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As wildfires grow more intense, California water managers are learning to rewrite their emergency playbook

Agencies share lessons learned as they recover from fires that destroyed facilities, contaminated supplies and devastated their customers

By Gary Pitzer and Douglas E. Beeman

It’s been a year since two devastating wildfires on opposite ends of California underscored the harsh new realities facing water districts and cities serving communities in or adjacent to the state’s fire-prone wildlands. Fire doesn’t just level homes, it can contaminate water, scorch watersheds, damage delivery systems and upend an agency’s finances.

The lessons gained from those 2018 wildfires that swept through Paradise, in Northern California, and along the Los Angeles-Ventura County border in Southern California are still being absorbed by water managers around California as they recognize that the old emergency preparedness plans of yesterday may not be adequate for the new wildfire reality of today.

“This issue is the most dynamic and the most challenging one facing water agencies today,” Dave Pedersen, general manager of the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District in Southern California, told the audience at the Water Education Foundation’s Oct. 30 Water Summit in Sacramento.

The Camp Fire became the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, starting early on Nov. 8, 2018 and tearing through the northern Sierra foothills town of Paradise east of Chico. All told, 85 people died and more than 18,000 structures were destroyed, including about 90 percent of the homes and businesses served by the Paradise Irrigation District, where water meters and service pipelines melted. With so much of its customer base lost, the district is now having to reimagine its business in order to survive.

That same November day, a small blaze that swiftly grew into the massive Woolsey Fire quickly swept through coastal mountains in northwestern Los Angeles County, including much of the service area of Las Virgenes Municipal Water District. Service mains ruptured as district staff pushed water through them to supply firefighters battling the fire. Electricity needed to power district facilities was cut.

Map by The Water Desk and EcoWest Visualizations

“We lost power to everything,” Pedersen said in an interview. “That was a big eye-opener. To lose power to all of our facilities was pretty unprecedented and something we had not previously prepared for.”

Water managers around California are getting many eye-openers these days as wildfires become larger, more frequent and more destructive. A study published in July of this year by a team of scientists led by Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory found that from 1972-2018, California experienced a fivefold increase in annual wildfire-burned area, an increase it said was likely from increased aridity caused by a warming climate. According to Cal Fire, the state’s primary wildland fire agency, 2018 was the worst fire season on record. The devastation returned this fall when wind-stoked fires ignited in October in both Southern and Northern California, including the Kincade Fire that destroyed 374 structures in Sonoma County. 

Melted meters and spilled water

The destructive power of wildfires is magnified by the wildland-urban interface, the zone where natural areas and development meet.

Furious winds can scatter embers into dry brush and stoke flames that can sprint through neighborhoods in mere minutes. Fires can cut power needed to run the pumps that keep water flowing to hydrants and fire hoses. It melts meters and pipes, bleeding water systems of pressure and leaching toxic chemicals into the supply.

Fire can move with such speed that water managers must move swiftly to keep their systems operating and their staff safe. Severed water service connections can spill about 30 gallons of water each minute. The cumulative effect is problematic.

“If you have one or two of those, it’s not such a big deal, but with 150 of those you very quickly drain your system,” said Pedersen.

Even after the last smoldering embers have been extinguished, fire-scarred hillsides can become unmoored in a downpour, sending mud and debris smashing through water mains.

After the Thomas Fire swept through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in December 2017, a January storm that dumped a half-inch of rain in five minutes unleashed a torrent of mud and rocks that smothered homes and destroyed water supply lines.

“We had breaks in eight locations and distribution breaks at basically every bridge,” said Adam Kanold, engineering manager with the Montecito Water District in Santa Barbara County. Ultimately, 30 fire hydrants had to be replaced.

“This issue is the most dynamic and the most challenging one facing water agencies today.”
~Dave Pedersen, general manager, Las Virgenes Municipal Water District

Wildfires also can pour ash and debris into water supply reservoirs even after they’ve been extinguished. Ash settles on lakes and reservoirs used for drinking water and debris washes in during the rainy season. Federal and local agencies this year in Placer County launched a $14 million effort to thin vegetation to prevent a repeat of what happened in 2014, when ash and debris from the King Fire hampered the water quality of the French Meadows and Hell Hole reservoirs in the Sierra Nevada northeast of Auburn.

The advent of public safety power shutoffs has added a new wrinkle to the risk factor. Implemented by utilities in Northern and Southern California to prevent high winds from sparking fires from downed utility lines and poles, power shutoffs can impact water agencies. In October, East Bay Municipal Utility District announced that more than 140 of its facilities — including water treatment plants, pumping plants and local water storage tanks – would be affected by a power shutoff. The district asked customers in affected pressure zones to minimize indoor water use and halt outdoor use altogether.

Public safety power shutoffs have come under extreme criticism, but power utilities say they are necessary to prevent catastrophic wildfire.

“We recognize that this was a hardship for many of our customers across Northern and Central California,” PG&E President Bill Johnson wrote in an Oct. 18 letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom, “but we made this decision for one reason only: to keep our customers and communities safe.”

Struggling to keep water in the system

For water agencies, the new paradigm of destructive wildfires has changed the emergency response playbook. In Santa Rosa, where the 2017 Tubbs Fire swooped down across 12 miles of terrain in three hours to level whole neighborhoods, the city’s Director of Water Resources Jennifer Burke said none of their emergency planning had anticipated a fire so devastating.

“We had a lot of plans in place, but our major preparation was always for earthquake,” Burke said.

The Tubbs Fire broke out the evening of Oct. 9, 2017. By the time it was out, the fire had burned more than 36,000 acres and claimed 22 lives. About 1,500 of the 2,821 homes lost in the Tubbs Fire in and near Santa Rosa were in the wildland-urban zone, the city said.

Burke said among the challenges the city faced during the fire was keeping water in its system. “When you have 3,100 structures destroyed and a significant number of open water lines and 12-inch fire lines, that led our system to bleed out. We continued to pump water into the system, but it was coming out just as quickly.”

With the surge in demand and as plastic water pipes on private properties melted, contaminants were sucked into the water system. Within a month, the city started receiving taste and odor complaints. Santa Rosa began testing its water for contaminants, but Burke said it took city officials a year to understand the extent of the problem.

She said the city learned that following a major fire, it’s important to immediately flush the water lines to clear out any contaminants. Burke added that any agency dealing with fire in urban areas should quickly take “first-draw samples” of water to test whether any volatile organic contaminants have leached into the system.

Santa Rosa lost about 5 percent of its base of 175,000 water customers due to property loss in the fire, Burke said. The city has backfilled that revenue through undesignated reserves while it waits for the neighborhoods to rebuild.

Paradise lost

The Camp Fire attacked Paradise with a fury, moving so fast it essentially bypassed trees, focusing its energy on cars and buildings.

“The fire ate the town within six hours,” said Kevin Phillips, general manager of the Paradise Irrigation District. With water spraying from connections at burned structures, the district had to shut off its system to keep from bleeding itself dry.

“We had a lot of plans in place, but our major preparation was always for earthquake.”
~Jennifer Burke, Santa Rosa Director of Water Resources

The district’s above-ground infrastructure survived the fire relatively unscathed. Its office remained standing and its storage tanks and treatment plant emerged intact. Its reservoir east of town was unaffected. However, the district lost 90 percent of its 10,500 connections to homes and businesses to the fire. Thirty of the district’s 36 employees lost their homes. Customers whose structures survived were unable to use their water because of contamination from benzene, a known carcinogen. Contamination from the fire’s residue left the district with a massive clean-and-clear project.

Getting back up and running meant taking a conservative approach based on protecting the health and safety of the district’s customers. Once water was returned to the system, the district let it sit there for 72 hours and then flushed the system to try to clear contaminants. Then it began testing water throughout the distribution system. By early October, 453 of the standing structures tested by Paradise Irrigation District received letters of potability, said Phillips, noting that about 50 structures are evaluated for contamination each week. Meanwhile, new homes are rising from the ashes. Rather than testing their water, the district is providing those homes with new water lines known as laterals.

“What we found is that more than 50 percent of the service laterals that served burned structures have some sort of contamination from the fire,” Phillips said. “Not only is it more efficient to not test them, it gives the customer confidence that when they come back and build a brand-new home, they are going to have as good or better water than they had before the fire.”

The effort is not cheap, and Paradise Irrigation District is “leaning on everybody,” including FEMA, which is helping to cover the $40 million to $90 million cost of replacing the town’s service laterals, Phillips said.

Having lost most of its customer base, Paradise Irrigation District is now trying to write a new business plan to sustain itself over the next several years as the town rebuilds. Looking to make use of its existing and now underutilized water supply, the district is studying a potential regional intertie that could send water to Chico, providing a revenue stream to sustain the district while the community gradually gets back on its feet. Butte County supervisors on Nov. 5 balked at picking up part of the feasibility study’s costs, but Phillips said the district isn’t giving up on the idea.

Avoiding empty fire hydrants

Beginning in the Santa Susana Mountains above Simi Valley on the afternoon of Nov. 8, 2018, the Woolsey Fire started slow but then moved fast, jumping the 101 Freeway early the next morning. The Las Virgenes water district activated its emergency operations center at its headquarters very quickly, even before the fire entered its service area, Pedersen said.

After that, it was “a waiting game,” he said. Water tanks were filled, pumps turned on and the call went out for emergency generators as backup in case the power went out – which it did. Pedersen and others stayed on-site and sheltered in place as fire swept around them rather than open a remote emergency operations center, a decision that in retrospect he would have made differently.

“Our office did not burn down, but it was a little scary to have fire all around and to have smoke coming into the building,” Pedersen said.

Las Virgenes deployed portable generators to power pumps needed to make sure water was available to knock down flames. “My goal in the fire was to make sure there was not a firefighter standing next to an empty fire hydrant at all costs,” Pedersen said. “I wanted to make sure they had what they needed.”

Las Virgenes learned that pushing large amounts of water though its system to fight fire inevitably caused breaks at weak points in the system. The answer, Pedersen said, was to isolate the break quickly and move water around it. While breakages were expected, it was surprising how soon they occurred.

Pedersen’s plight was complicated by another fire to the west that required adequate water pressure for the neighboring Calleguas Municipal Water District in southern Ventura County. Eventually, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, whose regional line supplies Las Virgenes and Calleguas, took extraordinary moves to get Las Virgenes the water it needed.

Situated as it is in the heart of a fire-prone area, the district has long understood that wildfire is inevitable. What was unprecedented with the Woolsey Fire, Pedersen said, was its speed and intensity.

“We have fires here,” Pedersen told Water Summit attendees, “but we never saw anything like Woolsey.”

While the fire claimed 350 homes within the district — less than 2 percent of Las Virgenes’ roughly 20,000 customers — it caused $6 million to $7 million in damage to district facilities. Pedersen said the district has been able to absorb the impact through its reserves.

Activate early, apologize later’

The experience of Paradise, Las Virgenes and Santa Rosa offers other water agencies some vivid lessons on how to prepare for and respond to a wildfire of unimaginable severity.

