The San Luis People’s Ditch March 17, 2018 — Greg Hobbs

San Luis People’s Ditch March 17, 2018. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

The San Luis People’s Ditch holds the oldest water right in Colorado. Click through for some acequia history from (Tim Keller).

I was pretty much in the same spot as Greg last week during the Monte Vista Crane Festival.

Grim Forecast for the #RioGrande #snowpack #drought

Rio Grande River near South Fork via Division of Water Resources

From Water Deeply (Laura Paskus):

Water managers in New Mexico will be relying on stored water to meet ecological, agricultural and water supply needs as the runoff from this winter is expected to be notably low.

According to the National Water and Climate Center’s forecast for the Rio Grande Basin, the water supply outlook for spring and summer remains “dire.” In his monthly email, forecast hydrologist Angus Goodbody noted that while storms did hit the mountains in February, particularly along the headwaters in Colorado, snowpack in some parts of the Sangre de Cristo mountains continued to decline. That means the river and its tributaries will receive less runoff than normal this spring and summer – and many areas may reach or break historic low flows.

A new study in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature, also heralded troubling news. According to the authors, more than 90 percent of snow monitoring sites in the western United States showed declines in snowpack – and 33 percent showed significant declines. The trend is visible during all months, states and climates, they write, but are largest in the spring and in the Pacific states and locations with mild winter climates. To drive home the numbers, they noted the decrease in springtime snow water equivalent – the amount of water in snow – when averaged across the entire western U.S. is 25 to 50 cubic kilometers, or about the volume of water Hoover Dam was built to hold in Lake Mead…

Hard Choices

At the same time, water managers in New Mexico know they’re also in for a tough year.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation watches snowpack and streamflow forecasts closely, said spokeswoman Mary Carlson: “And the current outlook is grim,” she said.

“We are grateful in years like this, when it appears we will have very little runoff from snowmelt, that we are able to rely on the water that has been stored in our reservoirs in previous years,” she said. “Without those reservoirs, conditions on the Rio Grande would be much more extreme in a year like this.”

Reclamation currently has about 12,400 acre-feet of supplemental water in storage, she said, and the agency expects to get another 9,000 to 14,000 acre feet to augment Middle Rio Grande flows.

“We are working with our partners, including our sister agency the Fish and Wildlife Service, to determine when and how to use that water to benefit the Rio Grande silvery minnow and other endangered species in the area,” she said.

Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia

The Rio Grande silvery minnow was listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1994. Two years later, in 1996, about 90 miles of the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque dried. Biologists scrambled over the fish, environmental groups sued, political wars waged and water managers tried to figure out how to serve cities and farmers while keeping the fish from going extinct. For 15 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) required water managers to keep at least 100 cubic feet per second of water in the Albuquerque stretch of the river – even if it dried to the south, as it did many years, typically between Las Lunas and the southern boundary of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Then in 2016, FWS pivoted. Under its new biological opinion for the silvery minnow, the agency said water operations in the Middle Rio Grande were not jeopardizing the fish’s survival. It stopped requiring flow minimums and instead expects Reclamation and its partners to manage the river to improve fish densities.

David Gensler, the hydrologist for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, said the district still has water stored in upstream reservoirs for the valley’s farmers. “But not enough. Reclamation has storage for fish, but not enough,” he said. “[There are] some hard choices facing us.”

Typically, irrigation season runs from March 1 to Oct. 31, but due to dry conditions and low soil moisture, this year, the district started its diversions earlier.

Last year dealt water managers a good hand, Gensler said, but this year will be the opposite. And 2018 is shaping up to be similar to that notoriously dry 1996. “I’m optimistic we will all come together and manage through it,” he said.

From Wild Earth Guardians (Jen Pelz):

The reality of the problems the Rio Grande faces from source to sea is vast:

  • Climate change is predicted to reduce flows in the Rio Grande by 25 percent in Colorado, 35 percent in New Mexico, and over 50 percent in Texas and Mexico in the remainder of this century;
  • A border wall (or series of walls) could destroy connections between countries as well as migratory corridors for rare and beautiful ocelots and jaguars, among other species;
  • A 200-mile stretch of the Rio Grande known as “the forgotten reach”, between El Paso and Presido, Texas (or Ojinaga, Mexico), is already channelized and bone-dry year round;
  • Flows in the 75-mile stretch of one of America’s first Wild & Scenic Rivers—the Rio Grande from the Colorado-New Mexico state line to south of Taos, NM—is in danger of disappearing due to unsustainable use in Colorado and implementation of the Rio Grande Compact, especially during dry years;
  • and The lack of flooding and peak flows, as well as the lack of accountability of agricultural water use from the Rio Grande in central New Mexico, threatens to increase ecological damage to one of the largest contiguous cottonwood forests in the world.
  • A cottonwood forest. Credit: Matthew Schmader/Open Space Division

    There is no doubt the solutions to these problems are complicated and hard, but we can chart a new course for this iconic river.

