Enough water for lawns at the headwaters of the #ColoradoRiver? — Allen Best (@BigPivots) #COriver #aridification

Eagle River Water & Sanitation District General Manager Siri Roman. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

The Western Slope delivers 70% of the Colorado River water. So why do Aspen, Vail and other places want to replace thirsty turf?

This story, a collaboration of Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism, is part of a series that examines the intersection of water and urban landscapes in Colorado.

If you’ve ever slipped and spun your way across Vail Pass through a wet, heavy snowstorm, you can be excused for wondering how Eagle River Valley communities could ever have too little water.

Vail and its neighbors do have that problem, though. It has become evident in the growing frequency of drought years in the 21st century.

U.S. Drought Monitor July 23, 2002.

First came 2002. Water officials, verging on panic, restricted outdoor water use. The drought was believed to be the most severe in 500 years. Fine, thought water officials as rain and snow resumed, we’re off the hook for at least our lifetimes.

West Drought Monitor map October 12, 2021.

In 2012 came another drought, one nearly identical in severity. More bad years followed in 2018 and 2021. The Eagle River normally chatters its way down the valley through Avon and to a confluence with the Colorado River near Glenwood Canyon. In those bad, bad drought years, it sulked. The shallow water was hot enough to endanger fish.

“New plot using the nClimGrid data, which is a better source than PRISM for long-term trends. Of course, the combined reservoir contents increase from last year, but the increase is less than 2011 and looks puny compared to the ‘hole’ in the reservoirs. The blue Loess lines subtly change. Last year those lines ended pointing downwards. This year they end flat-ish. 2023 temps were still above the 20th century average, although close. Another interesting aspect is that the 20C Mean and 21C Mean lines on the individual plots really don’t change much. Finally, the 2023 Natural Flows are almost exactly equal to 2019. (17.678 maf vs 17.672 maf). For all the hoopla about how this was record-setting year, the fact is that this year was significantly less than 2011 (20.159 maf) and no different than 2019” — Brad Udall

Colorado River flows have declined 20% since 2000. Having water rights is not enough. And the future looks even hotter and, because of that heat, drier. Brad Udall, a senior scientist and scholar at Colorado State University, warns of up to 20% additional flow loss by midcentury.

Average temperatures in the Colorado River Basin are projected by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to rise 5 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit during the 21st century. The agency projects slightly greater increases in Colorado and other upper basin states.

Average temperatures in the Colorado River Basin are projected significantly, even in headwaters areas such as in Glewnood Springs, where this photo was taken after a rainstorm in September 2023. Photo/Allen Best Top photo: Siri Roman of Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. Courtesy photo.

In Vail, managers of the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District have decided they need more storage. They plan a 1,200-acre-foot reservoir near Minturn called Bolts Lake. That compares with the 257,034-acre-foot storage of Dillon Reservoir. At that capacity, this new reservoir will be the most cost-effective way to ensure resilience as the climate becomes more variable. With the reservoir, they hope to capture water during high-runoff years for use in the district’s service territory from Vail through Edwards. 

Demand reduction will be another tool of growing importance in a hotter, sometimes drier climate. Managers hope to reduce water demand in the district 5% by 2026 even as new housing, especially more affordable units, gets built. That’s 400 acre-feet per year. 

The most productive place to wring these savings will be in water used for outdoor landscapes. Only 25% — or even less — of water applied to lawns returns to streams and rivers compared with 95% of water used indoors. 

Siri Roman, the district’s general manager, said short-term change, such as restricted lawn watering in drought years, can be a strategy. But her district wants to effect permanent change.

“It’s not about drought years,” she said. “It’s about a drying climate. We have to get people to shift their attitudes, to know that water is getting to be more scarce.”

Roman’s district, like other water utilities in Colorado, is targeting nonfunctional turf. Precise definitions vary, but nonfunctional generally refers to grasses that require large volumes of water to irrigate but rarely see human feet except when mowed. It is also described as aesthetic turf. 

Three years ago, Eagle River Water began offering rebates of $1 per square foot to customers willing to replace thirsty lawns with landscapes that use less water. Using state aid, the district this year bumped up the incentive to $2. 

“We are not saying it needs to be stone and look like Arizona,” Roman said. 

Directors of the district in October also agreed to new tiered rates that will discourage high-volume consumption.

Other Western Slope communities have also set out to discourage thirsty landscape choices. Motivations vary, but for many, there is also acknowledgement of the need to walk the talk of water conservation expected of Front Range communities. “That is something I hear a lot from communities I am working with,” said Marjo Curgus, a consultant.

‘Lawn Begone’ in Durango

Almost a decade ago, Steve Harris, a water engineer in Durango, summoned the local news media to his house to watch him remove sod from his front yard. He also had bumper stickers produced: “Lawn Gone.” In an editorial, the Durango Herald offered an alternative: “Lawn Begone.”

Harris believed that Colorado needed to make clear that decorative lawns had less value than agriculture. He worked with his state legislators to draft a bill that would have limited transfers of agricultural water to cities if that water went to lawns. As for his own lawn, Harris thought that he and others on the Western Slope couldn’t just pay lip service to this idea.

At the Colorado Capitol, the bill introduced in 2014 by then-Sen. Ellen Roberts and then-Rep. Don Coram was quickly shelved. Local governments objected. So did ag producers who thought state legislators had no business blocking their abilities to sell water rights.

Instead, the idea was directed to an interim committee for further study. Bills sometimes get sent there to die. In this case, the conversation continued, as Roberts had intended. 

Since then, legislators have adopted several laws. A bill that passed in 2022, House Bill 22-1151, does not institute a prohibition but instead allocated $2 million to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, $1.5 million of which went to local jurisdictions to spur voluntary replacement of irrigated turf.

The law asserts that for every 100 acres of turf converted to water-wise landscaping, up to 200 acre-feet of water can be conserved. The act defines water-wise landscaping as a water- and plant-management practice that emphasizes using plants with lower water needs.

Whether that much water gets saved also depends upon whether irrigation systems are changed to match the lesser water needs of the new landscapes. Grass that needs 12 inches of supplemental water per year need not continue to get 25.

All that funding has now been allocated. On the Western Slope, the municipalities of Cortez, Glenwood Springs and Frisco were awarded funds as was the Eagle County Conservation District. The state agency said 25% of turf-replacement funds were for Western Slope entities.

Rep. Marc Catlin of Montrose and then-Rep. Dylan Roberts of Frisco, two of the four prime sponsors, are from the Western Slope. Another prime sponsor, Sen. Cleave Simpson of Alamosa, now has a district that encompasses southwest Colorado, while Roberts has become a senator.

Without state funding, Montrose County approved grants for seven turf-replacement projects.

“From the start, I thought this initial effort might have more value from an education and outreach perspective than actual water savings,” said Justin Musser, the county’s natural resources manager. 

Projects were chosen based on various objectives. For example, do the new landscapes provide energy savings or wildlife benefits? “We are not overly prescriptive,” said Musser. “If you have a good plan that references standards from the Colorado State University Extension or another reputable source, the application gets a higher ranking.”

Why would Montrose County be interested in yanking sod to save water?

“It’s important that we look at these types of things across the Colorado River basin,” Musser said. “We would want people in California and Arizona and Nevada to be looking at these types of programs, too. I think it makes sense for a place like Montrose County to be conserving water as much as we can, too.”

But, he added, this is “one part of a very complex issue.”

As this diagram (Snake Diagram) shows, native flows in the Arkansas River Basin are dwarfed by the amount of water in West Slope basins (created by the Colorado Water Conservation Board).

Droughts versus aridification

The Western Slope of Colorado produces 70% of the water in the Colorado River, according to the Colorado River Water Conservation District. Some of that water stays in Colorado. About half of the water for Front Range cities comes from the Western Slope. Yet more of the Colorado River gets diverted to farms in the South Platte and Arkansas river valleys.

And, of course, water from the Western Slope flows downstream to farms and cities in Arizona, California and Nevada.

The Colorado River has infamously been falling short of meeting all demands. The river first failed to reach the Sea of Cortez in the 1960s and, as diversions in Arizona and elsewhere expanded, has ceased to reach the sea altogether since the 1990s — save for an especially engineered pulse in 2014.

In 1922, when delegates of the seven states met to negotiate the Colorado River Compact, they assumed that flows of the early 20th century would be the norm, delivering more than 20 million acre-feet. As Eric Kuhn and John Fleck explain in their book, “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River,” it had been a wet period.

It didn’t stay that wet, and in the 21st century it has been delivering far less water, an average 13.2 million acre-feet through 2022. Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, and others have warned that continued warming could depress flows to 9 million acre-feet during coming decades. Or even less.

Grand Junction has a maze of irrigation canals but the municipal water utility gets water from a creek that flows from the Grand Mesa. Photo/Allen Best

Grand Junction more recently adopted regulations curbing water needed for urban landscaping. The city has adopted sustainability goals, “and water plays a big part of that,” said Randi Kim, utilities director for the city of 69,000 people.

Cost savings enter into the city’s calculation as it prepares for a projected 91,000 residents by 2040. The municipal  utility  taps high-quality water from Kannah Creek, which originates on Grand Mesa. When that is insufficient to meet demands, as the city utility projects will be the case by 2040, the city will tap the Gunnison River but will need to pay more to treat the dirtier water.

Rising heat can also drive higher demand. Grand Junction in July reached 107 degrees, tying the record that had been set just two years before. The city’s 13 highest temperatures have occurred this century.

This is but one aspect of the changing and drying climate, a process that many — including Kim — describe as aridification. “I think people realize that we have to change the way we use and manage water, and it really affects every aspect of our lives,” she said.

Grand Junction’s new regulations apply to new developments. Turf that does not meet the city’s definition of “functional” cannot exceed 15% of landscaping. The new regulations also require low-water vegetation in traffic medians and some other common areas.

Steamboat Springs, although cooler and wetter than Grand Junction, faces similar challenges. It gets 24 inches of precipitation a year, compared with 10 inches for Grand Junction. Some years, the snow along streets of Steamboat gets piled higher than the head of a rim-rattling professional basketball player. 

These prodigious snowfalls have not been yielding equally impressive runoffs in the Yampa River. Several times during the longer, hotter summers of the 21st century, the river slunk to such shallow depths that water officials decreed a temporary end to fishing. It almost happened again in July before temperatures cooled and rain arrived.

“We were one day from the river being shut down again,” said Madison Muxworthy of the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, a nonprofit. “It was crazy.”

The Yampa River at Deerlodge Park July 24, 2021 downstream from the confluence with the Little Snake River. There was a ditch running in Maybell above this location. Irrigated hay looked good. Dryland hay not so much.

Muxworthy calls the Yampa River the “life beat of our community.” The description is apt. Kayakers paddle amid the waves during runoff months, and anglers drop lines every season. There are always people along the river banks.

In 2021, heeding local sentiment, the sustainability council launched a water-conservation program focused on outdoor use. Working with the city government and Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District, the group created a guidance document for landscapes called “Yampascaping.” Four educational workshops this year were well attended.

“Citizens are really interested in this because they see the impacts from climate change that we’re already having,” said Muxworthy, her organization’s soil moisture, water and snow program manager. “It’s really easy for them to make the connection and want to do something about it.”

The Mount Werner district, which serves the base of the city’s bigger ski area, offers rebates of $1 per square foot for turf removal.

Eighty miles south of Steamboat, at a 131-unit multifamily project along the Eagle River called The Reserve, turf-removal incentives of $2 per square foot have also helped the homeowners association replace a half-acre of thirsty grasses with native vegetation. The homeowners hope to replace another 60% of the more than 4 acres of common area.

Saving water is paramount in the mind of Deb Forsline, a director of the homeowners association. She sometimes lulls her grandchildren to sleep with the soothing sound at river’s edge and, at other times, accompanies her husband on fishing expeditions, knitting while he dangles lines. “It’s about saving water for the river, not the money,” she said of the efforts to reduce water for landscaping. 

It’s all about saving water, says Deb Forsline, explaining the native grasses installed at The Reserve, a housing project at Edwards where she lives. Photo/Allen Best

Diane Johnson, communications and public affairs manager at Eagle River Water and Sanitation District, concurs. The $2 per square foot “helps move the thinking of people who have already been thinking about it,” she said.

Roman, the district’s general manager, points to the innate connection that most of her district’s 31,000 consumers have with the outdoors. “A lot of people who live here year-round know that it is irresponsible to overuse.”

A steeper staircase of water rates 

After the 2002 drought, the Eagle River district adopted an inclining block rate structure. The more you use, the more you pay. The district got inconsistent results. Larger homes and those with more expansive and water-intense landscaping dropped their use in smaller percentages than smaller homes. The rate structure had been flawed, allowing larger homes to pay less per 1,000 gallons than smaller homes for the same volume of water. Different rates were needed to snag the attention of high-volume consumers.

Aspen had the same problem. It adopted tiered water rates in 2005. Managers thought the rates would discourage high volumes of consumption. But even in drought years, some properties continued stubbornly high volumes.

In 2017, Aspen adopted a new approach. The regulations require reduced water use in the landscape and irrigation plans for new and redeveloped projects. Such caps are called budgets. Like Denver and Boulder, Aspen has almost no new development of raw land. The law imposes a hard cap of 7.5 gallons per square foot of landscape. That’s about a foot of water, or roughly half of the supplemental water required in Colorado for Kentucky bluegrass. The law also requires so-called “smart” irrigation systems and alternative plants but leaves some flexibility in how developers and their consultants stay within the water budgets.

So far, 110 to 120 projects in Aspen have been reviewed, but only 15 to 20 have been executed – still too soon to discern clear results in water savings for the city, said Rob Gregor, utilities permit coordinator. Still, the city has leveled its water use and hopes to achieve even greater efficiencies in water devoted to residential and commercial landscapes. That could leave more water in Castle Creek and the Roaring Fork River, one of the goals of the program. 

Durango, with 19,000 people and a projected population of 25,000 by 2035, has considered using rates to nudge high-volume users to less demanding landscapes. Justin Elkins, utilities manager, said the city hopes to encourage voluntary reductions in water use by allowing water users to monitor the volume of their use and compare it to consumption by their neighbors.

The Ute Water Conservancy District has successfully used rates to encourage water conservation. The Grand Junction-based district delivers water to rural and exurban areas of the Grand Valley from Cameo to the Utah border. Customers tend to be more responsive “when it hits them in the pocketbook,” said Andrea Lopez, the district’s external affairs manager. “As they use more water and enter into tiers that become steeper with the more they use, we usually see a reduction in use.”

That’s what Eagle River Water has done. Like Aspen, the Vail Valley has some wealthy homeowners. Under the old tier system, somebody in a smaller home paid more per gallon than somebody in a larger home, if they both used the same large volume. 

Beginning in January, Roman was on the agenda of everybody from Rotary clubs to Eagle County commissioners. “Really, this is targeting our excessive users,” she told the Vail Town Council at a June meeting. “They’re the ones that are going to feel this.”

District directors in October approved the new tiered rates that intend to discourage high-volume consumption.

Linn Brooks uses about 7,000 gallons of water a month at her house in Avon after transitioning the yard to water-wise principles. Before, it used 15,000 to 25,000 gallons. Courtesy photo

In Wildridge, a neighborhood on the south-facing slopes of Avon, Linn Brooks has shown what is possible in landscape conversions. Fifteen years ago, before she started transitioning her landscape, her home used 15,000 to 25,000 gallons a month. Now, it uses, at most, 7,000 gallons a month and her landscape is commanding.

The takeaway, she said, is that communities can have vibrant landscapes and protect property values – and still use less water.

Next: How did bluegrass lawns in Colorado become the default? Some trace it to the castles of Europe. Half or more of Coloradans live in neighborhoods governed by homeowners associations. Some have started to curb thirsty bluegrass, but others needed a firm nudge this year from state legislators.

Allen Best, a longtime Colorado journalist, publishes Big Pivots, which tracks the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water, environment and community. This story is part of a five-part series produced in a collaboration between Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism. Find more at https://bigpivots.com and at https://aspenjournalism.org

Map credit: AGU

The #nuclear “renaissance” suffers a blow — Jonathan P. Thompson (@Land_Desk) #ActOnClimate

Experimental Breeder Reactor 2, Idaho National Laboratory. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

Click the link to read the article on The Land Desk website (Jonathan P. Thompson):

THE NEWS: The anticipated and feared nuclear renaissance suffered a major blow this week when Oregon-based NuScale and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems killed plans to construct a small modular nuclear reactor power plant in Idaho. Several years in the making, the project had become too expensive and there were too few subscribers to make it financially viable. 

THE CONTEXT: As the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the electric power sector has grown more urgent over the last couple of decades, so-called climate hawks have increasingly looked to nuclear power as a decarbonization tool. That’s because the nuclear reaction — like solar or wind energy — emits zero carbon when generating power. And even when mining, processing, and enriching uranium as well as building the nuclear plant are taken into account, nuclear power still emits far less than fossil fuels. 

These pro-nuclear climate hawks, or green nuclear evangelists, as I like to call them, tend to brush aside safety concerns and the problem of storing the spent reactor fuel, otherwise known as radioactive waste. And they often completely ignore the impacts of uranium mining, past and present. But it’s more difficult to get around the astronomical cost of building a new conventional nuclear reactor: The price tag for the Vogtle plant in Georgia, still under construction, is around $31 billion so far

So, the green nuclear evangelists have focused on keeping existing plants, such as Diablo Canyon in California, open. And, to a lesser extent, on developing smaller, unconventional reactors that won’t cost so much. 

The euphemistically named Carbon Free Power Project was supposed to fit the bill. It was pushed by a Portland startup called NuScale, which would include 12 60-megawatt reactors installed on the vast Idaho National Laboratory, and the Utah Association of Municipal Power Suppliers, or UAMPS. With 46 members scattered across the Interior West, UAMPS would own and operate the plant, while NuScale would build the reactors. 

When I wrote about the project five years ago, NuScale claimed that its small modular reactors, or SMRs, would be safer and use less water than conventional reactors. But the big selling point was their relatively low buy-in cost. A utility could, theoretically, build a micro-nuke plant for less than $2 billion upfront, which ain’t exactly cheap but also isn’t $31 billion. The reactors would be manufactured in a facility, then trucked to the installation; what NuScale lost in economies of scale, it hoped to offset with the volume of reactors produced. NuScale’s main investor, the Fluor corporation, also benefited from oodles of federal subsidies. 

NuScale managed to clear a number of regulatory hurdles, but the project would only come to fruition if UAMPS succeeded in selling the concept to its members. This wasn’t easy: It ran into early resistance in Price, Utah, where leaders feared it would help kill the local coal industry; in Truckee, California, because it would hamper the community’s efforts to go 100 percent renewable; and in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where residents were leery of investing in unproven technology, not to mention the high projected operating costs relative to other energy sources. Anti-nuclear activists in Utah and Idaho battled the project, too, mostly because it would use a lot of water and add to the growing stockpile of radioactive waste. 

In the ensuing half-decade, projected costs continued to rise, scaring off more of the potential subscribers. And several major wind and solar and battery storage projects have also moved forward, making such a plant less desirable — even if it is “carbon free.” 

The euphemistically named Carbon Free Power Project was supposed to fit the bill. It was pushed by a Portland startup called NuScale, which would include 12 60-megawatt reactors installed on the vast Idaho National Laboratory, and the Utah Association of Municipal Power Suppliers, or UAMPS. With 46 members scattered across the Interior West, UAMPS would own and operate the plant, while NuScale would build the reactors. 

When I wrote about the project five years ago, NuScale claimed that its small modular reactors, or SMRs, would be safer and use less water than conventional reactors. But the big selling point was their relatively low buy-in cost. A utility could, theoretically, build a micro-nuke plant for less than $2 billion upfront, which ain’t exactly cheap but also isn’t $31 billion. The reactors would be manufactured in a facility, then trucked to the installation; what NuScale lost in economies of scale, it hoped to offset with the volume of reactors produced. NuScale’s main investor, the Fluor corporation, also benefited from oodles of federal subsidies. 

NuScale managed to clear a number of regulatory hurdles, but the project would only come to fruition if UAMPS succeeded in selling the concept to its members. This wasn’t easy: It ran into early resistance in Price, Utah, where leaders feared it would help kill the local coal industry; in Truckee, California, because it would hamper the community’s efforts to go 100 percent renewable; and in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where residents were leery of investing in unproven technology, not to mention the high projected operating costs relative to other energy sources. Anti-nuclear activists in Utah and Idaho battled the project, too, mostly because it would use a lot of water and add to the growing stockpile of radioactive waste. 

In the ensuing half-decade, projected costs continued to rise, scaring off more of the potential subscribers. And several major wind and solar and battery storage projects have also moved forward, making such a plant less desirable — even if it is “carbon free.” 

Pronghorn and wind turbines, Wyoming. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

#Colorado squeezing water from urban landscapes — Allen Best (@BigPivots) #conservation

Meredith Slater, S. Denver. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

Pace of transition has accelerated, deepened and broadened as headwaters state struggles to embrace limits of water supply in a warming, likely drying climate 

This story, a collaboration of Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism, is the first of a five-part series that examines the intersection of water and urban landscapes in Colorado.

Like weekly haircuts for men, a regularly mowed lawn of Kentucky bluegrass was long a prerequisite for civic respectability in Colorado’s towns and cities. That expectation has begun shifting.

A growing cultural norm blesses a broader range of respectable landscapes, which require not much more water than what occurs naturally across most of Colorado. Denver, for example, averages 15.6 inches annually.

Native grasses, most prominently buffalo and blue grama, need half to one-third as much of the supplemental water a year required to keep Kentucky bluegrass — a species native to Europe — bright green. In metro Denver, for example,  Westminster and Broomfield estimate that these cool-season grasses require 24 to 29 inches of supplemental water annually in addition to the 15 to 16 inches of average precipitation.  Other water-wise landscape choices can also ratchet down water requirements by at least half.

Many homeowners have the additional goal of installing shrubs, flowers and other plants that attract pollinators.

The shift can be traced back to at least 1981, when Denver Water coined the term “xeriscape” to reflect landscaping choices that use less water. The drive to cut excessive water use for landscapes picked up significantly during and after the searing drought of 2002. When that drought ended, many consumers retained their new, more judicious habits of irrigation.

Now, say water providers and others, the pace of transition has accelerated, deepened and broadened. If still far from universal, Coloradans have started developing a new aesthetic around urban landscapes. What is required to be a responsible homeowner and property manager is being redefined. 

With Colorado River water woes still unresolved and depletion of aquifers in the Denver Basin and elsewhere continuing, Big Pivots in collaboration with Aspen Journalism set out to understand water devoted to urban landscapes in Colorado. This is the first of five stories about this giant and probably long-term shift in how we use water in urban landscapes.

