Precipitation in the Yampa and White River basins was surveyed at 106 percent of average as of Sunday, Feb. 10, according to data reported by U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Colorado Snow Survey Program.
Statewide, mountain snowpack improved from 94 percent of normal Jan. 1 to 105 percent of normal Feb. 1.
The result was attributed to “a consistent pattern of weather systems throughout much of January (that) brought snow to the state, particularly, storms during the 15th through 24th of January,” said Brian Domonkos, snow survey supervisor.
The southern mountains have fared even better.
“Southern portions of the state currently show more than twice the snowpack present at this time last year, a stark contrast to last year’s shortage,” Domonkos said. “Double the snowpack of last year is a step in the right direction as reservoirs remain low.”
Precipitation in Northwest Colorado has been high for three of the past four months.
According to the most recent NRCS Water Supply Outlook report, “Water year 2019 got off to a great start with all major basins receiving above average precipitation in October. This ranged from a low of 109 percent of average in the combined Yampa, White, and North Platte basins to a high of 144 percent in the combined San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan basins of Southwest Colorado. November precipitation displayed notable differences between the northern and southern parts of the state. Northern Colorado continued to receive well above average precipitation …”
December was not as strong, with precipitation falling to just above 60 percent of average before rising in January.
Streamflow forecasts Feb. 1 point to a much more positive runoff season than last year’s forecasts, however, with nearly one-third of the usual snow accumulation yet to fall, conditions may change.
After 19 years of extended drought in the Colorado River basin, water users in Northwest Colorado are concerned that the region could become a “sacrificial lamb” as the state seeks to reduce water use to meet downstream demands.
As Colorado water officials begin work on a new “demand management” system to reduce water consumption, members of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable, which met Jan. 9 in Craig, are seeking to make sure the cutbacks don’t disproportionately impact their river basins, including the Yampa, White and Green rivers. The concerns prompted the creation of a new Big River Committee, which met for the first time Jan. 9, to advocate for the basin on state and regional issues across the Colorado River system.
“We’re already doing our fair share,” said Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger, a basin roundtable member and fourth-generation cattle rancher. “[In the Yampa basin] we already use only 10 percent of our water — 90 percent of our water goes to Lake Powell.”
There is relatively little reservoir storage on the Yampa River — less than 72,000 acre feet of water on the main stem and a total of 113,000 acre feet in the basin — compared to other major rivers in the West, meaning most of the water feeds into the Colorado River system and eventually Lake Powell.
“Such a small part of our native flow is developed, and there are concerns about how much should fall on the shoulders of our basin to send past the state line when we already don’t use very much,” said Yampa White Green Basin Roundtable Chair Jackie Brown, who is the natural resources policy advisor for Tri-State Generation and Transmission.
Indeed, data shows that consumptive water use in the Yampa basin averaged about 182,000 acre feet of water annually between 1990 and 2013, or about 10 percent of the basin’s total 1.74-million acre feet of average annual stream flow, according to hydrologic models used by the state.
By comparison, upper Colorado River stream flows averaged about 3.8 million acre feet of water over the same time period, not including the Gunnison River. Consumptive use equaled about 908,000 acre feet, or about 24 percent of the basin’s total water, according to the same data source.
But Colorado water law doesn’t account for such discrepancies across basins, and prioritizes water use according to a system based on dates tied to the initiation of a water right, often described as “first in time, first in right.”
“The Yampa and the White both were settled at such a later time period than the Front Range and some other areas, and we’re that much further behind in priority dates,” Monger said. “If we want to go forward on the prior appropriation system for allocating future water — last one in is the first one cut — that absolutely doesn’t work for us.”
Many roundtable members believe the Yampa and White river basins should have the right to develop their water resources further in the future.
“We’re the sacrificial lamb if they were to lock things in the way they are now,” said Kevin McBride, general manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District and a member of the Big River Committee.
However, such worries are largely speculative at the moment, as the mechanisms of a demand management program are far from decided and drought contingency planning hasn’t yet been finalized.
“This is the very, very beginning of the demand management conversation,” said Brent Newman, the interstate, federal and water information section chief for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
The board has already committed to avoiding “disproportionate negative economic or environmental impacts to any single sub-basin or region within Colorado while protecting the legal rights of water holders,” according to a policy statement adopted by the agency’s board in November.