    [March 14, 2018] is the International Day of Action for Rivers and serves to encourage people from around the world “to lift their voices to demonstrate, educate and celebrate the world’s rivers and those who struggle to protect them.” The Rio Grande is one of the world’s most iconic and endangered international rivers, and to protect the river as a whole, we must join together as neighbors in a basin-wide community.

    We cannot do this by remaining in silos and maximizing the use of the river to benefit a few at the expense of others. We must find ways to build connections that will help restore this once-mighty river. Our vision is to build a River Guardian Network exclusively along the Rio Grande and its tributaries that will serve to defend, protect, and keep the river healthy and safe for this and future generations. Please contact me to learn more or to join forces with us.

    Rivers are a source of kinship and serve to bridge communities both locally and regionally. We may love different sections of this icon, but we are all creatures of the desert southwest. If we connect ourselves, we create hope to reconnect and restore the imperiled Rio Grande we all love.

    Upper Rio Grande River snowpack and precipitation March 1, 2018 via the NRCS Colorado Water Supply Outlook.

    Two Nations One Water: U.S.-Mexico Border Water Summit recap

    Map of the Rio Grande watershed, showing the Rio Chama joining the Rio Grande near Santa Fe. Graphic credit WikiMedia.

    Here’s the release from the organizers via The El Paso Herald-Post. (Click through for the photo gallery):

    Lead organizer Ed Archuleta, Director of Water Initiatives for the University of Texas at El Paso, welcomed the diverse audience to the “Olympics of Water on the Border” at the TecH2O Learning Center located at 10751 Montana Avenue.

    “Despite all the rhetoric in the news about building border walls and immigration issues, those of you in the water industry know that water is the most important issue on the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Archuleta. He invited participants “to share ideas so we can continue to have a robust and economically viable border region.”

    “Establishing partnerships is vital to navigating water issues on the border,” said El Paso Water President and CEO John Balliew. “It’s very important to have cooperation when dealing with this key resource. Our triangle of relationships between EPWater, the region’s universities and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is key to solving many of these issues.”

    Speakers and participants engaged on topics such as drought, the Colorado River Agreement – Minute 323 and research on innovative technologies including water reuse and desalination.

    A number of ideas were advanced throughout the two days to further cross-border cooperation and advance innovations that support the vitality of the border region. Among the ideas that generated the most discussion were:

  • Begin to work on a cooperative binational framework focused on aquifers that cross state and national borders; and
  • Examine new economic models that value water and water infrastructure appropriately for long term sustainability.
  • Commissioner Roberto Fernando Salmón Castelo, of Mexico’s International Boundary and Water Commission (CILA), said the international conference and ongoing dialogue will help strengthen U.S.-Mexico bonds.

    “We want water to be a theme that unites us, not divides us,” Salmón said.

    #Drought news

    West Drought Monitor February 20, 2018.

    From The Monte Vista Journal (Anthony Guerrero):

    2017 was a good water year and snowpack, but 2018 is shaping up to be a drought year. This and other statistics about weather patterns in the San Luis Valley were brought by Nolan Doesken, climatologist for the Colorado Water Institute at CSU, during the 2018 Southern Rocky Mountain Agricultural Conference. Doesken gave a presentation titled “Recent past weather and a look ahead.”

    “You have this beautiful sunshine, yet you really want rain? I don’t understand you all,” joked Doesken. Doesken stated previous years had been okay to average with precipitation that local crops had responded to. This year is looking bleak in terms of water to be expected.

    The weather in the Valley is “warmer in the summer and cooler in the winter,” according to Doesken. The Valley is also cooler than other parts of the state and is unique that it expands one of the largest areas of agricultural land in the United States.

    “Last summer was a crazy wet year. It’s one of the wettest years we’ve ever seen down here,” said Doesken.

    “Falls have been consistently warm for the last several years. You’ve probably noticed that. It’s quite interesting in that regard,” he said…

    Doesken then addressed the trends in 2018. “We’re not doing very good,” he said. It is warmer than average temperatures this year. “Do you realize so far this year you’ve had two days where you were in the 60s?” So far 57 days in winter have had high temperatures of 57 or above. According to Doesken this has happened before— in 1981. Records show that was a drought year with no snow in the San Luis Valley.

    The temperatures in the Valley are very variable said Doesken. This variance can be seen by simply comparing temperatures at the end of the day, aftertoon and early morning. “There has been days where there have been 50 and 60 degree swings in temperature…that is something you’re used to here but this year has been more extreme than most.”

