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POWELL, ASPINALL FORECASTS
The Bureau of Reclamation’s April 14 forecast of April – July unregulated inflow into Lake Powell is 5.3 million acre-feet, or 74% of average. Forecasted inflow to Blue Mesa Reservoir over the same period is 515,000 acre-feet, or 76% of the 30-year average. Details on inflows and operations of these reservoirs and others in the Colorado River Storage Project can be found here.
Published on Mar 17, 2016
What’s happening to the Colorado River is tragedy on an epic scale – for the Native Americans whose water has been poisoned; for a western United States parched by drought and sliding towards chronic, irreversible water shortage; for the planet as a whole, as the rapidity with which the river is drying up is signaling how climate change is already reshaping our world.
Collectively’s Cayte Bosler traces the stories along the course of the Colorado from the air – joining a group of students and Aspen’s Eco-Flight project, who are working to raise awareness of, and find solutions for, the source of this iconic river’s alarming decline.
PUEBLO – A big question in Colorado is how much water is left to divert and use from the Colorado River before levels drop too low in Lake Powell to make hydropower and deliver water downstream. The answer to that question is of interest not only to water-planning roundtables on the west slope, but on the east slope as well.
Last week, three east slope roundtables, the South Platte, Metro and Arkansas, chose members to sit on a technical advisory committee that is preparing a study on how much water is left to develop on the Western Slope while still keeping the Glen Canyon Dam functioning as it does today.
The roundtable members from the east slope are all senior officials at major water providers including Denver Water, Aurora Water, Colorado Springs Utilities and Pueblo Board of Water Works.
The level of officials eager to join in on what started as a west slope study of the issue is an indication of how important is the question, and the potential answers.
The west slope water study, known as the “risk study,” was originally conceived in December 2014 at a meeting of the four west slope roundtables, which include the Colorado, Yampa, Gunnison, and Dolores, San Miguel and San Juan (or Southwest) roundtables.
The west slope roundtables, especially the Yampa and the Gunnison, found they were not in agreement about future water development on the Western Slope, but they did agree on the need for more information.
“They needed to have a better understanding of what’s going on, on the river,” said Eric Kuhn, the general manager of the Colorado River District, during a Feb. 23 meeting of the Interbasin Compact Committee in Broomfield.
The IBCC includes representatives from each of the state’s nine basin roundtables and serves as a statewide water policy advisory board.
Upon recently learning of the west slope study, the three east slope roundtables asked to be included, which the west slope then agreed to.
“We always intended that this would be open and transparent, and open to the east slope roundtables,” Kuhn told the IBCC members, explaining that the original plan was to invite the three non-voting out-of-basin members serving on the Colorado and Gunnison roundtables to participate in the study.
But those out-of-basin seats, originally set up in 2005, have fallen out of use on the roundtables, so it was agreed to ask the east slope roundtables to choose their own committee members.
And the South Platte, Metro and Arkansas roundtables each met last week and did just that.
The South Platte roundtable assigned three people: Kevin Lusk, a senior engineer from Colorado Springs Utilities and the president of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co.; Jim Yahn, the manager of the North Sterling Irrigation District and a South Platte representative on the IBCC; and Jerry Gibbens, a project manager and water resource engineer at Northern Water.
The Arkansas roundtable also selected three members: James Broderick, executive director of Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District; Brett Gracely, manager of Colorado Springs Utilities; and Terry Book, executive director of Pueblo Board of Water Works.
And the Metro roundtable assigned four members: Mark Waage, manager of water resources planning at Denver Water, who is also an IBCC member; Joe Stribrich, planning director at Aurora Water and an IBCC member; Eric Hecox, executive director of the South Metro Water Supply Authority and Kerry Sundeen, a principal engineer and consultant at Wilson Water.
At the IBCC meeting on Feb. 23, Waage thanked the west slope roundtables for allowing east slope participation in the study.
“I think there just was a period of ‘what are they doing, what’s going on,” Waage said. “And the fact that you guys are open to including us is really helpful.
