, the River District has a financial partnership with the CWCB to provide supplemental water for agricultural producers in the Yampa River Basin. The agreement with CWCB will allow the River District to provide water to local agricultural stakeholders on a first-come, first-serve basis in 2021, specifically for crop and livestock production.
Cowdin also said that because it is only August, the Yampa region still has weeks of potentially hot and dry weather, which could lead to another call. She added that the Colorado River District worked with the state of Colorado and the CWCB to provide contracts with local ranchers and farmers to access the 677 acre-feet of water.
Wildlife crews and water quality experts struggle to even assess the damage, as emergency management officials warn of threats to the western lifeline for years to come.
After decades of fierce arguments over damming up more of the water that rightfully belongs in the Colorado River, nature built a new dam in 5 minutes.
What happened to the fish? What happened to the river channel? What happened to drinking water downstream? Where did all the rafters go?
The relative silence about the river itself stems in part from immediate questions of who is in charge. For the highway, it’s CDOT. For the river, from the federal side, at least three different branch offices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have a say in any fixes, said emergency services director Mike Willis.
“Albuquerque, Sacramento and Omaha, just for a few miles’ stretch of the river,” Willis said,of the Army Corps involvement. Others who need to be consulted on any river rehab include the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and many more.
Sorting out changes to the river could take years, not just months, Willis said. The debris, from rockslides made worse by wildfires that burned up binding vegetation, blocked the Colorado River channel completely at Blue Gulch before the relentless river cut its way through the pile within minutes.
“The channel has changed now in several places. And so we have to be thoughtful about it, do we put the river back in its original channel or live with the channel as it is, and mitigate and protect the critical infrastructure downstream,” Willis said.
One of the first problems, Willis noted, is that the altered river flow may endanger the all-important highway. The changing channel has pushed debris up against the canyon’s complex bridge structures and overhangs, and the continual push of the water could undermine the road.
“In fact, the CDOT engineers have identified some areas where that is the case,” Willis said. “And so we need to assess that carefully and in those instances, we probably will push the river back to its original flow.”
As for wildlife recovery efforts in Glenwood Canyon, Willis said, the multi-agency task force dealing with the Colorado River has not given Parks and Wildlife full access in the slide area to start making detailed assessments…
Parks and Wildlife northwest division manager Matt Yamashita said biologists were still gathering information about the slide’s impact and waiting for full access to the river bed. But he’s concerned about mud smothering food and breeding spots for Colorado River species for miles downstream…
The Colorado and its tributaries are also vital resources for humans living along the riverbanks, long before the waterway delivers farm water to Arizona or drinking water to Los Angeles. Glenwood Springs takes its drinking water out of Grizzly Creek and No Name Creek before they hit the Colorado, and sometimes from the Roaring Fork River, if necessary, city public information officer Bryana Starbuck said.
“All of our water source intakes are below burn scars (Grizzly Creek fire and Lake Christine fire) which means that the landscape is very sensitive to heavy rainfall, which causes these debris flows or high sediment-transport incidents,” Starbuck said in an email response to questions. “Given the nature of burn scars, stabilization of the land will take time and impacts will continue to develop.”
Just as highway engineers in the canyon are looking uphill to design ways to keep future slides off the highway, Willis said, naturalists will have to work with them to think of ways to keep new slides from cutting off the river itself for years to come.
“We do not feel like this is a one time deal,” Willis said. “It’s not a one and done.”
The San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) board met on Monday, Aug.16, to hear a report, among other business, from the board’s attorney, Jeff Kane, on the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) intent to file two applications for water rights.
According to agenda information posted on the SJWCD website, the two water rights applications are for transmountain diversions to the Rio Grande River basin from a tributary of Wolfe Creek. (Note: This spelling of Wolfe Creek is what is found in the BLM’s original application for water rights.) This is a tributary to the West Fork of the San Juan River.
These two applications could mean the diversion of up to 20 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water.
The BLM stated in its applications that the diversion of the water would be to support wildlife management and wetlands habitat at the BLM’s Blanca Wetlands Area and South San Luis Lakes Area.
According to the memorandum presented to the board by Kane, this means that any authorization of this type of diversion causes 100 percent depletion to the originating stream basin. The water that would be diverted under this water rights application would then not be available to support any uses or habitats in the San Juan River or its
The BLM is requesting a change in the places and types of use of the already existing 7 cfs of the Treasure Pass Ditch water right. This water right was purchased in 2019. This current agreement calls for a 1922 priority for the irrigation of 80 acres. The new water rights application by the BLM asks for 13 cfs for the Treasure Pass Ditch and for the right to authorize the BLM to store and deliver water from the Treasure Pass Ditch through several reservoirs in the Rio Grande Basin for support use to the wetlands in the San Luis Valley.
The BLM is also seeking flexibility in approval so it can use the water it wants to divert from the Treasure Pass Ditch in the Rio Grande Basin in a variety of ways, according to Kane.
Kane’s report to the board states, “the applications do not limit the ultimate use of diverted water to support wetlands and wildlife.”
The BLM has the burden of proof when making a request for water rights changes. In a request for a change of water rights, the applicant must prove that the request will not cause an increase in use of requested water as compared in amount, time and place to what has been historically used, according to the memorandum presented by Kane.
A request for an exchange of water rights is when proof is required of the applicant that the request will not harm or impede other water rights and can be applied, Kane’s memorandum explains. A request for a new water right requires the applicant to provide proof that the water to be used will only be beneficial and that there is actually water available to be diverted.
As Kane presented his report on the BLM applications to the board, he noted that both the board and its constituents could be adversely affected in many ways.
The ability of the district to divert and store water under existing water rights or future appropriations considering the diverting water from the Treasure Pass Ditch would not only reduce flows in the San Juan River, but also reduce the water available for Dry Gulch Reservoir, he suggested.
The report also states that the habitat in the tributaries of the San Juan River may also be impacted. The BLM’s applications could also affect the district’s constituents’ efforts to divert and use water if the event a Colorado Compact call were to arise.
The Colorado Compact call is the need to reduce the increasing risk of a compact-driven curtailment which could result in cutting of water to users across the upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Wyoming, Kane reported to the SJWCD board.
Kane also noted that the San Juan-Chama Project is currently diverting an average of 110,000 acre feet a year from the San Juan River to the Rio Grande Basin and the BLM is proposing to divert more water from the Wolfe Creek tribu- tary than at any time in history.
Kane recommended that the board file statements of opposition to the BLM’s applications.
A low snowpack, absent monsoon rains, dry soils, record-high temperatures and thirsty crops made 2020 the third-driest year on record in Colorado, and, according to the Colorado Climate Center, it was the first time since 2012 that 100 percent of the state was in drought for some portion of the year.
A repeat of similar conditions in 2021 is making Colorado’s continuing drought across broad swaths of the state’s Western Slope even more devastating.
“At any given time you can find drought somewhere in our state,” said Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger during a state Drought Task Force tour in Northern Colorado last week. “This may not be the worst drought we’ve ever had, but what makes this year particularly bad is that it follows on the tail of two other droughts [in 2019 and 2020]. We don’t have enough time [between droughts] to recover from the previous drought before we’re in the next one.”
Nowhere is that more clear than in the seven-state Colorado River Basin, where Monday the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation declared the drought situation so extreme that for the first time in history Arizona and Nevada will see their annual water supplies drawn from Lake Mead dramatically reduced.
Closer to home in Colorado, west of the Continental Divide, the state has experienced 50 consecutive weeks of category D4 drought, the most extreme drought condition, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Whether the fall and winter will bring any relief isn’t clear yet.
“I’m not particularly optimistic, unfortunately, about the coming winter,” said Peter Goble, a climatologist with the Colorado Climate Center in Ft. Collins. Goble said La Niña conditions will return for the fall and winter, bringing the potential for more moisture in the north and western parts of the state, but there is little indication that the Four Corners region will get any benefit. In addition, because 2022 is shaping up to be a second La Niña year, “events tend to be warmer and dryer,” he said.
Bolinger described the Colorado River Basin as being at a breaking point and the current drought affecting Colorado, Utah and Arizona as “the final straw that might break the camel’s back.” Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the downstream catchalls, have dropped to historic low levels. The lakes will never be 100 percent full again, said Bolinger, “unless we have 10 amazing winters in a row. The amount of water we have isn’t enough to meet expected demands so in the next 5-10 years we’re going to have to rethink how all of these states are supposed to equally share the water.”
