This week brought a mix of gloom and sunshine to the water picture for the Colorado River Basin.
Gloom came in the form of a report by the conservation group American Rivers, which declared the Colorado to be the "Most Endangered River in America." The report highlights the fact that the river no longer meets the sea, as well as information from last fall's Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which showed that the river is already over-tapped, and imbalances between supply and demand are likely to get worse in the future.
The figurative sunshine came, first of all, in the form of literal gloom: The skies darkened, and rain began to fall, then snow, and more snow (even in Grand Junction), and a slight uptick in the snowpack trend-line turned into a real spike, bringing snowpack levels in Colorado's part of the Colorado River Basin up above 90% of the average for this time of year, and double what it was at this time in 2012.
Of course, 90% is still below average, but considering that one month ago the snowpack was just barely catching up to where it was at the beginning of last year's historic drought, this counts as very good news. It means our wildfire danger will be lower, more crops can grow, and water managers won't pull out quite so many hairs. Mandatory water restrictions are less likely (here anyway - Denver's are still on), and rafting may be more fun.
Part of what darkened the skies was dust from disturbed desert lands to the south and west, which didn't get much moisture from this storm. Dust on snow makes it melt faster, more quickly depleting the natural "reservoir" that keeps mountain streams flowing into the dry summer months.
Also, sobering news from downstream, where supply and demand imbalances are more advanced than they are in the upper basin: An April 16 article from the Arizona Daily Star reports that the Central Arizona Project (CAP) has a 35% chance of experiencing its first-ever water shortage in 2016 (thanks to the Colorado River District for posting the article on their website, crwcd.org).
The CAP delivers Colorado River water from Lake Havasu to Phoenix and Tucson, as well as to farms. Any shortage would first result in cutting off aquifer re-charge, then non-Indian farmers. According to the article, state and federal officials have long said they don't expect cities, mines and Indian Tribes that use CAP water to be cut off until the "late 2020s at the earliest." Is that supposed to be reassuring?
The New York Times reported on April 15 that efforts to restore the Colorado River delta in Mexico are well underway, despite the increasingly challenging water supply situation in the basin.
A recent amendment to the treaty between the United States and Mexico on use of the Colorado will send water down the river to mimic historic floods (on a smaller scale). Combined with efforts by nonprofits to purchase water from Mexican farmers for base flows, this is expected to reconnect the river to the sea and bring life back to the delta - not as much as it had 100 years ago, but a lot more than it has now.
The delta restoration provisions are part of a broader agreement that allows Mexico to store water in Lake Mead, and otherwise change reservoir operations and delivery infrastructure to the benefit of water users on both sides of the border. The best environmental news on the river in years came not at the expense of established water users, but as part of a package providing mutual benefits.
Do you have whiplash yet? Here's the bottom line: The challenges facing the river, and all those who depend on it, are very real. We live in a highly variable climate, which can bring very dry years, sometimes back to back. When the water doesn't come, it has real consequences, for people and the environment. But our variable climate can bring wet years, too. And despite the old saw that "whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting," sometimes creative solutions really can make things work better for everyone.
This is part of a series of articles 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.
Hannah Holm is coordinator of the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University.