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In $100 million Colorado River deal, water and power collide

The Shoshone Hydroelectric Facility sits beneath a busy stretch of Interstate 70 on Jan. 26, 2024. The Colorado River District is poised to spend $98.5 million on rights to its water in an effort to keep the Colorado River flowing for farms and cities in Western Colorado. Photo: Alex Hager/KUNC
KUNC’s Alex Hager reports from Western Colorado

Colorado’s Glenwood Canyon is as busy as it is majestic. At the base of its snowy, near-vertical walls, the narrow chasm hums with life. On one side, the Colorado River tumbles through whitewater rapids. On the other, cars and trucks whoosh by on a busy interstate.

Pinched in the middle of it all is the Shoshone Generating Station.

“It is a nondescript brown building off of I-70 that most people don’t notice when they’re driving,” said Amy Moyer, director of strategic partnerships at the Colorado River District. “But if you are in the water world, it holds the key for one of the most interesting and important water rights on the Colorado River.”

Beneath a noisy highway overpass, Moyer looked at the hydropower plant through a chain-link fence. Her group, a taxpayer-funded agency founded to keep water flowing to the cities and farms of Western Colorado, is poised to spend nearly $100 million on rights to the water that flows through the Shoshone facility.

The purchase represents the culmination of a decades-long effort to keep Shoshone’s water on the west side of Colorado’s mountains, settling the region’s long-held anxieties over competition with the water needs of the Front Range, where fast-growing cities and suburbs around Denver need more water to keep pace with development.

Even though the Shoshone water rights carry an eight-figure price tag, the new owners will leave the river virtually unchanged. The river district will buy access to Shoshone’s water from the plant operator, Xcel Energy, and lease it back as long as Xcel wants to keep producing hydropower.

Pedestrians walk across a bridge spanning the Colorado River in Grand Junction, Colo. on Jan. 25, 2024. The Colorado River District says buying the Shoshone water right will bring more predictable flows to the river’s ’15 mile reach.’ Photo: Alex Hager/KUNC

The water right is considered “non-consumptive,” meaning every drop that enters the power plant is returned to the river. The river district wants to keep it that way as long as they can and ensure the water that flows into the hydroelectric plant also flows downstream to farmers, fish and homes.

The river district is rallying the $98.5 million sum from local, state and federal agencies. The district has secured $40 million already, with deals in the works for the remainder. It’s rare for a big-money water deal to find this kind of broad approval from a diverse group of water users. But the acquisition is seen as pivotal for a wide swath of Colorado, and has been co-signed by farmers, environmental groups and local governments.

“It’s so much more than, ‘We’re going to spend $100 million to do nothing,’” Moyer said. “We’re keeping native flows in the river for so many benefits on the West Slope.”

Why Shoshone?

To understand why this unassuming power plant wields so much clout, you have to take a look at its history.

About 40 million people across seven Western states rely on the Colorado River. It supplies big cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Denver. It supports a multi-billion dollar agriculture industry. But it’s governed by a century-old legal document and a management system that has proven frustratingly difficult to adapt for today’s policymakers.

Core to that management system is the concept of “prior appropriation,” which means that those who were first to use water will be the last to have their water curtailed in times of shortage. It often ignores Indigenous people who were using the river’s water before white settlers ever arrived. But under the rules white settlers drew up and modern governments still use today, it means older water rights are more powerful.

Shoshone’s water right is one of the oldest and biggest in the state, giving it preemptive power over many other rights in Colorado.

Even in dry times, when cities and farms in other parts of the state feel the sting of water shortages, the Shoshone Hydroelectric Plant can send water through its turbines. And when that water exits the turbines and re-enters the Colorado River, it keeps flowing for myriad users downstream.

The Colorado River flows through the Shoshone diversion structure on Jan. 29, 2024. The diversion structure routes river water into the hydropower plant. Photo: Alex Hager/KUNC

The hydro plant itself produces relatively little energy. Its 15 megawatt capacity is only a small fraction of Xcel Energy’s total Colorado output of 13,100 megawatts. Shoshone’s capacity is enough to serve about 15,000 customers, which is less than a quarter of the population of Garfield County, where the plant is located.

But the power plant has held legal access to water from the Colorado River since 1902, and can claim seniority over the vast majority of other water owners in the state.

That kind of seniority means power and certainty for whoever owns it. And that has raised the hackles of Western Colorado water users, who worry that water users in other parts of Colorado might be interested in buying Shoshone’s water right.

Colorado’s Front Range – functionally the metro area from Fort Collins to Pueblo – only exists in its current capacity because of a complex network of canals, pipes, and tunnels cut through the mountains, carrying water against gravity to the places where it’s needed. About 80% of the state’s water falls on the west side of the mountains, but 80% of its people live on the east side.

Cities on the Front Range have been able to grow significantly over the past century, despite often having access to a finite supply of water. Their Western Colorado counterparts worry that future growth could lead those cities to spend big on more water from the West Slope and say securing Shoshone’s water blocks Eastern Colorado water users from the chance to snatch it up themselves.

Fish and farms

The Colorado River District’s plans to buy Shoshone’s water have rallied widespread support, largely because of the transfer’s widespread benefits.

Perhaps no constituency will benefit from the move as much as the one that lives in the river itself.

“Anything that results in more water in the river is good for fish,” said Dale Ryden, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Standing on the banks of the Colorado River in Grand Junction, Ryden looked out over a murky, meandering stretch of water. It’s part of the “15 mile reach,” a critical section of the river about 80 miles west of the Shoshone plant. The reach is filled partly by water exiting Shoshone’s turbines.

Ryden explained that this section of river is home to a variety of species, some of which are endangered, and some which are found nowhere else on earth besides the upper portions of the Colorado River.

Those species – with funky names like the flannelmouth sucker and the humpback chub – rely on this stretch of river for virtually every aspect of life.

“Back in the day, before there were people here and there was a lot of water and snowpack, the ’15 mile reach’ was kind of the place to be if you were an endangered Colorado pikeminnow or a razorback sucker,” Ryden said. “The adults live here, they spawn here, they feed here. It’s just a really highly-used and good section of river for the adult endangered fish.”

Fish biologist Dale Ryden holds a razorback sucker on Jan. 26, 2024. The endangered fish species lives in the Colorado River, and proponents of the Shoshone water right transfer say the fish will benefit from increased flows to a portion of its habitat. Photo: Alex Hager/KUNC

Because the fish are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act, people who use water from this section of the Colorado River are legally required to leave enough behind for fish. That means dry conditions and water shortages would force farmers and ranchers in the nearby Grand Valley to play a tricky balancing game between their own water needs and the legal protections afforded to endangered fish.

“We can’t have farming without taking care of those fish,” said Tina Bergonzini, manager of the Grand Valley Water Users Association, one of a handful of agricultural irrigation districts near Grand Junction. “They go hand in hand.”

Mesa County, which contains the Grand Valley, has an annual agricultural output of about $94 million. It’s the state’s top producer of fruits and berries, including the regionally-famous peaches from Palisade.

Bergonzini says the farmers and ranchers who contribute to that total will be able to depend on a steady water supply year after year once Shoshone’s water is guaranteed to keep flowing their way.

“I think peace of mind is the number one most important thing that it’s going to be able to bring to the Grand Valley,” she said.

The Grand Valley Water Users Association was among 21 groups that co-signed the river district’s plan to buy the Shoshone water right.

Other potential suitors

The river district describes the deal as ‘protecting’ the Shoshone water right, but hasn’t detailed who exactly they’re protecting it from. History provides more than a few examples of Front Range cities and agriculture looking West for new water supplies, but it’s unclear which diverters, exactly, would have wanted to buy Shoshone.

Denver Water, the state’s largest water utility, would have been a potential candidate to buy access to Shoshone’s water, but forfeited that opportunity in 2013 when the agency inked the “Colorado River Cooperative Agreement” along with the Colorado River District. In fact, Denver Water agreed to support the acquisition of the Shoshone water right by a West Slope entity.

Representatives from Denver Water, Aurora Water and Northern Water – which serves eight counties north and east of the Denver metro – declined to comment on the transfer of Shoshone’s water rights. A spokeswoman for Colorado Springs Utilities said the agency was “aware of the Colorado River District’s efforts to acquire the Shoshone water rights and would not oppose the transfer of those rights.”

This 1968 photo shows two large tubes, known as penstocks, which carry Colorado River water into the Shoshone hydropower facility from pipes within the canyon wall. Photo: Historic American Engineering Record/Library Of Congress

Mark Hermundstad, a retired water lawyer who helped craft the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement, said he was not aware of any particular water agency that was poised to buy the Shoshone right but that threats may have still existed. He even floated the idea that an East Coast hedge fund could theoretically attempt to buy Shoshone’s water.

“There’s always been a possibility that someone with a lot of money could come in and buy it and try to do something with it,” he said.

Following the funds, and what comes next

Almost all of the $98.5 million for the river district’s acquisition of Shoshone’s water will derive from public funds.

The vast majority of that money, about $49 million, is set to come from the federal government. The river district plans to request a chunk of money from a $4 billion pool given to the Department of the Interior in 2022 for Colorado River projects. The extraordinary infusion of federal money has so far been used to fund a number of incentive programs designed to pay water users — mostly farmers and ranchers — in exchange for reduced water use.

Twenty million dollars will come from the river district’s own coffers. The agency is funded by taxes from 15 counties in Western Colorado. In 2020, voters in those counties overwhelmingly approved a rate hike for payments to the river district, designed to bring in an extra $5 million each year.