Ranchers across Western Colorado are witnessing water shortages never seen before.
Cattle and sheep are being sold off early. There hasn’t been enough water to grow enough hay. Normally full stock ponds are dry. Grasses are dying. Weeds and grasshoppers are rampant.
“In 40 years this is the first time we’ve had to haul water to our cattle,” said Chad Green, owner of the Little Bear Ranch in the Yampa River Basin. “Usually our irrigation water runs until July 1. This year it was shut off on May 29. We harvested our wheat crop for hay. The past two years have been bad. But this year,” Green paused, “this year is horrible.”
But it’s not just farmers who are suffering. Those who rely on the state’s iconic rivers for recreation are also seeing the devastation this multi-year drought cycle has imposed.
“This river is critical to our community’s health,” said Kara Stoller, CEO of the Steamboat Springs Chamber. Like other mountain communities, Steamboat is home to an array of outdoor gear companies and tubing and rafting companies. And the ski resort relies on the river for snowmaking.
This summer the river has been closed to recreation on multiple occasions to relieve stress on the fish population.
“Our water resources are our lifeblood,” said Stoller.
Bolinger doesn’t feel the “doom and gloom on a state level” that she feels for the entire Colorado River Basin. “But when people talk about drought, they talk about the new normal. We haven’t gotten to the new normal yet. We’re on the climate change train and things are still changing. Where we land will ultimately dictate what things look like.”
To Marsha Daughenbaugh, a 4th generation rancher near Steamboat Springs, the relentless dry spells are about much more than the condition of the local ranching economy.
“This is just one ranch, one county, one region, one state, but really, this is the story of the whole West,” Daughenbaugh said.
Dean Krakel is a photographer and writer based in Almont, Colo. He can be reached at email@example.com.
checking in from a twitter break…was looking at the rain that caused the awful flash flood in the Poudre Canyon on Tues. Nearly 2" in 2 hours at that elevation (9500+ ft) is really unusual, and happened in about the worst possible location with respect to the burn scar 1/ #cowxpic.twitter.com/lMIbeIJTNh
FromThe Fort Collins Coloradoan (Miles Blumhardt):
Two Larimer County floods in July caused $2 million in damages to roads and other infrastructure and prompted a report that concluded the risk to residents of Black Hollow from another flood is too great for them to stay overnight in their homes.
Lori Hodges, the county’s director of Emergency Management, said most of the damage to county roads and culverts has occurred in Buckhorn Canyon west of Fort Collins and the Retreat area just east of Glen Haven. About 6 miles of the newly rebuilt Buckhorn Road from the 2013 flood sustained damage.
Because of the ongoing risk of another flood in the Cameron Peak Fire burn scar, the county will take a wait-and-see approach to rebuilding the roads and replacing culverts, she said, which were damaged during July 20 and July 30 flash floods.
“We have a few more weeks to get through the monsoon season, and so we will have to figure out the best way to rebuild to better be able to withstand more flooding,” she said.
She said a Colorado Geologic Survey assessment of the Black Hollow neighborhood in the upper Poudre Canyon stated the danger from the instability of the area is so great that no one should spend the night.
FromColorado Politics (Marianne Goodland) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:
On Monday the bureau announced the first-ever shortage on the Colorado River basin, meaning limitations on water supplies for three states (Arizona, Nevada and California) and Mexico, beginning in January 2022 and continuing for the entire year.
The levels at Lake Mead have been flirting with that 1,075-foot level going back to 2014.
According to the Bureau of Reclamation, both Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs on the Colorado River, have been over-appropriated for years. Up until now, the imbalance has been managed and demands met as a result of “the considerable amount of reservoir storage capacity in the Colorado River system.” That includes the dozens of reservoirs in Colorado that feed into the Colorado River.
Water from the Colorado, which begins in Rocky Mountain National Park, is divided up among seven states and Mexico and governed by a 1922 compact that divides the states into upper basin and lower basin regions. The upper basin states are Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming, and water is “banked” for those states in Lake Powell.
The lower basin states — Arizona, Nevada and California — rely on the river‘s waters when it reaches Lake Mead, and the hydropower generated by Hoover Dam…
The lower basin states will feel the first impacts of the bureau’s Monday announcement. Arizona is expected to lose 18% of its share from the Colorado, or 512,000 acre-feet of water. According to the Associated Press, that’s about 8% of the state’s total water use…
Nevada will lose about 7% of its allocation, or 21,000 acre-feet of water. But it will not feel the shortage because of conservation efforts and alternative sources of water, the AP reported Monday.
California holds more senior water rights than either of the two states, so its allocation will be spared, at least for now. Mexico will lose 80,000 acre-feet, about 5% of its allocation from the Colorado.
In a statement Monday, bureau officials said the Upper Basin experienced an exceptionally dry spring in 2021, with April to July runoff into Lake Powell totaling just 26% of average, and that’s even despite near-average snowfall last winter. Total Colorado River system storage today is 40% of capacity, down from 49% at this time last year, the bureau stated…
…22 years of drought along the Colorado have meant other reservoirs — not just Lake Mead and Lake Powell — are also being tapped. Last month, the bureau announced it would draw down water from two reservoirs in Colorado and one in Utah, in order to keep Lake Powell, which includes the Glen Canyon Dam, and its hydropower headed to Nevada, going.
The bureau intends to siphon 36,000 acre-feet from Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County beginning in August. It will draw 20,000 acre-feet from Navajo Reservoir, on the Colorado-New Mexico border in southwestern Colorado. Flaming Gorge Reservoir, in Utah, will send 125,000 acre-feet later this year.
All that water will raise Lake Powell’s levels by 3 feet.
According to the Bureau of Reclamation, on Monday, Lake Mead’s elevation was 1,067.8 feet (35% of capacity). Lake Mead dropped below 1,071.6 feet on June 8, the lowest elevation on record since the lake first filled in the late 1930s…
But the entire Colorado River basin system is struggling, according to a May Bureau of Reclamation draft report on reservoir operations.
At the beginning of water year 2021 (Oct. 1, 2020), the Colorado River’s total system storage was 48% of capacity, the bureau draft report said. As of Sept. 30, total system storage is expected to be at 41% of capacity.
Taylor Hawes, Colorado River program director for The Nature Conservancy, said in a statement Monday the Tier 1 shortage declaration did not come as a surprise.
“The Colorado River has witnessed a steady decline in flows since 2000 that impacts communities, agriculture, industry and the health of our rivers in the region. Even as flows decreased, our demand reductions have not kept pace,” Hawes said.
“The Colorado River can be a model for resiliency and sustainability, but not without a concerted and significant effort by stakeholders in the region.”
Becky Mitchell is director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and Colorado’s commission for the Upper Basin states. She told Colorado Politics in a statement that “Colorado and the other Upper Basin states understand the risks and vulnerabilities we face in the Colorado River system due to severe drought and a potentially hotter and drier future.”
Also on Monday, governors of 10 Western states, including Colorado, sent a request to the Biden administration to issue a drought disaster declaration for the 10 states, which would allow the states to tap into resources from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
With lower, warmer water levels in the Yampa River during this extreme drought year, town of Hayden employees are carefully watching operations at the water plant this summer to continue to alleviate taste or odor issues for the town’s 1,100 water taps.
“We are always concerned, but we are paying close attention this year due to the abnormal conditions we’ve been experiencing,” said Bryan Richards, Hayden public works director. “We are trying to be very cognizant of the potential water quality problems that may occur in the river. This is a tremendous drought year, and we want to make sure we don’t miss anything.”
Richards said the usual time of heightened summer concern for low water levels and thus increased algae is lasting longer this year, starting about one month earlier than usual in early July rather than the normal early August. Water levels have dropped at the intake on the Yampa River at the water plant north of town, and water temperatures at the intake have increased by 3 to 5 degrees above normal, rising as high as 75 degrees. Lower, slower, warmer water leads to more algae production…
Fortunately, major improvements to the Hayden water treatment plant during the past three years are working to help mitigate the algae increases, said Town Manager Mathew Mendisco. He said the town spent a total of $2.3 million in water system and plant upgrades with half of the funding coming from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and other funding from a citizen-approved bond measure. The plant was first built in 1978…
Town of Hayden water users have been under outdoor water restrictions this summer that mimic city of Steamboat Springs restrictions and resulted in a 3% decrease in overall water use compared to the past three years, even though the watering season started earlier this dry year, Richards said. Hayden water users will need to continue water conservation efforts when the town’s 1 million gallon water tank on hospital hill goes offline for a planned refurbishment starting with the tank drained by the end of August through project completion Oct. 20, Richards said.