“To try to plan for something like this is really, really difficult,” Phillips told the audience at the Foundation’s Water Summit. He said the Paradise district did a tabletop wildfire planning exercise one month before the Camp Fire broke out. But they never imagined a wildfire that would be as devastating or one that would come at the town from two different directions.

After spending the better part of the year emerging from the ashes, Phillips’ advice for others is to be ready.

“Prepare for the worst,” he said, “even if it’s an exercise that you think will never happen.”

Yet even the best laid plans go awry. Adaptation is critical. “Chaos is normal, but you’ve got to try and manage it the best you can,” said Pedersen. He said water agency personnel are first responders, too, moving behind firefighters and shutting off residential water service to maintain pressure in the system even before the flames are completely extinguished.

Phillips said agencies across California should practice putting together a FEMA claim to learn how it’s done and what the federal agency will approve. Just as important is reviewing insurance policies to ensure adequate coverage exists.

“Look at the system from a natural disaster perspective and say, ‘What will break and what will be an item that will either be covered or not covered and are we OK with that?’” he said.

Business interruption insurance, which the Paradise district could have used more of, “is one gap that FEMA doesn’t cover,” Phillips said.

Pedersen said his district has looked back at its response to the Woolsey Fire and recognized some things it did not do well besides failing to evacuate to a remote emergency operations center. Staff working in haste sometimes brushed aside worker safety rules, which later drew notice from Cal/OSHA. The district failed to update some of its pump station equipment to be compatible with newer emergency power connections, necessitating on-the-fly rewiring to connect equipment. And the district should have done more to load test emergency generators, which required repairs during the fire.

Given the advent now of public safety power shutoffs, Pedersen said, ensuring plenty of available power is especially critical – as is the ability to test the equipment routinely without running afoul of air quality rules. Las Virgenes has joined other water agencies in seeking legislative changes that would give them more flexibility to properly load test emergency generators.

“The bottom line is that as water agencies, we need to invest in backup power like we never have before,” he said. “We can’t leave ourselves vulnerable to these widespread power outages. Whether we like it or not, we’ve got the threat of these wildfires and these events.”

Pedersen also advised water agencies to make lots of friends ahead of time — with nearby water agencies, cities and other local governments — to promote a mutual aid network that can help when fire strikes.

For all water agencies, especially those on the wildland-urban interface, one key lesson is clear: When fire strikes, speed and preparedness are crucial.

“Activate early, apologize later,” Pedersen advised. “Try to anticipate what you need because if you wait until you need it, it’s going to be too late.”

This story originally appeared on Western Water and is republished here by permission.

Demand-management groups multiply in Colorado water fight

Twin Lakes Tunnel photo for demand management story
The east-side outlet of the Twin Lakes tunnel, which is operated by the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., a member of the Front Range Water Council. The FRWC recently declined to meet with members of a Colorado Basin Roundtable group about demand management. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

By Heather Sackett

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — The state of Colorado’s investigation into the feasibility of a demand-management program has spawned the spinoff of several additional groups to study the issue, underscoring persistent tensions between the Western Slope and Front Range water managers.

In June, the Colorado Water Conservation Board named 74 people — most of them experts in their fields — to nine workgroups charged with helping the state study whether a water-use reduction plan is right for Colorado. Now, some roundtables and conservation districts are forming their own grassroots stakeholder groups to study demand management outside of the state’s formal process.

One of those is the Colorado River Basin Roundtable. The stakeholder group, chaired by Kirsten Kurath, who is general counsel for the Grand Valley Water Users Association, invited Front Range water providers to an informal meeting on Monday to discuss demand management and address some assumptions about the contentious topic.

Although representatives from Northern Water and Aurora Water initially accepted the invitation, a subsequent letter from the Front Range Water Council made it clear that Front Range water interests were circling the wagons and closing ranks. The FRWC is an ad-hoc group made up of representatives from Front Range urban water providers.

In a letter signed by FRWC chair and Denver Water CEO James Lochhead, the group declined Kurath’s invitation to the meeting.

“We feel it is best at this point not to have ‘official’ side meetings regarding demand management and what a demand management process/program may look like because, particularly with press present, such conversations may lead to confusion and may undermine the state process,” the letter reads.

Kurath said she was extremely disappointed and discouraged by the response.

“It seemed like a great opportunity as part of our workgroup to invite folks from the Front Range Water Council and chat with them about what we are thinking about demand management,” Kurath said. “We do need to work at relationship-building between these historically adverse parties.”

Roaring Fork River irrigation photo for demand management story
This field is irrigated with water from the Roaring Fork River, under a senior water right. Some on the Western Slope worry that water savings from a water-use-reduction plan known as demand management could fall disproportionately to the agriculture sector. By Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Contentious topic

So, why is demand management a touchy subject that highlights tensions between Colorado’s West Slope and Front Range? It may be because some in Western Slope agriculture worry that Front Range water providers, backed by a reliable pot of money from their rate-paying customers, can simply pay ranchers to fallow fields without having to reduce their own water consumption. Some Western Slope agricultural water users have voiced concerns about how to create a demand-management program that reduces water use equitably across all sectors, not just agriculture.

On top of that, some fear that if fields are no longer producing crops, a cascade of unintended consequences for the local economy could be the result. The Colorado River Water Conservation District and the Southwestern Water Conservation District are studying the secondary economic impacts of demand management.

“What are the economic impacts should someone decide not to grow a crop?” said Frank Kugel, executive director of the Durango-based Southwestern Water Conservation District. “What about the tractor-supply store, the feed stores, the restaurants and the workers that work on those farms?”

Adding to the controversial nature of demand management is Colorado’s social and cultural backdrop. At the heart of a demand-management program is a reduction in water use on a temporary, voluntary and compensated basis in an effort to send as much as 500,000 acre-feet of water downstream to Lake Powell to bolster water levels in the giant reservoir and, indirectly, to meet Colorado River Compact obligations. Under such a program, ranchers and farmers could get paid to leave more water in the river.

But Andy Mueller, general manager of the CRWCD, said the concept of intentionally saving water goes against the age-old Western water adage of “Use it or lose it.” Some irrigators believe their water right, which is seen as a property right, could be considered abandoned if they don’t use their entire share of the water all the time, although it is rare in Colorado for this aspect of the law to be enforced by the state.

“We are asking people to change 150 years of cultural, family, political traditions,” Mueller said. “What we need to do in the water-policy world is help provide people with security and confidence they are not unintentionally damaging themselves for the future and that they are protected and have economic certainty.”

To this end, the river district also is forming a demand-management stakeholder group of its own. Mueller said the goal is to convene a group of roughly 30 water users to figure out how their interests would be protected if a demand-management plan is implemented.

“It’s a really critical thing for our actual water users to be driving the train because they know how their farms work,” Mueller said. “If you get ideas from them, they are much more likely to work in the long run.”

Government Highline Canal photo for demand management story
The Government Highline Canal, near Grand Junction, delivers water from the Colorado River, and is managed by the Grand Valley Water Users Association. Representatives from the Grand Valley Water Users Association invited members of the Front Range Water Council to discuss demand management, but the FRWC declined. By Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Water from ag?

Although some might assume that the easiest way to save a large amount of water in a demand-management program is to take it from Western Slope agriculture, Front Range water providers say that isn’t the case. Lochhead said that Denver Water would participate in a demand-management program along with everyone else using “wet water,” not just by throwing money at the problem.

Brad Wind, general manager of Northern Water, agreed that water savings solely from Western Slope agriculture isn’t the solution.

“I get the impression from some West Slope entities … that they think the whole burden of demand management is going to come on the backs of the West Slope,” he said, “and honestly, I don’t think anybody on the Front Range Water Council is saying that.”

These were some of the issues Kurath was hoping to clear up in a meeting with her stakeholder group and Front Range water providers.

“We just wanted to explore that with folks,” she said. “It was a real disappointment to me to have them decide they didn’t want to participate.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of rivers and water. This story ran in the Oct. 30 edition of the Times.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism. The Water Desk is seeking additional funding to build and sustain the initiative. Click here to donate.

As water prices soar, Colorado lawmakers consider rules to stop profiteering

As water prices soar, Colorado lawmakers consider rules to stop profiteering
A man descends the main staircase at the Colorado State Capitol at the end of the work day on Feb. 19, 2019. Photo by Jerd Smith

By Jerd Smith, Fresh Water News

Buy low, sell high? Not so fast.

As demand and prices for Colorado water rise, state lawmakers are concerned that Wall Street investment firms and even local finance groups may seek to circumvent state laws designed to prevent water profiteering.

Last month, the Colorado Legislature’s Interim Water Resources Review Committee initially approved a bill authorizing a study to determine whether the state’s anti-speculation laws, already considered among the strongest in the West, need to be further strengthened.

“The reason I drafted it is because I’m hearing stories from the West Slope and the San Luis Valley of outside groups coming in and buying water rights. While we’re not entirely sure if this is speculation, some of these companies are more like financial and hedge fund institutions instead of agricultural interests. That seems to have the color of water speculation,” said Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Democrat who represents several West Slope counties and who is chair of the interim committee. (Editor’s note: Sen. Donovan sits on the board of Water Education Colorado, which sponsors Fresh Water News.)

Under Colorado law, water is considered a public resource, but the legal right to take it and use it toward some beneficial purpose must be approved in water court. Once obtained, water rights are considered a private property right, one that can be bought and sold as long as water courts approve the transaction.

Water has always been a scarce resource in Colorado and in the 1800s, as miners and farmers were moving in, the courts developed a system so that no one could hoard water and profit from its sale. To combat the problem, they required that water rights be granted only to those who could put them to beneficial use, whether in farm fields or mines, or in people’s homes and businesses.

The anti-speculation laws have been challenged and upheld many times in water court, leading several water experts to question the need to amend them.

Dave Taussig, a Denver water attorney, said he was surprised to see lawmakers move in this direction.

“This is one of the few areas of Colorado [water] law that is pretty well defined and established,” Taussig said. “I don’t see the need for this.”

For many transactions, as long as the water is being put to use, the deal is not considered speculative.

On the West Slope, for instance, New York City-based Water Asset Management has purchased ranches with valuable, senior water rights. Right now, the company continues to operate the farms and the water is still being used as it had been before the purchase, so it is not considered speculative. That’s because, under existing law, there is nothing to prevent someone from buying water rights with an eye toward a future sale, where the interim use is just a placeholder.

Water Asset Management could not be reached for comment. But its website spells out a clear investment strategy that includes acquiring Western farm water and holding onto it until it appreciates in value, at which point it could be leased or sold for a profit.

Closer to home, Denver-based Renewable Water Resources has assembled an investment group which intends to purchase farm water in the San Luis Valley and pipe it to the Front Range.

Sean Tonner, a principal in RWR, said the proposal isn’t a buy-low, sell-high proposition because his company is offering $2,500 to $2,800 an acre-foot for the farm water, which normally sells locally for much less, around $65 to $200 an acre-foot, according to San Luis Valley water officials.

