As record drought persists, West will have to live with less water
Annual State of the Rivers meeting underlines the need to quickly adapt to new normal
The annual Eagle River Valley State of the River community meeting Wednesday highlighted recent data and initiatives around water supply and water quality in the county and the Western Slope at large.
All six speakers pointed to how the increasing effects of climate change are depleting our water resources, and that substantial behavior change is required from all consumers of Western Slope water, which extends across the western states, from Colorado’s Front Range to the Southern California coastline.
The overarching message is that drought conditions are the new normal in Colorado and throughout the West. Knowing that, it is becoming the consumer’s responsibility to adapt to the shrinking amount of water available for use in the county and the country.
This message was summarized best by speaker Andy Mueller, the general manager for the Colorado River District: “If the water’s not there, you can’t take it.”
2022 water year: Heating up and drying out
Russ Schumacher, the director of the Colorado Climate Center, gave an overview of the 2022 water year, which is measured from October through September, and illustrated the effects of the region’s continuing decades-long drought.
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As of the end of May, Colorado’s temperature and precipitation rate is around average for the past 30 years, though hotter and drier than the average statistics of the 20th century. Schumacher explained that in comparing temperatures, the state average from 1990-2020 has increased by nearly 2 degrees over the average of 1900-2000, which is having a dramatic impact on the length and severity of drought periods.
Droughts are regularly occurring periods of time when precipitation rates drop, and they have occurred intermittently throughout the last century. The difference now is that even when precipitation rate is normal, or above normal, the higher temperatures cause the land to become “thirstier,” and require greater amounts of water to sustain non-drought conditions.
This has placed Colorado and many of the Western states in a constant state of drought for most of the 21st century, a 22-year-long “megadrought” that has surpassed the previous worst drought on record in the late 1500s. Schumacher said that drought conditions will likely not improve until the impact of greenhouse gas emissions can be curtailed.
Andy Mueller, the general manager for the Colorado River District, noted that for every 1 degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature, streamflow in rivers is reduced by 3% to 9%, though recent studies are showing that 9% is the more accurate number.
“In many of our counties on the West Slope, we’ve seen a 4 to 4.5 degree rise in temperatures in the last 100 years,” Mueller said. “Russ showed it for Eagle County on that map, some of our counties look even worse. So what’s causing the reduction in the flows of the river? It’s climate change. There’s no question about it. Rising temperatures are killing the river.”
Streamflow is directly correlated with snowpack level, and the snowpack measurements in the Eagle River Basin have been somewhat erratic in the 2022 water year. A slow start in November and December had snowpack measurements well below the 30-year median line, until the holiday snowstorm rocketed us back to normal levels in early January.
Toward the end of the winter, levels stayed high, before experiencing a rapid drop in early May due to a combination of high winds and high temperatures. The recent precipitation over Memorial Day weekend helped return the Eagle County area back to the median line, but the southwest basins are depleted.
Looking ahead to the summer, Colorado is expected to experience temperatures that are above the normal maximum temperature of 91º Fahrenheit, and precipitation rates that are slightly below the normal of 2.05 inches, fueling continued drought conditions and further depleting water supply.
Reserves running dry
Historically, in periods of drought, governments turn to reservoirs to supplement demand, but there is a limit to how much can be drawn from these reserves — and we are reaching it.
There are five reservoirs in the Colorado River Basin, the largest being Lake Mead and Lake Powell. As of May 1, Lake Mead is 30.97% full and Lake Powell is only 23.79% full, the lowest it has ever been.
Currently, the upper basin of the Colorado River — which includes the Western Slope and Front Range of Colorado, as well as parts of Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico — uses around 4.5 million acre feet of water per year, while the lower basin — which includes all of Arizona, some of Mexico, parts of Nevada including Las Vegas, and parts of Southern California — uses 11.5 million acre feet.
The reservoirs are operated in a coordinated fashion, so that when one gets low, the other is drained into it to keep water levels approximately equal. Now, the constant demand from Lake Mead users has caused Lake Powell to drop to critically low levels, and the Flaming Gorge reservoir in Utah is being drained to try and balance the scales.
Mueller was visibly worked up when discussing the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which requires the upper basin to deliver 7.5 million acre feet each year to the lower basin. This is considered a significant over-allocation in the face of extreme drought and population growth, but the law stands. Because of it, lower basin users can consume more water than the river has to give.
