…you can see the forecast for Mead and Powell jumping up with the big snowpack, then dwindling as that potential big runoff turned into actual not-so-big-runoff. But it’s important to note that Lake Mead is still forecast to end 2018 226,000 acre feet above the projection made back in January, and Lake Powell is still projected to end 2018 up 1.8 million acre feet above the January projection. That’s a result of how the rules apportion water between Powell and Mead.
“Losses”, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky wrote, “loom larger than gains.” This is one of the foundational principles of the field of behavioral economics. That’s what’s going on with the headlines. It felt like we had that water, and then we lost it.
But the final numbers are important. This year’s runoff has not been as big as we all hoped, but it was still enough to push projected reservoir levels up.
Several hundred billion gallons of water vanished from federal forecasts for Lake Mead over the past two months, but Bureau of Reclamation officials insist there’s no reason to panic.
In April, the bureau was predicting that the man-made lake east of Las Vegas would finish 2018 about 21 feet higher than it is today. Now the bureau is forecasting a 4-foot drop in the surface of the reservoir over the next 18 months — a difference of 25 feet.
But not to worry, said Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation in Boulder City. It’s too soon to say which scenario might turn out to be true…
The bureau released its latest forecast for the river and Lake Mead this week as part of its monthly operational study, which predicts the most likely reservoir conditions over the next two years.
The dramatic change in those projections over the past two months also illustrates how much of the reservoir’s fate is determined by policy, not Mother Nature.
The coordinated rise and fall of Lake Mead and Lake Powell upstream is governed by a complicated federal framework, implemented in 2007, that is designed to protect minimum water levels in the nation’s two largest man-made reservoirs through 2026.
In April, it looked as if the water would be high enough in Lake Powell and low enough in Lake Mead to trigger a much larger release than usual downstream to Mead in 2018. Forecasters now expect Lake Powell to fall just short of the so-called “equalization” level, resulting in a more modest water release.
Davis noted that even under the new, less promising projections, Lake Mead is still expected to be just high enough on Jan. 1, 2019, to avoid triggering the first federal shortage declaration on the Colorado River. Such a shortage would require both Arizona and Nevada to reduce their use of water from the river…
How much water is that?
Over the past two months, federal forecasters have significantly reduced their projections for the water level in Lake Mead. Instead of gaining about 21 feet between now and the end of 2018, forecasters now expect the lake to lose about 4 feet.
So how much water does that 25-foot difference represent?
Every foot in Lake Mead contains roughly 100,000 acre-feet of volume, so the recent adjustment by forecasters amounts to 2.5 million acre-feet of water. That’s equivalent to 814.6 billion gallons, which is enough water to supply the Las Vegas Valley for about a decade.
Lurline Underbrink Curran, the long-time Grand County manager, was lavished with praise Wednesday evening at the Denver Botanic Gardens, but she may have told the best joke.
Curran said she learned she was to be honored by the Colorado Water Trust after being asked to sit in on a conference telephone call with the group’s directors. The group’s mission is to restore flows in Colorado Rivers in need.
The news they purported to share seemed to comport with that mission. The new administration, they told her, had a keen interest in the Colorado River, and there were plans to remove all the dams —and make Mexico pay for it.
As she wondered what Water Trust directors were imbibing, they broke the real reason for wanting her on the phone: They wished to bestow her with the 2017 David Getches Flowing Water Award.
Getches was a law professor at the University of Colorado known to be an “inspired creator of new alternatives to old stalemates.”
Grand County long was Colorado’s best example of a stalemate. It was hit early and often for water diversions to solve Colorado’s intractable problem: about 75 percent of the state’s water originates west of the Continental Divide and almost 90 percent of people and the best agriculture lands lie to the east.
About a decade ago, at a water workshop in Gunnison, Curran described her county’s position simply: Denver, she said, had been thinking ahead—and Grand County had not.
But when two Front Range water agencies announced long-standing plans to incrementally expand diversions from the Granby-Winter Park area, Grand County chose a more sophisticated approach. It wasn’t neither hell no nor roll over.