Nobody argues that this shift alone will solve Colorado’s water challenges. Water devoted to lawns and other urban landscapes constitutes just 3% to 4% of Colorado’s total water consumption. Nonetheless, that use is being questioned as never before.

Western Slope residents have long objected to dewatering of rivers and streams for lawns along the Front Range. Now, water utilities on both sides of the Continental Divide see more-judicious use of water as being the most cost-effective strategy in serving larger populations in a hotter and possibly drier climate. And many homeowners have decided that by replacing imported varieties of turf with native plants, they can be part of the solution to declining populations of pollinating insects. 

Colorado legislators have passed several laws in recent years to curb standard turf-growing practices. In January, they will be asked to approve a bill that would require local governments and homeowners associations to ban the installation, the planting or the placement of new nonfunctional turf, artificial turf or invasive plant species in commercial, institutional or industrial properties. The bill takes aim at purely aesthetic non-functional turf along roads and in medians.  Residential homes would be exempted from the prohibition.

At Interlochen, a business park in Broomfield, an expanse of grass lies behind a fence at a corporate headquarters. Photo by Allen Best

Nonfunctional turf generally means grass intended to be seen but rarely, if ever, touched by human feet. For example, the Flatirons Mall in Broomfield, a hospital in Fort Collins and a warehouse complex in Aurora have broad swathes of green grass surrounding them. Another example is along the drive-up lane to an ATM at a bank on East Colfax Avenue in Denver. Cosmetic or aesthetic turf is universal.

The bill has the backing of both Denver and Aurora. They argue that replacing existing turf, a costly task, is negated if the saved water is then used for new development that hews to the old habits of landscape. Aurora, in particular, has made clear that voluntary approaches have had only marginal success.

Colorado Springs, although equally committed to reducing water use, believes that a harder but better approach will be more effective in the long term. The Colorado Municipal League, representing 270 of the state’s 272 towns and cities, has concerns. At issue is a familiar one in Colorado: state mandate vs. local prerogative.

Voluntary approaches, though, have been impressive. For example, thoughtful design can be found in abundance at Centerra, a commercial and housing complex in Loveland. There’s still bluegrass, but it tends to be minimized.

In Boulder, Resource Central began offering water-conservation services to Front Range communities during the severe drought of 2002. The nonprofit reports a rapid uptick in its lawn replacement and other programs. It now has relationships with 47 water providers who help support the nonprofit’s Garden In A Box and other programs.

“This is the first year that we have seen more than 10,000 people participating in our various water-conservation programs, which tells us that this is rapidly becoming the new norm in Colorado,” said Resource Central CEO Neal Lurie, referring to lower-water landscapes. “What happens is one person makes a change in their yard and their neighbors come over and ask, ‘What are you doing?’”

It is that neighbor-to-neighbor conversation that is driving the urban landscape changes evident to anyone moving about most Colorado towns and cities.

Centerra, a business and residential complex in Loveland, blends traditional and new landscaping in ways that lessen water requirements and heighten visual interest. Photo by Allen Best

Growing awareness of water scarcity also drives these altered sensibilities as well as new government regulations limiting outdoor water use. Declined flows in the Colorado River figure prominently in the thinking of many individuals but also public officials.

Aurora adopted bold restrictions on water use for outdoor landscapes in 2022. No use of Kentucky bluegrass or other so-called cool-weather varieties that use higher volumes of water will be allowed at new golf courses. The same applies to new front yards, although 500 square feet or 45% of backyards, whichever is less, will be permitted. The regulations also take aim at water for road medians and curbside landscapes. Fountains, waterfalls and other ornamental water features will also be banned in new development.

Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman — whose city has the state’s third-highest population, at 400,000 — cites worries about potential diminishment of water imported from the Colorado River basin as one of several reasons for taking action. “The longer you wait, the more dramatic your decisions have to be,” he said. “I think we’re on the right path.” 

At least 38 utilities and other water providers have instituted turf-replacement programs, offering incentives that in some places can reach $3 per square foot of turf removed. That’s almost double the number of jurisdictions of just a few years ago. Like Aurora, many local governments have also adopted limitations on outdoor landscaping. Broomfield adopted regulations in late August.

Doing their small parts

In southeast Denver, Meredith Slater took a break on an August morning to explain why she and her husband, Jake Hyman, earlier this year had replaced the lawn of their brick home with plants native to Colorado and nearby areas. The yellow, red and orange flowers were thick with bees and other pollinators.

“Over the last few years, I’ve come to recognize that native bees, birds and insects don’t have a place to call home in much of Denver because of all the grass and nonnatives,” Slater said as her husband used a tiller to rip out  the remaining Kentucky bluegrass on the other half of the front yard. “That was part of the impetus for this.”

Slater works for a global organization called ActionAid. It operates in 40 countries, many of them in Africa and Asia, to assist farmers faced with the challenges of a warming climate. That work has made her particularly attentive to the challenge of protecting adequate water for agriculture. In Denver, she sees water devoted to lush green lawns as wasteful. 

“I’m just trying to do my little part with my front yard,” she said.

Her thought was echoed by dozens of homeowners from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins to Durango who were interviewed for this series of stories. “We’re not going to save the world, but we’re doing what we can,” said a Denver homeowner.

Colorado gets 83% of its water from rivers, streams and other surface sources, while the other 17% comes from groundwater, according to the 2023 Colorado Water Plan. Agriculture uses about 90% of Colorado’s water, towns and cities 7%, and industry 3%.

Within urban areas, outdoor irrigation consumes roughly 50% of water. 

Why would cities want to cut outdoor use? Motivations vary.

For most jurisdictions, conserving water through reduced outdoor use represents the cheapest way to serve larger populations. Colorado Springs Utilities, for example, serves a population of 500,000 but has expectations of serving 800,000 at buildout.

Population growth along the Front Range during the past century has been primarily satisfied by transmountain diversions. Half of the water for Front Range cities comes from the Western Slope. In theory, Colorado has undeveloped water in the Colorado River. New transmountain diversions, though, can be very expensive and problematic. Aurora and Colorado Springs, for example, completed their Homestake diversion project in 1967. Since the early 1980s, they have been seeking additional diversions from Homestake Creek, an Eagle River tributary. Conservation has been more easily accomplished.

Easier in most cases than transmountain diversions — but still difficult — has been converting agriculture water to municipal use. That’s true even in the South Platte River Basin. As The New York Times reported in a September story, the Denver suburb of Thornton began acquiring water rights near Fort Collins in 1985. Construction of a 72-mile pipeline to bring that water to Thornton residents and businesses has barely started.

A pipeline almost to Nebraska

Several of Denver’s south-metro-area cities have been unsustainably drafting the Denver Basin aquifers. Parker gets nearly 60% of its water from the aquifers; Castle Rock attributes “most” of its water from the aquifers. 

Parker Water and Sanitation District, working with farmers in the Sterling area, plans to pump water roughly 125 miles across eastern Colorado. It estimates the cost at $800 million. Castle Rock may participate in that project and also has a project called Box Elder that would draw water from 60 miles away in northeastern Colorado.

Lessened demand from landscaping means less need for costly new infrastructure. It also makes water utilities more resilient in the face of drought. Landscapes can sparkle with little water. Actually, they can be even brighter at times. After all, the “perfect” lawn is a monotone, unblemished by yellow dandelions or anything else. 

Still other water providers have been motivated simply by a desire to leave water in streams and rivers. That’s the case in Vail, which is landlocked with no expectations of significant expansion. There, the town has been replacing water-consumptive Kentucky bluegrass in town parks since 2019 with less-thirsty native species. This year’s projects also include removal of grass from an on-ramp to Interstate 70.

Vail’s motivation is simple: to preserve flows in Gore Creek and protect the aquatic environment, said Todd Oppenheimer, the town’s capital projects manager. 

Boulder has a robust portfolio of water rights and self-imposed growth limitations. Unlike neighboring jurisdictions along the Front Range, It has no practical considerations driving landscape changes. But for 20 years, it has been participating in Resource Central’s water-saving programs. This year, the city provided each customer $500 that can be applied toward either turf removal or Garden In A Box programs.

Turf removal reflects community values, said Laurel Olsen, Boulder’s utilities engagement and outreach senior program manager. “We have decided as a community that wise use of our resources is a high priority.”

Turf grown to be seen but rarely, if ever, used, can be found across Colorado, including along roads and parking lots surrounding a shopping complex in Broomfield. Photo/Allen Best

In theory, this should result in Boulder’s leaving more water in creeks. The city, however, does not have a tabulation of that.

Colorado’s state government has also been delivering nudges. State legislators in 2022 directed the state’s leading water agency, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, to develop a statewide program that would use financial incentives to encourage the voluntary replacement of irrigated turf with water-wise landscaping. That law allocated $2 million for the programs. Through early September, funding had been awarded to 25 jurisdictions with 13 others considered “eligible.” A deadline to apply for a second round of grants was in late August.

In February, Gov. Jared Polis appointed 21 members to a new Urban Landscape Conservation Task Force. He asked them to identify practical ways to advance outdoor water-conservation through state policy and local initiatives. Members must report their findings in January.

Several of the major water providers in the Colorado River basin have also agreed to reduce water for urban landscapes.

In August 2022, water providers from Denver, Aurora and Pueblo, along with those from Los Angeles and other southwestern cities, announced a memorandum of understanding. The MOU commits participating water utilities to “reduce the quantity of nonfunctional turf grass by 30% through replacement with drought- and climate-resilient landscaping, while maintaining vital urban landscapes and tree canopies that benefit our communities, wildlife and the environment.”

The MOU does not specify water savings, only the reduction in turf. 

Shifting attitudes 

Driven, at least in part, by the Colorado River troubles, public perceptions have been shifting rapidly. 

Denver Water has conducted surveys since 2016 that ask respondents how scarce they think water is now, and how scarce they think it will be in 10 years. Survey results show a sharp uptick in concern.

“Two-thirds of people think water is scarce now, and 90% of people think water is going to become more scarce in the future,” said Greg Fisher, manager of demand planning for Denver Water. 

Fisher sees a link to the “innumerable Colorado River stories” that have been published and broadcast in recent years. “We’re attaching that to climate change. And I think from what I read, it’s a lot of people asking, ‘What can I do? I now understand there’s this problem in the Colorado River. What can I do to help that?’ And I think we’re starting to show them a way that they can help.”

Denver Water in 1981 coined the term “xeriscape,” combining the Greek prefix “xero,” which means dry, with landscape. Water conservation advocates now rarely use it. They say too many people take it to mean zero-landscape, and for many, that means rocks and cactus. Yards of gravel are anathema to landscape architects. Not only are gravel yards boring, but they contribute to the heat-island effect of urban areas.

Colorado Springs-based landscape architect Carla Anderson said she constantly stresses the alternatives to turf grasses imported from other parts of the world to Colorado’s semi-arid climate.

“I have been advocating for years – not saying that grass is bad but to put it in places that make sense. A little bit of turf can go an awful long way in creating a feeling of an oasis,” she said. “The good thing is we’re getting some wonderful options to bluegrass.”

Gravel spread across lawns, such as this one in Denver, may seem like an easy replacement for turf, but landscape architects roll their eyes, as do others. Also, gravel yards contribute to the heat-island effect of urban areas. Photo by Allen Best

In her work, she sees a generational shift. Older people, generally 70-plus, tend to insist on bluegrass lawns because they see it as a status symbol. “If you have this big, sweeping front lawn, you have made it,” she said.

Younger generations, even including those in their 60s, have a broader perspective. They are less likely to assign status to a lawn. 

But conversions to water-wise landscapes do take time and energy. “That is a stumbling block for a lot of lower-income people,” said Anderson.

Riding on a bus in Colorado Springs, her attention was directed toward a weedy front yard. “What would you call that?” she was asked. “An unkempt yard.”

Colorado Springs officials estimate that 30% of homes in the city are unkempt. The challenge they see is to ease the conversion to low-water yards. They hope to help foster native grasses, which use little water and, once installed, demand less maintenance.

The process of changing attitudes will take time, said Anderson. “It won’t happen overnight. We have this long affair with the bluegrass lawn in all corners of our country, and so the process of changing people’s perception of what is right and looks good, what is aesthetically pleasing, is a significant process. It is just going to take time. Unfortunately, we don’t have that much time. We need to crack down and save water in a hurry.” 

A new word

As the word “xeriscape” falls out of favor, it is being replaced with new words: water-wise, water-efficient and Coloradoscape.

“There is no agreement yet” on which should be the commonly accepted phrase, said Lindsay Rogers of Western Resource Advocates, a group that has devoted substantial resources to the shift.

“We want climate-appropriate landscapes in Colorado that are verdant and beautiful and use native plants but also use less water than Kentucky bluegrass,” she said.

Westminster is unusual among Front Range cities in its small reliance on the Colorado River. The city’s water utility located midway between Denver and Boulder serves 135,000 people. Most of the water comes from Clear Creek. And it has no expectations of rapid growth, unlike Aurora, which envisions a near doubling of population in the next 50 years. 

More than 80% of Westminster residents live in single-family homes and have above-average affluence. Converting lawns into water-efficient landscapes, which saves both time and money in the long term, has high up-front costs that rebates by utilities only partially cover.

From his perspective as Westminster’s senior water resource analyst, Drew Beckwith sees a broad social transformation beginning.

“We are in the midst of seeing this social change in how people view a green lawn along the Front Range of Colorado,” he said. 

Beckwith perceives a challenge to prevailing notions. Bright-green lawns require not only regular irrigation in most years, but frequent fertilization. They must be mowed regularly, at least to conform to cultural expectations.

“My customers are saying, ’I don’t want to do that anymore,’ and I don’t think it’s only because of the cost of water,” Beckwith said. “I think there is a new social idea, that a green-grass lawn is not a very responsible thing to do in a water-short and dry area like Colorado.”

Westminster, like dozens of other municipalities along the Front Range, has been paying homeowners to replace thirsty turf. The city shares the costs of landscape transformation with homeowners by providing a rebate on physical turf removal, providing new plants to take its place, or a mix of the two. From 11,000 square feet, when the program began in 2020, the program expanded last year to 107,000 square feet in 191 separate projects. On average, customers paid $560 for each project, and the city paid $650. 

“We have taken out 4 acres of turf grass in residential properties in Westminster over the last three years,” Beckwith said. That’s enough water for 20 single-family homes.

In these numbers, Beckwith sees just the earliest stage of a transformation.

“You will have the bleeding edge of folks who pick it up because they are super trend-setters. They were doing this over a decade ago,” he said. “I think we are past the bleeding edge, and we are now into the early adopters. These are normal people who are saying, ’Yeah, this is probably something we should do.’”

Beckwith expects to see, during the next three to five years, many more of the early adopters wanting to replace their turf.

”And then we are going to be in the meat of that general population that is going to start changing their landscapes,” he said. “Beyond will be some people who will never want to change. And that’s OK.”

Nothing to the contrary

By Beckwith’s classification, Don and Jill Brown would be classified as being on the bleeding edge. They live in a red-brick house in Colorado Springs with a large lot. He’s a counselor, of marriages among other things, and she is an author.

In 2017, they decided to do something with a weedy 30-foot-by-80-foot section of their large lot. But instead of Kentucky bluegrass, said Don Brown, they wanted vegetation more natural to Colorado. They chose blue grama.

After planting buffalo grass in their yard in Colorado Springs, Don and Jill Brown rarely need to mow it and give it little water. Once established, it outcompetes weeds. Photo by Allen Best

The grass can go brown in a drought but does not die. “In a dry year, we might water it once or twice. This year, not at all,” he said.

It grows to be about knee-high, but that’s it. Once established, it leaves no room for weeds. He rarely mows.

“We really love it,” he said. “We like the look of it. We like the low maintenance. And we especially like the sense of being responsible stewards of this property.”

A native grass, blue grama evolved in the context of Colorado’s arid environment, the nation’s seventh driest, with an average 18.1 inches of precipitation annually. Colorado Springs gets a little less: 15 to 16 inches.

“In this fairly arid state, we learned that if you use native plants, you will do a lot better,” Don Brown said.

As for the aesthetics, it hasn’t provoked any contrary comments from passersby. “It looks like a meadow,” he said.

Next in the series:  The Western Slope delivers 70% of the Colorado River water. So why do Aspen, Vail and Grand Junction, too, want to crimp thirsty turf? 

Allen Best, a longtime Colorado journalist, publishes Big Pivots, which tracks the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water, environment and community. This story is part of a five-part series produced in a collaboration between Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism. Find more at https://bigpivots.com and at https://aspenjournalism.org

Backer of #SanLuisValley water plan, state water buff chosen for board on Douglas County’s water future — The Douglas County News-Press #RioGrande

Rueter-Hess Dam before first fill. Photo credit: Parker Water & Sanitation

Click the link to read the article on the Douglas County News-Press website (Ellis Arnold). Here’s an excerpt:

Months of discussion on who will help decide the future of water supply in Douglas County have come to an end now that county leaders have chosen 11 members of a new volunteer board…The forming of the new volunteer board — the Douglas County Water Commission — comes against the backdrop of a controversial proposal to pump about 22,000 acre-feet of water per year to Douglas County from the San Luis Valley in the southern part of the state…Last year, county leaders Abe Laydon and Thomas joined together in deciding not to move forward with that project, while elected leader George Teal has continued to support it. [Sean] Tonner, one of the principals of Renewable Water Resources, attracted news media attention for throwing his hat in the ring to serve on the water commission…The water commission is expected to help create a plan regarding water supply and conservation, among other aspects of water in the county. It’ll consist of unpaid volunteers, according to the county…The main members of the water commission, named on Nov. 6, include the following.

Representing District I, or northeast Douglas County:

• James Eklund, who had worked on the state’s water plan, according to county staff.(Removing the requirement for being a landowner or a resident of Douglas County allowed for choosing Eklund, who told county leaders he is “in the city and county of Denver.”)

• Jack Hilbert, formerly one of Douglas County’s elected leaders.

• Donald Langley, who serves on the Parker Water board.

Representing District II, including central and south Douglas County:

• Clark Hammelman, a former Castle Rock town councilmember.

• James Maras, a Perry Park Water and Sanitation District board member.

• Roger Hudson, a Castle Pines city councilmember.

Representing District III, or northwest Douglas County:

• Frank Johns, who said he has worked on various water plans for communities over the years. Johns serves on the board of the Centennial Water and Sanitation District, which serves Highlands Ranch.

• Evan Ela, a longtime water attorney.

• Harold Smethills, a member of the Dominion Water and Sanitation District board and a developer of the Sterling Ranch area in northwest Douglas County.

Appointees “at large,” meaning from the county as a whole, include Tonner and Tricia Bernhardt, who has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from Colorado State University and a master’s degree in environmental policy and management from the University of Denver, according to a LinkedIn page.

Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

Aspinall Unit operations update: Gunnison Tunnel diversions end for this season #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Official opening of the Gunnison Tunnel by President Taft at the west portal

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 850 cfs to 350 cfs on Tuesday, November 14th.  Releases are being decreased in response to the end of irrigation diversions to the Gunnison Tunnel.  The Gunnison Tunnel will be shut down on November 14th. 

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to remain above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future. 

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, will be 1050 cfs for November and December. 

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 500 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 320 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be 0 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will still be near 320 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review. 

#Colorado sends too much #RioGrande water downstream — @AlamosaCitizen

Sunrise March 10, 2023 Alamosa Colorado with the Rio Grande in the foreground. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

From email from the Alamosa Citizen (Chris Lopez):

Colorado figures it over-delivered on the Rio Grande Compact this year by 10,000 to 15,000 acre-feet and as such extended the irrigation season for some Valley farmers to Nov. 8. The over delivery on Rio Grande Compact water is another reason why the Rio Grande has so little flow this fall and likely won’t pick up without some natural moisture. “It’s probably not going to happen for any time soon because we are actually over-delivered on our compact obligations,” said Craig Cotten, division engineer in the San Luis Valley for the Colorado Division of Water Resources. “We will have delivered a little bit too much to downstream states.” Cotten made the comments during a taping last week of The Outdoor Citizen podcast hosted by Marty Jones. You can hear his full remarks on the over delivery of Rio Grande Compact water in this episode of The Outdoor Citizen.

Feds field questions about #Wyoming’s first #nuclear power plant — @WyoFile #ActOnClimate

More than 100 people attended the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s public information sessions Nov. 7, 2023, in Kemmerer. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Dustin Bleizeffer):

KEMMERER—TerraPower, backed by billionaire Bill Gates and the U.S. Department of Energy, plans to build the pilot “Natrium” liquid-sodium-cooled nuclear energy plant here, hoping its success will spur the deployment of Natrium and other small nuclear reactors throughout the nation and around the world.

A schematic of TerraPower’s proposed Natrium nuclear power plant. Credit: TerraPower

The next-generation technology presents myriad considerations for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has authority over the safety, security and environmental implications of such facilities. It would also be the first industrial nuclear facility in Wyoming, and locals have many questions:

Does the NRC take seismic activity into account? When might the spent radioactive fuel waste be shipped off to a permanent storage facility? Will there be regular NRC inspections, and how often?

Sen. Dan Dockstader (R-Afton), however, shares another concern that is top-of-mind for locals who are eager for the economic boost that developers promise: Can the NRC speed up the approval process “if you get the right people in place?

“I’m running out of time planning and creating legislation to make sure this all comes together,” he said.

Dockstader was among more than 100 local residents who attended the NRC’s two information sessions here Tuesday. The agency sent a dozen staff members to this isolated southwestern Wyoming town of 2,400 to field questions about what many anticipate will be an expedited review process.

Review process

TerraPower and its contractors have already drilled more than 100 boreholes here to help “investigate” the suitability of the location, according to the company, and it plans to begin construction of the sodium testing facility and other non-nuclear portions of the 345-megawatt Natrium nuclear reactor energy plant in 2024. 

Sen. Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) poses a question to Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials during a public meeting Nov. 7, 2023, in Kemmerer. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The nuclear plant will be “co-located” next to PacifiCorp’s Naughton power plant just outside of Kemmerer. One coal-burning unit at the plant was converted to natural gas, and the two remaining units there will be converted to natural gas in 2026.

Before the company can begin assembling the nuclear components, however, it must complete a licensing application that can pass the NRC’s review process, which includes several opportunities for the public to weigh in on the proposal. The NRC expects to receive TerraPower’s application, and initiate the official review process in March. 

“Now is an opportune time to conduct this initial outreach and to explain the analysis process of reviewing applications for construction and operation,” NRC’s Chief of Advanced Reactor Licensing William Jessup said. 

Although the NRC is developing a new review process specific to “advanced” reactors such as Natrium, which uses molten sodium as a coolant instead of water, TerraPower has tentatively agreed to seek approval via the long existing “Part 50” review, according to Jessup. It includes multiple review tracks, each with a safety and environmental component: one to consider a construction permit, and another to consider an operating license. The process requires the NRC to produce an environmental impact statement — all of which include public input and multiple opportunities for the normal administrative and legal challenges that come with large federal permitting activities, Jessup explained.