    From The Broomfield Enterprise (Kelley Rawlsky):

    Do you need to water the landscape in your yard during the winter? Absolutely yes! Just because some of your trees, shrubs and turf may look dead, they are not. They are dormant. Big difference.

    I liken dormancy to when we sleep -— an analogy that would probably make my plant physiology professor cringe. There are still activities going on in our bodies while we slumber. We don’t temporarily die each night then wake up alive again the next day. There are two types of dormancy with woody plants. To learn more, read this online article by Michigan State University Extension:…

    Remember to water the entire drip line of large established trees. Their root systems are typically spread out to an amount equal to or greater than the height of the tree. A healthy plant is its own best defense against insect and disease issues, so water regularly during the winter to have happy plants in the summer.

    Taos Valley Acequia Association Annual Meeting, March 3, 2018

    Click here for the inside skinny.

    Taking the temperature of streamflow forecasts: #Climate information improves forecast accuracy in the U.S. Southwest

    From AtmosNews (UCAR/NCAR):

    Adding temperature predictions into seasonal streamflow forecasts in the U.S. Southwest could increase the accuracy of those forecasts, according to a new study that analyzed historical conditions in the headwaters of the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers.

    Many rivers in the western United States are fed by melting snow in the spring and summer. Regional water managers depend on seasonal water supply forecasts that estimate the amount of runoff the snowpack will yield to determine how much water to allocate to farmers and ranchers, city residents, and other users.

    These forecasts, which are based on snowpack measurements taken in the winter and spring, tend to assume that the climate is stable and that the relationship between the amount of snowpack and the amount of runoff is also stable.

    But a recent study by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Bureau of Reclamation found that warmer temperatures reduce the amount of meltwater that actually makes it into a stream, a finding that highlights the importance of accounting for changing climate conditions when forecasting streamflow.

    Building on this work, scientists at NCAR tested whether incorporating seasonal temperature predictions into statistical streamflow forecasting models could improve their accuracy. The temperature predictions reflect the recent warming trend as well as whether the months after the forecast date are likely to be warmer or colder than this trend. Results of the new study were published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

    “Adding temperature predictions into streamflow forecasts will not only improve the information that water managers have today, but it also has the potential to mitigate some of the loss of predictability that we now expect in the future, as the climate continues to warm,” said NCAR scientist Flavio Lehner, who co-led the study with NCAR scientist Andy Wood.

    The research contributes to an NCAR effort, in collaboration with several federal agencies, to build better tools and models for analysis and prediction of water resources. The new study was funded by the NOAA, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

    Other study co-authors include Angus Goodbody from the National Water and Climate Center, which issues streamflow forecasts for the western United States; Florian Pappenberger from the forecast department of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts; and Douglas Blatchford and Dagmar Llewellyn, both from the Bureau of Reclamation.

    To test whether the addition of seasonal temperature predictions could improve streamflow forecasts, the scientists created “hindcasts” for the headwaters of the Colorado and Rio Grande Rivers (both located in Colorado) for the three decades between 1987 and 2016.

    The team used historical observations of snowpack, precipitation, and streamflow to issue and evaluate a series of forecasts — on Jan. 1, Feb. 1, March 1, April 1, and May 1 — for each year. These hindcasts emulate the current method of issuing streamflow forecasts, including the calendar dates when those forecasts are issued.

    The scientists also issued a second set of hindcasts, this time with the addition of seasonal temperature predictions for the region. The seasonal predictions were drawn from the North American Multi-Model Ensemble and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, which together comprise eight state-of-the-art models used for seasonal climate forecasts.

    The team found that incorporating temperature predictions improved the accuracy of seasonal streamflow forecasts at the majority of river gauges across the headwaters of both basins. The amount of improvement varied between about 1 percent and 10 percent, averaged across the basins.

    “We think that model-based temperature predictions could be used to improve water supply forecasts in other watersheds that rely on runoff from snowpack — across the western United States and in other parts of the world,” Lehner said “But the degree of improvement will certainly depend on the individual area.”

    To make it as easy as possible for existing operational forecasting centers to begin incorporating the research findings, the scientists chose to modify existing forecasting techniques to include temperature predictions instead of inventing an entirely new forecasting method.

    “It’s a well-known challenge to transition methods from a research experiment to an operational setting,” Wood said. “Here we chose a baseline of a current operational water supply forecast technique so that the approach is an extension to the existing practice, and more likely to be supportable.”

