California drought holds lessons for Colorado — the Colorado Independent #COWaterPlan

May 26, 2015
The plains around DIA were parched by the scorching 2012 drought, although groundwater pumping along the South Platte River enabled some farms to continue irrigating -- photo by Bob Berwyn

The plains around DIA were parched by the scorching 2012 drought, although groundwater pumping along the South Platte River enabled some farms to continue irrigating — photo by Bob Berwyn

From the Colorado Independent (Bob Berwyn):

Coloradans are watching California dreams turn to dust during an unrelenting four-year drought. There, the only way some people can get water is off the backs of delivery trucks. Homeowners are digging up backyard swimming pools, tearing up lawns and shaming water-wasting neighbors with calls to TV stations: The family next door has a leaky garden hose. The nightly news actually covers these types of stories.

The Golden State has seen plenty of dry spells over the past few centuries, but this drought is different. It has has spread farther and lasted longer than any other drought on record. And it has spurred the most draconian water-rationing measures in the state’s history.

Governor Jerry Brown ordered a 25 percent cut in urban water use, and proposed fines of up to $10,000 per violation for the biggest water wasters. And this week, California’s water czars said they may order farmers with 100-year-old water rights to give up some of their water. It’s a nearly unthinkable move that would shake the foundation of the state’s water laws and almost certainly trigger fierce courtroom water wars.

The California drought has intensified strife between cities and farms, the northern and southern parts of the state, and social and economic classes — all of which are being watched carefully by nervous leaders in Colorado.

Even with “normal” snow and rain, the state is facing a water crisis, according to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. By 2050, the state will be billions of gallons short of what it needs to sustain its cities, factories, farms and rivers, Hickenlooper said in 2013 when he ordered state agencies to swiftly tackle one of Colorado’s most urgent issues. The final plan, due by the end of this year, is aimed at averting those shortages, and the California drought experience is helping to shape that plan.

A new lawn

This isn’t anything like I saw in Colorado,” says Jenn Ohlsson, who recently moved from Summit County to Riverside, east of Los Angeles, in the scruffy foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, where things are dry even in the best of years.

TV, radio and the newspapers are all sending out a steady barrage of drought info, which is a little annoying at times but ensures that people are thinking about saving water every day, Ohlsson says.

“They even have helicopters flying around to see who’s wasting water,” she says, adding that she’s cut back a bit on water use. She doesn’t know exactly if she’s met the state’s 25 percent target, but she makes sure her dishwasher and washing machine are full before she runs them. She and her husband haven’t given up their backyard pool yet, but they did get a cover to cut evaporation, and they skip showers once in a while, she says.

But some suburban dreams never die, no matter how hot and dry it gets. Ohlsson says her husband’s grandmother planted a new lawn in the backyard of her Riverside house this past spring, just as California’s rainy season ended with a whimper and the lowest snowpack ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

After nearly running out of water during the 2002 drought, the town of Dillon, Colorado worked with state and federal agencies to enlarge an old reservoir to help ensure reliable water supplies during future dry spells. Photo courtesy of Don Sather.

After nearly running out of water during the 2002 drought, the town of Dillon, Colorado worked with state and federal agencies to enlarge an old reservoir to help ensure reliable water supplies during future dry spells. Photo courtesy of Don Sather.

Colorado drought?

So is there really a chance that Colorado could see a drought of similar proportions?

It depends who you ask.

“We all know that multiyear drought has happened before and will happen again,” says state climatologist Nolan Doesken. Even in the best of times, some part of Colorado is either going into drought, in drought, in bad drought, or recovering from drought, but the state always has a couple of weather wildcards, Doesken explains. Just like California, Colorado relies heavily on winter rains to refill rivers, lakes and reservoirs. But, here, rainfall in other seasons can help ease water woes.