Cattle graze in the Grand Valley on Jan. 25, 2024. Farm groups say the area’s growers will benefit from the Colorado River District’s acquisition of the Shoshone water right because it will help them have more predictability in the amount of water they can divert for farms and ranches each year. Photo: Alex Hager/KUNC

Another $20 million will come from the state of Colorado. The state’s water management arm, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, recently voted to approve that spending from its annual “water projects bill,” bringing the river district one step closer to its fundraising goals.

Besides wrangling the formidable sum, the main hurdles left for the river district concern permitting, regulation and a court hearing. Both the river district and state officials say they are optimistic that all the necessary paperwork will get stamped without issue.

“I don’t expect that there’s going to be entities or individuals that come out of the woodwork vocalizing any strong opposition to us moving forward in this way,” Lauren Ris, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said.

Only one aspect of the transfer appears to present a potential wrinkle: the river district’s ability to own an “instream flow.” That designation refers to water that is owned but not used, in the traditional sense. Instead, it’s left in rivers and streams to “preserve the natural environment.” The state is usually the only entity allowed to own that type of water right.

In a recent Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) meeting, Phil Weiser, the state’s attorney general, pointed out that it would be unusual for the river district—rather than the state board itself—to own Shoshone’s water and keep it as an instream flow.

In an interview with KUNC, Ris pointed to a short list of other times the board made exceptions to its usual policy about instream flow ownership. Ris said the Colorado River District’s takeover of Shoshone is big and important enough that it makes sense to “think creatively” and consider adding Shoshone’s water to that list.

“The easiest way to have an instream flow water, right, is for the CWCB to outright own it and operate it,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that it’s the only way, and this is such an outlier unique situation.”

‘Long-term, permanent solutions’

The past few decades have seen the Colorado River governed by a patchwork of short-term agreements. The region’s top water policymakers have appeared reluctant to agree on more permanent measures to significantly correct a growing imbalance between supply and demand. Instead, they’ve put together temporary deals designed to stave off catastrophe at the nation’s largest reservoirs.

While the Shoshone water right transfer likely won’t change much for tense negotiations about water management between states that use the Colorado River, it’s a rare moment of durability and stability for at least one area that uses the river’s water.

“Now more than ever, there is a desire to look for long-term permanent solutions on the Colorado River,” said the Colorado River District’s Amy Moyer. “This is one that exists for Colorado.”

Across the Colorado River Basin, that imbalance and the growing harm of climate change have also compelled environmental groups to raise alarm about potential damage to ecosystems for plants and animals. Management decisions about the river’s water tend to prioritize cities and agriculture over the natural world.

Proponents of the Shoshone water right transfer say it will help push back on the harms of water shortages, at least on one stretch of the Colorado River.

“Being able to stabilize or make permanent existing rights is very helpful as we look at addressing and dealing with climate change and its impact on streams,” said Bart Miller, healthy rivers director at the conservation group Western Resource Advocates. Miller’s group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also supports KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

Policymakers are struggling to make significant reductions to the amount of water used by cities and farms, and climate change means less water will enter the river system in the future. Environmental advocates say the Colorado River District’s ownership of the Shoshone water provides some insurance against those realities by adding predictability and protection to a stretch of the Colorado River.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. It was produced in partnership with The Water Desk, an independent initiative of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism. 

Why atmospheric rivers can be both harmful and helpful

An atmospheric river event in January 2017. Source: NOAA.

A version of this post originally appeared on Snow News on February 1, 2024.

The term “atmospheric river” (AR) has become common in weather stories and media coverage, but the name for these age-old events is a relative newcomer in meteorological glossaries.

Coined by scientists in the 1990s, the term’s popularity has soared in recent years as researchers, forecasters, journalists, and others have publicized the outsized role of atmospheric rivers in producing rain, snow, wind, and severe weather in the American West (and other places).

The recent atmospheric rivers that struck California illustrate why they can be both harmful and helpful. The storms not only caused deadly flooding but also gave the state’s meager snowpack a major boost. The map below shows the total liquid precipitation from February 1 to February 8.

Source: Pivotal Weather

Here’s a quick primer on ARs, why they matter, and what the future might hold for ARs as the climate warms.

What are atmospheric rivers?

These plumes of moisture are sometimes likened to “rivers in the sky” because they transport so much water vapor from the tropics toward higher latitudes. In data visualizations, like the one below, they can resemble a fire hose dousing the West Coast.

An AR is “a long, narrow, and transient corridor of strong horizontal water vapor transport that is typically associated with a low-level jet stream ahead of the cold front of an extratropical cyclone,” according to the American Meteorological Society’s Glossary of Meteorology.

“Atmospheric rivers are the largest ‘rivers’ of fresh water on Earth, transporting on average more than double the flow of the Amazon River.”

— American Meteorological Society’s Glossary of Meteorology

When ARs are forced upward by mountains or other forces, the water vapor cools, condenses, and precipitates, as shown in the graphic below. This NOAA figure says the amount of water vapor in a strong AR “is roughly equivalent to 7.5-15 times the average flow of water at the mouth of the Mississippi River.”

Source: NOAA.

One type of AR has come to be known as the “Pineapple Express” because it taps moisture around Hawaii. The January 4 images below from the NASA Earth Observatory illustrate the connection: the top graphic depicts a measure of water vapor in the atmosphere and the bottom shows the view from a satellite.

Source: NASA Earth Observatory.

ARs are critical for the West’s water and snowpack

Whether you compare ARs to the Amazon or the Mississippi, there’s no doubt they exude wetness, so they can have far-reaching effects on the West’s water resources, for better or worse.

On average, a few AR events contribute 30% to 50% of the annual precipitation in West Coast states, according to NOAA. A 2019 paper in Geophysical Research Letters concluded that AR storm days are responsible for about one-quarter of the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada and one-third of the snowpack in the Cascades of Oregon and Washington.

Even the Rocky Mountains benefit from ARs. A 2021 study in Geophysical Research Letters estimated that the snow produced by ARs accounts for 31% of the peak snow water equivalent in the Upper Colorado River Basin, where the majority of the river’s flow originates.

“Atmospheric river” is a relatively new term

ARs have been a big deal for eons—an average of about 11 are present on Earth at any time—but it wasn’t until the 21st century that the term entered into general circulation. The two graphics below, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes (CW3E) at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, show the term’s growing use in news stories and peer-reviewed journal articles.

Source: CW3E.
Source: CW3E.

I took a peek at Google Ngram, which analyzes the text in books, and also found a sharp rise in the term’s use.

Source: Google Ngram Viewer.

Some experts think the analogy to a terrestrial river is inappropriate, and some think the term is “duplicative of preexisting concepts, such as the warm conveyor belt,” according to this article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. Nevertheless, “atmospheric river” has jumped from peer-reviewed journals to water cooler conversations, not unlike “polar vortex,” “bomb cyclone,” and “heat dome.”

AR Scale rates severity with five categories

Just as hurricanes are classified by the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, and tornadoes are categorized by the Enhanced Fujita Scale, ARs have their own rating scale.

The AR Scale is based on two factors: the duration of the event and its “maximum vertically integrated water vapor transport,” a measure of its water content and the speed at which it’s moving. As shown in the graphic below, there are five categories, with the bottom two described as primarily beneficial.

Source: U.S. Geological Survey, adapted from Ralph et al. 2019.

One way to summarize AR forecasts is shown below in a set of maps from CW3E, which describe conditions along three locations—coastal, foothills, and inland—from January 30 to February 6.

Source: My compilation of maps from CW3E.

The forecast shows the southern Oregon coast is expected to reach Category 5, the most severe level, while other areas along the Pacific Ocean will reach Categories 3 and 4. Farther inland, conditions are expected to be less extreme, but at higher elevations, it’ll definitely be dumping.

ARs can end droughts but also cause major flooding

As noted by the AR Scale, these events can be both helpful and hazardous. On the positive side, ARs can be effective drought busters. A 2013 study in the Journal of Hydrometeorology concluded that about one-third of persistent droughts in California have been erased by AR storms, with 60% to 74% of droughts in the Pacific Northwest ending this way.

On the negative side of the ledger, ARs have been responsible for some of the worst floods on the West Coast, including nearly 90% of California’s flood damage. Even this week’s weather prompted some internet rumors that California would be subject to a “megaflood” of biblical proportions, according to this Los Angeles Times story, which noted that experts don’t think this is “the big one.”

One doomsday scenario, known as “ARkStorm,” is a deluge featuring wave after wave of ARs flooding large portions of California, displacing up to 10 million people, and causing a $1 trillion disaster. For more on this potential nightmare, check out “The Trillion-Gallon Question,” a 2023 story by Christopher Cox in The New York Times Magazine about the potential fragility of California’s water infrastructure.

And let’s not forget about the wind. “Atmospheric rivers are among the most damaging storm types in the middle latitudes, especially with regard to the hazardous wind they produce,” according to NASA. Researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory found that ARs were to blame for up to half of the most destructive windstorms over the last two decades. In a 2017 study in Nature Geoscience, scientists concluded: “Landfalling atmospheric rivers are associated with about 40–75% of extreme wind and precipitation events over 40% of the world’s coastlines. Atmospheric rivers are associated with a doubling or more of the typical wind speed compared to all storm conditions, and a 50–100% increase in the wind and precipitation values for extreme events.”

Climate change will intensify ARs

As the planet continues warming, scientists expect ARs to strengthen. A warmer atmosphere can hold more water, so climate change is projected to boost the intensity of downpours. NASA scientists predict that by the end of the 21st century, climate change will make ARs about 25% wider and longer while increasing the global frequency of AR conditions, such as heavy rain and strong winds, by around 50%.