Mendisco said the town secured $989,000 in low-interest financing to upgrade the tank through a state revolving loan fund managed by the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority. The town qualified for a 1.5% interest rate based on its status as a “disadvantaged community” dealing with the impacts of the transition from coal.
The town has a 500,000-gallon water tank near Yampa Valley Regional Airport, so officials do not anticipate impacts to water customers when the larger water tank is off line…
Mendisco said town officials are working with water engineering firm Leonard Rice Engineers in Glenwood Springs to make a decision on whether the town will take the historic step to call the water reserves it owns in Yamcolo and Stagecoach reservoirs in South Routt County. The town has 500 acre-feet of combined water reserves in the two reservoirs that are managed through Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District.
Mendisco said the decision will be made by Monday depending on rain received before then.
The next coordination meeting for the operation of the Navajo Unit will be virtual, and is scheduled for Tuesday, August 24th, at 1:00 pm. At the meeting time, click here to join the meeting.
This meeting is open to the public and will be held virtually via Microsoft Teams video. The meeting should open in any smartphone, tablet, or computer browser, and does not require a Microsoft account. If you are away from a computer, you can also call-in at (202) 640-1187 (Phone Conference ID: 460 056 201#).
A copy of the presentation and meeting summary will be distributed to this email list and posted to our website following the meeting. If you are unable to connect to the meeting, feel free to contact me (information below) following the meeting for any comments or to ask questions.
The meeting agenda will include a review of operations and hydrology since April, current streamflow and hydrologic conditions, a discussion of hydrologic forecasts and planned operations for remainder of this water year and next water year, planned drought operations, updates on maintenance activities, and the Recovery Program on the San Juan River.
More than 50 people ranging from legislative aides to state department heads participated in an on-the-ground opportunity to learn about the extreme drought in Northwest Colorado during this week’s Drought Impacts Tour in the Yampa and White River Basins.
On two warm, hazy days, state and local leaders conversed during bumpy bus rides and educational stops at ranches, lakes and the Yampa River in Routt and Moffat counties. During the tour, participants and educators discussed many aspects of drought impacts such as agricultural livelihood, recreation, tourism, wildlife, water, wildfires and forest management.
“I have been learning way more than I ever expected on this drought tour. Hearing directly from ranchers and the things that they are experiencing is truly eye-opening and wonderful,” said Becky Bolinger, Ph.D., assistant state climatologist who works at the Colorado State University Colorado Climate Center. “We do know that the climate is warming, and with that warming climate, we are experiencing more frequent droughts, more severe droughts. These are things that all Coloradans are going to have to deal with.”
Bolinger said a key point people need to realize is how to make the connection between climate science information and residents’ own changes in work practices, especially in agricultural and tourism businesses. Bolinger said the facts of the shifting climate need to translate into changes in business practices and seasonal offerings in order to prepare for a warmer, drier future in Colorado.
“Knowing that they are already prepared by improving their management practices and other things to mitigate the impacts but also to adapt, hopefully it’s not always going to be this doom and gloom situation when we are talking about climate change,” Bolinger said.
The atmospheric scientist said Coloradans should focus on “always working on actionable solutions and getting through this together.”
The tour was organized by the Colorado Drought Task Force, which includes directors of multiple state departments such as natural resources and agriculture. The task force operated in past times of drought and was activated again by the governor in 2020. Task force information listed online (http://cwcb.colorado.gov/drought) notes that water year 2020 concluded as the 12th warmest water year on record in Colorado since 1895 and the third driest water year on record, trailing only 2002 (driest) and 2018 (second driest)…
Gov. Jared Polis joined for part of the tour on Wednesday in Moffat County including a picnic at Loudy-Simpson Park south of Craig…
One message from the tour is that drought-related financial assistance and grant opportunities are broad and plentiful at this time. Leonard encouraged agencies, nonprofits and agricultural producers to review funding options found at http://cwcb.colorado.gov/drought-assistance.
For example, the Colorado Department of Agriculture is promoting new stimulus funding available as of July 1, including $2.5 million to expand market opportunities for funding for Colorado Proud producers, $5 million to expand agricultural efficiency and soil health initiatives, $30 million for agricultural revolving loan and grant programs including for individual farmers and ranchers, and more than $1.8 million for agriculture drought resiliency activities that promote the state’s ability to anticipate, prepare for, mitigate, adapt to or respond to drought.
The CWCB Agricultural Emergency Drought Response Program has a $1 million fund available on a rolling basis that provides immediate aid for emergency augmentation water during drought years in the form of loans or grants.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Patti Aaron and Becki Bryant):
The Bureau of Reclamation today released the Colorado River Basin August 2021 24-Month Study. This month’s study projections are used to set annual operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead in 2022. Releases from these massive reservoirs are determined by anticipated reservoir elevations.
Most of the flow of the Colorado River originates in the upper portions of the Colorado River Basin in the Rocky Mountains. The Upper Basin experienced an exceptionally dry spring in 2021, with April to July runoff into Lake Powell totaling just 26% of average despite near-average snowfall last winter. The projected water year 2021 unregulated inflow into Lake Powell—the amount that would have flowed to Lake Mead without the benefit of storage behind Glen Canyon Dam—is approximately 32% of average. Total Colorado River system storage today is 40% of capacity, down from 49% at this time last year.
Given ongoing historic drought and low runoff conditions in the Colorado River Basin, downstream releases from Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam will be reduced in 2022 due to declining reservoir levels. In the Lower Basin the reductions represent the first “shortage” declaration—demonstrating the severity of the drought and low reservoir conditions.
“Like much of the West, and across our connected basins, the Colorado River is facing unprecedented and accelerating challenges,” said Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo. “The only way to address these challenges and climate change is to utilize the best available science and to work cooperatively across the landscapes and communities that rely on the Colorado River. That is precisely the focus of the White House Interagency Drought Working Group—a multi-agency partnership created to collaborate with States, Tribes, farmers and communities impacted by drought and climate change to build and enhance regional resilience.”
“Today’s announcement of a Level 1 Shortage Condition at Lake Mead underscores the value of the collaborative agreements we have in place with the seven basin states, Tribes, water users and Mexico in the management of water in the Colorado River Basin,” said Reclamation Deputy Commissioner Camille Touton. “While these agreements and actions have reduced the risk, we have not eliminated the potential for continued decline of these critically important reservoirs. Reclamation is committed to working with all of our partners in the basin and with Mexico in continuing to implement these agreements and the ongoing work ahead.”
Plans that have been developed over the past two decades lay out detailed operational rules for these critical Colorado River reservoirs:
Based on projections in the study, Lake Powell will operate in the Mid-Elevation Release Tier in water year 2022 (October 1, 2021 through September 30, 2022), and Lake Mead will operate in its first-ever Level 1 Shortage Condition in calendar year 2022 (January 1, 2022 through December 31, 2022).
Lake Powell Mid-Elevation Release Tier: The study projects Lake Powell’s January 1, 2022, elevation to be 3,535.40 feet – about 165 feet below full and about 45 feet above minimum power pool. Based on this projection, Lake Powell will operate in the Mid-Elevation Release Tier in water year 2022. Under this tier, Lake Powell will release 7.48 million acre-feet in water year 2022 without the potential for a mid-year adjustment in April 2022.
Lake Mead Level 1 Shortage Condition: The study projects Lake Mead’s January 1, 2022, elevation to be 1,065.85 feet – about 9 feet below the Lower Basin shortage determination trigger of 1,075 feet and about 24 feet below the drought contingency plan trigger of 1,090 feet. Based on this projection, Lake Mead will operate in a Level 1 Shortage Condition for the first time ever. The required shortage reductions and water savings contributions under the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead, 2019 Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan and Minute 323 to the 1944 Water Treaty with Mexico are:- Arizona: 512,000 acre-feet, which is approximately 18% of the state’s annual apportionment
– Nevada: 21,000 acre-feet, which is 7% of the state’s annual apportionment
– Mexico: 80,000 acre-feet, which is approximately 5% of the country’s annual allotment
In July 2021, drought operations to protect Lake Powell were implemented under the Upper Basin Drought Response Operations Agreement which project releasing up to an additional 181,000-acre feet of water from upstream initial units of the Colorado River Storage Project to Lake Powell.
