Wildfires burning across Colorado and the West are a reminder of just how dry it is out there. In addition to the monster fires near Pagosa Springs and Colorado Springs, smaller blazes popped up near Montrose, Rifle, Meeker …
We are still in a drought despite the brief easing of conditions we enjoyed during our cool, relatively wet spring and in late July.
Some parts of Colorado didn’t get any relief even then . The southeastern corner of the state has been solidly in the dark red “exceptional” drought category (that’s the worst one) on the U.S. Drought Monitor maps since the end of last summer.
Meanwhile, the bright red second-worst “extreme” category has crept back into southwestern Colorado after a brief window when all of western Colorado enjoyed the milder yellow and orange categories of drought.
No portion of Colorado is in anything less than “moderate” drought — that’s pale orange.
Zooming out, the picture doesn’t improve much. New Mexico is almost entirely in bright or dark red, and has been for some time. The rest of the Colorado River Basin and the out-of-basin areas that depend on it (like Denver and Los Angeles), are also all in drought to some extent. And this is the second year in a row.
So what are the consequences? The fires, for one, and fewer fireworks displays and campfires allowed, in an effort to prevent more fires. Dust storms and dying buffalo grass in southeastern Colorado. Shrinking aquifers and new adventures in water administration in New Mexico. Hay will probably be really expensive this year all across the West. Farmers in the Uncompahgre Valley are making do with a little over half of their normal water allocations. Homeowners are facing watering restrictions in Denver and elsewhere.
Reservoirs are also dropping, and the bigger the reservoir the more it tells the story of long-term trends. The Gunnison River has reclaimed the upper end of Blue Mesa Reservoir, and the reservoir is expected to fall further before the year is out — though not reaching the lows experienced in 2002.
The giant reservoirs of lakes Powell and Mead are expected to reach their lowest combined levels seen since 1968 this year. For reference, Glenn Canyon Dam, which created Lake Powell, was completed in 1969.
It is against this backdrop that major water planning efforts are getting under way in the Colorado Basin and the state of Colorado.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation recently announced a process to follow up on their recent study that forecasts worsening long-term imbalances between water supply and demand in the Colorado River Basin as a whole. Work groups of water managers and stakeholders throughout the basin have been formed to address agricultural water conservation and transfers, municipal conservation and re-use, and how to achieve healthy streamflows in the face of these supply challenges.
Within Colorado, the governor’s executive order to develop a statewide water plan has now been supplemented by guidance to roundtables of stakeholders in each of the state’s river basins on how to develop their own plans to meet their own needs, which are then supposed to feed into a single unified plan sometime in 2015.
The current drought and its consequences demonstrate vividly that these are not academic exercises. It’s simply not possible for water use to continue as it has in the past. The future will be different than the present, but how?
To take part in the conversation, check into what your local roundtables are doing and start going to meetings. You can find information on the roundtables, and a lot of useful background information, at Colorado Water Conservation Board website (cwcb.state.co.us ) and, for the Colorado and Gunnison Basins, at the Water Center at CMU’s website (coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter).
Hannah Holm is the coordinator of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University. This is part of a series of columns coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more about the basin roundtables and statewide water planning, and to let the roundtables know what you think, go to www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter.
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