Typically, the arduous NRC review can take up to seven years or more to complete — with no guarantee of final approval. Last year, the NRC denied Oklo Power, LLC’s application to build a “fast reactor” in Idaho for allegedly failing to provide sufficient information on the facility’s design.

TerraPower — which is embarking on its first NRC licensing attempt — hopes to win approval much sooner, however, thanks in part to the 2019 Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act. The law — championed by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) — set a maximum review timeline of 36 months. Additionally, TerraPower expects to help the NRC trim that timeline even further by filing information ahead of schedule.

It all depends on TerraPower submitting thorough information that doesn’t require many requests to fill in unanswered questions, according to the NRC.

Patricia Vokoun, Mallecia Sutton and William Jessup of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission field questions during a public meeting Nov. 7, 2023, in Kemmerer. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

“If we have all of these discussions and address all of these topics before the application even comes in, then you would expect that it may make the review go faster,” Jessup told WyoFile.


Many locals are eager for the potential economic boon the $4 billion project might bring to this region, which has long relied on the diminishing coal industry to power its economy. But many of the same people, and others, are concerned about the high-stake risks that come with a nuclear facility.

Does the NRC take seismic activity into account?

Yes, NRC officials said, adding that they are aware that there is seismic activity in the Rocky Mountain Region.

Several residents, including Rep. Scott Heiner (R-Green River), asked when the radioactive spent fuel might be transported to a permanent storage facility.

“Is there a permanent solution for waste that is being worked on at this time?” Heiner asked.

No, there is no permanent nuclear fuel waste repository in the U.S. at the moment, NRC officials said. Though NRC staff in attendance indicated they “anticipate” one will be built, others have long indicated that there’s no clear path to building a permanent repository, which has been discussed for decades.

For now, that means spent nuclear fuel will be “temporarily” stored on site — for how long, nobody knows.

The NRC also fielded questions about how nuclear fuel will be transported to the facility and how safety of those radioactive materials will be ensured. The NRC, along with several other federal agencies, closely manage the transport of such materials in cooperation with state agencies, according to staff members. A specific plan, however, will be worked out in the NRC’s review, they said.

NRC representatives also assured locals that they will maintain partnerships with local emergency managers and state environmental authorities. 

Many questions about TerraPower’s Natrium design, however — such as water consumption and where the company will find enough construction and permanent workers — are up to the company to answer. However, most of those details — with the exception of information that the NRC agrees to deem proprietary — will be included in the application and public review, according to NRC staff.

“That’s the reason we’re here tonight,” Jessup said. “We’re here to get the message out early about our process and how to interact.”

Here’s a link to the NRC’s TerraPower/Natrium project webpage where the agency will maintain information about the project.

San Diego Selling Back Some Pricey #ColoradoRiver Water for Cheaper Met Water — VoiceofSanDiego.org #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on the VoiceofSanDiego.org website (MacKenzie Elmer):

A trade deal is brewing between major southern California water agencies to help restock a major reservoir on the drought-stricken Colorado River and meet federal demands to cut back use.  

San Diego, Los Angeles and Imperial Valley are the major players trying something that’s never been done before using a water trading agreement inked 20 years ago as a guiding light. Under the proposal, San Diego is going to give up some of its Colorado River water it fought so hard to secure so more can be saved in the larger river system. But instead, it would lean on supplies from northern California, a source that was virtually unavailable to the region due to drought just last year. 

Here’s how it would play out: San Diego would forgo buying a portion of its Colorado River water supplies from Imperial Valley. The federal government would pay Imperial Valley not to take that water out of the river at all, then Imperial Valley would reimburse San Diego. Then San Diego would instead buy that same amount of water from California’s other (and cheaper) supply source – the Sierra Nevada mountain snowpack – via the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.  

The board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California or Met, based in Los Angeles, will be the first to consider the deal at its Nov. 13 meeting. The savings San Diego generates from switching supplies – potentially tens of millions of dollars — could help smooth future water rates in San Diego, said the San Diego County Water Authority General Manager Dan Denham. 

“This is bringing more flexibility to water management in southern California,” Denham said. “If we’re able to pull this off then it speaks volumes for these water agencies and the federal government and show we’re able to work together.”  

This is part of a larger plan to help the Imperial Irrigation District or IID – the Colorado River’s single largest user and from which San Diego buys much of its Colorado River water – meet its promise to the feds to cut its use by 115,000 acre feet this year – about four percent of its supply. (That’s enough to quench 230,000 California households’ indoor and outdoor water use in one year.)  

The feds are paying IID to reduce its water use by that much. The price hasn’t been made public yet, but IID customers already pay some of the cheapest rates for Colorado River water around: about $20 an acre foot. San Diego buys its water from IID at a premium, about $710 an acre foot. It’s likely that the final reimbursement price from the feds will fall on the more expensive side of that range.  

What’s interesting about this deal is San Diego and Met have historically been at each other’s throats over prices of imported water. So much so that the two are still involved in a lawsuit over how much San Diego should pay Met to get Colorado River water down south. It’s partly why San Diego cut a deal 20 years ago to buy most of its water from Imperial Valley instead.  

Lake Mead at Hoover Dam, January 2022. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

But now, San Diego is turning back to Met for about 15 percent of its supply.  

“We’re taking advantage of the wet year and putting water in Lake Mead to benefit the whole (Colorado River) system,” said Adel Hagekhalil, general manager at Met. The State Water Project refers to water from the Sierra Nevada mountains.  

West Drought Monitor map November 7, 2023.

Even though it’s been a wet year, especially for California which drew most of the state out of drought, large swaths of the Colorado River basin are still dangerously dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The feds have told the seven U.S. states using the river they’ll need to figure out a way to use much less as climate change intensifies drought in the West. But last winter’s record-breaking rain and snow delivered a window for southern California water suppliers to spread that wealth of water around – for now. 

There’s so much water flowing from that mountain range’s melted snowpack, Met is able to use that source instead of the Colorado River for much of its customer day – about 19 million people. Because Met has two water sources, the Colorado River and the California mountains, it can lean on its California supply when water is plentiful and then, like a savings account, store water in the river’s largest reservoir (Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam) to use on a less-rainy day.  

Met has so much water it plans on maxing-out its savings account by banking 450,000 acre feet of water in Lake Mead, Hagekhalil said. And it will make a little extra money by selling more water to San Diego.  

“What you end up with is a win-win for everybody,” Hagekhalil said.  

The proposed deal would be temporary or in place just for 2023, according to a Met board document.  

“New plot using the nClimGrid data, which is a better source than PRISM for long-term trends. Of course, the combined reservoir contents increase from last year, but the increase is less than 2011 and looks puny compared to the ‘hole’ in the reservoirs. The blue Loess lines subtly change. Last year those lines ended pointing downwards. This year they end flat-ish. 2023 temps were still above the 20th century average, although close. Another interesting aspect is that the 20C Mean and 21C Mean lines on the individual plots really don’t change much. Finally, the 2023 Natural Flows are almost exactly equal to 2019. (17.678 maf vs 17.672 maf). For all the hoopla about how this was record-setting year, the fact is that this year was significantly less than 2011 (20.159 maf) and no different than 2019” — Brad Udall

Archuleta County considers taking over #waterquality plan reviews — The #PagosaSprings Sun

Septic system

Click the link to read the article on the Pagosa Springs Sun website (Josh Pike). Here’s an excerpt:

The Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) heard a proposal from Planning Manager Owen O’Dell and Water Quality Manager Kevin Torrez for the county Water Quality Department to take over plan reviews from San Juan Basin Public Health (SJBPH) at its Oct. 24 work session…[Kevin Torrez] explained that the Water Quality Department would oversee licensing of local septic system installers…Development Director Pamela Flowers stated that the cost for licensing would be approximately $50, which would cover administering a test created by the state and providing a certification document. [Torrez] highlighted that the Archuleta County Board of Health would ap- prove OWTS variances and that OWTS inspections would also occur upon transfer of title for a property with an OWTS…

Torrez briefly covered inspection and maintenance of high-level treatment systems before moving on to discussing lagoons, noting that lagoons are allowed if they were permitted before 1967. He indicated that there is an after- the-fact permitting system for unpermitted lagoons, but new lagoons are not allowed…Torrez explained that the Water Quality Department would inspect these lagoons and determine if they are functional and can receive a permit or if they need to be abandoned…

In response to a request for legal advice from [Verionica] Medina, [Todd] Weaver stated that this would be possible, noting that the laws governing the dissolution of health districts are limited. He added that he did not foresee a legal challenge to this change.

Research article: Low-intensity fires mitigate the risk of high-intensity wildfires in #California’s forests — Science Advances #ActOnClimate

UC Davis students, academics and members of the local Native American community take part in a collaborative cultural burn at the Tending and Gathering Garden at the Cache Creek Nature Preserve in Woodland, Calif. Photo: Alysha Beck/UC Davis

Click the link to access the article on the Science Advance website (Wu, Et al.) Here’s the abstract:


The increasing frequency of severe wildfires demands a shift in landscape management to mitigate their consequences. The role of managed, low-intensity fire as a driver of beneficial fuel treatment in fire-adapted ecosystems has drawn interest in both scientific and policy venues. Using a synthetic control approach to analyze 20 years of satellite-based fire activity data across 124,186 square kilometers of forests in California, we provide evidence that low-intensity fires substantially reduce the risk of future high-intensity fires. In conifer forests, the risk of high-intensity fire is reduced by 64.0% [95% confidence interval (CI): 41.2 to 77.9%] in areas recently burned at low intensity relative to comparable unburned areas, and protective effects last for at least 6 years (lower bound of one-sided 95% CI: 6 years). These findings support a policy transition from fire suppression to restoration, through increased use of prescribed fire, cultural burning, and managed wildfire, of a presuppression and precolonial fire regime in California.

Weighing options for protecting the #CrystalRiver: Some say Wild & Scenic still the ‘gold standard’ — @AspenJournalism #RoaringForkRiver

An image of the Crystal River Valley from an EcoFlight mission in August 2022. The view is downvalley, toward Mount Sopris. A group is exploring a federal designation of wild and scenic for the Crystal River in Gunnison and Pitkin counties. Courtesy of Ecoflight

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

In Colorado, there are several ways to protect rivers, which vary depending on the goals. 

To maintain water quality, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment offers an Outstanding Waters designation. If boosting the flows for boating is the goal, municipalities can get a Recreational In-Channel Diversion (RICD) water right. And to protect the environment, the state water board acquires instream-flow water rights, designed to maintain minimum flows. 

But if the goal is preventing dams and transbasin diversions, and guaranteeing a free-flowing river, experts say a federal Wild & Scenic designation is the gold standard. That was the message from some presenters at a community summit on the Crystal River on Thursday at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale. 

“It’s the strongest, most robust form of river protection,” said Jennifer Back, a retired employee of the National Park Service and former member of the Interagency Wild & Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council. “If you like what’s out there right now, Wild & Scenic River designation does a really good job of protecting what’s there.”

Back was one of eight presenters at Thursday’s [October 26, 2023] open house, organized by a steering committee that is exploring the feasibility of Wild & Scenic designation and other management and protection alternatives. The committee is chaired by representatives from the town of Marble, Gunnison County, Pitkin County and the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

The meeting, which drew about 130 people, was the second community summit of a public stakeholder process aimed at evaluating local interest in pursuing protections for the Crystal River, which flows about 40 miles from its headwaters, in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, and through the towns of Marble, Redstone and Carbondale before its confluence with the Roaring Fork River. 

Some residents of the Crystal Valley, along with Pitkin County, have long been proponents of a Wild & Scenic designation. But others, wary of any federal involvement, have balked at the idea. 

Manette Anderson, one of just a handful of residents of Crystal, a tiny historic hamlet named for the river, is a member of the steering committee. She said she’s still learning and that it’s too early in the process for her to yet be in favor of, or dismiss, any of the options. 

“Going into all this, I thought Wild & Scenic would probably not be an option I would be interested in, generally speaking, because of anecdotal concerns that other people in other areas of the country have had with Wild & Scenic experiences,” she said. “But I’m open to learning about it.”

The U.S. Forest Service determined in the 1980s that portions of the Crystal River were eligible for designation under the Wild & Scenic River Act, which seeks to preserve in a free-flowing condition, rivers with outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic and cultural values.

There are three categories under a designation: wild, which describes sections inaccessible except by trail, with shorelines that are primitive; scenic, which describes shorelines largely undeveloped but accessible by roads in some places; and recreational, which describe places readily accessible by road or railroad and that have development along the shoreline.

The initial Forest Service proposal for the Crystal included all three designations: wild in the upper reaches of the river’s wilderness headwaters; scenic in the middle stretches; and recreational from Marble to the Sweet Jessup canal headgate. Each river with a Wild & Scenic designation has unique legislation written for it that can be customized to address local stakeholders’ values and concerns.

Any designation would take place upstream from the big agricultural diversions on the lower portion of the river near Carbondale. 

According to Back, the management framework for a Wild & Scenic River can be as unique as the river itself, and involve cooperative agreements between federal, state and local agencies. The “teeth” of the designation, she said, comes from an outright prohibition on federal funding or licensing of any new Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)-permitted dam. A designation would also require review of federally assisted water resource projects.

“What we mean by that is a project that basically is in the waterway below the ordinary high-water mark,” she said. “It could be a bridge; it could be a road; it could be power lines. It’s not an outright prohibition, but they do have to be reviewed before the project goes forward.”

Back said there are 228 rivers in the country with a Wild & Scenic designation. Many of them are in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. But with water managers historically unwilling to tie up potential future water development, Colorado has just 76 miles of one river — the Cache la Poudre — designated as Wild & Scenic. 

Jennifer Back, a retired National Park Service employee and former member of the Interagency Wild and Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council talks with Crystal River valley resident Larry Darien at Thursday’s community summit on the Crystal River. Darien, who is on the steering committee exploring management options, has said he is in favor of protecting the Crystal but not in the form of a federal Wild & Scenic designation.

Protection options

In addition to Outstanding Waters, instream-flow water rights and RICDs, other potential river protections detailed at Thursday’s meeting include creating a National Conservation Area or Special Management Area (environmentalists are pursuing this on the Dolores River after determining that Wild & Scenic isn’t politically feasible there); 1041 regulations, which allow counties to maintain control over certain development; and local options such as riparian restoration projects and leasing agreements where water users can loan some of their water for the benefit of the environment. 

Another option would be to create a management plan that doesn’t carry the same restrictions as Wild & Scenic but is still aimed at protecting ORVs, much like a stakeholder group on the upper Colorado River completed in 2020. This alternative management plan took more than 12 years to come to fruition, and participation of the stakeholders is voluntary. 

Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas-Kury, a member of the steering committee, said she continues to think that a Wild & Scenic designation is the best option for river protection that meets the criteria laid out by the stakeholder process: prevention of dams and out-of-basin diversions; sustainable recreation and tourism; support of local agriculture, water rights and property rights; limiting future development; and maintaining a healthy river corridor. 

After Thursday’s presentations, attendees were asked to fill out a survey that ranked how well each option met these criteria.

A Wild & Scenic designation would not preclude any of the other protection options; multiple approaches could take place at the same time.

“Wild & Scenic would never get in the way of (Outstanding Waters), but Outstanding Waters is not going to give us what a Wild & Scenic River designation might,” McNicholas-Kury said. 

According to McNicholas-Kury, the steering committee is striving for consensus among its members before it makes a recommendation to the public about a path forward for Crystal River protections. But if consensus cannot be reached, they can go to a super-majority vote that would require agreement of at least 75% of committee members.

“Folks have really come in with a desire to learn and a desire to keep an open mind,” she said. “I think there is a ton of consensus around wanting to protect the river, so I’m hopeful that we’ll get there.”

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69290878

#Drought news November 9, 2023: Dry conditions persisted across the High Plains where temperatures are above normal, with #Wyoming and #Colorado seeing temperatures of 3-8 degrees above normal

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor website.

Click the link to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:

This Week’s Drought Summary

Residual impacts from the prior week’s storm continued to bring some improvements to the Pacific Northwest, northern Plains and upper Midwest. However, in the South and Southeast, conditions continue to rapidly deteriorate, leading to flash drought and widespread expansion of drought conditions.,,

High Plains

Dry conditions persisted across the High Plains where temperatures are above normal, with Wyoming and Colorado seeing temperatures of 3-8 degrees above normal. The eastern boundary experienced near- or slightly-above-normal temperatures, except for North Dakota where temperatures were 3 or more degrees below normal. South Dakota and northeastern Nebraska continued to see improvements as remnants of the past week’s precipitation aid in dry conditions. There were 1-category improvements along the eastern South Dakota and northeastern Nebraska borders. Areas in South Dakota are so wet that producers have reported issues with planting winter crops…

Colorado Drought Monitor one week change map ending November 7, 2023.


An atmospheric river cascaded over parts of the Pacific Northwest, bringing several inches of new rain and snow accumulation along with last week’s precipitation. With this continued influx of precipitation, modest 1-category improvements were made across the northwest, particularly on the windward side of the Cascade Range. Further improvements were seen in northern Idaho and Montana, which received up to 4 inches of precipitation in some areas. Despite the deluge of precipitation over the last one to two weeks, temperatures have been 1-3 degrees above normal, and south-central Montana even had temperatures of 6-9 degrees above normal. The remaining states in the West remained status quo…


Dry conditions continued across the South, with the entire region at or below 25% of normal precipitation. Despite this lack of precipitation, there was some relief in terms of temperatures, which were 2-4 degrees below normal. Areas of Louisiana and Mississippi were up to 8 degrees below normal. Louisiana and Mississippi did not see any drought relief, with 1-category degradations across the two states. In Louisiana, over 50% of the state is in Exceptional Drought, and in Mississippi rapid deterioration spilling eastward from Louisiana resulted in 1-category degradations. Tennessee is also in Extreme Drought, and Exceptional Drought was introduced along the tri-state border, along with Alabama and Georgia. Extreme and Severe drought also migrated northward. Texas and Oklahoma remained largely unchanged, with some improvements in central Texas and status quo conditions for Oklahoma…

Looking Ahead

Over the next five to seven days, much of the western and central Gulf Coast region will likely see 2-5 inches of precipitation as an unformed tropical depression makes its way north from Cuba into the western Gulf of Mexico. Some of this moisture will continue across the Southeast. The Casacade Mountian range and surrounding areas are likely to continue to receive more moisture. Temperatures are expected to be slightly below normal in Texas, the south Atlantic region and the Northeast. The High Plans and parts of the northern West and Midwest are likely to see maximum temperatures of 8-12 degrees above normal.

The six- to 10-day outlook shows a strong chance of above-normal temperatures centered over the eastern High Plains and western Midwest. Much of the rest of the county is also projected to experience above-normal temperatures. Below-normal precipitatation is forecasted across much of the northern regions from eastern Montana to Maryland and Maine. The West is projected to have above-normal precipitation, particularly in central and southern California as well as Alaska and Hawaii.

US Drought Monitor one week change map ending November 7, 2023.

Just for grins here’s a slideshow of early November US Drought Monitor maps for the past several years.

EPA report says #LincolnCreek contamination is naturally occurring — @AspenJournalism #RoaringForkRiver

Lincoln Creek was yellow as it flowed into Grizzly Reservoir in September 2022. A report from the Environmental Protection Agency says metals contamination in the creek and reservoir is a result of natural causes, not a nearby mine. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

The results of water quality testing on Lincoln Creek show that the waterway is toxic to fish and that metals concentrations have been increasing in recent years. But because the main source of the contamination is a nearby tributary — and not a mine — it is unclear who should take responsibility for cleaning it up.

report released this week by the Environmental Protection Agency shows that Lincoln Creek in the four miles between the Ruby Mine and Grizzly Reservoir exceeds state water quality standards for aquatic life for aluminum, cadmium, copper, iron, lead, manganese and zinc. Aluminum and copper concentrations were higher than standards set by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in multiple locations: in Lincoln Creek downstream of Ruby Mine, in Grizzly Reservoir and in Lincoln Creek downstream of the reservoir.

“The high concentrations of these metals are toxic to aquatic life and make Lincoln Creek uninhabitable for fish,” the report says. 

The report is based on water quality sampling data from 2022.

Karin Teague, executive director of the Independence Pass Foundation, said she is glad the report is finally out so that the community can talk about what to do about the contamination. The foundation’s mission is to restore and protect the ecological integrity of the pass corridor. 

“We have a dead creek on our hands,” Teague said. “It’s a hard thing to see, and it’s a disaster for the living things that used to call the creek home. It’s bad for the wildlife and has human health implications.”

But those human health implications remain unclear. 

In addition to exceeding standards for aquatic life, the report says cadmium, copper, iron and nickel were present in concentrations exceeding the state standards for domestic water supply. 

Lincoln Creek feeds into the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Company’s transmountain diversion system, in which Grizzly Reservoir is used as a collection pond before sending water through the Twin Lakes Tunnel to the Front Range, where it is used primarily in Front Range cities, including for drinking water. Colorado Springs Utilities owns the majority of the water in the Twin Lakes system. 

The report says there is a slight potential that the metals are contaminating drinking water, but the substantial mixing, the distance that the water travels and the filtration limit these impacts. Lincoln Creek is a tributary of the Roaring Fork River, but Aspen’s domestic water supply is not affected; the city’s drinking water comes primarily from Castle Creek.  

Colorado Parks and Wildlife stocks Grizzly Reservoir with fish each year, making it a popular and scenic spot for summer alpine fishing and camping. There have been fish die-offs in the reservoir in recent years, including 2021. But CPW aquatic biologist Kendall Bakich said that since Grizzly Reservoir is diluted with water from several surrounding cleaner drainages, fish can still survive there and CPW plans to continue stocking. 

CPW stocks the reservoir with “catchable trout,” meaning anglers can take them out and eat them. Since the trout have been raised in hatcheries with clean water and food, and have probably lived in the reservoir for only a short time (most trout that aren’t caught by anglers during the summer don’t survive the harsh winter in Grizzly), Bakich said they are not likely to pose a risk to human health. But CPW tested the tissue anyway of some of the few fish that made it through the winter since they would have the most exposure to the toxic metals.

“We haven’t gotten the results back on those tissue samples,” Bakich said. “At this point, what we know about copper and how it resides in a fish’s body, it resides in the organs and people don’t eat the organs. If you are harvesting fish in the summer, they have just been put in there.” 

Grizzly Reservoir was a bright shade of turquoise in September 2022. The man-made alpine lake has high concentrations of metals that are toxic to fish, according to a report from the Environmental Protection Agency. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Natural source of contamination

The report points to natural sources as the culprit for creek contamination, referring to a “mineralized tributary.” The mineralized tributary in question is a drainage in a steep slope above Ruby Mine, which flows into Lincoln Creek just below the discharge from the Ruby Mine portal. Prospectors dug for gold, silver, lead and copper at now-defunct Ruby Mine in the early 1900s.