Relying on the best available scientific information to guide operations, investing in water conservation actions, maximizing the efficient use of Colorado River water and being prepared to adopt further actions to protect the elevations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead remains Reclamation’s priority and focus.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation today announced that 2022 will bring unprecedented water shortages to Arizona, Nevada and the Republic of Mexico. The shortage determination follows release of a forecast of water supply in the Colorado River’s reservoirs, indicating that levels continue precipitous decline.
While last year’s snowpack was decent, extraordinarily warm temperatures through the spring meant that by the time the snow melted and flowed into Colorado River reservoirs much of it had evaporated, and the year’s water supply was only 32% of the 30-year average. Since 2000, the decline in Colorado River reservoir elevations has been dramatic, and scientists studying climate change tell us there is no end in sight.
As we watch climate change impacts unfold before our eyes, we worry about the birds and other wildlife that depend on Colorado River (and tributary) habitats. We worry about the communities that rely on Colorado River water supply. We also worry about how decision-makers will respond, because in a crisis, environmental resources will be at risk.
In recent years, the U.S. and Mexican federal governments and states that share the Colorado River have adopted shortage rules (2007 Interim Guidelines, Minute 323, Colorado River Drought Contingency Plans). That is important, because it allows water users to plan ahead for dry times with some predictability, even in extraordinary drought. Arizona, Nevada and Mexico all have known the 2021 shortage is coming. On a short-term basis, they have plans to mitigate the shortages. Arizona, which will take by far the biggest cuts, will employ diverse strategies including temporarily buying water from willing sellers (funded by Arizona taxpayers and philanthropies), increased water releases from in-state reservoirs, and increased groundwater pumping.
These are good strategies for the short-term, but what about 2023 and beyond? Historically, water management was based on the premise that drought would be followed by wet years. Climate change means we can no longer make that assumption. Good short-term solutions may not be sustainable: Will public and philanthropic funds remain available over the long term? Local reservoirs will need to be refilled with Colorado River water, so what happens once they are emptied? How long can water users rely on fossil groundwater before that resource is threatened as well?
A recent report from Audubon and conservation partners suggests that we need to start investing now in solutions for the long term, including improving forest health, wetlands restoration, and regenerative agriculture. These practices improve soil health such that over time more of the snowpack will translate into water supply as well as improved resilience of the entire watershed.
Good planning and robust investments can help minimize the pain of Colorado River water shortages, and are critical to maintaining reliable water supplies for people and nature alike. It is reassuring that the United States and Mexico have held fast to their commitments to provide a small volume of water to the Colorado River Delta, and the river has been flowing to the sea this summer.
The Colorado River is due for new operating rules in 2026, and Audubon will be working hard to ensure that the results are designed for the 21st century, starting with a process that includes all stakeholders, including Native American tribes with Colorado River water rights and environmental interests. Our goals include a new management framework that stabilizes reservoirs as the water supply declines, robust public investment in long-term strategies to improve the water supply and the basin’s resilience, measures that ensure tribes benefit from their water rights, and that decision-makers do not raid the last drops of water supporting habitats Colorado River habitats.
“deeper levels of shortage are likely in the next few years… additional reductions to CAP water users are likely to occur pursuant to the DCP. Such reductions would include impacts to CAP water currently available to some central AZ municipalities and tribes.” #AZWater#CORiverhttps://t.co/NFHTtB0cNp
Director Buschatzke of @azwater notes that another key trigger has been reached: Lake Mead is projected to hit 1030’. This requires AZ, CA and NV to reconvene to decide what additional steps they will take to keep Mead from falling below 1,020’. #CORiver#AZWater
Due to the low levels of water, the federal government has declared a Tier 1 water shortage in the Colorado River for the first time ever. This declaration reduces the amount of water that Arizona, Nevada and Mexico can claim from the river.
“The Tier 1 shortage declaration highlights the challenges facing the Colorado River Basin; however, this did not come as a surprise,” says Taylor Hawes, The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program Director. “The Colorado River has witnessed a steady decline in flows since 2000 that impacts communities, agriculture, industry, and the health of our rivers in the region. Even as flows decreased, our demand reductions have not kept pace.”
The declaration not only reduces the amount of water available for cities, but it will likely restrict water supplies for farmers. Some farmers may be forced to sell cattle, switch to different crops, or use groundwater from wells.
Colorado River Hit Hard by Climate Change
The Colorado River provides drinking water for more than 40 million people, hydroelectric power to meet the needs of over 7 million people, and water for 30 Native American Tribes. It irrigates around 5 million acres of fields that supply vegetables to the entire world and supports a thriving $26-billion recreation and tourism economy, as well as a wide variety of wildlife.
But climate change is hitting the Colorado River hard. The West has been in the grip of a drought for over 20 years that scientists believe is the worst in a thousand years, and the river is starting to feel the pinch. Its flows are powered by snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains, and as precipitation declines across the region, the river’s supply has dwindled too. Higher year-round temperatures also mean that the water evaporates faster while water use increases. These challenges make it harder and harder to balance the needs of people and the fish and wildlife that depend on healthy, flowing rivers.
“The Colorado River can be a model for resiliency and sustainability but not without a concerted and significant effort by stakeholders in the region,” Says Hawes. “While stakeholders have been developing solutions and adapting to a drier future, we must all accelerate the pace. We need short term solutions to stabilize the system while also working on longer term solutions. These include reducing water use across sectors, modernizing infrastructure, improving forest health, enhancing natural infrastructure, using technology to bolster groundwater levels, and improving stream and river health.”
Leading on Innovative and Collaborative Solutions
Already, water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two major reservoirs that store the Colorado River’s water, are down to 34% of their capacity and may soon drop too low to spin the hydroelectric turbines in their dams. Some smaller reservoirs began emergency releases in summer 2021 to prop up water levels in these lakes.
The situation is serious, but there’s plenty we can do to improve it. We know that the West will continue to get hotter and drier due to climate change. By proactively working together and planning for this future, we can share the Colorado River’s water equitably among all those who need it, including nature. We can use water more efficiently in our homes and businesses, improve agricultural irrigation infrastructure, adopt innovative water sharing approaches, and plant crops that use less water. With proper planning, the river will have enough water for fish and animals as well as people.
“Water issues are complex and require partnership and collaboration,” says Hawes. “The Nature Conservancy has worked in the Colorado River Basin for 20 years and appreciates the critical importance of partnerships in charting a sustainable and resilient future. However, the river system has changed more quickly than we have adapted. We must accelerate our efforts and think more broadly and creatively than ever before to chart a sustainable course. We must work together, testing ideas, sharing knowledge and investing in both short-term and long-term solutions in order to have the greatest impact in a short amount of time. This approach is our best path forward to minimize more future shortages on the river.”
With our contacts in the region and our history of bringing diverse stakeholders together, TNC is ideally situated to broker agreements that keep the Colorado River healthy. In Colorado, we developed the Yampa River Fund, a compact in which downstream users pay to protect the health of their water supply near its source. In Arizona, we developed a groundwater recharge system and helped farmers switch to water-efficient crops. We helped Mexicali, Mexico, invest in wastewater treatment solutions to leave more water available for nature. We are supporting policies at local, regional, and national levels that safeguard water supplies in the arid West.
Here’s a release from the Southern Nevada Water Association (Bronson Mack):
Low water levels in Lake Mead prompted the federal government today to issue a water shortage declaration on the Colorado River, which will reduce the amount of water Southern Nevada will be allowed to withdraw from Lake Mead beginning in January 2022.
Combined with existing water reductions outlined in the Drought Contingency Plan, the declared shortage will cut Southern Nevada’s annual water allocation of 300,000 acre-feet from Lake Mead—the source of 90 percent of the community’s supply—by a total of 21,000 acre-feet (nearly 7 billion gallons of water) in 2022.