2021 paper focused on the West concluded that for every 1C of additional warming, annual average flood damages will rise by about $1 billion. Because warming is causing the snow level to rise, atmospheric rivers are more likely to drop rain, so they may not be as helpful to the snowpack, and when rain falls on snow, that can cause huge problems with flooding and debris flows.

The odds of an ARkStorm have doubled due to climate change and “runoff in the future extreme storm scenario is 200 to 400% greater than historical values in the Sierra Nevada because of increased precipitation rates and decreased snow fraction,” according to a 2022 paper in Science Advances.

For a great overview of climate change and ARs, see this recent Washington Post story from Kasha Patel. And check out this fascinating piece from Ian James at The Los Angeles Times to learn how scientists are using a hurricane-reconnaissance jet to study ARs.

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.

What is an atmospheric river? A hydrologist explains the good and bad of these flood-prone storms and how they’re changing

A satellite image shows a powerful atmospheric river hitting the Pacific Northwest in December 2023. Darker greens are more water vapor. Lauren Dauphin/NASA Earth Observatory

By Qian Cao, University of California, San Diego

A series of atmospheric rivers is bringing the threat of heavy downpours, flooding, mudslides and avalanches to the Pacific Northwest and California this week. While these storms are dreaded for the damage they can cause, they are also essential to the region’s water supply, particularly in California, as Qian Cao, a hydrologist at the University of California, San Diego, explains.

What are atmospheric rivers?

An atmospheric river is a narrow corridor or filament of concentrated water vapor transported in the atmosphere. It’s like a river in the sky that can be 1,000 miles long. On average, atmospheric rivers have about twice the regular flow of the Amazon River.

When atmospheric rivers run up against mountains or run into local atmospheric dynamics and are forced to ascend, the moisture they carry cools and condenses, so they can produce intense rainfall or snowfall.

A satellite view of atmospheric rivers.

Atmospheric rivers occur all over the world, most commonly in the mid-latitudes. They form when large-scale weather patterns align to create narrow channels, or filaments, of intense moisture transport. These start over warm water, typically tropical oceans, and are guided toward the coast by low-level jet streams ahead of cold fronts of extratropical cyclones.

Along the U.S. West Coast, the Pacific Ocean serves as the reservoir of moisture for the storm, and the mountain ranges act as barriers, which is why the western sides of the coastal ranges and Sierra Nevada see so much rain and snow.

Why are back-to-back atmospheric rivers a high flood risk?

Consecutive atmospheric rivers, known as AR families, can cause significant flooding.

The first heavy downpours saturate the ground. As consecutive storms arrive, their precipitation falls on soil that can’t absorb more water. That contributes to more runoff. Rivers and streams fill up. In the meantime, there may be snowmelt due to warm temperatures, further adding to the runoff and flood risk.

California experienced a historic run of nine consecutive atmospheric rivers in the span of three weeks in December 2022 and January 2023. The storms helped bring most reservoirs back to historical averages in 2023 after several drought years, but they also produced damaging floods and debris flows.

An animation shows filaments of water heading toward the coast.
Atmospheric rivers forming over the tropical Pacific Ocean head for the U.S. West Coast. NOAA

The cause of AR families is an active area of research. Compared with single atmospheric river events, AR families tend to be associated with lower atmospheric pressure heights across the North Pacific, higher pressure heights over the subtropics, a stronger and more zonally elongated jet stream and warmer tropical air temperatures.

Large-scale weather patterns and climate phenomena such as the Madden-Julian Oscillation, or MJO, also play an important role in the generation of AR families. An active MJO shift occurred during the early 2023 events, tilting the odds toward increased atmospheric river activity over California.

A truck drives through muddy streets that fill a large section of town. People stand on one small patch of pavement not flooded.
An aerial view shows a flooded neighborhood in the community of Pajaro in central California on March 11, 2023, after a series of atmospheric rivers. Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

A recent study by scientists at Stanford and the University of Florida found that storms within AR families cause three to four times more economic damage when the storms arrive back to back than they would have caused by themselves.

How important are atmospheric rivers to the West Coast’s water supply?

I’m a research hydrologist, so I focus on hydrological impacts of atmospheric rivers. Although they can lead to flood hazards, atmospheric rivers are also essential to the Western water supply. Atmospheric rivers have been responsible for ending more than a third of the region’s major droughts, including the severe California drought of 2012-16.

Atmospheric rivers provide an average of 30% to 50% of the West Coast’s annual precipitation.

They also contribute to the snowpack, which provides a significant portion of California’s year-round water supply.

In an average year, one to two extreme atmospheric rivers with snow will be the dominant contributors to the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada. Together, atmospheric rivers will contribute about 30% to 40% of an average season’s total snow accumulation there.

A dam spillway with a full reservoir behind it.
After several winter storms brought record snowfall to California’s Sierra Nevada in early 2023, Lake Oroville, California’s second-largest reservoir, was at 100% capacity. The previous year, much of the state had faced water restrictions. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

That’s why my colleagues at the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of the University of California, San Diego, work on improving atmospheric river forecasts and predictions. Water managers need to be able to regulate reservoirs and figure out how much water they can save for the dry season while still leaving room in the reservoirs to manage flood risk from future storms.

How is global warming affecting atmospheric rivers?

As global temperatures rise in the future, we can expect more intense atmospheric rivers, leading to an increase in heavy and extreme precipitation events.

My research also shows that more atmospheric rivers are likely to occur concurrently during already wet conditions. So, the chance of extreme flooding also increases. Another study, by scientists from the University of Washington, suggests that there will be a seasonal shift to more atmospheric rivers earlier in the rainy season.

There will likely also be more year-to-year variability in the total annual precipitation, particularly in California, as a study by my colleagues at the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes projects.

Qian Cao is Hydrologist at the Center For Western Weather and Water Extremes, University of California, San Diego.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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.

Water flux and toxic wells – Water Buffs Podcast ep. 12 – Kathy James

Expand video >

On this episode of Water Buffs, we examine how drought can harm human health, specifically how dramatic fluctuations in water availability can lead to increasingly toxic water supplies.

Dr. James is an award-winning epidemiologist and engineer specializing in environmental and climate risk factors and their connection to health in vulnerable populations. She is an associate professor at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, one of three institutions that make up the Colorado School of Public Health.

She recently spoke to journalist Melissa Bailey for a Water Desk-supported article, “Once ‘paradise,’ parched Colorado valley grapples with arsenic in water.” The article, originally published by KFF Health News, centered around Dr. James’ community-based research projects that investigate exposure to heavy metals, in particular a rise in carcinogenic arsenic in drinking water in Colorado’s drought-stricken San Luis Valley.

Episode highlights  Click links to cue video

Kathy James, PhD, MSPH, MSCEKathy James, PhD, MSPH, MSCE
Dr. James is an epidemiologist and engineer at the Colorado School of Public Health who specializes in environmental and climate risk factors and health in vulnerable populations.
Starts at 1:05
Effects of drought on water quality
Recent research looked at drought conditions in Colorado’s San Luis Valley and how reduced water supply might result in a greater concentration of metals and contaminents in local wells.
Starts at 2:03
Study findings
A recent KFF Health News story supported by the Water Desk explored research by Dr, James finding that drought conditions have been intensifying the levels of metals in drinking water in southwestern Colorado.
Starts at 4:38
Does reduced water quantity always mean more pollution?   (7:04)
Why the San Luis Valley?
The area is one of the oldest agricultural communities in the state, with residents going back as many as eight or nine generations. It is the highest mountain plain desert in the western hemisphere and is a leading producer of potatoes, lettuce and alfalfa. It also experienced a megadrought from 2002 to 2012.
Starts at 10:47
Are metals in water a concern for crops and livestock?
There is less concern regarding metals appearing in meat and produce than in water consumed directly from contaminated wells.
Starts at 16:13
What are the health consequences of water contamination?
Arsenic contamination can lead to a number of health problems from heart, kidney and reproductive concerns to cognitive developmental problems.
Starts at 19:44
Water Words: Hard waterWater Words: “Hard Water”
The “hardness” of water can be traced to its level of dissolved calcium and magnesium. Hard water can be harmful to piping and household appliances but can be beneficial to ecosystems.
Starts at 25:31
Thoughts on media imagery of drought
Do representations of water scarcity seem too apocalyptic?
Starts at 28:49
How can people keep healthy and safe?
With research partners at ASU, Dr. James is exploring low-cost and environmentally low-impact filtration systems for removing harmful substances from well water.
Starts at 36:07
Is well testing too expensive?
Currently, private well owners are responsible for the cost of testing. More important, says Dr. James, is helping them address problems that the tests find.
Starts at 40:00
Are water quality concerns affecting mental health as well?   (44:49)
Should governments mandate more testing?   (48:13)
Show more episode detail

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Helpful sites for tracking snow and the (subpar) snowpack

Snowmaking at Purgatory ski area in southwest Colorado in December. A dry, warm start to winter left many ski resorts in the West with thin cover. Photo by Mitch Tobin.

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

There’s no shortage of websites with maps and graphics visualizing snow forecasts and the state of the snowpack.

In fact, information overload is the real challenge.

Starting up Snow News, I felt like a skier in whiteout conditions, trying to find my bearings through foggy goggles in a dense cloud of data, models, analytics, predictions, and other weather wonkery.

Lift 9 at Colorado’s Loveland ski area climbing to nearly 13,000 feet and the Continental Divide in March 2015. Photo by Mitch Tobin.

In an earlier post, I explained how the Winter Storm Severity Index provides an accessible overview of expected impacts from snow, ice, and wind. But that’s just one of many products from the government, universities, and other sources that offer a wealth of information about what’s happening with both near-term weather and seasonal trends.