“We would really like to deal with this issue on a statewide basin if we can and in concert with the four other upper basin states,” Waage added. “The east slope feels pretty strongly that that’s our best position. And we ought to always seek that approach rather than a east versus west kind of thing.”
The Colorado River District is managing the study and is seeking state funding on behalf of the participants to help pay for it.
The four west slope roundtables each have approved $8,000 in state funding from their basin accounts, totaling $32,000.
The River District and the Southwest Water Conservancy District have each agreed to put in $10,000, for a total study cost of $52,000.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board is expected to approve the $32,000 in state funding at its next regular meeting on March 16 in La Junta.
Tied to framework
The main question the study will seek to answer is, “What is the likelihood of the elevation of Lake Powell going below 3,525 feet under selected water supply and water demand scenarios?”
The cited level of 3,525 feet in elevation is just above the “minimum power pool” level in Lake Powell of 3,490 feet.
If water levels fall below that, then the upper basin states will have trouble delivering enough water to lower basin states to meet their collective obligation under the Colorado River compact.
And a “curtailment” call could then come up the river and some of the biggest water providers on the east slope could be forced to stop diverting west slope water.
“We need to keep in mind that 20 to 25 percent of our consumptive use of Colorado River water is on the east slope,” Waage said. “The majority of those post-compact rights that would be curtailed are on the east slope.”
And that’s why the study is called the “risk study,” as in what’s the risk of triggering a compact call by taking more water out of the Colorado River?
Kuhn said the study is tied to point number four in the conceptual framework, which was developed last year by the IBCC to guide negotiations over a potential new transmountain diversion project.
Point four, as cited in the Colorado Water Plan, says that “a collaborative program that protects against involuntary curtailment is needed for existing uses and some reasonable increment of future development in the Colorado River System, but it will not cover a new TMD.”
In other words, before the state’s water sector builds a new transmountain diversion, it should figure out how it’s going to keep enough water in Lake Powell.
“Those are lots of variables here, so this isn’t a simple effort,” Kuhn told the IBCC about the risk study. “There’s hydrology, demand levels, what’s happening in other states. So you’ve got four or five different variables and there are lots of permutations of different outcomes.”
Kuhn said the study would build on information gathered as part of several other ongoing exploratory efforts.
One effort is a water banking investigation, now 10 years in the making, that is looking at ways ranchers and water providers could use less water in a drought.
An offshoot of that effort is an ongoing two-year “system conservation” pilot program to pay Western Slope ranchers and others to leave water in the upper Colorado River system to flow toward Lake Powell.
Kuhn said the exploratory efforts are important because “at some point in order to maintain reservoir levels in Lake Powell, in order to maintain the system, in order to accomplish framework point number four, which is to avoid a curtailment, we’re going to have to reduce our demands,” Kuhn said.
A third ongoing effort is “contingency planning,” which is studying how to use water released from federal upstream reservoirs, including Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa, to keep Lake Powell at a certain level.
“What this four-basin roundtable study will do is collect what we’ve done, and educate people on what it is we’re doing, and what the trade-offs are,” Kuhn said.
Jeris Danielson, the manager of the Purgatoire Water Conservancy District and an Arkansas roundtable member, asked Kuhn if the west slope intended to postpone discussion at the IBCC level of a new TMD until the risk study was complete.
Kuhn said the study should be finished by the end of the summer, and that it made sense to develop a common understanding about how the Colorado River works before talking about a new TMD.
“You’ve got to bring the experts, the people who work in this business, up to a common level of understanding before they can have a common platform to help educate everyone else,” he said.
Editor’s note: Aspen journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of rivers and water in Colorado. The Daily News published this story on Monday, March 14, 2016.
Federal forecasters have downgraded their projections for the Colorado River after an unusually hot, dry February that has increased the likelihood of a first-ever shortage declaration at Lake Mead.
Forecasters are now predicting the arrival of shortage conditions at the nation’s largest man-made reservoir in January 2018.