“Where we are perched, drought will always look different. We can dodge the bullet more easily than California because we have three wet seasons,” Doesken says. “So our droughts are less likely to persist and are more likely to be interrupted and softened,”

Colorado has, in fact, experienced multiple 3- or 4-year droughts over the last century, including one during the [1930s] Dust Bowl era. The most recent extended drought, from 1953 to 1956, is a modern water-planning benchmark for Colorado against which cities design last-ditch defenses against running out of water, says Jeff Lukas, a Colorado-based scientist with the Western Water Assessment, a university-based research program tracking climate trends in the West.

Colorado’s longer droughts just haven’t been as intense as in California, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be in the future, Lukas says.

“The hitch is that the planning has assumed that a 1950s-type drought is literally the worst-case scenario,” Lukas says. Now, scientists realize that human-caused global warming and natural climate variation could plausibly lead to even-worse-case scenarios.

How does your garden grow?

Lisa Paul, a 30-year California resident, has been through several drought cycles and says she can’t imagine it getting any worse. During a drought back in the 1990s, when she lived in San Francisco, she used a bucket while showering to capture some water for the garden around her downtown Victorian.

This time around, there was little political leadership in the early stages of the drought, when decisive action could have helped ease some of the pain Californians are feeling now, she says.

Two years ago, Paul moved to San Jose, at the south end of San Francisco Bay, and promptly tore out the lawn from around her house in the historic Rose Garden neighborhood and replaced the grass with native plants.

“I scandalized my neighbors,” she said. “They told me I was the most disruptive person ever to move into the neighborhood, just for tearing out the lawn. I had people practically screaming at me, saying, ‘You’re not going to take my lawn away. It’ll make my property value go down.’”

Paul and her husband also own property north of San Francisco, in Sonoma County, where they planted a two-acre “retirement” vineyard just a year before the current drought started. The timing couldn’t have been worse, but they kept at it, partly by capturing rainwater in a 2,000 gallon cistern.

The attitudes in that rural area are different than those she encountered in urban San Jose, she says.

“In Sonoma, all the farmers have been talking about the drought and climate change for years. You will not find a farmer who doesn’t believe in global warming,” Paul says. The farmers know water is everything, and they know where it comes from.

City dwellers, not so much.

“The farther water is from your livelihood, the more disconnected you are,” she says.

She also finds a political disconnect on some of the charity boards she serves on, where she says some Republicans discount the current California drought.

“The same people that deny climate change are denying the drought,” she says. “They’re attacking environmentalists for fighting to keep water in the rivers for fish, saying that has caused artificial drought,” she says.

During the 2002 drought, Dillon Reservoir, one of Denver’s main sources of drinking water, dropped to a record-low level, forcing mandatory watering restrictions in the city and hampering recreation in Summit County.  Photo by Bob Berwyn

During the 2002 drought, Dillon Reservoir, one of Denver’s main sources of drinking water, dropped to a record-low level, forcing mandatory watering restrictions in the city and hampering recreation in Summit County.
Photo by Bob Berwyn

Denver Water

Whatever the politics or the climate, Denver Water CEO and general manager Jim Lochhead says he has to be prepared to ensure steady water supplies for 1.3 million customers. He and other water bosses are watching California carefully to see what works — and what doesn’t.

“We can’t be complacent. Once a drought cycle starts, we can’t predict when it will end. Drought responses need to begin at the first signs of drought,” Lochhead says. “We can’t rely on the past to predict the future. The California drought, like the continuing drought in the Colorado River Basin, is unlike any we’ve seen before. We can never assume a drought will be normal.”

The emerging Colorado water plan could help prepare the state by fostering partnerships between cities, farms and environmental groups, Lochhead says.

“The response to the California drought has been delayed because of disagreements between sectors. We need to understand beforehand how we’re going to respond to severe drought,” he says. “Colorado should have a plan for how cities and agricultural producers can share water supplies during severe drought conditions.”

And Colorado can’t address regional drought issues on its own. So much of the state’s water supplies are affected by what happens in other states downstream, especially by dwindling water supplies in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. If those reservoirs drop below a certain level, Colorado could be forced to send water that is needed by the Front Range.

If the long-term regional drought continues, all the Colorado River’s states need to be much more aggressive in developing an emergency response plan, Lochhead says.