Below, I describe some of the other sites I find most useful for tracking storms and keeping tabs on the snowpack. I’m not a snow scientist, so I’m focusing on resources that make it easy for a lay audience to catch the drift.

The sites below are all free, but there are also paid services worth looking into if you’re a total snow nerd. In my opinion, OpenSnow is by far the best source for snow forecasts, especially for skiers and snowboarders, and I’ve been a paid member for a decade (its wildfire smoke projections and other maps are also useful in summer). If you want to see tons of data and the output from weather models, WeatherBELL Analytics and Pivotal Weather are good choices.

1) Use iMap to visualize SNOTEL data

First, the bad news. Three months into the water year, which starts October 1, the West’s snowpack remains significantly below average in nearly every watershed. The image below is from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s iMap interactive, which illustrates January 1 data from automated SNOTEL stations and other sources.

Source: Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The iMap tool provides a great overview of conditions in the West and lets you see data for individual watersheds or SNOTEL stations. In the images below, I’ve shown that switching from basins to stations allows you to click on a specific SNOTEL site to chart how the snowpack has fared this season. For example, the Columbus Basin station, located at 10,781 feet in the La Plata Range near me, is at 49% of the median level for 1991-2020, with current conditions shown with a black line and the median in green.

Source: Natural Resources Conservation Service.

At this station, the snowpack has flatlined recently, and with 104 days to go until the median peak date of April 15, it was at the 7th percentile. Ugh. On the bright side, the forecast calls for snow to fall around here tonight, with a bigger storm expected to hit on Sunday.

If you’re monitoring conditions in California, check out that state’s own snowpack website. The summary below from the California Department of Water Resources visualizes the grim picture in the Sierra Nevada, with the statewide average at 25%.

Source: California Department of Water Resources.

2) Explore forecasts with a map from The New York Times

One of my favorite sites for tracking incoming storms is an interactive map from The New York Times that excels at visualizing data from the National Weather Service’s National Digital Forecast Database. For example, the November 30 map below shows the “most likely” snow amounts in Utah’s Wasatch Range, but the map can also depict the low- and high-end chances so you can get your hopes up or down, depending on your personal preference.

Source: The New York Times.

It’s easy to navigate this tool and drill down to see how the snow forecast can vary dramatically across just a few miles in the West’s undulating topography. This data viz also generates probabilistic snowfall forecasts for specific locations and zip codes, using National Weather Service data to calculate the likelihood that a place will receive a specific amount of snow, such as less than one inch, four to six inches, greater than 18 inches, etc.

3) Track snowfall with NOHRSC

It’s a mouthful, but NOAA’s National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center is an essential source for snow data. NOHRSC’s interactive map offers a variety of snow-related data, including depth, temperature, density, and melting. You can also select data for any day since 2002. Below is an example of the snowfall during 72 hours in mid-December in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.

Source: NOHRSC’s National Gridded Snowfall Analysis.

As is common with federal websites, this interactive map is kinda clunky and cumbersome. The paid sites I mentioned above use NOHRSC’s data to produce more user-friendly maps, like the one below from WeatherBELL Analytics showing how much snow fell from October 1 to January 1.

Source: WeatherBELL Analytics.

4) Keep tabs on the outlook at the Climate Prediction Center

The truth is that modern science has very little skill in predicting where and how much it’ll snow many weeks or months from now. But as I’ve noted in an earlier post, there are products by federal forecasters and other reputable sources that take a stab at long-term outlooks.

I think the best source is the federal government’s Climate Prediction Center. For what it’s worth, below are the CPC’s most recent outlooks for precipitation and drought in the first three months of 2024.

Source: Climate Prediction Center.
Source: Climate Prediction Center.

5) Gauge the probability of snow at the Weather Prediction Center

My favorite feature of this site is the map that depicts the probability of snowfall exceeding certain thresholds. For example, the December 1 image below shows the odds of at least four inches of snow falling over the subsequent 72 hours.

Source: Weather Prediction Center.

See this page for WPC’s winter weather forecasts, which go out to seven days and also address freezing rain.

6) See local reports from the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS)

CoCoRaHS is a citizen-science effort that describes itself as “a unique, non-profit, community-based network of volunteers of all ages and backgrounds working together to measure and map precipitation (rain, hail and snow).”

Measurements from volunteers are plotted on an interactive map that has data available back to 1998. The image below shows 24-hour snowfall around Durango and Pagosa Springs on November 25.

Source: CoCoRaHS.

As you’d expect, big cities have a lot more observations than rural areas. See this page for more about the project and how to sign up as a volunteer.

7) Check conditions using avalanche centers

In many parts of the West, local avalanche information centers provide critical data and insights about snowfall and the status of the snowpack. Forecasting avalanche danger lies beyond the scope of this newsletter, but even if you never plan to set foot in the backcountry, these sites are still super helpful. For example, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center has weather forecastsdata from weather stations, and daily snowfall reports.

Below is the output from one of their weather models, showing the expected snowfall during a late October storm.

See this page on avalanche.org for links to other avalanche centers, and this map for a national overview of conditions.

8) Consult dashboards that pull from multiple sources

Finally, several helpful websites aggregate data, maps, and graphics from various sources, offering a quick overview of what’s happening with snowfall and the snowpack.

The Intermountain West Ski Dashboard, created by the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, pulls together data on recent snowfall, short-term forecasts, weather hazards, snow depth, drought, and more. Here’s an example of a graphic showing that the vast majority of SNOTEL sites in Colorado were below the 50th percentile on January 1, with the vertical axis showing elevation and the different colors corresponding to different river basins:

Snow water equivalent at Colorado SNOTEL sites on January 1. Source: Colorado Climate Center.

Below is a forecast for the next seven days, showing the expected precipitation “anomaly,” with green indicating wetter than average conditions and brown showing drier (this map shows inches of liquid precipitation, rather than snow amounts).

Source: Colorado Climate Center.

The Intermountain West Climate Dashboard, created by the Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado Boulder, is another useful round-up that focuses on Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. This is a great source for maps depicting recent temperature/precipitation data; measures of drought and soil moisture; current and forecasted streamflow; reservoir storage; and the status of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation. The site offers regular briefings on climate trends and significant weather events, including a helpful annual summary of the preceding water year. Below is a gallery of some images showing precipitation, soil moisture, and reservoir storage.

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.

Staying safe with the Winter Storm Severity Index

Snow building up on a roof at Colorado’s Loveland ski area in January 2017. Photo by Mitch Tobin.

A version of this post originally appeared on Snow News on December 12, 2023.

When snow is incoming, I turn to the Winter Storm Severity Index (WSSI).

WSSI is a helpful, pragmatic, and relatively new forecast product that’s meant to communicate weather-related risks to the general public and illustrate the threat that snow, ice, and wind pose for transportation, infrastructure, homes, and businesses.

Created by the Weather Prediction Center (WPC), part of the National Weather Service, WSSI is designed to convey the “societal impacts” of winter weather. Epic snowstorms not only make for fun powder days but also can kill and injure people while disrupting life across an entire region.

While winter storms usually can’t compete with flooding, tropical cyclones, and other severe storms in terms of the havoc they wreak, it’s worth remembering that damages sometimes exceed $1 billion.

Source: Fifth National Climate Assessment.

WSSI “highlights regions and localities with the forecasted potential of damaging and life-threatening effects brought on by winter weather,” according to a helpful story map from WPC. The effects include “tree damage, school closures, transportation issues like flight cancellations, traffic accidents, and road closures.”

To get a sense of the potential problems, check out this November story from the Los Angeles Times about last year’s catastrophic winter, which left some residents with “PTSD for snow.”

“For weeks last winter, many San Bernardino Mountains residents remained trapped in their homes, buried under as much as 12 feet of snow, some without power for as long as six days,” according to the story. “Almost 350 residences and businesses were damaged or destroyed — including one of the area’s largest grocery stores, whose roof collapsed, and several houses that exploded because of buried gas meters. An estimated $143 million in losses to private property was tallied.” 

Below is an example of a WSSI map that I snagged on November 30 while the Pacific Northwest was getting pounded by an atmospheric river.

Source: WSSI.

The index has five categories, as shown in the legend below, ranging from the ho-hum “winter weather area” to “extreme impacts” where driving may be impossible and the public is urged not to travel. At this level—a sort of nivean DEFCON 1 but not quite an impending nuclear winter—the storm may disrupt infrastructure, knock out power, and produce life-threatening conditions.

Source: WSSI.

WSSI’s goal is to create easy-to-understand visuals that translate wonky weather forecasts into something that ordinary citizens can quickly grasp.

“Meteorologists may produce an accurate forecast, but the public will not take appropriate action unless there is successful communication between both parties,” WPC says. “Visuals are just as important as verbal communication when conveying hazards, which is where the WSSI product becomes an effective tool for weather personnel.” Here’s a video explaining the basics:

WSSI components

The WSSI maps show impacts over the next 72 hours, and for Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3 of a storm.

The index is based on six equally weighted components:

1) Snow amount: This component depends on both the amount and rate of snowfall while also accounting for local conditions and the social dimension. “Those areas of the country less accustomed to snowfall will be less prepared to deal with snow, resulting in higher levels of impacts than the same amount of snow in a snowier part of the country,” WPC says.

2) Snow load: This forecast is calculated using snow water equivalent, a measure of snow’s liquid content. “This component is significant because the weight of the snow creates a threat to the structural integrity of residential and commercial buildings, as well as tree and powerline damage,” WPC notes.

3) Blowing snow: This component is calculated by combining snowfall, maximum wind gusts, and the snow-to-liquid ratio, a measure of the snow’s density and susceptibility to fly around. Blowing snow, which you’ll typically find in open areas rather than in a dense forest, can wreck visibility and create whiteout conditions. “It takes just under 20 mph of wind to start to move snow around,” according to WPC.

