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Water News Archive for 2018

"Precipitation Deficit in Southern Colorado Unlikely to Reach Normal" — February 27, 2018
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Every month, state and local officials meet with scientists to review important information impacting Colorado's water supply. The February report showed that there's good news about reservoir storage in the state, but snowpack and precipitation tell a much different story.

On February 22nd the Governor’s Water Availability Task Force delivered its report on current conditions in Colorado and the possibility of drought. About 40 people mostly from the Front Range and some from the West Slope reviewed snowpack levels, the amount of water in the state’s reservoirs, and weather outlooks.

Taryn Finnessey is with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, one of the agencies that hosts the meeting. She said that the good news is there’s really good storage within the state and that reservoirs are at about 115 percent of normal with all basins above average.

But snowpack and precipitation are a different story. The northern part of the state is in pretty good shape, with the South Platte Basin a bit above average. But Finnessey says there is a pretty stark divide between the north and the south. From the Four Corners up into the Gunnison River area, and in both the Rio Grande and Arkansas River Basins, precipitation and snowpack levels are well below normal.

And things don’t look likely to improve. According to the Water Conservation Board, forecasts are for warm and dry conditions through the spring, and the current shortfalls are unlikely to be erased. Finnessey said, "At this point we're pretty far into the snow accumulation season and the further you get into the season the harder it is to make up a deficit, although there’s always a chance." However, it becomes much harder when there’s only a month to six weeks left in the snow accumulation season and you at 42 percent of year-to-date precipitation as is the situation in the dry southwest.

So, given that parts of the state snowpack and precipitation are well below normal, how and when would a drought be declared? Finnessey says the state has a "Drought Task Force," a cabinet level body that would make a formal recommendation to the governor to activate a drought plan. And it can be activated for various sectors like agriculture or municipalities—and also for certain portions of the state. She said that in 2011 the drought plan activated the for just the south central portion and southeast corner of the state, and just for agriculture.

If the governor did declare a drought in a portion of the state, the impact of it is monitored by a group to facilitate aid to those communities which is made up of federal resources and a limited amount of state resources including augmented water supplies. For now though, the Water Availability Task Force will continue to monitor conditions.

"Federal Court Upholds Protection for Arctic Seals Under the Endangered Species Act—Citing Climate Change" — February 16, 2018
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The Arctic ringed seal was given protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2012 because of threats from climate change. A recent court decision to uphold that listing might frustrate the oil and gas industry's efforts to drill in the Arctic.

Last week a federal appeals court decided that Arctic ringed seals should be protected under the Endangered Species Act. The decision comes as the sea ice where the seals’ make their homes has been hitting record lows. The National Marine Fisheries Service listed the seals as threatened by climate change even though there are currently about 1.5 million of them.

Pusa_hispida_hispida_NOAA Using the best available the agency determined that the seals face extinction in the foreseeable future because of habitat is disappearing due to climate change. Kristen Monsell of the Center for Biological Diversity said that the seals’ habitat would become unrecognizable because of sea ice loss, and also due to lack of snow cover.

Monsell explained that Arctic Ringed Seals are very unique in that their pups aren’t born with blubber so what the seals do is they build caves on top of the sea ice to give birth in and then nurse their pups until they’re weaned, and without the snow cave, without the ability to build these snow caves, their pups can freeze to death or are eaten by polar bears and other predators.

Both the State of Alaska and the oil and gas industry had fought listing the seals as threatened. Now however, the federal government must designate areas that are critical for the seals, and that could affect oil and gas development that the industry wants to pursue in the Arctic.

Monsell stated that it’s even more important to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, if we are going to save the seal’s habitat. She added that proposals by the current administration are doing just the opposite—opening the Arctic to more drilling which would be like a releasing a carbon bomb.

Alaska and oil companies have the ability to appeal the decision, which Monsell says has very little likelihood of success.

"Experts Warn About Dry Conditions in Colorado" — January 19, 2018
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Every month Colorado state and local officials meet with scientists to review important information impacting our water supply. The recent discussions left some very worried.

The Governor’s Water Availability Task Force met on Thursday, January 18th to discuss snowpack, precipitation, reservoir levels, and weather forecasts. While reservoir levels are currently doing well, the news delivered by a panel of experts overall was not very good.

Dr. Becky Bolinger, a climatologist at Colorado State University set the tone when she started off the meeting by saying, “I am going to apologize ahead of time for my doom and gloom report. It’s not my fault, I’m just the messenger.” She pointed out that November 2017 was the hottest November ever on average in Colorado in 123 years of record-keeping, and December continued that pattern.

In fact, the average temperature from October to December last year was almost 4 degrees higher than previous years. And you may have noticed that the trend seems to be continuing into January this year with Friday’s temperature approaching 70 some places along the Front Range.

As far as precipitation, it was very dry in December—almost 2 inches below average statewide, with the driest areas in the southwest and the southeast. According to recent data from the Colorado Snow Survey Program, the state snowpack is one of the lowest since 1980, with the Gunnison, San Juan, and Rio Grande basins receiving well below average precipitation.

But the most serious warnings about our current situation came from Klaus Wolter, a research scientist with the University of Colorado and NOAA. Dr. Wolter told H2O Radio that it is the first time in five years that we are looking at emerging drought conditions in Colorado. He added that all conditions are for a dry spring, and there may still be near normal precipitation and snow in the mountains for the next month, and maybe, if lucky two months. But, then going forward into the spring he is very concerned about a really dry spring.

He said it was time for a wakeup call that we could not only be looking at low precipitation in the spring, but an increased possibility of wildfires because of higher temperatures combined with the dry conditions. But even more worrisome, he said there are some signs indicating that a drought could be longer than one year, but added that it’s still too early to predict.

The Governor’s Task Force will meet next in February.

"Study: Colorado is Sending Water Downstream and Out of State Beyond Its Legal Obligations"— January 9, 2018
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On Tuesday January 9th, a new study about the South Platte River was presented at a meeting of government officials and water managers. The recommendations in that report could determine the future of water storage in Colorado.

Colorado is sending much more water down the South Platte River to other states than it’s legally required to do. That’s according to a report by two engineering firms completed last month.

The engineers concluded that, in the 20 years prior to 2015, a median of almost 300,000 acre feet of water per year was delivered to Nebraska in excess of legal obligations under the South Platte Compact.

That’s a lot of water, hundreds of millions of gallons, which could be stored and put to use in Colorado, according to the report.

The report was presented at the South Platte Roundtable a group primarily made up of water managers and government officials, and it raised the question of where the best place would be to store the excess water.

The answer to that question is politically charged with concerns about how a new storage project could flood existing farm land and homes, as well as cause harm to endangered species and pose other environmental issues.

But the report, which was ordered by the state legislature, does make conclusions about places to store the excess water, including new and existing reservoirs, and even in underground aquifers.

A future storage project which got one of the highest scores in the report was the Narrows Valley dam which would be along the South Platte near Fort Morgan. But that site was shot down decades ago by President Jimmy Carter and would probably not gain any support now.

So the question of how and where to store the excess water that currently flows into Nebraska—but could be put to beneficial use in Colorado—was left on the table and will be the subject of much discussion around the state in coming months.

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