“This will mean moving water from reservoirs higher in the basin down to Lake Powell,” he says, adding that some type of interstate program to cut demand will be critical to maintain Colorado River flows required by the law of the river.

Other strategies

Finding more ways to move water around the state during a drought could also help, says California state climatologist Michael Anderson, a Colorado native who knows both states well.

California’s massive network of canals and reservoirs enables the state to move water to where it’s needed most. Other western states don’t have that same ability, which means they get hit by droughts harder and faster, Anderson says.

Previous droughts have also spurred California to make water law changes that let farmers sell their water to cities quickly and on a large scale. Anderson says California does that much more than any other state. Adding that ability in Colorado would be a big step toward better drought preparedness.

But statewide conservation should be first and foremost in any drought and water-planning conversation, says Bart Miller, a conservation attorney with Western Resource Advocates.

The evolving water plan is a chance for Colorado to set a course that minimizes the threat of drastic water rationing and other severe restrictions, Miller says. To do that, the state water plan has to focus on “making the most of the water we’ve already developed.” That means more conservation, more water recycling, and faster, better ways to share water between irrigators, cities, and rivers when supplies get tight.

“The entire Colorado River basin needs to deal with less water going forward and plan accordingly,” he says. “And, we can design new communities to have a smaller water footprint, so that we don’t feel the need to pull more water from the Colorado River Basin on the West Slope. While no one can be truly drought-proof, making smarter choices with the water we already have puts us in a better position to deal with any future drought,” Miller concludes.

The big dry

Even with all the preparations and measures mentioned by Anderson, Californians have been hit hard by the extended dry spell. It all brings back old memories, says Bob Gahl, a 30-year California resident who says he adjusted his lifestyle to match the state’s semi-arid setting many years ago.

“During the last drought, I was filling the tub with a few inches of water for one child, then adding some more for the next, then adding some more for the third,” Gahl says. After bath-time, he would run a hose into the house to siphon the water to his outside gardens.

Gahl says he practices all these conservation measures against a statewide political backdrop that lends itself to cynicism. Urban users take big hit, while California farmers — who use 80 percent of California’s water — continue to get massive subsidies, he says, describing what he sees as inequities in the way the state allocates water.

“California subsidizes farmers growing rice in the desert up around Sacramento,” Gahl says. “And, apparently, in this latest drought, the state has some sweetheart deal with those using fracking to get oil out of the ground, but screws the farmers. One need only drive down Highway 5 to see how they feel about it,” Gahl adds, mirroring concerns that have surfaced in Colorado about water use by the oil and gas industry.
Many of his concerns are exactly the kinds of things Colorado is trying to address upfront in its new water plan, before there’s an epic crisis. Gahl says it’s not really that complicated. California needs to stop subsidizing water use in areas where it doesn’t make sense, and make sure that political cronyism isn’t driving water policy, he says.

“I think that probably cuts across all states,” he says. “This is my third drought rodeo in California, and the same idiocy continues to rear its head each and every drought.”


Water bosses fish for good ideas in 24,000-plus #COWaterPlan comments — the Colorado Independent

May 22, 2015
cwcbmeetingsterling0520115

Colorado Water Conservation Board meeting, by Bob Berwyn

 

From the Colorado Independent (Bob Berwyn):

Thousands who commented on Colorado’s draft water plan will be surprised to learn that their letters, postcards and emails may be discounted by at least one of the 15 water bosses working on the issue.
The water plan has been hailed by Gov. John Hickenlooper as an unprecedented grassroots effort to end the state’s long-running water feuds and to avoid a looming water crisis. The plan will determine if Front Range cities with booming populations will suck up more water for growth, threatening farms on the eastern plains and mountain streams.

