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Reporter’s Notebook: The making of “The Gen Z Water Dealmaker,” a podcast about the Colorado River negotiations

The Colorado River is in the midst of one of the worst water crises in recorded history. Climate change and overuse are taking a significant toll. Leaders from seven U.S. states must compromise and reach a solution to prevent the river from collapsing.

LAist Correspondent Emily Guerin

To understand how negotiators from those states are thinking in this moment, Emily Guerin, a reporter for LA’s public radio station, LAist 89.3, took a deep dive into the river’s political landscape in her latest podcast series, “Imperfect Paradise: The Gen Z Water Dealmaker” from LAist Studios.

Emily brings a sharp eye to the river’s notoriously complex, multi-layered political landscape, and paints a compelling portrait of the most powerful people tasked with negotiating agreements to share the dwindling water supply.

In this recorded webinar, The Water Desk co-director Luke Runyon and Emily talk about narrative storytelling on the Colorado River, and what the story of the river basin’s most powerful decision-makers tells us about our ability to adapt to a changing climate.

“Thirst Gap” Podcast, Hosted By The Water Desk’s Luke Runyon, Garners Journalism Awards

“Thirst Gap: Learning to Live with Less on the Colorado River,” a podcast produced by The Water Desk co-director, Luke Runyon, earned multiple awards in recent regional and national contests. 

Runyon reported the six-episode narrative series for KUNC, the NPR station for northern Colorado, before joining The Water Desk in September 2023.

The Water Desk Co-director Luke Runyon

The series follows the length of the Colorado River from its headwaters in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains to its delta in northern Mexico, highlighting the communities and individuals grappling with water scarcity along the way. 

The show took home the following awards: 

  • Best podcast in small market radio in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in the regional Edward R. Murrow awards from Radio Television Digital News Association
  • First place for Best Podcast among extra-large newsrooms in the Society of Professional Journalists’ annual Top of the Rockies contest, which includes news organizations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico 

Runyon began reporting for the series in 2021, and developed the concept during his Ted Scripps fellowship at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism. He reported, wrote and produced the series. Johanna Zorn edited the project. Jason Paton sound designed and mixed the series. 

Reporting for “Thirst Gap” was made possible in part with an award from The Water Desk, along with support from the Walton Family Foundation, the Colorado Water Center and the Colorado State University Office of Engagement and Extension.

Using less of the Colorado River takes a willing farmer and $45 million in federal funds

Leslie Hagenstein indicates where the New Fork River flows through her property on Mar. 27, 2024. She signed up for a program that pays her to pause irrigation on her land in order to save Colorado River water. Some experts say the System Conservation Pilot Program, or SCPP, is costly and may not be the most effective way to save Colorado River water. (Alex Hager/KUNC)

Wyoming native Leslie Hagenstein lives on the ranch where she grew up and remembers her grandmother and father delivering milk in glass bottles from the family’s Mount Airy Dairy.

The cottonwood-lined property, at the foot of the Wind River Mountains south of Pinedale, is not only home to Hagenstein, her older sister and their dogs, but to bald eagles and moose. But this summer, for the second year in a row, water from Pine Creek will not turn 600 acres of grass and alfalfa a lush green.

On a blustery day in late March, Hagenstein stood in her fields, now brown and weed-choked, and explained why she cried after she chose to participate in a program that pays ranchers in the Upper Colorado River basin to leave their water in the river.

“You have these very lush grasses, and you have a canal or a ditch that’s full of this beautiful clear, gorgeous water that comes out of these beautiful mountains. It’s nirvana,” Hagenstein said. “And then last year, it looks like Armageddon. I mean, it’s nothing, it’s very sad, there’s just no growth at all. There’s no green.”

The Colorado River basin has endured decades of drier-than-normal conditions, and steady demand. That imbalance is draining its largest reservoirs, and making it nearly impossible for them to recover, putting the region’s water security in jeopardy. Reining in demand throughout the vast western watershed has become a drumbeat among policymakers at both the state and federal level. Hagenstein’s ranch is an example of what that intentional reduction in water use looks like.

A ditch runs dry through Leslie Hagenstein’s fields near Pinedale, Wyo. on Mar. 27, 2024. Through the federally-funded System Conservation Pilot Program, she was able to make 13 times more than she would have by leasing her fields out to grow hay. (Alex Hager/KUNC)

In Sublette County, Hagenstein said it’s rare for people to make a living solely on raising livestock and growing hay anymore. In addition to ranching, she worked as a nurse practitioner for more than 40 years before retiring. And when she looked at her bank accounts, she realized she needed a better way to meet expenses if she was going to keep the ranch afloat in the future. Hagenstein said it was a no-brainer. She signed up for the System Conservation Pilot Program (SCPP) in 2023. Through the federally funded program, she was able to make 13 times more than she would have by leasing it out to grow hay.

Since its inception as a mass experiment in water use reduction, the program has divided farmers and ranchers. Concerns over the high cost, the limited water savings, the difficulty in measuring and tracking conserved water, and the potential damage to local agricultural economies still linger. But without fully overhauling the West’s water rights system, few tools exist to get farmers and ranchers — the Colorado River’s majority users — to conserve voluntarily.

“I’m a Wyoming native,” Hagenstein said. “I don’t want to push our water downstream. I don’t want to disregard it. But I also have to survive in this landscape. And to survive in this landscape, you have to get creative.”

SCPP participation doubles in 2024

Driven by overuse, drought and climate change, water levels in Lake Powell fell to their lowest point ever in 2022. The nation’s second-largest reservoir provided a stark visual indicator of the Colorado River’s supply-demand imbalance. Those falling levels also threatened the ability to produce hydroelectric power and prompted officials from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to call on states for an unprecedented level of water conservation. The agency gave the seven states that use the Colorado River a tight deadline to save an additional 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water. (An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to fill 1 acre of land to a height of 1 foot. One acre-foot generally provides enough water for one to two households for a year.)

States gave the federal government no plans to save that much water in one fell swoop, instead proposing a patchwork of smaller conservation measures aimed at boosting the reservoirs and avoiding infrastructural damage.

The Upper Colorado River Commission (UCRC), an agency that brings together water leaders from Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, offered up the “5-Point Plan,” one arm of which was restarting the SCPP.

In 2023, after the federal government announced it would spend $4 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) on Colorado River programs, the Upper Colorado River Commission decided to reboot the SCPP, which was first tested from 2015 to 2018. The program pays eligible water users in the four Upper Basin states to leave their fields dry for the irrigation season and let that water flow downstream.

But a hasty rollout to the SCPP in 2023 meant low participation numbers. Only 64 water-saving projects were approved, and about 38,000 acre-feet of water was conserved across the four states, which cost nearly $16 million. Water users complained about not having enough time to plan for the upcoming growing season and said an initial lowball offer from the UCRC of $150 per acre-foot was insulting and came with a complicated haggling process to get a higher payment. UCRC officials said the short notice and challenges with getting the word out about the program contributed to low participation numbers in 2023.

A University of Wyoming study surveyed the region’s growers about water conservation between November 2022 and March 2023. Eighty-eight percent of respondents in the Upper Basin were not even aware that the SCPP existed.

UCRC commissioners voted to run the program again in 2024, but said this time projects should focus on local drought resiliency on a longer-term basis. UCRC officials tweaked the program based on lessons learned in 2023, and the 2024 program had nearly double the participation, with 109 projects and nearly 64,000 acre-feet of water expected to be conserved.

“I view the doubling of interest and participation from one year to the next as a significant success,” UCRC Executive Director Chuck Cullom said.

What happens to conserved water?

Despite one of its stated intentions — protecting critical reservoir levels — water being left in streams by SCPP-participating irrigators is not tracked to Lake Powell, the storage bucket for the Upper Basin.

In total, across 2023 and 2024, the program spent $45 million to save a little more than 1% of the Colorado River water allocated to Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico.

Although engineers have calculated how much water is saved by individual projects, known as conserved consumptive use, officials are not measuring how much of that conserved water ends up in Lake Powell. And the laws that govern water rights allow downstream users to simply take the water that an upstream user participating in the SCPP leaves in the river, potentially canceling out the attempt at banking that water.

These types of temporary, voluntary and compensated conservation programs aren’t new to the Upper Basin. In addition to the pilot program from 2015 to 2018, the state of Colorado undertook a two-year study of the idea of a demand management program by convening nine work groups to examine the issue.

System conservation and demand management, while conceptually the same, have one big difference: A demand management program would track the water so that downstream users don’t grab it and create a special pool to store the conserved water in Lake Powell. With system conservation, the water simply becomes part of the Colorado River system, with no certainty about where it ends up.

This lack of accounting for the water has some asking whether the SCPP is accomplishing what it set out to do and whether it is worth the high cost to taxpayers.

Even if all the roughly 64,000 acre-feet from the SCPP in 2024 makes it to Lake Powell, it’s still a drop in the bucket for the reservoir; last year, 13.4 million acre-feet flowed into Lake Powell. The reservoir currently holds about 8.2 million acre-feet and has a capacity of about 25 million acre-feet.

“I still haven’t really seen evidence of total water savings or anything like that,” said Elizabeth Koebele, a professor of political science and director of the graduate program of hydrologic sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno. Koebele wrote her doctoral dissertation on the first iteration of the SCPP. “As far as getting water to reservoirs, I’m not sure that we’ve seen a lot of success from the System Conservation Pilot Program so far.”

And the program has been expensive. For the 2024 iteration of the program, UCRC officials offered a fixed price per acre-foot that applicants could take or leave — no haggling this time. Colorado, Utah and Wyoming paid agricultural water users about $500 an acre-foot; the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry, New Mexico’s sole participant in 2023 and 2024, received $300 an acre-foot. Projects that involved municipal or industrial water use were compensated on a case-by-case basis, and those that involved leaving water in reservoirs were paid $150 an acre-foot. The majority of projects in both years involved taking water off fields for the whole season or part of the season, known as fallowing.