The report says that the mine discharge and the mineralized tributary have very different water chemistry and that the contamination has been traced back to the tributary, not the mine. The report estimates that the mineralized tributary contributes 98.5% of the copper contamination to Lincoln Creek.

“While historical mining does appear to play a role in some of the impacts to Lincoln Creek, all of the data and observations point to natural sources as the major component of metals loading into Lincoln Creek,” the report reads. “Therefore, cleanup or removal activities associated with Ruby Mine would have minimal benefits to improve the overall quality of Lincoln Creek.”

The EPA is authorized to address elevated metals concentrations only from human-caused sources, not contamination from natural sources.

Yellow and white sediment settled on the streambed of Lincoln Creek in September 2022, prompting concerns from residents and local organizations, and water quality testing. A report from the EPA found that the creek has metals concentrations that are toxic to fish. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Climate change a cause?

Water quality issues on Lincoln Creek have been a concern for years, with the creek above the reservoir often running a yellowish color, and Grizzly Reservoir often a bright turquoise. In September 2022, Lincoln Creek below the reservoir turned a milky-green color, and white and yellow sediment settled on the streambed, prompting water quality testing in the fall of 2022 and the EPA report. These conditions in 2022 could be seen downstream at the confluence with the Roaring Fork River, sparking concern for local residents and organizations. 

Although water quality issues on Lincoln Creek are not new, according to the report, the metals concentrations — especially copper — have increased over the past 20 years. And climate change may be to blame. 

“While the exact cause for observed trends is not known, it is suspected that climate change may be altering hydrologic cycles and thawing once-frozen rock deep in the mountain,” the report reads. “These processes could expose more metals-bearing rock to oxygen, thereby increasing potential to generate acidic drainage and dissolution of metals.” 

Now that the findings have been released, the next step is figuring out what to do about the contamination and which agencies should be involved. Pitkin County Environmental Health Manager Kurt Dahl said a meeting has been scheduled for Thursday with representatives from Pitkin County, CDPHE, the U.S. Forest Service, CPW, the Roaring Fork Conservancy, EPA, and the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.

“Being a natural source, (EPA) is not going to deal with it,” Dahl said. “Is there another agency that will deal with it? The question of what are the next steps is one of the more important pieces to answer.” 

Teague hopes to learn more about the potential health risks of the contamination and that the community can figure out a solution to clean it up. 

“This is a community that cares a lot about its backyard, the health of its wild places,” she said. “If we can talk about building $50 million trails, maybe we can talk about millions of dollars to bring a creek back to life.”

Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water, environment, social justice and more. Visit http://aspenjournalism.org. 

Pitkin County supports Aspen Journalism with a grant from the Healthy Community Fund. Aspen Journalism is solely responsible for its editorial content.

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69290878

How about 98.5% emissions-free electricity by 2040? — Allen Best (@BigPivots)

Downtown Denver from the Denver Art Museum. Photo/Allen Best

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

Study finds that existing technology can get Colorado to near-zero electricity without need for breakthroughs in geothermal, nuclear or other realms. It will require a bit of natural gas.

Colorado can decarbonize its electricity very deeply by 2040 without busting the bank. But there’s a catch.

To hit this 98.5% decarbonization level will require accepting natural gas as 1% of the mix along with a small percentage of carbon-based electricity imported into Colorado. And getting there will not require still-costly emerging technologies.

That’s the take-away from a modeling study commissioned by the Colorado Energy Office.

How about 100% emissions-free electricity? That can be achieved, and in several different ways — all of them at a higher price, according to the modeling conducted by Ascend Analytics, a Boulder-based company.

The company modeled two other scenarios deploying deep levels of geothermal, hydrogen, and advanced nuclear reactors as well as other emerging technologies. Still another scenario examined the cost of using simply wind, solar, and existing battery technology. And one scenario emphasized local generation.

These five other scenarios came in at prices of $47.1 billion to $56.2 billion in net-present value — all substantially higher than the $37.5 billion of the less-than-perfect scenario using some natural gas.

Burning natural gas on an as-needed basis to ensure reliability will produce 565,000 metric tons of emissions in 2040. That compares with 40 million tons in 2005, according to the modeling study. This scenario also envisions a higher share of electricity , about 17%, being imported into Colorado.

All the scenarios in the modeling assume substantial amounts of improved energy efficiency, in effect partially eliminating the need for new generation. All models also assume that Colorado utilities will, as required by a state law, be participating in some sort of regional market for electricity by 2030.

Will Toor, director of the Colorado Energy Office, called the study results “huge.”

“The biggest takeaway of the study is understanding that we can get very deep emissions reductions, nearly zero emissions by 2040 while minimizing costs to utility customers. That is not something that we understood going into this study,” he said in an interview.

“As we look at developing the policy framework for 2040, it will be very much informed by that understanding,” he added.

The modeling study will likely deliver the justification for a bill in the legislative session beginning in January that would propose a new emissions-reduction target for Colorado’s electrical utilities. Laws adopted in 2019 and in subsequent years tasked those utilities with reducing emissions 80% by 2030. Most and perhaps all seem to be on track to get there with relative ease.

Some moving higher more quickly

Some utilities expect to get far higher—and soon. Notable is Holy Cross Energy, the electrical cooperative based in Glenwood Springs. It expects to achieve 92% emissions-free electricity by early in 2024 and has a goal of 100% by 2030.

Bryan Hannegan, chief executive of Holy Cross, has long said that the path to 90% was reasonably clear. The hard part, with answers still unknown, he has said, will be that final 10%. And unlike the path to 90%, that final leg will likely be more expensive.

The modeling has any number of assumptions. Some likely are further out on the limb than others.

All the scenarios assume a 40% increase in electrical demand across Colorado during the next 17 years. Population growth will drive some of this new demand. Increased demand will also result from electricity replacing fossil fuels in both transportation and building and water heating.

To satisfy this increased demand will require new generation. Just how much new generation will depend upon the type. Wind and solar exclusively from generators within Colorado coupled with battery storage would require 74,492 megawatts of installed capacity. Having natural gas available will require far less, 44,474 megawatts.

On a more micro level and with a concrete challenge, Platte River Power Authority — the supplier to Fort Collins, Loveland, Estes Park and Longmont — is putting together its resource plan looking out to 2030. Directors in 2018 identified a goal of 100% renewables by 2030 but also attached a handful of conditions to that goal. Five years later, Platte River’s planners don’t see a way to 100% by 2030, at least not without risking reliability or absorbing considerable costs. One scenario calls for 85% renewables. The plan, however, is not scheduled to be completed until June.

For an explanation of the reasoning for a unanimous resolution by Platte River’s board of directors, see a blog by Fort Collins Mayor Jeni Arndt, her city’s board representative.

The Crossing Trails Wind Farm between Kit Carson and Seibert, about 150 miles east of Denver, has an installed capacity of 104 megawatts, which goes to Tri-State Generation and Transmission. Photo/Allen Best

Transmission, seen by many as critical to deep levels of emissions reductions, gets relatively little mention in the modeling report. Arguably, an entire scenario could be built around potential for transmission upgrades, such as greater ease of moving electricity between the Western Interconnection grid, of which Colorado is a part, and the Eastern Interconnection, which starts at Kansas and Nebraska.

Ascend Analytics had conducted similar modeling about deep, deep decarbonization of electricity for Los Angeles Water and Power. The question in that study was what would it take for Los Angeles to achieve zero-emissions electricity?

Twenty years ago Colorado and its electrical utilities almost entirely embraced coal generation as the cheapest energy source far into the future. By 15 years ago, that resolve had weakened. Voters had adopted the state’s first renewable energy mandate and legislators had upped it. Wind prices were swooping down. Not least utilities had become confident of keeping lights on while deploying wind and solar.

A watershed year was 2017. Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest utility, which supplies roughly half of the electricity in the state, sought bids for new electrical generation. The low prices for wind and solar dramatically undercut those of fossil fuels. Proponents of renewables were elated. A year later, Xcel Energy announced its plans for 80% decarbonization by 2030. The paradigm had shifted.

Most of those wind, solar, and storage projects bid in 2017 have now or soon will go on line. Statistics for 2023 are not yet available. However, as of 2022, renewable energy accounted for 37% of the state’s electrical generation, with wind power accounting for four-fifths of that renewable generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Two coal plants have closed since 2017 and now eight more will be laid down before the end of 2031. One, Pawnee, located at Brush, is to be converted to natural gas.

Toor said his agency began having discussions in 2022 about the next steps beyond 2030. The questions guided creation of the modeling study. The state called in utilities, environmental groups, industrial sectors, and others for conversations about how to frame the study.

What some said

Ean Tafoya, the Colorado director for GreenLatinos, a national advocacy group, said he remembers the first meeting occurring in May. Based on the number of those interested in environmental justice invited to participate as stakeholders, he suspects dozens of stakeholders were involved.

The results of the modeling Tafoya described as “very promising.”

“It shows me that the emerging technologies that my community has been very concerned about, that we don’t need them,” he said, referring to hydrogen, carbon capture and sequestration and direct-air capture as well as deep-well geothermal.  “And if we can do this by 2040 without change of policy, that is very exciting.”

If Colorado can find ways to leverage capital through green infrastructure banking and address workforce training, Colorado “can truly be a leader nationally and globally,” he added.

Xcel Energy issued a statement that said the company was “encouraged by the Colorado Energy Office’s findings.”

“We agree there is a need for new 24/7 carbon-free technology to achieve deep carbon reductions. The state’s policies will enable us to reduce carbon emissions greater than 80% by 2030 and will inform our future investments into the local infrastructure necessary to move clean energy reliably into our customers’ homes – while keeping bills low.”

Do Colorado’s modeling results suggest a template for other states or regions of the United States, even other countries? Toor thinks so.

“It is saying that you can get to near-zero greenhouse gas emissions and pollution from electricity generation within the next 20 years —with no incremental cost to customers. That’s true with other states, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a red state or blue state. “Regulators and utilities should be excited about the ability to minimize costs to customers while nearly entirely eliminating emissions. I think that is a really important conclusion.”

That said, added Toor, other states are starting at different places. “We have already had substantial progress.”

Colorado also is blessed with renewable resources. It has wind – not the best, but among the best. It also has strong solar. Again, not the best, but very good.

“I want to be careful about claiming insight into other states, but I do think it is a very striking result that you can achieve such deep pollution reductions simply by developing the lowest-cost resources,” said Toor.

In creating the documents, Ascent based its projected costs of various technologies on projections by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory but also Ascend’s Market Intelligence Team.

How fast will technology move?

Even with those presumably careful calculations based on strong information, how good are they? After all, 20 years ago, the cost numbers argued for coal. Incredibly, some people still try to make that argument.

Also 20 years ago, many smart people projected the imminent arrival of both peak oil and, by extension, peak natural gas. Those projections, based on rear-view mirror data, failed to anticipate the rapid incremental advances in hydrofracturing, horizontal drilling and other extraction technology. From $14.50 per million Btu in 2008, natural gas prices plummeted to $2.50 with the recession – but never returned to the stratospheric levels that justified poking very deep holes across the Piceance Basin southwest of Craig. Meantime, the U.S. became a net exporter of oil.

Of course, we have had similar cost curves with wind, then solar, and now storage prices.

Might the same thing occur with geothermal, using underground heat to produce electricity, as is already done in California and some other places? Sarah Jewett, vice president for strategy at Fervo Energy, suggested cause for similar optimism in her industry during her remarks at the Colorado Rural Electric Association conference on Monday. The cost curve in recent projects in Utah and Nevada has been bending downward, she said.

Earlier that same day, a panel of experts about nuclear energy reported cause for optimism about nuclear, while yet another panel predicted reason to believe hydrogen will play an important role in the future.

Toor acknowledged the unexpected cost declines for many technologies. “It’s quite possible that hydrogen and other technologies will be lower cost than now projected,” he said.

Regardless, he added, these near-zero or zero-emissions pathways should become the baseline.

“I think it would be important that utilities are looking at new technologies and that utility regulators are able to look at getting to even deeper reductions based on what the actual cost trajectories turn out to be,” he said.

Colorado’s energy regulation framework is well suited to achieving those deep reductions —even deeper than the low-cost 98.5% emissions-free that this modeling suggests will be possible.

A final report, after review by stakeholders, is expected in December.

Following are what the modeling study cites as its key findings. The language is verbatim from the report:

  • The Economic Deployment scenario, which relies on current state and federal policies and is projected to meet demand at the lowest cost, is projected to reliably meet electricity needs in 2040 while achieving 98.5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 2040 from a 2005 level while also achieving near zero emissions reduction in nitrous oxide and sulfur oxide.
  • Wind and solar will be the main source of electricity in Colorado in 2040. In the Economic Deployment scenario, 76% of electricity comes from in-state wind and solar; 16% comes from out-of-state imports of near zero-emissions electricity (mostly wind from a wholesale electricity market); and 10% from energy efficiency, with the rest coming from other sources. Across all other scenarios, in-state wind and solar account for more than 90% of electricity.
  • In the Economic Deployment scenario, gas-fired electricity generation meets only about 1% of total need for electricity.
  • Under current cost assumptions, the Optimized 100 scenario, which achieves zero emissions by 2040 using a technology-neutral, least-cost approach, selects a substantial amount of hydrogen and a modest amount of geothermal to complement wind, solar, and batteries. It is 25% more expensive than the economic deployment scenario.
  • The Wind, Solar and Battery scenario is 20% more expensive than the Optimized 100 scenario and 50% more expensive than the least cost Economic Deployment scenario. The Accelerate Geothermal scenario is 11% more expensive than the Optimized 100.
  • The Optimized 100 scenario retires all gas-fired generation by 2040. It replaces retiring gas capacity primarily with clean hydrogen starting in 2032. By 2040, this scenario has 5,061 MW of clean hydrogen and 125 MW of geothermal generation.
  • The model does not select gas with carbon capture or advanced modular reactors in any scenario because of the cost.
  • The Accelerated Geothermal scenario adds a requirement to have 10% of demand met with geothermal in 2040, which results in 1,989 MW of installed capacity (compared to 125 MW in the Optimized 100 scenario).
Mauna Loa is WMO Global Atmosphere Watch benchmark station and monitors rising CO2 levels Week of 23 April 2023: 424.40 parts per million Weekly value one year ago: 420.19 ppm Weekly value 10 years ago: 399.32 ppm 📷 http://CO2.Earthhttps://co2.earth/daily-co2. Credit: World Meteorological Organization

Greeley Water receives $250,000 grant for lead replacement program — The #Greeley Tribune

A graphic from the city of Greeley indicating the likelihood of certain homes to have lead in customer-owned water service lines. The city is working to identify and replace all customer-owned service lines that contain lead. (Courtesy/City of Greeley)

Click the link to read the release on the City of Greeley website (Keri Fishlock):

A $250,000 grant from the Colorado Water Quality Control Division will help Greeley Water identify and inventory water service lines that contain lead. 

As it works to help customers reduce their risk of lead exposure, Greeley Water must create a mapped inventory of water service line materials by October 2024 to meet federal and state regulations. This process helps the city identify and replace any remaining customer-owned lead service lines at no cost to the homeowner.  

Greeley Water plans to use grant funding for the following:

  • Water service line inventory
  • Lead or galvanized service line confirmations
  • Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping and analysis

“This grant is great news for the City of Greeley. It helps speed up our inventory process. It directs more of our available funds toward replacing service lines that contain lead,” said Keri Fishlock, an engineer with Greeley’s Water and Sewer Department.

In recent years, there has been greater national awareness of the potential health risks of lead in drinking water. Water testing confirms that water leaving Greeley’s treatment facilities is treated to a high standard and is lead-free. Yet, lead may be present in older homes’ plumbing, faucets or service lines. Greeley Water is working with customers to identify and reduce those risks. 

Go to www.greeleygov.com/leadsurvey to complete a short survey about your water service line. Participants can win one of three $100 gift cards awarded monthly.

Contact Greeley Water if you need help at leadprotection@greeleygov.com or 970-336-4273.

#Drought #Climate Summary October 2023 — National Drought Mitigation Center

West Verde Creek in Hill Country State Natural Area in Bandera County, Texas, United States. Photo taken Oct. 14, 2023. Wikimedia Commons/ Larry D. Moore , CC BY 4.0 .

Click the link to read the story map on the NDMC website (Curtis Riganti):

Drought Overview

Oct. 31 U.S. Drought Monitor map and U.S. Drought Monitor 1-month class change from Sept. 26 to Oct. 31. Maps and more available from droughtmonitor.unl.edu .

During October, drought coverage across the U.S. decreased slightly, with regional variation. Drought expanded and worsened from southwest Virginia and North Carolina, to southwest Arkansas and adjacent Alabama, to northern Georgia and Mississippi. In Tennessee and adjacent northern Georgia, several locations experienced four-category degradations, and much of the region saw multiple-category degradations. Degradations also occurred in Hawaii, parts of the Utah-Colorado border, Arizona, New Mexico and other scattered locations.

Improvements were widespread in Oklahoma and Texas, especially in the eastern and southern portions of those states, respectively. Some improvements also occurred in the Midwest, with multiple-category improvements in Wisconsin, Minnesota and northern Nebraska. Single- or multiple-category improvements also occurred in northern North Dakota, northern Montana and portions of Oregon and Washington.

Overall, moderate or worse drought coverage dropped from 32.1% to 30.68%. Severe or worse drought coverage decreased from 18.79% to 17.65%. Extreme or worse drought coverage declined from 8.48% to 6.62%, and exceptional drought coverage dipped from 2.35% to 1.82%.

Drought Forecast

U.S. Monthly Drought Outlook for November 2023. Courtesy of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

During November, some improvement to ongoing drought conditions is forecast in western Washington and Oregon, according to the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center. Isolated improvement or removal of drought is forecast in parts of central and northeast Wisconsin, and near the Twin Cities in Minnesota.

Drought improvement or removal is forecast for a narrow strip extending from Wichita, Kansas, through Kansas City to west-central Illinois, and along parts of the lower Ohio River in western Kentucky and southern Indiana. Parts of central and northeast Texas, as well as adjacent southeast Oklahoma, are forecast to experience more widespread drought improvement or removal. Drought improvement or removal is also forecast on St. Thomas and St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands and in northern Puerto Rico.

Drought development is forecast to occur in parts of southwest Virginia, northwest and central North Carolina, and parts of northern and western Georgia and east-central Alabama.


Departure from normal temperature from Oct. 1 to Oct. 31, 2023. Courtesy of High Plains Regional Climate Center.

Despite a chilly end to October, temperatures across the northern Great Plains and Northwest ended the month mostly within 3 degrees of normal. A few spots experienced temperatures 3 to 6 degrees warmer than normal. Parts of central and eastern Montana, and adjacent northern Wyoming and western South Dakota, finished October near normal or a few degrees colder than normal.

October in New England was warmer than normal, with widespread temperatures from 3 to 9 degrees above normal. The last two weeks of October were especially warm in the Northeast, with much of New England checking in at 6 to 10 degrees above normal. Much of the Midwest, south-central, and Great Plains regions finished October somewhere between near normal to 6 degrees warmer than normal for October.

Most of the Southeast saw near- or slightly below-normal temperatures for October. Temperature variations in Hawaii, while widely varying, were mostly within 3 degrees of normal. Temperatures along the Arctic Coast and in southeast Alaska were mostly 1 to 3 degrees warmer than normal, while temperatures in central Alaska were mostly 1 to 3 degrees colder than normal.


Departure from normal precipitation and percent of normal precipitation from Oct. 1 to Oct. 31, 2023. Courtesy of High Plains Regional Climate Center.

Drier-than-normal weather enveloped a swath of the eastern U.S. stretching from Louisiana, Mississippi and northern Alabama to the Mid-Atlantic. Below-normal precipitation also occurred in most of New Mexico, and in parts of western Montana, northern Idaho and Washington. Wetter-than-normal weather occurred in parts of eastern Montana and western North Dakota, as well as parts of central and east-central Wyoming. A swath of above-normal precipitation also occurred along the Nebraska-South Dakota border to northwest Iowa, southern Minnesota and central Wisconsin. Above-normal precipitation also occurred in north-central Texas and in the region surrounding Lubbock, Texas. In Hawaii, Oahu and the windward side of the Big Island were drier than normal during October. South-central and southwest Alaska were drier than normal during October, while the rest of the state was mostly near normal or wetter than normal…

High Plains

High Plains Drought Monitor map October 31, 2023.

Above-normal precipitation occurred in several parts of the High Plains during October. An area spanning the Nebraska-South Dakota border to central and northern Wyoming saw wetter-than-normal weather for the month, with some areas receiving at least twice their normal October precipitation. Above-normal precipitation also occurred in parts of the Rocky Mountains in central Colorado. The southern tier of the state did not fare as well, with many spots there seeing less than half of their normal October precipitation. Localized, much drier conditions also occurred in the central portion of the North Dakota-South Dakota border, where some places reported less than half of their normal October precipitation.

Overall, drought conditions decreased across the region in October. Moderate or worse drought coverage dropped from 26.84% to 21.82%. Severe or worse drought coverage dipped from 15.07% to 11.56%. Extreme or worse drought coverage decreased from 5.46% to 2.87%, and exceptional drought coverage dropped from 0.97% to 0.71%.


West Drought Monitor map October 31, 2023.

The West experienced several areas of drier-than-normal weather during October. Parts of western Washington, northern Idaho and Montana were much drier than normal — receiving half or less of their normal October precipitation. Central and eastern Montana were generally wetter than normal, as were localized spots in Utah, southeast Idaho and northeast Oregon. Central and eastern Montana were generally a few degrees colder than normal, while the rest of the region generally ranged from near normal to 6 degrees above normal.

Drought coverage did not change substantially across the West during October. Moderate or worse drought coverage dropped from 31.24% to 30.63%. Severe or worse drought coverage dipped from 17.7% to 17.65%. Extreme or worse drought coverage decreased from 6.09% to 5.18%, and exceptional drought coverage increased from 0.7% to 0.76%.

USDA Announces Availability of Nearly $50 million to strengthen forest products economy, forest sector jobs as part of Investing in America agenda

Trees marked for forest health initiative above James Creek in Jamestown, Colorado. Credit: Jerd Smith

Click the link to read the article on the USDA website:

WASHINGTON,October 18, 2023 –

Today, the Biden-Harris Administration announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service is making nearly $50 million in grant funding available for proposals that support crucial links between resilient, healthy forests, strong rural economies and jobs in the forestry sector. Made possible by President Biden’s Investing in America agenda, a key pillar of Bidenomics, this funding will spark innovation, create new markets for wood products and renewable wood energy, expand processing capacity, and help tackle the climate crisis.