The result is called Learning by Doing, which is premised in a cooperative effort to scientifically manage diversions in ways that cause least harm to native flows in the Fraser Rivers and its tributaries as well as the Colorado River itself.
Sense of purpose
Eric Wilkinson, general manager of the Berthoud-based Northern Colorado Water Conservation District, which distributes water to the Boulder-Fort Collins-Greeley area through the Colorado-Big Thompson project, said he wasn’t immediately impressed with Curran when negotiations began. “I vividly remember walking out of that meeting and thinking, ‘I don’t really appreciate that woman.’”
After four years of “very extensive, intense negotiations,” he instead found Curran to be a “visionary” who was nonetheless “pragmatic but with a keen sense of purpose.”
“The Colorado River is far better now and into the future because of Lurline’s efforts and her stubborn determination to make it better,” he said.
Curran grew up in Kremmling. She had a circuitous route to public service. She managed the local bowling alley before going to work at the Grand County Courthouse in Hot Sulphur Springs, first as a secretary, then a planner before being chosen as the county manager.
Dave Taussig, a water attorney in Denver and also a director of the Colorado Water Trust, also grew up in Kremmling. His parents had a ranch at Ute Park, which is now covered by the Henderson Mill’s tailings.
“In the past, the transmountain diverters would come over and then skedaddle as quickly as they could, never to be seen or heard from again,” Taussig said.
But what Grand County did this time creates a new dynamic.
The effort is “bearing fruit already,” he said.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating on coverage of rivers and water with Sky-Hi News, the Summit Daily News, the Vail Daily, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and The Aspen Times. the Sky-Hi News published this story on June 15, 2017.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board is a known name with an often unknown role. However, one thing is certain, it is the guiding force behind water policy in the State of Colorado and has been a key provider of financial means for many important water projects in the San Luis Valley.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board was formed more than 75 years ago. The mission it was charged with was/is “To conserve, develop, protect and manage Colorado’s water for present and future generations.” Today, the CWCB is Colorado’s most comprehensive resource for water information, expertise and technical support.
The CWCB is also about those who serve. Fifteen board members govern the CWCB. Members are appointed by the governor and serve three-year terms. Each member hails from one of the nine basins of Colorado which are the Arkansas, Colorado, Gunnison, Metro, North Platte, Rio Grande, South Platte, Southwest, and Yampa/White respectively. They are responsible for tasks such as protecting Colorado’s streams and rivers, water conservation, flood mitigation, watershed protection, stream restoration, drought planning, water project financing, and the creation and oversight of the Basin Roundtables. In addition, the CWCB collaborates with other western states, as well as federal agencies, to protect state water apportionments.
Other personnel include more than 40 CWCB staff members who maintain a total of six major program areas or sections. The sections are management, finance and administration, interstate and federal, stream and lake protection, water supply planning, watershed and flood protection. These are the teams that report to the board members, make recommendations and do all of the behind the scenes work. The combined efforts of the CWCB board and staff have produced beneficial and needed results with water projects and issues throughout the state.
One example of a key initiative that was recently completed by the CWCB is the Colorado Water Plan. Until 2015, Colorado was one of the only western states that did not have a water plan. With the population of Colorado expected to see enormous increases, the demand for water is also projected to see a huge spike. There were/are also many challenges facing Colorado including an increasing water supply gap, agricultural dry-up, critical environmental concerns, variable climate conditions, inefficient regulatory process and increasing funding needs. As a result, Governor John Hickenlooper signed an Executive Order in 2013 which tasked the CWCB with the creation of a water plan for the State of Colorado.
After three years, the completion of the Colorado Water Plan was celebrated in November of 2015. Goals in the plan include meeting the water supply gap, defending Colorado’s compact entitlements, improving regulations, and exploring financial incentives. Meanwhile, the objective is to honor Colorado water values and ensure the state’s most valuable resource is protected and preserved for generations to come. The implementation of the Colorado Water Plan continues by working through individual issues in each basin. This is just one of the many complex areas the CWCB tackles on a daily basis.