The UCRC doled out nearly $29 million in payments to water users in 2024. The program paid about $45 million to participants in 2023 and 2024 combined. Some participants are using these payments to upgrade their irrigation systems, Cullom said, which helps maintain the vitality of local agriculture.

But even with this amount of money spent, Koebele said it may still not cover the costs to participants for things such as long term impacts to soil health that come with taking water off fields for a season or two. After the infusion of IRA money runs out, it’s unclear how such a program would be funded in the future.

“I also worry that we don’t have an endless supply of money to compensate users for conservation in the basin,” Koebele said. “And perhaps we need to be thinking about — rather than doing temporary conservation — investments in longer-term conservation beyond what we’re already doing.”

The Green River flows through Sublette County, Wyo. on Mar. 27, 2024. Snowmelt-fed rivers and streams near the Colorado River’s headwaters have been at the heart of recent negotiations about the region’s water future. (Alex Hager/KUNC)

Western Slope water managers critical of SCPP

Some groups have concerns with the SCPP beyond its issues with accounting for how much water ends up in Lake Powell.

The Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District represents 15 counties on Colorado’s Western Slope. Their mission is to protect, conserve, use and develop the water within its boundaries, which has often meant fighting Front Range entities that want to take more from the headwaters of the Colorado River in the form of transmountain diversions. Sometimes, that means voicing concerns about conservation programs that it thinks have the potential to harm Western Slope water users.

River District officials have been vocal critics of the SCPP, pointing out the ways that it could, if not done carefully, harm certain water users and rural agricultural communities. Because of the way water left in the stream by participants in the SCPP can be picked up by the next water user in line, some of which are Front Range cities, at least two of the projects this year could result in less — not more — water in the Colorado River, according to comments that the River District submitted to the state of Colorado. (One of these projects dropped out in 2024.)

“Without significant improvements, it would be hard for the River District to support additional expenditures on system conservation,” said Peter Fleming, the district’s general counsel.

The River District had also wanted a say in the SCPP process in 2023, going as far as creating their own checklist for deciding project approval, but UCRC officials said the commission had sole authority to approve projects.

Water users from all sectors — including agriculture, cities and industry — are allowed to participate in the program, but, in practice, all of the 2023 and 2024 projects in Colorado involve Western Slope agricultural water users. That’s partly because the price that the SCPP offered was less than the market value of water on the Front Range.

“If you’re simply basing it on a set dollar value per acre-foot, you’re going to result in disproportionate impacts to areas of the state where the economic value of water is not as high as others,” Fleming said. “You’re going to end up with all the water coming from the Western Slope. … You shouldn’t create sacrificial lambs.”

Upper Basin facing increased pressure

The Upper Basin’s conservation program is playing out against the backdrop of watershedwide negotiations with the Lower Basin states (California, Arizona and Nevada) about how to share the river after the current guidelines governing river operations expire in 2026.

After failing to come to an agreement, the Upper and Lower basins submitted competing proposals to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Lower Basin officials committed to a baseline of 1.5 million acre-feet in cuts, plus more when conditions warrant. They also called for the Upper Basin to share in those additional cuts when reservoirs dip below a certain level.

Upper Basin officials have balked at the notion that their water users should share in any cuts, saying they already suffer shortages in dry years. The source of the problem, they say, is overuse by the Lower Basin.

Plus, without ever having violated the 1922 Colorado River Compact by using more than the 7.5 million acre-feet allotted to them, they say there’s no way to enforce mandatory cuts on the Upper Basin.

But under increased pressure from the Lower Basin, and facing a drier future as climate change continues to rob the Colorado River of flows, Upper Basin water managers have made one small concession. In their proposal, they have offered to continue “parallel activities” like the SCPP, but said these programs will be separate from any post-2026 agreement with the Lower Basin. The congressional authorization for the SCPP expires at the end of 2024, and it’s unclear whether water managers will implement a program in 2025 or beyond.

Inherent in the Upper Basin’s stance is a contradiction: Why maintain that both the source of the problem and responsibility for a solution rest with the Lower Basin, but then agree to do the SCPP or a conservation program like it?

“I think that they’re basically saying that the Lower Basin needs to get their act together before we actually really need to come to the table in a realistic way,” said Drew Bennett, a University of Wyoming professor of private-lands stewardship. “I think they feel like, ‘We don’t actually really need to do anything.’ That the SCPP is actually above and beyond what they need to be doing. Is that reality? I don’t know. But I think that’s sort of the message they’re trying to send in negotiations.”

Docks and buoys, once floating atop dozens of feet of water, sit stranded on the sand at Lake Powell’s Bullfrog Marina on April 9, 2023. Record-low levels at the reservoir helped spur water officials to reboot the System Conservation Pilot Program. (Alex Hager/KUNC)

Grower attitudes key to program success

Some experts say the program’s real value is not getting water into depleted reservoirs. It is testing out a potential tool to help farmers and ranchers adapt to a future with less water. They frame it as an experiment that provides crucial information and lessons on how an Upper Basin conservation program could be scaled up. It also continues to ease water users into the concept of using less should a more permanent water conservation program come to pass.

“This program kind of, I think, helps grease the skids for that process that gets people comfortable for how it operates,” said Alex Funk, who worked for the Colorado Water Conservation Board in 2019 and helped to guide the state’s demand management study with regard to agricultural impacts. “Just seeing the doubling of the amount of acre-feet conserved under the second year and then the interest shows that, yeah, I think there could be some longevity to the program. … I think one has to be optimistic because I don’t see how the Upper Basin navigates a post-2026 future without such a program.”

Funk now works as senior counsel and director of water resources at the nonprofit Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds a portion of Colorado River coverage from KUNC and The Water Desk.

Cows graze in Routt County, Colo. on Oct. 8, 2021. Government-funded water conservation programs have divided farmers and ranchers. While the System Conservation Program initially had low buy-in, water officials say it helped them gather valuable data about working with growers. (Alex Hager/KUNC)

Cullom, executive director of the agency that runs the SCPP, pushed back on the idea that it is intended to help correct the supply/demand imbalance on the river, which he said is the fault of the Lower Basin.

“The intent of the program is to develop new tools for the upper division water users to adapt to a drier future,” he said. “We’re trying to develop tools that benefit the local communities and producers and water users in the four upper division states through drought resiliency, new tools, the ability to explore crop switching and irrigation efficiencies.”

Of all the challenges in setting up a program such as this — funding, pricing, calculating water saved, getting the word out — the biggest may be the attitudes of water users themselves, some of whom have a deep-seated mistrust of the federal government. Like Hagenstein, all of the water users that Aspen Journalism and KUNC interviewed for this story said financial reasons were the biggest driver behind their participation in the SCPP.

Bennett’s research also explained some of the reasons why growers may be hesitant to enroll in conservation programs such as the SCPP. It found that farmers and ranchers trusted local organizations to administer conservation programs significantly more than state or federal ones.

If demand management strategies were deployed, 74% of survey respondents said they’d prefer to have a local agency manage the program, as opposed to a state or federal agency. Only about 14% of growers said there is a high level of trust between water users and water management agencies in their states. The same percentage said their state’s planning process was adequate for dealing with water supply issues.

These findings point to a stumbling block that the UCRC and other agencies must overcome if they hope to create a longer-term conservation program.

Hagenstein, the Wyoming rancher, has experienced those attitudes firsthand. She has been on the receiving end of insults and name-calling because of her participation in the SCPP.

But Hagenstein says the SCPP has allowed her to have money in her pocket to continue ranching long term.

“I didn’t anticipate it would be so beneficial,” she said. “It bought us time to stay in ranching is the long and the short of it. So, I’m most grateful for the abundance that the federal government offered us. … You know, some would call it a golden goose.”

This story was reported and produced collaboratively by Aspen Journalism, a nonprofit, investigative news organization, and Northern Colorado-based public radio station KUNC, and is a part of KUNC’s ongoing coverage of the Colorado River supported by the Walton Family Foundation. Additional editing resources and other support for this story came from The Water Desk, an independent initiative of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.

Q&A: Defining the “snow deluge” and projecting its future

Deep snow in the Sierra Nevada, about 90 miles east of Sacramento, on March 3, 2023. Photo by Jonathan Wong, California Department of Water Resources.

For California’s Sierra Nevada, the winter of 2022-2023 delivered an epic snowpack that broke many records and busted a severe drought.

The exceptional season, dubbed the “snowpocalypse” by some, caused havoc during the winter and flooding later in the year while also replenishing reservoirs and making skiers happy—once the roads and resorts emerged from storm closures.

Both hazardous and helpful, the banner year was also of interest to snow scientists, such as Adrienne Marshall, an assistant professor of geology and geological engineering at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. 

Marshall was lead author of a paper published in April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that introduces the term “snow deluge” to describe extreme snow years like the one California weathered.

I spoke with Marshall recently about the study and its conclusion that snow deluges are likely to decline in the decades ahead as human-caused climate change continues to warm the planet and make it more likely that rain, rather than snow, will fall. 

The video below contains the full interview, and the Q&A that follows includes excerpts from the conversation, edited lightly for clarity and brevity.

May 7 interview with snow scientist Adrienne Marshall of the Colorado School of Mines

Could you please summarize the paper and its main findings?

In this paper, we were interested in looking at what’s happening with our biggest snow years. The snow community has had a lot of focus in the last several years on snow drought: what’s happening with changes in our lowest snow year, and how much more frequent should we expect those low snow years to get? But when we focus on the low snow years, there’s a little bit of a risk that we neglect to look at what’s happening with our biggest snow years. So when we saw the 2023 water year come along in California, it provided sort of a great study to dive into this question of biggest snow years. 

We argue that we should call these big snow years “snow deluges.” We looked at how rare the snow deluge in California water year 2022-2023 was. Essentially, we see that it was, statewide, about a 1-in-54-year event is our best estimate.