“We want to make sure no basin is a target basin, and as best we can, make sure reductions are shared equitably across the state, across basins and the divide,” Newman said. “We’re trying to make things fair.”
If a compact call were to occur — a demand by lower basin states for more water to be sent downstream according to the Colorado River Compact — then it is widely expected that Colorado water officials will use the prior appropriation doctrine to curtail water use based on seniority.
“We want to be proactive and avoid a compact call instead of being reactive and responding to crisis if it came to pass,” Newman said.
“Big river” issues aside, Northwest Colorado water users are feeling the squeeze after record-breaking heat and drought in 2018 prompted the first-ever call on the Yampa River.
Furthermore, officials at the Colorado Division of Water Resources will examine this year whether the Yampa and the White rivers should be designated as “over-appropriated,” Division Engineer Erin Light told roundtable members at the Jan. 9 meeting.
The designation would signal that there is not enough water to meet demands during dry years, and new water rights would be conditional to available water supply.
But even as water users start to adjust to the new local reality, roundtable members are preparing for an uphill battle to argue their case regarding demand management.
“We’re already sending as much water as we can,” Monger said. “We’re paying the bill for Colorado.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Steamboat Pilot & Today, the Craig Press and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. The Pilot published this story online on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019 and the Press published it online on Jan. 30, 2019.
FromThe Steamboat Pilot & Today (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck):
Snowpack in the Yampa and White river basins is at 110 percent of its long-term median snow water equivalency, which is a measure of how much water is contained within the snowpack. Snowpack typically peaks in April, so snowfall — or lack of it — could still force that number away from the median.
… the city of Steamboat Springs has enough water to provide for current demands for a decade under 2012 conditions — the third worst drought episode in Colorado’s history — according to city water resources manager Kelly Romero-Heaney. Romero-Heaney said this would be a “doomsday scenario.”
“I don’t know if there are many communities in Colorado that can say that,” she said in an update to the Steamboat Springs City Council on Jan. 15.
One of the ways managers seek to minimize the risk of a compact call is demand management, she said. This is a spot where Steamboat has hit beyond the mark. In 2011, the city’s water conservation plan sought to reduce water consumption by 5 percent, said Michelle Carr, city water and sewer distribution and collection manager. The city exceeded this goal, and as Steamboat’s population has grown, it’s demand for water has fallen, she explained.
The plan to impound 10,000 acre feet of water on the West Fork of Battle Creek barely survived a legislative roadblock earlier this year when the Wyoming House stripped $40 million from a water bill that had been earmarked for the project. A compromise with the Senate saw $4.7 million in appropriations restored, but with caveats requiring further legislative approval for expenditures and pro-rata financial participation from potential beneficiaries in Colorado.
Dam backers are not for the moment returning to Wyoming’s financial well. Neither of two draft 2019 water bills that propose more than $28 million for water planning and development statewide include funding for the project, according to a review of draft bills posted online. But two water districts — one in Colorado and one in Wyoming — are asking for a total of $1.2 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct environmental reviews of the dam and reservoir that would be constructed in the Medicine Bow National Forest, officials say.
Meantime, dam backers failed to win full-throated support for the $80 million project from a water coalition in Northern Colorado. Instead, members of the Yampa-White-Green Basin Roundtable said they supported further evaluation of the proposed dam, but not yet construction of the facility itself (see letter below).
Dam backers also must figure out whether Wyoming and Colorado’s new governors — both of whom were elected in November — will support the project and to what degree. Wyoming Water Development Office Director Harry LaBonde said he continues to work with his counterpart in Colorado to obtain support and money but the election means dam backers have to undertake a new round of lobbying.
“Every time there’s a new governor, all those conversations start over,” he said in a telephone interview.
Show-me tour wins tepid Colorado support
To build Colorado support, Wyoming officials took members of the Colorado roundtable on a tour of the dam site and surrounding area last summer. LaBonde drafted a letter of support that the Colorado group could consider signing its name to in late November, group chairman Jackie Brown said. “We require[d] that,” she said of the draft correspondence.
It proposed that the roundtable, a coalition of water users that includes irrigators, municipal interests, and recreation representatives, write the following; “We would like to offer this letter of support for the project and look forward to working with your office to continue to move this project forward for the mutual benefit of water users in both states.”