The Colorado Water Conservation Board asked for everybody’s input – from farmers and ranchers, to city-dwellers, CEOs, water companies, kayakers and anglers. But everybody’s voice won’t hold equal weight. The question the board is discussing is whose voices should count and how much should each perspective matter?
“I am not moved by the form letters. I’m much more interested in the thoughtful comments from individuals,” said Travis Smith, representing the Rio Grande River Basin at the CWCB’s May 20 board meeting in Sterling.
Smith was referring to over 22,000 comments generated by groups like Conservation Colorado that sent out action alerts to members, asking them to weigh in on the plan’s first draft.

pamassarocommentcoloradowaterplan052015coloradoindependent

Many of those form letters featured John Fielder photos of mountain streams and short, often passionate personal notes about how the plan should conserve Colorado water for fishing, farming and play.
Smith, speaking for farmers and ranchers, said quantity of comments shouldn’t outweigh quality. It’s not a majority-wins process.

“I don’t sign form letters. The ag community in general will show up at the first few meetings and say their piece. Then they go back to work, confident that the entity will carry the weight of those comments,” Smith said.

In all, the draft-plan garnered about 24,000 comments. Approximately 22,906 of those were classified as form letters.

Board members questioned how to judge the relative weight of the different comments, but nobody other than Smith suggested that the form letters shouldn’t count.

A majority of the public wants Colorado to conserve water for the recreation industry and agriculture. But not everybody agrees how water should be used, and the diversity of opinions challenge planners balancing competing and growing demands for water from cities, farms and wilderness.

The comments will be used to shape the second draft of the water plan, due July 15. That draft will recommend ways to divvy up water over the next few decades. It will likely recommend that new laws and regulations get passed – some of which might have a hefty price-tag.

The comments have already spurred “real changes” to the second draft. CWCB will rewrite the section on finding money to help pay for water projects, study which streams may need more environmental protection and add more information on climate change.

“The data show the environment is an important part of Colorado’s water plan, but we need more input from the ag community,” he said. “The environmental groups participated in this process in a big way,” said CWCB director Jim Eklund. “But just because we didn’t hear from the ag community doesn’t mean that’s not an equally important value,” he said.

The most important thing is to mine the comments for really good ideas, nuggets that will help the state move the needle on water issues, Eklund said.

It appears Colorado could cut water use by 30 percent in the next 35 years with simple conservation measures taken by industry, agriculture and individuals, said CWCB staffer Becky Mitchell.

The challenge is finding ways to make that happen – which includes convincing lawmakers to make funds available for water-saving measures, said CWCB director Russ George.

Once planning is done, he said, the hard political work will begin.


Garfield County Commissioners hope West Slope says “Not one more transmountain drop” #COWaterPlan #ColoradoRiver

May 21, 2015
Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer's office

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

Click through to listen to an interview with Jim Pokrandt from Aspen Public Radio (Marci Krinoven). Here’s an excerpt:

The commissioners are organizing a meeting of Western Slope elected leaders to draw up a unified message ahead of the completion of Governor Hickenlooper’s statewide water plan. Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky:

“You take Pitkin County and Garfield County – they’re miles apart philosophically on how things should be done. But, when it comes to transmountain diversions, we have the same mindset: no more water to go to the east slope.”

Seven-point draft conceptual agreement framework for negotiations on a future transmountain diversion screen shot December 18, 2014 via Aspen Journalism

Seven-point draft conceptual agreement framework for negotiations on a future transmountain diversion screen shot December 18, 2014 via Aspen Journalism

Some water officials in the state have endorsed what’s called the “7 points of consensus.” It includes consideration of new transmountain diversions that would move Western Slope water east. Already, 13 major diversions move water through the mountains.


Colorado’s Water Plan and WISE water infrastructure — The Denver Post

May 19, 2015

WISE System Map September 11, 2014

WISE System Map September 11, 2014


From The Denver Post (James Eklund/Eric Hecox):

The Water Infrastructure and Supply Efficiency (WISE) project is a partnership among Aurora Water, Denver Water and the South Metro Water Supply Authority to combine available water supplies and system capacities to create a sustainable new water supply. Aurora and Denver will provide fully treated water to South Metro Water on a permanent basis. WISE also will enable Denver Water to access its supplies during periods when it needs to.

All of this will be accomplished while allowing Aurora to continue to meet its customers’ current and future needs.

