Ordinarily this time of year, the Colorado River would be raging on its way through Mesa County, swollen with runoff from melting mountain snow.
As of mid-day Friday, though, the U.S. Geological Survey gauge at Cameo was recording a relatively calm river flow — 4,840 cubic feet per second, compared to an average 12,700-cfs flow there for that date. Flows near the Colorado-Utah border were 5,860 cfs, a bit more than a third of average for that date.
Warming temperatures in recent days are accelerating snowmelt and boosting runoff some. Erik Knight, a hydrologist with the federal Bureau of Reclamation, said Friday that the federal Colorado Basin River Forecast Center was showing flows at Cameo likely hitting their seasonal peak by today, but at about 7,500 cfs, well below the typical 12,000-13,000 cfs average peak.
Said Russ Schumacher, state climatologist at the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University, “The streamflows throughout western Colorado are not looking good at this point and there’s not that much snow up there left to melt.”
A continuing drought in western Colorado and beyond is having both in-state and more regional implications. The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center is now projecting that April-July inflows into Lake Powell will be just 25% of average.
The Upper Colorado River Commission, an interstate agency with representatives from Colorado, other Upper Colorado River Basin states and the federal government, noted in a May 20 news release that the water elevation in Powell was at 3,560.6 feet and is approaching its lowest recorded level since the reservoir began filling in the early 1960s. The Bureau of Reclamation reports that at the end of April, Powell held 8.5 million acre-feet of water, 35% of its live capacity. That’s the amount of a reservoir that can be used for purposes such as downstream release and power production.
The Upper Colorado River Commission issued its news release to announce that Upper Basin states and the Bureau of Reclamation will begin development of a drought response operations plan, as called for under a 2019 agreement between the states and the Bureau of Reclamation. That’s after Reclamation last month said its most probable forecast is for the water level in Powell to fall to 3,525.57 feet in elevation as early as March 2022.
The response plan would seek to keep Powell from falling below 3,525 feet, to help assure Upper Basin states can continue complying with a century-old compact for sharing Colorado River water with downstream states, and not jeopardize hydropower production at Glen Canyon Dam.
AG, INTERSTATE IMPACTS
Some of those involved with water policy in Colorado are thinking about both the longer-term, more regional impacts of the continuing drought and the more immediate, local ones. Among them are Carlyle Currier, a Molina rancher who is now president of the Colorado Farm Bureau and also serves on the Interbasin Compact Committee, which provides water policy input in Colorado.
“It’s been pretty rough,” Currier said of the ongoing drought. “Most of the reservoirs on Grand Mesa are only about half full so it’s going to be a very short year for irrigation.”
More regionally, “Certainly there’s a lot of ranchers in western Colorado that are looking at probably having to reduce their number of cows or sheep that they’re running because they’re not going to be able to produce enough feed for them.”
The U.S. Drought Monitor shows that most of the western third of the state is in extreme or exceptional drought, the two worst categories. Mesa County drought conditions likewise are split between extreme and exceptional.
Currier said there’s concern about what limits federal land managers might put on grazing allotments due to the dry conditions.
Currier and other Interbasin Compact Committee members will be considering some of the bigger-picture drought issues at a meeting later this month. The Upper Basin states wouldn’t have to finalize a drought response operations plan until the Bureau of Reclamation finds it probable that Powell’s level will fall to or below 3,525 feet within 12 months, and only after consultation with Lower Basin states. However, the Interior secretary, consulting with basin states, also could take emergency action to keep the reservoir level above that threshold.
THE PLAN’S APPROACH
As agreed to in 2019, the Powell drought response plan would first consider making use of existing operational flexibilities in Powell, within legal and operational constraints. If that’s not enough to keep Powell’s water elevation above 3,525 feet, they will consider releases from Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo reservoirs upstream.
“Blue Mesa doesn’t really have enough water in it to contribute a whole lot,” Currier said.
Knight said Blue Mesa is only about 43% full, probably half of normal this time of year, and seasonal runoff inflows into the reservoir this year are now projected to be just 46% of average.
“We won’t even get half full this year” at Blue Mesa, Knight said.
Currier thinks Flaming Gorge is the likely candidate for boosting Lake Powell water levels if help from upstream reservoirs is required.
“Then you have to worry about how you fill (Flaming Gorge),” he said.
Upstream reservoir releases also are only a short-term fix, Currier said. Officials are looking longer-term at approaches including managing demand for water through reduced consumptive use, but consumptive use is directly related to crop production, he said.
“Reduce your consumptive use, you’re probably producing less crops. That’s not a good solution for agriculture,” he said.
And then there’s the question of how to ensure that any water saved through such measures actually makes it down to Lake Powell, rather than simply being used by other water users upstream.
