One of the ironies of Colorado’s water situation is the need for more storage to help the state through dry years when we can’t even fill what we’ve got because of the drought.
The graph on page 1 of Sunday’s front page was downright bleak. Since the late 1990s, the Colorado River’s total system storage has declined precipitously. As the Sentinel’s Dennis Webb reported, the 10 reservoirs that the Bureau of Reclamation uses to calculate capacity are cumulatively less than half full.
The recent spate of wet weather has helped perhaps take the edge off gnawing concerns about the ongoing drought, but it’s nothing more than a cosmetic effect. What we need, of course, is ample snowfall this winter and cold temperatures to preserve the snowpack until spring runoffs can restore reservoir levels.
But the National Weather Service is predicting a weak El Nino pattern, which could mean decent snowpack in the southern Colorado and a drier winter for the rest of the state. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research scientist, however, told Webb he’s “guardedly optimistic” that the wet fall weather may presage a decent winter snowpack.
The bottom line: a decent — even average — winter might replenish storage levels to put us back to where we were a year ago, which is using water fairly normally and hoping for another wet winter. But a dry winter is going to be a game-changer ... and there's not much we can do but wait and see what Mother Nature has in store.
Cue the snow dance music.
Webb’s reporting uncovered the duress Western Slope water managers faced this summer, including a first-ever call on the Yampa, where many irrigators and ditch companies lacked the infrastructure required for water rights to be administered. They’ve never needed it before.
It wasn’t just ranchers, growers and municipal water suppliers feeling the pinch. The state’s outdoor recreation economy took a hit. A lack of snow affected many resorts and the low runoff impacted rafting companies and communities dependent on boating and fishing activity.
Hannah Holm, coordinator of the Hutchins Water Center at Colorado Mesa University, told Webb the state’s water system is pretty resilient on a year-to-year basis, but the question is how vulnerable it may be in the long term given forecasts suggesting a high likelihood of more and deeper droughts in the future, when higher temperatures are expected to exacerbate the problem.
If that’s the case, the expense of undertaking more water storage projects would be a folly. You can’t divert more of a dwindling resource.
A tough water year should be a wake-up call that Colorado needs to be a leader on climate change. We can’t keep heading into every winter with fingers crossed. State leaders need to consider every promising idea to reduce carbon emissions without trying to shut down the fossil fuel industry outright.
That would include carbon fee and dividend, higher vehicle emission standards, energy efficiency standards on new construction and encouraging national standards for methane capture related to oil and gas development.
Exporting liquefied natural gas for power generation to countries currently burning coal would also move the needle.