“A strong forest products economy contributes to healthier forests, vibrant communities and jobs in rural areas,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Thanks to President Biden’s Investing in America agenda, we are investing in rural economies by growing markets for forest products through sustainable forest management while reducing wildfire risk, fighting climate change, and accelerating economic development.”

This announcement is part of President Biden’s Investing in America agenda to generate economic opportunity and build a clean energy economy nationwide. The grants are made possible by President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, the largest climate investment in history and a core pillar of Bidenomics, as well as President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, an historic investment to rebuild America’s aging infrastructure.

The open funding opportunity comes through the Forest Service’s three key grant programs to support the forest products economy: Wood Innovations Grant, Community Wood Grant, and Wood Products Infrastructure Assistance Grant Programs. The agency is seeking proposals that support innovative uses of wood in the construction of low carbon buildings, as a renewable energy source, and in manufacturing and processing products. These programs also provide direct support to expand and retrofit wood energy systems and wood products manufacturing facilities nationwide.

The Forest Service is requesting proposals from eligible entities in the private, non-profit, and government sectors including Tribes, local and state governments, businesses and for-profit entities, institutions of higher education, as well as public utility, fire, conservation, and school districts, among others.

These investments will support forest management projects to improve forest health and reduce wildfire risk across all land ownerships. Byproducts of these activities, like small diameter timber and woody biomass, have historically been of little market value. Thanks in part to these Forest Service grant programs, funding is available to support the use of this often-unused material in many types of wood products.

Businesses that are engaged in or support the forest products economy are eligible to apply for funding to expand manufacturing capacity. These businesses are vital employers in local communities, especially in tribal or rural communities.

The investments will also support the Forest Service’s 10-year strategy to address the wildfire crisis in the places where it poses the most immediate threats to communities. The agency is investing in projects that source wood from activities that reduce risks to communities, like prescribed fire and mechanical thinning to reduce the vegetation that fuels wildfires.

Visit the Forest Service webpage for more information on funding for the Wood Innovations, Community Wood and Wood Products Infrastructure Assistance Grant Programs. 

It was the warmest October on record by a HUGE margin, says @CopernicusECMWE

#ColoradoRiver #Drought Task Force to deliver recommendations December 15, 2023 — Fresh Water News #COriver #aridification

State Capitol May 12, 2018 via Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

The chair of a special task force set up in Colorado to help protect in-state interests on the Colorado River told lawmakers Tuesday that it would deliver its final report to them Dec. 15.

Lawmakers created the Colorado River Drought Task Force when they approved Senate Bill 23-295 last spring. It includes representatives of environmental and agricultural groups, urban and rural water users, and the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, among others. It is charged with developing policy recommendations and new tools to help save water, and ensuring neither water users nor the environment are adversely affected by any new Colorado River programs and agreements.

The 17-member task force has drawn fire from some, who worry that its public discussions of in-state Colorado River water issues could weaken Colorado’s position as it negotiates with the other states in the basin on how to rescue the drought-strapped river system.

“Last year we put a lot of money into our Colorado River negotiating team,” said Sen. Jeff Bridges, D-Arapahoe County. “And what I have heard from them is that this work is not necessarily helpful. I hope you are taking this into account.”

Bridges’ comments came at a meeting of the Colorado Legislature’s Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee on Oct. 31 in Denver. Bridges is a member of the committee.

Task force chair Kathy Chandler-Henry said the group was aware of those concerns but did not share them. “As a task force, we have talked about how we can best support our negotiators … Our plan is to do no harm, protect Colorado, and tell the Lower Basin to clean up its act,” she said. Chandler-Henry is also an Eagle County Commissioner and president of the board for the Colorado River District, which protects local water interests within the 15 counties on Colorado’s Western Slope within its boundaries.

The broader Colorado River system includes seven states, with Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming comprising the Upper Basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada making up the Lower Basin. Chandler-Henry was referring to years of overuse in the Lower Basin, which most experts believe contributed to the current crisis on the river.

Colorado River headwaters tributary in Rocky Mountain National Park photo via Greg Hobbs.

The Colorado River system has its headwaters within Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. As it flows west, Colorado’s massive mountain snowpack generates roughly two-thirds of the water that eventually serves cities from Denver to Los Angeles and millions of acres of productive farmland from Colorado to California.

But a 22-plus-year drought, widely believed to be the worst in more than 1,200 years, as well as a sharp decline in flows due to climate change nearly drained the river’s two major reservoirs, lakes Powell and Mead, last year. The crisis prompted the federal government to order the states to dramatically cut back their water use.

This year, negotiations among the states and the federal government have begun on how to stabilize the river. Suggestions include reducing water use in the Lower Basin, finding new ways to grow food using less water, and improving water delivery systems so that less water is lost to leakage and evaporation.

Interest remains high within Colorado on how to protect water users’ interests in the river here at home as well as how to protect its ecology as climate change continues to sap its flows.

Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, current chair of the Water Resources and Agriculture Review Committee, who was also a co-sponsor of the bipartisan bill that created the drought task force, said he believed the group’s report would prove useful and that it would be important to be prepared for what may lie ahead on the river.

“We are having conversations now so that tools are in place when we need them,” Roberts said.

Task force staffer Kelsea Macllroy said the group will have its draft report ready for public review Dec. 1 through Dec. 7 and that public comments could be submitted during that time via its website. Once the final report is completed, lawmakers will evaluate the recommendations and determine how to proceed prior to the start of the 2024 General Assembly Jan. 9.

Fresh Water News is an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.

More by Jerd Smith

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Map credit: AGU

Humans Are Disrupting Natural ‘Salt Cycle’ on a Global Scale, New Study Shows — University of Maryland

Click the link to read the release on the University of Maryland website (Emily Nunez):

The influx of salt in streams and rivers is an ‘existential threat,’ according to a research team led by a UMD geologist.

The planet’s demand for salt comes at a cost to the environment and human health, according to a new scientific review led by University of Maryland Geology Professor Sujay Kaushal. Published in the journal Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, the paper revealed that human activities are making Earth’s air, soil and freshwater saltier, which could pose an “existential threat” if current trends continue.

Geologic and hydrologic processes bring salts to Earth’s surface over time, but human activities such as mining and land development are rapidly accelerating this natural “salt cycle.” Agriculture, construction, water and road treatment, and other industrial activities can also intensify salinization, which harms biodiversity and makes drinking water unsafe in extreme cases.

The natural salt cycle is characterized by the uplifting of salts to Earth’s surface and the weathering and transport of salts to the oceans. Humans accelerate these natural processes through mining and resource extraction, which also sends more saline dust into the atmosphere. Credit: University of Maryland

“If you think of the planet as a living organism, when you accumulate so much salt it could affect the functioning of vital organs or ecosystems,” said Kaushal, who holds a joint appointment in UMD’s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center. “Removing salt from water is energy intensive and expensive, and the brine byproduct you end up with is saltier than ocean water and can’t be easily disposed of.”

Kaushal and his co-authors described these disturbances as an “anthropogenic salt cycle,” establishing for the first time that humans affect the concentration and cycling of salt on a global, interconnected scale.

“Twenty years ago, all we had were case studies. We could say surface waters were salty here in New York or in Baltimore’s drinking water supply,” said study co-author Gene Likens, an ecologist at the University of Connecticut and the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. “We now show that it’s a cycle—from the deep Earth to the atmosphere—that’s been significantly perturbed by human activities.”

The new study considered a variety of salt ions that are found underground and in surface water. Salts are compounds with positively charged cations and negatively charged anions, with some of the most abundant ones being calcium, magnesium, potassium and sulfate ions.

“When people think of salt, they tend to think of sodium chloride, but our work over the years has shown that we’ve disturbed other types of salts, including ones related to limestone, gypsum and calcium sulfate,” Kaushal said.

When dislodged in higher doses, these ions can cause environmental problems. Kaushal and his co-authors showed that human-caused salinization affected approximately 2.5 billion acres of soil around the world—an area about the size of the United States. Salt ions also increased in streams and rivers over the last 50 years, coinciding with an increase in the global use and production of salts.

Just above the horizon here, a haboob (dust storm) can be seen heading north. This was shot at what remains of the Salton Sea Naval Test Station. Photo credit: slworking2/Flickr

Salt has even infiltrated the air. In some regions, lakes are drying up and sending plumes of saline dust into the atmosphere. In areas that experience snow, road salts can become aerosolized, creating sodium and chloride particulate matter.

Salinization is also associated with “cascading” effects. For example, saline dust can accelerate the melting of snow and harm communities—particularly in the western United States—that rely on snow for their water supply. Because of their structure, salt ions can bind to contaminants in soils and sediments, forming “chemical cocktails” that circulate in the environment and have detrimental effects.

“Salt has a small ionic radius and can wedge itself between soil particles very easily,” Kaushal said. “In fact, that’s how road salts prevent ice crystals from forming.”

Road salts have an outsized impact in the U.S., which churns out 44 billion pounds of the deicing agent each year. Road salts represented 44% of U.S. salt consumption between 2013 and 2017, and they account for 13.9% of the total dissolved solids that enter streams. This can cause a “substantial” concentration of salt in watersheds, according to Kaushal and his co-authors.

The use of road salts in the United States rapidly increased after 1990 as they became a more popular deicing agent than sand. Road salts accounted for approximately 44% of salt use in the U.S. between 2013 and 2017. Credit: University of Maryland

To prevent U.S. waterways from being inundated with salt in the coming years, Kaushal recommended policies that limit road salts or encourage alternatives. Washington, D.C., and several other U.S. cities have started treating frigid roads with beet juice, which has the same effect but contains significantly less salt.

Kaushal said it is becoming increasingly important to weigh the short- and long-term risks of road salts, which play an important role in public safety but can also diminish water quality.

“There’s the short-term risk of injury, which is serious and something we certainly need to think about, but there’s also the long-term risk of health issues associated with too much salt in our water,” Kaushal said. “It’s about finding the right balance.”

The study’s authors also called for the creation of a “planetary boundary for safe and sustainable salt use” in much the same way that carbon dioxide levels are associated with a planetary boundary to limit climate change. Kaushal said that while it’s theoretically possible to regulate and control salt levels, it comes with unique challenges.

“This is a very complex issue because salt is not considered a primary drinking water contaminant in the U.S., so to regulate it would be a big undertaking,” Kaushal said. “But do I think it’s a substance that is increasing in the environment to harmful levels? Yes.”


In addition to Kaushal, other UMD-affiliated co-authors included Carly Maas (M.S. ’22, geology), geology master’s student Joseph Malin, Jenna Reimer (B.S. ’19, geology), Ruth Shatkay (B.S. ’19 architecture; M.S. ’21, environmental science and technology), geology Ph.D. student Sydney Shelton, and Alexis Yaculak (B.S. ’21, geology).

Their paper, “The Anthropogenic Salt Cycle,” was published in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment.

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (Award Nos. GCR 2021089 and 2021015), Maryland Sea Grant (Award No. SA75281870W) and the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments (Contract No. 21-001). This article does not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.

A CDOT driver clears debris from the East Riverside slide south of Red Mountain Pass in early March. This slide is the deadliest on Hwy 550 between Durango and Ouray. In the ’60s a reverend and his two daughters were killed here, and plow drivers were killed by the Riverside in ’78 and ’92, not long after the (too-short) snowshed was built. Courtesy Colorado Department of Transportation.

Colorado River crisis averted? — Jonathan P. Thompson (@Land_Desk) #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Lake Mead’s stark bathtub ring. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

Click the link to read the article on The Land Desk website (Jonathan P. Thompson):

Maybe by now you’ve heard that the collective users of the Colorado River have come together in harmony and agreed to cut water consumption significantly to avoid further depletion of Lakes Powell and Mead. Well it’s true! And the feds even seem ready to sign onto the plan. Maybe you’ve also heard this means the crisis is over and we can all relax and go home now. 

I don’t think so. 

A refresher: The 1922 Colorado River Compact divvied up the river between the Upper and Lower Basin states (Mexico was added later). They assumed at least 16.5 million acre-feet ran down the river each year, when in fact it was more like 14 million acre-feet. This discrepancy became clear over the last two decades as the water users’ giant savings accounts — Lakes Mead and Powell — were depleted to critically low levels.

The “Natural Flow” is an estimate of how much water would flow past Lees Ferry if there were no diversions or dams upstream. Basically it’s the amount of water available for all of the river’s consumers. Source: USBR

That prompted federal water officials to call on the states to cut consumption by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet per year, or else they would implement the cuts themselves. After a lot of wrangling, the Lower Basin states (Arizona, California, and Nevada) finally relented and proposed 3 million acre-feet of cuts. Perfect, right?

Wrong. Their cuts would be spread out over three years, meaning their reductions only amounted to 1 million acre-feet per year, which is far less than needed. The deal seemed to many of us like a non-starter — or at least like very faulty math

But it so happens that the proposal came on the heels of an extraordinarily wet winter in the Colorado River Basin, giving a bit of a boost not only to the reservoirs, but also to forecasters’ optimism regarding river flows over the next few years. Also, water users have responded to mandated cuts and done some voluntary cuts of their own, and the wet year meant they had to irrigate less, bringing Lower Basin water consumption to its lowest point in decades.

“New plot using the nClimGrid data, which is a better source than PRISM for long-term trends. Of course, the combined reservoir contents increase from last year, but the increase is less than 2011 and looks puny compared to the ‘hole’ in the reservoirs. The blue Loess lines subtly change. Last year those lines ended pointing downwards. This year they end flat-ish. 2023 temps were still above the 20th century average, although close. Another interesting aspect is that the 20C Mean and 21C Mean lines on the individual plots really don’t change much. Finally, the 2023 Natural Flows are almost exactly equal to 2019. (17.678 maf vs 17.672 maf). For all the hoopla about how this was record-setting year, the fact is that this year was significantly less than 2011 (20.159 maf) and no different than 2019” — Brad Udall

All of that was enough to prompt the feds to include the proposed Lower Basin cuts in an updated environmental impact statement and to make it the preferred alternative. They seem to think it will be enough to fend off the crisis, for now. And maybe it will be. But here are some numbers to consider:

  • Lake Powell currently holds about 8.7 million acre-feet of water, which is higher than the last two years, but 2.2 million AF less than on this date in 2020.
  • Lake Mead currently holds about 8.8 million acre-feet, which is less even than in 2021.
  • Lake Powell, alone, lost 136,550 acre-feet — or about 44.5 billion gallons — to evaporation between July 1 and Nov. 1 of this year.
  • The combined storage of Lake Meads and Powell is currently at about 17.5 million acre feet, which is less than a third of the total capacity. In other words, the reservoirs are still two-thirds empty — even after the big winter.

Crisis averted? Probably, at least for now. And with an El Niño pattern likely in coming months, we might get another big winter. Still, it seems somewhat imprudent to relax efforts to cut consumption — and to discount more drastic plans for dealing with the diminishing Colorado River.

Click here to read “Breaking down the’breakthrough’ Colorado River deal” from Jonathan written last May.

The Pagosa Area Water & Sanitation District board hears draft 2024 budget — The #PagosaSprings Sun

Near Pagosa Springs. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

Click the link to read the article on the Pagosa Springs Sun website (Josh Pike). Here’s an excerpt:

Discussion of the budget opened with PAWSD Business Manager Aaron Burns stating that the budget presentation was planned to include explanations of debt service coverage and projections — that PAWSD would have approximately $2,622,985 in excess debt service coverage in 2024 — a budget summary, a detailed examination of budget line items and discussion of 2024 capital projects. Burns noted that PAWSD’s actual expenses in a year are often lower than the budgeted expenses, which he partially attributed to difficulties in finding contractors or employees to complete the projects…

The board and District Engineer/ Manager Justin Ramsey then discussed the decision by the board at the September meeting to move forward with constructing workforce housing on a parcel adjacent to Running Iron Ranch. Ramsey noted that the funding in the budget would support initial work on creating such housing. PAWSD board member Glenn Walsh suggested that the board had not decided on the exact format for this housing, but that he believed the board was committed to “doing something really smart that helps our employees.”


Burns then reviewed the operating budget considerations, noting that the district is budgeting for 38 full- time equivalents — up one from last year — and the budget includes a 6 percent “across-the-board” wage increase. He stated that the workers’ compensation experience modification for the district decreased from 1.42 to 0.78 in 2024 and that the health insurance expenses are projected to increase by 5 percent, which he noted is less than expected…

Burns explained that the district’s annual debt service coverage ratio in the water fund dipped to a low of 0.86 in 2023 due to payments on loans for the Snowball plant expansion unex- pectedly beginning in 2023, but that the district would correct the coverage ratios in 2024 due to the ongoing rate study for the district.

Biden-Harris Administration Announces Nearly $64 Million for New Water #Conservation Agreements to Protect the #ColoradoRiver System #COriver #aridification

Graphic by Chas Chamberlin, Source: Western Resource Advocates

Click the link to read the release on the Department of Interior website:

PHOENIX, Ariz. — The Biden-Harris administration today announced $63.4 million in new investments as part of President Biden’s Investing in America agenda for water conservation, water efficiency, and protection of critical environmental resources in the Colorado River System. The investments, which will improve and protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River System now and into the future, are administered through the Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program and funded by the Inflation Reduction Act, the largest climate investment in history.

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton joined federal, Tribal and state leaders in Phoenix today to announce the execution of seven new system conservation agreements in Arizona, which will conserve up to 162,710-acre feet of water in Lake Mead through 2026. The conservation agreements will help finance voluntary system conservation to protect Colorado River reservoir storage volumes amid persistent drought conditions driven by climate change.

The new conservation agreements build on the Biden-Harris Administration’s announcement of a historic consensus-based proposal to conserve at least 3 million-acre feet of Colorado River System water through the end of 2026, when the current operating guidelines are set to expire.

“Thanks to President Biden’s Investing in America agenda, the Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program is helping address, improve and protect the long-term stability of the Colorado River System,” said Secretary Deb Haaland. “The Biden-Harris administration is using every tool and resource at our disposal to continue our sustained, collaborative progress in increasing water conservation across the West.”

“Addressing the drought crisis requires an all-hands-on-deck moment, and close collaboration among federal, state, Tribal and local communities. We are excited to see so many Arizona entities committing to system conservation and partnership,” said Commissioner Touton. “Together, we can come together to find solutions to meet the challenges of these unprecedented drought conditions.”

New Conservation Agreements

The System Conservation Implementation Agreements announced today will commit water entities in Arizona to conserving water in the Colorado River System. Water entities entering into these agreements include:

Historic Funding from Investing in America Agenda

President Biden’s Investing in America agenda is integral to these efforts to increase near-term water conservation, build long term system efficiency, and prevent the Colorado River System’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production. Because of this funding, conservation efforts have already benefited the system this year. 

The seven new agreements announced today join eleven previously announced contracts in Arizona. In total, the 18 agreements executed in Arizona will commit water entities across the state to conserve up to 348,680-acre feet of water in Lake Mead in 2023, and up to 984,429-acre feet through 2026. Reclamation is working with its partners to finalize additional agreements. These agreements are part of the 3 million acre-feet of system conservation commitments made by the Lower Basin states, 2.3 million acre-feet of which will be compensated through funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, which invests a total of $4.6 billion to address the historic drought across the West. 

Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is also investing another $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including water purification and reuse, water storage and conveyance, desalination and dam safety. 

To date, the Interior Department has announced the following investments for Colorado River Basin states, which will yield hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water savings each year once funded projects are complete: 

#ClimateChange is turning swaths of #California’s mountains into ‘zombie forests’ — The Los Angeles Times #ActOnClimate

Pinus ponderosa subsp. ponderosa. Photo credit Wikimedia.

Click the link to read the article on The Los Angeles Times website (Alex Wigglesworth and Ian James). Here’s an excerpt:

The expanse of Sierra National Forest near Shaver Lake is a relic of the climate before global warming. Scientists believe that the conifers won’t be able to survive the current conditions. Researchers at Stanford University found in a recent study that roughly one-fifth of all conifer forests in the Sierra are mismatched with the warmer climate and have become “zombie forests.”


The findings indicate that these lower-elevation Sierra conifer forests, which include ponderosa pine, sugar pine and Douglas fir, are no longer able to successfully reproduce. Conditions have become too warm and dry to support conifer saplings, whose shallow roots require plenty of water if they are to survive into adulthood, Hill said. Giant sequoias also grow in lower-elevation areas of the Sierra Nevada, but the researchers didn’t analyze the risks specific to those trees.

When these forests burn in high-severity wildfires — or are wiped out by drought, disease or pests — they will likely be replaced by other types of trees and brush, the scientists said. That could dramatically slash how much carbon the region can store; provide a habitat for invasive species; and displace plants and animals that call the forests home.

Will #Colorado Fill the Gaps in the post-Sackett World? — Getches-Wilkinson Center (Andrew Teegarden)

Photo credit from report “A Preliminary Evaluation of Seasonal Water Levels Necessary to Sustain Mount Emmons Fen: Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests,” David J. Cooper, Ph.D, December 2003.

Click the link to read the article on the Getches Wilkinson Center website (Andrew Teegarden):


Andre Teegarden. Photo credit: Getches-Wilkinson Center

The Supreme Court’s decision in the Sackett case earlier this year dramatically altered the regulatory framework for wetlands, ephemeral waters, and intermittent streams in the United States. Now, there is a two-step process in determining whether a water is subject to the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) jurisdiction. First, find if there is a Water of the United States (WOTUS) that is a “relatively permanent body of water connected to a traditional interstate navigable water”. Second, if a WOTUS is present, then the Corps must analyze whether the wetland at issue has a continuous surface connection to the WOTUS to the extent that they are indistinguishable from one another. This change to how WOTUS is interpreted will leave many wetlands and other waters unprotected from the impacts of dredge and fill operations. Colorado estimates that 54 percent of watershed areas within the state are affected by this ruling.1

States across the country, including Colorado, will now have to step up and fill the regulatory gap created by Sackett. They will have to decide whether and how to protect the watersheds within their borders that no longer fall within the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act. And while the legal status of those gap waters may have changed because of Sackett, their vital role in ecological protection, agriculture, and recreation has not. This work is urgent. Before we know how to deal with these impacts here in Colorado, we need to understand where the law currently stands and what the state is doing to deal with this regulatory gap.

I. Before Sackett, Colorado’s wetlands were regulated at the federal level.

In Colorado, the Corps issues permits for dredging and filling of Waters of the United States (WOTUS) under section 404 of the Clean Water Act. The process requires individuals to apply to the Corps for a permit, and the Corps then determines if the water or wetland is subject to their jurisdiction, and in turn, if a permit for dredging or filling is required. Before Sackett, this permitting program applied across the state of Colorado to all waters considered to be within the Corps’ jurisdiction under the federal Clean Water Act.