Tonner declined to provide a sales price, but Front Range developers routinely pay $20,000 an acre-foot and more for water.

RWR has not yet identified an end-user for the project, but has committed to do so before it seeks approval from state water court.

“Colorado has great anti-speculation laws. If there is a way to make them stronger, I’m all for it,” Tonner said. “But I would disagree with the assertion that what we’re doing is buy-low, sell-high.”

Still, lawmakers are concerned. Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, is also on the interim water committee and said the state needs to be vigilant about how its agricultural water rights are being bought and sold.

“Yes we do have strong anti-speculation laws,” Coram said, “but hedge funds also have very good attorneys. There are ways to work around [the laws].”

According to the initial bill draft, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources would form a work group next year to examine what the state can do to ensure its market-based water management system isn’t manipulated by moneyed interests. The bill directs the group to report back to lawmakers in August of 2021.

The committee will vote Oct. 24 on whether the bill should advance further. If approved, it will be introduced during the regular session that opens Jan. 8, 2020.

Donovan is hopeful the process will uncover new tools, even beyond the anti-speculation laws, to help the state prevent profiteering.

“Water speculation is something we need to ensure we have a firm grip on as a state. I expect there will be a lot of conversations in upcoming years about how we make sure that water isn’t exploited and doesn’t become a way for people to make a quick dollar,” Donovan said.

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

This story originally appeared on Fresh Water News, an independent, non-partisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Its editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at

Many U.S. reservoirs could be rendered useless by sedimentation

We’ve heard about the deteriorating status of American infrastructure and most imagine crumbling bridges and potholed roads. But there’s another looming infrastructure crisis that’s getting little to no attention—and it will eventually impact everyone: America’s reservoirs are filling up with sediment. Their storage capacity peaked in the 1980s and it’s been going downhill ever since—sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Lewis and Clark Lake
Lewis and Clark Lake is the reservoir created by Gavins Point Dam on the Missouri River. It’s 30 percent full of sediment and could be half full by 2045. | Photo (taken in 2011): Missouri Sedimentation Action Coalition

Niobrara, Neb.— Ruth Janak regularly walks along the Missouri River’s edge in the small town of Niobrara, Nebraska, where she lives. She’ll pan the landscape—hoping to find any remnant of the inventory from the service station she ran with her husband, Victor. Remarkably, she finds things—a hydraulic hose, a belt—but there’s a lot that’s missing—workbenches, tires, cabinets, a pop cooler. It’s gone. “Where are they?” she asks, knowing there’s no answer.

When the “bomb cyclone” weather event ravaged areas from Colorado to Nebraska and the Dakotas last spring, the Spencer Dam on the Niobrara River failed, sending not only a wall of water, debris, and sand downstream but also huge chunks of ice as big as bulldozers. Like a battering ram the flow shoved everything into the river from propane tanks to cattle—and unfortunately for the Janaks—their business.

Standing in a new location higher up in town where they’ve recently moved, Ruth pulls out her phone and shows a video taken by an employee of the Nebraska Department of Transportation, which shows buildings helplessly surrendering to the ice-filled, brown, churning waves and untethering from their foundations, passing treetops as they float out of view.

“The craziest part about it,” she says, “is that our business wasn’t in the floodplain,” adding quickly, “but I’m sure that’s going to change.” It’s a sober recognition that the epic storm will not only likely shift the demarcation for flood hazards—but also be the boundary she’ll remember between her old life and new.

The Janaks weren’t in the floodplain—technically that is—but changes to Missouri River since the last century have blurred the lines of where the government says water officially goes and why. Huge amounts of sand and silt have been accumulating in the river—especially near where the Janak’s business sat at the confluence of the Niobrara and the Missouri Rivers. The more sediment piles up there, the higher the waters rise—something Ruth has witnessed firsthand. When she and Victor bought their business, the water wasn’t even close to them. With increasing siltation, she says, “It knocks at your back door all the time.”

The Country Cafe in Niobrara, Nebraska, was buried in ice during the flood of March 14, 2019.

Clear as mud

Sedimentation occurs when all the sand, silt, rocks, and soils that would naturally travel down rivers to the sea get trapped behind dams. Sediment itself is a good thing. It creates habitat, fertile farm fields, and forms deltas at the river’s mouth that are natural buffers against storms in places like Louisiana. But when dams were built along the Missouri River, that natural process came to an end and the troubles began.

Perhaps nowhere is sedimentation more evident than at the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers, where the water snakes its way through lumps of grass-covered islands. The sand has piled up there ever since the completion of the Gavins Point Dam just downstream. When the sediment-laden river hits the deep standing water of its reservoir, called Lewis and Clark Lake, the water loses its energy and the load it’s carrying drops out.

90,000 dams

Over time, the sediment mounds up to form a delta and the river is forced to go over, around, or even under it. That happens rain or shine, but during a major flood disaster, like the recent bomb cyclone, levels are pushed up proportionately, if not higher—a point the catastrophic flooding from the Spencer Dam failure made all too clear, says Nicholas Pinter, professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Davis. He says that sedimentation caused by Gavins Point Dam made the destruction of the Janak’s property more likely—“absolutely, unquestionably—and no honest person in the Corps or otherwise would say not.”

The “Corps” he’s referring to is the Army Corps of Engineers. They built Gavins Point Dam in 1955, but in the 1970s they had to move the town of Niobrara because sedimentation resulting from the dam’s reservoir was raising the water table, causing flooded basements and ruined crops.


Actually, the town of Niobrara had to be physically moved—twice. The first time was in 1881 when an ice jam on the Missouri flooded the village with nearly six feet of water. The townsfolk pulled its buildings by oxen and mule a mile-and-a-half to higher ground where they thought they would be safe. But that was before Gavins Point Dam was built.

No one disputes that the reservoir was responsible for the high groundwater in Niobrara in the 1970s. In fact, the engineers who built the dams in the 1940s and ’50s along the Missouri River knew sedimentation would be a consequence. But, says Pinter, Gavins Point Dam was “designed as almost every large dam on Earth, which is not to say that it was well designed or poorly designed, but it was well known at the time that it would not pass the sediment that it would need to, to avoid this problem.”

A sediment design life

The fact that the dams would not pass sediment—and that eventually sedimentation would make them inoperable—was not only fully acknowledged by the engineers who designed them, but they even had a name for it—the “Sediment Design Life.” As Tim Randle, Manager of the Sedimentation and River Hydraulics Group at the Bureau of Reclamation explains, “Virtually all reservoirs in the U.S. and much the world were designed with a sediment design life, meaning after so much time the reservoir’s not going to function very well, the outlet will be plugged.” For Reclamation and Army Corps dams, he says, that lifespan was somewhere around 100 years.

Sedimentation Diagram

Since many large dams were built in the middle of the last century, they are now in the second half of their sediment design life. Some might fill in decades, others in hundreds—or even thousands of years. Which ones? That’s hard to know, says Randle. Most reservoirs—65 percent of Reclamation reservoirs—haven’t been surveyed for sedimentation since they were filled.

Randle says long before reservoirs completely fill there will start to be problems like dam outlets or hydropower intakes getting gummed up, as well as boat ramps or marinas getting buried—and as was the case in Niobrara—floods. There are over 90,000 dams on the federal inventory—so any notion of just letting the reservoirs fill up and store water elsewhere would be difficult—essentially all the good sites are taken.

The Pick-Sloan Plan…and the rest is history

But history might have taken a different course had Glenn Sloan prevailed. Before the dams were built the sediment-laden “Big Muddy” meandered restlessly from valley wall to valley wall and flooded occasionally. When the Lewis and Clark expedition explored the Missouri River in the early 1800s it was almost a mile wide with numerous sandbars that split the waterway into several braided channels.


But in 1943, three devastating floods put pressure on Congress to tame the river once and for all, and they called on the Army Corps of Engineers to produce a plan. Colonel Lewis A. Pick, then division engineer in the Corps’ Omaha, Nebraska, office, proposed five multipurpose dams on the mainstem of the Missouri River above Sioux City, Iowa.

Meanwhile, William G. Sloan, an engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation, called for over 85 new tributary dams and three mainstem dams. Tim Cowman with South Dakota Geological Survey suggests that by putting smaller dams on the tributaries, they would have captured small amounts of silt and sediment in numerous places, preventing it from reaching the Missouri—and perhaps avoiding the massive sedimentation problem happening today.

In the end, the plans were merged into the Pick-Sloan Plan, which Congress ratified in the Flood Control Act of 1944. The plan brought flood control, irrigation, and hydropower to the basin, but Native Americans, whose reservations bordered the river, were huge losers. The reservoirs flooded their best agricultural and grazing lands and displaced hundreds of families. Attorney Peter Capossela, writes in his article, “Impacts of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Pick- Sloan Program on the Indian Tribes of the Missouri River Basin”:


The trouble below

Meanwhile, the sediment delta of Lewis and Clark Lake grows. It extends, on average, 400 feet per year—and in huge weather events, storms can shove sand and silt nearly a mile into the lake. Cowman says this not only takes up precious storage space but also reduces the reservoir’s ability to handle floods.

The U.S. passed peak per capita capacity in the 1960s, according to the International Association for Hydro-Environment Engineering and Research.

But downstream of the dam, he says, there are problems, too. When water is released downriver, it’s clear, having left its trapped sediment in the reservoir. However, the released water actually seeks out sediment, something called “hungry water.” That water satisfies its craving by scouring the riverbed below and eroding its banks. In fact, Cowman says, the channel below Gavins Point has been eroded by ten feet, and that’s recently forced the city of Yankton, South Dakota, to lower its water intake pipes because they’ve become higher than the river’s surface. For comparison, according to the organization International Rivers, “Within nine years of the closure of Hoover Dam, hungry water had washed away more than 110 million cubic meters of material from the first 145 kilometers of riverbed below the dam, lowering it in places by more than four meters.“

Also because the dam controls the river flows—never getting too high, never too low—the natural process that used to build sandbars, stopped. Normally during flood events, Cowman says, high water builds up what are essentially sand dunes on the bottom of the riverbed. Once the water drops to normal levels, those sand dunes become sandbars sticking out of the water. Unless there are occasional high flows, new sandbars won’t form and the ones that are there will erode away. In fact the Army Corps of Engineers was required, at some expense, to build new sandbars because two endangered birds—the piping plover (Charadrius melodus) and interior least tern (Sterna antillarum athalassos)—that nest just below Gavins Point had lost their habitat.

Aerial for MSAC


Because of these problems both above and below Gavins Point Dam, a group called the Missouri Sedimentation Action Coalition (MSAC) was formed to educate the public about the issue and find solutions before things get even worse. The group reflects a range of interests including individuals, nonprofits, cities, and tribes who are already feeling the effects of sedimentation in Lewis and Clark Lake, which is 30 percent full of sediment and expected to reach 50 percent by the year 2045 if nothing is done.