    Fostering these kinds of applications is the overarching goal of the Postdocs Applying Climate Expertise program that supports Lehner’s research. PACE is run by the Cooperative Programs for the Advancement of Earth System Science, a community program of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

    “This project has enabled stakeholders and scientists to work together directly to tackle a concrete water-related problem arising from the variability and trends we’ve observed in our regional climate,” said Llewellyn, a scientist at the Bureau of Reclamation and study co-author.

    Title: “Mitigating the impacts of climate non-stationarity on seasonal streamflow predictability in the U.S. Southwest”

    Authors: Flavio Lehner, Andrew W. Wood, Dagmar Llewellyn, Douglas B. Blatchford, Angus G. Goodbody, Florian Pappenberger

    Journal: Geophysical Research Letters, DOI: 10.1002/2017GL076043

    Take Me to the River — Lesley Adams and Kate Hudson

    Here’s a profile of Cindy Medina and her work with the Alamosa Riverkeeper via the Waterkeeper Alliance (Lesley Adams and Kate Hudson). Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

    Inspired by the leadership of Alamosa Riverkeeper Cindy Medina, a community united to bring the Alamosa River back to life.

    The San Luis Valley and the headwaters of the Alamosa River rest between the snow-capped peaks of the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado rest. Rising more than 14,000 feet above sea level, the “Blood of Christ” mountains are the southern tip of the Rockies and stretch over the New Mexico border to where the Kapota Ute Indians once lived.

    Three centuries ago, Spanish settlers came north from what was then Mexico and settled in the San Luis Valley, where they took root amidst the cottonwood and aspen trees along the Alamosa River and became farmers and ranchers with an unflagging commitment to hard work and their Catholic faith. Cindy Medina, a present-day descendant of one of those families, became one of the first women to join the Waterkeeper movement.

    Photo credit: Wenck

    The middle child of seven girls, Cindy was raised on a farm, helping with chores, playing in alfalfa fields, and splashing around in the irrigation ditch, called an acequia, that brought water to the farm. In her memoir, A Journey into the Heart of the Black Madonna, Cindy wrote lovingly of her family, whose pulsating force sustained her as a girl. Her memories of growing up in the San Luis Valley send aromas through the pages – of fresh tortillas and cinnamon rolls made by her mother, of the home-heating fires fueled by wood gathered in the mountains with her grandfather, of the potent herbal remedies wild-crafted by her grandmother. Her connections to family and the natural world around her were woven together. She wrote: “This lifeblood was no different than the acequia, the ditches lined with dirt that irrigated this arid land with water. . . The acequia was my ocean.”

    Cindy Medina photo credit:

    Like many others in the rural West, Cindy left as a young adult to pursue a formal education. She earned a master’s degree in counseling from Arizona State University and relocated with her husband to Seattle. There she began a successful practice as a psychotherapist, gave birth to two daughters and, while on a trip to Zurich, Switzerland to attend a psychology seminar, came across an 8th century statue of the Black Madonna at a Benedictine Abbey and experienced a spiritual transformation that led her to environmental activism. The Black Madonna is considered by some to be the Queen of Nature,” Cindy explains, “and the archetypal energy that fuels change.” She is the mother who fertilizes all life and urgently demands a return to balance and wholeness, honoring the earth. In her memoir, Cindy describes her encounter with the Black Madonna as a spiritual awakening to the interconnectedness of all living things. In 1988, propelled by that journey of self-discovery, Cindy moved back home to southern Colorado, where she found that a pollution crisis threatened the heart of her community, the Alamosa River.

    Summitville Mine superfund site

    Gold, Greed and Cyanide

    The mountains in southern Colorado are rich in minerals, gold and silver, which attracted extensive mining in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. And, in turn, like all boom-and-bust extraction, the mines left a toxic legacy. Acid mine drainage polluted and continues to pollute many Colorado waterways downstream. Mining in high-elevation areas like the San Juan Mountains petered out in the 1920s, and remained dormant for more than half a century, until a new, far more destructive method was developed to allow precious metals to be recovered from otherwise uneconomic ore.

    In 1984, Canadian-based Galactic Resources and its subsidiary, Summitville Consolidated Mining Company (named for the local ghost town) acquired 1,230 acres of the San Juan Mountains that loomed above the San Luis Valley, and convinced the state of Colorado to grant them a mining permit for a new “state of the art” mining technique known as “heap leaching” – large-scale open-pit mining that involved slicing off half the side of a mountain and putting the mined ore in a lined open pit (“heap-leach pad”) with sodium cyanide to leach out the copper, gold and silver. This “state of the art” technique was efficient for the mining company, but disastrous for those who lived downstream. The liner of this pit almost immediately sprung leaks, contaminating nearby creeks with heavy metals and acid, and creating a 17-mile dead zone and a massive fish kill in the 51-mile-long Alamosa River.