Mueller said that the reason the reservoirs are so low is because “Lake Mead’s faucet never stops,” and it’s the water users in the upper basin who feel the crunch.
“If it’s not legally available because someone downstream is calling it, they don’t get to take it. If it’s not physically available because the stream is dry, they don’t get to take it,” Mueller said. “A lot of times, people I work with choose to leave water in the stream even when they could take it, because they don’t want to kill the fish, right? They could, under the law, do that, but they choose not to because they have a heart. I’m not sure the same thing exists in Lake Mead.”
Forty million people depend on the Colorado River for water. If we are all going to get through this drought without running the reservoirs dry, serious changes in individual consumption need to take place, regardless of how much water a 100-year-old compact says people have a right to.
In order to motivate people to use less water, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District has adjusted its rates to hit households that consume excessive and unsustainable amounts of water in their pockets. The main focus will be on limiting irrigation use, as it is the source of 90% of customer impact on stream flow.
Between 2021 and 2022, rates for single family entities that consumed more than 21,000 gallons per month went up by 50%. Those between 14,000 and 21,000 saw their rates increase by 20%, while those consuming under 14,000 gallons — considered efficient outdoor use — experienced a minuscule percentage increase that comes to no more than 20 cents.
Jason Cowles, the director of engineering and water resources, said that the company is also planning to roll out customized efficient water use targets for each household that uses irrigation. Using aerial imagery, the program will measure the amount of irrigation area of a household and determine whether the current water usage matches the land-use limitations for that area. The company will then define an efficient water use target for the household and help guide actions to reduce overwatering.
“This is a theme that we are seeing in many of the developed areas of our valley,” Cowles said. “Some of our customers are using water efficiently, but there are many others that are not effectively managing their water use. By providing our customers with a specific monthly water budget, we will define efficient water use targets for each property.”
Cowles also said that people who are habitually in the excessive and unsustainable use tiers for water consumption will be contacted, and will face penalties such as progressive fines if they choose not to limit their water consumption.
“We’re not being subtle about it anymore,” Cowles said. “We need our customers to use less water to meet our water conservation goals. Customers will need to make permanent, lasting changes to their landscapes and their water use, because climate science tells us that until we stop emitting greenhouse gasses, the aridification of the southwestern U.S. will continue to get worse.”
The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District also adopted a strategic reserve policy in 2020, setting the goal of maintaining a minimum of 10% annual water demand in storage.The reserve water will be stored in Bolts Lake, a currently dry reservoir that the district closed on this past February, with the intent to develop a water supply reservoir up to 1,200 acre-feet in volume.
“Strategic reserve can be thought of as a water savings account to protect against uncertainty, and in this case, we’re concerned about the uncertainty of climate change,” Cowles said. “(Bolts Lake) will allow us to continue to meet the evolving land use needs of our community and meet our strategic storage reserve goals to mitigate water supply uncertainty.”
The district will also be offering additional incentives, such as turf removal rebates, deals on smart irrigation controllers and free irrigation system audits, giving customers all the tools needed to cut back on their water consumption. While rate increases and fines may feel like strong measures, it’s only the beginning of what’s to come if the drought doesn’t cease.
“You look at what’s going on in Vegas, in terms of no turf, no golf courses, recycling of water — I think that we should all anticipate drastic actions like that coming our way,” Mueller said.
To learn more about water rates and rebate options, visit ERWSD.org.
In addition to reducing individual water consumption, the state and county are working to identify other opportunities for addressing water concerns.
The Eagle River Watershed Council uses funding from state and private actors to advocate for the health of the Upper Colorado and Eagle River watersheds through research, education and projects. This year, the council is completing the Eagle River Community Water Plan, which will use data analysis and community input to determine priorities and action items for river preservation in the upcoming years.
In 2020, 72% of River District voters approved ballot question 7A, which created the Colorado River District Community Funding Partnership. The purpose of the partnership is to fund multi-purpose water projects, and be a nimble and responsive source of financing. Thus far, the fund has distributed $4.5 million dollars to 35 projects, and is accepting rolling applications throughout the year. For more information, visit ColoradoRiverDistrict.org/community-funding-partnership.