There was a lot of discussion at the time of whether it was a record-breaking water year or not. We saw that about 42% of sites had the highest April 1 snow water equivalent ever recorded. That was more record-breaking sites than we saw in any other water year in California. 

We were also interested in the extent to which the 2023 snow deluge and others like it are caused by relatively cool versus wet conditions. And maybe not surprisingly, we saw that both cool and wet conditions are required to have these snow deluges. You can get maybe average temperatures and average precipitation, but you really couldn’t have a very warm year and get a snow deluge. 

Finally, we wanted to know what happens to our snow deluges in warmer climate scenarios. So we looked at the outputs of some climate models and found that it looks like—on average across climate models—we should expect our snow deluge years to decline in terms of the amount of snow we see on the ground. But they do decline less on a percentage basis than our average years.

How did you come up with the definition for a snow deluge?

There’s a little bit of a parallel here to snow drought—and drought in general—where generally there’s a lot of academic debate over how we should define these things. 

In this case, we used April 1 snow water equivalent because that’s the type of data for which we have the longest record. Snow surveyors have been going out into the mountains to observe the amount of snow at individual locations for as long as 100 years or so, but they could only do that historically on a few days of the water year and commonly did it April 1st. So that’s a bit of a decision based on data availability. 

Then we used a definition of looking at a 1-in-20-year return interval—the event that you would expect to see once every 20 years, statistically on average—as our cutoff threshold for what we call a snow deluge. 

Employees of the California Department of Water Resources measure the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada on April 3, 2023. Photo: Kenneth James, California Department of Water Resources.

Did any of these findings surprise you?

Probably the most surprising was that the 2023 water year in California—we looked over November to March—was anomalously cold. And that was a little unexpected, particularly in the context of the record-breaking warm global temperatures. As far as I know, that’s just sort of an anomaly with respect to the rest of the global trend. 

In terms of how we should expect the snow deluges to change, there are two competing factors happening. One is as conditions get warmer, of course we get less precipitation falling as snow, more falling as rain, and so we expect our total snow accumulations to decline. The other sort of competing component is as we get warmer conditions, the atmosphere can hold more moisture, so there’s an increasing probability of more precipitation intensity. Those two factors might counterbalance each other to some extent. We didn’t know for sure what the net effect would be and saw that it looks like the net effect is the warming having a bigger effect in terms of our snow accumulations.  

Is it likely we’ll ever see another deluge like last year’s?

The 1-in-54-year event statistic that we came up with means that each year—over that same spatial area (California)—there’s a little under a 2% chance of an event that big happening again. That said, given our findings with the climate models, it looks like as our emissions rise and warming continues over time, that percentage and that probability is decreasing. So it’s getting less and less likely that we would see a snowfall event that big again. So I’m inclined to say that, statistically, it’s not likely that we should expect to see another year that big.  

Marshall talks about her snow deluge research at the 91st Annual Western Snow Conference at Oregon State University in Corvallis on April 24, 2024. Photo by Mitch Tobin, The Water Desk.

What are you able to say about snow deluges in other parts of the West?

We did see a remarkable amount of consistency in terms of the climate model projections for changes in snow deluges. It was really across almost the entire Western U.S. that we saw the average of the nine climate models we looked at were projecting declines in snow deluges and smaller changes in the snow deluges than the median years. That was consistent across California, Colorado, and the rest of the Western U.S.

With atmospheric rivers, we hear they can be both beneficial and hazardous. Is it helpful to think of snow deluges in the same way?  

It’s certainly true that they can be beneficial and hazardous, even if we were to just think about one industry, like winter recreation and skiing. Of course, it’s good to get lots of snow at your ski resorts. And there were parts of the year where people couldn’t access the ski resorts and they had to close.

Similarly, you might have snow deluges that are good at one time of year, like beneficial for our summer water supply, but detrimental to our infrastructure in the winter. Or, ecologically, it might be beneficial for one type of organism and detrimental for another. So they’re certainly complex in terms of their effects. I don’t know that you could isolate it to some quantity being good and then above that being bad because I think there’s a big dependence on good or bad for who, when and where, which would be great to dive into. It sounds like decades of research, too.

These maps visualize the Sierra Nevada’s snowpack on April 1, 2023. Snow water equivalent is a measure of how much water the snowpack contains. The right map shows the snowpack above 5,000 feet was more than 300% of average in some locations. Source: Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

What are the implications for water managers?

A big snow year—a snow deluge—can certainly help refill our reservoirs, which we’ve seen. The fact that we see these (snow deluges) declining might suggest that we shouldn’t count on big snow years coming along periodically and saving us. 

Snow tends to be more predictable from a water manager’s perspective in terms of when they’re going to get runoff because if we have precipitation falling as rain, then you’re just kind of constrained to the uncertainty of your seasonal weather, which is pretty hard to forecast. But if you have a whole bunch of snow sitting in the mountains above your watershed, you know it’s going to melt and the question is how much do you have out there, when will it melt, and should you release water now to maintain flood storage capacity or just expect that maybe you’ve already gotten most of your snow runoff for the year? 

So losing that snow deluge is probably challenging from a water management perspective because those big snow years offer more predictability and more ability, potentially, to refill reservoirs than if you are just relying on rain, which is so much harder to predict on a seasonal scale.

Any other takeaways?

A very good question to think about is: how much can we save if we’re able to get ourselves on a lower warming scenario? So treat these projections of snow loss as very concerning projections to be aware of and that should inform our decisions about how hard we work to mitigate climate change, but not as fatalistic predictions. There is a lot that we can do societally to try to nudge ourselves ever towards those lower warming scenarios, and that is what we should be doing to save as much of our snowpack as we can.

Deep snow nearly buries a road sign along Highway 50 in El Dorado County, California, on March 3, 2023. At the time, nearby Sierra-at-Tahoe Ski Resort had already received nearly 500 inches during the snow deluge. Photo by Fred Greaves, California Department of Water Resources.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The Other Border Dispute Is Over an 80-Year-Old Water Treaty

The U.S. 90 bridge crosses the Amistad Reservoir near Del Rio, Texas. Water deliveries from Mexico are stored at the reservoir, where water levels have dropped in recent months. (Omar Ornelas for Inside Climate News)

This story was reported with a grant from The Water Desk at the University of Colorado Boulder.

EL PASO—Maria-Elena Giner faced a room full of farmers, irrigation managers and residents in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas on April 2. 

The local agricultural community was reeling. Reservoirs on the Rio Grande were near record lows and the state had already warned that water cutbacks would be necessary. The last sugar mill in the region closed in February, citing the lack of water.

But Mexico still wasn’t sending water to the U.S. from its Rio Grande tributaries, as a 1944 treaty requires the country to do in five-year intervals. 

“We haven’t gotten any rains or significant inflows,” said Giner, the commissioner of the International Boundary and Water Commission. “It’s not looking good.” 

The IBWC, based in El Paso, implements the boundary and water treaties between the two countries. Giner’s team had spent 2023 working to reach an agreement with Mexico to ensure more reliable water deliveries on the Rio Grande. In December, she was confident the U.S. and Mexico would sign a new agreement, known as a minute. But at the final hour Mexico declined to sign. 

The impasse left farmers and communities in the Rio Grande Valley facing down another hot summer with limited water supplies. The state of Texas and members of Congress joined the supplications to Mexico: Start sending the water you owe. But with the political opposition in Mexico calling for the water treaty to be renegotiated—and presidential elections approaching in June—Mexican officials waited.

Immigration, trade and drug trafficking dominate much of the U.S. diplomatic agenda with Mexico. But in recent months water has become a more urgent topic, rising to the “upper echelons of the Department of State,” in Giner’s words. The 1944 treaty between the U.S. and Mexico governs water distribution on both the Rio Grande and Colorado River. Drought, climate change and politics are increasing tensions over treaty compliance. 

As of May 20, United States ownership of water at the Falcon and Amistad Reservoirs was at 20.1 percent of normal conservation capacity. South Texas farmers and municipalities are figuring out how to make do with less this summer.

Texas Republican Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz and members of both parties in the House are pushing for the State Department to withhold funds for Mexico. 

Giner, who herself grew up between the two countries in Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, remains convinced the neighboring nations can work out their differences over an 80-year-old treaty to manage shared rivers. 

“[This minute is] the tool that we have at the IBWC,” Giner said during the April meeting. “Mexico is a sovereign country. And our tool is influence.”

Rio Grande Valley Farmers Fear More Losses

The Rio Grande starts its 1,900-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico high in the mountains of southwestern Colorado. But the water that flows through the Texas Rio Grande Valley mostly originates in tributaries in Mexico. The most important is the Rio Conchos that flows from the Sierra Tarahumara through the agricultural heart of Chihuahua before joining the Rio Grande at Presidio, Texas.

The 1944 water treaty commits the U.S. to send Mexico 1.5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River each year. On the Rio Grande, Mexico is expected to send an average of 350,000 acre-feet of water from the Mexican tributaries each year over a five-year cycle for a total of 1.75 million acre-feet. This water flows to the Falcon and Amistad Reservoirs, which store water for the farms and communities of the Rio Grande Valley and the downstream Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León. 

Irrigation water from the Rio Conchos feeds alfalfa and pecan production in Chihuahua, Mexico. Farmers and politicians in Chihuahua have opposed additional water deliveries to the United States. (Omar Ornelas for Inside Climate News)

The last five-year cycle ended in conflict in 2020, with farmers in Chihuahua protesting water deliveries to the U.S. In a last-minute deal, known as minute 325, Mexico agreed to transfer water stored at the international reservoirs to the U.S. to end the cycle without a deficit.

The current cycle ends on October 25, 2025. Well into the fourth year, Mexico has sent less than 400,000 acre feet of water. At this rate it is unlikely that Mexico can meet its obligations.The main reservoirs on the Rio Conchos are at low levels, with La Boquilla at 28 percent capacity and Francisco Madero at 25.8 percent, as of May 16. The entire state of Chihuahua is currently in a drought.