Just a month ago, forecasters expected Lake Mead to narrowly avoid the shortage line for at least the next two years. But Paul Miller, a senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center in Salt Lake City, said that all changed after a “historically dry” February in the mountains that feed the Colorado.
Some monitoring sites in the region logged their lowest February precipitation totals on record, Miller said…
In early February, federal forecasters were predicting that the Colorado would carry about 94 percent of its average flow during the all-important April-July time frame, when mountain snowmelt collects in Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border.
That estimate has dropped to 80 percent of average in the latest forecast released Monday by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which now expects Lake Mead to shrink just enough to start 2018 below the all-important shortage line.
A federal shortage declaration would force Nevada to reduce its Colorado River water use by 4 percent while Arizona and Mexico take larger cuts.
The Las Vegas Valley draws 90 percent of its water from Lake Mead. According to the Southern Nevada Water Authority, a 4 percent cut won’t impact the community because residents have already reduced their water consumption by about 30 percent in response to the drought.
The worsening outlook for this year comes despite a powerful El Niño some predicted would soak the Southwest and improve conditions on the Colorado. Instead, Miller said, the Pacific Ocean climate pattern has soaked the Pacific Northwest and delivered some snow to the Sierra Nevada range in California and Northern Nevada.
“It’s been a very atypical El Niño event,” he said.
Barring a sudden turnaround, 2016 will mark the 13th year of below-average flows on the Colorado River since 2000.
In March of that year, Lake Mead was close to full with a surface elevation of 1,211 feet above sea level. The surface of the reservoir has fallen almost 130 feet since then, and forecasters expect it drop another 10 feet by this time next year.
What’s happening on the river comes as no surprise to Connie Woodhouse, a researcher from the University of Arizona in Tucson.
She just authored a report, published last week, that shows a strong link between higher temperatures and reduced flows in the Colorado.
Woodhouse and company found that over the past three decades or so, average temperatures in the upper Colorado River Basin have been increasing during the March-through-July “runoff season,” and that can have a significant impact on how much water ends up in the river.
“What we’re seeing since the 1980s is that temperature plays a larger role in stream flow and in exacerbating drought,” Woodhouse said.
The study, based on data from from 1906 to 2012, was co-authored by Stephanie McAfee of the University of Nevada, Reno and scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research.
Just how much more water can be drawn from the rivers that originate near Winter Park, Breckenridge, and Aspen, as well as Crested Butte, Telluride, and Durango, before the electrical supply powering the ski lifts gets wobbly?
That sounds a bit like a zen koan, but in fact, it’s at the heart of a discussion now underway in Colorado. The Colorado River that originates in those mountain towns is already heavily tapped by local farms. Then there’s the matter of the giant straws that convey 450,000 to 600,000 acre-feet per year to Denver, Colorado Springs, and other cities at the base of the Rocky Mountains as well as other farms on the Great Plains.
There’s only so much water in the Colorado River, and its use is strictly governed by interstate compacts: a 1948 compact apportioning use among the headwaters states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. More importantly, those four upper-basin states are obligated to allow roughly half the water in the Colorado River to flow downstream from Lake Powell and through the Grand Canyon, to the lower-basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada, as well as to Mexico.
Just how much water remains to be developed in Colorado, whether for ski areas, cannabis farms, or Front Range cities? Nobody really knows.
But an upcoming $50,000 study funded by several organizations from the Western Slope of Colorado aims to get a better answer. Aspen Journalism reports that water organizations on Colorado’s Eastern Slope also want to get involved.
Chris Treese, the external affairs manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, recently explained the dynamics. If Lake Powell drops so low it can’t produce hydropower, he said, it also means the dam will not be able to release enough water to meet its rolling 10-year obligation under the 1922 Colorado River Water Compact.
“The earlier crisis point—and I don’t think that’s overstating it – is when Lake Powell falls to a level that is below the point where power can be produced through the dam,” Treese explained. That, in turn, means there’s too little water in Lake Powell to release the 8.23 million acre-feet required to meet the compact obligations.
