Top water official warns of climate change
September 21, 2005
DENVER – Denver Water has long been regarded as one of Colorado’s most powerful agencies. It provides water not only to Denver residents, but several suburbs – altogether 25 percent of Coloradans.Now, Chips Barry, the agency’s manager, is going public with his concerns about climate change. He said he is less concerned about the total amount of rain and snow than the unpredictability of when it falls.”Most of us operate on the premise that the future will be pretty much as it has been in the past,” he said. “Global warming has created greater doubt as to that proposition.”The changing climate could produce more water for Colorado and the West – or less, he said. “We don’t know; that’s the thing,” said Barry.
Denver, he said, has experienced a record snowfall and a record drought during the last several years – strong anecdotal evidence of the global warming that most climate scientists agree is likely to radically change the Earth’s weather during this century.Barry spoke Wednesday at a press conference organized by the Rocky Mountain Climate Change Organization. Founded last year by Stephen Saunders, a former undersecretary in the Interior Department in the Clinton Administration, the group has issued a report that contains several new findings:• The last five years have been the hottest of the last 110 years across much of the West. Temperatures were 2.1 degrees higher in the Colorado River Basin, 2.4 degrees warmer in the Rio Grande Basin, and 1.5 degrees warmer in the Missouri River, which includes Denver and the northern Front Range.These temperatures, the report says, “coincided with and worsened the effects of the recent Westwide drought by increasing evaporation rates from streams and reservoirs, soil and dryness and the water needs of crops and other plants.”• The greatest warming has occurred in January, February, and March – as has been predicted by theories of global warming.More rain, less wheatRelying upon previous scientific work and global warming theories, the report predicts less snowfall, smaller snowpacks and earlier snowmelt – all of this yielding more wildfires.In California, the spring melt of the snowpack has been occurring up to three weeks earlier than was observed a half-century ago. Similar trends have also been observed in the Pacific Northwest, where communities depend upon snowpack of the Cascade Range. In Colorado, the change amounts to only a few days.These high mountain snowpacks have served as a natural reservoir. The snow melts rapidly and then more slowly through the summer, providing something of a just-in-time delivery to cities and farms. The worry in California and elsewhere is that with less snow that melts more rapidly, the artificial reservoirs will be insufficient to get cities through longer, hotter summers.In Denver, Barry has fewer concerns about earlier spring. Denver’s reservoir system should be able to capture precipitation whenever it arrives. “I don’t think it makes much difference to Denver Water whether the precipitation falls in the form of rain or snow,” he said.Still, while he insisted that the press conference was not part of a stealth campaign to lobby for more dams, he did not deny that Denver wants more places to store water.Denver’s largest proposal – some are predicting it will be the last big dam in Colorado – is for a reservoir at Wolcott, west of Vail, on a tributary to the Eagle River. A corollary to that project would be a pipeline to accommodate water pumped from Green Mountain Reservoir to Dillon Reservoir (both are in Summit County), where it can be diverted through the Continental Divide to metropolitan Denver.John Stencel, director of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, which has 27,000 farmers and ranchers as members, also is calling for more high-mountain storage as a way of boosting water supplies and minimizing loss by evaporation. He did not specifically call for any one reservoir, but said his organizations is interested in several projects, on both sides of the Continental Divide, including expansion of existing reservoirs and also new reservoirs.Stencel also said farmers need to improve their conservation of water and are interested in more drought-tolerant crops.Like Denver Water, farmers are noting greater extremes in weather, he said. Despite increased precipitation this year after several years of drought, production of wheat in Colorado is only at 38 percent of average. Climate changes now being observed “could change the entire way we look at agriculture in he United States,” he said.’Pretty compelling’ Saunders, of the Climate Change Organization, is calling for changed government policy, both locally and nationally, in response to the changed climate, as well as private action. Portland, Ore., has managed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to below 1990 levels, he said, in suggesting a similar initiative in Colorado and other states of the West. Coloradans, he noted, are responsible for more greenhouse gas volume than 174 countries.Other states in the West – California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona and New Mexico – have all adopted or are developing climate-action plans to reduce global-warming pollutants and examine adaptation strategies.Saunders also criticized the lack of federal action. He did not however, call for the U.S. to embrace the Kyoto Treaty, which most nations have endorsed – although not necessarily fulfilled. More important, he said, is what comes next. He is calling for improved energy efficiency and use of alternatives to fossil fuels.Representing Denver, Barry said he was not calling for specific responses to the changing climate. “We’re not advocating that everybody have to ride scooters,” he said. Denver, he indicated, should not be included in the same company on global warming as the cities of Aspen and Boulder, both of which have clearly identified global warming as far more than theory.He said Denver Water joined the Rocky Mountain Climate Change Organization to become better informed. “We want to find out as much as we can about climate changes,” he said. Yet Barry does see strong evidence for global warming theory. At the same time as concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have been rising, so have temperatures. “It’s pretty compelling,” he said.Vail, Colorado