With irregular water deliveries hampering agricultural production, the last sugar mill in Texas, the Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers, closed for good in February. 

“I just don’t see a means by which sufficient water could be delivered right now in time to save the agricultural production for this year,” said Carlos Rubinstein, a former Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Rio Grande watermaster and consultant. “So the water is going to have to come from Mother Nature this year, which is a bad spot to be in.”

Towns and cities in the Rio Grande Valley that rely on the river for their water could also face shortages this year. Municipalities may be forced to buy additional water or speed up plans to develop alternative water supplies, like desalination. 

The Delta Lake Irrigation District diverts water to municipalities including Raymondville and Lyford. Water for these communities is conveyed through irrigation canals; if there is no irrigation water the municipal water can’t move through the canals.

“We’re at a point where within the next 60 days if we don’t get substantial rainfall or Mexico releases some water… I don’t know what my municipalities that I deliver water to are going to have to do,” said general manager Troy Allen in early May.

“We’ve already lost the sugar industry in the Rio Grande Valley,” Allen said. He worries the citrus industry will be next. “That’s my big fear.”

Negotiations Advance Then Falter in 2023

State and federal officials tried to avoid this. 

Minute 325, signed by the U.S. and Mexico in October 2020, set the goal of signing a new minute by December 2023 to increase “reliability and predictability” in Rio Grande water deliveries.

The Rio Grande Minute Working Group formed in 2022 with representatives from IBWC, the TCEQ, the Department of State, Mexico’s IBWC, known as CILA, and Mexico’s National Water Commission, known as CONAGUA.

In Mexico, water is federal property. But once that same water is delivered to the U.S. in the international reservoirs, it falls under the purview of the state of Texas. TCEQ’s Rio Grande Watermaster then manages deliveries to irrigation districts and other users. While IBWC handles direct negotiations with Mexico, the agency must work closely with TCEQ. 

Giner wrote to TCEQ Commissioner Bobby Janecka, a member of the working group, in January 2023. She wrote in an email, provided by TCEQ in a records request, that she looked forward to “achieving a minute signing that will lead to predictability and reliability in the Rio Grande.”

TCEQ has urged IWBC to do more, and political tensions on the border have bled into the water dispute. “IBWC must hold Mexico accountable,” wrote the director of the agency’s Office of Water at the end of January 2023.

In late June 2023, IBWC took issue when Texas Governor Gregg Abbott ordered floating buoys designed to stop migrants to be installed in the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass. IBWC denounced the move, saying they were not consulted and the buoys could violate treaty agreements. Tensions with Mexico flared; Mexico’s top diplomat lodged a complaint with the U.S. government, warning the buoys violated the 1944 treaty and were possibly in Mexican territory. The U.S. Department of Justice later sued Texas. That case is now in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. 

On July 18, 2023 IBWC foreign affairs officer Sally Spener notified TCEQ that Mexican officials had postponed a meeting because of the incident, according to emails obtained by Inside Climate News. 

“We were able to continue our negotiations through all of that last year,” Spener said in a May 2024 interview, referring to the buoy controversy. “But it was a distraction.”

Spener said by the second half of 2023, the working group put “concepts on paper” and drafted a minute laying out what the two countries agreed on.

On December 5, the IBWC presented details of the draft minute to stakeholders in the Rio Grande Valley. Irrigation districts and farmers in the valley don’t always agree with the federal government’s approach to working with Mexico, so their buy-in was important. Commissioner Giner explained how key points in the minute would resolve long-standing disagreements about the treaty.

Some irrigation districts and politicians in Chihuahua argue that Mexico should only allocate “wild water,” or water that overflows the country’s domestic dams, to fulfill the treaty. The draft minute would reinforce the importance of Mexico releasing water from its domestic reservoirs, settling that debate. 

Mexico’s San Juan and Alamo Rivers have previously been used to supplement the five tributaries named in the treaty. The draft minute affirmed that, when the U.S. agrees, Mexico could allot water from these rivers to meet its obligations.

The draft also included a new “projects” working group that would focus on increasing water conservation in the drought-impacted watershed. A separate “environment” working group would focus on the Big Bend and increasing water flow in an area that runs dry much of the year. 

“There was some of it that we didn’t agree with, but it was a start,” said Troy Allen of the Delta Lake Irrigation District of the draft minute. “[Commissioner Giner] is very transparent and I think she is really trying her best to help us out.”

IBWC was poised to sign the minute in December. Suddenly Mexican federal officials backtracked, saying they needed to “undertake additional domestic consultations,” according to Spener. Until those consultations were complete, Mexico wouldn’t sign the minute.

Not everyone in Mexico wanted the new agreement. The heart of that opposition lies in Chihuahua.

Mexican Opposition Politicians Protest Water Deliveries

Mexican presidential candidate Xóchitl Gálvez took the stage in Camargo, Chihuahua, on April 14. She spoke just a few miles from La Boquilla, where Mexican farmers protested water deliveries to the United States in 2020.

Those same farmers were out in force for Gálvez, who is backed by Mexico’s three main opposition parties, the PAN, PRI and PRD. Her opponent from the MORENA party, Claudia Sheinbaum, is the hand-picked successor to incumbent president Andrés Manuel López Obrador. 

In 2020, López Obrador sent the National Guard to the La Boquilla reservoir in anticipation of opening the floodgates to send water north. Protesters pushed out the National Guard and a protester was killed in the confrontations. 

A view of the La Boquilla Dam along the Rio Conchos in Chihuahua, Mexico. (Omar Ornelas for Inside Climate News)

Gálvez opened her speech this spring discussing water. “We are in the worst drought in many years,” she said, before launching into criticisms of MORENA’s agricultural policies.

“The treaty payment to the United States in 2025 has to be renegotiated,” she said to cheers. “I promise I will defend the water of Chihuahua.”

Chihuahua governor María Eugenia Campos Galván also opposes water deliveries. Representing the PAN, Campos Galván is one of the few opposition governors in Mexico. For her, defending the water of Chihuahua means challenging the federal officials who send water to the United States.

Chihuahua Congressman Salvador Alcántar, also of the PAN, was instrumental in the 2020 protests. He is steadfast that the water stored at the reservoirs along the Rio Conchos should not be sent to the United States.

“We are in an extreme drought in Mexico. Right now it will be difficult to comply with the commitments in the treaty,” he said in an interview in Spanish. “No one is obligated to give what they don’t have.”

Texas and IBWC officials acknowledge that Mexico’s upcoming presidential election on June 2 cast a shadow over the minute negotiations. Sheinbaum is heavily favored to win. But the federal government is not expected to take action on the treaty or water deliveries in the interim.

“We continue to push for the minute,” said IBWC’s Spener. “And even without the minute [Mexico] can make water deliveries.”

CONAGUA, which manages water allocations on the Rio Conchos, did not respond to questions from Inside Climate News. 

Bad Weather and Bad Politics

Mexico alone doesn’t shoulder the blame for water shortages this year. A prolonged drought and climate change are pummeling the Rio Grande watershed and Mexican tributaries alike. Extreme heat is already taking a toll on agriculture in the Rio Grande Valley. These trends are only expected to continue.

Temperatures throughout the Rio Grande basin are projected to increase by four to 10 degrees Fahrenheit this century, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. Higher temperatures decrease snow accumulation and snow melt. More water evaporates from reservoirs as temperatures warm. 

The Rio Grande flows through a balmy former wetland in Cameron County, Texas. (Dylan Baddour/Inside Climate News)

Drought and rising temperatures are also impacting the Conchos basin in Mexico. Annual runoff in the Conchos basin could decline by up to 25 percent by 2050 because of changes in precipitation and higher temperatures, according to the 2015 Mexico Water Vulnerability Atlas. A study in the Journal of Climate this year projected that Chihuahua is likely to “experience strong drying during the spring and summer months” this century. 

Texas politicians are pressuring the Biden administration to take more decisive action to help the state’s farmers. On May 10, Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, along with eight representatives, including Republicans Monica De La Cruz and Tony Gonzales and Democrats Vicente Gonzalez and Henry Cuellar, sent a letter urging the both the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on State and Foreign Operations to withhold designated funds from Mexico until the country “meets its obligations to resolve the ongoing water dispute.” 

López Obrador spoke to the treaty on May 15 during his daily press conference. He said Mexico does not have a date to make a decision. “We support this compact,” he said. “We agree it shouldn’t be modified and we have a very good relationship [with the United States]. But as the weather gets hot and there are elections coming up, all these issues come to light.”

The Department of State referred questions about the treaty negotiations to IBWC. 

Spener of the IBWC said they continue to encourage Mexico to deliver water. The minute working group held its most recent meeting in April in El Paso. 

TCEQ Commissioner Bobby Janecka wrote to Commissioner Giner on April 26, concerned that Mexico continued to allocate water to its irrigation districts without planning how to send water to Texas. He also opposed Mexico arguing that extraordinary drought prevented the country from complying with the treaty. “We are deeply concerned about these claims,” he wrote.

Irrigation districts in the Rio Grande Valley worry about trade-offs when the U.S. agrees to alternative measures—beyond the five tributaries named in the treaty—for Mexico to deliver the water it owes. Anthony Stambaugh, general manager of the Hidalgo County Irrigation District No. 2., said Mexico “needs to be caught up first,” before the U.S. offers more concessions.

When the treaty clock runs out on October 25, 2025, both the U.S. and Mexico will have entered new presidential administrations. The incoming U.S. president will also appoint the IBWC commissioner. The tone of binational negotiations could change dramatically.

Mexicans go to the polls on June 2. Water issues, from Chihuahua to Mexico City, have taken on greater importance during the campaign. Water shortages are spreading to more neighborhoods in Mexico City as supplies dip. Frontrunner Sheinbaum is largely expected to continue her predecessor’s policies if elected. She has committed to making water management a priority and would consider a revision of the National Water Law. Meanwhile, her opponent Gálvez has said, if elected, she would modernize agriculture to make more efficient use of water.

