Dear Deeply Readers,

Welcome to the archives of Water Deeply. While we paused regular publication of the site on November 1, 2018, we are happy to serve as an ongoing public resource on water resilience. We hope you’ll enjoy the reporting and analysis that was produced by our dedicated community of editors and contributors.

We continue to produce events and special projects while we explore where the on-site journalism goes next. If you’d like to reach us with feedback or ideas for collaboration you can do so at [email protected].

In Colorado, Water Bosses Begin to Accept Climate Change Impacts

Old assumptions aren’t working to predict today’s water supplies in the Rocky Mountain state, much less the future. Many planning scenarios ‘are actually pretty scary,’ says one water official.

Written by Brent Gardner-Smith Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A group views the location of a potential off-channel reservoir at Wolf Creek, near Rangely, Colorado, that would be filled with water pumped from the White River. Some recently questioned the economic feasibility of the project, which is meant to ease growing water shortages in the region.Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

VAIL, Colorado – The phrase “climate change” did not appear on the agenda of a recent three-day meeting of the Colorado Water Congress, but the topic was often front and center at the conference, as it increasingly is at water meetings around the state and the region.

Amy Haas, the new executive director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, told the Water Congress audience of about 300 water managers, irrigators, engineers and lawyers that “hydrology is changing more rapidly than we once thought” and that “it is primarily due to climate change.”

And, Haas said, attitudes among water managers about climate change are changing too.

“I feel that water managers are not only talking about climate change, they are talking about it frequently,” she said. “This is the new reality that we have to contend with. And I’m encouraged to hear the discussion, openly, in all sorts of water management forums.”

Haas recognized Brad Udall, who was also at Water Congress, in her remarks.

A senior climate researcher and scientist at Colorado State University, Udall continues to get the attention of water managers with studies that tie rising temperatures to declining river levels.

Udall recently published a paper, along with Mu Xiao and Dennis Lettenmaier, on the declining flows of the Colorado River.

The paper found that flows in the upper Colorado River Basin declined by 16.5 percent from 1916 to 2014, while annual precipitation increased only slightly, by 1.4 percent.

By conducting experiments with a model that uses temperature and precipitation as inputs, the researchers found that “53 percent of the decreasing runoff trend is associated with unprecedented basin-wide warming, which has reduced snowpack and increased plant water use,” Udall explained. “The remaining 47 percent of the trend is associated mostly with reduced winter precipitation in four highly productive sub-basins, all located in Colorado.”

Udall is also using “aridification” at water meetings to describe what’s happening in the Colorado River Basin, and he’s offered up a succinct summary of his research on climate change, on a T-shirt that says “it’s warming, it’s us, experts agree, it’s bad, (and) we can fix it.”

Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River District, also makes no bones about climate change.

He told the Water Congress audience that the River District is “planning for a future with less water, and it being a permanent situation.”

And on September 14, at a River District seminar in Grand Junction, Mueller told an audience of over 250 water managers, users and stakeholders that science shows that “climate change is going to reduce the natural flow into Lake Powell by 20 percent by 2035 and by the end of the century, 35 percent.”

Mueller added, “We’ve got to recognize that we have a supply problem in the upper basin.”

Jim Lochhead, the CEO and manager of Denver Water, said during his remarks at the Colorado Water Congress meeting that the impact of climate change goes even beyond supply issues.

“A warming climate is something we’ve built into our scenario planning process, but it’s not just a water supply concern,” Lochhead said, also citing wildfires and the resulting runoff into reservoirs and rivers, and the increased cost for water treatment from “warmer water” and “emerging contaminants.”

He also said Denver Water no longer thinks that the past is a reliable guide to the future, citing the “over-assumptions of water supply” in interstate compacts like the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the state’s water rights system, which is based on “past hydrology,” and state and federal regulations that are based on “past water temperatures and water quality parameters.”

“Those are all geared to the past and not to the future,” Lochhead said.

Low flows on the Colorado River in Cataract Canyon. Flows on the Colorado have always risen and fallen seasonally, but water managers in the West now firmly see a future with less water overall with which to work. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism.

Denver Water has also “abandoned linear water-supply planning,” where, as he put it, “you look at the past hydrology, look at past population trends, and project those out into the future, look at a water supply gap, and then go out and find water to meet that gap.”

“That no longer can meet the challenges that we face today,” Lochhead said.

And Lochhead said that “firm yield,” the capacity of a given water supply system to meet demands in a dry spell, and the Holy Grail for water providers, was now an outmoded concept.

“We don’t use that term any more, actually, because we know that no yield is firm,” he said.

And if that wasn’t riveting enough for water managers to hear, Lochhead also said that “as we look at the warming climate, some of the scenarios in our scenario planning are actually pretty scary, and they will be coming at us more and more quickly.”

This article was originally published by Aspen Journalism, an independent nonprofit news organization.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

Suggest your story or issue.


Share Your Story.

Have a story idea? Interested in adding your voice to our growing community?

Learn more
× Dismiss
We have updated our Privacy Policy with a few important changes specific to General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) and our use of cookies. If you continue to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies. Read our full Privacy Policy here.