With the many and often difficult issues the Colorado Water Conservation Board handles, what do these efforts mean to the Rio Grande Basin and the San Luis Valley? The answer is the Rio Grande Roundtable. The Roundtable serves two critical roles. The first is to develop a comprehensive communication platform for stakeholders, and the second is as a conduit for funding basin water projects. The Rio Grande Roundtable itself exists because of the CWCB. The concept of the Basin Roundtables was established through the “Water for the 21st Century Act” with the intent of facilitating discussion and common sense solutions for Colorado’s water needs.
Currently, the roundtables across the state bring more than 300 individuals to the table. There is an even larger amount of needs and interests represented. Each basin is also required to have a plan. These plans must identify both consumptive and non-consumptive water needs as well as available water supplies and proposed projects and methods. The projects and methods of course, require funding. This is where the CWCB Water Project Loan Program comes in. On an annual basis, the CWCB has close to $50 million available for this program. These low interest loans are available to any agricultural or municipal borrower who can establish a clear need for the design and/or construction of a raw water project. Proposed projects must then clear an application process and obtain board approval. Once each of these measures are successful, the project can begin.
The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable has been the recipient of millions of dollars in funding for crucial water projects, thanks to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. One notable example is the Rio Grande Cooperative Project. As a public/private partnership between Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the San Luis Valley Irrigation District, the Rio Grande Cooperative project was presented to the CWCB as a funding request for needed repairs to Rio Grande and Beaver Reservoirs. The request was successful and in 2013, Phase 1 of the repair process at Rio Grande Reservoir was complete. Beaver Reservoir completed its dam rehabilitation in 2016. This is just one way in which the CWCB has tremendously benefitted the San Luis Valley. In fact, it could possibly be argued that the Valley would be a much different place without the CWCB.
Colorado’s water and water in the Rio Grande Basin is and always will be an important matter. Many can agree that it must be used wisely. The Rio Grande Roundtable and the Colorado Water Conservation Board work to ensure that this valuable resource is managed well.
The Rio Grande Basin Roundtable meets the second Tuesday of every month. Meetings are located at the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District office at 623 4th St. Alamosa. Visit http://www.rgbrt.org. or http://cwcb.state.co.us.
The nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead on the Arizona/Nevada border and Lake Powell on the Arizona/Utah border, were brim full in the year 2000. Four short years later, they had lost enough water to supply California its legally apportioned share of Colorado River water for more than five years. Now, 17 years later, they still have not recovered.
This ongoing, unprecedented event threatens water supplies to Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque and some of the most productive agricultural lands anywhere in the world. It is critical to understand what is causing it so water managers can make realistic water use and conservation plans.
While overuse has played a part, a significant portion of the reservoir decline is due to an ongoing drought, which started in 2000 and has led to substantial reductions in river flows. Most droughts are caused by a lack of precipitation. However, our published research shows that about one-third of the flow decline was likely due to higher temperatures in the Colorado River’s Upper Basin, which result from climate change.
This distinction matters because climate change is causing long-term warming that will continue for centuries. As the current “hot drought” shows, climate change-induced warming has the potential to make all droughts more serious, turning what would have been modest droughts into severe ones, and severe ones into unprecedented ones.
How climate change reduces river flow
In our study, we found the period from 2000 to 2014 is the worst 15-year drought since 1906, when official flow measurements began. During these years, annual flows in the Colorado River averaged 19 percent below the 20th-century average.
During a similar 15-year drought in the 1950s, annual flows declined by 18 percent. But during that drought, the region was drier: rainfall decreased by about 6 percent, compared to 4.5 percent between 2000 and 2014. Why, then, is the recent drought the most severe on record?