“It’s a complicated system that we have to deal with. It’s a little bit difficult to fix without just getting more water, which is what we really need, but that hasn’t been in the books for the last couple years,” Currier said.
‘DIFFERENT STORY’ HERE
Both below-average snowpack and a lack of summer monsoonal rain have contributed to the problem. And soil is so dry and soaking up so much snowmelt that even an average snowpack this winter wouldn’t have sufficed.
“What we needed was a lot of extra precipitation in the mountains this winter and that’s not what we got,” said Schumacher.
The Front Range proved an exception thanks to cool and wet weather in recent months with some big snowstorms. It was a hopeful reminder of how quickly things can change, but also has helped accentuate how bad things are on the Western Slope.
“It’s just a completely different story over on your side of the hill than it is here on the Front Range,” Schumacher said.
He said that so far in Grand Junction this water year, which started Oct. 1, is the sixth-driest on record. It’s drier than the previous water year through the same date.
“It’s just continued to be very dry,” Schumacher said of western Colorado. “That accumulates, because things were in bad shape last summer and they haven’t gotten any better.”
Since Jan. 1, 2.04 inches of precipitation have been recorded at the Grand Junction Regional Airport, compared to 3.8 on average through this time of year.
Since March 1, average temperatures have been warmer than normal in Grand Junction, but only marginally so, by 0.3 degrees, said Erin Walter, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. But local temperatures over that time are still cooler than last year, she said.
However, temperatures well above normal arrived in recent days.
“With little precipitation in our forecast that obviously isn’t helping our drought,” she said.
Said Schumacher, “The increased temperatures that we continue to have, these hot summers, never help the situation.”
Schumacher worries about the potential for big wildfires in western Colorado in coming weeks, during what can be one of the driest times of the year in the region. And he, Currier and others hope to see the region get some relief in coming months from summer monsoonal rains that mostly failed to materialize locally in recent years.
Said Currier, “We certainly hope we can change that pattern this year and get some” monsoonal rain.
Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River District, based in Glenwood Springs, likewise has hopes for a change in the recent monsoon pattern, noting that lately it has come to be called the “nonsoon.”
But hopes aside, Kuhn thinks it’s time to take a different view of the Colorado River and what volume of water it can provide to Colorado and other states.
Kuhn and fellow Colorado River expert John Fleck coauthored a 2019 book, “Science Be Dammed,” holding that for a century now, people have been ignoring facts and inflating expectations regarding how much water the river has available to provide to its users.
Now, given the implications of climate change, Kuhn thinks calling the current situation a drought is a disservice, as it implies a temporary condition that will be followed by a return to normal.
“I don’t think we have that” going on, he said.
Kuhn said that doesn’t mean the weather won’t turn wetter in the future. But he added, “I think reduced conditions of (reservoir) storage are going to be the new normal.”
The luxury and flexibility that full reservoirs provided water planners when long-term dry conditions set in at the start of this century are gone today, Kuhn said. He said the Colorado River already was legally overallocated, and now it’s seriously overallocated, meaning how water officials have done business regarding the river is going to have to change.
“The cutbacks (in use of river water) are going to have to be more significant,” he said.
UTE WATER EYES OPTIONS
While some of those cutbacks will be longer-term, locally, area domestic water providers already have been urging conservation by customers this year to help protect water supplies.
Andrea Lopez, spokeswoman for Ute Water Conservancy District, said the district’s terminal reservoirs at Jerry Creek in the Plateau Valley are about 95-96% full, but other reservoirs in the Plateau Creek Valley that Ute Water relies on for water it moves to Jerry Creek only filled to 75-80% of capacity, with runoff season now basically over when it comes Grand Mesa snowpack above them.
She said the district is strategizing with its board about its options for using other water sources if need be, which could mean sourcing water from the Colorado River. But that would impact water quality due to calcium carbonate in river water that customers tend to notice in the form of things such as spots on dishes and scale buildup in water heaters.
Lopez said Ute Water won’t have to pull from the river if monsoon storms help keep its reservoir levels maintained.
But, noting how last year’s monsoon rains weren’t too great, she added that “hope isn’t a strategy at this point.”
Schumacher at the Colorado Climate Center said that while monsoon rains would help, they won’t solve the region’s water problems.
“What we really need are multiple winters in a row of lots and lots of snow,” he said.
Meanwhile, Currier isn’t despairing about what the impacts to agricultural producers could be if drought continues.
“I think long term that we’ll be able to adjust and survive,” he said. “Farmers and ranchers are very resilient and we’ve always learned to live with the challenges that are sent our way. I think we’ll find a way to endure this problem as well but it’s going to take a little bit of work to do it.”