So what can be done? There are three general strategies to managing sediment in reservoirs. One is to look at the upstream watershed and reduce erosion and runoff to keep debris from entering the river. Tactics include bank stabilization efforts and buffer strips, to better farming practices and keeping livestock from grazing too close to a waterway.

Another set of solutions is to prevent sediment from depositing in the reservoir by routing the silt and sand through or around the dam. This can be achieved with tunnels or channels that bypass the sediment around the reservoir, or with sluicing methods that move sediment through the dam before it has a chance to deposit.

One mechanism that MSAC is evaluating is to create a sort of speed bump in the river channel with something called “sediment collectors,” which entails putting a metal trough (or a series of troughs) across the riverbed. The collectors would passively create a difference in the speed of the current as it passes over it and a substantial amount of sediment would drop into the trough, where it could then be augured out and up onto land. However, what to do with all that stockpiled sediment would be an issue.

The third approach is to remove sediment that has already been deposited in the reservoir either by dredging or flushing. The issue of what to do with all the material is also a question, particularly if contamination is suspected.


Any of the sediment management solutions will be costly, take time to implement, and have engineering challenges. Tim Randle and his colleagues are part of a group called the Subcommittee on Sedimentation, which ironically has the acronym “SOS.” In 2014 they put out a resolution [Full text] calling on all federal agencies that own or operate dams to come up with sustainable management plans for reservoirs by 2030 and that the plans “should include either the implementation of sustainable sediment-management practices or eventual retirement of the reservoir.” That was five years ago and not much has happened. [See June 2019 National Reservoir Sedimentation and Sustainability Team white paper.]


Sedimentation is not just a problem for Niobrara, or even just the Missouri River. It threatens nearly every major reservoir in the U.S. And although what happened to the Janaks is in the extreme, it could be a harbinger of what’s to come if the issue is not addressed.

MSAC is adamant that doing nothing is not an option. Sandy Stockholm, executive director of the organization, says they are working with their stakeholders, the Army Corps, and several experts from academia with the goal to finalize the scope of a sedimentation management plan by the end of the year. The resulting plan—if they can fund and implement it—will not only slow the damage but also become a model for reservoirs across the country, which, whether dam owners know it or not, are on track to have the same fate. ?

This story originally appeared on and is republished here by permission.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism. The Water Desk is seeking additional funding to build and sustain the initiative. Click here to donate.

Supporters say Proposition DD will ‘fund Colorado’s Water Plan,’ but what does that mean?

Lower Lincoln Creek. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

By Heather Sackett

CARBONDALE — Proposition DD’s supporters — including environmental organizations, agriculture interests, conservation districts and Aspen Skiing Co. — say the measure will be used to close a $3 billion state funding gap in implementing the Colorado Water Plan. The frequently cited figure of a $100 million annual shortfall for 30 years is written in the water plan itself.

But where did the authors of the water plan get this number and what kinds of projects and programs might the measure fund? According to the legislation, money raised from Prop DD could go toward an agricultural water-use reduction program that doesn’t yet exist.

In the following explainer, Aspen Journalism unpacks the ballot question, which will be posed to voters Nov. 5, and what the tax revenue may actually end up funding.

The Colorado River in fall light. Proposition DD allows for tax revenue raised through sports betting to fund a future demand management program, which would pay agricultural water users to leave more water in the river. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

How will Proposition DD work?

Gov. Jared Polis signed House Bill 19-1327 into law in May. But voters must still pass Proposition DD for it to take effect.

According to the 2019 State Ballot Information Booklet, Proposition DD would authorize the state to collect a 10% tax up to $29 million a year (but the projected average amount is $16 million) from casinos’ sports-betting proceeds. The Colorado Division of Gaming and the Colorado Limited Gaming Control Commission will be responsible for regulating sports betting operations.

Of the money raised, a projected $130,000 would go to gambling addiction services and $960,000 would go into a “hold harmless” fund. Entities that receive tax revenue from traditional gambling such as horse racing could apply for funding from the hold harmless fund if they can prove they lost money due to the legalization of sports betting.

The remaining projected average annual $14.9 million (but up to $27.2 million) in tax revenue would go to funding projects that align with the goals outlined in the water plan, as well as toward meeting interstate obligations such as the Colorado River Compact. Under the compact, the Upper Basin states, which include Colorado, must deliver 7.5 million acre-feet of water annually to Lake Powell.

If voters pass Proposition DD, it will take effect May 1.

Agricultural machinery in the Grand Valley, near Grand Junction. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

What does the legislation say?

The legislation creates a special Water Plan Implementation Cash Fund, which would be administered by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, a statewide agency charged with managing Colorado’s water supply. The money could be spent on water-plan grants, but may also be spent “to ensure compliance with interstate water allocation compacts … including … compensation to water users for temporary and voluntary reductions in consumptive use.”

This language refers to a demand management program, the feasibility of which the state is currently studying.

A hayfield near Grand Junction, irrigated with water from the Colorado River. Under demand management pilot programs, the state could pay irrigators to fallow fields in an effort to leave more water in the river. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

What is demand management?

At the heart of a demand-management program is a reduction in water use by agriculture on a voluntary, temporary and compensated basis, all in an effort to send up to 500,000 acre-feet of water downstream to bolster water levels in Lake Powell to meet potential obligations under the Colorado River Compact. Under pilot programs the state could pay ranchers and farmers to leave more water in the river.

The CWCB has formed nine workgroups, each tasked with helping to identify and solve issues related to demand management. Western Slope agricultural water users have expressed concern about how a demand-management program would be implemented fairly.

District 5 State Sen. Kerry Donovan, whose district includes Aspen and who was a sponsor of the bill, acknowledged that as Colorado gets a handle on demand management, money from Proposition DD could go toward funding a future program.

“Most water experts would say demand management in some form will be part of addressing the Colorado River Compact obligations,” Donovan said. “Maybe in five years, maybe in the next generation, but somewhere in the long-term planning strategy of the Colorado River, demand management will be part of the puzzle.”

District 5 State Sen. Kerry Donovan, left, speaks on a panel with other lawmakers at the Colorado Water Congress legislative session in Steamboat Springs in August. Donovan asked water managers for their support of Proposition DD, which would fund water projects grants and, potentially, a demand management program. Photo by Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

What is the Colorado Water Plan?

At the behest of then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, water managers from across Colorado collaboratively created the water plan, which was unveiled in 2015. The plan, which is more of a policy document, says Colorado faces a looming water “gap” across all sectors — municipal, industrial, agriculture, recreation and environment — because of the state’s growing population and increasing water demands.

The 567-page plan does not prescribe or endorse specific projects but instead sets Colorado’s water values, goals and measurable objectives, which are set out in a critical action plan. For example, the plan sets a measurable objective of storing an additional 400,000 acre-feet of water in reservoirs by 2050 and covering 80% of local rivers with stream-management plans by 2030, but it does not say how water managers should go about doing this.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board, after unveiling the Colorado Water Plan in Denver in November 2015. Revenue from Prop DD could go toward funding water plan grants. Photo: Colorado River District

What about water plan grants?

According to the legislation, revenue from Proposition DD will also go toward water-plan grants. Local water managers apply to the CWCB’s Water Plan Grant Program to fund projects that advance critical actions laid out in the water plan from the following categories: agricultural, engagement and innovation, environmental and recreation, water conservation and land-use planning, or water storage and supply.

Water-plan grants are a 50% matching grant, meaning that the local entities applying for the grant must match from their own coffers the amount they are requesting in state funds.

For fiscal year 2019-20, $10 million will be available for the Water Plan Grant Program. Funding from Proposition DD could add roughly $15 million a year to this grant program.

Many of the projects that the water-plan grants fund come from each of the nine basin roundtables’ Basin Implementation Plans. The BIPs identify how each basin’s water needs will be met through existing or new projects, policies and processes. But many of the local water projects included in the BIPs don’t specify how much funding is needed to implement them and many roundtables’ projects lists have only partial and inconsistent information.

For example, 14 of the 31 top projects outlined in the Colorado BIP have “TBD” in the Funding Needs column.

“In the Basin Implementation Plans, some of those projects are pretty rough and it was a best guess at the time with limited information,” said CWCB Deputy Director Lauren Ris.

Roundtables will soon embark on an update to their BIPs, with the goal of refining project details, including cost.

A view of the headgate on the Robinson Ditch and the boulder structure in the Roaring Fork River that maintains the grade of the river so water can reach the headgate. Pitkin County has received a water-plan grant to help repair the diversion structure and improve boating passage. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

What is the funding gap?

According to the water plan, there is an estimated funding gap of $100 million per year over 30 years. These figures, according to Ris, came from data in the 2010 Statewide Water Supply Initiative. That technical analysis found that Colorado needed $20 billion worth of water projects to meet the water supply gap by 2050. Of that $20 billion, $17 billion is expected to be paid for by existing funding sources, including rate payers of water utilities and federal money.

The state is investigating options to fund the remaining $3 billion gap. Proposition DD is one of these options. But the $3 billion figure, based on decade-old data, is not precise.

“($100 million per year over 30 years) was an estimate,” Ris said. “I don’t think it was ever really intended to be an exact figure. It’s more to say, we know there’s going to be a big need and we will work to refine that estimate going forward … We are just trying to point out it’s an expensive endeavor going forward.”

Supporters of Proposition DD say they realize that the estimated $15 million raised per year is still a far cry from the estimated $100 million needed per year, instead calling the money a “down payment” on implementing the water plan.

The 2015 Colorado state water plan on the shelf of the CU law library in Boulder. The CWCB often presents updates on the progress it says it is making on implementing the plan. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Who is endorsing Proposition DD?

Proposition DD has received broad endorsement from environmental groups such as Conservation Colorado and American Rivers, agriculture organizations such as the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and the Colorado Corn Growers Association, and several chambers of commerce.

The Colorado River Water Conservation District and Aspen Skiing Co. also support the measure.

Matt Rice of American Rivers said his organization is endorsing the measure because it wants to see some projects fully funded, including stream-management plans, urban water-conservation programs and modernization of agriculture irrigation infrastructure.

Rice said American Rivers “unabashedly and unequivocally” supports a demand-management program in Colorado, which Proposition DD could help fund.

“We deeply believe a demand-management program needs to be one of the tools that we have in our toolbox as we plan for water scarcity or prolonged drought because of climate change,” Rice said.

A river project, partially funded by the CWCB on the Arkansas River at Granite. The project was removing a river-wide diversion structure and replacing it with a new diversion structure that will allow unimpeded boating through Granite. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Who is opposed to Proposition DD?

Environmental group Save the Colorado and the political action committee Coloradans for Climate Justice oppose the measure. According to the Coloradans for Climate Justice Facebook page, the group believes fossil fuel companies should pay for the damage to water-supply systems caused by climate change. So far, the group has not filed any reports for contributions or expenditures.

The Colorado River in fall near Loma. Proposition DD could allocate tax revenue to a demand management program with the aim of leaving more water in the river. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Who is funding Proposition DD?