In reviewing applications for permits, the Corps must apply criteria established by the EPA known as the Section 404(b)(1) guidelines.2 The “guidelines” are binding on the Corps and include the following requirements:

  • There is no practicable alternative that would have “less adverse impact on the aquatic ecosystem;”
  • There is no violation of water quality standards or toxic effluent standards;
  • The discharge would not jeopardize a listed species or result in the destruction of adverse modification of critical habitat;
  • The discharge would not cause or contribute to significant degradation of the waters of the United States; and
  • The project must include “appropriate and practicable steps” that “will minimize potential adverse impacts of the discharge on the aquatic ecosystem.”

The Corps also conducts a public interest review based on a range of factors and only issues a permit after weighing the proposed impacts against the potential benefits of the proposed activity.3 In addition, the Corps must comply with other federal requirements, including environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Section 7 consultation under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), identification and consideration of cultural resources under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), as well as consulting with affected Tribes during the permitting process.

Following Sackett, these substantive and procedural protections no longer apply to the “gap waters” that fall outside the jurisdiction of the Corps under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. The state program that is designed to fill the “gap” should be built upon a robust framework that addresses these key components of the Section 404 program.

II. The current law in Colorado is inadequate to fill the gap left by Sackett.

Currently in Colorado, the Water Quality Control Act (WQCA) provides for the protection of all watersheds by prohibiting the discharge of pollutants into state waters unless operators obtain a water quality permit from the agency.4 Colorado defines state waters as “any and all surface and subsurface waters which are contained in or flow through the state, along with certain enumerated exclusions.”5 Colorado specifically recognizes wetlands and those other waters under the definition of state waters as “those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or groundwater at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions.”6 The prohibition on discharge states, “no person shall discharge any pollutant into any state waters from a point source without first having obtained a permit from the division for such discharge” which makes the dredging and filling of state waters illegal.7

The fundamental problem in Colorado, however, is that there is no state permitting program that applies to the discharge of dredge and fill material into state waters. Thus, a landowner has no way to get a permit that authorizes an activity that is plainly unlawful under the Water Quality Control Act. There is no funding mechanism for a permitting program authorized by the Colorado legislature. There are no substantive standards established under state law to guide the development and implementation of a gap waters permitting program. And there are no provisions for how the public would be involved in a permitting process.

These provisions do not exist under state law, because these kinds of permits have always been issued by the Corps under the federal Clean Water Act, until now. The Supreme Court’s decision in Sackett created a gaping hole in Colorado’s program for protecting and regulating discharge and fill activities, and the current state of the law in Colorado is inadequate to fill the gap.

III. Previous and ongoing efforts to develop a state-run regulatory program

 In 2020, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment (CDPHE) began a stakeholder engagement process for designing and implementing a state-run regulatory program. At that time, the Trump Administration was attempting to shrink the scope of federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act by amending the regulatory definition of WOTUS (i.e., the Navigable Water Protections Rule). Recognizing that this process could leave a regulatory gap in Colorado, CDPHE convened stakeholder groups and produced two white papers discussing the impact of these developments within Colorado, summarizing the stakeholder engagement process, and identifying other potential issues to be considered in designing a state wetland permitting program.

Although the process started in 2020, it did not result in legislation moving through the Colorado legislature because the Navigable Water Protections Rule was enjoined by a federal court. The federal government therefore continued to implement the 2008 version of WOTUS in Colorado up until the Sackett decision earlier this year.

In response to Sackett, CDPHE issued a policy on “Enforcement of Unpermitted Discharges of Dredged and Fill Material into State Waters” in July of 2023. The enforcement policy states that the division “does not intend to take enforcement action” against unpermitted discharges if owners and operators supply notice of the activity to CDPHE and the impacts do not exceed .1 acres of wetlands or .03 acres of streambed, or if the activity would not have originally required pre-construction notification to Corps regardless of size. Applicants must provide notice to CDPHE of their intent to dredge or fill and so far, the department has only received eight notifications since the policy was implemented.There are many other details, and parties should review the policy carefully if they believe their activities may be covered.

This enforcement policy is, at best, a short-term solution that suffers from potential defects or concerns, including the following:

Although the process started in 2020, it did not result in legislation moving through the Colorado legislature because the Navigable Water Protections Rule was enjoined by a federal court. The federal government therefore continued to implement the 2008 version of WOTUS in Colorado up until the Sackett decision earlier this year.

In response to Sackett, CDPHE issued a policy on “Enforcement of Unpermitted Discharges of Dredged and Fill Material into State Waters” in July of 2023. The enforcement policy states that the division “does not intend to take enforcement action” against unpermitted discharges if owners and operators supply notice of the activity to CDPHE and the impacts do not exceed .1 acres of wetlands or .03 acres of streambed, or if the activity would not have originally required pre-construction notification to Corps regardless of size. Applicants must provide notice to CDPHE of their intent to dredge or fill and so far, the department has only received eight notifications since the policy was implemented.There are many other details, and parties should review the policy carefully if they believe their activities may be covered.

This enforcement policy is, at best, a short-term solution that suffers from potential defects or concerns, including the following:

Uncertainty for the regulated community: The enforcement policy does not result in issuance of a permit, authorize the discharge, or otherwise change the status of the activity prohibited by the WQCA. This uncertainty may complicate financing and insurance arrangements and create other uncertainties for owners and operators. The policy also applies only to a subset of relatively small projects and does not clarify how other kinds of activities will be regulated.

Lack of public participation regarding notice, permitting, and enforcement: The enforcement policy does not address how the public will be notified and involved in activities that affect state waters. There are no provisions for public notice of activities, or public involvement in the regulatory or enforcement processes, which are important components of the federal program under the Clean Water Act.

There is no funding mechanism to create additional administrative capacity: The enforcement policy does not address the long-term increase in staffing and other administrative capacity for CDPHE to effectively manage a regulatory program that had previously fallen within the Corps’ purview.

Lack of substantive standards and regulatory tools like mitigation: The enforcement policy does not establish substantive standards that guide review and authorization of proposed activities, nor does it authorize the kinds of regulatory tools like wetland mitigation that the Corps and other agencies have used to ensure a no-net loss policy.9

CDPHE has also submitted a request for funding this year to provide enforcement and compliance of gap waters not currently subject to federal regulation. The money will be used for 1 FTE to perform inspections, supply oversight of the coordinated efforts of the state and federal agencies, and to hire a consultant to formulate options for regulating dredge and fill activities at the state level. While this funding is certainly not a long-term answer, Colorado is hopeful that their non-enforcement policy will provide short-term solutions until a formal regulatory program is set up.

Addressing the permitting gap with our state waters and formalizing a plan that protects them from any further degradation is vital. Part of the plan must include legislation creating a state permitting program in Colorado that ensures robust public participation and includes the procedural and substantive safeguards that provide the foundation for the federal program. If we wait too long, we may jeopardize the ecological, social, and economic values that Colorado’s unique watersheds provide to the people of the state.

[1] Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Dredge and Fill White Paper No. 1: Colorado Dredge and Fill Permitting Considerations in Response to the 2020 Navigable Waters Protection Rule (Jan. 29, 2021), at 6, 9-10.

[2] 40 C.F.R. Part 230

[3] 33 C.F.R. § 320.4

[4] Colo. Rev. Stat. §25-8-501(1).

[5] Colo. Rev. Stat. §25-8-103(19).

[6] 5 Colorado Regulations 1002-31.5

[7] Colo. Rev. Stat. § 25-8-501(1),

[8] Telephone Interview with Kelly Morgan, Water Quality Control Division, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (October 3, 2023).

[9] No-net loss is a practical management tool requiring the creation of new wetlands in the same or similar size to the impacted area. Mandatory mitigation programs such as the no-net loss mandate are vital because of the important function wetlands provide in the natural environment.

Download a pdf of “Will Colorado Fill the Gaps in the post-Sackett World?”

Disaster averted on #ColoradoRiver — for now — thanks to wet winter and states’ plan to conserve water, feds say — The #Denver Post

New plot using the nClimGrid data, which is a better source than PRISM for long-term trends. Of course, the combined reservoir contents increase from last year, but the increase is less than 2011 and looks puny compared to the ‘hole’ in the reservoirs. The blue Loess lines subtly change. Last year those lines ended pointing downwards. This year they end flat-ish. 2023 temps were still above the 20th century average, although close. Another interesting aspect is that the 20C Mean and 21C Mean lines on the individual plots really don’t change much. Finally, the 2023 Natural Flows are almost exactly equal to 2019. (17.678 maf vs 17.672 maf). For all the hoopla about how this was record-setting year, the fact is that this year was significantly less than 2011 (20.159 maf) and no different than 2019.

Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Elise Schmelzer). Here’s an excerpt:

The chances that water levels will fall below critical elevations before 2027 are now 8% at Lake Powell and 4% at Lake Mead, according to the new analysis. Previous estimates, based on September 2022 data and an assumption that nothing would change in the management of the reservoirs, had found a 57% chance of critically low elevations at Lake Powell and 52% at Lake Mead. With the improved forecasts, the federal government appears poised to move forward with a plan by the seven states in the Colorado River Basin to reduce use for the next three years. Earlier this year, federal officials proposed forcibly cutting the amount of water sent downstream to the Lower Basin if the states could not find a compromise on reducing use. On Wednesday, the officials said they had ruled out those forced cuts…

The Bureau of Reclamation now will undertake a more thorough analysis of the states’ plan. The plan, created by the three Lower Basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — would reduce water use by those states by 3 million acre-feet over the next three years. Most of that reduced use would be achieved through projects paid for by federal money from the Inflation Reduction Act, including conservation projects in Tucson and Phoenix. The four Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah — signed onto the plan this spring.

Colorado’s top negotiator for the river said in a news release Wednesday that she and her team were reviewing the revised federal analysis and considering whether the analysis can “provide meaningful and enforceable reductions in use to address near-term challenges facing the Colorado River System.”

“If there’s a lesson to be learned from the last few years, it is that we must live within the means of the river if we hope to sustain it,” said Becky Mitchell, the state’s Colorado River commissioner.

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

#Drought news November 2, 2023: Some improvements were made in western #Colorado while there was some slight expansion to the abnormally dry conditions in #Utah

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor website.

Click the link to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:

This Week’s Drought Summary

One of the first significant storm systems of the season impacted the Plains and into the Midwest. Not only did the region see widespread precipitation, but the first real cold air also dropped in from Canada. Snow was widespread through the northern Plains and significant rain fell across portions of Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas as well as in Wisconsin. The Southeast continued to be dry and warmer than normal while cold air dominated portions of Montana into Wyoming during the last week…

High Plains

Significant precipitation was recorded in North Dakota, northeast Nebraska, and central and southeast Kansas. Some of the precipitation in these regions came as snow and it is anticipated that much of the ensuing melt-off will get moisture into the soils. Temperatures were cooler than normal over most of the region with the greatest departures over the western Dakotas where temperatures were 10-15 degrees below normal. A full category improvement to the drought intensities was made over northern North Dakota, central and western Nebraska, and southeast Kansas. Some expansion of abnormally dry conditions took place over eastern Colorado and western Kansas as well as southern Wyoming…

Colorado Drought Monitor one week change map ending October 31, 2023.


Much of Montana and central to western Colorado saw the most significant precipitation for the week, with good amounts of snow in the higher elevations. Great Falls, Montana, recorded over 8 inches of snow for the week and Havre had 5.7 inches. Crested Butte, Colorado, recorded 13 inches of snow for the week while Steamboat Springs had 4.9 inches. Temperatures were below normal for almost all of the region with most areas 5-10 degrees below normal. Areas of Arizona and New Mexico were near normal to up to 5 degrees above normal while Montana and Wyoming received the coldest air and temperatures for the week were 20-25 degrees below normal. The precipitation in Montana allowed for improvement to the drought conditions, mainly in the northern portions of the state. Some improvements were made in western Colorado while there was some slight expansion to the abnormally dry conditions in Utah. Improvements were also made this week in central Washington as the most recent wetter pattern started showing up in the drought indices and indicators, allowing for improvements on the map…


Temperatures were mixed for the week as areas impacted by the strong storm system through the region were 1-3 degrees below normal while those further to the west were 9-12 degrees above normal for the week. Significant rain fell over most of Oklahoma and Texas and into northern Arkansas this week, allowing for improved drought conditions. Lake Waco, in north central Texas, gained 112,000 acre-feet over the past week, taking it from its historic low of 54.5% of conservation storage to 114% of conservation storage. Most of these areas had a full category of improvement to their drought status, with some areas of Texas seeing multiple category improvements to the drought intensity. A full category of improvement was made over much of Arkansas this week with a reduction of moderate and severe drought conditions…

Looking Ahead

Over the next 5-7 days, much of the southern half of the U.S. is expected to be dry with little to no precipitation anticipated in areas south of a line from central California to Nebraska and into the Mid-Atlantic. The Pacific Northwest as well as the northern Plains and Midwest are expected to have the most active weather and precipitation. Temperatures are expected to be warmer than normal over the Southwest, southern Plains and Southeast with departures of 8-10 degrees above normal in west Texas and into New Mexico. Cooler-than-normal temperatures are anticipated over northern California, the northern Plains and upper Midwest with departures of 5-8 degrees below normal.

The 6–10 day outlooks show a good chance of a warmer-than-normal pattern over the southern U.S. and the Pacific Northwest. The best chance for below-normal temperatures is over the Great Lakes and New England regions. There is a high likelihood that temperatures over Alaska and Hawaii will also be above normal. The greatest chances of above-normal precipitation will be over northern California and southern Oregon while coastal areas from North Carolina to Maine will also have above-normal chances of recording above-normal precipitation. The best chance of below-normal precipitation is over the southern Plains and into Arizona and New Mexico.

US Drought Monitor one week change map ending October 31, 2023.

Finding Solutions for Land Use Issues Facing Agriculture — #Colorado Water Trust

Three generations looking out over their farm. Photo credit: Colorado Water Trust

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Water Trust website (Marsha Daughenbaugh):

Heroes are sometimes hard to find. However, in the world of protecting Colorado’s environment, culture and water resources, Colorado Water Trust is a hero.

I have served on the Board of Directors with Colorado Water Trust (CWT) for five years and am continually amazed with the projects, work ethics and involvement of the staff and fellow board members. The positive, “can-do” attitude is proving to be a model of what can be done to protect and improve our state’s river flows.

I became aware of Colorado Water Trust before joining the Board because of their efforts to maintain sustainable water levels in the Yampa River. As a non-legal, non-engineering individual in the water world, it was amazing to me that a non-profit had the interest and resources to purchase water for a struggling river system. My first thought was “they really care about agriculture” because this extra water meant ranchers along the Yampa River would be able to irrigate hay fields and pastures that were threatened with severe drought conditions. A search of CWT’s website opened my eyes to their mission, and I became intrigued with other projects.

Years later, through a strange set of events, I was asked to become part of their Board. They were looking to expand their representation throughout the state with people involved in day-to-day agricultural water and land use. I became a candidate, was accepted, and was thrilled with the opportunity to become involved.

CWT is striving to find solutions for many of the land use challenges facing agriculture: water equity, adequate water quantity, protection of natural resources, retention of properties for future generations, and respect for people who provide food and fiber to our country and world. 

Much has been accomplished and there are many successful CWT stories. We have projects in process and potential proposals are being researched. There is much to do—and Colorado Water Trust is a positive leader in the efforts.

Hero is defined as a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. CWT is an organization  that embodies that definition, and I am proud to serve on the Board.

Marsha Daughenbaugh
Board Member, Colorado Water Trust
Rancher, Steamboat Springs

Kansas State University to lead climate change food-strengthening initiative

Photo credit: Barn Owl Drone Services

by Rachel Mipro, Kansas Reflector
October 31, 2023

TOPEKA — Kansas researchers will turn their focus to wheat, millet and other crops in a federally funded attempt to tackle world hunger.

The U.S. Agency for International Development awarded Kansas State University $22 million to research how best to promote the growth of crops as climate change and global instability continues to derail the agricultural industry.

K-State will lead the Feed the Future Climate Resilient Cereals Innovational Lab, or CRCIL, focusing on sorghum, millet, wheat and rice as major world crops that need to be protected. The university will partner with several other state universities including Cornell University and Louisiana State University, along with international partners in South Asia, Eastern and Western Africa and Latin America.

Jagger Harvey, director of CRCIL and a research professor in the Plant Pathology Department at K-State, said the project will look at ways to make these crops more resilient, including researching seed modification to help double food production and crop durability as climate conditions worsen.

“Kansas farmers and researchers are no strangers to harsh climatic conditions impacting cereal production,” Harvey said. “This makes K-State the perfect home for this new initiative.”

The funding will support collaborative research, along with using plant-breeding technology, such as DNA sequencing and genotyping, crop modeling and quicker growth methods, with the end goal of providing hardier crops to farmers around the world.

Dina Esposito, USAID’s assistant to the administrator for Resilience, Environment, and Food Security, said the initiative would help tackle problems of hunger and poverty.

“Advancing this work is critical to generating a pipeline of climate-adapted crops so we can strengthen the resilience of small-scale farmers and meet their current and future needs,” Esposito said. 

Jared Crain, a K-State plant pathology department research assistant professor who will serve as the associate director of the innovation lab, estimated that more than 50% of the world’s caloric intake comes from cereal crops.

“With the exception of maize, CRCIL is dedicated to identifying and using genetic variation to improve farmers’ production and consumers’ acceptance of the top vital cereals,” Crain said.

The $22 million award is the fifth award that K-State has received through Feed the Future, a federal initiative attempting to combat world hunger. USAID has invested nearly $128 million in K-State innovation labs for research into agricultural areas such as post-harvest losses and increasing harvest yields.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Report: Chemical Recycling: A Dangerous Deception — Beyond Plastics

Click the link to access the report from the Beyond Plastics website:

October 2023 | Beyond Plastics & International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN)

Chemical recycling — or what the industry likes to call “advanced recycling” — is increasingly touted as a solution to the plastic waste problem, but a landmark new report from Beyond Plastics and IPEN shows this technology hasn’t worked for decades, it’s still failing, and it threatens the environment, the climate, human health, and environmental justice. This comprehensive report features an investigation of all 11 constructed chemical recycling facilities in the United States, their output, their financial backing, and their contribution to environmental pollution.

The petrochemical and plastics industries have been aggressively working across America to pass state laws that reclassify chemical recycling facilities as manufacturing rather than waste facilities, which reduces regulation of these polluting plants and allows the companies to grab more public subsidies. As of this report’s release, 24 states have passed such laws. Just like mechanical recycling, chemical recycling is an industry marketing tactic to distract from the real solution to the plastic problem: reducing how much plastic is produced in the first place. 

Deregulating and incentivizing chemical recycling is a dangerous trend with environmental and human health repercussions, though it’s not surprising when you consider how little information is publicly available about what chemical recycling actually does, how it does it, who it affects, how little plastic it removes from the waste stream, and how little product is actually produced. 

This report unmasks chemical recycling’s history of failure, its lack of viability, and its harms so that others, especially lawmakers and regulators, can see this pseudo-solution for what it is: smoke and mirrors.

Drought-affected South, Southwest set heat, dryness records — National #Drought Mitigation Center #monsoon2023

Left: At the end of the third quarter, 32.1% of the U.S. and Puerto Rico was in moderate drought or worse. Drought steadily increased from the beginning of July through the end of September. (Map from droughtmonitor.unl.edu ) Right: Changes in U.S. Drought Monitor categories between July 4 and Oct. 4, 2023, showed improvement in the Northeast, as well as parts of the Midwest, High Plains and West. Degradations occurred in the South, Southwest and along the U.S.-Canadian border. (Map from the U.S. Drought Monitor, droughtmonitor.unl.edu )

From email from the National Drought Mitigation Center (Curtis Riganti):

Drought developed and expanded in parts of the Desert Southwest during an unusually hot and dry North American Monsoon. Maricopa County, Arizona, recorded a statewide average of 1.27 inches of rain (the second-lowest county average total in 43 years of data, according to the County’s  Flood Control District ).

Widespread extreme and exceptional drought developed from central and east Texas through Louisiana and southern Mississippi, leading to impacts including wildfires in Louisiana. All five long-term climate stations in south-central and southwest Louisiana had their hottest August on record, and three of the five sites had their driest August on record, according to the National Weather Service (NWS) Lake Charles 1 .

Drought also developed or intensified along the U.S.-Canada border from Minnesota to Washington. Hawaii was another area of drought development, with areas of extreme drought on the leeward sides of Maui.

Drought and abnormal dryness from a generally drier-than-normal spring mostly improved in the Northeast.

Aspinall Unit operations update: Bumping releases down to 800 cfs November 2, 2023 #GunnisonRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Grand opening of the Gunnison Tunnel in Colorado 1909. Photo credit USBR.

From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

Releases from the Aspinall Unit will be decreased from 1100 cfs to 800 cfs on Thursday, November 2nd.  Releases are being decreased in response to a decrease in diversions at the Gunnison Tunnel.  Tunnel diversions will be reduced by 300 cfs on November 1st, so there will be a short period of higher flow in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon before the release change at Crystal Dam. 

Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1050 cfs. River flows are expected to remain above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future. 

Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, will be 1050 cfs for November through December. 

Currently, Gunnison Tunnel diversions are 800 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 320 cfs. After this release change Gunnison Tunnel diversions will be 500 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon will still be near 320 cfs.  Gunnison Tunnel diversions are expected to stay near 500 cfs for the first 2 weeks of November for late season irrigation of the winter wheat crop. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review. 

Topsoil Moisture % Short/Very Short from — @usda_oce

39% of the US is short/very short for the week ending 10/29. Much of the US saw improvement with snow & rainfall last week, but many southeastern states saw rapid drying. WA, NM, LA, MS & AL continue to see the driest topsoil.

#NewMexico’s Largest Fire Wrecked This City’s Water Source: Era of megafires endangers #water supplies in American West — Circle of Blue

Hermit’s Peak Fire scar. Photo credit: Circle of Blue

Click the link to read the article on the Circle of Blue website (Brett Walton):

October 25, 2023

LAS VEGAS, New Mexico — The largest fire in New Mexico history began with a disastrous government agency blunder. Its consequences for land and a small northern New Mexico city’s water were magnified by man-made climate change. 

In the first week of April 2022, the U.S. Forest Service was setting a controlled burn in Santa Fe National Forest near the rocky promontory of Hermit’s Peak. A tool to thin overgrown forests, prescribed fires are intended to reduce the risk of hundred-thousand-acre megafires that have recently incinerated the American West.

Fanned by shifting winds blowing across dry timber, the deliberately ignited flames jumped containment lines. Then a dormant fire in nearby Calf Canyon reignited and merged with the blaze beneath Hermit’s Peak. Combined, the fire grew into an uncontrolled juggernaut that burned 341,735 acres of public and private land over four months.

