After years of drought, Colorado water bosses face uncertainty

On June 1, a spark near the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gage Railroad ignited a flame in the Animas River gorge north of Durango. The fire would burn for weeks, torching more than 55,000 acres and filling the air with smoke.

Then came the rain.

“Mother Nature is the one that really helped out,” Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District told a group of water experts and planners at the Colorado Water Congress in Vail this week.

But Mother Nature also wreaked havoc. As the rainwater hit the burn scar and flowed along the dry surface into the Animas and its tributaries, the ash and debris it brought down with it suffocated fish and clogged irrigation ditches, Whitehead said. It also forced the Durango water utility to shut off its water intake due to high turbidity for several days and instead draw from nearby reservoirs.

The fallout of the 416 Fire is an example of how hotter, drier conditions due to climate change are making it tougher to plan water supplies in Colorado. And it is just one example of how the impacts of drought – and the broader effects of “aridification” – are being felt across the state.

For the first time, Aspen has called for stage 2 mandatory water restrictions. This includes limiting lawn watering to no more than three days a week and running sprinklers no more than 30 minutes a day.

There are currently fishing restrictions — some voluntary, some mandatory — on eight rivers in Colorado because of low flows and high water temperatures. Anglers and rafters who make their living on those rivers have had to limit their trips like never before.

Ranchers are selling off their cattle because drought has limited their natural food supplies and caused hay prices to rise.  

And there is a potential for a first-ever “call” on the Yampa River, which flows through Dinosaur National Monument. That would limit users from drawing upon the Yampa in order to maintain minimum required flow levels.

These developments have brought a sense of anxiety to the annual meeting of statewide water bosses and watchdogs.

“We are not going to be able to rely on the historical hydrology that occured before 2000 to make decisions going forward,” said Lain Leoniak, a water lawyer in the Colorado Attorney General’s office. “This is a Colorado River system problem.”

A NASA report has found that drought conditions are becoming more common in the Western U.S. Several water experts at this week’s conference scoffed at the term “drought,” preferring instead “aridification,” meaning not just a lack of rainfall, but a wholescale transformation of Western land into a drier landscape.

Colorado is expected to warm 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050 due to climate change, according to a Western Water Assessment study. As a parable for what to expect, the Water Congress held a panel discussion about Cape Town, a South African city of four million people that nearly ran out of water earlier this year.

Warmer, drier weather in the West has extended the fire season and made forests more prone to burning. It has also warmed up waterways and increased the rate of evaporation from rivers and reservoirs. This creates challenges for both water quality and quantity.

“I think nature could throw curve balls at us that are on the order of Cape Town,” said Brad Udall, a member of the Colorado River Research Group and a water and climate researcher at Colorado State University (also a former Colorado Independent board member). Udall added that “Day zero” – meaning the day water sources run dry – “happens here potentially because a community has only one water source and that source gets hammered for some reason — be it ash or low flows.”

‘I don’t think we have a choice’

Colorado has a statewide water plan, crafted with great fanfare by Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration. But implementing it has been difficult due to lack of funding and a dearth of knowledge about what to expect in Colorado’s water future.

The Statewide Water Supply Initiative (SWSI), which previously predicted Colorado will run out of water in 2050, began in 2016. A full, updated report is long overdue and now expected in July of 2019.

Russ Sands, senior program manager at the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said population increases and climate change are key factors that determine water supply. The SWSI will include a variety of different scenarios with different water forecasts. Sands said he hopes it will help water planners better prepare for climate change and a variety of potential scenarios.

One scenario is already playing out. Spring snowmelt now comes one to four weeks earlier than it did about three decades ago, according to a 2018 report by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization. Given earlier seasonal peak snowpack runoff, one strategy is to store the water in a reservoir.

John Porco, the president of the San Juan Water Conservation District, has been trying to build such a reservoir on a diversion off the San Juan River near Pagosa Springs. The project is known as the San Juan Headwaters Project, and previously Dry Gulch. It began in earnest following especially dry conditions in 2002. But it lacks community support. Voters in Archuleta County rejected a mill levy increase last November to help fund the project.

Porco said the reservoir is needed to ensure the community can keep the water to which it has a right under Colorado’s complex water law system. It also could be used to regulate flows of the San Juan for fish and wildlife and boaters, he added.

“If things get really bad, we don’t have a backup,” he said of his community’s current drought preparedness.