Despite broad support from many organizations, the political action committee Yes on Prop DD is funded primarily by the gambling industry. According to filings with the Secretary of State, as of Sept. 30, casinos and online sports betting organizations have spent nearly $1 million to support the measure. The Colorado Farm Bureau and the Environmental Defense Fund have contributed $10,000 each.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating with The Aspen TimesVail DailySummit Daily, Glenwood Springs Post-Independent and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. This story appeared in the Oct. 10, 2019 edition of the above papers or on their websites.

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism. The Water Desk is seeking additional funding to build and sustain the initiative. Click here to donate.

Announcing our first grantees

The Water Desk is excited to announce our first grants to support journalists and media outlets covering Western water issues and the Colorado River Basin.

Grantees will delve into a wide range of issues throughout the region, including biodiversity, pollution, groundwater, climate change, public lands, energy development and tribal water rights. The journalists and outlets will use a variety of media—newspapers, magazines, websites, television, radio—to explore critical challenges facing the West’s water.

The recipients of The Water Desk’s 2019 standard grants (in alphabetical order):

The Water Desk’s standard grants award up to $10,000 to journalists and media outlets covering water issues involving the seven states of the Colorado River Basin—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming—as well as the borderlands of Northwest Mexico.

For the 12 standard grants, The Water Desk has approved a total of $112,888 in funding for journalists.

In addition to the standard grants, The Water Desk has also approved 10 micro-grants, up to $1,000 each, to support travel expenses, multimedia content and professional development for water journalists.

Applications for the standard grants were reviewed and approved by a selection committee consisting of: Mitch Tobin, Director of The Water Desk; Tom Yulsman, Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism; Hillary Rosner, Scholar-in-Residence at the Center for Environmental Journalism; and Amanda Clark, a recent graduate of CU Boulder’s master’s program in journalism who worked for The Water Desk.

The Water Desk launched with support from the Walton Family Foundation. Our funders and the University of Colorado have no right of review and no influence on the journalism that is produced with these grants.

The Water Desk will be running a similar program for standard grants in 2020 and is still accepting applications for 2019 micro-grants. Details about the grantmaking program are on this page.

Varsity Lake, near The Water Desk’s office. Source: Casey A. Cass, University of Colorado

Resources for Journalists


Goosenecks of the San Juan photo

Our grant programs offer funding to journalists to support their coverage and strengthen their professional development.

Stories & resources

Denver skyline photo

We will be producing and distributing original reporting, writing and multimedia on water issues while also serving as a hub for a network of water journalists.

Multimedia library

Colorado River drone photo

We will be offering images, video and data visualizations for free reuse by news organizations and independent journalists.

Aspen joins water managers using new technologies to map mountain snowpack, predict streamflows

Snowpack map photo
This map shows the snowpack depth of Castle and Maroon valleys in spring 2019. The map was created with information from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory, which will help water managers make more accurate streamflow predictions. Source: Jeffrey Deems/ASO, National Snow and Ice Data Center
By Heather Sackett

STEAMBOAT — As a changing climate renders streamflow predictions less accurate, water managers are turning to new technologies for a clearer picture of what’s happening in their basin’s snowpack.

The city of Aspen last spring became the latest water provider in western Colorado to use remote-sensing lasers from airplanes to map the snowpack in the surrounding watershed. On April 7 and June 10, planes equipped with LiDAR, which stands for light detection and ranging, flew over the mountains surrounding Castle and Maroon creeks, measuring the depth of the snow and how much water it contained.

The snow from Castle and Maroon valleys eventually becomes Aspen’s municipal water supply as it trickles downstream. Knowing how much snow is left and where that snow is located can help Aspen’s water managers better plan for spring runoff.

“The information (that the flights) were able to share with us shows us so much information about where the snow collects and some of the runoff patterns,” said Margaret Medellin, the manager of Aspen’s Utilities Portfolio. “It’s a more sophisticated way of looking at the water content in our snow.”

The flights were conducted by NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory, or ASO, an initiative co-founded by Jeffrey Deems, a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado where the data will be archived and distributed. Last month in Steamboat Springs, Deems gave a presentation on mapping mountain snowpack at Colorado Water Congress.

“It removes a good portion of the uncertainty,” Deems said in a separate interview. “The better we can manage the system, the more everybody benefits and is less in conflict.”

Streamflow forecasts — used by irrigators, water managers, federal and state agencies, and other entities — are based primarily on data collected from snow-telemetry, or SNOTEL, sites. These automated, remote sensors collect weather and snowpack information in Colorado’s mountainous watersheds.

But SNOTEL sites provide just a snapshot, often not telling the whole story, which leads to inaccurate streamflow forecasts.

When conditions at SNOTEL sites start to creep outside of “normal” historic data due to climate-warming effects — early-spring melting, dust on snow, warm winter temperatures, fires and beetle-kill — the forecasting models can begin to lose accuracy. By mapping an entire watershed, ASO flights paint a more complete picture of the state of the snow.

“As the past becomes less of a good guide to the future, we really need to know in greater precision and accuracy what the current state of the snowpack is,” Deems said. “The folks who are making the decisions on how to manage our water infrastructure — whether that’s a ditch, a dam or a headgate — they need the best forecast possible so they can make the correct decision at the right time.”

Snowpack map photo 2
This map shows the snowpack depth of the Maroon Bells in spring 2019. The map was created with information from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory, which will help water managers make more accurate streamflow predictions. Source: Jeffrey Deems/ASO, National Snow and Ice Data Center

Avalanches and hydrology

The LiDAR mapping also has the potential to help water managers better understand extreme weather events such as the historic avalanche activity this past March. One of Deem’s LiDAR mapping photos showed mountain tops that were scoured and devoid of snow, and valleys and avalanche paths that contained deep piles — the result of huge avalanches. An unanswered question is whether this snow melted out sooner (because it slid to a lower elevation) or later (because avalanche debris is denser and more compact).

“It may actually have delayed melt into the runoff season,” Deems said. “It’s not something we can say definitively what the effect is, but for the first time, the data set may actually allow us to test that and get a better handle on how hydrology and avalanches interact.”

Denver Water, which provides water to 1.4 million people on the Front Range, last spring used ASO flights to see how much snow remained in the mountains surrounding Dillion Reservoir, its largest storage pool. Data from a June 24 flight showed that although the SNOTEL sites at about 11,000 feet were melted out, there was still 114,000 acre-feet of water in the snowpack above. Denver Water increased its outflows from Dillon Reservoir to make room for the coming snowmelt.

“That ended up being about half our seasonal runoff,” said Nathan Elder, Denver Water’s manager of water supply. “(ASO) is the next thing in snow measurement. We haven’t had an advancement like this since the late ’70s, when they started putting in SNOTEL sites.”

Snowpack map photo aerial view
A flight from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory gathers data about the snowpack above the reservoir on a June 24 flight. Information gathered from the flight helped Denver Water manage reservoir operations. Photo courtesy of Quantum Spatial

Costly technology

While innovative and useful, the technology is expensive. Over the past three years, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has spent $1.9 million on the Watershed Forecasting Partnership Program, with nearly $519,000 spent on ASO flights, according to Chris Arend, communications director for the Department of Natural Resources. The Castle and Maroon creek watersheds were mapped as an offshoot of a multiyear program in the Upper Gunnison River Basin.

A good approach, Deems said, would be for multiple local agencies to pitch in and share the cost, since each flight on the specially equipped plane can cost tens of thousands of dollars. For a small municipality such as Aspen, it’s just not worth it.

“It’s really hard to fund or justify funding big efforts like that,” Medellin said. “We are really excited about the data, but we have to think: Is this something we can really afford in this community? Right now, it seems like the benefit wouldn’t justify the costs.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications newspapers on coverage of water and rivers. The Times published this story on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. 

The Water Desk’s mission is to increase the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. We’re an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from the Walton Family Foundation. We maintain a strict editorial firewall between our funders and our journalism. The Water Desk is seeking additional funding to build and sustain the initiative. Click here to donate.

Data viz: explore our interactive dashboards for drought, precipitation and snowpack

snowpack dashboard map

Browse through the sports section of any newspaper and you’ll find tons of data dissecting the performance of teams and players. Flip to the business section and you’ll see a wealth of charts and figures tracking companies and economies. 

But what if your local media outlet had a section devoted to environmental issues like water? Imagine pages filled with statistics, graphics and maps tracking watershed health, river flows and water use trends. One of my goals for The Water Desk is to move us toward that vision. I want to see our atmosphere, snowpack, rivers, streams, reservoirs and manifold uses of water analyzed with the same fervor we devote to batting averages, stock indices and other metrics that are routinely reported in the media.

Sure, the weather section sometimes includes information on local reservoir levels, drought conditions and other water indicators. But these sections tend to focus on short-term conditions, rather than the big picture and how things are changing. Instead, imagine data visualizations and interactive maps that are not only way cooler than any box score but also allow you to step back in time so you can find your own trends and patterns.

Introducing interactive dashboards for water issues

As we launch The Water Desk’s website, I’d like to introduce you to three data visualizations that cover the closely related topics of drought, precipitation and snowpack. There’s also an interactive on dams and reservoirs that I’ll explain in a future post. At this point, we only have dashboards for the water supply, rather than water demand, but I’m hoping we can tackle that side of the equation soon.

water dashboard screenshots
Above: images from the drought, snowpack and precipitation dashboards.

To create this series of interactive dashboards, I’ve worked over the years with some accomplished data experts–Geoff McGhee, David Kroodsma and Erik Hazzard. I’m not a coder, and the prospect of learning the Python language appeals to me as much as curling up with a 20-foot snake. But Geoff, David and Erik managed to figure out how to make these dashboards self-updating so they can automatically ingest the latest data.

Below is some background on how the visualizations came about and how you can use them.

If you’d like, you can skip to the visualizations themselves.

EcoWest: tracking environmental trends

Before getting into the dashboards, let me quickly explain their genesis. From 2011 to 2015, I worked as an independent evaluator of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s grantmaking around Western environmental issues. As part of that consulting work, the foundation asked me and my colleagues at California Environmental Associates to develop a way to track trends in the region. Our solution was to create a website,, which features blog posts, data visualizations and PowerPoint slide decks summarizing a variety of indicators and topics, including water, land use, climate, wildfires, biodiversity and politics. As with The Water Desk, EcoWest was editorially independent from its funders: we had complete freedom to research and write about the issues.

While working on EcoWest, I had the great fortune to do an (unpaid) fellowship at Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West, where I got to work closely with Geoff, a veteran of the multimedia and infographics desk at The New York Times, Le Monde and

To make a long story short, we decided to create a series of dashboards that track key indicators so users can not only explore the data but also embed the visualizations on their own websites.

As the Packard Foundation’s Western Conservation subprogram ended, so did the funding for EcoWest, but I decided to keep the site operational even though I wasn’t adding new content. On their own dimes, Geoff and David continued to tinker with the dashboards and make improvements, but I’ve always regretted not doing more with the dashboards or disseminating them more widely.