4) Ground blizzard: This component is similar to blowing snow since it highlights places where visibility issues may impact transportation, but the measure is based on winds mobilizing pre-existing snow, rather than flakes falling from the sky. In fact, you can experience a ground blizzard even when the sun is shining. A blizzard, by the way, requires sustained or frequent gusts to at least 35 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

5) Flash freeze: It sounds like a method for producing TV dinners in a factory, but flash freezing is unappetizing because it can create the dreaded black ice, a transparent glaze on a road that can be treacherous since it’s so hard to detect while driving. “Flash freeze occurs when the air temperature starts above freezing, then falls below freezing in a short period of time, and there is remnant moisture/precipitation occurring at the same time,” WPC says. Bridges and overpasses are hot spots for black ice because cold air flows underneath the roadway and lowers its temperature, hence all the warning signs. Bridges and overpasses also are susceptible to black ice because they’re usually made of concrete and steel, which don’t retain heat as well as asphalt.

6) Ice accumulation: This element is based on the forecast for ice and maximum wind gusts. Ice storms can cause “tree damage, transportation shutdowns and utility problems,” according to WPC. To that list, I might add the vast number of people who take a tumble on the ice. At least in Denver, where I used to live, you could theoretically be fined $150 by the city if you didn’t clear your sidewalk in a timely manner.

WSSI versus other forecasts

The WSSI website lets you see the overall threat or check the severity of each of the six components. Although WSSI is a great way to gauge a storm’s punch, the National Weather Service says that it should be used in conjunction with the more familiar watches, advisories, and warnings issued by the agency, adding that WSSI “does not account for conditions that have occurred prior to the creation time.”

Winter storm watches are a heads-up issued “when hazardous winter storm conditions are possible within the next 3 to 4 days, but the timing, intensity, or occurrence may still be uncertain,” according to my local forecast office in Grand Junction.

The criteria for issuing winter storm advisories and warnings vary across the nation, and even within a single forecast office’s geographic purview. For example, the Grand Junction office covers Colorado’s Western Slope and Eastern Utah, which ranges from 14ers down to the red rock country of the Colorado Plateau—more than 10,000 feet in elevation difference. Here’s how the Grand Junction office handles winter storm warnings and advisories in different areas:

Source: National Weather Service.

I’m all about fun in the snow and shredding the gnar, but winter weather can also make for a costly, deadly disaster. Statistically, driving to and from the trailhead or ski resort can be one of the most dangerous parts of the day. WSSI is a useful tool for forecasting a storm’s strength and making risk/reward calculations.

Learn more

Snow buries a vehicle in the parking lot at Purgatory ski area on February 23, 2022. Photo by Mitch Tobin.

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.

What to watch on the Colorado River in 2024

2023’s above average snowpack gave a boost to Lake Powell’s dwindling water levels, and provided water managers more time to contemplate long-term policy changes. Photo: Alexander Heilner/The Water Desk with aerial support from LightHawk

After years of dry conditions throughout the West, 2023 gave the region’s water managers the greatest gift of all: a hefty snowpack. 

This year’s winter snow eventually melted and boosted the Colorado River’s beleaguered reservoirs. The Hail Mary winter storms came just in time. Without the savior snows, the river’s second-largest reservoir, Lake Powell, was on a glide path toward losing the ability to produce hydropower at Glen Canyon Dam, not to mention the harm to the long-term ecological health of the river and its main tributaries.

But the more nightmarish scenarios of quiet turbines, empty reservoirs, and dry river beds were put on hold this past year, as more snow also means more time. When wet weather returned to the basin, the river’s top negotiators quickly turned their attention away from the short-term emergency in front of them, and toward a more long-term set of solutions. Talk of not “squandering” the gift of time became a standard talking point of decision-makers along the river that supplies more than 40 million people across seven U.S. states, 30 tribal nations and communities in northern Mexico. 

One snowy year does not make for a lasting fix for the Colorado River’s fundamental gap between water supply and demand. A new year means new uncertainties over the river’s future. And as it looks now, 2024 promises to be more consequential than the last. 

Here at The Water Desk, these are the top things we’re paying attention to in 2024:

1. Reimagining how we manage the Colorado River

The snowy respite in 2023 gave both federal and state-level water managers the brain space to think long-term. A set of 2007 guidelines for the river’s management expire in 2026. In October, the federal Bureau of Reclamation released its preliminary report on what should be included in the talks to renegotiate them. They’ve given the various users — states, tribes, environmental and recreation groups — until March 2024 to submit their preferred plans for analysis and eventual inclusion in a draft set of guidelines later this year.   

The current guidelines have quite a few detractors across the river’s Upper and Lower Basins. And what should or shouldn’t be in the new rules has contributed to significant tension among river negotiators.   

The various state leaders recently got the chance to publicly posture at the Colorado River Water Users Association conference, held annually in December in Las Vegas. All seven state-level negotiators, including representatives from California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming, sat beside each other on stage and made clear there was still distance between their positions on the big-picture problems plaguing the river and how to deal with them. The Arizona Republic’s Brandon Loomis has this excellent recap of what went down.

Leaders from California water agencies and districts signed funding agreements with federal officials at the 2023 Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas. Photo: Luke Runyon/The Water Desk

The panel’s biggest news was a public commitment from the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada to address what’s known as the structural deficit. This is the well-documented supply and demand gap that would exist even without climate change sapping snowpack and runoff. The deficit is estimated to be between 1.2 and 1.5 million acre-feet annually, and it has contributed greatly to the dwindling water levels at Lakes Mead and Powell. Who has to take the necessary cuts to account for that amount of water has always been an open question. Now, we have an answer: the Lower Basin states. 

“That makes sense. That’s our responsibility,” said J.B. Hamby, California’s river negotiator, at the Vegas gathering. “This is a historic thing coming. It’s on our shoulders to be able to resolve it.”

But in a basin that in recent months has grown increasingly reliant on injections of federal cash to incentivize temporary conservation deals, how state leaders plan to find the funds and the political will to permanently deal with the structural deficit will be something to watch. Any commitments made by those state-level negotiators will need to be sold to a broad range of constituents, who at this point will expect to be handsomely compensated for a permanent cut to their supplies, as POLITICO’s Annie Snider explained in this November piece.

An additional layer of basinwide tension can be summed up in one word: equity. It’s thrown around a lot in discussions of the Colorado River and the economic and social sacrifices needed to bring it onto a more sustainable path. Who should bear the greatest burden of the eventual cutbacks is still unclear. Upper Basin leaders, from Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, often point the finger toward the Lower Basin. 

“We’re not interested in striking a deal that allows the continuation of depleting the storage and dragging the system into crisis,” said Becky Mitchell, Colorado’s top river negotiator. Mitchell made clear she felt users in her state were already feeling pain, while those downstream of the large reservoirs have mostly been made whole, even in the driest of years. But with Lower Basin users willing to take on big, intractable issues like the structural deficit, moving forward it will likely be more difficult for Upper Basin leaders to continue to cast all the blame downstream. 

One more idea from the Las Vegas conference that’s still largely conceptual, but is gaining some interest from those in power, is to use annual measures of basic hydrology — like snowpack levels and streamflows — to determine how much water ends up being delivered to the basin’s varied users. It sounds simple: only use what nature provides. 

But that idea flies in the face of the river’s foundational governing document, the Colorado River Compact, which put fixed volumes of water use on paper, regardless of whether it was a dry or wet year. For now, the idea seems to be more of a talking point than a specific policy proposal, and we will see if proponents can turn it into something Lower Basin users can get behind. 

2. Tribal inclusion in policymaking

In recent years, the Colorado River’s 30 federally recognized tribes have grown their influence in the basin’s political landscape. Calls for a more formal tribal role in basinwide negotiations are being amplified by the tribes themselves, and by both state and federal leaders, such as Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. 

2023 presented some significant tribal successes. The Gila River Indian Community became a key player in negotiations over the Lower Basin’s conservation plan to secure federal dollars last spring. Federal officials promised the tribe $150 million over three years to leave water they were legally entitled to in Lake Mead. 

The Gila River Indian Reservation established its historic right to Gila River water. Since most of the Gila River is dry, the tribe uses Central Arizona Project water and groundwater sent through elaborate canals to service the reservation. Photo: Ted Wood/The Water Desk

But in the long-term, deciding what that tribal role, or tribal seat at the negotiating table, could be and should be is unsettled. In June, at a Colorado River symposium at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Getches-Wilkinson Center, Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis called for leaders from all 30 sovereign tribes to be included in talks between federal and state officials. That idea received immediate pushback from state leaders on the feasibility of expanding the table by 30 seats. 

Creating a single representative seat for all of the tribes is another option. But that, too, presents challenges. Is it fair or feasible to reduce the varied economies, cultures, geographies and spiritual practices of 30 sovereign nations into a single seat? 

While basinwide tribal inclusion still happens in an ad hoc rather than institutional way, a draft agreement to formalize a governing relationship among six tribes and the four Upper Basin states has taken shape. The Upper Colorado River Commission has started inviting representatives from six Upper Basin tribes to participate in regular meetings. Commissioners could formalize the new agreement this February, as The Colorado Sun’s Shannon Mullane recently reported.

There appears to be broad agreement that more formally including tribes in the river’s complex, multi-layered decision-making processes is the most just path to take. Deciding what type of basinwide governance structure will make tribal inclusion more than a talking point could make some progress in 2024 as the basin’s leaders say they finally have the brain space to take on longer-term issues, as KUNC’s Alex Hager reported in his piece from the Las Vegas conference

3. Winter snowpack can make or break

Snowpack in the southern Rockies entered 2024 with a weak start. There is still a lot of winter left to go, but beginning a new year with a significant snowpack deficit always brings a certain amount of hand-wringing from skiers and water managers alike.  