Aurora’s Prairie Waters system will provide the backbone for delivering water from the South Platte when Aurora and Denver Water have available water supplies and capacity. The water will be distributed to the South Metro Denver communities through an existing pipeline shared with Denver and East Cherry Creek Valley Water and Sanitation District, and new infrastructure that will be constructed over the next 16 months…

WISE is a key element to this plan. With construction agreements in place, we will break ground in coming weeks to begin connecting water systems throughout the Denver Metro area. When WISE begins delivering water in 2016:

• The South Denver Metro area will receive a significant new renewable water supply;

• Denver will receive a new backup water supply;

• Aurora will receive funding from partners to help offset its Prairie Waters Project costs and stabilize water rates; and

• The Western Slope will receive new funding, managed by the River District, for water supply, watershed and water quality projects.

More WISE Project coverage here.


How will the #COWaterPlan address the big questions? — the Colorado Independent

May 18, 2015

The Ouray County Water Users Association hopes to score $50,000 in grant dough for engineering #ColoradoRiver

May 17, 2015

Ouray

Ouray


From the Ouray County Plain Dealer (Sheridan Block):

Making an effort to be prepared for the state’s uncertain water future, Ouray County water users are taking necessary measures to protect their supply.

In a joint discussion on the state of local waters last month, local water user groups left with a general consensus of pursuing a water engineering analysis, which would analyze data for the Upper Uncompahgre Basin and ultimately provide options for solutions to future water needs.

The analysis is estimated to cost about $50,000, and last week county attorney and representative on the Gunnison Basin Roundtable, Marti Whitmore, submitted a grant application for a joint project to the Roundtable.

“In talking with other people in the region, including people in the Colorado River District, everyone is supportive of such a widely supported and cooperative effort among many water users in Ouray County,” Whitmore told the Plaindealer. “This cooperative effort will benefit everybody. It’s a positive step in a positive direction and I’ve gotten a lot of favorable feedback.”

According to the grant application, the county (which for the project will also include the City of Ouray, Town of Ridgway, Ouray County Water Users Association and various Log Hill water user entities) is requesting $25,000 from the Gunnison Basin Roundtable and $25,000 from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

More Uncompaghre River watershed coverage here.


Colorado Corn weighs in on Water Plan — High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal #COWaterPlan

May 17, 2015
Colorado Water Plan website screen shot November 1, 2013

Colorado Water Plan website screen shot November 1, 2013

From Colorado Corn via the High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal:

Colorado Corn representatives sent a letter to state officials recently, weighing in on the current draft of the Colorado Water Plan to help make sure agriculture is appropriately represented in this critical conversation.

In its letter to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado Corn endorsed the recent input of the Colorado Ag Water Alliance.

In a six-page document sent to the CWCB back on March 31, CAWA leaders asked that the Colorado Water Plan emphasize to the general public the critical role ag plays in the economy and overall well-being of the state, and delineate what’s at stake in terms of lost food and energy production, wildlife habitat and other forfeited environmental benefits if production dwindles due to water shortages.

Like others, CAWA and Colorado Corn representatives want to make sure the common Coloradan realizes that ag is a $40 billion industry in our state, and that we’re also on pace to see as many as 700,000 acres of irrigated farm ground dry up by 2050.

Altogether, CAWA leaders—consisting of representatives from about 20 ag organizations across the state—made 18 specific recommendations in their letter, covering an array of topics that are critical in preserving Colorado’s ag industry, including water-storage projects, groundwater and aging infrastructure, among others.

Colorado Corn board member and Merino-area farmer Charlie Bartlett serves as president of CAWA. Colorado Corn Executive Director Mark Sponsler is also heavily involved in CAWA, and, like Bartlett, helped draft CAWA’s recent input regarding the Colorado Water Plan.

In a separate letter, Colorado Corn representatives attempted to bring added attention to CAWA’s recommendations.

A second draft of the Colorado Water Plan is expected to be complete by July 15, with a final version due to the governor in December.

More Colorado Water Plan coverage here.


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