The answer is simple: higher temperatures. From 2000 to 2014, temperatures in the Upper Basin, where most of the runoff that feeds the Colorado River is produced, were 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the 20th-century average. This is why we call this event a hot drought. High temperatures continued in 2015 and 2016, as did less-than-average flows. Runoff in 2017 is expected to be above average, but this will only modestly improve reservoir volumes.
High temperatures affect river levels in many ways. Coupled with earlier snow melt, they lead to a longer growing season, which means more days of water demand from plants. Higher temperatures also increase daily plant water use and evaporation from water bodies and soils. In sum, as it warms, the atmosphere draws more water, up to 4 percent more per degree Fahrenheit from all available sources, so less water flows into the river. These findings also apply to all semi-arid rivers in the American Southwest, especially the Rio Grande.
A hotter, drier future
Knowing the relationship between warming and river flow, we can project how the Colorado will be affected by future climate change. Temperature projections from climate models are robust scientific findings based on well-tested physics. In the Colorado River Basin, temperatures are projected to warm by 5°F, compared to the 20th-century average, by mid-century in scenarios that assume either modest or high greenhouse gas emissions. By the end of this century, the region would be 9.5°F warmer if global greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced.
Using simple but strong relationships derived from hydrology models, which were buttressed by observations, we and our colleagues calculated how river flows are affected by higher temperatures. We found that Colorado River flows decline by about 4 percent per degree Fahrenheit increase, which is roughly the same amount as the increased atmospheric water vapor holding capacity discussed above. Thus, warming could reduce water flow in the Colorado by 20 percent or more below the 20th-century average by midcentury, and by as much as 40 percent by the end of the century. Emission reductions could ease the magnitude of warming by 2100 from 9.5°F to 6.5°F, which would reduce river flow by approximately 25 percent.
Large precipitation increases could counteract the declines that these all-but-certain future temperature increases will cause. But for that to happen, precipitation would have to increase by an average of 8 percent at midcentury and 15 percent by 2100.
Moreover, climate models do not agree on whether future precipitation in the Colorado Basin will increase or decrease, let alone by how much. Rain gauge measurements indicate that there has not been any significant long-term change in precipitation in the Upper Basin of the Colorado since 1896, which makes substantial increases in the future even more doubtful.
Megadroughts, which last anywhere from 20 to 50 years or more, provide yet another reason to avoid putting too much faith in precipitation increases. We know from tree-ring studies going back to A.D. 800 that megadroughts have occurred previously in the basin.
March of 2017 was the warmest March in Colorado history, with temperatures a stunning 8.8°F above normal. Snowpack and expected runoff declined substantially in the face of this record warmth. Clearly, climate change in the Colorado River Basin is here, it is serious and it requires multiple responses.
It takes years to implement new water agreements, so states, cities and major water users should start to plan now for significant temperature-induced flow declines. With the Southwest’s ample renewable energy resources and low costs for producing solar power, we can also lead the way in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, inducing other regions to do the same. Failing to act on climate change means accepting the very high risk that the Colorado River Basin will continue to dry up into the future.
It may not look like it as the Big Thompson River and Fall River continue to race through the middle of town and a very noticeable snowpack still looms in the high country, but experts believe the peak runoff for this current season has just occurred and that we should soon see the water levels dropping.
“Right now what we can say is that it (the seasonal runoff) is comparable with previous years and we are pretty certain that it has already peaked, probably two days ago,” said James Bishop on Wednesday afternoon. Bishop is the Public Involvement Specialist for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Colorado…
The flow of the Big Thompson River at Moraine Park peaked at 755 cubic feet per second (cfs) at 2:15 a.m. Sunday morning. Since then, the flow has dropped significantly to 613 cfs on Monday to 267 cfs by late Wednesday afternoon…
Checking U.S. Geological Survey Water Resources charts finds that the Big Thompson River flow just below Lake Estes peaked at 804 cfs at 3:15 a.m. Tuesday while the Big Thompson River flow at Loveland peaked at 492 cfs at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s monthly prediction for Colorado River reservoir levels says the lake could drop to 1,076.53 feet by the end of 2018 or Jan. 1, 2019. That would be a foot and a half above where a Central Arizona Project water shortage would be declared. Last month, the forecast for the end of the year was 1,096.77 feet.