Upper Basin snowpack stands at just 64% of the long-term median. The snowiest months are still to come, but it’s much harder to get to an above-average snowpack after a slow start. 

2023 was a stark example of what a wet winter can do. The sense of urgency among the river’s policymakers diminished as the snow piled high. Headlines turned from documenting record lows at the big Colorado River reservoirs, to cheering modest gains in water levels. 

A heavy snowpack across the Colorado River basin in 2023 came after years of meager runoff and resulted in modest gains to water levels at the river’s two largest reservoirs. Photo: Luke Runyon/The Water Desk

The past year’s heavy snows and subsequent rushing rivers came after three successive meager runoff seasons. The gains were significant, but not a total game-changer. As scientists often note, it takes multiple consecutive years of wet conditions to allow large reservoirs like Lakes Mead and Powell to fully recover. 

The return of El Niño tipped the scales toward a warmer and wetter winter in the Colorado River basin’s headwaters states. So far, we’ve just been getting the warm, not the wet. No matter how you look at it, we’re having a dry start to winter, as my Water Desk colleague Mitch Tobin lays out in his latest Snow News post

In 2023, Lower Colorado River leaders said their deal to conserve up to 3 million acre-feet between now and 2026 was enough to bring needed stability to the river’s reservoirs. But that same point was used to justify agreements like the Drought Contingency Plans in 2019 and the 500+ Plan in 2021, which did not provide the long-term stability and certainty that water managers crave. 

Scientists, such as Colorado State University’s Brad Udall, say we haven’t been imaginative enough in envisioning just how bad things could get along the river. Another series of dry winters, the likes of which we’ve seen in the past 25 years, is plausible. 

2023 brought a reprieve. How the winter of 2024 will play out is still unclear. Its outcome will undoubtedly have ripple effects, and either amplify or ease the existing tensions playing out across the basin. 

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.

Billions in federal assistance after New Mexico’s largest wildfire. But little money to repair streams.

The Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire will affect the Gallinas River for years to come. Photo © Brett Walton/Circle of Blue

By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue | November 16, 2023

LAS VEGAS, New Mexico – Patrick Gutierrez and Nick Maurer, who work for Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance, scramble up Canyon del Rancho, an ephemeral stream in the mountains of northern New Mexico. It’s just before noon in late August, a day after the area’s biggest rain from the summer monsoon.

Packed with soft, pliable mud, the stream bed is blanketed with evidence of the deluge. Pine needles cling to tree branches, hip high, like clothes pins. Grasses in the channel bend to the ground, pointing downstream in the direction of the flow.

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Gutierrez and Maurer are inspecting the stability of water-calming structures they installed in recent weeks in this section of Canyon del Rancho, part of the Gallinas River watershed. The drainage was damaged last year in the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire, the largest wildfire in New Mexico history. The question for the moment: Had the gusher dislodged them? 

Both men are relieved by what they see. “It’s still there,” Gutierrez says, pointing at a stack of logs strung across the channel. These log mats are designed to blunt the destructive power of large volumes of water moving at high speed. In a post-fire landscape — one shorn of trees and with deep-cut stream channels — water moves in a torrent after a rainstorm. Without vegetation, streams become “peaky,” meaning a lot of water arrives at once. Those surges carry debilitating force.

Maurer, eyeing a baffle just upstream, marvels at the power of the stream flow that the weekend cloudburst unleashed. “I’m surprised that thing held, with that much water coming down,” he says.

The Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire burned 341,735 acres of public and private land in the mountains above Las Vegas. The fire and the subsequent floods chewed through the Gallinas River watershed, which is the city’s drinking water source. The fire so injured the lands and creeks that feed the Gallinas River that Las Vegas needs $140 million in new facilities to treat water that is now heavy with sediment.

Turbid water from the Gallinas and other streams in the 530-square-mile burn scar also clogged and damaged the canals of local irrigation collectives called acequias. Some farmers have gone two seasons without irrigation water, according to Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association. “That way of life has been completely disrupted by the disasters,” she said.

The city and the field — both depend on high-quality water. Yet the on-the-ground work to rehabilitate the streams that provide that high-quality water has been neglected and under-funded in the post-fire recovery, according to interviews with people involved in the response. The forests are being reseeded and mulched, which will help hold soil in place. Dead trees are being removed. 

But there’s a profound disconnect in the resources available to calm the erosive power of streams. Money and labor do not match the overwhelming need for repair. 

The Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire began on April 6, 2022, due to a colossal government agency miscalculation. The U.S. Forest Service was setting small fires that day below the craggy eastern face of Hermit’s Peak. The intention was to thin an overgrown forest and reduce the risk of catastrophic fire in an area that hadn’t burned in more than a century.

That was not the outcome. Dry tinder and shifting winds propelled the prescribed fire beyond its containment lines. Three weeks later a dormant fire in nearby Calf Canyon reawakened. The combined inferno burned for more than four months until it was put out in late August.

Owing to the federal government’s responsibility in starting the fire, Congress last year passed the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire Assistance Act, which provides $3.95 billion to compensate property owners for fire damage and to construct a new water treatment plant to handle higher sediment levels and recycle drinking water. 

With a full-time staff of four and two part-time, Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance, or HPWA, is one of several small organizations trying to make the watershed whole again. Lea Knutson, HPWA’s founder and executive director, sees the billions going to compensate property owners and laments that more is not available for streams. “There’s so much money out there,” Knutson said. “It’s not that easy to get. I mean, every week I hear of another source, and try to go for that source. And there’s always some obstacle for either a nonprofit getting it, or it going into river restoration.” 

Damage to the forest and watershed was immediately apparent and worsened by the heavy rains of the Southwest’s summer monsoon. Downpours scoured bare hillslopes and turned rivers black. Fast-moving water flexed its might. Creeks cut through their beds like buzz saws. Knutson said the worst were incised four to five feet.

The streams carried debris that blocked some 90 acequias, according to Garcia. The acequias, at risk of repeated floods coming down the mountains, are still being dug out and rebuilt.

“It’s going to be a lifetime of work to heal these watersheds,” she reflected. She added: “Watershed restoration is so important. Our future depends on it.”

The Gallinas River, which arises from the slopes near Hermit’s Peak, is a focal point of the recovery. The river is the drinking water source for 17,000 people in and around Las Vegas. In the summer of 2022 the river was so overloaded with sediment that the treatment plant couldn’t function. At one point, the city had just 21 days of water in storage that met drinking water standards and could be delivered to residents. A concerted conservation campaign kept the city from running dry until sediment levels in the river diminished.

“The watershed is our water system,” Maria Gilvarry, director of the Las Vegas Utility Department, said. “So the more of the watershed that burns, the more that impacts our ability to treat and provide water.”

Patrick Gutierrez of Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance explains the organization’s work to restore streams that were damaged following the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire. Photo © Brett Walton/Circle of Blue

Barriers to restoration

Landowners, if they apply for a claim under the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire Assistance Act, can use the FEMA-administered funds to cover the cost of repairs to streams and forests on their property. Such piecemeal action, however, is less effective than a holistic watershed plan, said Reid Whittlesey, stream restoration director for Rio Grande Return, another nonprofit working in the burn scar.

FEMA also oversees an aid program to rehabilitate public infrastructure assets like roads and bridges after a disaster. But where does this leave streams? Garcia said they are the “glaring omission” in the fire recovery system. “It’s hard to do that collective work, when [streams] are not part of public infrastructure,” she said.

One problem is scale. The resources for stream recovery do not match the need. Dollars are required but pennies are being offered. Few grant programs are directed at stream restoration. A go-to funding source is the New Mexico Environment Department, but it is limited. The department’s Section 319 grant program receives about $2.3 million annually from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that can be used for watershed restoration activities statewide. The state-run River Stewardship Program offers an equivalent amount for water quality and habitat protection. It will see a boost starting next year with an annual allocation from the new Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund.

The federal Natural Resources Conservation operates the Emergency Watershed Protection program, but Elias Gnann, the state conservation engineer, said it is focused on protecting life and property, not necessarily stream restoration. That program has paid out $125 million in the burn scar area for seeding, mulching, sediment and debris removal, and flood protection. A second NRCS program — Watershed and Flood Operations — might consider stream restoration, Gnann said. But it is in the early planning stages of what could be a 10-year process.

Knutson offers an example of the funding mismatch. Earlier this year, HPWA reconnected a three-quarter mile segment of the Gallinas River to its floodplain, a move that will calm the river during high flows and allow it to spread out, reducing its velocity. That project cost about $500,000, she said. Using it as a baseline, Knutson did a back-of-the-envelope calculation for FEMA to estimate stream restoration costs across the entire burn scar. The total: more than $1 billion.

Other groups acknowledge that their projects can reach only so far.

“In a post-fire recovery scenario these days the fires are so enormous, that the scale that we’re able to treat is completely a drop in the bucket,” said Whittlesey of Rio Grande Return. The organization is working with a three-year, $500,000 grant from the New Mexico Environment Department.

Even if more dollars were available, the contracts might need to be reworked, said Shantini Ramakrishnan of the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute. Watershed recovery takes a decade or more, yet most grants extend only a couple years. The risk is that the work starts and stops. “We don’t fund long-term recovery very well,” she said.

