Wet year or dry, we should be water smart all the time

By Bart Miller and Brad Udall

After many years of drought, the first few months of this past winter were a wonderful gift: a wide swath of the West got heavy snowfall and reservoirs started to fill up. But then in Colorado a once deep snowpack dwindled dramatically due to the warmest March on record and below average late winter snowfall in most parts of the state. March temperatures were a stunning 8.8º F above the statewide average and by April 24 snowpack was average or below in every basin in the state. Moisture in May lifted snowpack again but, as of late June 2017, precipitation totals were only a bit above average.

The early winter deluge led some to think we could ignore a fact that has become increasingly clear over the past decade: we use more water than our rivers can consistently provide. We ignore that fact at our peril. A wet few months or even a year doesn’t alter or solve the fundamental challenges facing our river basins.  

Two major problems for our rivers and water delivery systems are: 1) rising temperatures from climate change reducing water in our rivers; and 2) fast-growing populations taking more and more water out of our rivers. For example, according to state projections, the population of the 11 Front Range counties of the South Platte Basin is projected to grow by 2.5 million people between 2008 and 2050, reaching a total of close to 5.8 million residents by 2050. The water for most these communities comes from Colorado’s rivers.

A recent research paper by one of us, Udall, with co-author Overpeck, concludes rising temperatures are driving a loss of water in the Colorado River Basin. Higher temperatures lead to higher daily rates of evaporation from rivers and reservoirs and more transpiration by crops and vegetation of all kinds. The warming climate also extends the length of the season for this evaporative loss and plant consumption. This means less and less water in rivers and lakes until we cut back on greenhouse gas emissions.

Lower river flows, in turn, mean less water for cities, farms, hydropower, whitewater recreation, and fish and wildlife. Lower flows also result in a game of dominoes with grave consequence for the 36 million people, 5 million acres of farms, and multibillion-dollar environmental and recreational benefits relying on the Colorado River. Most people understand that low lake levels and river flows are an issue of concern for all of us. In a 2017 Western States Survey of voters by Colorado College, 71 percent of Colorado voters, when asked, thought that low river flows were a serious problem.

Fortunately, we are on the cusp of a new era of collaboration, innovation, and flexibility in the use and management of water. We have great opportunities to scale up incentives for water conservation, water recycling, and water sharing.

In Colorado, we have an excellent opportunity right in front of us — funding the Colorado Water Plan — to move millions of dollars toward meeting the Colorado Water Plan goals.

The plan has many good goals — including 1 percent per year water savings by cities, 50,000 acre-feet of innovative agreements to help both agriculture and cities stay vibrant, and having 80 percent of Colorado’s priority rivers do stream management plans to get rivers on a path to better health.

But goals without action would be meaningless.

We’re happy to hear the legislature approved support for the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s “projects bill” which this year provides funding for stream management plans to assess river health, urban water conservation to save water and money, and increased flexibility and innovative water agreements to help agriculture, cities, and rivers. But this is really only a relatively small first step. We need to address a financial gap in future years to get the Colorado Water Plan over the finish line to ensure healthy rivers, preserved agriculture and sustainable communities.

In many ways, our biggest shortage is one of wise water action. We need action to fund a new path that embraces smart water use — investing in water conservation, river protection, and water sharing agreements. If we invest public funds wisely in water management we can face the future, no matter today’s weather.

Brad Udall is a Senior Water and Climate Research Scientist and Scholar at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Institute.  The Colorado Water Institute focuses water expertise from higher education on Colorado’s evolving water problems.

Bart Miller is the Healthy Rivers Program Director at Western Resource Advocates. Western Resource Advocates protects the West’s land, air and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance with nature. WRA’s team of scientists, lawyers, and economists craft and implement innovative solutions to the most complex natural resource challenges in the region.


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