“During the past two decades, Southern Nevada has taken significant steps to prepare for these cuts, including constructing Intake 3 and Low Lake Level Pumping Station and storing unused water in reserve for our community’s future use,” said Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) General Manager John Entsminger. “But water conservation remains our most effective management tool, and now is the time for all of us to redouble our conservation efforts in order to remain ahead of the curve and continue protecting the investments we have all made in our community.”
Entsminger said Southern Nevada must continue to reduce outdoor water consumption—which accounts for about 60 percent of the region’s overall water use—by following mandatory seasonal watering restrictions, replacing unused grass landscapes with drip-irrigated trees and plants through the SNWA’s Water Smart Landscapes rebate program (WSL), and preventing and reporting water waste (water flowing off a property into the gutter) to local water utilities.
“Southern Nevada has the capability, the obligation, and the need to be the most water-efficient community in the nation,” Entsminger said. “We already safely treat, recycle and return indoor water use back to Lake Mead, so conserving the water we use outdoors will help us achieve that goal and ensure our long-term sustainability.”
While the shortage declaration is the first of its kind, it is not the first time Southern Nevada was required to reduce its water use in response to drought conditions and a hotter, drier climate. When the drought was first declared in 2002, Southern Nevada was using more than its legal entitlement of 300,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water. However, the community’s commitment to conservation led to a 23 percent decline in water use since 2002 despite the addition of nearly 800,000 new residents.
But conservation progress has stalled in recent years. As an example, only about half of single-family households comply with the year-round seasonal watering restrictions, which limits the number of days landscapes can be watered each season. If every water user diligently followed these restrictions each season, Southern Nevada could save more water than is being cut under the shortage conditions.
In addition, tens of millions of gallons go to waste each year as poor irrigation practices result in water flowing off properties. Reporting this waste to local water utilities helps educate property owners about the issue and gives them an opportunity to correct it. However, those that continue to waste water receive a violation and a water-waste fee.
“In the face of this unprecedented shortage, we must step-up our commitment to conservation,” Entsminger said. “These efforts are imperative to assure our community’s long-term economic success—and history has shown that they work.”
For information on what you can do to conserve water, including SNWA conservation programs, seasonal watering restrictions, and preventing and reporting water waste, visit http://snwa.com.
The federal government declared a water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time since a compact between seven river basin was inked a century ago, with major 2022 water delivery cutbacks for Arizona and a lesser amount for Nevada and the nation of Mexico.
But water resource experts warned Coloradans not to be smug about far-away troubles in Arizona, where central state farming methods and production will take a big hit. The duty of Upper Colorado River Basin states to continue delivering set quotas of water under the treaty is one of the next big climate change battles in the West, and it will force changes here at home.
“The announcement today is a recognition that the hydrology that was planned for years ago, that we hoped we would never see, is here today,” Camille Touton, deputy commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation, said at a news conference bringing together officials from all the compact states.
“It’s really a threshold moment,” said Bart Miller, healthy rivers program director for the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates. “They are words a water manager doesn’t like hearing: unprecedented, never done this before. That short-term response is a good one, but the longer term response might be most interesting.”
At the news conference Monday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officially announced what its previous reports had warned was coming: Drought and climate change have drained so much water from the Lower Basin compact states’ main pool, Lake Mead, that the most junior rights on the lower river must be suspended until supplies are restored.
“They will not be delivered the water,” said Tom Buschatzke, director of Arizona Department of Water Resources. “They will physically not have the water, and they will have to figure out how to deal with the ramifications of that outcome.”
Arizona, with primarily junior water rights for its Central Arizona Project canals that take farm water into the desert, will lose more than 500,000 acre-feet from its projected allotment for 2022. That’s about 18% of the state’s usual allotment from the Colorado River.
Nevada will lose 21,000 acre-feet, or about 7% of its planned 2022 allotment; Mexico, which has a treaty with the U.S. over Colorado River water, will lose 80,000 acre-feet, or about 5% of its annual total.
Though the 22-year drought in the West prompted years of contingency planning for the river that delivers water to 40 million people, failing snowpack and dry soils that drink up runoff have forced federal regulators to speed their efforts…
Earlier this summer, another contingency move triggered by the drops at Mead and Powell included partial draining of Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison to help refill Powell and keep its pool above the minimum level needed for generating hydroelectric power. Federal regulators also moved water down to Powell from Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border, and Navajo Reservoir straddling the Colorado-New Mexico border.
All the compact states will have to contribute to solutions as the drought continues, federal and state officials warned.
“We also recognize the very real possibility that the hydrology that was planned for years ago may not be the worst that the basin may see in the future,” Touton said…
There are a few ways Colorado and federal water managers are working on to leave more water in the river, Miller said:
Improving the efficiency of agriculture — which uses 85% of the water available in Colorado — through fixing canals and ditches and moving to drip irrigation when possible. Capital costs could be funded in part by the infrastructure bill on the verge of passage by Congress, some of which was earmarked for water projects.
Changing crops to those that take less water. Arizona gets criticized for using Colorado River water to irrigate cotton, alfalfa and other high-water crops in an arid climate, but most of western agriculture takes place in a high desert. Colorado farmers could switch from alfalfa and other fodder to rye or other crops.
Letting water go through “demand management.” Cities have been drying up farms for their water rights for decades, raising the anger of rural Colorado. Demand management, by contrast, can rent the water from farmers for a set number of years in a given period, without drying up the land or the water rights entirely. Renting the water takes big money, though, another possible use of infrastructure stimulus.
City water conservation. Front Range cities have come a long way providing household water to millions of new residents without taking more water overall, Miller said, but those efficiency gains are slowing. Still, the cities could make additional trims: Las Vegas spends large amounts buying up lawn grass and paying homeowners to keep low-water or zero-water plantings.
“There’s still more there,” Miller said.
FromColorado Public Radio (Michael Elizabeth Sakas):
What does this water shortage mean for Colorado? Nothing, legally.
Lake Mead stores water for the states in the lower Colorado River basin — that’s Nevada, Arizona and California. Because Lake Mead has dropped below 1,075 feet, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation can mandate water cuts in Arizona and Nevada…
Currently, Colorado and this group of states are complying with the water-sharing agreement. The upper basin is not legally at fault for the low levels in Lake Mead.
“When we hear a shortage declaration, that definitely causes angst,” said Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “But I do feel like it’s a call to action both in the upper basin and the lower basin.”
Mitchell said all of the states in the Colorado River basin are working to manage “this very precious resource,” so that federal emergency actions like this are rare.
The official shortage declaration in the lower-basin states does add pressure to renegotiations of the Colorado River’s existing management guidelines, which are set to expire in 2026.
“It is much easier to make decisions in times of plenty,” [Rebecca] Mitchell said. “But the decisions are more important in times like now, and they have a greater impact.”
But additional cuts affecting more people may be coming more quickly than anticipated until now, officials said at a news conference called to make the formal announcement of the river’s first shortage declaration.
The shortage declaration by the bureau will reduce deliveries to the Central Arizona Project by roughly one-third, or 512,000 acre-feet.
Besides farmers, these cuts will also affect some Indian tribes, “excess water” deliveries to parties who normally buy water that other users don’t have contracts for and recharge of CAP water into various underground storage basins.
The cuts for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico together will be about 613,000 acre-feet, although California will have no cuts in 2022. An acre-foot is enough water to cover a football field one-foot deep with water. The cuts were all prescribed by the 2019 drought contingency plan, an agreement among the seven Colorado River Basin states including Arizona that sought to prop up Lakes Mead and Powell by gradually reducing the states’ take of that water when reservoirs declined to low enough elevations.
But Arizona’s water chief indicated at the news conference that to keep already ailing Lake Mead from falling too low, the three Lower Colorado River Basin states including Arizona will need to take additional water-saving actions beyond what’s already planned. That additional action is legally required under the three-state drought contingency plan, because the latest bureau forecast says it’s possible that Mead could drop to close to critically low levels by June 2023.
The state representatives have already started meeting to discuss possible future cuts, Tom Buschatzke, Arizona Department of Water Resources director, told the news conference without providing much more detail.