Changing this funding structure to account for the long-tail of post-fire damage is one of the recommendations of the federal Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, a group of more than 50 national and regional fire experts tasked by Congress to recommend policy solutions to the wildfire crisis. The commission also suggested expanding existing forest programs to make watershed restoration an eligible category for funding.

Then there is the matter of labor. Everyone interviewed for this article said that New Mexico lacks stream restoration contractors. Only a handful work in the state, and they are booked.

“There are capacity issues at every level,” said Alan Klatt of the New Mexico Environment Department. 

Several local programs are attempting to address the labor deficit. The New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute is collaborating with Luna Community College on a restoration training center. Knutson of HPWA draws workers from New Mexico Highlands University and the Youth Conservation Corps and is seeking an economic development grant for worker training.

Once all those variables fall into place — funding, labor, contracts — restoration workers still need access to streams. In many cases in the burn scar, that means private lands.

Isaac Leyba stands in front of Beaver Creek, which runs along his property. “In all the years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen anything like the flooding last year,” he said. Monsoon rains in the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon burn scar sent torrents of water through the creeks. Photo © Brett Walton/Circle of Blue

Recruiting landowners

Canyon del Rancho, one of HPWA’s restoration sites, connects with Beaver Creek at the property of Isaac Leyba. Just a mile downstream, Beaver Creek meets the Gallinas River, which then flows to Las Vegas.

Leyba, a playful soul, has lived at this intersection of forest and stream for 30 years. He likes to pan for gold. “I’ve found a few specks,” he said, pulling a Native-brand cigarette from a carton in his shirt pocket and lighting it.

Restoring streams in the burn scar means HPWA has to work with hundreds of landowners like Leyba. Some 57 percent of the fire burned on private lands.

As the climate warms, especially in a drying region, enabling streams and floodplains to hold water in the high country is a net benefit to the river system as a whole, explained Whittlesey. Peaky hydrographs need to be flattened. “In the desert southwest, we need to retain as much water as possible on the landscape,” he said.

HPWA’s work with ephemeral streams is low-tech and conducted by hand. Most materials used in its projects — rocks, logs, dirt — are found on or near the site. HPWA and like-minded stream restoration outfits such as Rio Grande Return take their inspiration from beavers. Three principles prevail: slow the water down, spread it out, let it sink into the ground. Rills shouldn’t erode to become gullies. Streams should connect to floodplains. They work high in the watershed, starting from the foundational creeks that give rise to the larger rivers.

Gutierrez and Maurer know many of the people who live in the Gallinas watershed. Cultivating those relationships is a huge part of the job, they said. Without working on private lands, stream restoration in the burn scar would be patchwork and incomplete.

Leyba, for one, welcomes the ecological interventions. He watched the fire remake the watershed. Trout disappeared from the creek, he said. After every rain a fresh plug of sediment fills the channels. A three-foot diameter culvert at the end of Canyon del Rancho that was clear before the fire is now half-buried with fine-grain deposits.

“Water, you cannot stop it,” Leyba said. “It’s going to continue.”

Leyba thanked Gutierrez and Maurer for their help with the channel modifications. “These guys worked their tails off,” he said gratefully. “I hope people recognize what they did.”

The western sky took on a bruised color, darkening over the mountains above. Thunder echoed in the narrow valley. A monsoon storm was building.

Gutierrez started his vehicle and Maurer rode shotgun. They drove back toward Las Vegas, away from the clouds.

“I wonder if Lori got her hot tub yet,” Maurer mused as they passed a cluster of homes.

In the high country thunder snapped again. Within an hour the rain began.

Read the first story in this two-part series: New Mexico’s largest fire wrecked this city’s water source

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.

Colorado River crisis — How did the nation’s two largest reservoirs nearly go dry?

Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison, Colorado, shows it’s falling water level this fall. After many years of drought Blue Mesa was full earlier this year with the melting snowwater of a deep winter snowpack. Blue Mesa is 51 feet higher than it was at this time a year ago and is 73% of capacity. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

By Jerd Smith, Fresh Water News | Nov 20, 2023

During the drought-choked summer of 2021, Colorado’s largest reservoir, Blue Mesa, was low, its shoreline exposed and dusty like a dirty white collar.

The massive inflows from the Gunnison River, a major Colorado River tributary on which it relied, had shrunk to just 32% of average, the lowest on record.

Still, thousands of boaters and anglers came to the lake near Gunnison, as they always had, more intent than ever on using its cool water to escape the heat.

Then, in August of that year, the lake receded even more when Blue Mesa’s federal owner, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, issued an emergency order to release millions of gallons of water from Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa to rescue Lake Powell, their massive sister lake to the south.

Eric Loken was shocked. He and his family have operated Blue Mesa’s two marinas, Elk Creek and Lake Fork, for decades. Their 2021 season would end three weeks early.

But the truly hard times lay ahead. The next summer, Reclamation closed the two marinas for the entire season, unsure of how much more water would have to be released in 2022 to try to stabilize the crisis-plagued Colorado River System.

For Loken, it would mean his family would lose $650,000 in income in 2022, and the more than two dozen workers they employed each summer would lose their jobs.

“That was 25 to 30 workers and their families, who relied on those incomes,” Loken said. “My family was not the only one affected by this.”

Eric Loken, photographed at Blue Mesa Reservoir on Novenber 11, 2023. Loken’s family owns and operates the Elk Creek Marrina on Blue Mesa Reservoir. In 2022 the marrina was forced to close because of low water levels . Elk Creek Marrina is the largest marrina on Blue Mesa Reservoir and served thousands of campers, boaters, campers and anglers. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

What went wrong? Just how did lakes Mead and Powell, the nation’s two largest storage vessels, almost go dry?

Experts cite a number of failures, including complicated operating systems, competing government agencies running water models tilted by political posturing, rigid guidelines that delayed decisions that could have saved water and, of course, climate change and a megadrought thought to be the worst in more than 1,200 years.

Some blame Arizona in particular for its stubborn refusal to consider deep water cuts until they were ordered by the federal government.

“It’s a story of water management on auto pilot with no emergency off switch,” said Brad Udall, a climate scientist at Colorado State University’s climate center who is an expert on the Colorado River. “Think about gas stations. Oftentimes you’ll see a big red button that has an ‘emergency off’ on it. A gas station, because of the risk of fire, needs that button. Our water management system doesn’t have that.”

A system divided

The seven-state Colorado River Basin is divided into two regions that are governed and operated separately. Mexico is also part of the basin, as are 30 Native American tribal communities.

The Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. States operate their systems themselves with help from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and oversight of the Upper Colorado River Commission.

The Lower Basin is made up of Arizona, California and Nevada. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation operates this system.

Management of the Colorado River as it moves through seven states, more than 30 Native American communities and Mexico is divided between the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin, which are governed and operated separately.

The Upper Basin includes Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. States operate their systems themselves with help from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and oversight of the Upper Colorado River Commission. The Lower Basin is made up of Arizona, California and Nevada. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation operates this system. (Charles Chamberlin, Fresh Water News)

Lakes Powell and Mead are the largest reservoirs in the basin and in the United States. Already ailing in 2020 with just 46% of their normal supplies, by July 2022 they had plummeted to 27% full, according to Reclamation.

Critical to the Southwest, both reservoirs act as liquid savings accounts, storing water to make sure the Upper Basin can deliver water to Lake Powell to meet its legal obligations, while Mead delivers water to cities from Las Vegas, to Phoenix and Los Angeles, as well as tribal communities and farms.

Few believed Mead, built in the 1930s, and Powell, which began to fill in the 1960s just as the American West began a 50-year growth spurt, would face a future where they were in seeming freefall.

For those outside the federal and state water agencies responsible for keeping the giant system afloat, the spectacle of the reservoirs’ near-collapse filled them with dismay.

Blue Mesa Dam on the Gunnison River photographed on November 14, 2023.  (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Ken Brenner, a member of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District in Steamboat Springs and often a sharp critic of state and federal water agencies, said the near-disaster reaffirmed his belief that the army of agencies and water users looking after the river were not fail-proof.

The drawdown that took the system to 27% of its capacity in the summer of 2022, “was the most irresponsible thing I’ve ever seen,” Brenner said.

And painful.

The Bureau of Reclamation is one of the largest producers of hydropower in the U.S., bolstered by giant turbines at the Glen Canyon and Hoover dams, as well as electricity generated at other reservoirs including Flaming Gorge on the Utah-Wyoming border, Colorado’s Blue Mesa, and Navajo, on the Colorado-New Mexico border.

At the height of the crisis in 2022, turbines at Powell, for instance, generated nearly 50% less electricity than they would have otherwise, forcing costs to soar more than 30%, according to the Western Area Power Administration. The agency sells and distributes electricity to utilities across the West, including Colorado’s Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association.

The environment suffered as well. As releases from the lakes dwindled, water that was normally cool warmed up, harming threatened and endangered fish that the U.S. government had spent decades and millions of dollars trying to protect, according to Jack Schmidt, a professor at Utah State University and a noted researcher on the river.

Farm fields went dry everywhere. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Colorado saw its water supply slashed to just 10% of normal in 2021. In the Lower Basin, when water cutbacks were finally ordered, farmers and ranchers were among the first to see their water supplies cut, forcing them to leave crops in the ground and walk away from their fields.

What is now known to be the worst drought in more than 1,200 years seemed like more of a garden-variety Western dry spell when it began in 2000. But by 2005, Powell and Mead had lost half of their water supply.

In response, the states and the federal government, along with dozens of water agencies wrote a set of operating guidelines designed as an emergency backup system to help protect the two reservoirs against drought and integrate their operations.