Now, with The Water Desk underway, we’re relaunching the EcoWest dashboards and incorporating them into our website, which Geoff helped us build. We hope these interactives will be a useful tool for journalists and others who are interested in reporting on water.

Drought dashboard

Watch the West move in and out of severe drought

In recent years, drought has been in the news frequently as dry spells gripped large parts of the West. There are many ways to define and track “drought,” but the best known of these measures is the U.S. Drought Monitor, which reports conditions across the country and is widely reported in the media.

drought dashboard screenshot
Comparing drought conditions between 2014 and 2019.

The Drought Monitor publishes a weekly map on Thursdays that shows which parts of the country are in drought by using five color-coded categories. There’s “abnormally dry” (D0), which indicates areas going into or coming out of drought, then four escalating levels of drought: “moderate” (D1), “severe” (D2), “extreme” (D3) and “exceptional” (D4).

When you arrive at the drought dashboard, you’ll find yellow boxes akin to sticky notes that explain some of the features. If you’d like to go big, click on the icon in the upper right corner to expand the interactive.

Interactive map: current drought conditions


The U.S. Drought Monitor is jointly produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The drought levels represent a composite index that includes many indicators: the Palmer Drought Severity Index, the Standardized Precipitation Index and other climatological inputs; the Keech-Byram Drought Index for fire; satellite-based assessments of vegetation health and various indicators of soil moisture; and hydrologic data, particularly in the West, such as the Surface Water Supply Index and snowpack levels. For more on how the maps are made, see this piece by Grace Hood at Colorado Public Radio.

Colorado emerges from a brutal drought

Below are two views from the dashboard that focus on Colorado. The top image is from July 23, 2002, when Colorado and other Western states were in the grips of a brutal drought. That summer, the 138,000-acre Hayman Fire became the largest in Colorado’s recorded history. On the Colorado River, inflows to Lake Powell were about one-quarter of normal.

drought dashboard map
July 23, 2002, when Colorado and other Western states were in the grips of a brutal drought. See visualization on this date.

Fast-forward 17 years to the bottom graphic, showing July 23, 2019, and Colorado was virtually drought-free after one of the wettest winters in decades wiped out a dry stretch that was particularly bad in the southwestern corner of the state.

drought dashboard map
July 23, 2019, when Colorado was virtually drought-free after one of the wettest winters in decades. See visualization on this date.

In the bar chart below the map, clicking on different dates will transport you to that week’s Drought Monitor as well as bring up a tooltip that shows you what percent of the area was in the various categories of drought. On July 23, 2002, one-third of Colorado was suffering from exceptional drought and the other two-thirds of the state were in extreme drought; by contrast, on July 23, 2019, just 3 percent of the state was classified as abnormally dry.

If you use the dropdown menu above the chart–or click on a state on the map–you’ll be brought to a chart showing drought conditions over time for the selected state or region. Clicking on the timeline or dragging the slider will update the map display to the selected week.

The “i” icons on the map indicate that a narrative about that location or region is available for the selected week. Clicking on the icon will reveal a text box with a discussion and forecast written by the U.S. Drought Monitor analysts.

If you want to embed this dashboard on your site or share the view you’ve created, click on the “share” button in the upper right and you’ll find options for republishing and distributing the visualization.

Precipitation dashboard

From atmospheric rivers to parched plains: visualizing rain and snow patterns

Precipitation patterns are obviously a big part of why droughts come and go, but it’s important to remember that temperature can also be important and create so-called “hot droughts” in which a higher evaporation rate is a leading player in the meteorological drama. For example, a seminal 2017 paper by Bradley Udall and Jonathan Overpeck, found that a big chunk of the 2000 to 2014 drought on the Colorado River was due to higher temperatures, not just reduced precipitation, with future warming projected to cut the river’s flow even further.

While the drought maps change relatively slowly and the shapes are only updated once a week, precipitation is much more dynamic and fine-grained. I’d love to tell you we have a constantly updating map of the country showing where every drop and flake has fallen over the past five minutes, but we’re not there yet. Instead, our precipitation maps focus on the monthly average.

When you arrive at the precipitation dashboard, you’ll be greeted by an intro screen with sticky notes explaining the features. The map shows how much rain and snow fell every month in the contiguous United States, from 1981 to the present. We offer a couple of ways to slice and dice the data:

  • Total precipitation
  • Difference from the long-term average
  • Percent of average for that month

For example, the screenshot below shows March 2019 precipitation as a percent of the monthly average. It was a wet month here in Colorado and neighboring Utah, but the weather was much drier than normal along the Pacific Northwest coast. If you click on one of the states, you’ll bring up a bar chart showing how that month’s precipitation compared to the 30-year average and the rest of the year.

rain and snow dashboard map
March 2019 precipitation as a percent of the monthly average. It was a wet month here in Colorado and neighboring Utah, but the weather was much drier than normal along the Pacific Northwest coast.

The data for this dashboard comes from the PRISM Climate Group at Oregon State University, which uses weather station data and a sophisticated model to report monthly and daily precipitation for the contiguous United States at a resolution of about 800 meters (around a half-mile). Including all that data would make for a painfully slow map, so we’ve reduced the resolution to four kilometers (about 2.5 miles) per pixel. 

The timeline below the map shows monthly rainfall totals for the selected geography. By default, the chart shows the average monthly precipitation for the contiguous United States since January 1981. Using the dropdown menu above the chart or clicking a state on the map will redraw the chart to show the precipitation over time for the selected state. 

As with our other dashboards, you can embed the precipitation map on your own website or share via social media by clicking on the “share” button in the upper right.

Snowpack dashboard

Measuring the frozen reservoir vital to Western water supplies

Loveland ski area photo by Mitch Tobin
A skier along the Continental Divide at Loveland Ski Area in Colorado. Photo by Mitch Tobin

Here in the American West, our water supply hinges on the snowpack that accumulates each winter in the high country. Snowmelt supplies the bulk of the flow in many Western rivers, so the volume of snow in the mountains is an obsession not only for ski bums like me but also for water managers, farmers, paddlers and others downstream.

Truth be told, our snowpack dashboard doesn’t exactly come alive with breaking news in August. Like most sports, the snowpack has a season. But even in the middle of summer, you can use the snowpack interactive to look back at past years.

Our snowpack map shows the daily estimates for the contiguous United States since October 2003. Using the dropdown menu above the chart or clicking a state on the map will redraw the chart to show the snowpack estimate by day for the selected state. 

This data set is based on output from the National Weather Service’s National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center (NOHRSC) SNOw Data Assimilation System (SNODAS).

You have two options for displaying the snowpack data:

  • “Monochrome” paints the map with varying intensities of white
  • “False color” uses blues and purples to depict the snowpack’s snow-water equivalent (SWE), a measure of its water content 

Rather than insert a screenshot, I clicked on the “share” button to create some HTML code for the map embedded below, which shows data from March 11, 2019, when the nation’s snowpack was near its peak.


Below the map you’ll find a chart showing the volume of the snowpack going back to 2004. As with the drought and precipitation maps, you can zoom in on specific states.

Another feature of this dashboard is a line graph that shows the snowpack’s rise and fall by year. In the visualization embedded below, the blue line marks the 2018-2019 winter.

At first, the West’s snowpack season seemed unremarkable, but in February and March, a series of potent storms led to some of the deepest conditions in recent memory and a ski season to remember. 

We hope folks find these dashboards useful, and we’d appreciate hearing from anyone who uses or embeds them. Please feel free to send us feedback or reports about bugs by emailing

A feverish stream, a legion of volunteers, a $1.7 million grant. Is it enough to help the Yampa River keep its cool?

Yampa River climate change GIF
The Yampa River, June 29, 2019: Credit: Kelsey Ray, CU News Corps, The Water Desk

By Jerd Smith

Could something as simple and natural as a ragged corridor of expansive, towering shade trees help a river arm itself against a world in which temperatures are rising?

In northwestern Colorado’s Yampa River Basin, a 300-person-strong army of volunteers is banking on it.

The Yampa River historically has produced so much abundant, clear, cool water that its fish, kayakers, and the farmers along its banks were rarely left wanting.

But climate change is altering that dynamic. Last summer the river’s flows shrank sharply, and its formerly cool waters became dangerously warm, threatening the fish. Its high fever prompted the City of Steamboat Springs to close the popular stretch through town to fisherman and boaters on multiple occasions to avoid further stressing the mountain white fish, which is found in few other Colorado regions.

The shut-down was a huge blow to the city and to local rafting and tubing companies who rely on the river for their livelihoods.

The disturbing heat added urgency to a small program that has been gaining supporters and clout in the Yampa River Basin. The Yampa Sustainability Council (YSC), aided by $175,000 from local donors and some state grants, has ramped up a broad-based tree planting program along the river’s banks known as ReTree. Additional funding from a new $1.7 million Nature Conservancy water fund will add even more muscle to the effort.

On a hot Friday afternoon in late June, Sarah Jones, executive director of the YSC, parks at a trailhead just east of town, slathers herself in sunscreen, and loads a white plastic bucket with small calipers, a measuring stick, a GPS device and wooden stakes to take down to the river’s edge. These are the tools she and others will use to carefully locate and measure the progress of trees planted in recent years.

A restorative area on the Yampa River where groups are working to plant trees on the land surrounding the river in hopes of providing natural shade and coverage for the river in the future. June 28, 2019. Credit: Callie Rhoades, CU News Corps, The Water Desk
A restorative area on the Yampa River where groups are working to plant trees to provide natural shade and coverage for the river in the future. June 28, 2019. Credit: Callie Rhoades, CU News Corps, The Water Desk

The reforesting work is conducted with a careful, slow precision. Each tree that is planted along the banks, and there are hundreds, is assessed, measured and located each season, even as more are placed in the ground.

The trend of warming rivers is creating a need for new science and reams of field data. “This is a new, not well-understood problem,” Jones said.

She and her partners, including the Colorado State Forest Service and the City of Steamboat, are taking the long view, carefully evaluating each year what has worked, discarding practices that have failed, and boosting those that have succeeded.

They once used elaborate planting protocols for placing the young saplings in the ground, but the trees respond much better when their small root balls are poked into the side of the bank, almost casually, supported by simple twigs. The starter trees also like being planted in the fall, they’ve learned, not the spring.

The Yampa River, in some ways, is a blessed stream, with more water than most Western rivers, and a community of hard-working, often wealthy, advocates.

This year The Nature Conservancy announced it had raised $1.7 million in a long-term water fund to restore and protect the Yampa River. The goal is to raise another $4.3 million to protect the watershed.

It is an unheard-of sum in this remote, northwestern corner of the state.

But those who know the Yampa understand the significance of protecting it, not just for the sake of this region, but for the state of Colorado and even for the greater American Southwest.