“The tools we have to achieve the goal are conserving more water in Lake Mead and reducing water use,” Buschatzke said. “This is a serious turn of events, not a crisis…
…at a separate news conference held after the one held by officials, a group of environmentalists and the head of a huge Southern California irrigation district blasted as grossly inadequate the efforts of federal and state officials to respond to declines in Colorado River flows that have drastically lowered its reservoirs’ water levels since 2000.
They said that despite the much-touted drought plan the basin states approved in 2019, the states and feds really don’t have a long-term plan to bring the river into balance between how much water people use and how much nature provides.
“This is not the time for small steps, this is a time for large ones,” said J.C. Hamby, director of the Imperial Irrigation District, headquartered in El Centro, California, near Yuma. “This is a tremendous problem that requires tremendous solutions, bold solutions, to respond to the continued drawdown on Powell and Mead.”
The drought contingency plan is only a plan to manage reservoir levels, not to truly adapt to long-term declines in river flows triggered by climate change and the accompanying warming weather, added Zachary Frankel, director of the Utah Rivers Council.
“There is not a climate plan for the Colorado River, it’s just the federal government and states watching the reservoir levels drop,” Frankel said.
The bureau’s CAP cuts for 2022 will take away about 60 percent of the Pinal farmers’ current CAP supplies of about 250,000 acre feet a year, said Paul Orme, a Phoenix attorney representing four Central Arizona irrigation districts. In 2023, the Pinal farmers’ share of CAP will shrink to zero, as prescribed by the 2019 drought plan, he said…
The latest bureau forecast for the end of 2022 is more dire still. The most likely lake level then will be barely above 1,050 feet, the bureau’s monthly 24-month study said. If Mead drops below 1,050 feet at the end of any calendar year, additional cuts kick in, affecting some Phoenix-area cities, Indian tribes and some industrial users, although Tucson wouldn’t be affected.
Arizona, Nevada and Mexico would lose a total of 613,000 acre-feet under that scenario, although California would lose no Colorado River water unless the lake drops below 1,045 feet…
But the bureau’s latest forecast also predicts that under the worst case climate scenario, Lake Mead could hit 1,030 feet by June 2023. If a forecast predicts the lake will fall that low within the next two years, the drought contingency plan requires the basin states to start meeting and find additional water use cuts to keep Mead.
The purpose of such cuts would be to keep Mead from dropping to 1,020 feet or below. The 1,020 foot level is five feet below the lowest level now planned for in the drought contingency plan, a level that would for the first time require cuts to Tucson’s CAP supply of 144,000 acre-feet…
The environmentalists and Hamby, however, said the reservoirs’ continued declines shows that it’s folly for Upper Basin states such as Utah and Wyoming to keep pushing to build more water diversion projects such as the Lake Powell pipeline. It would take 86,000 acre-feet a year of water — almost as much as Tucson Water customers use in a given year — from the lake to fast-growing St. George, Utah.
Cuts to Colorado River apportionments announced Monday by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation triggered a new flood of protests against St. George’s Lake Powell Pipeline project, the largest proposed diversion of additional water from this river that serves the needs of 40 million people throughout the West.
“St. George is not going to get their pipeline,” said Robin Silver, a founder of the Center for Biological Diversity and a former Phoenix emergency-room physician, in a press conference hosted by environmental groups on Monday afternoon following the one held by the Bureau of Reclamation. “Whether they’re listening or not, they’re going to have no choice. But it’d be nice if they were listening so we could all figure out how to get out of this fix.”
The Lake Powell Pipeline is the Washington County Water Conservancy District’s (WCWCD) solution to the current rate of population growth outpacing its estimation of the local water supply. The project, which has been pursued by the state since the 1990s, would transport up to 28 billion gallons of water per year — enough to support around 150,000 households — from the Colorado River at Lake Powell 140 miles through the desert in a buried pipeline to Sand Hollow Reservoir for use by future St. George residents.
Despite the long history of the project and the $40 million the state of Utah has already spent on feasibility and environmental studies for it, however, the current megadrought has created a region-wide political climate where additional diversions from the Colorado River are becoming increasingly controversial.
The declaration of a shortage by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has been anticipated for months and was triggered by the spiraling decline of Lake Mead, which stores water used by Arizona, Nevada, California and Mexico…
Federal water managers said the first shortage declaration shows how severe the drought has become and how climate change is having serious effects on the river…
“The Bureau of Reclamation cannot control the hydrology. And we also recognize the very real possibility that the hydrology that was planned for years ago may not be the worst that the basin may see in the future,” Touton said. “This may also mean that additional actions will likely be necessary in the very near future.”
The cuts will be the largest to date on the river, shrinking the flow of water through the 336-mile Central Arizona Project Canal, which for more than three decades has supplied Arizona’s growing desert cites and vast stretches of farmlands.
Farmers in part of central Arizona will face major cutbacks in water deliveries next year, and they’re preparing for the supplies to be entirely shut off in 2023. The reductions will force growers in Pinal County to leave some fields dry and unplanted, while the state is providing funds to help local irrigation districts drill wells to pump more groundwater.
“The cutbacks are happening. The water’s not there,” said Will Thelander, whose family has been farming in Arizona for three generations. “We’ll shrink as much as we can until we go away. That’s all the future basically is.”
The announcement from the Bureau of Reclamation, which is based on projected reservoir levels over the next two years, also shows that even bigger cuts are possible in 2023 and 2024, meaning some Arizona cities could begin to see their water deliveries slashed as well.
The level of Lake Mead is projected to end the year at an elevation of 1,065 feet, putting the river’s Lower Basin in what’s called a tier-one shortage. The government’s estimates show the reservoir is likely to continue to fall in subsequent years toward lower-level shortages that would bring larger cuts.
The reductions are taking effect under a 2019 agreement called the Drought Contingency Plan, which was aimed at reducing the risks of Lake Mead falling to critical lows. But as extreme heat and unrelenting drought have persisted across much of the watershed, the levels of the Colorado’s largest reservoirs have fallen faster than had been expected.
“There’s no doubt that climate change is real. We’re experiencing it every day in the Colorado River Basin and in other basins in the West,” Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo said. “I think the best strategy for planning is to think about a broad range of scenarios and a broad range of potential hydrology, and to work closely with our partners in the basin to try to think through all of those scenarios.”
The 2019 drought agreement included a backstop provision that called for the states to reconvene to consider additional measures, if necessary, to guard against the risk of Lake Mead falling to critically low levels below the elevation of 1,020 feet. Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said the state’s officials have begun to meet to discuss options with representatives of California and Nevada.
While they haven’t yet determined exactly what additional actions they may take, Buschatzke said, the possible steps include reducing the amounts taken from Lake Mead and conserving water in the reservoir…
Representatives of Nevada and California echoed that willingness to cooperate.
“We must adapt to the new reality of a warmer, drier future,” said John Entsminger of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “While the future is sobering, we are in this together.”
With Lake Mead projected to continue dropping, water researchers have also warned that the cuts agreed to under the 2019 agreement now are insufficient to deal with the severity of the situation, and that the region will soon need bigger efforts to adapt.
“We’re in an all-hands-on-deck situation. And we have to figure out how we get along with less Colorado River water coming into the state,” said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University. “I would say that everything’s on the table. How do we continue to have our cities and our economy and quality of life and prosperity on significantly less Colorado River water?”
Porter said the rapid declines of the river’s reservoirs show that the 2019 drought deal won’t be enough and that Arizona and neighboring states need to “figure out strategies to make sure that the Colorado system can stay functional” over the next several years…
Growers in Pinal County have said they may have to stop irrigating about a third of the area’s farmlands, leaving them dry and fallow…
Growers in Pinal County have known for years that their supply of CAP water would eventually be cut off, with a 2004 settlement outlining a schedule of decreasing water deliveries between 2017 and 2030. But the 2019 shortage agreement and the deteriorating conditions at Lake Mead have meant that Pinal farmers will lose their supply of Colorado River water much sooner…
Water’s retreat has accelerated
The Colorado River provides water for cities, tribal nations and about 4.5 million acres of farmland from Wyoming to the U.S.-Mexico border. About 70% of the water diverted from the river in the U.S. is used for agriculture, flowing to fields of hay and cotton, fruit orchards and farms that produce much of the country’s winter vegetables.