The 2007 interim operating guidelines, as the rules are known, set up a system of benchmarks and tiers in each reservoir tied to each pool’s water level. It was designed so that during both droughts and recovery periods, the water amounts stored in each reservoir would be more balanced, explained Eric Kuhn, former manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and a scholar who has studied the river extensively.

But those tiers would prove highly damaging, experts said. Instead of balancing the reservoirs’ contents, they resulted in the dangerous drawdown of both, in effect almost breaking the powerful river system that serves 40 million people, more than 1 million acres of farmland, and one of the nation’s largest agricultural economies in California.

(Charles Chamberlin, Fresh Water News)

Sunken boats

Chuck Cullom spent decades as a water manager in Arizona overseeing use on the Colorado River. In January 2022, though, he became manager of the Upper Colorado River Commission in Salt Lake City, the body charged with helping the states run the Upper Basin.

In December of that year, back in the Lower Basin for the Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas, Cullom rose at dawn and drove out to Lake Mead. What he saw was heartbreaking.

“That morning I had gotten up early to prepare for a talk. But I realized that I hadn’t actually seen what we [the water agencies] collectively had done to the system … the bathtub rings, the dewatering, the finding of bodies and sunken boats in the lake, the ghosts emerging. I hadn’t seen it, so I got up in the dark and drove out there. It was stunningly low.”

As the conference convened that morning, a visibly distressed Cullom returned to the city and delivered his talk, chastising the hundreds of water managers in the room. “We used almost all of the storage in the system, bringing us to the precipice of a water crisis for 40 million people,” he recalled saying later. “We did not have a backup plan.”

Like others, Cullom says the 2007 guidelines set the stage for the unraveling of a system no one thought could fail.

“Because the rules were put in place when Lake Powell and Lake Mead had substantial amounts of storage, we figured if we were wrong we would use the bank accounts as a buffer. They would insulate the system from crisis,” he said. “What happened is that it was much drier than anticipated and we used almost all of the storage in the system.”

In the year 2000 the system was in fact nearly full. But after plunging in the early 2000s, the lakes struggled to refill. For the next 15 years, communities in the Lower Basin continued to grow and use more water, but good water years were scarce, pushing the lakes down, year after year with few reprieves.

Elk Creek Marrina on Blue Mesa Reservoir photographed on November 13, 2023. In 2022 the marina was forced to close because of low water levels. Elk Creek Marina is the largest marina on Blue Mesa Reservoir and served thousands of campers, boaters, campers and anglers. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Then in 2020, the drought suddenly deepened, setting off alarms as river flows into the system plummeted. The liquid buffer everyone thought existed in 2007 was long gone.

In 2021, Reclamation ordered emergency releases from the Upper Basin reservoirs for the first time in history, trying to protect hydropower generation at Lake Powell. And in another historic first, it would order cutbacks in water use in the Lower Basin. But there was little relief.

By the summer of 2022, the two giant reservoirs were just 27% full, according to Reclamation, the lowest level ever recorded since they began filling.

Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the Lower Basin and Upper Basin each are entitled to 7.5 million acre-feet of water. But the Upper Basin has never fully used its share, and as a result, tries to keep its options open to use it in the future, Kuhn said, regardless of whether it is needed or if it is available as the river system dries out.

“The Upper Basin has always overstated demands because there has been this religious fervor that we are going to use more water [in the future],” Kuhn said.

Kuhn, as well as Udall, say the Upper Basin must take some of the blame for the crisis, because water managers insisted on inflating the amount of future water they would need when the 2007 guidelines and models were being developed. Under these inflated demands, during actual low flow periods (like 2000-2022) the operating guidelines suggested that Powell would have to release just 7.5 million acre-feet of water most years. Instead, as the lakes’ supplies dropped, Powell in several years had to release 9 million acre-feet of water — water that could have been kept in the reservoir had the Upper Basin not inflated its demands in the early 2000s.

The political pressure on water agencies to keep pushing to preserve future water supplies played a major role in inflating the demand forecasts used in the 2007 operating models, Kuhn and Udall said.

“I think the Upper Basin shot themselves in the foot,” Udall said, “because they didn’t really understand what would happen.”

Some, including Cullom, dispute the notion that flawed modeling is to blame. They say the crisis is the result of the tiered system, which they say was too rigid, and a failure to respond fast enough to climate and the drought.

In fact, the tiered system did little to stop the overuse in the Lower Basin until it was almost too late.

Among the issues that led to this were contracts. In the Lower Basin, the Reclamation has contracts with each of its water users, from Las Vegas, to Phoenix, to Los Angeles, which have rights to the river. They are entitled to whatever water those contracts, also based on the 1922 Colorado River Compact, say they can have. And so, even if the entire basin is in megadrought, those water users get their supplies—that is until Lake Mead gets desperately low and the federal government steps in, as it did for the first time in history in 2021.

In the Upper Basin, there are no contracts, only Mother Nature. And there are no huge storage ponds like Powell and Mead that Upper Basin users can tap in a dry year. And so water users must largely rely on whatever the snowpack delivers each year, minus what they must send to others downstream and what little they have in reservoirs, such as Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa and Navajo. In the Upper Basin, those pools combined can store 6.4 million acre-feet of water, enough to serve roughly 13 million households for one year. But that number is dwarfed by the more than 50 million acre-feet that Powell and Mead hold when full.

Decisions delayed

From her desk in Phoenix, Vineetha Kartha, Colorado River programs manager with the Central Arizona Project, said water managers could have kept more water in the reservoirs if the tiered system had been more flexible. As they watched the lake levels drop, rather than waiting for the next trigger level to be reached to order cutbacks, they could have acted sooner, making politically unpopular decisions about reducing water use that would have kept the lakes fuller, longer.

And early on, as the tiered system was being developed in the early 2000s, negotiators could have insisted that the tiers be set higher, keeping more water in both lakes longer, according to Terry Fulp, the former regional director of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado River Region who also helped negotiate the 2007 guidelines. But that would have meant the Lower Basin states would have had to agree to cut back water use sooner and the cuts would have been deeper, Fulp said.

Instead negotiators agreed to a more conservative approach, in which the tiers would kick in when the lakes were lower and water cuts would come later.

“We looked at different alternatives,” Fulp said. “If we could have delivered less out of Lake Mead, it would have held Mead higher. But the Lower Basin, Arizona in particular, would not agree to that.”

Brenda Burman was commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation from 2017 to 2020. Now she is the general manager of the Central Arizona Project, the state’s largest user of Colorado River Water. She acknowledges that overuse in the Lower Basin, as well as the wild cards the drought and climate change delivered, drove the crisis.

“The Lower Basin does have a math problem,” she said, referring to the overuse. “But I think what we’ve seen from the last 23 years is that this problem is bigger than that.”

The untidy work of getting more water back into Powell and Mead and finding ways to cut water use permanently is underway. Reclamation is developing two plans to save the river. One is a three-year operating plan that it hopes will keep the system stable in the near term. The second is a long-term plan that will be put into action in 2027, after the 2007 guidelines expire at the end of 2026.

This year, a once-in-a-generation snowpack in the Upper Basin states combined with snow and rain in the Lower Basin have allowed the lakes to recover a bit. But Mead and Powell are still just 35% full.

At the same time, water use in the Lower Basin, thanks to the wet year and cutbacks ordered by the federal government as spelled out in the 2007 guidelines and a special 2019 drought contingency plan, is dramatically lower, with the three states using just 5.8 million acre-feet of their 7.5 million acre-feet allotment.

Biologists for Colorado Parks and Wildlife net Kokanee salmon out of a trap in Blue Mesa Reservoir on November 13, 2023. Blue Mesa has a population of Kokanee that migrate from the reservoir back up the Gunnison River to the hatchery near Almont, Colorado, where they were spawned. Drought has decimated the Kokanee population during the past few years by lowering the lakes’s water levels and forcing the Kokanee to be in the same habitat with the predatory Lake Trout. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

But will the water users of the Colorado River Basin succeed in reinventing their complicated river system, cutting use dramatically so that it matches annual supplies?

That’s unclear.

“We need to have a system that provides for uses based on actual hydrology so that the amount of water available for use, particularly in the Lower Basin, is a function of actual water availability,” said Anne Castle, a Colorado River scholar at the Getches-Wilkinson Center at the University of Colorado and the federal appointee to the Upper Colorado River Commission.

Speaking as a scholar, Castle said it is clear that the demands of 40 million people and the region’s agricultural users will have to be adjusted down to match the river’s actual supply.

Is she hopeful? “Yes,” she said. “I think we’re seeing a lot more discussion of moving toward an operating system that is based on actual availability.”

Blue Mesa, unlike Powell and Mead, refilled this year, something for which Eric Loken is grateful. But he remains worried.

“This has been a wake-up call,” he said. “I am hopeful they will make changes downstream. But right now there is too much waste and silliness throughout the system that needs to be cleaned up.”

This Fresh Water News story was produced as part of a collaboration between the Colorado Sun and Water Education Colorado and will also appear at coloradosun.com. Fresh Water News was launched in 2018 as an independent, nonpartisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. Our editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at wateredco.org.

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

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.

Colorado squeezing water from urban landscapes

Meredith Slater and her husband, Jake Hyman, replaced the Kentucky bluegrass in their southeast Denver home because, she said, they wanted to provide a home for bees and other pollinators and to save water. Photo: Allen Best

By Allen Best, Aspen Journalism | November 9, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing their small parts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A pipeline almost to Nebraska

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A mix of xeriscape and Kentucky bluegrass turf at upscale Greeley house. Photo: Allen Best

Shifting attitudes 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing to the contrary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This story is part of a five-part series produced in a collaboration between Big Pivots and Aspen Journalism. Find more at https://bigpivots.com and at https://aspenjournalism.org.

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