The river sits near the headwaters of the drought-stressed Colorado River system and is one of its last, mostly free-flowing tributaries. Because it is relatively unhindered, with only a few small reservoirs high on its mainstem, it serves as a kind of benchmark for scientists seeking to understand natural river dynamics and mimic them elsewhere.

Keeping the Yampa healthy also helps a much broader effort in the West to bring the Colorado River system back from the edge of a crisis precipitated by population growth, a nearly 20-year drought, and rising temperatures.

Jones and her colleague Caroline Manriquez, assistant district forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, walk slowly along a public stretch of the river. Each of them notes the young trees planted two or three years ago that are outgrowing the metal cages put in place to protect them from beavers, who are both a curse and a blessing on the river.

“On the one hand we want them,” said Manriquez, because their work on the river creates natural dams and habitats. “But on the other hand, they’re cutting the trees we want to preserve.”

Each tree that outgrows its anti-beaver cage will need to be visited, its protective metal enclosure cut off and a bigger one put in place.

The re-treeing effort anticipates a Johnny-Appleseed kind of longevity, with some 200 shade trees planted annually over the next 20 years.

“This is a huge project, and we are planting very small trees,” Manriquez said. “But given the water issues climate change is creating, we decided we had better start now.”

Like other river basins around the state, the Yampa Basin has developed a state-funded management plan for the river. Some of that funding went toward several years of studies and planning to develop the science to support the reforestation effort, said Kelly Romero-Heaney, water resources manager for Steamboat Springs.

“We’ve done a tremendous amount of modeling to look at what this river will look like in the future,” Romero-Heaney said.

Just downstream of the work zone, on the opposite bank from the workers, is a nursery which houses hundreds of delicate, young willow, cottonwood, and box elder trees. These varieties are known for growing tall and spreading a generous shade canopy.

The young seedlings have been sprouted in a nursery in Fort Collins, then transferred up to the Steamboat nursery early in the summer, all in preparation for the fall planting season.

These seedlings will be planted in the public stretches of the river, but reforesting there alone won’t be enough.

Jones and Manriquez know that the key to success for the project will be to bring the private landowners who control most of the land on the river’s banks into the program.

And that’s not easy. Western ranchers are notoriously government-averse, skittish about letting federal and state environmental officials onto their property, they said.

Rancher Steve Williams is an exception. He owns 200 acres of land along a critical reach of the Yampa east of Steamboat Springs, one that has been degraded by heavy cattle grazing, its cottonwood canopy gone, its streambed wide and much shallower than it once was.

Steve Williams, a local rancher in Steamboat Springs, is showing a section of the Yampa River he works to protect and conserve that flows through his land. June 29, 2019. Credit: Callie Rhoades, CU News Corps, The Water Desk
Steve Williams, a local rancher in Steamboat Springs, shows a section of the Yampa River through his land that he works to protect and conserve. June 29, 2019. Credit: Callie Rhoades, CU News Corps, The Water Desk

As a result the water temperature here each summer threatens to exceed the state’s standard for the stream. If Williams can cool down his reach of the river, it will help everyone farther down and closer to Steamboat Springs.

To achieve this, he has partnered with federal agencies to shore up the river’s banks, deepening it as it curves, snakelike, through the wetlands and pastures above Lake Catamount.

This land hasn’t been grazed in 10 years, Williams said, and he’s hopeful the bank restoration work, as well as the re-treeing effort, will give this stretch of the river the assistance it needs to heal.

Williams understands the magnitude of the work that lies ahead and the challenges, the discrepancy in scale between young trees and a sprawling Western river, and the global dilemma of warming. “We will see how this goes,” Williams said. “It is a Band-aid, but it’s one I think will last at least through my lifetime.”

Romero-Heaney and other river advocates know that they will likely never see the final results of this reforestation effort, but based on the preliminary studies, they see it as an important tool for helping this playful, powerhouse of a river flourish in a very different world than it has inhabited up until now.

“I have to believe that if any river can persist through climate change, it will be the Yampa,” Romero-Heaney said.

This story is made possible, in part, by The Water Desk, an initiative of the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism.

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

This story originally appeared on Fresh Water News, an independent, non-partisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado. WEco is funded by multiple donors. Its editorial policy and donor list can be viewed at

Defining The Water Desk’s scope and water journalism

“Water journalism? What’s that?”

I’ve triggered this response from people on chairlifts, airplanes and other places I tend to meet strangers.

When folks ask what I do, I tell them I’m working on a water journalism initiative at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Unless the other person is a media professional or a water wonk, my statement is apt to draw a quizzical look.

Average citizens know about “political” journalism, “sports” journalism, “business” journalism and other sub-disciplines that sometimes warrant separate sections in newspapers, or even publications unto themselves. But water journalism isn’t as well known—at least not yet.

water journalism drone photo
Drone view of rafters on the Colorado River, near Radium, Colorado. Photo by Mitch Tobin

For folks who are initially confused about water journalism, it usually doesn’t take long for them to get the concept. They start to think about water pollution and episodes like the lead poisoning in Flint. They recall the many news stories they’ve seen or heard about extreme droughts and floods whipsawing places like California and Colorado in recent years.

Public opinion surveys show most people don’t know where their water comes from beyond a general notion that it’s some river, reservoir and/or well. All too many of us take water for granted, because at least for now in the United States, the vast majority of citizens—but certainly not all—have a water supply that is clean, reliable and relatively affordable.

But if you’re one of the unfortunate people in this country or elsewhere whose water supply isn’t safe and secure, the subject can be impossible to ignore and warrants as much attention as possible from journalists, politicians and others. Just in California, home to one of the greatest concentrations of wealth and economic activity on the planet, around 1 million people are exposed to unsafe drinking water; globally, billions of people lack access to safe drinking water, managed sanitation or basic handwashing facilities, according to the World Health Organization.

Non-human species also depend on water for their survival, but here at home and around the globe, we have utterly transformed aquatic and riparian habitat by damming, diverting, depleting, defiling and destroying streams, rivers and underground aquifers, not to mention heating up the planet and spreading invasive species all over the place.

More than ever, we need water journalism to not only explore and expose these complex problems but also explain potential solutions to the public and policymakers. Unfortunately, the demand for more and better water journalism is coming at a time when the media landscape has been rocked to its core by tectonic shifts in how people consume news and access information.

With journalists continuing to be laid off and entire publications still collapsing on a regular basis, The Water Desk is starting up at a pivotal moment for both the news industry and the water sector.

Shining a light on a murky field

When you think about how important water is to every person on Earth, devoting more news coverage to the decisions, policymakers and institutions responsible for our water resources seems like a journalistic no-brainer.

A central goal of water journalism is to shed light on this critical yet murky part of our world in order to expand public understanding of water issues so that individuals, businesses, governments and other entities can make better-informed decisions about the most precious of natural resources.

In essence, water journalists need to constantly remind their audience that they shouldn’t, in fact, take their water for granted. Actually, they should care deeply about where their water comes from, what’s in it, how it’s used, what it costs, where it goes, who’s calling the shots and how human demands for water are affecting nature.

water journalism denver photo
Sloan’s Lake in Denver. Photo by Mitch Tobin

Most of us, myself included, need a better grasp on a slippery concept: water is embedded in virtually every product we buy—from beer to tomatoes to jeans to phones to cars. In addition to our carbon footprints, we also have water footprints.

Saying you’re a water journalist may not seem like the best icebreaker, but if you start talking about water issues, it turns out that many people are keenly interested in the subject. The word “important” comes up constantly, and that’s borne out by a spate of public opinion polls conducted over a span of decades. These surveys have consistently shown that water is at the top of Americans’ environmental and health concerns.

For example, in an April 2016 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Americans said contaminated water was as serious a health problem as heroin abuse (for more on water-related public opinion, please see my previous project,

water journalism poll slide
In this poll, Americans said contaminated water was as serious a health problem as heroin abuse. Source: Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll

Year after year, decade after decade, surveys conducted by Gallup have found that pollution of drinking water, rivers, streams and lakes rank much higher than other environmental concerns, such as climate change and the loss of biodiversity.

But it’s not just pollution that evokes worries. Especially in more arid places like the American West, where The Water Desk is focusing its work, the increasingly dubious supply of water also troubles the majority of residents. The Conservation in the West Poll, produced by Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project, has found Westerners of all political stripes are concerned about low water levels in rivers and think our water supplies are getting less predictable.

water journalism poll slide 2
Westerners of all political stripes are concerned about low water levels in rivers and think our water supplies are getting less predictable. Source: Conservation in the West Poll

As someone who has tried to explain water journalism and fundraise for it, I sometimes hear variants of the line that “water isn’t sexy.” Not so! It’s true that water issues can be as dry as dust. It’s easy to get bogged down in a quagmire of laws, hydrology, engineering and local politics.

But if you actually start covering water issues, as I did frequently as a newspaper reporter in California and Arizona from 1998 to 2006, you quickly realize that water does, in fact, animate your audience and inspire passionate reactions. Sitting through a five-hour hearing on sewer rates is unlikely to stimulate any erogenous zones, but nowadays I think water journalism is as exciting and important as any beat: we’re covering the lifeblood of every economy, ecosystem and community just as the entire hydrologic cycle of the planet is being amped up by climate change. Sounds pretty juicy to me.

Fresh water is scarce on the blue planet

Despite freshwater’s importance—and rarity—on Earth, water issues are typically ignored unless there’s an immediate crisis, such as a drought, flood or contamination episode. One of my favorite visual summaries of water issues is this cartoon from the National Drought Mitigation Center that depicts the “hydro-illogical cycle.”

water journalism hydro-illogical cycle
This cartoon from the National Drought Mitigation Center depicts the “hydro-illogical cycle.” Source: National Drought Mitigation Center

Here in the United States, it’s easy for most people to forget about water outside of a crisis. But if you’ve ever spent time in the developing world, suffered in a natural disaster, backpacked in the desert or lived in one of the disadvantaged communities where clean water is a luxury, you know there’s nothing more critical and visceral than water. In fact, up to 60% of our bodies consist of the stuff, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

You can live for weeks, even months or years, without adequate food, clothing or shelter. Deprived of water, you’re speeding toward a horrible death in a matter of days.

If there are any extraterrestrials spying on the Earth, I wouldn’t be surprised if they refer to our home as the “blue planet” or “water world” since about 71% of the surface is covered by the liquid. When astronomers and astrobiologists scan the heavens looking for possible life on other planets and their moons, they’re often looking for liquid water since it is, to the best of our knowledge, a prerequisite for life.