The watershed has been hit by one of the driest 22-year periods in centuries. Scientists describe the past two decades as a megadrought worsened by climate change, and say long-term “aridification” of the Colorado River Basin will require the region to adopt substantial changes to adapt to getting less water from the river.
In 2000, Lake Mead was nearly full. Since then, the water level in the reservoir has fallen about 147 feet, leaving a growing “bathtub ring” of minerals coating the rocky shores. The water’s retreat has accelerated over the past year during months of severe drought and extreme heat…
Arizona and Nevada took less water from the river in 2020 and 2021 under the agreement among Lower Basin states, and Mexico has been contributing water agreed under a separate accord to help the levels of Lake Mead.
California agreed to start taking cuts at a lower trigger point (1,045 feet) if the reservoir continues to fall — which the latest projections show could occur in 2024.
When the deal was signed, some of the states’ representatives described the agreement as a temporary “bridge” solution to lessen the risks of a crash and buy time through 2026, by which time new rules for sharing shortages will need to be negotiated and adopted.
Climate change ‘is making us face this reality quicker’
The deal wasn’t intended to prevent a shortage, which managers of water agencies have been expecting for the past few years. But the shortage has arrived sooner than officials and observers had hoped.
“We are in unprecedented territory,” said Haley Paul, policy director for the National Audubon Society in Arizona…
“In the end, hydrology is catching up to us and climate change is here and we’re hitting this new threshold,” Paul said. “Climate change is making us face this reality quicker than we would have otherwise. And we have no other choice but to learn to live with this smaller river.”
Scientific research has shown that the Colorado River watershed is sensitive to the higher temperatures caused by climate change, which intensify dry conditions and evaporate more moisture from the landscape. In a 2018 study, researchers found the river’s flow since 2000 had dropped 19 percent below the average of the past century, and that about half of the trend of decreasing runoff was due to unprecedented warming in the river basin.
Paul said the shortage might spur more water-efficiency innovation on top of what’s already been done, or more cultivation of crops that require less water.
“Does this shift how we farm? Both in the crops and the traditional ways of farming?” Paul said. “I think that it’s an opportunity for sure.”
One such crop is guayule, a shrub that tire manufacturer Bridgestone has been paying some farmers to grow while researching the crop as a new source of natural rubber for tires. Thelander said he’s one of two growers in his area who are experimenting with guayule, which requires much less water than cotton or alfalfa.
Dixon said he thinks there’s still a future for agriculture in Arizona if farmers make water-saving changes, like switching to drip irrigation, planting less water-intensive crops and improving management of watersheds. Dixon said he already has drip irrigation installed on some of his cotton fields, which he leases to another farmer, and plans to convert the remaining 120 acres to a drip system to save more water.
Cities face no cutbacks for now
Under a shortage, Arizona faces the largest reductions of any state.
Arizona gets about 36% of its water from the Colorado River, while other sources include groundwater and rivers such as the Salt and Verde. The state next year will lose 18% of its supplies from the Colorado River.
Arizona’s plan for dealing with the shortages involves deliveries of “mitigation” water to help temporarily lessen the blow for some farmers and other entities, as well as payments for those that contribute water. The state and CAP officials approved more than $100 million for these payments, with much of the funds going to the Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Gila River Indian Community for water they contributed…
The river’s shrinking flows have coincided with warnings from experts about insufficient water supplies for some of Arizona’s growing cities and suburbs.
Porter and fellow ASU researcher Kathleen Ferris said in a recent report that Arizona doesn’t have adequate measures in place to sustain groundwater, and that the state’s existing laws have allowed for unsustainable over-pumping in many areas. They said state leaders should reform the groundwater rules to safeguard these finite water reserves.
The state’s water agencies have for years been storing some imported Colorado River water in underground aquifers with the aim of using these reserves in the future when needed. The water has flowed into a network of basins, where the water has soaked down to recharge aquifers. The reductions in deliveries through the CAP Canal, however, have eliminated water that would have been available for replenishing groundwater…
Managers of the Arizona Department of Water Resources have also sought to halt approvals for new development dependent on groundwater in Pinal County.
In 2019, the agency’s officials said their data showed the county doesn’t have enough groundwater to provide for all of its planned subdivisions over the coming decades. And during a meeting this June, Deputy Director Clint Chandler laid out the agency’s position: “The days of utilizing native groundwater for development in Pinal are over. It’s done.”
He said ADWR won’t approve new “assured water supply” applications for development reliant on groundwater in Pinal. Those who want to develop in Pinal, he said, “will need to bring their own, non-groundwater supplies.”
In Pinal and other areas, new subdivisions have often been built on former agricultural land. Porter said farmers in Pinal have been “waking up to the fact” that if they heavily draw down the groundwater in the years to come, that could lead to long-term declines in the value of their land…
A new approach to managing the river?
The sorts of struggles that farmers are facing in Pinal could soon spread to other parts of the Southwest.
Paul said dealing with the new reality on the Colorado River will require looking at a wide range of short-term and long-term approaches for adapting to less water, and also examining in detail how severe the shortages might become as negotiations move forward on plans for new rules after 2026…
And while this summer’s monsoon rains have brought flooding and a burst of green vegetation in the Arizona desert, much of the Colorado River watershed remains in an extreme drought.
To address the chronic water deficit on the Colorado River, managers of water agencies have been discussing a variety of other possible steps, such as investing in more wastewater recycling and desalination, and scaling up programs that pay farmers to temporarily leave some fields dry.
But critics have argued that the Colorado River needs to be managed differently as climate change and drought take a worsening toll on the watershed…
“You have this largest reservoir in the nation going empty. There is more water coming out than there is going in,” said J.B. Hamby, vice president of California’s Imperial Irrigation District, which holds the largest single water entitlement on the river.
“Things like continued sprawl, demands for new sources of water being taken from this declining stream, which is the Colorado River, does not make sense when we’re dealing with what could be potentially catastrophic,” Hamby said.
He said everyone needs to recognize the Colorado River is now in “an era of limits” that requires everyone along the river to understand that water use must be limited. He and others stressed that the water level at Lake Mead has been getting closer to 895 feet, a point called “dead pool” at which water would no longer pass at Hoover Dam.
Here’s a release from the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Central Arizona Project:
The Colorado River Basin continues to experience drought and the impacts of hotter and drier conditions. Based on the Jan. 1 projected level of Lake Mead at 1,065.85 feet above sea level, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior has declared the first-ever Tier 1 shortage for Colorado River operations in 2022.
This Tier 1 shortage will result in a substantial cut to Arizona’s share of the Colorado River – about 30% of Central Arizona Project’s normal supply; nearly 18% of Arizona’s total Colorado River supply; and less than 8% of Arizona’s total water use. Nearly all the reductions within Arizona will be borne by Central Arizona Project (CAP) water users. In 2022, reductions will be determined by Arizona’s priority system – the result will be less available Colorado River water for central Arizona agricultural users.
While Arizona will take the required mandatory reductions under a Tier 1 shortage, the reductions to CAP water users will be partially mitigated by resources that have been set aside in advance for this purpose.
“The 2019 Drought Contingency Plan put in place agreements and Arizona water users have taken collective action to mitigate reduced CAP water for affected municipalities, tribes and CAP agriculture,” said Ted Cooke, general manager, Central Arizona Project. “These DCP near-term actions will provide relief from reductions that will occur in 2022 as a result of a Tier 1 shortage.”
Given the recent intensification of the drought, deeper levels of shortage are likely in the next few years. As impacts of drought persist, additional reductions to CAP water users are likely to occur pursuant to the DCP. Such reductions would include impacts to CAP water currently available to some central Arizona municipalities and tribes.
The near-record low runoff in the Colorado River in 2021 significantly reduced storage in Lake Powell. The reduction in storage, combined with projections for future months, has triggered provisions of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan designed to protect critical elevations in Lake Powell and Lake Mead through additional collective actions.
“ADWR and CAP are working collaboratively with Arizona stakeholders and the Basin States to deploy more adaptive measures consistent with the Drought Contingency Plan and associated agreements,” said Tom Buschatzke, director, Arizona Department of Water Resources. “At the same time, ADWR and CAP will continue to work with partners within Arizona and across the Basin to develop and implement longer-term solutions to the shared risks we all face on the Colorado River now and into the future.”