But the collision between government error and climate change that produced a colossal fire disaster in the forests of northern New Mexico didn’t end once the flames were extinguished. The fire was a prelude to a water supply emergency that the city of Las Vegas still reckons with.

New Mexico Lakes, Rivers and Water Resources via Geology.com.

The fire burned the upper reaches of the Gallinas River watershed, the drinking water source for more than 17,000 people in and around Las Vegas. The fire had plenty of fuel — the watershed hadn’t had a major burn in more than a century. Ash and sediment flushed into the river from the bald slopes of the burn scar are undeniable threats to the city’s water treatment system.

By the end of August 2022, amid heavy monsoon rains, Las Vegas had a full-blown menace: a deteriorating river and just 21 days of water remaining in storage.

The trials of Las Vegas in the last year and a half are a sharp illustration of climate vulnerability in the American West, the domino effect of climate disasters, and the cost to taxpayers of repairing the damage. Similar cautionary tales dot the region’s map. Fires in recent years have destroyed water systems in Superior, Colorado; Detroit, Oregon; Malden, Washington; and in the California locales of Paradise, Santa Rosa, and the San Lorenzo Valley. 

The risk of high-severity fire is growing due to decades of fire suppression combined with a warming planet. A fuels buildup is being conditioned to burn. As the number of burned acres trends upwards, the U.S. Forest Service expects one-third of western U.S. watersheds to experience a doubling of post-fire sediment flows in rivers by mid-century. Towns downstream of flammable terrain are a lightning strike or undoused campfire away from being unable to provide reliable water service.

The seat of San Miguel County, Las Vegas is one of the poorest municipalities in one of the country’s poorest states. The city’s poverty rate is more than 30 percent. The Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire so damaged the Gallinas watershed – charring the soil and increasing the sediment load in streams – that the drinking water treatment system cannot keep up. It must be replaced. 

Unable to afford such a large expense on its own, Las Vegas turned to Congress. Lawmakers were willing to open the public purse due to the federal government’s role in causing the disaster. The Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire Assistance Act was included in a short-term budget extension that President Biden signed on September 30, 2022. It offered $2.5 billion to compensate property owners for fire damage. The final 2023 budget bill added $1.45 billion to the pot, bringing the total federal assistance for injuries and property losses to $3.95 billion. That includes $140 million to replace water treatment facilities damaged by the fire.

Las Vegas intends a complete overhaul: a new water treatment plant, equipment to remove sediment from river water before it enters the treatment facility, and a system to purify wastewater to reuse as drinking water. Full build-out might take seven years, but when all the pieces are in place it will be the largest capital project in the city’s history.

“It’s huge,” Mayor Louie Trujillo told Circle of Blue about the federal assistance. “We could have never done it. We don’t have the budget.”

The muddy Gallinas River just downstream from the water intake for Las Vegas, New Mexico. Photo © Brett Walton/Circle of Blue

A Chaotic Period

As soon as the fire started, Maria Gilvarry knew that her city’s water supply was in jeopardy.

“The watershed is our water system,” Gilvarry, the Las Vegas Utilities Department director, told Circle of Blue. “So the more of the watershed that burns, the more that impacts our ability to treat and provide water.”

Even as the forests above Las Vegas smoldered, monsoon rains pummeled the burn scar last summer, delivering huge slugs of soil and debris into the Gallinas River. “It was just day after day of brown and black water,” Gilvarry recalled. The sediment load was too thick for the 1970s-era treatment facility. Two of the city’s three reservoirs were incapacitated by the muck.

Forests are on the frontlines of climate disasters. Hotter temperatures are a hair dryer pointed at mountain slopes that bristle with dense stands of trees and understory growth.

Because forests provide a disproportionately large share of the nation’s drinking water, what happens in the woods doesn’t stay in the woods. Though forests are water sources in eastern ranges like the Appalachians and Catskills, the water-forest-fire relationship is especially acute in the drying American West. 

According to U.S. Forest Service research, national forests in the western states account for just 19 percent of the land area. But they contribute 46 percent of the surface water supply. [ed. emphasis mine]

Amanda Hohner, an assistant professor at Montana State University, has spent a decade studying the effect of wildfire on municipal water systems. She says the places most vulnerable to wildfire contamination of drinking water sources share several characteristics. They are small systems with a single, surface water source — usually a river or lake. Who fits that description? The city of Las Vegas, for one.

Las Vegas has a backup groundwater well for emergencies. But Gilvarry said that mechanical problems kept it offline last summer. When the fire started, the Gallinas River was the only option.

It was a chaotic, high-stress period. Evacuated from her property, Gilvarry was running the utility department while staying in a trailer on a co-worker’s property. Her husband volunteered to fight the fire.

The utility crew shifted to round-the-clock operations at the water treatment plant, watching nervously as the fire approached — but never overran — the facility.

“Young staff members could look out and see flames,” Gilvarry said. “And, you know, they wanted to go home with their families at night. So part of my job was to counsel them and keep them safe, while also keeping water flowing for the community. And they did it — those employees were awesome.”

After the fire threat subsided, the task did not get easier. The Army Corps of Engineers installed 10-foot-tall steel Geobrugg netting across side canyons to catch large trees and boulders. The U.S. Geological Survey ramped up its stream monitoring. Straw-filled wattles, rock-filled gabions, berms, and barricades were deployed to prevent ash and sediment from entering the Gallinas. And yet it was not enough. Monsoon rains were severe, and sediment spiked. 

Trujillo and Gilvarry said that Las Vegas made it through the emergency period by focusing on conservation until a temporary state-funded sediment removal system could be installed at Storrie Lake, one of the storage reservoirs. Water department staff talked with restaurants and laundries. They asked car washes to voluntarily shut down. They identified pipe leaks and sealed them. Water was brought in via truck and bottle. Trujillo made frequent appearances on radio, in town hall meetings, at the senior center, at the community college.

“The citizens were ready to help us and they did,” Trujillo said.

After the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire, booms and other structures were deployed in and around the Gallinas River to trap large debris and sediment. Photo © Brett Walton/Circle of Blue

‘A Marathon, Not a Sprint’

High-intensity fires do more than scorch trees and destroy homes. They upend the ecological function of entire watersheds. Burned forests become riddled with impairments. Shorn of trees, the land sheds more water than before. Though more water flows downstream, the costs of megafire outweigh this benefit. Without the forest buffer, floods are more destructive and more common. The land erodes easily. More nutrients are flushed downstream. 

For these reasons, the conservation groups American Rivers named the Gallinas one of the country’s most endangered rivers for 2023.

“The recovery of wildfire can be a little bit different from other natural disasters, in that the impacts can be cascading,” explained Madelene McDonald, a water scientist with Denver’s drinking water utility, which has also contended with the ripple effects of wildfires. “They’re not necessarily all at once, but it’s those repetitive storm events that can cause the greatest impact.”

Subsequent rains following the Hayman Fire in 2002 led to erosion problems and silt buildup in the creeks surrounding the Cheesman Reservoir. Photo credit: Denver Water

It happens again and again in the western states. Nitrogen levels in Colorado streams spiked immediately after the 2002 Hayman fire and remained elevated for more than a decade. Nitrogen is a plant vitamin that feeds lake-befouling algal blooms. And that’s not the only contaminant. Carbon, organic matter, heavy metals, and sediment — all accumulate in post-fire streams.

These chemical and physical changes to land and water are impairments that Gilvarry and her staff will face for years. More organic matter in the river can interfere with drinking water treatment. Disinfection chemicals like chlorine can produce toxic byproducts when too much carbon is in the source water. Sediment also clogs reservoirs and reduces water storage capacity.

The risks for Las Vegas were not unknown. The 1994 Gallinas River Watershed Plan, a joint effort with the city, U.S. Forest Service, and Tierra y Montes Soil and Water Conservation District, noted the need to reduce the fuel load in the watershed. The Viveash fire, in year 2000, burned mostly in the adjacent Cow Creek drainage. But some 820 acres of high-intensity fire did creep into the Gallinas watershed.

“A fire of Viveash’s magnitude occurring completely in the Gallinas Watershed would be disastrous for those who depend on Las Vegas’ water quality,” according to a March 2006 environmental assessment of prescribed fire that was prepared by the Santa Fe National Forest. That is exactly what happened with Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon.

Though the summer of 2022 was a nightmare, the summer of 2023, in terms of water quality, was much better. Monsoon rains were a trickle, not a flood. Sediment levels have been manageable. All three reservoirs are functioning again.

A bright spot for Gilvarry is that Las Vegas itself did not burn. That means there are no contaminants to flush from drinking water pipes. Cities in California, Colorado, and Oregon had to deal with benzene and other volatile chemicals in their water distribution systems after fires burned within city limits.

Slopes above Cheesman Reservoir after the Hayman fire photo credit Denver Water.

Denver’s experience with wildfire is a template for Las Vegas’s future. Both the Hayman fire and the 1996 Buffalo Creek fire burned the watersheds above Strontia Springs reservoir, a storage facility through which 80 percent of Denver’s drinking water passes. Denver Water is still planting trees in the burn scar. Even today, more than two decades after the fires, McDonald sees sediment levels in the reservoir climb after heavy rain.

“Recovery really is a marathon and not a sprint,” McDonald said.

How can communities like Las Vegas better prepare for the race? McDonald is part of the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, a group of more than 50 national and regional fire experts tasked by Congress to recommend policy solutions to the wildfire crisis.

In September the commission submitted its report. Among its many recommendations are five specific to drinking water. In essence, they focus on prevention and response. Before a fire, utilities need to map their vulnerabilities and reduce fire risk in their watersheds by thinning and incorporating low-intensity burns. Risk assessments could identify utilities in need of water infrastructure upgrades – those like Las Vegas that have a sole surface water source or do not have the equipment to handle higher sediment levels. Portland, Oregon, for instance, is building a $1.48 billion water filtration plant, scheduled for completion in 2027, that will filter sediment from post-wildfire erosion in its forested Bull Run watershed.

Congress also has a role, the commission argues. Lawmakers could authorize grant funding for these assessments and amend existing forest restoration programs so that they explicitly target funds to areas with critical sources of drinking water, even though those areas may be far from where people live. Lawmakers could expand the timeline for disaster-relief funding, acknowledging that fire can harm water quality for years.

Gilvarry points to funding as a major obstacle to protecting water for smaller, low-income areas. Even if they are aware of the risks, can they bear the adaptation costs? “For the community to have built a top-of-the-line system ten, twenty, thirty, forty years ago to plan for this would have been multi-million dollars, but it would have come from the residents here,” Gilvarry said. “And I don’t think the residents could have afforded that.”

There are targeted research approaches, too. The Wildfire and Water Security project is investigating how drinking water systems can become more resilient to wildfire. Led by the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station along with academic partners at Montana State, Oregon State, and Washington State, the initiative is considering water treatment options, water quality after fires, and the economic implications of fire damage and risk-reduction costs.

At the state level, the Colorado Water Conservation Board assessed the vulnerability of drinking water infrastructure in the state to wildfire damage. Called Wildfire Ready Watersheds, the program is intended to enable community-level preparation before a fire.

Critical to the effort is the U.S. Forest Service. Armed with $3.5 billion from the two-year-old Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to prepare communities for wildfire, the land management agency has adopted a “fireshed” approach in responding to the wildfire crisis. Firesheds are forest and rangeland units of roughly 250,000 acres that, if wildfire erupted, could damage homes, watersheds, water supplies, utility lines, and other critical infrastructure.

The U.S. Forest Service did not make any staff available for an interview. “The agency collaborates in the development and implementation of source water protection plans,” the press office wrote to Circle of Blue in an email. “In many places, we have agreements with local municipalities on how activities in the municipal watershed will be carried out to ensure the drinking water supply is protected; some of these agreements go back decades.”

A year after being pushed to the brink, Las Vegas residents celebrated the return of the People’s Faire, a community arts festival held on August 26 that had been absent for three years due to Covid and the fire.

Food and crafts vendors lined the sun-dappled lawn in front of the Monticello-inspired Carnegie Library, while children plotted their moves on a giant chess board.

Trujillo, in sunglasses and a stylish floral shirt, acted as unofficial host, greeting nearly everyone who passed by. For a moment, on a warm late-summer day, the water emergency was a memory and all was right in Las Vegas.

“It’s nice that we have all this,” an older woman told him. 

Her friend, who was shopping for Christmas presents, agreed. “When I lived in Oregon, we didn’t have the parades,” she said. “We didn’t have all this stuff that we have here. So it is nice. This little town does a lot.”

This article was supported by The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.

Louie Trujillo is the mayor of Las Vegas. “It was couldn’t have happened at a worst time,” Trujillo said about the fire. “We were just surfacing from Covid. And then the fire broke out and then as a result of the fire, of course, it caused a water crisis in our community.” Photo © Brett Walton/Circle of Blue

Short-term outlook for #LakePowell, #LakeMead improves — The #Aspen Daily News #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

The federal government may reduce releases from Glen Canyon Dam (pictured above) in 2023 by an unprecedented 2-3 million acre-feet, a move that would trigger severe cuts in the Lower Basin. (Source: Bureau of Reclamation)

Click the link to read the article on The Aspen Daily News website (Austin Corona). Here’s an excerpt:

A wet winter and strong runoff season have drastically reduced the possibility that water levels in lakes Powell and Mead will drop to “critical elevations” in the next three years, according to a newly updated draft statement released by the federal government on Wednesday [October 25, 2023].  Citing updated hydrological data, the updated draft statement indicates the short-term outlook for the two drought-stricken reservoirs is not as dire as previously thought…

Estimates in the new draft statement, released by the Bureau of Reclamation — the federal agency overseeing dams at the reservoirs — show a 49 and 48 percentage point decrease in the likelihood that water levels in lakes Powell and Mead will drop to critical elevations by 2027. This assumes the bureau and states take no additional action to alter existing reservoir operation guidelines. The decrease is in comparison with estimates from a previous statement released in April. According to the new draft statement, these likelihoods have dropped to only eight and four percent in Powell and Mead, respectively. A Wednesday press release defined “critical elevations” as low water levels that would threaten hydropower production and water releases through the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams. 

Wednesday’s draft statement attributes the reservoir’s brighter short-term outlook to a wet 2022/23 winter and a strong runoff season in the upper Colorado River basin. The newly revised draft statement used hydrological data from June, 2023, for its modeling, whereas the original document used hydrological data from September, 2022. 

The newly revised draft statement, titled the “Near-term Colorado River Operations: Revised Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement,” is the second version of a draft document released in April, which is meant to weigh the impacts of potential adjustments to dam operation guidelines at lakes Powell and Mead through 2026. According to Wednesday’s draft statement, the bureau is considering adjustments to dam operation guidelines because of “extraordinary circumstances” created by dropping water levels in lakes Powell and Mead. In 2022, declining water levels had reached all-time lows in both reservoirs. The bureau has expressed concern that existing dam operation guidelines created in 2007, along with existing drought contingency plans, would not be enough to sustain the reservoirs in the face of extended drought. According to a Wednesday press release, the statement is part of an ongoing effort to “address the ongoing drought and impacts from the climate crisis” and “protect Glen Canyon and Hoover Dam operations, system integrity, and public health and safety through 2026.”

Grand Junction looking at #GunnisonRiver to supplement water supply — The #GrandJunction Daily Sentinel

The confluence of the Colorado River and the Gunnison River in Grand Junction. Credit: Screenshot Google Maps

Click the link to read the article on The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel website (Sam Klomhaus). Here’s an excerpt:

The City of Grand Junction is considering taking water from the Gunnison River to augment its current supply from the Kannah Creek watershed, which is estimated to need bolstering in about 15 years.

“The city’s primary water source is the Kannah Creek watershed,” Utilities Director Randi Kim said at an Oct. 16 City Council workshop. “And we are projecting that that watershed will not yield sufficient supply to carry us into the longer term future.”

Kim said the city could need to supplement the Kannah Creek watershed with additional sources around 2039.

“We’re looking at our water rights on the Gunnison River,” Kim said. “To do that, we’re conducting a feasibility study this year to evaluate the conversion of two gravel pits along the Gunnison River to water storage reservoirs, and the associated piping and pumping to bring that water to our water treatment plant to supplement those supplies.”


The city is proposing $600,000 in its draft 2024 budget for engineering and design work on converting the gravel pits. Kim said city staffers are looking at grants to help fund the project.

Map of the Gunnison River drainage basin in Colorado, USA. Made using public domain USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69257550

Navajo Dam operations update October 31, 2023: Bumping releases down to 400 cfs #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Map credit: USBR

From email from Reclamation (Susan Behery):

In response to reduced irrigation demand and sufficient forecast flows in the San Juan River Basin, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled a decrease in the release from Navajo Dam from 450 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 400 cfs for tomorrow, October 31st, at 8:00 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. 

#Snowpack news October 30, 2023

Colorado snowpack basin-filled map October 30, 2023 via the NRCS.
Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map October 30, 2023 via the NRCS.

West Slope water interests make a $98.5M play for a major #ColoradoRiver water right — Fresh Water News #COriver #aridification

The Colorado River in McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, near Grand Junction, Colorado, on April 26, 2019. Photo by Mitch Tobin/The Water Desk

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

Negotiations are underway in Colorado to purchase one of the oldest, largest water rights on the Colorado River within state lines, expanding that water’s legal use to include environmental benefits, and creating one of the most significant opportunities in the state to protect streamflows for fish, habitat and wildlife.

Led by the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River District, the proposed $98.5 million deal would allow a coalition of West Slope entities to purchase from Xcel Energy the most senior water right on that segment of the river and lease it back to Xcel’s Shoshone Hydropower Plant eight miles east of Glenwood Springs.

“It feels like the biggest investment we could make for water security for this side of the mountain,” said Kathy Chandler-Henry, chair of the river district board and an Eagle County Commissioner. She was referring to the Western Slope of the Continental Divide.

“I know it’s a big price tag, but in the future it will feel like a bargain,” she said.

That’s true in part because the volume of water is so large. According to Colorado River District documents, the water right generates anywhere from 41,000 to 86,000 acre-feet of water in a dry year. An acre-foot equals nearly 326,000 gallons. For comparison, Cheesman Reservoir, a Denver Water reservoir 50 miles southwest of the metro area, holds 79,000 acre-feet.

Shoshone Hydroelectric Plant back in the days before I-70 via Aspen Journalism

West Slope water interests have been trying for decades to find a way to purchase or at least control the Shoshone plant water right because it provides an important buffer for the river itself and for West Slope water users, Chandler-Henry said. If another electric company or water utility won control of the water right, West Slope interests worried that the water would not be managed in their interests.

Willing partner?

But Xcel has never agreed to a sale of the water right and as recently as 2018 has said it wasn’t interested in changing the status quo.

Xcel declined to comment on this proposed purchase, but Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, said a draft agreement with the utility is in place and that Xcel is ready to support the change, in part to help protect the crisis-ridden Colorado River system.

“Xcel has shown a renewed interest in the health and viability of the Colorado River,” Mueller said via email.

In Colorado, water rights are tied to a particular stream segment and are regulated, or administered, based on the date they were first legally established. The Shoshone water right has a 1902 date.

Under the terms of the current proposal from the River District and its West Slope partners, which include 17 local governments and water entities, Xcel would continue to use the water to drive the turbines in the hydropower plant. When the plant isn’t operating, if it’s temporarily shut down for repairs for instance, the water would remain in the river, protected from upstream diverters by its 1902 water right.

Denver Water is one of those upstream diverters and, in years past, when the power plant wasn’t operating, has been able to use water it would otherwise need to leave in the river to flow downstream to fulfill the plant’s more senior water right. Whether the utility will back the purchase isn’t clear. Denver Water declined to comment, saying it was waiting to learn more about the proposal.

In or out of the stream?

In the water arena, a water right can have one of several designated rights to use, including agricultural, industrial, municipal and, just since the 1970s, instream or environmental.

Water rights are also classified based on whether they take water out of the stream for the intended use, termed a consumptive use, or whether they protect water from diversion so it can continue flowing in the stream for a prescribed benefit, which is referred to as a nonconsumptive use. Most uses fall in the consumptive use category. But the Shoshone water right, because the water returns to the stream once it passes through the hydropower plant, is nonconsumptive, as are environmental and recreational flow water rights, which keep water in the stream for the benefit of fish, wildlife, habitat and recreation.

“The whole state benefits from having a good, strong environment. And because this is the most senior nonconsumptive water right on the Colorado River, its ecological and environmental benefits are huge, especially with drought and climate change,” Chandler-Henry said.

The river district has agreed to contribute $20 million to the $98.5 million purchase, and is asking the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) for an additional $20 million grant. Another $10 million would be contributed by 17 governments and water agencies. The river district is seeking another $48 million from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which has $4 billion set aside for drought resiliency in the Colorado River Basin, according to the grant proposal submitted to the CWCB.

Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River District, speaking at the district’s annual seminar on the Colorado RIver, on Sept. 14, 2018 in Grand Junction. Muller expressed concerns about how the state of Colorado might deal with falling water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

The negotiations are likely to take months, Mueller said, and will require approvals from the CWCB and potentially state legislators, as well as the Bureau of Reclamation and eventually a state water court, which will have to approve the expansion of legal uses from industrial to both industrial and environmental.

Another benefit of the Shoshone Water right is that its bountiful flows help support the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, a federal initiative that works to protect four endangered fish species on the river. Water utilities are obligated to help support the program as well and can face harsh penalties if there isn’t enough water in the stream to support the fish.

“Importantly, upstream and downstream water users all benefit from Shoshone’s contributions to the Upper Colorado Endangered Fish Recovery Program,” Mueller said.

A unifying effect

Environmental groups such as American Rivers see the proposed purchase as a major opportunity to help stabilize the Colorado River within state lines and across its seven-state basin.

Matt Rice is southwest regional director for American Rivers. “I see this as a real opportunity to do a really big transformative thing for the river and the state, and an opportunity to unify the state around the river. A big thing like this has a way of bringing people together,” he said.

Chuck Ogilby is a long-time river advocate and former member of the Colorado (River) Basin Roundtable, a public group that represents local water users reliant on the Colorado River mainstem within Colorado and that helps decide how state funding is spent within the basin.

“It’s the best news the Western Slope could ever have,” Ogilby said. “All we can do now is cross our fingers and hope the West Slope gets those water rights.”

New plot using the nClimGrid data, which is a better source than PRISM for long-term trends. Of course, the combined reservoir contents increase from last year, but the increase is less than 2011 and looks puny compared to the ‘hole’ in the reservoirs. The blue Loess lines subtly change. Last year those lines ended pointing downwards. This year they end flat-ish. 2023 temps were still above the 20th century average, although close. Another interesting aspect is that the 20C Mean and 21C Mean lines on the individual plots really don’t change much. Finally, the 2023 Natural Flows are almost exactly equal to 2019. (17.678 maf vs 17.672 maf). For all the hoopla about how this was record-setting year, the fact is that this year was significantly less than 2011 (20.159 maf) and no different than 2019.