A shortage declaration would cut river water deliveries to Central Arizona farmers and Arizona Water Bank recharge projects. Tucson gets most of its drinking water from CAP but wouldn’t be affected by a shortage declaration at this point — only when and if the lake drops much lower.
The forecast is down sharply from the bureau’s May 2017 prediction because this spring’s river runoff levels are less than expected a few months ago although still above normal. That means the amount of water to be released from Lake Powell downstream to Mead this year won’t be as much as was thought a few months ago. The prospect of lesser releases from Powell has been known for some time, but the 20-foot-decline in the 2019 forecast was just released.
“The severe drop-off in anticipated flows into Lake Mead represents a shocking turn-around in expectations for the near-term health of the great reservoir,” said the Arizona Department of Water Resources in an article on its website.
The abrupt forecast change underscores the need for agreement on a near-term “drought contingency plus” plan for the state to reduce the risk of shortages, Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke said Thursday. CAP officials have opposed that plan as unneccessary in light of earlier, more favorable forecasts, leaving negotiations stuck for months. CAP officials weren’t available for comment Thursday on the latest forecast.
At the same time, Mead’s bad January 2019 forecast doesn’t mean an immediate crisis. The forecast doesn’t take into account already planned water conservation efforts by the CAP that, if carried out, will push the lake up by a few feet compared to what the bureau is forecasting, a bureau spokeswoman said.
It does, however, take into account 350,000 acre feet that California users and Arizona’s Gila River Indian Community have pledged to leave in the lake in 2017. Lesser amounts are committed for 2018 and 2019.
The Phoenix City Council added to the conservation push this week by unanimously approving a deal to pay the Gila River Indian Community $2 million to leave 40,000 additional acre feet in the lake for a year. Arizona is spending $2 million. The non-profit Walton Foundation and the Bureau of Reclamation are kicking in another $1 million apiece.
The agreement isn’t a done deal yet because CAP must approve it. But it’s already being hailed by backers as a prime example of how cooperation among users can boost the lake’s levels.
The January 2019 forecast could rise or fall later, depending on the weather over the next 18 months, reclamation officials noted.
“We offer our best projections to help our water users plan, but the hydrology is extremely variable,” bureau spokeswoman Rose Davis said Thursday.
“Pueblo County has not been notified by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), Environmental Protection Agency or the Air Force that they have stopped monitoring, testing or sampling groundwater to track the plume,” county commissioner Terry Hart said. “If they have indeed stopped, we would most definitely be interested in learning why they stopped.
“Pueblo County is concerned about any and all groundwater contaminants. We are working aggressively to ensure that any waterway, but particularly Fountain Creek, is clean so they can be assets to our community instead of being a problem.”
State tests for PFCs in drinking water have not been done since November 2016, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment records show. And CDPHE hasn’t measured PFCs in groundwater since February, the records show.
It’s unclear how far the PFCs contamination has moved in groundwater. Back in April 2016, groundwater samples taken south of Fountain, along Hanover Road north of Pueblo, showed PFC contamination higher than 100 parts per trillion — well above the federal EPA health advisory limit of 70 ppt.
CDPHE officials on Thursday confirmed they stopped sampling water and told The Denver Post that’s because EPA funding that enabled the tests ran out. They could not say whether the agency is still monitoring other contaminated groundwater plumes, such as those spreading PCE from dry cleaning.
“The Water Quality Control Division is not conducting any further PFC sampling. We expended the funds from the EPA to complete sampling,” CDPHE spokeswoman Jan Stapleman said.
EPA officials in Denver said state water sampling stopped but that the U.S. Air Force still is monitoring PFCs contamination as part of a military investigation at Peterson Air Force Base. That base is strongly suspected as a source of PFCs, a family of chemicals found in aqueous film-forming foams that firefighters use to douse fuel fires.