Buschatzke continued, “We in Arizona have acted and will continue to act to protect the water resources of our state and of the Colorado River system overall.”
In response to increasing flows in the critical habitat reach and a forecast wetter weather pattern, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 900 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 800 cfs on Tuesday, August 17th, 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 effects of climate change are being exacerbated by a century of bad policy
There are two main reasons water shortages loom. The first is climate change. Both reservoirs straddle the Colorado River as it meanders from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains down through the desert south-west to northern Mexico (see map). Warmer winters caused by rising greenhouse-gas emissions have diminished the snowpack that melts into the river each spring. In addition, parched soils have soaked up some of the runoff before it can reach Mead and Powell. Since 2000, when the so-called “Millennium Drought” began, the river’s annual flow has shrunk by nearly 20%. Multiple studies in the past five years have attributed up to half of that decline to human-caused climate change.
Second, poor policy choices 100 years ago all but guaranteed that the water available to westerners could never meet expectations. After laws such as the Homestead Act encouraged white settlers to move West in the second half of the 19th century, the federal government financed the dams and pipelines needed for cities and agriculture to thrive in the desert. “By moving water around from more water-rich areas to water-poor areas, we sort of enabled these people to migrate and settle,” says Newsha Ajami of Stanford University. “Regardless of the fact that it’s dry, or it’s hot—if the water is flowing, you think anything is possible.”
Boosterism for shiny new reclamation projects in the early 1900s led to dubious decision-making. The Colorado River Compact, which divvied up the river in 1922, used data from historically wet years to estimate the average annual flows. John Fleck, the director of water resources at the University of New Mexico, says a government scientist was ignored when he testified in the 1920s that the river could not meet its projected demands. The compact and its addendums, known as “the law of the river”, hold that the seven states and Mexico are to split 20.4bn cubic metres of water each year (or in American terms 16.5 million acre-foot of water, where an acre-foot is the amount of water it would take to submerge one acre of land one foot deep.) The river has not lived up to those aspirational figures, says Brad Udall, a climate scientist at Colorado State University. Between 1906 and 1999 annual flows averaged 15.2m acre-feet; since 2000 the river has mustered only 12.4m.
Drought almost seems too puny a word to describe the water scarcity that the south-west is experiencing. “In some ways drought implies that it’s ephemeral,” says Kristen Averyt, Nevada’s climate policy coordinator. But the region’s future could be hotter and drier still, according to the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. When discussing the outlook for Las Vegas, John Entsminger, who runs the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), prefers to talk in terms of aridification, or the long-term drying of the region. “I’m past talking about droughts,” he says.
The region’s rich cities have been planning for this. Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Las Vegas all get water from the Colorado River—and all have diversified their water supplies. Investing in conservation, recycling programmes and desalination technology has allowed south-western metros to save water even while their populations have soared.
Perhaps no place is more spooked by Lake Mead’s decline than the Las Vegas valley, which gets 90% of its water from the nearby reservoir. That dependence has spurred innovation. All water that goes down a drain is recycled, according to SNWA, and the city has ripped out grass in favour of desert landscaping. These measures, along with water restrictions and incentives, helped the valley cut its water use by 23% since 2002 while adding about 800,000 residents to its population. “People always assume that population growth and water consumption is more or less a one-to-one correlation,” says Mr Entsminger. But “you can add more people to the equation and simultaneously use less water.”
But cities only account for a fraction of water use on the Colorado. Irrigated agriculture slurps up about 70% of the river each year. Cuts to the water supply may push farmers to grow different crops, fallow fields or return to pumping groundwater to get by. Pumping isn’t a sustainable option either. Years of overuse have depleted aquifers in parts of Arizona and California.
Meanwhile, some demands on the river are growing. Thanks to generations of neglect, many Native American households do not have access to clean drinking water. Tribes also lack the plumbing needed to take the water they already have rights to. The bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate last week includes $6bn to help remedy that. As the river shrinks, will such attempts to right enduring wrongs go down the drain?
Opinion: A Tier 1 water shortage on Lake Mead might sound scary, but it’s not the problem we should be worrying about.
There’s a lot of freaking out about the first Tier 1 water shortage at Lake Mead, which is expected to be announced on Aug. 16.
There has been breathless coverage for weeks in the national press about how bad things are now for those of us who rely on the Colorado River.
But that’s the thing. A Tier 1 shortage is far from a crisis.
Oh, this level of shortage will be painful, especially for farmers in Pinal County who are losing their only source of renewable water. They have no option other than to turn back to groundwater, which already has dwindled to the point that it cannot meet the long-term demands of all Pinal users. Some farmers are already beginning to make tough choices about which fields to fallow and which of their most productive lands are worth saving.
But cities in metro Phoenix will not yet feel any ill effects of a Tier 1 shortage (and few will notice the impacts of a deeper Tier 2 shortage, a growing possibility for 2023). And those with the highest priority on-river water are even more insulated from pain, even if things get worse than that.
A Tier 1 shortage isn’t our problem now
Arizona has known for years that this day would come. We planned for it in a statewide implementation plan, which provides a complex web of temporary water supplies and compensation to help those who must shoulder these cuts. The plan gets progressively more painful, especially once we hit a Tier 3 shortage that will impact even the largest cities in metro Phoenix, but it’s all spelled out.
If anything, the measured progression of cuts provides a bit of certainty in the chaos of the hotter, drier, more unpredictable future we face.
So, while I know everyone will be talking about this first shortage because it’s new, and for those who haven’t been following the situation, reading the words “water shortage” will seem scary, forgive me if I view it as old hat.
The Tier 1 declaration isn’t our problem. It’s the other numbers contained in the reports that also will be released on Aug. 16, which have turned grim with a speed that has surprised even the experts. The upstream Lake Powell is dropping quickly, thanks to already low lake levels and near-record low runoff this year. The lower Powell falls, the less water Lake Mead gets.
That’s our problem.
It’s likely that we are in for multiple years of 7.48 million acre-feet releases, down from the 8.23 million acre-feet (or more) releases on which we have come to rely. This is consequential, considering that until now we’ve only had one 7.48 million acre-feet release in 2014, when Lake Mead was nowhere near shortage levels.
Lake levels never recovered from that lower release.
Less water from Lake Powell is driving the tank
And now Mead, which is V-shaped, is significantly lower in elevation – meaning it takes progressively less water to lower lake levels. Multiple years of 7.48 million acre-feet releases will cause lake levels to plummet (the forecast already says two in a row are likely, and that there’s a decent chance of them continuing through 2025).
In fact, the latest modeling suggests there may be nearly a 40% chance of Lake Mead reaching a Tier 3 shortage – the most severe for which we have planned – by 2025.
And if the projections hold, the states that rely on Mead could be meeting as soon as November to decide what other actions we can take (likely, it’ll be even more cuts) to keep the lake from falling below a critically low level of 1,020 feet of elevation. The modeling suggests that if we do nothing additional, the lake could drop to near 1,000 feet in a worst case by 2025.
Consider that. Arizona could take its worst-case 720,000 acre-feet of cuts in a Tier 3 shortage and still the lake could tank.
We must conserve – and by “we,” I don’t just mean Arizona. Demand certainly drives part of the equation for why Mead is dropping, which means we all need to use less. Permanently.
But so does supply, and if the lake could get 750,000 acre-feet less than usual for several years – or maybe from here on out, in an effort to keep Lake Powell from tanking – this can’t just fall on Arizona’s shoulders, even if we are the state with the junior-most water rights.
Whatever we do, it must be a shared sacrifice
The good news is that other basin states seem to recognize this, that if the lakes have any hope at sustainability, it’s going to require an additional shared sacrifice to get them there.
What that sacrifice looks like is anyone’s guess. Everyone knows it will be painful, which also will make it hard for everyone to swallow. The name of the game will be to choose actions that everyone can live with, not one that everyone likes.
Because we’ve entered a new era of shortage. This is our reality, our new normal – and, in fact, it probably won’t be long before we consider a Tier 1 shortage as a time of excess.
It can and probably will get worse from here, and yes, we’re planning for that, too. So that when that day arrives, we can say we’ve got this.
It’s going to hurt. But there is no need to freak out.
Reach Allhands at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @joannaallhands.
Elwood Mead in 1928. By Underwood & Underwood – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID cph.3b30798.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15933145