Six months later, the United States will hold its presidential election. Water and the 1944 treaty are hardly top campaign issues north of the border. But, if elected, Republican candidate Donald Trump would likely take a more confrontational approach in his dealings with Mexico. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has invested heavily in water conservation in Western states, including in the Colorado River Basin and the Rio Grande. These investments, through the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, would likely continue if Biden is re-elected.

In the Rio Grande Valley, the immediate concern is how to get through a dry, hot summer with less water to go around. As water supplies dwindle—and the political divide widens—the immediate needs to secure water will take precedent.

Carlos Rubinstein, the former TCEQ watermaster, said resolving the root issues of water supplies on the Rio Grande requires continuous work, not just during the bad years.

“It’s bad weather and it’s bad politics,” he said. “So that’s a really tough place to be.”

This story was produced by Inside Climate News, in partnership with The Water Desk, an independent initiative of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.

In Colorado, new scrutiny and possible fixes coming for drinking water in mobile home parks

Silvia Barragán stands outside her front door in Apple Tree Park in western Colorado on April 28, 2024. For years, Barragán and her neighbors in the mobile home park have been speaking out about the discolored water that comes out of their taps. (Eleanor Bennett / Aspen Public Radio)

In western communities, mobile home parks provide a more affordable place to live, but residents often face problems with their drinking water. 

In Colorado, a new law gives the state authority to test water quality in these communities and force owners to fix any issues.

The state plans to start testing the water at hundreds of parks across the state this summer. Officials have already gotten a head start at one community in Western Colorado that helped spur the legislation.

Apple Tree Park sits on the banks of the Colorado River just across from the town of New Castle. 

Silvia Barragán moved to the park in 2015. Her street is lined with trees and she has a big yard with a garden. 

“Some people might look at this as just a trashy mobile park, but it’s not,” Barragán said. “It’s a nice, nice neighborhood. There’s a lot of kids in the summer running around and there’s a lot of elderly people that have lived here most of their lives.”

Barragán is originally from Michoacán, Mexico, and she raised her family in western Colorado. Her experience at Apple Tree Park over the last decade has mostly been positive. 

“Since I moved here, I felt peaceful and at home,” Barragán said. “My neighbors are great neighbors and I haven’t had any issues in Apple Tree except the water.”

Cars line up in front of mobile homes on a quiet street at Apple Tree Park in western Colorado on April 28, 2024. Water quality issues at the park helped spur a new Colorado law that gives the state authority to test water quality in mobile home parks and force owners to fix any issues. (Eleanor Bennett / Aspen Public Radio)

For years, Barragán and her neighbors have been speaking out about the discolored water that comes out of their taps. 

“It’s kind of brownish, yellowish. It’s kind of nasty,” she said. “It’s like river water, like if I’m camping and I go get river water, that’s what it looks like.”

Barragán only wears black now because the water stains her clothes and laundry, and it ruins her appliances.

It has an unpleasant smell and taste, so she fills up water jugs at the local grocery store.

“I buy water,” Barragán said. “I buy water for cooking, I buy water for drinking, I buy water for the dogs.” 

When the state tested the water at Apple Tree Park, they found it meets federal EPA standards under the Safe Drinking Water Act, passed in 1974, but it has higher than normal levels of heavy metals such as iron and manganese. The park is supplied by groundwater wells, and is outside the limits of the nearby town of New Castle, which draws the majority of its drinking supply from a nearby creek.

Apple Tree Park resident Silvia Barragán points at a bucket she filled with discolored water on April 28, 2024. The water meets federal EPA health standards, but has higher than normal levels of heavy metals such as manganese and iron, so Barragán buys water at the local grocery store. (Eleanor Bennett / Aspen Public Radio) 

Joel Minor used to manage the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s environmental justice program, and said Apple Tree’s situation — of heavy metals showing up in underground well water — is pretty common. 

“Because of the taste and color and odor of the water, it can be unpleasant to drink and can cause other issues,” Minor said. “We recognize that that creates challenges for park residents and may require them to spend money on things like bottled water or repairing or replacing appliances.”

While Apple Tree’s overall water system meets federal health standards for drinking, a recent round of testing this winter found that a few samples out of the 200 taken had manganese levels that were above the EPA’s health advisory for infants. High levels of manganese can negatively impact babies’ brain development.

When the state got the test results back in February, they worked with the park owner—Utah-based company Investment Property Group (IPG)—to notify residents and local health officials about the issue. 

“What we want folks to know is to be cautious about using tap water from the park for making formula for infants under the age of six-months-old,” Minor said. “These particular locations where this occurred seem to be spots where maybe the water isn’t being flushed quite as well.”

A water-stained bathtub in Silvia Barragán’s home at Apple Tree Park is one example of how the discolored water has impacted her appliances. Other residents at the mobile home park have also had to replace appliances such as dishwashers and laundry machines more frequently than usual. (Eleanor Bennett / Aspen Public Radio)

With the passage of the Mobile Home Park Water Quality Act in 2023, the state’s been working with IPG to do more regular testing and to fix the water issues. The company didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. 

In 2020, IPG bought the mobile home park from the local Talbott family, which had owned the park since its inception. The company has properties across 13 states, including more than 110 mobile home parks, according to the Mobile Home Park Home Owners Allegiance’s online database.

The state has been having regular meetings with IPG, Garfield County health officials, local advocacy groups and park residents to come up with a variety of ways to improve the water. 

“One key short-term solution that we’ve been working with the park on is flushing the water system more frequently, which can help remove iron and other metals that have accumulated in the system,” Minor said. “We’ve also worked with that same coalition to put on an informational webinar about how to do in-home flushing for appliances like water heaters and pipes so that residents are also able to flush their own water systems.”

Another short-term fix already underway is putting in water stations where residents can fill up jugs for cooking and drinking. 

The state is providing direct funding to the park in the form of an assistance grant to help install these stations. One has already been installed at a local school across from the mobile home park that’s also owned by IPG, and the company plans to install a second by early June in a communal area near the entrance to the park. 

“That was something we came up with based on feedback from park residents that folks are having to drive across the river and across the highway into New Castle to fill water jugs for drinking and other purposes,” Minor said. “So these are key short-term solutions, but we recognize they don’t address the root cause of the problem.”

A Pride flag hangs outside a home at Apple Tree Park near New Castle, Colorado on April 28, 2024. State officials are working with the company that owns the park to fix its water quality issues under a new state law that went into effect this year. (Eleanor Bennett / Aspen Public Radio)

To address the root cause, the state is proposing bigger engineering solutions like installing a filtration system, or even connecting Apple Tree to a municipal water supply. 

But Apple Tree is just one of about 750 mobile home parks in Colorado. The new legislation gives the state authority to test, but the full scope of just how bad water quality could be at those parks, and the costs to fix the various causes could easily begin to rise as testing ramps up.

There is additional funding available for park owners to make these system-wide changes, and if they don’t, the state could impose fines until the problem is fixed. 

“We are really trying to prioritize solutions that won’t increase rent for park residents by either looking at lower cost options or ways of getting outside funding that can ensure that some of those costs don’t get passed on to residents,” Minor said. “We know that passing along the cost could potentially make the equity challenges that are already at play worse if residents have to pay more for their water bills or their space rents.”

Alex Sanchez leads the Glenwood Springs-based Latine advocacy nonprofit Voces Unidas, which worked with Apple Tree residents and Democratic Colorado House Representative Elizabeth Velasco of Glenwood Springs to pass the water quality legislation. 

“We’re not opposed to getting state dollars and federal dollars to be able to support or incentivize some of these solutions,” Sanchez said. “But ultimately, we believe it’s the responsibility of those corporate owners who have been making a lot of profit off the backs of hardworking folks without having access to, you know, quality water, potentially sidewalks, infrastructure and other benefits that many of us take for granted.” 

Apple Tree Park resident Silvia Barragán fills up a bucket with the discolored water that comes out of her kitchen faucet on April 28, 2024. Barragán only wears black now because the water stains her clothes and laundry. (Eleanor Bennett / Aspen Public Radio)

For Sanchez and Voces Unidas, the new law is just the first step in addressing a widespread environmental justice issue — many people living in these communities have lower incomes, don’t speak English as a first language, don’t have access to resources to file complaints, and are Latines or other people of color. 

“The issue is not just contained to one or two parks. Something is happening in these mobile home park communities and because they’re not regulated, there’s not a lot of accountability,” Sanchez said. “Many of these communities across Colorado are owned by corporations that are from out of state.” 

In a recent statewide poll in Colorado, Voces Unidas found 41% of mobile home park residents surveyed did not trust or drink their water. 

Since 2020, the state’s health and environment department has received 66 formal water quality complaints from 42 parks. State officials estimate that it will take them four years to test the water at all of Colorado’s roughly 750 parks. 

For her part, Apple Tree Park resident Silvia Barragán is glad that her community is at the top of the state’s list.  

“When I bought this place, I thought I was gonna retire here,” Barragán said. “So I would be sad to think that I need to buy another place just because, you know, I haven’t seen any change.”

Barragán hopes the new legislation will speed things up, but she doesn’t know how much longer she can wait for clean water. 

This story was produced by Aspen Public Radio, in partnership with The Water Desk, an independent initiative of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism. 

Join us for a webinar on new Colorado River podcast

The Colorado River is in the midst of one of the worst water crises in recorded history. Climate change and overuse are taking a significant toll. Leaders from seven U.S. states must compromise and reach a solution to prevent the river from collapsing.

To understand how negotiators from those states are thinking in this moment, Emily Guerin, a reporter for LA’s public radio station, LAist 89.3, took a deep dive into the river’s political landscape in her latest podcast series, “Imperfect Paradise: The Gen Z Water Dealmaker” from LAist Studios.