LaBonde’s version stated that the project would have $92 million in benefits. It said the Wyoming Legislature has already appropriated $11.3 million to build the dam and that Colorado irrigators could have a chance to buy some of the stored water. The $11 million figure comes from a $7 million planning appropriation, very little of which was used, plus the conditional $4.7 million appropriation earlier this year.
“As the project is currently configured approximately 4,000 – 5,000 acres of irrigated lands in Colorado would be potentially eligible to purchase supplemental irrigation water from the project,” LaBonde’s draft said.
The Colorado roundtable adopted most of the proposed language. But “the group stopped short of supporting the project,” LaBonde said, backing an investigative process only.
“At our November 14th meeting, the Roundtable unanimously approved the support for the process of reviewing a reservoir at the west fork of Battle Creek,” the final roundtable letter, dated Nov. 27, reads. “The membership would like to be clear that this is not support of the reservoir itself, only the process of the exploration, as approval of a reservoir would need to come before the membership in a final format, after [National Environmental Policy Act analysis] has been completed.”
The roundtable also dropped proposed language that stated it “would like to continue … identifying other funding opportunities for this project.” Instead, the Colorado group said it “supports the development of water resource in the basin and would be happy to work with local water users in Colorado and Wyoming and the State of Wyoming.”
The proposed dam on the West Fork of Battle Creek would serve 67 to 100 irrigators, studies commissioned by the Water Development Office say. The most likely beneficiaries in Colorado would appear to be members of the Pot Hook Water Conservancy District that joined the Savery-Little Snake district in applying for the $1.2 million federal grant.
That district appears to be relatively small. In 2017 it held a successful election to impose a four-mill property tax that would raise $12,831.48 in 2018, and similar amounts in subsequent years. The tax money will “meet the future needs of landowners within the district” and “proactively protect … existing water rights,” according to a description of the measure. It passed on a 13-7 vote.
O’Toole agreed with LaBonde that the fresh administrations in Cheyenne and Denver will require a renewed effort securing support — support that backers couldn’t find in their home House of Representatives. “I’m going to watch and see who gets picked for positions and go from there,” O’Toole said.
Among the considerations is the announced retirement of Wyoming State Engineer Pat Tyrrell who has held the cabinet-level position since 2001. A gubernatorial appointee who’s considered the state’s water czar, his office resolves conflicts among users and represents Wyoming during inter-state negotiations. When Tyrrell retires in January, he will have served under four governors.
Meantime, conditions in the Little Snake River Basin are deteriorating, O’Toole said, as a 19-year-drought is forcing water users to plan for shortages. “We saw the [Little Snake] River in a state I’ve never seen,” he said. This summer, for the first time ever, there was a call for regulation on Colorado’s Yampa River as water users asked state regulators to enforce prior appropriation doctrine and law. Those ensure that during low flows the holders of earlier water rights get their allocation before holders of more recent rights can divert river flows.
Backers want federal funds but not oversight
West Fork Dam supporters want a land exchange that would give Wyoming some 100 acres of federal property in the Medicine Bow National Forest to construct the proposed dam and impound the reservoir. Such a deal would exempt the project from some aspects of the demanding NEPA process, likely making it easier to accomplish. So far, the federal agency hasn’t received any formal requests for development, forest spokesman Aaron Voos said in a telephone interview from forest headquarters in Laramie.
…in dry, hot years like 2018, owners of Elkhead water were glad to have the backup.
“The reservoir served a good purpose for multiple reasons in Moffat County,” said Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the Colorado River District.
Both the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program and Tri-State Generation & Transmission had to call on their water stored at Elkhead this year. They are among four major owners of water in the reservoir, which also includes the city of Craig and the river district. The city drew ample water from the Yampa and didn’t need Elkhead water this year.
The Fish Recovery Program owns 5,000 acre-feet of water, which it procured when the reservoir was expanded in 2006 in exchange for a $13.5 million contribution to the project. An acre-foot is enough to cover one acre, about the size of a football field, with one foot of water, or about 326,000 gallons.
The Recovery Program also has the option to lease an additional 2,000 acre-feet from the River District, bringing its total to 7,000 usable acre-feet of water…
The Recovery Program utilized every drop of its 7,000 acre-feet, releasing water into the Yampa beginning in late July — unusually early — and continuing until October.