Our home planet, said to resemble a blue marble from space, is mostly covered with water, but the supply of freshwater that we can actually drink is minuscule by comparison. In the visualization below from the U.S. Geological Survey and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the largest blue sphere shows all of the water on, inside and above the Earth, nearly all of it saltwater in the oceans. The volume of liquid freshwater is a tiny fraction of that: the second largest sphere over Kentucky is only 169.5 miles in diameter. And that tiny dot located around Atlanta you may not even be able to see? That sphere, just 35 miles across, represents all of the freshwater in the world’s rivers and lakes.

water journalism the world's water
That tiny dot located around Atlanta you may not even be able to see? That sphere, just 35 miles across, represents all of the freshwater in the world’s rivers and lakes. Source: U.S. Geological Survey

Our rivers and lakes are the most obvious and visible manifestation of our freshwater resources, but the graphic below shows why this supply is so scarce. Oceans account for 96.5% of all the water on Earth, and nearly all of the remaining water is either saline, locked up in glaciers and ice caps, or buried under ground, sometimes at depths that aren’t economical for pumping. Much of the freshwater that’s left over is ice and permafrost (at least for now).

where is earth's water slide
Oceans account for 96.5% of all the water on Earth, and nearly all of the remaining water is either saline, locked up in glaciers and ice caps, or buried under ground. Source: U.S. Geological Survey

Follow the water

Water is an essential, scarce commodity that we all need to survive. That sounds like another substance: money.

To find truth, journalists are supposed to “follow the money,” a famous line from the 1976 film All the President’s Men. (The phrase actually isn’t in Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s book about the Watergate investigation but was apparently uttered in a congressional hearing in 1974.)

“Follow the money” is sound advice because money is something that journalists, detectives, auditors and others seeking facts can at least try to count and track.

“Follow the water” is how one might summarize the goal of water journalism. Just as the “sports desk” at a newspaper covers the hometown teams and the “business desk” is for reporters and editors who track the economy, a “water desk” is supposed to follow this all-mighty substance as it flows throughout our economy and environment.

Today, it’s rare for general interest media outlets, such as newspapers, radio and TV, to dedicate an entire position to covering water. Many publications lump water coverage into the “environment” beat, which can also encompass a staggering number of other issues: climate, energy, wildlife, wildfires, development, public lands, air quality and more.

Defining water coverage as solely a sub-discipline of “environmental journalism” can pose some challenges. Don’t get me wrong: I think environmental issues are paramount in the water world. The Water Desk is based at the Center for Environmental Journalism, and I’m a card-carrying member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

But water is more than just an “environmental” topic to be covered by “environmental journalists.” To be sure, the subject is immersed in green issues—climate change, biodiversity, pollution, growth and so on. But water stories can and should cover plenty of other terrain: it is a “business” and “economics” story because water it is crucial to everything from global supply chains to mountain-town economies, including the $1.4 trillion in annual economic output fueled by the Colorado River and its tributaries. It’s a “government” and “politics” story since public policies are so pivotal and many key decisions are made by government agencies or quasi-public entities.

Given that each of us depends on drinking and eating to survive, and most of us pay to use water, there are also “consumer,” “food” and “agriculture” dimensions to water journalism. Water is an “energy” story because there is such a strong nexus between the two sectors: fossil fuel and nuclear power plants require gobs of water while our waterworks demand tons of energy to treat, pump and move water.

Water journalism can also have a major “recreation” or “sports” component: think of all the publications that focus on leisure-time activities dependent on clean, reliable water, be it liquid or frozen. In many communities, the rivers, streams, lakes and snowpack are essential to not only the local economy but also the culture, so water generates plenty of stories for the “lifestyle” or “weekend” section of a publication.

I’m usually not a fan of quote marks, but I’ve added them above because so often our journalism and other narratives are shoe-horned into such categories. I want water journalism to transcend these quotational buckets and cover all of the above to ensure that the public understands what everyone in the water field knows in their gut: water is intertwined with nearly everything and is absolutely integral to life. As 12-term Colorado Congressman Wayne Aspinall once said, “In the West, when you touch water, you touch everything.”

aspinall quote photo
A memorial to Wayne Aspinall in Palisade, Colorado. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

Defining our geographic scope

The Water Desk is all about water in its manifold forms and functions: source of life, basis for food, feedstock of the economy, not to mention fun stuff to fish, ski, and paddle.

One of the tricky yet fascinating aspects about covering water is that it’s constantly moving around and being reused downstream. Water is also the ultimate shape-shifter: the liquid can freeze solid, then sublimate into vapor, then condense back into liquid, then evaporate into the sky before precipitating—and on it goes around the globe. Fog, drop, flake, glacier, river, ocean, cloud—water transmogrifies through an amazing variety of forms ranging from the microscopic to the hemispheric.

While acknowledging the planetary nature of the hydrologic cycle, we have more humble and realistic ambitions for our work at The Water Desk. At least for starters, we’re focusing our coverage and grantmaking on just one part of North America.

Broadly speaking, The Water Desk is interested in a field that is often described as “Western water” or “water in the West.” As I discuss below, our focus is even a bit narrower since we are concentrating on the drier, Southwestern portion of the region, but suffice to say that among hydrologists, lawyers, policymakers, funders, publishers, conference planners and others, there is a field known as “Western water” that concerns management of the resource west of the 100th Meridian, the longitude that has traditionally marked the start of the more arid region where irrigation is necessary to support agriculture.

For this iconic demarcation, we can thank John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran and second director of the U.S. Geological Survey who explored the Green River and Colorado River in an epic expedition 150 years ago. The map below, from an 1891 USGS report, shows how Powell defined the arid region, which excludes the wetter areas of the Pacific Northwest and Northern California.

powell map photo
This 1891 map shows how John Wesley Powell defined the arid West, which excludes the wetter areas of the Pacific Northwest and Northern California. Source: U.S. Geological Survey’s 11th Annual Report, 1891

Despite the primitive technology of his time, Powell was onto something. The map below visualizes the 30-year average of precipitation across the United States from 1981 to 2010. I’ve superimposed the approximate location of the 100th Meridian, which really does demarcate a much drier portion of the nation, especially if you exclude the wetter Pacific Northwest.

precipitation map

The 100th Meridian (line added by author) has traditionally demarcated a much drier portion of the nation. Data source: PRISM Group, Oregon State University

But before you get too attached to the 100th Meridian, you should know that it has become obsolete due to climate change. Recent research has found that drier conditions have spread east by some 140 miles. It’s one of many climate zones around the world that are on the move in the Anthropocene, the modern epoch in which humans are transforming virtually every natural process on the planet.

In 2019, “beyond the 98th Meridian” might be the better definition for Western water issues. In fact, the issue of aridification—a long-term drying of the region due to changing temperatures and precipitation patterns—is fertile ground for some great journalism.

Although the West has the nation’s driest weather, one of the many awesome features about the region is that it simultaneously boasts the lowest- and highest-elevation terrain, as shown in the left map below. In fact, just 85 miles separates the top of Mount Whitney and the bottom of Death Valley, the highest and lowest spots in the 48 states. Not only that: the West is also home to some of nation’s hottest and coldest mean temperatures, as shown in the right map.

elevation and temperature map
One of the many awesome features about the region is that it simultaneously boasts the lowest- and highest-elevation terrain, as shown in the left map. The West is also home to some of nation’s hottest and coldest mean temperatures, as shown on the right. Data source: PRISM Group, Oregon State University

Focus on the Colorado River Basin

The Water Desk is concentrating on issues west of the ~98th Meridian, where the relative scarcity of freshwater and the region’s more recent development has yielded a legal landscape and physical infrastructure that’s distinct from the political and hydrologic regimes back East. Within this sprawling and diverse geography, we are focusing on a smaller region centered on the Colorado River Basin.

The emphasis on the Colorado River Basin and surrounding areas stems in part from the priorities of our initial funder, the Walton Family Foundation, which has a large grantmaking program in the region. The Water Desk maintains a strict editorial firewall between its editorial content and its funders, but the foundation’s grant does specify the broad geography we should focus on (for more on the foundation’s role in Colorado River issues, see this series from Jeremy Jacobs of Greenwire).

Focusing on the seven states of the Colorado River Basin and Northwest Mexico leaves out a big chunk of the West, and we mean no disrespect to our friends in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. But with the limited resources of a start-up, we’d be on a fool’s errand to extend our coverage to that part of the country. If, however, The Water Desk can acquire additional financial support, I can easily imagine expanding to the Pacific Northwest, Texas or other regions! 

The graphic below from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation illustrates the hydrologic boundaries of the Colorado River Basin and also adds another critical dimension: areas beyond the physical watershed that still depend on the river and its tributaries for their water supply, at least in part (see this post for more maps of the basin).

Colorado River Basin Map
This map illustrates the hydrologic boundaries of the Colorado River Basin and adds another critical dimension: areas beyond the physical watershed that still depend on the river and its tributaries for their water supply, at least in part. Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

In and around the Colorado River Basin, we built herculean dams that turned rivers into reservoirs. We bored colossal tunnels through mountains. And we constructed a sprawling network of infrastructure to not only to move water uphill to desert cities such as Phoenix and Tucson but also to export the Colorado River beyond the watershed’s boundaries to supply Denver, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City and Southern California.

Basin states: one-fifth of U.S. population and economy

As director of The Water Desk, I can assure you that the region around the Colorado River Basin is more than enough to keep us occupied. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the seven basin states had 61.3 million residents in 2018, or 18.7% of the nation. Nearly two-thirds of the basin’s population lives in California, which is home to almost one in eight Americans. Looking at economic activity, the basin’s GDP of $4.2 trillion accounts for 20.3% of the national total, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.  

Within these seven states lie extremes in climate, topography, wealth, politics and people. The map below, which I created using data from The Nature Conservancy, shows that this one part of the country is also home to a tremendous diversity of ecoregions.

The West's terrestrial ecoregions
This one part of the country is also home to a tremendous diversity of ecoregions. Data source: The Nature Conservancy

The West boasts an impressive spectrum of weather, elevation, vegetation, geology and cultures. But one thing that unifies the region is its rapid population growth over the past century or so. The Colorado River Basin accounted for just 2% of the U.S. population in 1850, when only a half-million people lived in the region that would eventually encompass seven states. Today, it seems like I see a half-million people in a single morning on Colorado’s I-70 while driving up to the mountains to ski a powder day. 

Population of Colorado River Basin States

A fundamental dilemma facing water in the West is that the region’s meteoric growth rate has deposited millions of people in places where there’s not a whole lot of water available without massive human interventions, which tend to be economically and environmentally costly. Most of California’s water is in the northern half of the state, but far more people live down south; in Colorado, most of the precipitation falls to the west of the Continental Divide, but the great majority of the population lives on the other side of the mountains.

Population growth and climate change are some of the defining challenges for the American West, especially its water resources. But there are certainly other threats, such as the armada of invasive fish, plants, crustaceans and other non-native species that are causing chaos in ecosystems already disrupted by human activity. In many areas, critical water infrastructure is crumbling and in need of expensive repairs.

As any water journalist will tell you, there is no shortage of news in the field and trying to keep up with it all can feel like drinking from a firehose. It’s our job to distill that ocean of information into something digestible for average citizens. Compared to guns, immigration, health care and other political issues, water may not be top of mind for most people, but I think there’s a deep reservoir of interest and concern in the public that we should be tapping into.

I hope you’ll come aboard and join us on this journey as we follow water issues! If you’d like to stay connected, please sign up for our email newsletter and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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