Emily brings a sharp eye to the river’s notoriously complex, multi-layered political landscape, and paints a compelling portrait of the most powerful people tasked with negotiating agreements to share the dwindling water supply. Full disclosure: I served as an editorial advisor on the project, and think it’s a great introduction into the current state of Colorado River policymaking.

If you’d like to learn more about how the series came together, join me and Emily on Friday, May 17 at 1 p.m. MT. We plan to talk about narrative storytelling on the Colorado River, and what the story of the river basin’s most powerful decision-makers tells us about our ability to adapt to a changing climate.

Register for webinar

Meet The 28-Year-Old Californian Trying To Save The Colorado River

Once the water has passed the drop, it flows downhill by gravity towards the Imperial Valley. (Zaydee Sanchez/LAist)

The Colorado River is in crisis — one of the worst in recorded history. We take more water out of the river than flows in, and climate change is making things worse. So for the past several months, the seven states that use Colorado River water have been trying to come up with a plan to keep the river from collapsing. Thirty tribal nations and Mexico also tap the Colorado River, but they are not formally represented in these negotiations. California is the single largest user of Colorado River water, which means that any effort to save the river involves California making some serious cuts. 

The states have until the end of 2025 to make a deal. And recently, the states have been deadlocked over who should use less water, and how much. The states in the “Upper Basin” (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico) vehemently disagree with the states in the “Lower Basin” (California, Arizona, and Nevada). 

If they can’t make a deal in time, and the river continues to dry up without an agreement about how to handle that, no one knows what will happen. 

At the very worst, big reservoirs could get so low, no water would pass through the dams. That means 30% of Southern California’s drinking water would be cut off, likely resulting in strict rationing and higher prices for water.

JB Hamby is California’s lead negotiator on Colorado River issues and the subject of a new season of Imperfect Paradise called The Gen Z Water Dealmaker. 

NAME: John Brooks Hamby, aka J.B.

AGE: 28

HOMETOWN: Brawley, California

DAY JOB: Board member of Imperial Irrigation District, a public utility that imports Colorado River water to California’s Imperial Valley and provides electricity. Elected in 2020.

SIDE HUSTLE: Lead negotiator for California on Colorado River issues. Elected in 2023.

NUMBER OF PHONES: Two

NUMBER OF CARS: One, a silver 2013 Toyota Prius with 210,000 miles.

NUMBER OF BOOKS HE’S READ ABOUT THE COLORADO RIVER: A lot. Not exactly sure. I’m on the market for some bookshelves.

FAVORITE ANIMAL: The desert pupfish. They’re an endangered fish native to the lower Colorado River and Arizona. They’re half the size of your pinky, tolerate heat and salinity, and the males turn bright blue when mating. I have a pupfish hat and sticker on my water bottle!

FAVORITE ARTICLE OF CLOTHING: My silver belt buckle. It’s made by a Navajo jeweler, and I bought it in Prescott, Arizona.

FAVORITE SMELLS: Lemon blossoms, fresh-cut alfalfa or the desert after it rains.

A TYPICAL DAY: At home, it is waking up and immediately checking emails, reading from a short stack of documents over breakfast, making calls throughout the morning, and then meetings in the afternoon for Colorado River or energy-related issues. In the evening, I go on a walk and read Robert Caro’s The Power Broker before bed. I travel a lot to Denver, Phoenix, and Las Vegas to meet with the other Colorado River basin states, or to Washington, D.C., to talk to our congressional delegates. 

WORRIES: The seven states that use the Colorado River could fail to come up with a solution we can all live with.

NIGHTMARE SCENARIO: Two things: the big reservoirs on the river dropping so low, no water can pass through the dams – which means no water for California. It’s called deadpool. Or going to the Supreme Court over these ongoing negotiations.

WHAT GIVES ME HOPE: The Lower Basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada have already come so far to overcome divisions and historical disagreements. We’ve done the same in California between cities, farms and tribes. There is little limit to what we can accomplish if we are working constructively toward a common goal, not vilifying others or absolving ourselves of any responsibility.

WANNA LEARN MORE? Listen to the new series of Imperfect Paradise: The Gen Z Water Dealmaker.

How this spring’s snowpack is stacking up

The snowpack in the San Juan Mountains as seen from Telluride ski area in southwest Colorado on March 28, 2024. Photo by Mitch Tobin/The Water Desk.

A version of this post originally appeared on Snow News on April 4, 2024.

April 1 is a big day for fools, and for the West’s water professionals.

For the region’s water wonks, April 1 is a critical date for tracking snow accumulation and projecting the subsequent runoff that will fill streams, rivers, reservoirs, aqueducts, irrigation ditches, and the taps in homes and businesses.

Snowmelt accounts for most of the water flowing in key rivers such as the Colorado and Rio Grande, and while the annual snowpack tends to max out at different times throughout the vast region, many areas peak around early April. The April 1 map below shows how river basins fared in terms of snow water equivalent (SWE), a measure of the snowpack’s water content.

Source: Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Overall, conditions were above normal in southern portions of the region, below normal in northern tier states, and about average in many of the remaining locations. The map makes full use of the colors in the legend, ranging from below 50% (red) to more than 150% (deep blue) of the median for 1991 to 2020. The north-south gradient is about what you’d expect from an El Niño, which tends to tilt the odds this way, as I discussed in an earlier post.

The maps below, from the ENSO blog at climate.gov, show how this winter’s precipitation differed from the long-term average (left) and the pattern that’s expected based on prior El Niños (right).

Source: climate.gov.

The post’s author, NOAA’s Nat Johnson, writes there was a “reasonably good match between what we saw and the expected El Niño precipitation pattern,” but he also notes some discrepancies: “the Pacific Northwest and Northeast were considerably wetter than the expected El Niño pattern, while portions of the southern tier from southern Texas to the Southeast were notably drier.”

How did the April 1 snowpack compare to previous years? I created the graphic below using data from 2022, 2023, and 2024.

Source: my compilation of maps from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

At this time last year, the snowpack was huge in many parts of the West, and even record-breaking in some locations. This year’s map isn’t as blue, but conditions are better than they were in 2022, at least in most places.

I took a glance at the April 1 snowpack maps for Western states (available here) and have included a few of them below:

  • Utah (looking good; I wish I hadn’t skipped skiing there this season)
  • Montana (grim, with record lows in some basins)
  • Idaho (wide range of conditions from north to south)
  • Colorado (about average and the headwaters of important rivers)

It’s worth remembering that in a state like Colorado, where the snowpack supplies water to 18 other states and Mexico, the weather in April and May can play a major role in determining streamflows and reservoir levels.

In the April 4 chart below, the black line shows actual snowpack levels in Colorado since October 1, 2023, and the solid green line indicates the median from 1991 to 2020. Looking into the future, the dashed lines show a variety of possible trajectories for the snowpack in the months ahead. The dark blue and dark red lines plot the maximum and minimum projections, respectively.

Source: Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Although it’s highly unlikely, the chart above shows that moving forward, the state’s snowpack could plummet and be significantly below average by May 1. Alternately, if we get hit by a bunch of storms and it stays cool, the snowpack could keep on growing into May. In other words, the story of this season’s snowpack is still in flux.

In recent years, snowpack levels in the Rockies that were around normal on April 1 have translated into below-average streamflows. Some scientists have pointed to deficits in soil moisture as the culprit for the disparity. Others are researching how warming temperatures are impacting sublimation, when snow converts directly into water vapor. A 2023 paper from Colorado State University scientists argued that spring and summer precipitation was important for explaining the discrepancy between snowpack levels and subsequent runoff. 

In California, the snowpack was a mere 28% of normal on January 1, but all of those atmospheric rivers and other storms wound up delivering a statewide estimate of 110% on April 1. Recent headlines have used phrases like “unusually normal” and “average is awesome” to describe the conditions in California, where the April 1 snowpack in 2023 was 232% of normal but just 35% in 2022. The April 3 graphic below shows the northern part of the Sierra Nevada has the deepest conditions.

Source: California Department of Water Resources.

In a sign of the snowpack’s significance, California Gov. Gavin Newsom used the April 1 milestone as a news hook for announcing a new water plan for the state. “Newsom wore snowshoes as he joined state water managers for their final snow survey of the season,” wrote Ian James of The Los Angeles Times. “The snow was more than 5 feet deep at Phillips Station near South Lake Tahoe on Tuesday. Officials noted that nine years ago, then-Gov. Jerry Brown had stood on snowless ground at the same spot and declared a drought emergency.”

If you’d like to see interesting and detailed maps of the Sierra snowpack, check out this page from researchers at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado Boulder. These experimental products provide “near-real-time estimates” of SWE at a resolution of 500 meters (1,650 feet, or about 0.3 miles). They’re based on recent cloud-free satellite imagery and on-the-ground data from snow pillows and other sources.

Three views of the Sierra Nevada snowpack on March 18. Source: Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

Elsewhere in the West, warm and dry conditions have persisted in places such as Washington, Montana, northern Idaho, and much of northern Wyoming, with some SNOTEL stations reporting record-low SWE readings, according to an April 3 snow drought update from drought.gov.

On the bright side, “an active March storm track favored the Sierra Nevada, central Great Basin, and Four Corners states, where little snow drought remained by the end of March,” the update said. For the second year in a row, the April 1 snowpack was above normal in the Upper Colorado River Basin, which is crucial for filling the beleaguered Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

Panoramic view of the San Juan Mountains from Telluride ski area on March 28, 2024. The snowpack in southwest Colorado was about average on April 1. Photo by Mitch Tobin/The Water Desk.

Snow News is a free multimedia newsletter that covers the science of snow and the state of the snowpack.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder.

10 visuals that show how climate change is transforming the West’s snow and water supply

The Arkansas River and Sawatch Range near Leadville, Colorado, in March 2021. Photo by Mitch Tobin/The Water Desk.

A recent federal synthesis of climate change research paints a grim portrait of snow’s future in the American West and warns that the fast-growing region’s water supply is vulnerable.

