At Summit County State of the River meeting, officials warn of water catastrophe in the West
May 3, 2018
"In the West, when you touch water, you touch everything." Those were the opening words of wisdom from Scott Hummer, commissioner for Water District 58, at the 25th annual Summit County State of the River meeting on Wednesday. The meeting at the Silverthorne Pavilion featured climate and water experts who gave presentations and reports on water health to officials, conservationists, ranchers and other interested members of the Summit community.
Highlighting the event was newly hired state climatologist Russ Schumacher. He gave a presentation offering some explanations about the extremely dry season we experienced this past winter. Schumacher confirmed that Colorado experienced one of the driest winters on record, after experiencing the 30th wettest year in 2017. The state experienced a bump after a heavy snowstorm in early April pushed precipitation numbers a bit closer to average.
Schumacher also confirmed that snowpack was terrible this past season. While Summit and most of the northeast portions of the state did OK, the southern part of the state did not. In the southwest, for example, snowpack levels averaged out between 30 and 40 percent of normal.
"There's a clear dividing line between north and south," Schumacher said. "Summit County is kind of at the middle of that. North of Summit, snowpack and precipitation are pretty OK, even above average. But in the south, they really struggled."
Schumacher said warmer temperatures was a big factor for why the southern part of the state has been suffering.
"Everywhere in the southwest was extraordinarily warm," Schumacher said. "Pretty much everywhere west of the divide was record warm, everywhere else that wasn't was close to that."
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Schumacher attributed the warmer temperatures, especially in the southern part of the state, to the La Niña weather pattern that pushes the jetstream north and creates dry, warm conditions in the south and western parts of the state.
The long-term problem for Colorado's waterways is how long these patterns can continue before it becomes a crisis. That's where Andy Mueller, the new general manager for the Colorado River District and the night's other featured speaker, came in.
Mueller pointed out that the current U.S. drought monitor has over 80 percent of Colorado's population experiencing some form of drought, with the southwest experiencing extreme drought. But the problem extends beyond Colorado's boundaries. However, Mueller said the biggest concern going forward are water flows going west to Lake Powell, one of the most important water reservoirs in the country.
Mueller called Lake Powell the state's "water savings account." Under the Colorado River Compact signed in 1922, the Upper Basin states — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico — are required to keep an annual flow of 7.5 million acre-feet per year flowing from Lake Powell to Lake Mead and the Lower Basin states — Arizona, Nevada and California. At the moment, flow into Lake Powell is forecasted to be at around 3.1 million acre-feet, or around 43 percent of average, because of the lack of snow melt.
If Lake Mead — which is currently at 1,084 feet above mean sea level and has been less than half full for well over a decade — drops to 1,075 feet, a Drought Contingency Plan will activate and force cuts to water users downstream. That will have a domino effect that may lead to water cuts for Upper Basin states as well. There may be severe water rationing, shutdowns of hydroelectric dams and a whole other set of emergency measures that have never before been instituted by the Department of the Interior. That means economic uncertainty for a wide variety of industries including ranching, skiing and electricity.
"To avoid that, Lake Powell is expected to pump out and drop 20 feet this summer," Mueller said. "It's currently at 54 percent of capacity."
Mueller added that while catastrophe will probably be avoided this summer, it might not be next year or the year after that. Because of this complex water dance, Mueller said it was important for agricultural water users with senior claims in the Western Slope to maintain those claims, because if they're abandoned they are abandoned forever.
"It keeps the water in our streams for our recreational users and for our quality of life here on the Western Slope," Mueller said. "It keeps that water flowing to the West. Because they have those senior rights, they are able to pull that water downstream and not let it get diverted away."
Mueller attributed the dangerously low water levels to overusage from lower basin states, but also in large part to climate change.
"Some people call the last 18-year period a drought, but we call it the new normal, hydrologically speaking," Mueller said. "The reality is that the mid-point of the century there will be 20 percent less water in the Colorado River and 35 percent less by the end of the century."
That means the overdevelopment in Colorado — which includes water-hungry lawns and outdoor irrigation — is not sustainable. Mueller ended his presentation with a dire warning and plea for the land-use people to start listening to water-use people.
"From the Colorado River District's perspective, this has to stop," Mueller said, pointing to a slide of a cookie-cutter subdivision near Denver. "We need the folks across the state putting these massive subdivisions in to realize that this is not OK. This is putting all of us in danger of significant chaos and the possibility of a compact curtailment."