Aspen Journalism explains that this call for a more definitive study has been spurred by a disagreement among river basins on Colorado’s Western Slope. The Yampa-White River Basin (includes Steamboat Springs) wants to reserve the right to dam and divert more water. The Gunnison Basin (includes Crested Butte) is concerned it will hasten what is called a “compact call,” or reduced water use in all basins.
And about that electricity? The turbines at Glen Canyon Dam, which creates Lake Powell, produce massive amounts of electricity, along with those at other dams in the West. This low-cost (and non-carbon) electricity is then distributed to utilities that serve many of the ski towns in Colorado and other states, too.
LONGMONT — An official body representing South Platte River water users wants a say in a pending study of how much more can be diverted from Western Slope rivers before Lake Powell drops to a level that stops the turbines in Glen Canyon Dam and makes it harder to meet downstream flow obligations.
“Since we’re involved with the Colorado-Big Thompson project, the largest transmountain diversion in the state, we’re very interested in the results of this study,” Jim Hall, a senior water resources engineer at Northern Water, told his fellow members of the South Platte Basin Roundtable on Feb. 9 in Longmont.
The West Slope water study has been proposed by the Colorado River District and the Southwest Water Conservancy District in coordination with the four West Slope basin roundtables — the Colorado, Gunnison, Yampa-White and Southwest roundtables.
And while the study is meant to answer questions about water availability for the West Slope groups, the information produced will likely be of interest to water providers from San Diego to Greeley.
“I’ve heard input from East Slope roundtable folks that, more than anything, they just want to be engaged in the process and be involved,” said Joe Frank, the South Platte roundtable chair and director of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District.
The East Slope roundtables include the South Platte, Metro, Arkansas, North Platte and Rio Grande.
Officials in Aspen may also be interested in the result of the study, as the city’s municipal electric utility gets a small share of its power from Glen Canyon Dam.
Additionally, the Roaring Fork and Fryngpan rivers are at the heart of the broader issue, as local water either flows downstream toward Lake Powell or is sent east to the Front Range through transmountain diversions and subject to the terms of the Colorado River compact.
Chris Treece, the external affairs manager for the Colorado River District, told the South Platte roundtable on Feb. 9 if Lake Powell drops so low it can’t produce hydropower, it also means the dam will not be able release enough water to meet its rolling 10-year obligation under the compact.
“The earlier crisis point, and I don’t think that’s overstating it, is when Lake Powell falls to a level that is below the point where power can be produced through the dam,” Treece explained to the roundtable, after being asked to describe the reasons for the West Slope water study.
“That inevitability leads, without a reverse in the hydrology, to compact administration because when the water levels are low enough that they cannot be released through the power plant, through the turbines, the other release points from Lake Powell are insufficient to release 8.23 million acre feet every year,” Treece said.
“So that means we will get to a point where we are below the 75 million acre-feet, absent a change in the hydrology, absent several good years that really break the drought,” Treece said, referring to how much water is to be released on a ten-year rolling average. “So we’re looking at that and just trying to figure out, what is the water availability?”
“Compact administration” would send a call up the river from California and other lower basin states for those in the upper basin with post-1922 water rights, including large Front Range water providers, to stop diverting water from the Colorado River basin, which includes the Roaring Fork Valley.
The prospect of a “compact call” has also put the Yampa-White and Gunnison roundtables at odds over how best to respond. The Yampa basin wants to reserve the right to dam and divert more water, but if it does, the Gunnison basin is concerned it will hasten such a call.
“The issues framing the need for technical data include the Yampa-White’s call for a ‘development carve-out’ and the Gunnison’s position that development of any sort, any place poses a risk to all current users,” states the proposal for the study, which was prepared by the Colorado River District.