But conservationists argue that building more water storage is not the silver bullet.

“Storage is just a bucket,” said Abby Burk, western rivers program manager for Audubon Rockies. “It doesn’t create any new water.”

Instead, Burk said water managers need to be thinking about new ideas for conservation and efficiency.

But, as with reservoirs like the one Porco wants to build, there isn’t much money to get these projects off the ground. Most of the money for water conservation projects comes from the state’s tax on oil and gas production, known as the severance tax. But that funding source is proving to be insufficient and far too volatile because it hinges on fluctuations in oil and gas prices. Tax deductions that oil and gas companies claim also have chipped away at revenues, especially since 2016 following a lawsuit brought by BP America.

As a result, funding specifically for the Colorado Water Plan was slashed this year from $10 million to $7 million. Lawmakers also had to use money from Colorado’s sales and income taxes to keep environmental regulatory agencies operating through the next year.

The two major-party candidates running for Colorado governor hinted at a possible funding plan when they spoke to the Water Congress this week.

State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, a Republican, said there are “opportunities for Colorado to expand revenues” through sports betting and medical marijuana, but noted he wants to fund the water plan without raising taxes. He declined an interview for clarification after his speech, leaving through an exit at the side of the ballroom. His spokesperson did not return an emailed request seeking elaboration on how medical marijuana could pay for the water plan without a tax increase.

Congressman Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee for governor, spoke of a stakeholders’ group working on a funding proposal that includes ideas ranging from sports betting to bottle fees. But he did not say how, if elected, he would prefer to fund a water plan that he deems necessary.

“I look forward to hearing your ideas,” he said.

State lawmakers, in the meantime, are considering new funding ideas.

Sen. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose who serves on the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee, mentioned a water bottle tax, a 25-cent per thousand gallon water meter surcharge, and a sales tax as potential other sources of revenue. He also wants to pay back some of the severance tax money used to balance the budget in prior years. According to a February memo by the Joint Budget Committee, $322 million in severance tax dollars have been transferred to the General Fund since 2001.

“I don’t think we have a choice. We’re not producing any more water. We have to manage the water we have,” Corum told The Colorado Independent at the end of this year’s legislative session in May. “We need money to do that.”

Call on the River

A new forecast by the Bureau of Reclamation estimates that Lake Mead – formed behind Hoover Dam to store Colorado River water for the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and California – could fall below a critical level by 2020. Currently, the reservoir is just four and a half feet above 1,075 feet, the point at which Colorado and other Upper Basin states may have to release their share of stored water from Lake Powell into Lake Mead in what would be known as a “call” on the River. The 1922 Colorado River Compact requires the Upper Basin — Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah — to send at least 7.5 million acre-feet per year to the Lower Basin. The so-called Law of the River would require users with newer rights to water to have to give up water first, depending on how curtailments are carried out.

Even so, Eric Kuhn, a retired manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, said compacts are only agreements to agree. He seemed worried about total supplies in a complex Western water law system that divided water rights between Western states nearly a century ago and in which farmers and ranchers often have higher water priority than urban and suburban users.

“Deep uncertainty implies that you have to be flexible,” said Kuhn. “Nature may not care if you have a decree or not.”

Photo of Lake Powell in extreme drought conditions by Andy Pernick, Bureau of Reclamation, via Flickr creative commons

4 COMMENTS

  1. John Porco is president of the San Juan Water Conservancy District. The project was never designated as “the Dry Gulch Project” – the name comes from a quadrangle which describes the reservoir site as “Dry Gulch”. The project name was officially adopted last year as “San Juan River Headwaters Project”.

  2. “Colorado has a statewide water plan, crafted with great fanfare by Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration. But implementing it has been difficult due to lack of funding…”

    What? All that pot tax money, and Colorado government still has problems funding government plans?

    Bureaucrats….if they can find it, they can spend it.
    Better hold onto yer shorts.

  3. @Opus Dei

    The “bureaucrats” as you like to call them simply are following the Constitutional Amendment that spells out how cannabis will be taxed. They have little say in the matter. We the People placed that amendment on the ballot and the electorate passed it.

    And you should express your glee at the lack of funding instead of carping about it – after all TABOR is what you repubs conned us into.

  4. The 416 fire did not burn in the Animas River gorge, it burned on the west side of HWY 550 in the Hermosa Creek drainage.

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