“Climate change will continue to cause profound changes in the water cycle, increasing the risk of flooding, drought, and degraded water supplies for both people and ecosystems,” according to the Fifth National Climate Assessment (NCA5) released in November.

The congressionally mandated report concludes there is “widespread consensus” that warming will “decrease the proportion of US precipitation that falls as snow, decrease snow extents, advance the timing of snowmelt rates and pulses, increase the prevalence of rain-on-snow events,” and transform the runoff that is vital for farms, cities and ecosystems. 

Climate change has already diminished the West’s snowpack, with warming global temperatures leading to earlier peaks and shorter seasons, especially at lower elevations and in areas closer to the coast.

In areas where snow is the dominant source of runoff, the volume of water stored in the snowpack may decrease by more than 24% by 2050 under some emissions scenarios, with “persistent low-snow conditions emerging within the next 60 years,” the report said.

“When we have less snow in the West, it can strain our water supplies,” said report co-author Steph McAfee, regional administrator of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center. “We’ve tended to rely on the snowpack as a reservoir that didn’t need to be built and it doesn’t need to be maintained, so it’s been a key place for storing water. Having less snow directly means less water stored for use in the summer.”

NCA5 stresses that climate change’s reshaping of the water cycle and other impacts will exacerbate inequalities in U.S. society and pose a special threat to some marginalized communities.

“All communities will be affected,” the report said, “but in particular those on the frontline of climate change—including many Black, Hispanic, Tribal, Indigenous, and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities—face growing risks from changes to water quantity and quality due to the proximity of their homes and workplaces to hazards and limited access to resources and infrastructure.” 

NCA5 describes itself as the federal government’s “preeminent report on climate change impacts, risks, and responses,” though it is required to steer clear of policy prescriptions. 

The report is based on the latest science, but it is produced for decision-makers and the general public, so it is written in relatively accessible language, and data visualizations play a leading role in communicating the findings. 

Below I use 10 visuals from NCA5—mostly maps but also charts, an infographic and a photo—to help summarize the report’s conclusions about climate, snow and water in the West, focusing on the more arid parts of the region. 

Climate, snow and water

At one level, the story of snow and climate change is simple: in order for snow to fall and stick around, it has to be cold enough, so the warming of the planet is generally bad news for snow. 

“I think the changes to snow and snowpack are changes that we have more confidence in than just about any other water parameter because of the direct effect of warming on snowpack and snow precipitation,” said Elizabeth Payton, NCA5’s Water Chapter Lead and a water resources specialist at the Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Co-author Ben Harding, senior water resources engineer at Lynker, summed up the report’s findings on snow this way: 

“We’re going to see shorter periods of time with snow on the ground, the snow will start to accumulate later and it’ll start to melt earlier,” he said.

A smaller snowpack, a curtailed snow season and a new runoff regime will test the region’s complex water infrastructure of dams, aqueducts and canals, many of which were built in the early to mid-20th century, before climate change was recognized as a peril. The altered snowpack will also strain the West’s water laws and policies, many of which emerged in the 19th century, before some Western states were even admitted to the union. 

But while climate change has already shrunk the snowpack in most parts of the world and will continue to take a toll as temperatures climb, there are exceptions that buck the trend. Total global precipitation is expected to increase due to warming, including in places where the snowpack shrivels. NCA5 predicts there will be worse droughts and floods. 

For example, atmospheric rivers, which are pivotal for the West’s snowpack and water supply, are expected to strengthen in the years ahead. But beyond a certain point, warming makes it more likely that rain will fall instead of snow, even high in the mountains, raising the risk of flooding and a subpar snowpack. 

As temperatures keep rising, increasing rates of melting and evaporation will play a key role. Another critical factor is how much moisture gets sucked up by plants and then transpired into the atmosphere. Some snow never becomes snowmelt and is “lost” to the atmosphere through sublimation, moving directly from the solid to the gaseous phase. Soil moisture is yet another essential element of the water cycle, impacting drought, flooding, agriculture and ecosystems. 

But that’s not all. In Colorado, for example, dust-on-snow events are a big deal because the darker material reduces the snow’s reflectivity and causes it to absorb more heat, accelerating the meltout. Climate change threatens to worsen the dust problem as it continues to aridify parts of the West.

Warming is adjusting the dials on all of these factors, and the magnitude of these changes matter, but there’s yet another crucial dimension: timing. In spring, farmers, water managers and dam operators not only care deeply about the volume of the snowpack that will fill reservoirs, canals, ditches and pipes, but also are keenly interested in when that water will be entering the system. 

“Having a pulse of snowmelt at the beginning of the growing season has been helpful to farmers and ranchers, and the timing of the snowmelt has been something that ecosystems have evolved to adapt to,” Payton said. “The timing is going to be shifting dramatically.”

Warming has already taken a toll on the West’s snowpack

While much of NCA5 focuses on the future, the report also looks back at how climate change has already transformed the nation. The graphic below depicts how the West’s snowpack has shifted in recent decades, with red circles indicating declines, blue circles showing increases and the circle scaled to the size of the change. 

The figure’s title says it all: “Western snowpack is declining, peak snowpack is occurring earlier, and the snowpack season is shortening in length.”

Map “a” shows changes in the volume of the snowpack on April 1, a key date for water managers as they plan for the runoff season. About 93% of sites have experienced a decrease in April 1 snowpack since the 1950s, with the decline averaging about 23%. 

Map “b” concerns the timing of the snowpack’s peak, which has come nearly eight days earlier on average since 1982. 

Map “c” presents data on the length of the snow season, which has decreased by 18 days on average over the last four decades. 

(For more on these maps, including the underlying data, see this page from the Environmental Protection Agency.)

While the vast majority of circles in the figure are red, there are also some blue locations, such as in north-central Colorado. When I asked NCA5 co-authors about those sites, several noted that many of them lie at higher elevations—like those along the Continental Divide in Colorado—and the naturally colder conditions there can help preserve their snowpack in a warming world, up to a point. 

“There are some parts of Alaska or some very high elevations that might have more snow when the snowpack is at its largest,” McAfee said. “They’re starting out really cold, so if it warms up some, it’s still cold enough to snow. If it warms up enough, then there’s the possibility for snow melting earlier or more of those storms bringing rain than snow.”

While some high-elevation locations may see their snowpack increase in coming years, it’s “by and large definitely not enough to compensate or offset the widespread losses in snow that are occurring everywhere else,” said co-author Justin Pflug, a scientist at the University of Maryland and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

How much warmer it gets will be crucial for the snowpack (and much else)

One of the challenges in producing a report like NCA5 is the uncertainty surrounding future greenhouse gas emissions. Innovation, geopolitics, consumer preferences and more make it hard to predict how rapidly the economy will decarbonize. As a result, scientists must use varying emissions scenarios, and it remains to be seen just how much temperatures will rise at a global level.

While the rate of future warming is uncertain, one thing that’s clear is that some parts of the planet will warm more than others and have already experienced much steeper temperature increases. 

The graphic below, which maps the projected change in temperatures at various levels of global warming, shows that the effects are expected to be uneven across the United States. For example, at 2°C of global warming, parts of the Interior West would be more than 5°C warmer. Across the globe, researchers have found “growing evidence that the rate of warming is amplified with elevation,” according to a 2015 paper in Nature Climate Change.

Locations in Alaska would be even hotter than that, mirroring a global trend of much more rapid warming in the Arctic. A 2022 study in Communications Earth & Environment is titled “The Arctic has warmed nearly four times faster than the globe since 1979.”

“One of the key messages for us in the water chapter is that temperature really matters for water,” McAfee said. “Temperature influences whether or not we get rain or snow. It influences when the snowpack melts. It influences how big a sip the atmosphere takes from the water and all of that. So we can’t think about precipitation and we can’t think about our water systems separate from temperature.”

When people hear about droughts and water shortages, they naturally think of a lack of precipitation, which remains the primary driver of such dry times. But as NCA5 notes, “higher temperatures can cause drought to develop or become more intense than would be expected from precipitation deficits alone.”

In a “hot drought,” the atmosphere demands more moisture and desiccates the landscape. Warmer temperatures also contribute to “snow droughts” (discussed below), “flash droughts” that develop in a matter of weeks and “megadroughts” that can extend over decades. 

NCA5 also emphasizes two other messages related to temperature: the degree of change matters greatly, and how hot the planet gets depends on the choices society makes now. 

“The more the planet warms, the greater the impacts—and the greater the risk of unforeseen consequences,” according to the report. “While there are still uncertainties about how the planet will react to rapid warming and catastrophic future scenarios that cannot be ruled out, the future is largely in human hands.”

Climate change is projected to increase global precipitation, but not necessarily in the Southwest

Scientists and their models can paint a much clearer picture of how temperatures will change compared to the projections for precipitation. That said, global warming is expected to increase overall precipitation on the planet because there will be higher evaporation rates and warmer air can hold more moisture. 

The figure below shows projected changes in annual precipitation according to four different levels of warming, with greens indicating increases and browns depicting decreases. The hatching shows areas where 80% or more of the models agree on whether precipitation will increase or decrease. 

Most of the country is expected to see more precipitation overall, with higher levels of warming generally leading to wetter conditions and more certainty about those changes. But in all of the maps, precipitation is expected to decrease in Southern California, much of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, plus portions of Colorado.

“Precipitation changes also scale with global warming, but these projections vary by location and are less certain than temperature changes,” according to NCA5. 

Payton said “there’s not a very strong signal” for total precipitation changes for the Southwest. “The atmosphere can hold more moisture when it’s warmer,” she said, “but that moisture has to come from somewhere, so over the Southwest, where it’s already dry, is it going to be able to suck up that additional amount of moisture that it can hold?”

While precipitation projections are cloudier, Westerners should expect a shift from snowflakes toward raindrops in many parts of the region: “it is virtually certain that less precipitation will fall as snow, leading to large reductions in mountain snowpack and decreases in spring runoff in the mountain West,” according to NCA5.