With the prolonged summer drought, Yampa flows dropped to a precipitously low 38 cubic feet per second by early October in Maybell, where the United States Geological Survey operates a stream gauge. The Maybell gauge is used to determine how much water is making it downriver and how much to release from Elkhead. For comparison, the Recovery Program ordinarily aims to keep flows at 93 cfs or greater, Anderson said.
Drought poses some obvious challenges to native fish populations. Colorado pikeminnow can reach lengths of 2 to 3 feet, according to Tom Chart, director of the Recovery Program, and low flows in the river can make it difficult for them to swim…
When river flows dropped too low this year, Tri-State called on its water in both Elkhead and Stagecoach reservoirs to keep the plant operational.
From Elkhead, it used 341 acre-feet of water, according to the River District, though it owns much more. Tri-State secured 2,500 acre-feet of water when the reservoir was expanded, plus it owns a portion of an 8,408 acre-foot pool shared by owners of Craig Station Units 1 and 2. Additionally, Tri-state owns 4,000 acre-feet of storage in Yamcolo Reservoir and 7,000 acre-feet in Stagecoach, according to the 2004 Yampa River Basin report.
Tri-state would not divulge how much water it used from Stagecoach this year. According to historical data provided in the 2004 report, however, Craig Station’s annual water use averaged more than 11,000 acre-feet per year between 1985 and 1991. Again, Tri-state declined to provide more recent data.
Decisions about how much water to release out of Elkhead are evaluated in a weekly phone call between the reservoir’s partners and users, state officials, meteorologists, irrigators, and other stakeholders, all led by Anderson. Water levels in the reservoir dropped slightly lower than average this year, down to 12 feet instead of 14 — revealing more shoreline than some are used to seeing — but recreational use of the reservoir by fisherman and boaters wasn’t significantly affected.
The reservoir collects water from a 205-square-mile basin and reliably recharges with spring runoff each year. Water managers worry about what would happen if drought persisted for several years, but so far, Elkhead has offered a measure of security to Moffat County’s biggest water users.
FromSteamboat Today (Eleanor C. Hasenbeck) via The Craig Daily Press:
The past water year, which began in October 2017 and ended in September, broke records on the Yampa. Average temperatures in much of the Yampa River basin were the warmest on record, and for the first time ever, the main stem of the Yampa River was placed on call, meaning use of Yampa water was curtailed.
This summer, the portion of the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs city limits was open to summer recreation — including tubing, fishing, and paddling — for about 40 days, one of the shortest summer seasons on this stretch of river. For much of the summer, the river was under a voluntary closure as the water was too hot, too low or without enough dissolved oxygen to meet streamflow standards set by the city and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to protect river habitat.
Warm and dry summer
The Yampa and Colorado rivers peaked in mid-May, and according to long-term averages of daily flows, both rivers normally peak in June. This led to the second earliest start to tubing season on the Yampa in 10 years.
A warm spring played a role in this — as snow melted off the mountains earlier, water flowed downhill into the river and its tributaries earlier. This water year was the warmest on record in the state, according to the Colorado Climate Center.
In Routt County, about half of the county saw its warmest water year on record, while parts of central and south Routt saw temperatures in ranges that placed it among the top 10 percent of the record.
Most of Routt County received below normal precipitation this year, though the area fared better than other parts of Colorado. The National Weather and Climate Center’s snow telemetry sites in the Routt County area received 70 to 80 percent of average precipitation this year, through July, August and September saw lower rainfall compared to historic averages.
“Statewide, this was the fourth driest year in the 123-year record,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for the city of Steamboat Springs. “It was fourth only to 2012, 1934 and 2002.”
This year was the driest water year on record in southwest Colorado, western Moffat County and parts of the San Luis Valley, according to the Colorado Climate Center.
Human-caused temperature increases and drought have caused earlier spring snowmelt and shifted runoff earlier in the year across the southwest, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment.
“Not only are we in situations where we get less water, but we get it earlier, which makes for a longer season of need,” said Kevin McBride, district manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District.
His agency operates Stagecoach and Yamcolo reservoirs.
The early runoff means producers kicked off the irrigation season earlier, too. Producers are also seeing longer growing seasons in Colorado, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Reservoir water keeps flows up
Drought conditions and warm temperatures have made supplementing the Yampa River’s natural flow with releases of reservoir water a consistent practice in recent years.
Since 2012, the Colorado Water Trust has purchased reservoir water to supplement flows in the Yampa River. This year, Tri-State Generation and Transmission also released water from Elkhead Reservoir to keep up power generation at Craig Station.
The Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program releases water from Elkhead Reservoir to provide habitat for bonytail, razorback suckers, and humpback chub. These releases are determined based on the amount of water flowing by the U.S. Geological Survey’s stream gauge near Maybell in western Moffat County.
“Obviously, when you have low flow years, you have warmer stream temperatures and then less habitat available to aquatic life,” Romero-Heaney said.
In Steamboat, the river dropped to 50 cubic feet per second — low flow — during spawning season for brown trout, she added. That made habitat more difficult to come by, and Romero-Heaney said it could have impacts to fish populations in the upper Yampa.
The Yampa Valley suffered major droughts in 2002 and 2012. In 2002, the USGS reported less than 10 cubic feet per second of flow at the Maybell gauge at the Yampa River’s lowest points in the summer, said Erin Light, area division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources.
Reservoir releases likely kept the water higher than that mark this summer. The USGS streamflow gauges can’t show how much water is natural flow and how much is reservoir water, so stream gauge measurements don’t reflect the full picture when it comes to water…
When the call was administered for about two weeks in September, the water at the Yampa’s lower reach through Dinosaur National Monument fell to about 18 cfs — its long-term average for the same time frame is about 260 cfs. At Lily Park, near the Little Snake River’s confluence with the Yampa, irrigators’ pumps were sweeping the river, Light said earlier this year.
Planning for the future
Romero-Heaney said flows on the Yampa in Steamboat were “extremely low,” falling below 34 cfs at the gauge at the Fifth Street Bridge in Steamboat…
The city outlined its plans to purchase reservoir water on contract to boost flows in dry periods in the Yampa River Streamflow Management Plan released this summer. The plan also seeks to implement voluntary projects that would pay water users to participate in projects enhancing the health of the river.
Earlier this year, some of the city’s water rights were curtailed in the call. As droughts and warm temperatures become more common, releases to augment river health will likely have to be balanced with releases to augment municipal water.
In late August, as reservoirs levels declined across the American Southwest, Erin Light issued something common in most river basins of Colorado but which had never been done on the Yampa River. She issued a “call.”
When a call is issued, those with newer or younger water rights must cease their diversions from the river and its tributaries until the older or more senior rights are satisfied. This system is called prior appropriation. Eighteen states in the West use aspects of prior appropriation to sort out who gets how much water and when.
Light, as the division engineer for Colorado Division of Water Resources, administers the labyrinth of water rights in the Yampa River Valley. Water goes to ranches, a power plant, and other purposes, each occupying a specific place in the pecking order as determined by volumes, locations and, above all, date of adjudication. That’s the way it works when a river is under administration. Some Colorado rivers have been under administration since the late 1800s.
Until this summer, the Yampa was different. Those with legally adjudicated water rights took what they thought was theirs. Calls had been placed on tributaries, but not the river itself.
Then in late August, Light announced that those with water rights on the rivers’ main stem awarded since 1951 would have to cease diversions until those older, or seniors, had been satisfied. By mid-September, as irrigators slowed their demands and cooler temperatures eased losses from evaporation and transpiration, Light edged the call back to those rights junior to 1960. Last week, she suspended the call altogether.
Droughts hit the Yampa and many other river basins in Colorado hard this year. But this drought may best be viewed as part of an extended 21st century drought caused more by temperature increases than precipitation declines. It’s part of a clear trend of a warming and more erratic climate.
Ted Kowalski says the water call on the Yampa should be understood within the context of these hotter, drier times in the American Southwest. A former Colorado water official who is now senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation’s Colorado River Initiative, Kowalski calls the Yampa River the first domino to fall.
Lower streamflows in all the rivers of the Colorado River Basin that produce declining reservoir levels represent the additional dominoes.
This is starkly demonstrated, says Kowalski, by the fact that reservoir storage in the Colorado River Basin has reached its lowest level since the late 1960s. That’s when the newly created Glen Canyon Dam was starting to create Lake Powell.
“All of this underscores the importance of developing and adopting and agreeing to drought contingency plans so that we can effectively manage if and when there is less water in the system,” says Kowalski. The work begins, he says, with conservation.
Conserving water in the 20th century
Far into the 20th century, conservation had a different connotation in the West. Managing water in the Colorado River Basin meant building dams and creating reservoirs, all with the intent of ensuring none of the water was “wasted” by flowing into the ocean.