“The purpose of this first phase of technical data development is not meant to answer all of the questions surrounding Colorado River development but to get the four (West Slope) roundtables to a common platform to have fruitful discussions,” the proposal also states. “It is meant to create a starting line.”
The first question the study proposes to answer refers to a pivotal level of water in the current operating guidelines for Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam.
“What is the likelihood of the elevation of Lake Powell going below 3,525 feet under selected water supply and water demand scenarios?” the study will seek to answer.
The cited level of 3,525 feet is just above “minimum power pool” level of 3,490 feet.
On Feb. 12 the reservoir was at 3,595.46 feet in elevation, or 46.55 percent full. The reservoir, managed by the Bureau of Reclamation, can hold 24.3 million acre-feet of water when full at the 3,700-foot level. By way of comparison, Ruedi Reservoir, on the Fryingpan River above Basalt, can hold about 100,000 acre-feet.
“Evaluate how often and by how much water users in the upper basin and specifically Colorado would have to reduce demand to maintain Lake Powell elevation above 3,525 feet,” is the second task in the study.
The third task is to “provide an indication of the ‘risk’ to existing Colorado River water users (West Slope and transmountain diversions).”
Southwestern Water and the Colorado River District have each agreed to contribute $10,000 to the study and the four Western Slope roundtables are being asked to put in $8,000 each.
The proposal for the study is expected to be reviewed in March by the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which oversees the roundtables’ spending. The study is to be prepared by Hydros Consulting in Boulder.
South Platte wants in
“I guess we feel like we should be involved in the work, in support of it,” Hall from Northern Water said at the roundtable meeting. “And it’s only fair that the East Slope roundtables, as they are big users of Colorado River water, should contribute financially and also participate in working with consultants as far as looking at this issue, which is perhaps the number one issue within Colorado water right now.”
Kevin Lusk, who represents El Paso County on the South Platte roundtable and is a principal engineer at Colorado Springs Utilities, seconded Hall’s suggestion.
Lusk is also the president of the Twin Lakes Reservoir and Canal Co., which diverts water from the upper Roaring Fork River basin via a tunnel from Grizzly Reservoir.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to work together to look at these critical issues,” Lusk said. “It’s been on the top of everybody’s mind, that has a transmountain diversion, for years. I just think it is very important to work together to figure where this thing is going and what we can do about it. And I think having some East Slope folks at the table can help make sure that the right assumptions are made.”
Treece, of the Colorado River District, found himself in the position of being offered money for a study.
“There isn’t a study out there that can’t be grown,” Treece said, to knowing laughter from the roundtable members, most of whom are water managers and owners.
But, he also said, “We’re funded right now.”
Treece told the roundtable members he had talked with representatives of the Front Range Water Council, which include Denver Water and Aurora Water, about the study at the Colorado Water Congress convention in late January.
“We’re not trying to create or maintain an exclusive study or hold back any of the information,” Treece said. “We recognize that everybody has an interest in this.”
Nonetheless, the South Platte roundtable later directed its chair, Frank, to talk with Colorado roundtable chair Jim Pokrandt, also of the Colorado River District, and seek a seat on the study’s technical committee and to offer again to help fund the effort.
While not included in the roundtable’s motion, there was also a brief discussion of the South Platte roundtable possibly asking the CWCB, when it reviews the proposal, to directly invite the S. Platte roundtable to help fund the study.
Colorado River Compact signing November 24, 1922. Credit: Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior
This year, as you’re brining your turkey or traveling to see family and friends, realize that today, November 24, is the 93rd anniversary of the 1922 Colorado River Compact signing.
Colorado’s Delph Carpenter joined with other members of the Colorado River Commission at the signing of the compact on this historical day. The signing took place in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover presiding.
From CFWE’s Citizen’s Guide to Colorado’s Interstate Compacts, with a updated version now available for preorder:
Although subject to intense negotiation among the seven Colorado River Basin states, the compact, signed in 1922, is simple in concept. It apportions the right to consume water from the river and its tributaries between the upper basin states and the lower basin states. The dividing point between the…