Overall, NCA5 concludes that “changes in future precipitation and temperature are expected to exacerbate drought across large portions of the US,” with projections showing “the strongest drying signal occurring in the Southwest.”

While drought and water scarcity are dominant themes in more arid parts of the West, these areas also contend with floods that can turn dry washes into raging torrents in a flash and threaten both lives and property.

“Warmer air is thirstier air, and that really raises the risk of higher-severity precipitation events,” Pflug said. 

Flooding can also be caused by snowmelt, especially in years with a big snowpack, rapid thawing in spring or when it rains on top of snow. 

“Due to climate change, snowmelt-driven flooding is expected to occur earlier in the year due to earlier runoff,” the report said. “Moreover, atmospheric rivers, which have driven much of historical flooding in the region, are expected to intensify under a warming climate.” 

The graphic below shows the importance of atmospheric rivers to extreme precipitation in the Pacific Northwest, especially in winter (see my previous post for more on climate change and atmospheric rivers).

The West’s snowpack will store less water and runoff will change

The maps below depict how warming temperatures and changing precipitation patterns are expected to influence three crucial variables in the Southwest’s water cycle, with the top row of maps showing projections for 2036-2065 and the bottom row showing 2070 to 2099, both relative to the 1991-2020 period.

The leftmost maps show projected changes in soil moisture, a critical factor for agriculture and a host of ecological processes. While drier soils are expected in many parts of the Southwest, and especially in portions of the Four Corners states, other areas are expected to see increases in soil moisture.

The center maps depict projected changes in the maximum volume of snow water equivalent, a measure of the snowpack’s water content. Whereas the soil moisture picture is somewhat muddled, the story for snow is crystal clear: steep declines throughout the region, and especially in California’s mountains. 

The rightmost maps show expected changes to runoff—the water that reaches streams, rivers, lakes, reservoirs and taps. As with soil moisture, the projections vary by location but many of the highest-elevation areas, such as the Sierra Nevada, the Southern Rockies and Utah’s Wasatch Range, are expected to see decreases in runoff.

The report’s co-authors stressed that the interactions between soil moisture, snowpack and runoff are complicated, and there is still considerable uncertainty about future precipitation patterns. With soil moisture, for instance, earlier snowmelt may lead to wetter conditions in spring but drier conditions later in the summer.  

Because the changes will vary across the country, people should “look at results and data and projections for their own region and not necessarily take a message from elsewhere and assume that’s what’s happening where they live,” McAfee said. “Climate change will have different impacts in different places. So the fact that we might be concerned about reduced water supplies in the Colorado River doesn’t necessarily mean we have the same concerns in every river basin.”

In the Colorado River Basin, research has shown that “less snow means more evaporation, and this is because snow is really reflective,” McAfee said. “Anyone who’s ever been out skiing knows this: you can get that reflection up and the nose and chin sunburn, and if the snowpack melts early, the land gets more energy, which makes it possible to evaporate more water from the soils and streams and for the plants to get going earlier.”

One challenge for scientists and water managers is that it’s tough to calculate how much snow is out there. Snow accumulation can vary dramatically on a single run at a ski resort, not only from top to bottom due to thousands of feet of elevation difference, but even from one side of the run to the other due to trees, shading, rocks and wind.  

Another vexing problem is tracing what happens to all those H20 molecules after they’ve fallen to earth. 

“There’s still some uncertainties about where the snow is going hydrologically,” Pflug said. 

In recent years, peak snowpack levels in the Rockies that were around normal have translated into below-average streamflows. Some scientists have pointed to deficits in soil moisture as the culprit for the disparity. Others are researching how warming temperatures are impacting sublimation, when snow converts directly into water vapor. A 2023 paper from Colorado State University scientists argued that spring and summer precipitation was important for explaining the discrepancy between snowpack levels and subsequent runoff. 

Here’s how NCA5 sums up the situation for the Colorado River, which supplies some 40 million people in seven U.S. states and Mexico while also irrigating millions of acres of crops:

“Colorado River streamflow over the period 2000–2014 was 19% lower than the 20th-century average, largely due to a reduction in snowfall, less reflected sunlight, and increased evaporation. The period 2000–2021 in the Southwest had the driest soil moisture of any period of the same length in at least the past 1,200 years. While this drought is partially linked to natural climate variability, there is evidence that climate change exacerbated it, because warmer temperatures increase atmospheric ‘thirst’ and dry the soil. Droughts in the region are lasting longer and reflect not a temporary extreme event but a long-term aridification trend—a drier ‘new normal’ occasionally punctuated by periods of extreme wetness consistent with expected increases in precipitation volatility in a warming world.”

Some rural and Indigenous communities are especially vulnerable to the changing water cycle

The consequences of a thinner, less reliable snowpack and changing runoff patterns will be far-reaching, but they will be especially problematic for some rural communities dependent on farming and snow-related recreation. 

The infographic below illustrates some of the downstream effects on agriculture, with snow droughts contributing to the stresses facing the sector and its workers. Reduced snowmelt for irrigation may cause farmers to lose money, generate more dust that harms both farmworkers and the snowpack, and lead to increasing use of dwindling underground aquifers as agriculture shifts from surface water to groundwater.

While the graphic above focuses on agriculture, climate change will also affect the water supply for cities, suburbs and businesses, plus the innumerable species that have evolved to depend on the snowpack and snowmelt. 

Farmers who rely on direct flows from the river may have very senior water rights, but often they lack reservoirs to store the water, so as climate change shifts precipitation from snow to rain and starts the runoff season earlier, these water users—plus fish and other wildlife—face a growing risk of shortages later in the year. 

“For communities that have storage rights, they’re less sensitive to the loss of snowpack if you still are getting precipitation in some form or another,” Payton said. “There are a lot of people and communities in the West who are just living on the edge, and they don’t have the storage, they don’t have the infrastructure to take advantage of when it’s there and are very much dependent on the regime that they’ve been used to.”

NCA5 highlights that “community-based snow-fed irrigation systems in high-elevation watersheds of New Mexico and Colorado, known as acequias, are particularly exposed to the shortfalls in annual snowpack.”

While building more reservoir storage is a potential solution, that strategy has three problems, Harding said. “One is people don’t like reservoirs, except for the people that are going to benefit and use the water. Two is they’re really expensive. And three is we’ve used up most of the really good reservoir sites, so that seems unlikely,” he said. 

Even without the influence of climate change, many Indigenous communities in the West confront major hurdles in securing safe and adequate water supplies (see this 2021 paper for more on incomplete plumbing and poor water quality in U.S. homes). 

The map below shows that many American Indian and Alaska Native homes already face serious problems with their water and sewer systems. At deficiency level 2, a water and sanitation system is in place but it needs upgrades or maintenance, while at level 5, the worst category, “there’s absolutely no water supply, no sanitation system in at all,” said co-author Heather Tanana, a visiting professor of law at the University of California-Irvine, in a webinar.

“As we’re experiencing increased changes in the water cycle, the water quality and quantity impacts are further being exacerbated in part because of aging infrastructure,” Tanana said. “So who is being the most affected? Again, it’s our under-resourced frontline communities.” 

There are two types of snow drought to worry about: dry and warm

The report highlights two kinds of “snow drought” that can afflict the West (this page offers updates on the current status of snow droughts). In a “dry” snow drought, a lack of precipitation diminishes the snowpack. That’s what happened in California’s Sierra Nevada in the 2014/2015 winter, “resulting in the shallowest snow volume ever recorded there,” according to NCA5. 

That same winter, but farther north in Oregon and Washington, there was another snow drought, but this one was a “warm” one. Winter precipitation was 77% to 113% of normal, yet because of higher temperatures, the precipitation shifted from snow to rain, leading to a reduction in the snowpack and higher winter snowmelt, but below-normal flows from April to August. 

The graphic below illustrates the streamflow for two locations: Washington’s Ahtanum Creek and California’s Merced River. In each chart, the black line indicates flows during the 2015 water year (which began October 1, 2014), the gray lines show data from 1952 to 2021 and the dashed line plots the median for that period. The top chart shows that runoff spiked in February and again in March but was then mostly below average during the subsequent warmer months. By contrast, the Merced River’s flow was below normal for nearly the entire runoff season. 

“In Oregon and Washington, irrigated crops—including valuable orchard crops—that depend on direct streamflow diversion water rights failed, but municipal water supplies that relied on storage rights that allow reservoirs to capture winter runoff were sufficient,” according to NCA5. “In California, total water supply was limited, resulting in severe or complete cutbacks to junior water rights and contract holders.” 

The September 2015 photo below from NCA5 shows an apple orchard in the Roza Irrigation District, near Yakima, Washington, suffering the effects of the warm snow drought and reduced irrigation.

Warming will make the landscape “thirstier” in many locations

NCA5’s water chapter discusses a measure known as the “annual climatic water deficit.” In simple language, this metric describes the thirstiness of the landscape. 

“This is a measure that I advocated for because I think it integrates the effects of everything,” said Harding, who defined the deficit as “how much water we’d have to add to the system to fully satisfy the needs of the plants.”

As shown in the maps below, the climatic water deficit is expected to increase by midcentury across much of the nation—and especially in the Southwest. Map “a” shows the average of the projections, while maps “b” and “c” report the average of the wettest and driest 20% of projections. 

The region’s increasing dryness threatens to reinforce snow loss by increasing the amount of dust that lands on the snowpack, thereby accelerating its melting. As a result, NCA5 cautions that “under increasing aridity, agricultural practices such as fallowing and grazing on rangelands will need careful management to avoid increased wind erosion and dust production from exposed soils.”

Adding insult to injury, NCA5 warns that those soils will be more susceptible to blowing around because hotter summers will “degrade protective desert soil crusts formed by communities of algae, bacteria, lichens, fungi, or mosses.” 

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