Nearly all this major hydraulic engineering was done on the tab of the federal government. Downstream, first Powell and then Mead, the second largest and largest reservoirs in the nation, respectively, provide most of the storage. If separated by 300 miles and the Grand Canyon National Park, the two reservoirs fundamentally operate in tandem, as a Colorado River Research Group report in August noted. They are “essentially one giant reservoir (bisected by a glorious ditch),” the report said in a nod to the Grand Canyon.
Reservoir levels rise after big snow years, but in the 21st century the more common trend has been decline.
Evidence emerging in recent years suggests the Colorado River’s decline can best be explained by rising temperatures instead of reduced precipitation. In a 2017 paper, Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University, and Jonathan Overpeck, the dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability, attributed two-thirds of water declines to temperature rather than precipitation. Not only is more water evaporating, they said, but plants have been transpiring more water.
“This is the kind of drought we will have to deal with in the future,” Overpeck said at a water conference in Santa Fe during April.
Doug Monger testifies to the warmer weather. A native of the Yampa Valley, he remembers 45-below temperatures, once in the 1980s for two days straight. Down the valley in Maybell, the temperature in that same cold spell hit 61 below. (It had also hit that same low in 1979.)
“I always prayed for climate change and global warming,” he jokes.
Now, he’s getting that warming. “We never had 90 degrees, and now it’s nothing to have 90-plus days for five or six days in a row.”
That heat has been taking a toll on the snow. About three-quarters of the precipitation in the Colorado River Basin originates as snow. Colorado itself provides 70 percent of the water in the river.
In the Yampa Basin, most of the snow collects in an elevation band of between 8,000 to 10,000 feet. The river originates on the flanks of the Flattops Wilderness Area as the Bear River, gurgles playfully along at the foot of the Gore Range and then, drawing more water from the usually snow-laden Park Range, hooks westward at Steamboat Springs for a 100-mile journey to Dinosaur National Monument.
Beyond Dinosaur, the Yampa’s water eventually flows into the Utah desert and Lake Powell.
The Park Range has a reputation as the snowiest place in Colorado. A gauge at 10,285-foot Buffalo Pass, located northeast of Steamboat Springs, reported 80 inches of water contained in the much deeper snowpack by early May on a recent, snow year.
When spring arrives in years such as that, the Yampa gushes through Steamboat Springs well into summer. Flows needed for commercial tubing during summer represent one measure of winter’s legacy. Tubers are not allowed to use the river until flows drop below 700 cubic feet per second. That commonly isn’t possible until after the Fourth of July.
This year, snowpack was better than in Southwest Colorado. Still, it came weeks early and was altogether modest in its surge. Tubing season in Steamboat began June 11. Commercial tubing season ended a month later, when it is usually starting. City and state wildlife officials asked all tubers and others river users to stay out. The river was dropping to 85 cfs, considered a critical threshold, and warming as it did, hitting 75 degrees, reported the Steamboat Pilot at the time.
“If the river’s getting above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, the aquatic life is severely stressed, and this is the time of year when they’re feeding, and they’re getting ready for winter,” said Kelly Romero-Heaney, the city water resources manager for Steamboat Springs.
No relief came with summer, hot and dry. Clouds produced just a few drops.
Water infrastructure in 21st century
Light, the water engineer on the Yampa since 2006, tells a complicated story of why the first call was made this year and not during prior years. Water rights always get complicated. The immediate repercussion will be that investments will necessarily be made in the devices that assure flows. In the Yampa River it was a point of pride that there was no call, unlike places like the South Platte Basin. But almost everybody agrees it was inevitable.
That inevitably stems in large part to trends in hydrology. In 20th century hydrologic records, three drought years stand out: 1935, 1955, and 1977. Now, in this still young century, there have been three more: 2002, 2012 and 2018.
“When you look at temperatures that were 5 to 10 degrees above average every day, that has to raise eyebrows about what the climate is saying,” she says.
Changes in the Yampa River Basin have not been well documented, but anecdotally at least comport with statewide trends reported in a 2015 report to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. That report, “Climate Change in Colorado,” says statewide average temperatures had increased 2 degrees F during the previous 30 years, with daily minimum temperatures warming more than maximum temperatures. Timing of snowmelt and peak runoff had shifted earlier in spring by one to four weeks. Snowpack as measured by April readings had been mainly below-average since 2000.