Water woes, hot summers and labor costs are haunting pumpkin farmers in the West — The Associated Press

Creating a balance of water that’s taken from aquifers and water that replenishes aquifers is an important aspect of making sure water will be available when it’s needed. Image from “Getting down to facts: A Visual Guide to Water in the Pinal Active Management Area,” courtesy of Ashley Hullinger and the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center

Click the link to read the article on the Aurora Sentinel website (AP — Brittany Petersen). Here’s an excerpt:

For some pumpkin growers in states like Texas, New Mexico and Colorado, this year’s pumpkin crop was a reminder of the water challenges hitting agriculture across the Southwest and West as human-caused climate change exacerbates drought and heat extremes. Some farmers lost 20% or more of their predicted yields; others, like Mazzotti, left some land bare. Labor costs and inflation are also narrowing margins, hitting farmers’ ability to profit off what they sell to garden centers and pumpkin patches. This year’s thirsty gourds are a symbol of the reality that farmers who rely on irrigation must continue to face season after season: they have to make choices, based on water allotments and the cost of electricity to pump it out of the ground, about which acres to plant and which crops they can gamble on to make it through hotter and drier summers. Pumpkins can survive hot, dry weather to an extent, but this summer’s heat, which broke world records and brought temperatures well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) to agricultural fields across the country, was just too much, said Mark Carroll, a Texas A&M extension agent for Floyd County, which he calls the “pumpkin capital” of the state…

Steven Ness, who grows pinto beans and pumpkins in central New Mexico, said the rising cost of irrigation as groundwater dwindles is an issue across the board for farmers in the region. That can inform what farmers choose to grow, because if corn and pumpkins use about the same amount of water, they might get more money per acre for selling pumpkins, a more lucrative crop. But at the end of the day, “our real problem is groundwater, … the lack of deep moisture and the lack of water in the aquifer,” Ness said. That’s a problem that likely won’t go away because aquifers can take hundreds or thousands of years to refill after overuse, and climate change is reducing the very rain and snow needed to recharge them in the arid West.

Ventucci Farm pumpkin harvest back in the day. Photo credit: Facebook.com

New 2023 Four Panel Figure for the #ColoradoRiver Basin — Brad Udall #COriver #aridification

New plot using the nClimGrid data, which is a better source than PRISM for long-term trends. Of course, the combined reservoir contents increase from last year, but the increase is less than 2011 and looks puny compared to the ‘hole’ in the reservoirs. The blue Loess lines subtly change. Last year those lines ended pointing downwards. This year they end flat-ish. 2023 temps were still above the 20th century average, although close. Another interesting aspect is that the 20C Mean and 21C Mean lines on the individual plots really don’t change much. Finally, the 2023 Natural Flows are almost exactly equal to 2019. (17.678 maf vs 17.672 maf). For all the hoopla about how this was record-setting year, the fact is that this year was significantly less than 2011 (20.159 maf) and no different than 2019.

Also from Brad in email:

“You asked about Social Media. I’m disgusted with Elon and have been completely quiet on Twitter. It is only a matter of time before I delete my account for good.  I have both BlueSky and Threads accounts but both have only about 10 followers as I have not posted.  Mostly the world gets me down these days and I have a hard time thinking Social Media is a force for the good. Feel free to post this.”

Carbon Monitor global CO₂ emissions updates: January-September of 2023 is +0.7% than that of 2022, +3.5% of 2019 (pre-pandemic level). Data download https://carbonmonitor.org — Zhu Liu @LiuzhuLiu #ActOnClimate

Lobatos Bridge at the intersection of history, recreation — @AlamosaCitizen #RioGrande

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

One of Colorado’s oldest areas sees renewed interest

Acouple of years back there was a post on Facebook that identified locations of petroglyphs which exist in eastern Conejos County and western Costilla County, near historic Lobatos Bridge.

Vandals took notice and defaced the ancient carvings, and in turn heightened the concern among local land managers and residents who talk about the Facebook episode and fear too much public exposure to one of Colorado’s oldest areas could have a detrimental effect on preserving the cultural heritage of the southern end of the San Luis Valley.

Rio Grande. Photo credit: Ryan Scavo/Big River Collective

The Lobatos Bridge corridor has more than 10,000 years of human occupation and heritage to it, and serves as a gateway for the Rio Grande as it flows into northern New Mexico and then south into El Paso, Texas. It’s the Pass of the North, El Paso del Norte, that is considered the cradle of civilization of the Southwest United States. People followed the Rio Grande north, including into the San Luis Valley.

The traces of history are strong in the southern end of the San Luis Valley, and any efforts to bring attention to the favorite fishing holes and hunting grounds for generations of families is frowned upon and can be met with unfortunate displeasure.

It is with this understanding that two efforts are underway to carefully and thoughtfully showcase the public land corridors of the Lobatos Bridge and the Rio Grande Natural Area. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is moving forward on creating the Lobatos Bridge Recreation & Interpretive area to showcase its history and to provide boat access and other recreational opportunities on the Rio Grande at Lobatos Bridge. BLM officials, along with champions of the project which include the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area and San Luis Valley Great Outdoors, met this month with residents of Conejos County to update them on a timeline for an educational outdoor classroom and public recreation in place come late 2024. Key to the timeline is an upcoming decision from Great Outdoors Colorado to provide grant funding.

A separate push is underway in Conejos County to revive the idea of connecting the Rio Grande corridor for recreational purposes from the Alamosa Wildlife Refuge through the Lobatos Bridge passageway and into northern New Mexico and the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge near Taos. It’s a conversation fraught with lessons learned from the last time the idea of creating a national monument area between the two states and along the Rio Grande was tried and met with distrust.

Both the Lobatos Bridge recreational and educational area and the idea of establishing either a national conservation area designation or national monument designation for the Rio Grande corridor into New Mexico are considered potential boons for Conejos County and its efforts to expand its recreational footprint and the potential for more discovery of the historic landmarks among tourists.

Casting an imposing shadow over all of it is one Ken Salazar, currently the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, and former U.S. senator, former U.S. secretary of the interior, former Colorado attorney general, and always a Valley native who touts his roots. His name came up at the BLM meeting on Lobato Bridge and is on the minds of local organizers working on a Rio Grande national conservation area designation. It’s both his love for his homeland and his concern for the local Conejos County economy that continues to hold his interest and help spur efforts forward, according to those who stay in touch.

Photo credit: Ryan Scavo/Big River Collective

History behind the projects

Sean Noonan, the outdoor recreation planner for BLM’s field office in the San Luis Valley, provided Conejos County meeting attendees in September with the history of the Lobatos Bridge project and why now. He took the crowd back to the late 1970s and how BLM came to swap land with a local property owner to gain control of the Lobatos Bridge area, and then the years of efforts to put in place a wild and scenic river designation for the Rio Grande area from the Valley into New Mexico.

It was during the process of the wild and scenic river designation debate that the federal government’s master planning fell off track due to its efforts to secure a guarantee of a federal water right along the Rio Grande, which raised the ire of local irrigators. Once heads cooled and the federal government backed off the guaranteed water rights concept, the designation became official. Now BLM talks about the recreation and heritage corridor at Lobatos Bridge as a way to keep history alive.

“It starts with millions of years of geology and the river that runs through it, and all the plants and animals, and all the people that have come up that river since time and memorial and the centuries of history that are literally scratched into the walls of the canyon and are still in existence from the recent past till today,” Noonan told the audience at the recent Conejos County meeting held at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish Hall.

“That’s really the goal of this project,” he said, “to help tell that story and to continue to provide the access to the river to the public and to experience the river and to experience the landscape and to become ingrained in all of that heritage that many of you really carry in your blood.”

Photo credit: Ryan Scavo/Big River Collective
Photo credit: Ryan Scavo/Big River Collective

Should the GOCO funding come through, there is expectation that the Lobatos Bridge Recreation & Interpretive Education project will break ground in spring 2024. Local architect and designer Kelly Ortiz is hard at work building the storyboards for the educational area and actively seeking input from residents to bring their family histories to light.

One is the Mondragon Family and the trading post it once ran at the site. It was at the Mondragon Trading Post that people would pay a fee to ride the ferry that crossed through the Rio Grande at Lobatos Bridge and up the river to New Mexico. Providing boating river access once again at Lobatos Bridge is part of the BLM plan.

“At the bridge, the water was as deep as the rim of the gorge,” Julie Chacon, executive director of the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area said of the history of the area and the period when the Mondragon store operated. She too is focused on uncovering and telling the stories for the Lobatos Bridge educational project.

Photo credit: Ryan Scavo/Big River Collective

Connecting all the river dots

Later this month another community meeting, this one in Manassa, will be held to continue conversations started in June on requesting either a national conservation area designation or national monument extension for the upper and middle portions of the Rio Grande and across two states.

Chris Canaly, the savvy leader of San Luis Valley Ecosystems Council, is among those in the room. Also helping with the conversations are Anna Vargas, well-known in Conejos County for her environmental activism, and Nathan Coombs, head of the Conejos Water Conservancy District and whose voice in Manassa and Conejos County carries weight through his leadership in the Mormon community. Staff for both Sen. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Michael Bennet are paying attention.
A federal designation has been tried before, back in 2014, and failed to gain consensus after Congress designated the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument which encompasses the Rio Grande Gorge just downstream from Lobatos Bridge. Like the Lobatos Bridge area, BLM manages the public lands of the Rio Grande national monument area and has to deal with the gnarly local issues of private land ownership and historic grazing rights in both neighboring New Mexico and the Valley.

Canaly thinks BLM gets a bad rap for its management of public lands overall. The federal agency, she said, is mindful of the importance of its engagement with community members and takes great care in its management of public lands in the San Luis Valley and Colorado.

“We are paranoid about recreation. We have to take the side of protecting the ecosystem,” Canaly said of her organization. “But we also understand the importance of planning recreation well and if it’s planned well, it’s a huge benefit to the communities nearby.”

There is no better example than the Great Sands Dunes National Park and Preserve and how that designation spurred a growth in tourism through Alamosa County.

Canaly said there appears to be more openness this time around to the idea of creating a federal designation for the Rio Grande corridor through Alamosa, Conejos and into neighboring Taos County.

Photo credit: Ryan Scavo/Big River Collective

Whether the current effort results in a request for a national conservation area or national monument designation, the feeling among environmental and recreational groups is there is enough momentum with the Lobatos Bridge project that it only makes sense to finish connecting the dots of the Rio Grande and let a rich story of the nation’s history come to life.

“The opportunity is there to understand the cultural resources that were here and the continuation of human activity that is well-documented here over the last 10,000 years. It is super, frickin’ interesting. Why not elevate that consciousness?” Canaly said.

Photos by: Ryan Scavo | Big River Collective

Eagle River Watershed Council: Drought Resiliency Task Force offers hope for #Colorado — James Dilzell in the #Vail Daily #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Recreational vehicle: Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the guest column on the Vail Daily website (James Dilzell). Here’s an excerpt:

What are we to do in those years when we’re up against poor snowpack, warmer summers and a lack of a monsoon season? Our fisheries will still need water. Our recreation-based economy relies on the river for both its whitewater and rafting season and its role in snowmaking at resorts. Ranchers will still need to irrigate. Locals, visitors and wildlife across Colorado will need to access clean drinking water. How can we better protect our community’s values when it comes to our rivers? Enter the Colorado River Drought Task Force. Senate Bill 23-295, which passed this spring, created a task force of diverse stakeholders — including representatives of agriculture, recreation, conservation, natural resources, the environment, municipal water providers, state and local agencies, and Colorado’s Indigenous Peoples. The group of 17 stakeholders is tasked with providing recommendations for programs to assist Colorado in addressing drought in the Colorado River Basin and the state’s interstate commitments related to the Colorado River and its tributaries…

Ultimately, the goal is to come up with creative and proactive policies and programs that can benefit river users, the environment, and all Coloradans. Our state has been hard at work to conserve water and find reasonable solutions, but the policies that this group creates will strengthen our abilities and options when it comes to managing water. This group is meeting biweekly on Thursdays, with public comment on the agenda at every meeting. Rivers are at the mercy of Colorado River Water users’ willingness to work together and collaborate to find solutions that benefit the environment and all of us now, and well into the future. To learn more about the Colorado River Drought Task, its members, and meeting topics, visit CRDroughtTaskForce.com. If you’d like to get more involved, reach out to me at ERWC.org.

How should we manage the drying #ColoradoRiver? Here’s what’s at stake in negotiations for its long-term future — The #Denver Post #COriver #aridification

Lake Mead at Hoover Dam, January 2022. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Elise Schmelzer). Here’s an excerpt:

Federal officials announced this week that last winter’s heavy snowpack and cuts in use likely will be enough to keep the river basin’s two major reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, from draining to water levels too low to generate power or move water downstream for at least three years. Federal officials, the seven Colorado River basin states and 30 tribes in the basin are negotiating the future of water management on the Colorado River and creating the next set of guidelines that will govern use of the critical water source in decades to come. The negotiations will be a “rollercoaster ride,” but history shows that the states are capable of coming to a consensus, said Jennifer Gimbel, a senior water policy scholar with Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center.

“There’s hope,” she said. “But it’s not going to be easy.”


One of the key problems negotiators must address is overuse by the Lower Basin states, experts said. The three states in the Lower Basin — Arizona, California and Nevada — are allocated 7.5 million acre-feet a year as are the four states in the Upper Basin: Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. Mexico also gets 1.5 million acre-feet. An acre-foot equals the amount of water it would take to cover a football field in one foot of water, which is generally considered enough water for two households’ annual use. The Lower Basin repeatedly has used more than its annual allotment of 7.5 million acre-feet while the Upper Basin uses less than its allotment. Between 2019 and 2021, the Lower Basin used more than 9 million acre-feet every year while the Upper Basin used less than 5 million acre-feet. In both 2020 and 2021, millions of acre-feet more water flowed out of Lake Mead and Lake Powell than flowed in.

“We’re going to have to reduce our water use, no matter what,” Hawes said. “We’re going to have to move away from the current sense of entitlement that a lot of water users have, and that’s not going to be easy.”

Officials also need to re-evaluate expected flows of the river and create a more accurate annual average flow from which to base agreements, Gimbel said. When the 1922 Colorado River Compact was signed, people estimated annual flows of up to 20 million acre-feet. That calculation was an overestimate and climate change has worsened the deficit even further. In recent years flows have been closer to 10 million acre-feet, Gimbel said.

Updated Colorado River 4-Panel plot thru Water Year 2022 showing reservoirs, flows, temperatures and precipitation. All trends are in the wrong direction. Since original 2017 plot, conditions have deteriorated significantly. Brad Udall via Twitter: https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1593316262041436160

S(no)w pain, S(no)w gain: How does #ElNiño affect snowfall over North America? — NOAA #ENSO

Click the link to read the article on the NOAA website (Michelle L’Heureux and Brian Brettschneider):

Note: The primary writer of this post is Michelle L’Heureux, but it is inspired by and reviewed by Brian Brettschneider, who is the NWS Climate Service Program manager for the Alaska region.

The last several winters have been depressingly bleak for snow lovers in the Washington, D.C. area, where we at the Climate Prediction Center (CPC) are located. Needless to say, when Brian Brettschneider (@Climatologist49) showed me that the D.C. area historically sees above-average snowfall during El Niño winters, I excitedly dusted off our sleds and ordered new mittens because we’re expecting an El Niño this winter 2023–24. With that said, longtime ENSO blog readers will know that I’m wish-casting a bit and there’s S(no)w guarantee in this business! [And, yes, this blog post will include a painful number of snow puns]. El Niño nudges the odds in favor of certain climate outcomes, but never ensures them. There have been some D.C. area snow droughts during past El Niño winters, and climate change is not our friend. 

Sad children trying to scrape together enough snow to make a snowball in the D.C. area last winter. Even worse, they didn’t get a snow day. Photo credit: Michelle L’Heureux.

My next question to Brian was “What exactly is this snowfall dataset you are using?” As Deke Arndt (NCEI) has noted, collecting historical measurements of snow is a tricky endeavor, fraught with measurement errors, so creating a dataset of sufficient quality for climate studies is hard. But, Brian, who is a clever, outside-the-box thinker, realized that the new ECMWF ERA5 reanalysis dataset may be the ticket (footnote #1). About five years ago, my colleague at CPC, Stephen Baxter, published this wildly popular blog post on snow and La Niña winters. The only problem is the dataset he used stopped updating in 2009. Thus, we’ve been adrift, snow-wise, until Brian pointed us to this new snowfall analysis. So, what does it look like?

S(no)w wonder

Who are the snowfall winners (or losers) during El Niño? As Emily shared with us last month, the jet stream tends to extend eastward and shift southward during El Niño winters. You can think of the jet stream as a river of air, which carries more moisture and precipitation along the southern tier of the United States during El Niño. As a result, it is not surprising to see a stripe of increased snowfall (blue shading) over the southern half of the country. Obviously, snowfall is limited in its southernmost reaches because it needs to be cold enough to snow, so the effects are strongest in the higher and colder elevations of the West. To the north, however, there is a reduction in snowfall (brown shading), especially around the Great Lakes, interior New England, the northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest, extending through far western Canada, and over most of Alaska. In fact, El Niño appears to be the great snowfall suppressor over most of North America. 

Snowfall during all El Niño winters (January-March) compared to the 1991-2020 average (after the long-term trend has been removed). Blue colors show more snow than average; brown shows less snow than average. NOAA Climate.gov map, based on ERA5 data from 1959-2023 analyzed by Michelle L’Heureux.

How about snowfall during moderate-to-strong El Niño events like the one expected in winter 2023-24? In the map below, over many regions, the anomalies become stronger (anomaly = difference from the long-term average), which makes sense because El Niño affects the climate. Stronger El Niño events tend to land a larger punch on our atmosphere, thus increasing the chance of seeing expected El Niño impacts. 

Snowfall during moderate-to-strong El Niño winters (January-March) compared to the 1991-2020 average (after the long-term trend has been removed). Blue colors show more snow than average; brown shows less snow than average. NOAA Climate.gov map, based on ERA5 data from 1959-2023 analyzed by Michelle L’Heureux.

Snow is flakey

While the maps we’ve shown above may excite or depress you depending on your situation and snow preferences, it is very important to recognize that the map is the showing the average of all winters with El Niño (footnote #2). Relying on the average is a bit dangerous because a few heavy snowfall winters can give the impression that most winters are above average. Which is why it’s important to recognize there can be large variation from winter-to-winter.

Below is a map showing a count of El Niño winters: Here, we ask how many of the 13 moderate-to-strong El Niño winters had below-average snowfall? If it is in red shading, that means most winters had below-average snowfall. The deepest reds mean almost all past winters had below-average snowfall (black indicates no snowfall at all, which makes sense if you’re sitting on a beach in South Florida). If it is in grey shading, that means most moderate-to-strong winters had above-average snowfall.

Number of years with below-average snowfall during the 13 moderate-to-strong El Niño winters (January-March average) since 1959. Red shows locations where more than half the years had below-average snowfall; gray areas below-average snowfall less than half the time. NOAA Climate.gov map, based on ERA5 data from 1959-2023 analyzed by Michelle L’Heureux.

S(no)w win situation

Another major caveat related to these maps is they are just based on snowfall during El Niño, and I have removed long-term trends. There is also a trend in snowfall, and it looks like this over North America during January-March.

Changes in snowfall (in inches per decade) between 1959 and 2023. Across most of the United States—Alaska being the major exception—snowfall has declined (brown colors). NOAA Climate.gov map, based on ERA5 data from 1959-2023 analyzed by Michelle L’Heureux.

Unsurprisingly, because of climate change, over most of the contiguous United States we have trended toward less snowy winters. This doesn’t mean that it never snows, or we cannot get big snowstorms (footnote #3), but that snowfall has gradually trended downward over time. In contrast, wintertime snowfall may have actually increased somewhat over time over the colder northern latitudes of Alaska and parts of Canada (this trend reverses in the spring; see footnote #4). Why would that be the case? Well, if you think about it, the warming of our planet allows the air to hold more moisture. If the atmospheric circulation allows for it, then that moisture can be wrung out of the air and precipitate. Snowfall also depends on the air temperature remaining below the freezing point. At more northern latitudes, despite warming air temperatures, it still remains cold enough in the winter to fall as snow. But there is no such luck in more southern locations which are often closer to the freezing point. There, the tendency toward warmer winters is a snow killer. 

So, will the expected pattern of El Ni-S(ño)W pan out for us this winter? Time will tell, but in the meantime, it is fun to imagine the possibilities.


(1) We have to be careful to not take any one dataset literally, but this ECMWF ERA5 data seems to pass a few sniff tests. Sniff test #1 was “Does ERA5 snowfall reproduce the winter pattern of snowfall made with other datasets?” The answer, at least when comparing with winter 2022-23, is yes. Sniff test #2 was “Does ERA5 snowfall reproduce the historical ENSO pattern that is found within other datasets?” Here again, the answer is yes, we were able to reproduce ENSO composite maps that were made with the Rutgers gridded snow data in this older ENSO blog post. Sniff test #3 was comparing with our old ENSO snowfall composites made from an even older (not quality controlled) station-based dataset that has been discontinued. With that said, ERA5 is a newer dataset, it is “reanalysis,” which means that a very short-range weather model is used to produce snowfall from in situ observations (from the ECMWF website, it outputs the “mass of snow that has fallen to the earth’s surface”). Essentially a reanalysis is predicting what observed snowfall would have looked like based on past observational inputs from satellites, stations, buoys, and other observing systems. Therefore, we recommend you treat some of the finer details with a healthy degree of suspicion and try to corroborate them in other datasets. Hopefully this blog post will motivate the creation of additional snowfall datasets and scientists will explore how well ERA5 compares with these other snowfall measurements.

(2) Brian emphasizes that composites (average historical maps during El Niño) are retrospectives and they are not a forecast. A forecast takes in account conditions beyond just El Niño, such as long-term climate trends, soil moisture, sea ice, and other global boundary forcings.

(3) In fact, because a warmer atmosphere carries more moisture, there is published evidence that extreme snowfall events can intensify as a response to global warming (e.g. O’Gorman, P., 2014: Contrasting responses of mean and extreme snowfall to climate change. Nature512, 416–418).

(4) This pattern of snow trends drastically changes if you look at the shoulder seasons, say April-June, which is warmer even in those northern latitudes. Rebecca took a look at this in this climate.gov article on spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere. In this season, trends are toward less snow cover over Alaska and western Canada. The ERA5 snowfall trends in April-June also reproduce the same features.