Anecdotal evidence of this abounds around Steamboat. Local ranchers long measured a winter’s severity by how deep it accumulated on their barbed wire fences. The 20th century produced many three-wire winters, enough snow to hit the top strand. Three-wire winters seldom come anymore. Last winter snow failed to reach the bottom wire. In some places, the was no snow at all on the ground, says Ken Brenner, who grew up on a ranch south of Steamboat Springs and is now president of the Upper Yampa River Water Conservancy District Board of Directors.
Light says the Snotel automated snowpack measuring sites fail to tell the full story. The stations maintained by the federal government’s Natural Resources Conservation Service record snow and water content at 8,000 to 10,000 feet. Some years, they report robust snow that cannot be seen in snow depths on the valley floor. This leaves locals wondering how this snowpack could be anywhere near normal. The rising levels for snowpack argue for a different monitoring system, says Light, one that captures dynamics of the low-elevation snowpack.
Water infrastructure for 21st century climate
Climate change models predict sharply increased temperatures in coming decades, Models also predict greater variability of precipitation, more extremes of both wet and dry. That could provide an argument for more reservoirs. The Yampa River has just 2 percent of Colorado’s reservoir capacity, but the river provides a much larger percentage of the state’s overall flows. The Gunnison River, with about the same runoff on average, has three giant federal dams, part of the same Congressional authorization in 1956 that created Lake Powell.
The Yampa, White, and Green Basin Roundtable, a decision-making body created by the Colorado Legislature, agree that instead of giant reservoirs, the basin could benefit from smaller reservoirs, discretely located, such as on tributaries, to serve specific needs, reports Light, the state’s liaison to the roundtable.
Monger does see the need for storage on the Yampa River. It could help Colorado manage its water so as to ensure it can meet its commitments to other states in the Colorado River Basin. “Let’s keep it in my backyard rather than sending it down to Lake Powell and have it be subject to the Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Interior,” says Monger, a Routt County commissioner as well as a delegate to the Colorado River Water Conservation District. Higher elevation storage, he says, will reduce evaporative losses from Lake Powell, about six and a half feet a year off the surface.
About 90 percent of the Yampa’s total annual flows go downstream out of Colorado, ultimately to Lake Powell. That reservoir provides Colorado and other upper-basin states in the Colorado River Basin the ability to meet requirements for delivery of 8.3 million acre-feet annually to Arizona, California, and Nevada at Lake Mead.
That obligation of 7.5 million acre-feet plus the upper basin’s share for Mexico was derived by negotiators who met at a resort near Santa Fe in 1922. Disregarding contrary evidence, they assumed at least 16.5 million acre-feet average annual flows in the river and probably more. That rarely has been the case. In the hotter, drier 21st century, flows have been just 12.4 million acre-feet, say Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.
“When you build reservoirs, you have to have some water. You have to have a little bit of money in the bank. We can’t bankrupt the system. We have to find ways to cut back before we bankrupt the system.”
In Vail on Wednesday, Kuhn took his vision of difficulty for the Colorado River a step further. As long as greenhouse gas emissions go untamed, he said, “there is no bottom” to how hot and how dry the Colorado River Basin could become.
It’s not that the past hasn’t also been drier. Kuhn looks to the past to warn against even more difficult times on the Yampa River and in the Colorado River Basin altogether. The evidence comes from examinations of batches of trees at eight different sites in the Colorado River Basin above Lee Ferry, located just above the Grand Canyon and below Lake Powell.
Dendrochronologists can estimate precipitation by the growth of tree rings. Using that technique, they have charted wet and dry periods since 1434.
“A number of folks claim that the current 19-year period of 2000-2018 is the driest 19 year period on the Colorado River. That’s nonsense,” says Kuhn, pointing to the graph. In the past there have been droughts both longer and deeper. (Above, see estimated river flows at Lee Ferry, at the top end of the Grand Canyon, from 1434 to 2018. For underlying data, see http://treeflow.org).
Those droughts occurred without the rising temperatures of today. “If these past 19-year droughts were to happen with today’s temperatures,” he adds, “things could be much worse.”
This article was published in the Oct. 4 issue of Mountain Town News, a weekly e-magazine. To subscribe, see options in the red boxes in the top-right corner of the http://mountaintownnews.net webpage.